A little change to the usual programming this week as Greg, our clasical Londonista (the rest of us are all hairy heathens) throws himself into the music dungeon to bring his thoughts on a couple of this week's classical releases. But you'll have to wait until after the jump for that one, first off a slice of instrumental post rock from a band a friend of ours once described live as being like the best sex they ever had.
Explosions In The Sky - How Strange, Innocence (Temporary Residence)
Listening to Explosions In The Sky's re-issued and remastered first album is somewhat akin to watching an old home video of someone you're particularly fond of. You can see everything there that you love so much now, but still waiting to find it's true expression as a fully formed being. Originally released in 2000, recorded and mixed in just four days and with only 300 pressed, How Strange, Innocence contains all the hallmarks of this Austin quartet's trademark layered post rock.
Firstly there are the wonderfully evocative titles that require you to view the tracks as expressions of emotion rather than a collection of carefully placed notes, titles such as Glittering Blackness or Remember Me As A Time Of Day. Then there are the layered guitar lines, carefully plucked melodies gently balanced on top of each other; falling into near silence before erupting into walls of joyous sound and the percussive, forceful military drum beats. There are all these things and yet they remain ideas in their infancy compared to the exquiste grandeur of The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place.
This is not to say that this is a bad album at all, rather a snapshot of a work in its infancy, a fact acknowledged by the band in the liner notes. They say there's a lightness in a few of the songs that could be read as saying the band hadn't yet grasped the depths of feeling that they've subsequently displayed in their song writing. If anything one could say that this album lacks the discipline that four years of touring and two succesively jaw droppingly brilliant albums has produced. The songs lack the tightness of later material, possibly down to four of the seven tracks clocking in at around the five minute mark. The playing is at times a little too loose, and they'd still to perfect the art of layering their sound. There's the occasional extraneous foray into pedals territory and a touch too much of a nod to Godspeed at times. It's almost an experiment in becoming themselves.
That said any release from EITS is a cause for celebration which is why we're awarding it our album of the week. Tickets are still available for their show at the Garage on the 11th and they are a stunning live experience. Don't worry if you can't make it, we'll be there to tell you what a great time you missed (and hopefully not have to eat our words!), or alternatively there's a good selction of audio and video here. (MM)
So from the almost sublime to the definitely ridiculous.
El Presidente – El Presidente (Bmg)
Apparently, Glaswegians El Presidente are known in certain circles as ‘Scotland’s Scissor Sisters’. Certain circles are clearly tone deaf. Scissor Sisters have more talent collecting under their fingernails than El Presidente could ever hope for.
“I think all bands should make an effort with their appearance,” says frontman Dante Gizzi on the band’s official site, “too many these days just stroll on stage in jeans and t-shirts.” If this pseudo-sleazy five piece hope their negligible style will cover their obvious lack of content, they’re deluded.
El Presidente’s self titled debut long-player is the musical equivalent of Jade Goody: exuberant, a good laugh for five minutes, but ultimately pretty vacuous. What’s more, they’ve made the mistake of spunking away their singles - 100mph, Rocket and Without You - in the first three tracks, leaving nothing but derivative filler for the remainder of this disc.
Gizzi (formerly of Scot-rockers Gun), sounds part Marc Bolan and part Gaz Coombes, but with a screech that swiftly hammers the senses. Elsewhere, the drums sound lacklustre and synthetic, while every ounce of glam seems to have been sucked from Johnny McGlynn’s lifeless T-Rex-by-numbers riffs.
“Most of the album was recorded on an old sampler with not much memory,” he admits, “that’s why some of the songs have only three chords.” Rubbish excuse. Strip away the press release gloss and it’s all too clear that ‘some’ roughly translates as ‘nearly all’ here. Utterly uninspiring. (RB)
James William Hindle - Town Feeling (Badman)
From the opening slow country shuffle of Dog & Boy with it's plaintive lap steel, you'd be forgiven for thinking that young master Hindle hails from the wrong side of the pond, but with second track Silence its more apparent that there's a definite British sensibility to the song writing. Indeed much of Town Feeling fuses a pop tinged British folk feel to Americana under Hindles' softly sung vocals.
Having escaped the confines of this fair city of ours to the far off climbs of Yorkshire, JWH's third album is a gentle record that's confident enough in itself to remain quietly understated whether throwing in a melancholy banjo on Love You More, picking up a hint of Lloyd Cole on Dark Is Coming or adding a feeling of Teenage Fanclub to the somewhat Dylan-esque chords of Please Don't Go whilst still adding a haunted country air.
There's nothing on this album that shouts at you but given a few plays and the desolate beauty of a track like Jamie starts to get under your skin. By retaining an unfussy attitude, the songs are allowed to speak for themselves with no over-bearing influences, such as say with Damien Rice who's voice and guitar playing are stamped so indelibly on his record that you're listening to hem as much as you are the tunes. It's possibly an old fashioned attitude but it serves him well. (MM)
The Red Thread - Ship In The Attic, Birds In The Subway (Badman)
Our second Badman release of the week sees another third album, this time from San Francisco's The Red Thread. It's not often you see the words heavy metal and Lap steel within the same sentence in a press release and it might raise alarm bells were it not clarified with the former term being a part of main man Jason Lakis's past, and the former a stronger indication of his present.
To be fair there's less of the lap steel than apparently can be found on their previous records, and we're in a firmer, straight up electric, alt.country territory here, albeit a pretty dark one. Even in its lighter moments there's a definite city fog hanging over landscape, much the same feeling you get from the Doves, a band whom TRT occasionally bear a passing similarity to such as with Ships In The Attic which might in an alternative universe have found itself on The Last Broadcast although possibly without the Mariachi ending. Throw in the occasional jagged guitar line, Constant Fires has a Graham Coxon like attack to it, and one can't help but think that Lakis draws his influences from as much of this side of the Atlantic as he does his own (on both sides of the border).
As we borrow from them so they borrow from us and in doing so TRT have been able to create their own little space where the ghosts of Mid-West towns rattle with the spectres of the present, particularly on the closing instrumental Owl Painting. There are moments when you wish the band would really let rip a little, as there's no doubt that they have the ability to throw out a couple of big rock numbers in the way that My Morning Jacket, or The National do. Consequently Ship... can become a little overbearing but as the nights draw closer and the rain continues to fall it has a certain moody charm. (MM)
Steve Reich - You Are (Variations) / Cello Counterpoint(Nonesuch)
"In the eighth variation, one may hear echoes of James Brown." This sentence, from the liner notes of Steve Reich's most recent CD You Are (Varations), jumps out at...um, one. For while the founding father of musical minimalism was, at one time, all up in the 1970s downtown Manhattan scene, these days, "funky" is not the word that immediately springs to mind to describe him. But, there it is: around eleven minutes into the first movement of the piece, Reich unmistakably drops the funk. (Granted, the funk is on marimbas, but still.)
You Are (Variations) is a four-movement work for a small chorus (with no basses) and an amplified chamber orchestra including four pianos, performed on the CD by the LA Master Chorale. Each movement takes one short sentence and repeats it over and over — rather like his 1995 piece Proverb, although this work is on a larger scale, and has quite a bit more variety. We were worried as the piece began, since the opening of the first movement in a near-facsimile of Reich's style from the late 1970s. He has, in fact, written some distressingly self-derivative works in recent years. But, although there are those aspects of Reich's style that have remained constant for decades are very much present — the propulsive yet cool energy, the interlocking, Morse-code backgrounds — You Are goes in some unexpected directions (and we're not just talking about the funk). The last movement, in particular, has a sense of lyricism that seemed, to us at least, completely fresh.
But the other piece on the disc, also new, is the real reason to buy this. Cello Counterpoint, written in 2003, is described by Reich in his note as "genuinely the freest in structure of any [movement] I have ever written." This seems true, but it's also true to say that Cello Counterpoint has a sense of drama, of big rhetorical gestures continually pressing forward, so that the piece feels anything but unstructured. And Reich here (even more than in You Are) explores new musical ground, crafting more complex textures, and at moments crafting melodies that are almost romantic. The piece is played with both precision and passion by the cellist for whom it was written, Maya Beiser. (G)
Ian Bostridge - Britten: Song Cycles (EMI)
[Benjamin Britten: Les Illuminations Op. 18, Serenade Op. 31, Nocturne Op. 60. Ian Bostridge, tenor; Radek Baborák, horn; Berlin Philharmonic; Sir Simon Rattle, conductor.]
We had sort of written this review before actually listening to the CD. We would start by explaining that we have a huge crush on Ian Bostridge (he is dreamy), point out that we love many of his performances, and then observe that this new disc is completely and totally unnecessary. It is unnecessary for two reasons, (1) Bostridge has already recorded the Benjamin Britten's Serenade, like, five years ago (with a different orchestra but for the same label), and (2) the recordings that Britten himself made with the singer for whom these pieces were written, his lover Peter Pears, have been rereleased on CD and are still available (here, here, and here). Yes, the recordings from the 1940s are in mono, there is surface noise, and it seems absolutely everyone hates Pears's voice — but the historical recordings remain, in many senses, definitive readings.
Then we actually listened to Bostridge's version. And... his interpretations are really smart. And his voice is pretty. And Simon Rattle's conducting clips along elegantly. Still, if we had to chose only one recording of these pieces for ourselves, it would be the Pears, no contest. And yet, if we were going to introduce these pieces to someone who had never heard them before... well, you just have to do a lot less apologising for Bostridge ("I know Pears sounds like he's being strangled on that high note, BUT...").
The detail that moves the disc firmly out of the "unnecessary" bin are, improbably, the program notes. They are written by Bostridge himself, and we can't think of another singer who could write on his own repertoire without making the musicologist in us cringe with embarrassment. (He used to be an academic himself, see.) In the booklet, he gives quick readings of the music and the poetry that are genuinely illuminating, and deals sensitively with the pieces' various romantic and sexual subtexts.
Oh, and did we mention that he is dreamy? (G)