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Album Reviews, Audio Feedback: Music Blogjams

Summertime Review 2011: Albums That Deserve A Shout-Out, Part 1

Just over half way through the year and there’s a ton of good shit I’ve not got round to reviewing. Here’s part 1 in my round-up of what Blogjammin’s been neglecting these past few months:

NOIR – Blue Sky Black Death        

8.5/10

Ok, hands up if you’re a fan of the Rob Reiner 1980s cheesefest Stand By Me……………………… sorry about the pause there, my hands were hoisted high above my head. I did try typing with my nose but I just ended up nudging the full stop button loads. Never mind. Anyway, fans of that early Kiefer Sutherland (and yes alright, John Cusack) vehicle will be delighted to learn that Blue Sky Black Death sample dialogue from that film not once, but twice, on their mesmerising 4th album NOIR. Don’t worry, I am aware that the very idea of including River Phoenix mumbling on about dreams and friendship values with his boyhood chums smacks of moldy, ten year old cheddar. However, as I began to kick back and soak up these tracks, especially the sublime Sleeping Children Are Still Flying, the warm immersive quality they emit never once placed me under threat from deadly cringe convulsions… even when the child choirs arrive after River is done with his meditations.

For those not in the know, Blue Sky Black Death are a production duo from the States, with a track record for inviting hip-hop vocalists to spout out rhymes over their ambient, shoe-gazing soundscapes. Barring a few niftily deployed samples this album is wholly instrumental, and the listener reaps the benefits of having the attention placed solely on the highly accomplished craftsmanship of these songs. This pair seriously know how to compose a tune, building staggering tracks that unfold beautifully through layers of reverbed strings and keys, yet they keep things grounded by a persistently throbbing bass presence throughout. A gorgeous album, reminiscent of early trip-hop, and a real highlight of the year so far.

Give Till It’s Gone – Ben Harper                            

7/10

“She’s the kind of woman only a town like this could produce. Just mean enough to hang a man, just kind enough to cut the noose.” Dirty Little Lover – Ben Harper

Wow, who’s been grinding Ben Harper’s gears in the build up to his 10th studio album? Oh that’s right, Hollywood actress and David Lynch favourite Laura Dern. In October of last year Harper filed for divorce from his wife of 5 years and something about his latest release tells me he’s a little ticked off by it all. Usually so chilled and laid back, American singer-songwriter Harper has done away with the folk and reggae tinged mellowness of my personal favourites Diamonds On The Inside and Burn To Shine, and has instead chosen to wield his blues guitar like some mighty executioner’s axe to vent out all that pent-up anger. And it’s these angrier moments on Give Till It’s Gone that prove the most captivating. The above quoted Dirty Little Lover and the violent storm of riffs that is Do It For You, Do It For Us are especially brilliant, fiercely sweeping me along on the raging tide of emotions, and causing me to cast distrustful glances at every potentially scheming female in the vicinity. I mean, what are they up to? What’s going on inside those pretty little heads? (That was inexcusably sexist and I’m sorry).

When the anger is toned down the songs can tend towards the prosaic, like on the rather flat and unoriginal Rock And Roll Is Free, but luckily most of the time Harper is a spiky ball of fury and this makes me happy. I feel evil just for thinking this, but I sort of wish Harper comes back even more furious next time. Apparently though, there are rumours of a reconciliation with Dern, so don’t be surprised if his 11th album includes wet metaphors on how brightly the sun shines and how gaily the birds tweet on a warm summer morn. For the present, I invite you to revel in his anguish…

ISAM – Amon Tobin                                                                  

6/10

I’m not going to lie to you, it will divide opinion this one. If you haven’t heard of Amon Tobin, he’s a Brazilian electronic music producer, renowned for his sample-based genre meddling, particularly in the realms of jazz and breakbeat, of which his Permutation album in the late 90s is a notable highlight. Upon listening to ISAM however, those glory days seem a long long time ago. In fact, Tobin’s music back then seems almost accessible when compared to the dark, dank, formless experiments on offer here.

Gone are the jazz-oriented vinyl samples and in their place come these densely structured electronic spasms. Honestly, those insects on the front cover could not be more apt as you hear album opener Journeyman twitching tetchily into life, and from here on in there are no easy melodies in these convulsing cocoon-like tracks for you to latch on to safely. So, not easy to warm to, but one hell of an experience with some quality headphones. The second half of the LP lightens the mood somewhat, and the album suffers as a result, but the first few tracks are stellar.

Sun And Shade – Woods                                         

7/10

I somehow managed to avoid stumbling across Brooklyn band Woods and their lo-fi exhibitions of psychedelic folk until just a few months ago, when they released their 6th album Sun and Shade, and I’ve been eagerly making up for lost time since. Going back and discovering the likes of At Echoe Lake and Songs Of Shame has brought me no end of joy, and, in places, Sun And Shade also boasts this power. On their latest album, Woods don’t opt to lean into the realms of psychedelia so much as dive right in headfirst, and occasionally it can feel like they’ve strayed a touch too far from the path. Some of the catchiest songs of 2011 are on here though, in the form of purposeful opener Pushing Onlys, the short but sweet Be All Be Easy and the quaintly adorable To Have In The Home, but it’s really the two thirds of the album devoted to a pair of overly-long instrumentals that bring it down.

First up is Out Of The Eye, which isn’t that bad really, leading you along with its gently trotting bass through some fairly appealing peaks and troughs, but it just goes on waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long. I think of it as the song version of the Titanic; not the ship, the film… not such a bad idea really, but why does it have to be so bloody long. Just get on with it already! Sink the goddamn ship! The second instrumental is even worse for this, Sol Y Sombra. It lasts nearly 10 minutes and again, whilst the bongo beat sets the tone rather nicely, you realise after 3 or 4 minutes that its not really going anywhere else and you’re left clock-watching, thinking bloody hell, still got 6 minutes of this. When we finally return, relieved and more than a little sleepy, into normal song territory populated by people and lyrics, you actually remember what album you’ve been listening to. Still, well worth checking out for the shorter tracks.

Cults – Cults                                                                         

5/10

One of the songs that helped soundtrack my summer last year was the sunny pop majesty of Cults’ Go Outside. This song spread like wildfire through the blogosphere in 2010 and resulted in soaring expectation levels ahead of Cults’ debut album. Something about the twinkling xylophones mimicking the melodies sung sweetly by Madeline Follin’s very child-like lead vocals really caught on, and even resulted in this New York duo signing to major label Columbia before an album was even recorded. No small feat for a debut band.

Living up to the hype was always going to be tough and Cults have understandably not taken any huge risks with their sound here. They know what they did to send everyone potty over Go Outside and have filled a whole half hour playing to those strengths. Unfortunately, a whole half hour is more than enough. The carefree, childish innocence that exudes from this album in spades does become rather too saccharine after a while and because of this I find myself only dipping into it for bitesize chunks of happy pop energy now and again. Follin really does sound ridiculously young in these songs; it’s as if they managed to squeeze the recording of this entire album into one lunch-break and still had time for a spot of algebra revision before the school bell called them back to class. Astute but ultimately unspectacular indie pop, with distinct 1960s girl group overtones, sadly I will only be returning to it for the still wonderful Go Outside.

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