Friday, September 26, 2008

Donovan Quinn & The 13th Month - Self-Titled (Soft Abuse 2008)

Soft Abuse 2008

Listen: Patterns on Your Summer Dress

Donovan Quinn likes to sing about love, but not the happy clappy falling in love where it's all sunshine and rainbows, but the sticky, messy, bitter and dejected sort of feelings you get after love. `And I hate the sounds of your voice ... You haunt this town / Every street ... What kind of love is this?' Quinn sings on the country-esque opener `October's Bride', but isn't that what country music is all about? Except Quinn soon loses the steel guitar and returns to his more typical Americana, blues style playing, so this isn't really a country music album at all. The deceptive opener is typical of Quinn and his lyrics are certainly a reflection of this, as he narrates all kinds of tales centred around that mysterious thing we call love.

Compared to October Lanterns this is far easier listening. The melodies are neat and structured, mostly following standard conventions (note the chord change on `Patterns on Your Summer Dress'), the instruments are nothing special, guitar strumming, a fiddle, piano etc. and Quinn's delivery has the strange familiarity of traditional psych-folk inspired songwriters, and can be at times a little bit graining. So what makes this different from any number of solid indie folk acts out there at the moment? It's the album's apparent effortlessness, the conviction of Quinn's delivery and frank confessions that he spurns out over the fourteen songs that make the album enjoyable without ever being insincere or affected. It's basically as far from the overblown drawling yelps of someone like Conor Oberst as it could be, though I guess comparisons are likely.

They're going to Pick Us Apart - `Hazy Sun / That's all I've done since you've gone / Since you've gone like ... I sink / For winter has come to the coast / I hide my head and live like a ghost / You must marry me one day / Before New Year's day - the lyrics are bleak, the tune is surprisingly upbeat, but it's very much in danger of drifting into clichéd songwriting territory.

Apparently Quinn grew up on a horse ranch in California, which is a good indication as to why there's an eerie, lonesome longing to most of the songs on the record. There's definitely an autumnal feel, but the sun's not quite gone down and the songs reflect that calm, contemplative moment just before sunset. There's a definite wistfulness to the whole record, and Quinn asks about as many questions as he answers, pondering the perennial ideas of love and death. It's definitely more pop-orientated that anything he's ever done with the Skygreen Leopards.

There's also bitterness at the heart of this record, but the quiet reflective pieces are so much more than simple foray's into familiar break-up territory. Not everything is lost - and you get the impression that the sarcastic touches are far from resentful, but affecting insights into the fragility of all relationships.

On `Moose Indian', Quinn sings about how his brother dies and then wanders what that look in his eyes was all about. He then goes on to sing about his brother's girlfriend leaving him with `lipstick lips' and `hair all full of rain' and then how his own girlfriend died just last night and he didn't say goodbye, but doesn't like to see her change even into a butterfly. The imagery is bizarre, but touching and I'm not sure the gentle guitar strumming really does much to enhance the melancholy beauty of the song. It reminded me a little of an Elvis Perkins song of some years ago, where he sings about how his mother actually did die in the night. And despite Perkins' more pop-rooted inclinations, the song worked better, because of it had a much stronger melody.

Listening to this album for a while reminded me of Jana Hunter. Both musicians have a low-key, melancholic approach to songwriting, with touches of the familiar combined with odd whimsicalities and pychedelic twinges, in sort of happy-go-lucky arrangements. They're able to drift from the good old-fashioned traditional folk of independent American songwriters like Dylan or even Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead to the charming pop idiosyncrasies of songwriters like Robyn Hitchcock and Skip Spence and still manage to do something original in between. `Dark Motel' even has a bit of Neil Young about it, but the problem is the whole thing comes across as a little bit disjointed. There are some definite highlights on the album, like `Patterns on a Summer Dress' and `Sister Alchemy', but they come too early on in the album, and the rest of the songs are pretty, but not as memorable.

I'm not sure this is going to be a major breakthrough record for Quinn, it's certainly more mainstream than what he's done in the past, but if anything it may end up polarising older fans. The fact that he's traded in his more haunting, Jandek-inspired, bluegrass rooted playing on October Lanterns is probably going to be missed by some people, especially given the fact that this album does have a few too many similarities with The Skygreen Leopard's 2006 album, Disciples of California, just a little bit less country. We'll have to wait to see how The Skygreen Leopard's forthcoming Hickory Rainbow fits in amongst all of this, but I'm starting to get the impression that like James Toth of Wooden Wand, Donovan Quinn is content to leave all the psychedelic weirdness behind him and move on. But in the end this is a pretty solid record, but like Jana Hunter, I'm sure it's going to be destined to pleasant obscurity. Patience is rewarded, but a little greater diversity would have been just as welcome.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Ulaan Khol - I (Soft Abuse 2008)

Soft Abuse 2008

Listen: Untitled 3

Steven R. Smith is a busy man. Already this year, he’s released an excellent self-titled release under his Thuja moniker, not long after releasing 2007’s Owl under his own name and Heave the Gambrel Roof under his Hala Strana pseudonym. And now, he’s begun a new project, and with each new project comes a new style. This time round it’s so dense it’s like being lost in a desert as a slightly muted sandstorm kicks up around you. The album is the first part of a trilogy, which Smith is calling ‘Ceremony’. Part two, or II as its unsurprisingly entitled is due for release towards the end of this year.

The cover is a pretty good indication of the sound you’re going to hear. The texturally rich, quite painterly, golden blur of the album artwork reflects those deep, autumnal sounds of the record. The cover brings to mind the work of Odilon Redon – in those strange abstracted dissolving forms, a strange beauty exists – you have to listen out for it and maybe it’s not immediately obvious, but Steven R. Smith’s playing has that same power to craft mystery.

Each untitled piece is a fuzzy, crackling soundscape, not dissimilar to the work of Japanese Noise Rock guitar legend, Keiji Haino. Like Haino, Smith enjoys layering dense, heavy sounds on top of one another, which ultimately become dense and droning, but like all good music, there is a wealth of variety within those layers. On ‘Untitled 3’, Smith builds the song around a selection of notes, to reach a climactic peak near the end – it’s powerful not in the Sigur Ros – crescendo followed crescendo way – but because it doesn’t force itself upon the listener. The progress is slow and gradual and if anything there is an almost anti-climatic ending as the volume decreases. But in doing so the layers of sound begin to split open and reveal their core, which pours out into the next song. Another artist that it brings to mind is Tim Hecker, whose spectral noise and electronic compositions share the same interest with Indeterminacy. The theory of musical Indeterminacy was advocated primarily by the composer, John Cage, who proposed that: in a piece of music all sounds should be given equal value and there should be no predetermined structure behind any given work.

In I, the lack of strict structure only helps to further the psychedelic, eastern tinged guitar space out, as Smith gradually introduces prolonged tonal shifts like a magician who isn’t really there. As always with this type of haunting drone music there’s a very meditative quality which can put the casual listener off. Unlike James Blackshaw’s Litany of Echoes, Steven R. Smith’s music doesn’t sound so pretty. It’s dark and all its drama appears initially only in miniature form – don’t expect any pop hooks here – but given the patience, the noise of the record begins to seep into everything around you. That’s why one of the best times to listen to this kind of music is on a train with a good pair of headphones. Look at of the window, and the world begins to melt. Cities dissolve to countryside and then to dust, eventually becoming hypnotic fragments of some primordial past. OK, maybe not all the time, but sometimes it’s nice to think in cosmic metaphor. It’s a strange experience, but ultimately very satisfying.

Say what you will about drone music, but it’s not about waiting to hear that next chord change, the coda, the middle eight or the chorus. It’s as structured as it needs to be for each new layer of sound and mirco change to be noticeable, and to paint the kind of vivid imagery it aims to. And I certainly has plenty within each piece to listen out for that it’ll keep any patient listener entertained for some time to come.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Parenthetical Girls - Entanglement (Tomlab 2008)

Tomlab 2008

Listen: The Former

On Entanglements, The Parenthetical Girls continue with the same warped, experimental, cabaret-esque pop they've developed over the past few years on their two previous studio albums. There's a definite hint of progression - Entanglements is a far more polished affair than 2004's (((GIRLS))), but at times, there's an almost desperate need to be as manic as possible. On 'Song for Ellie Green', a tribute to the 60s folk rock singer, that chaos is in full swing as Zak Pennington with his offbeat, drawling vocals sings 'Pressed unto us flesh still sickly sweet / With scents of love / But lost of this lust / Exactly what becomes of us?' The album is still undeniably catchy, sure, but the production has been toned down this time round, so while it's chaotic in places, it's also slightly smoother in others and every now and then drifts into clichéd flatness. The whole thing comes across as a sort of happy, more twee version of Xiu Xiu in all its camp strangeness.

'Song for Ellie Green' highlights The Parenthetical Girls' obsession with the perverse and stranger side of human relationships and the whole album is essentially a collection of bizarre tales of love. Lyrics play such an important part on any Parenthetical Girls records, from the rather silly, Vaudevillian charm of 'And what such fates we to betray / As your legs gave way' on 'Young Eucharist' to the even more absurd, over-the-top theatricality of 'His legs gave way like pages from a pop-up book' on 'Unmentionables' to the oddly beautiful, but very twisted 'Avenue of Trees', which tells the story of one man's love for a younger girl. It has the same silliness as The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, but on close listen, Pennington wants his songs to shock and while The Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt singing about obsessive love gets about as weird as pretending someone is Jesus, Pennington pushes that obsession further into highly sexual metaphors such as a love which continues from beyond the grave as on 'Four Songs.'

Listening to parts of this album, is a bit like being at some kind of Terry Gilliam curated circus with a very distinct, rather kitsch strangeness ('Four Words') and at others its like being the last person left at a crazy party hosted by someone like Dalí as the band continue to play, but have lost all touch with reality ('Abandoning'). Good or bad? It's actually quite hard to say. The band are strongest when they manage to combine all of these elements, and they really get it right with 'The Former', which takes all of that madness and manages to sew the various elements, the strings, the piano, the horns and the synths into a far more coherent, tuneful song.

The Parenthetical Girls are certainly inventive, (sometimes deliberately trying a little too hard to be unique), but it doesn't look like they're going to be running out of ideas any time soon. The cover of 'Windmills of Your Mind' is worth mentioning as it demonstrates their ability to turn the disjointed melodies of the original into something refreshingly different, considering it's such an overused song. As the droney, whiney strings suddenly break into the kind of cabaret you find on an Emir Kursturica film, they actually manage to sound something like a spinning wheel. But recreating those kinds of sensations doesn't necessarily mean there's much beyond that.

The main problem I have with this album is the irresolvable tension between the record's silliness and it's ironic, tongue-in-cheek approach, which often comes across as a little too serious. The reason 69 Love Songs is such a great album is because it's not trying to be something it's not. Simple, catchy, silly songs about love is one thing, twisted, sardonic, perverse songs is another. Fortunately, the album's shortness is a blessing. There is a limit to the amount of fractured pop you can take, and while there are some very excellent parts, there are just as many irritating ones too.


Friday, September 5, 2008

No Country For Old Men (2007)

The opening shots of No Country For Old Men – the empty, barren landscape – beautifully sets up the film. From such emptiness, three men arise - something very similar to the start of There Will be Blood and in fact, both films share a number of stylistic similarities, from the minimal dialogue, to the use of cinematography, character development and setting they use to explore their complex ideas. Nothing is ever rushed, nothing is ever held too long or unnecessarily, but all works together to create a strangely hypnotic and somewhat unnerving atmosphere.

Each main character, Ed Tom, Chigurh and Llewellyn are governed by rather different rules to the extent that any chance of understanding the other becomes an impossibility. The basic story initially follows Llewellyn, who whilst hunting pronghorn near the Rio Grande stumbles upon a recent massacre and finds a couple of million dollars. He takes this home to his wife, Carla Jean, but without explaining anything to her, heads back to the site feeling a little guilty about leaving one of the drug  dealers to die in the middle of the desert. Only things don't really go that smoothly and soon he is being chased across the desert by some other gangsters keen to recover the two million dollars themselves. This is when Chigurh, (who's already killed a couple of people, including a police officer), turns up, kills a few more gangsters, leaving no trace of his presence and disappears into the night to hunt down Llewellyn and get the money back. Ed Tom is the local sheriff and called in to investigate the massacre in the desert, soon discovering that Llewellyn is involved and attempts to track him down in order to protect him from Chigurh.

Ed Tom seems so far removed from what is actually going on that Chigurh when he has the chance to kill him feels that it is unnecessary. He abides by the law and follows the code of the Sheriff that has been passed down from generation to generation. And when Uncle Ellis is re-telling Ed Tom the story of his great-grandfather – it highlights the fact that nothing has changed. People such as Chigurh still existed, they never really go away, they're always there – ‘like a ghost.’ Things don’t get any easier. Make one mistake and the game is up. Chigurh wasn’t invulnerable, he made one mistake – and Llewellyn shot him – only Chigurh is resourceful, because that is the only way he can survive. He has to constantly stay one step ahead of everything, and so Ed Tom was right when he called him a ghost – Chigurh has no life in the sense that Llewellyn had a life, he has no friends, he exists in other people’s lives only for a short amount of time and he decides who to let live by a simple coin toss. He came from nowhere and he went back to nowhere. Brought by chance, he uses rules to confirm his own existence.

Getting caught up in the conflict between good and evil, Llewellyn in a way stands for the common man, he sees an opportunity and he takes it, but what he doesn’t realise at the time is that the only way to live that kind of life is to turn into someone like Chigurh. Like all Coen brothers’ character, no one is unchangeable and throughout the film, the urges that drive each of them towards some conclusion all undergo serious alterations. Llewellyn is relatively poor, so initially the money is very attractive to him, but as the film progresses, it becomes almost a matter of pride. He knows he can’t outrun Chigurh and that the only way he’ll ever survive is by always being one step ahead - to the point where he loses sight of everything else around him that he previously considered important. He knows that Chigurh will happily kill his wife, but still he refuses to give himself up – his stubbornness is eventually his downfall and his survival becomes more important than the money. Chigurh will kill him regardless of whether he returns the money, but in the end the only way he could have survived was to become like Chigurh - to live his life as a ghost, without friends and without a wife, because to become a ghost you have to remove all weaknesses in your nature so there's nothing left.

And then it ends as Ed Tom tells his wife about two dreams he had, finally concluding with the line ‘And then I woke up.’ And the dream is over. 


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Max Richter - 24 Postcards in Full Colour (Fatcat 2008)

24 Postcards In Full Colour
Fatcat 2008

Listen: A Sudden Manhattan of the Mind

A postcard tries to capture the essence of a place to send to someone who has not been there, both through picture and message. Max Richter’s musical equivalents are equally distilled, and like postcards, they are short (the whole album lasts just over half an hour), and they can be restless and imaginative or quirky and poignant. Richter states that he took inspiration from ringtones, those brief, intrusive, personal into private sounds of mobile phones. Only Richter’s pieces aren’t invasive or irritating, instead the postcards seem not to have been sent from real places, but some sort of dream world. Not a Lynchian nightmarish world, which is uncannily disturbing, but a childlike, imaginative world, where sumptuous and evocative imagery exists to intrigue and bewilder.

Images emerge for that brief moment like the way a postcard evokes a certain memory, but is always slightly different on each listen. ‘A Sudden Manhattan of the Mind’ has an underlying beat, which is slightly disquieting, but contains the thrill, the movement, the energy of urban life and the pulse of the city.

Richter was taught by the renowned composer, Luciano Berio and the influence is perhaps more apparent here than on any of Richter’s previous albums. Listening to Berio’s solo piano works, there is that same sense of tension and unpredictability that makes everything remarkably fragile and fleeting. Though Berio's pieces are far more manic and dissonant, whereas Richter has a love of melody and the whole album is soaked with a quiet beauty.

His work has always been full of sadness (‘On the Nature of Daylight’ from The Blue Notebooks is one of the most beautiful melancholic pieces I’ve heard) and this is no exception. Most of the pieces here are played on either piano or violin with particularly sombre melodies. The effect can be spellbinding as it captures that fleeting moment, that moment of beauty, which every now and again creeps up on you and you lose sense of what’s going on around you as everything becomes one. ‘In Louisville 7’ combines spoken word, found sounds and underlying gentle strings to accompany the piano playing and evoke a kind of ‘wish you were here’ sentimentality and feeling of longing – trying to say share with me this beauty, this timeless moment.

Elsewhere on the album, Richter makes thorough use of ambient (‘The Road is a Grey Tape’), minimalism (‘Berlin By Overnight’, which has very definite Philip Glass elements to it) and drone (‘Kierling/Doubt’) to craft his sound pieces. There is a similar formula throughout, as strong melodies often lie on top of fragmented, fractured field recordings and other electronic glitches as though these were akin to the picture and the melody was akin to the message on the back of the postcard. And like a good postcard, Richter’s pieces really leave the listener wanting to know more. They are tasters, glimpses into another world and treasured memories.


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