Monday, 27 February 2006

Column up now at

My latest column has been published on


Friday, 24 February 2006

Album Review: Untouchable Sound

Emerging from the ashes of Washington, D.C. outfit, Nation of Ulysses, Make Up formed in 1995 to bring their self-styled ‘liberation theology’ to an increasingly cynical world with a genre of music that they termed ‘Gospel Yeh Yeh’.

Untouchable Sound captures the band live at the Black Cat Club in Washington, D.C. on an undisclosed night in 2000. The set is made up of classic singles like, Hey! Orpheus, Born On The Floor and Every Baby Cries The Same, and tracks from their previous studio album, 1999’s Save Yourself.

Make Up, who would later dissolve and become the band we now know as Weird War, were always more dynamic and probably more focused when they were on-stage. Ian Svenonius’ vocals are more fraught with passion and charisma than at any time since their 1996 debut, Live At Cold Rice, and his inter-song chatter is often hilarious. Not to be up-staged, James Canty’s furious guitar work on White Belts and They Live By Night is exemplary, as is Steve Gamboa’s drumming on the psychedelic rave-up of The Prophet.

The 47-minute set, which has been unavailable until now, is an essential document for any fans of the Washington rockers, but anybody who enjoys the more inventive end of the garage rock spectrum will find a lot to like here.

Thursday, 23 February 2006

Album Review: This Old Road

Though he has long appeared ageless, the approach of his 70th Birthday plainly has Kris Kristofferson sitting back, taking stock and coming to terms with his musical legacy. Having become more of a regular presence on film set than in the recording studio in past years, Kristofferson recently returned to the road without his band for some intimate shows.

Perhaps spurred by the sense of communion achieved by performing live, This Old Road, his first studio-recorded album of new material since 1995’s A Moment Of Forever, finds Kristofferson in reflective mood; looking back but always with one eye on the future. A reunion with producer Don Was (Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones) ensures the emphasis is always on Kristofferson’s fine lyrics and distinctive voice, with only subtle accompaniment added by Was (bass, piano, backing vocals), long-time sidekick Stephen Bruton (guitar, mandolin, backing vocals) and Jim Keltner (drums). This spare production ensures This Old Road is never anything less than an entirely intimate affair.

Ten of the songs are entirely new, with only the title track having been recorded before. Originally included on his critically-panned 1986 album, Repossessed, Kristofferson perhaps thought it deserved a new audience. Immediately after, Pilgrim’s Progress – a sort of sequel to his beloved classic Chapter 33 – takes the form of a progress report, with Kristofferson appraising his life so far (“I got lucky, I got everything I wanted.”). Continuing the theme, The Last Thing To Go and The Show Goes On all have Kristofferson musing on the life of a troubadour and deciding that despite all the bumps, his road has had incomparable rewards.

A writer as renowned for passionate expression as Kristofferson wouldn’t dwell too long on the past though, and he offers his observations on a myriad of modern issues. The anti-Bush In The News lambastes the war on Iraq and his defiant refrain, “Not in my name / not on my ground / I want nothing but the endin’ of the war,” sums up the feelings of liberal America better than almost any writer to date. Later, Chase The Feeling is a bold treatise on the destructive behaviour of living up to rock star stereotypes that is followed by Holy Creation, an enchanting tale of parental wonderment at his children’s birth.

On Wild American, Kristofferson reminds us of his heroes: Native American activist John Trudell, Merle Haggard and Steve Earle. It’s a theme he revisits on the album finale Final Attraction. It name checks dead heroes, like John Lennon, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin, George Harrison, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix before the track’s closing refrain, “Pick up a guitar / go break a heart,” (a line inspired by watching Willie Nelson perform one night) sends the album to a fitting conclusion.

This Old Road is an album of rare beauty, grace and eloquence that captures Kristofferson in all his rough-edged, plain-spoken and big-hearted glory; and is easily the most intensely personal release of his career.

Sunday, 19 February 2006

Column up at

Four wins in a row after I called for McClaren's sacking. A more arrogant might think his words had had some effect.


Saturday, 18 February 2006

Album Review: Rabbit Fur Coat

Taking time out from her band, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis shuffles out of the indie-darling spotlight and into the softer shade of a Memphis back porch for the release of her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat.

The disc’s dozen tracks were in gestation for two years, with songs written in the Rilo Kiley tour van, rehearsed around sound-checks, and finally recorded in 2005 in the San Fernando Valley and Portland, Oregan. Ostensibly a solo affair, Lewis gives equal billing to Kentucky-born twins Chandra and Leigh Watson, but while their cooing southern belle harmonies add a sprinkling of charm, it’s Lewis’ own confessional poetry that’s the album’s focus.

Right from the gorgeous, haunting accapella of opening track, Run Devil Run, you know you’re in for a treat. It’s well known that Lewis has a most wonderful voice, but she excels herself here with a song of almost immeasurable beauty. Elsewhere, Lewis runs along the bumpy road of inter-band relationships on You Are What You Love and Melt Your Heart, and adopts a near perfect Lucinda Williams’ drawl on Rise Up With Fists!!, before unleashing the full-on gospel of Born Secular.

At the centre of the album lies the title track, which has Lewis completely alone with her acoustic guitar, telling the true story of her absent mother and her rabbit fur coat. The tone of Lewis’ voice makes the mood hard to pin down; it’s not one of happiness, but nor is it one of sadness, rather a weary acceptance of her mother’s peculiar obsession with her coat. Rabbit Fur Coat is immediately followed by a sparkling cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ Handle With Care. While Lewis handles George Harrison’s lines, she invites M Ward, Conor Oberst and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard to share the vocals on the ever-convincing tale of the perils of stardom.

Lewis has tapped into a fifty-year-old Americana and found that moment at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll where folk, country, gospel and vocal pop all fused together. Acoustic guitars tumble their melodies over brushed snares with an occasional slide guitar brought to the fore, and Lewis achieves all this without the album ever sounding dated. Such is the alchemy of greatness.

Tuesday, 14 February 2006

Album Review: 'Sno Angel Like You

Following albums from Arizona Amp & Alternator and Giant Sand, this is Howe Gelb’s third long-player in as many years, but the first self-titled effort since 2003’s The Listener.

The last Giant Sand album was called All Over The Map, a reference to Gelb’s continuing desire to envelop as many genres as possible. It’s therefore no surprise that once again, Gelb attempts to broaden his sonic horizons; here, not only do we have the Gelb trademarks of snare-driven percussion work, wandering acoustic melodies, droll lyrics and endearingly alien electric guitar, but in addition, Gelb has enlisted the help of Canadian gospel choir, Voices Of Praise. This might be titled as a solo album, but long-time fans will know that Gelb rarely works in isolation (his previous collaborators include Neko Case, John Parish, Vic Chesnutt and Grandaddy) and Voices of Praise deserve just as much credit for this album’s success for bringing, as they do, a celestial finesse to seven brand new songs, plus four Giant Sand favourites and three tracks originally by Rainer Ptacek.

But I Did Not gives the first indication of how perfect a marriage this is; the mucky rock that is Gelb’s modus operandi is given a glorious, otherworldly lift by the gospel harmonies, while the disconcerting rock n’ roll sway of The Farm is raised to the heavens by the Voices of Praise. Later, Love Knows (No Borders) offers hushed loveliness before exploding in burst of reverb, and Nail In The Sky begins with some spare acoustic picking before building to an astounding crescendo.

While they almost steal the show, Voices of Praise aren’t the only collaborators on ‘Sno Angel Like You. Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire is drafted in to play drums and adds a regimented, almost military stomp to Worried Spirits and Paradise Here Abouts. But it is Howlin’ A Gale – the album’s rowdiest point – where Gara’s primal pounding, the luscious vocals of Voices of Praise and the bone-shattering squawk of Gelb’s electric guitar and raspy voice most perfectly combine. Even at this early stage, it seems unlikely that you’ll hear a more dazzling song all year.

The coalescence of rock and gospel has been attempted before, but never with this passion or this artifice. Once the final bar of album closer, Chore Of Enchantment, has played, it’s clear, once again, that Gelb is not just able to master any genre he attempts, but is more than capable of inventing several of his own along the way.

Monday, 13 February 2006

Column up now at

So McClaren responds to my call for his sacking by motivating his team to thump Chelsea 3-0... Cheers for making me look silly, Steve.


Album Review: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

It’s becoming a familiar story; band discovers the internet; internet falls in love with the band; .mp3s circulate and before any record label can say, “sign on the dotted line,” the band have already hawked thousands of copies online. The Arctic Monkeys may be this island’s most famous exponent of the internet, but Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have been doing the same thing across the Atlantic. But, for those of us who prefer artwork, liner notes and stuff, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have released their debut album in the UK through Wichita.

Before we begin, let’s get this out of the way; yes, vocalist Alec Ounsworth sounds more than a bit like David Byrne. But to deride the album on those grounds would be preposterous. The tone may be similar, but Ounsworth staggers his way through the album with such a giddying slur that the imperfections in his voice succeed in embellishing the tight arrangements that surround it.

The maniacally kitsch carnival of the eponymous opener recalls Tom Waits, but, while dazzling, it’s not indicative of what follows. Only the dreamlike ramble at the conclusion of the track sets the tone for the rest of the album. The rampant tambourine and crisp drum rolls of Let The Cool Goddess Rust Away follows and is quickly succeeded by the crazed synths and tangled guitar of Over And Over Again (Lost And Found).

Details Of War is as close to a torch song as the band are ever likely to record. Ounsworth leaves his Byrne impression aside, adopts a weary croon and ends up sounding like Seven-era Tim Booth. The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth, with its buzzing synth, Modest Mouse-esque trebly guitar and shuffling drums, is another stand out. Here, Ounsworth is entirely in his element. With the urgency ramped up, his voice cracks and then cascades to the song’s conclusion. Immediately after, last year’s single, Is This Love?, has Ounsworth offer his most dizzying harmony; a pattern which carries over onto Heavy Metal, arguably the poppiest track on the album and, also, perhaps the most extraordinary.

But, just as you might fear the album will collapse under the weight of ambition; incredible album closer Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood conclude with the needle being simply pulled from the record. Ounsworth has barely finished caterwauling the plight of child stars and the band are locked into a hypnotic melody; the terse silencing of the song and of the album mid-flow is entirely unexpected, but then Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are a band with little time for subtlety.

Where the band go from here is anyone’s guess, but as an opening gambit, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is nothing short of staggering.

Album Review: Medicine Fuck Dream

You might thing that the precociously talented Oakland, California resident, Greg Ashley, is in danger of spreading himself too thin. Not content with releasing two wonderfully experimental album with his old band, The Mirrors, Ashley has tried his hand at trippy garage rock with his current band, Gris Gris, and released his excellent debut solo album.

Whilst his effort with Gris Gris, For The Season, was a snarling psychedelic monster, Medinice F**k Dream is a collection of ten tender, reverb-bathed lamentations.

Many of the songs are sweet addresses to his partner, but to call them 'love letters' would be to miss the point. The word 'fuck' is in the album's title for a reason. Ashley, in deliciously seductive near-whisper, hums stram of consciousness lyrics about drink, drugs and sex over some sleepy Syd Barrett-eque instrumentation on Karen Loves Candy and Legs Coca-Cola.

Sometimes, the results are slightly scatterbrained, see the saccharine I Said "These Are Lonely Day" or the heavily narcotised Deep Deep Down, but never anything less than utterly beguiling. Then, with almost embarrassing ease, he changes tact and plays the almost perfect trucker anthem on Apple Pie And Genocide.

Ashley's current album-a-year work-rate suggests that Medicine Fuck Dream won't be his last solo release, but this acid-folk masterpiece may prove to be his best.

Sunday, 12 February 2006

Album Review: Wild Like Children

Released in the States on Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst’s label, Team Love, Tilly & The Wall’s full-length debut, Wild Like Children, finally gets a release in the UK, thanks to Moshi Moshi.

For the uninitiated, the roots of T&TW lie in a band called Park Ave., which was one of Oberst’s more prolific pre-Bright Eyes efforts. In fact, it’s fair to say that anyone already aware of Park Ave. will be instantly familiar with T&TW, for Wild Like Children boasts little but sugary, pointedly ramshackle, yet relentlessly infectious sing-along pop.

Helping push them over the barrier of standard indie-pop are an array of tight arrangements, focused song-writing, glossy production and a tap-dancing percussionist. Yes, you read that last bit correctly.

T&TW forgo a drummer and allow Jaime Williams’ tap-dancing to provide the rhythmic backing. While it sounds like a horribly throwaway gimmick at first, it actually makes sense. Williams thunders out staccato clusters that would be impossible to replicate on drums and, furthermore, it lends the jangly pop a martial demeanour that hoists the band well above their more traditional indie-pop peers.

Meanwhile, the switching of male and female vocals may initially be confusing, but it leaves the album sounding fresh and consistent. Besides, T&TW split their time so intelligently and so equally between youthful distress and jubilation that Wild Like Children is only ever a heartfelt and sophisticated coming-of-age document.

Saturday, 11 February 2006

J Dilla RIP

I've just heard that J Dilla aka Jay Dee died yesterday. He was only 32.

Dilla's (real name James Yancey) death follows a three-year battle with lupus.

Dilla's work has permeated hip hop for well over a decade. His cuts for The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Common and Ghostface Killah are some of the finest in hip hop. He had just released a stunning new album, Donuts, and was supposed to be working on its follow-up.

Hip hop has lost a giant.

Monday, 6 February 2006

Column up on

I've backed him recently in my pieces on and in The Observer, but I'm sad to say that it's time for Steve McClaren to go.

Read more here

Thursday, 2 February 2006