Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jack White - Love Interruption

The first song from Jack White's solo album Blunderbuss is a breezy acoustic affair, turning down the White Stripes blues howl to a restrained meditation on love. The thing about this song is that if you focussed on the keyboards rather than the acoustic guitar, slowed down the tempo and got D'Angelo or John Legend to sing it, you'd have the sweetest soul jam in the world. Seriously, this thing is screaming for a soul re-make and the first person to do it will strike gold, guaranteed (unless it's Cee Lo, dude, what the fuck was with that Band of Horses cover?) . It also bodes well for some new Jack White material away from the bluster of the Dead Weather and classic rockism of the Raconteurs. The embed above seemed to be working on and off, so if it's not there you can hear it at on White's homepage.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas Review

Listening to Leonard Cohen's latest album, it's not surprising he called it Old Ideas - there is nothing new musically here but at age 77, it's not like anyone was expecting Cohen to go dubstep. The languorous rhythms and distant strains of European jazz and folk continue the Cohen story and the lyrics mine the same territory as ever: love, mortality, God and life but seemingly through a darker lens this time. The relationships are broken, the darkness is encroaching and the nights seem longer. Lucky for us, age has not wearied his lyrical genius but it seems much more succinct and focussed this time round. In Anyhow, he asks for forgiveness from an angry ex which will never be forthcoming:

I dreamed about you baby
I know you have to hate me
I'm naked and I'm filthy
And both of us are guilty.

From any other 77 year old, the line I'm naked and I'm filthy line might raise an eyebrow but Cohen exudes an understated sexuality and lust of a man a third of his age. The deep, silky growl holds a lot of power even in the most sparsest of musical settings. The acoustic lament Crazy To Love You is the best song here - Leonard and a single nylon string guitar recounting a tale of an elusive love, it is beautiful as it is heartbreaking. The closest thing to a single here is Darkness which sounds like a cousin of Everybody Knows but the fight has been long lost starting with the lines:

I got the darkness
From drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said "just drink it up"

Whatever is preoccupying Leonard now is a set of dark materials but this was always the soul of his best work. The album is at times startlingly frank but it is understated and delicate in its delivery. The mortality aspect of Cohen's age seems to loom large here but not in a way that is overwhelming or alienating - there is something matter-of-fact about the whole record as if it is an inevitable conclusion to a life of vice. Maybe Cohen feels Old Ideas might be his last record (he's hardly prolific with twelve albums of original material since the late 60's) but it doesn't feel like the end, just a slow recede from the light in reluctant submission.

When my friend first gave me my first Leonard Cohen album in my teens, he jokingly referred to him as 'laughing Lenny.' That was over twenty years ago but I guess it's a joke that never gets old even if it's not quite correct - there is humour here (within the first breathe of the album he refers to himself as "a lazy bastard living in a suit") even if it laced with darkness and bitterness. But then, we wouldn't have it any other way, Cohen has delivered a dark, lyrical album that most musicians could only dream of making.

Old Ideas is streaming on NPR here.


Friday, January 27, 2012

The great classical experiment

I make no apology that I have little love for classical music and that probably makes me a charlatan - a badge I can't say I wear with pride but I've been called a lot worse in my time. There are certain pieces of classical music I like (mainly modern composers like Gorecki and Arvo Pärt) but on the whole, classical makes me tune out. I'm a rock guy and I think that's ok.

However, a colleague at work put me onto Open Yale, an initiative by the institution that allows anyone to listen to lectures in a number of introductory classes. While I was looking through it, I stumbled upon a class entitled Listening to Music. The course description is thus:

This course fosters the development of aural skills that lead to an understanding of Western music. The musical novice is introduced to the ways in which music is put together and is taught how to listen to a wide variety of musical styles, from Bach and Mozart, to Gregorian chant, to the blues.

In the introductory lecture, Professor Craig Wright explains that our understanding of music (including the filthy rock I listen to) and life itself can be greatly improved by an understanding and appreciation of classical music. As such, I'm going to listen to a lecture a week and see if taking this class will improve my minimal understanding of classical and/or enhance my appreciation of the music I gravitate to. In some respects, it's almost a silly thing as I can't see myself relinquishing the new Mark Lanegan record for Beethoven anytime soon but maybe I'll actually learn something... probably not, I'm pretty dense. Here's hoping anyhow...

If you'd like to join me on this fool's errand, the classes can be obtained here. OK back to Lanegan...


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard documentary

I often get ridiculed when I tell people that my favourite film is Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' meditation on Berlin and love from the late '80's. It probably hasn't aged that well and it is seriously slow moving, its plot unfolds at a glacial pace and if you're not fully sold, it has a sleep inducing affect on many a viewer. However, I still remember the first time I struck it by how intensity of the the guitar player from Crime and the City Solution. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also features in the film but the visage of the towering Rowland S. Howard stalking the stage and playing the skeletal ghost-surf riff of Six Bells Chime stuck with me long after I saw it. I came to the Birthday Party late through listening to the Bad Seeds but until I watched the documentary Autoluminescent last night, I don't think I really understood how great Howard was.

To be honest, I've been wanting to see this documentary for some time, partly because of rave reviews from friends and partly because I felt a big hole in my musical knowledge about Howard's life and work. What came through was the portrait of a delicate and gifted artist whose animalistic guitar sound betrayed the deeper turmoil of someone born with talents and sensitivities most of us could never understand. That he wrote the Boys Next Door's seminal Shivers at the age of 16 is almost unbelievable and that his sound and influence was solely responsible for the end of that band and the birth of The Birthday Party is even more fascinating. As someone says in the documentary, his guitar sounds like he looks - tall, junkie thin with a face so angular, angry and distinctive, watching these videos it's impossible to take your eyes off him. I've read a number of accounts about the Birthday Party's move to the UK but the deprivation and desperation is writ large here and the performances and music was an apt reflection of the violence, drugs and squalor offstage. The documentary follows Rowland's sense of betrayal at the dissolution of the Birthday Party and his work with Crime, These Immortal Souls and his solo work up until his death in 2009 from liver cancer.

What is extraordinary about this documentary is how candid, honest and personal it is, most of all from Howard himself who was interviewed not long before he died. Anyone who has been part of a band scene will recognise the egos, partner swapping and politics described in the early years of the Boys Next Door but as fame comes and goes in a haze of heroin, relationship highs and lows and some amazing music, there is a sense of Howard as an artist of purity and deep emotion. While there are a few celebrity interviews, most of the talking is undertaken by people from the scene, girlfriends, family and bandmates and this gives a context and sense of the man outside his stage image. On this level, it is a fantastic documentary and as the film builds towards its conclusion, it has a real emotional punch for the viewer as you become attached to Howard and the weight of his loss becomes apparent.

I found myself online buying his solo albums within seconds of the documentary finishing which I think is a testament to the film's power. This is a great music documentary and worth tracking down.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The happiest place on Earth

I know every single person in the world has had their say about Disney releasing a Mickey Mouse shirt co-opting the iconic Unknown Pleasures record cover. Sadly, they've been withdrawn and can only be found on ebay or your local bootleg stall at any dodgy market. All I can say, maybe it got yanked once someone explained exactly where the name Joy Division came from which makes Disney's use of it by turns hilarious and disturbing. Oh Disney, imagine if Joy Division had used Mikey Mouse in their artwork, you'd have sued the pants off them...

I guess this is a moment where the underground makes a splash in the mainstream and then the mainstream finds out just how murky it is down there.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sleigh Bells - Comeback Kid review

Comeback Kid by Sleigh Bells
I know that this has been out for a while but I felt compelled to write about it because I've been listening to it compulsively since its release. While I loved their first album Treats, it felt like an album with a shelf life and after the giddy rush of its sound wore off, I found myself listening to it less and less. Don't get me wrong, girly vocals mashed with gnarly guitars and heavy drums was a quick way to my heart but the songs seemed half formed in some ways. By this I mean their appeal was more in the sound rather than in the songwriting itself. I still love those songs but they're not strong enough to lift the band far beyond novelty status in my mind. However, that's all changed with this single.

Comeback Kid feels like an excellent evolution from Treats because they haven't strayed too far from the sound that makes them so singular but with much stronger songwriting. Sure, they've toned down the sonic distorted crunch a little and focussed on the pop a bit more but this song is instantly memorable and trust me, gets stuck in your head for hours in a time. By pushing Alexis Krauss's vocals to the front of the mix and refining the sonic clash into a shiny, sexy barrage, Sleigh Bells have revealed themselves for what they are - a fucking great pop band and for that I salute them. Definitely the best single of the year so far.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

PJ Harvey: State Theatre Sydney 18/1/12 Review

I unequivocally hate any review or interview with a musician where the writer talks about their clothes (excepting maybe Gwar). Sadly, that's how I'm going to start this review because it seems that whatever PJ Harvey is wearing is a barometer of her music temperament. When she first toured Australia on the back of the Stories from the city record, she was dressed in a sparkling red gown that somehow reflected the glamour and sexiness of that era's sound. On her next tour, she was all tough leather and skulls with a punkier sound harkened back to the primal roar of Rid of Me. Her next tour was on the back of White Chalk where she performed solo in a matron dress that was akin to a austere 19th century school teacher with the music not being too far behind that image.

And tonight? Her dress resembled what I imagine a 16th century witch would wear, a long flowing black gown augmented by long dark feathers protruding from her hair. The music was similarly dark and mysterious but prophetic, sophisticated and unrelentingly adult. While this may all sound like superficial posturing (it is), it also underlines something about PJ Harvey. Every part of the way she represents herself and presents her music is part of a greater whole or art project - it is part of the show and it is designed to provoke and move the listener.

On a darkened stage, PJ moved in and out of the light like a dark spirit singing her songs of war and alienation, a chronicler of the end times (which is in some respect is a constant threat throughout history) whether it be the first world war or the war for identity in modern England. Part of the Sydney Festival, the concert should have been called PJ Harvey plays Let England Shake as she played the album in its entirety with a few old songs tossed in for good measure (Down by the water, C'mon Billy, Angelene, Silence etc). PJ Harvey is not kind to fairweather fans as anyone who came along expecting the hits, PJ says go fuck yourself.

The night started off shaky with the first few songs suffering from a poor mix but once the band found the right balance and the stand out tracks from the last album appeared mid-set, the band started to swing. The bracing The Glorious Land sounded rawer and heavier live with the floor tom sounding like a bomb going off while The Words That Maketh Murder was a sinister yet joyous highlight of the night. Ably backed by Mick Harvey, John Parish and Jean-Marc Butty, the band complimented Harvey sympathetically and played second fiddle to her startling voice - an instrument of such power and purity, it's hard to imagine it comes from a woman so slight. Harvey herself played a lot of harpsichord and regardless of who plays that instrument, it will never be cool - ever (not that she'd care but Harvey probably gets closest). There were a few quibbles, the samples on Written in the Forehead got lost in the mix and Harvey's playing was sometimes drowned out by the keyboards. But these are minor flaws in an excellent night of music.

The thing which struck me most about this evening was that it was less of a rock concert and more akin to a theatre performance. The crowd was respectful and hushed between songs as the stage fell to darkness and applauded at the appropriate times. A few brave souls yelled out song requests but to that guy who kept yelling for Rid of Me, I don't think you were quite getting the tone of the evening. Harvey, in some ways, has transcended her older work and those songs would seem out of place in this context. She has ascended to the mantle of an artist who has moved beyond conventional popular music and exists in her own creative space, one she has formed outside of fashion or artifice. For those of us lucky enough to follow, we can all bask in the glow of an artist who is both singular, passionate and brilliant. Whether on record or in concert, PJ Harvey is one of the great musicians of our time and this was clearly on evidence tonight.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Engaging with the Stereogum community

In a recent Stereogum article called TMZ Details Zooey’s Divorce, Net Worth, I posted my two cents in the comments as shown below:

Oh my lord, someone on the internet called me a snark but I don't mean to be - I was being honest when I said she should spend some money on singing and acting lessons. I find her voice unlistenable (which today I described as sounding like a cat caught in a snare) and she follows a long list of actors (Drew Barrymore, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves etc) who are one note thespians who can only play themselves. I don't say that to be mean, I don't say it because she's a female, I say that because that's what I think.

That Stereogum and their merry followers obsessively love her is of no interest to me, I just call it how I see it. I presume this devotion is because she's that hipster kind of cute that turns indie rock fans into drooling messes. I find that idolisation gets a little uncomfortable and you used to see creepy indie kids at live shows staring lustfully at Meg White from the White Stripes, Laura Ballance from Superchunk, Zia McCabe form the Dandy Warhols or Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. In a scene supposedly based on good left politics, feminism and specifically female musicians occupy a sometimes sketchy relationship with their male fans. Maybe it's a lack of female role models in music but that weird dream fulfillment they present to some male fans (wow, she is a girl and she sings/plays bass/drums/guitar in a rock band so she is the perfect woman and I want to marry her) sometimes steps over the mark from idle attraction (which is part and parcel of being in a position where you have a profile and as a fan, is understandable) to just plain creepy. Anyhow, that Stereogum is quoting TMZ makes me disappointed that I even clicked on the link in the first place. Anyhow, that's what I've been up to...

Regular readers might have noticed a significant decrease in posts this year. This is in part due to a lack of internet access at home (new apartment) but mainly because I'm working on a major writing project at the moment which I think will take at least another month or so. So, it'll be very sporadic blogging until I've finished that but I'm seeing PJ Harvey next week so expect a report on that and on my lord, At the Drive In and Refused have both reformed for Coachella. I pulled out my Refused shirt today which was in the bottom of a drawer and it smelled like a urinal cake - I have no idea why...

I'm thinking I might be expanding my focus a little this year to talk about TV and movies a bit but it'll mainly be music. I guess the main thing I want to say is when you take a genre like westerns and cross it with sci fi, the worst thing you can do is make a film boring but that's what Cowboys and Aliens is - offensively boring. Great actors, ok premise but shit that film is a fucking drag. It might be too late too warn you but if you haven't seen it and are looking for an entertaining dvd to pass a couple hours - that ain't it...

Back soon - promise.