Monthly Archives: October 2008

Au – Verbs

Au – Verbs (Aagoo)


As far as opening statements go, the first track of Verbs, All My Friends, is one that could have so easily been more effective. It’s not ineffective in its deployment, but a larger dynamic contrast would have elevated it to a near elemental level. The whooshing strums and freeform chorusing work well and create the opening atmosphere of calm activity so coveted by bands desperate to make that all-important and not-too-psychedelic lunge that says “hey… we’re sensitive musicians”, but it remains mostly at the one dynamic level. It’s suddenness is as comparable to the final note in The Beatles A Day In The Life as it is to Terry Riley’s minimalist immediacy, but a climb towards oblivion would have helped it so much. As it winds down and links (beautifully, without a doubt) into Are Animals, it’s impossible not to think that this would be even more excellent had we been through more storms in the opening minutes.

Are Animals, though, is the album’s undisputed shining moment. Whimsical in the vein of the Soft Machine, structured methodically and precisely like classic minimalism but, crucially, recorded like a Pixies record. This moderately stylised soundworld means that the shouting hordes in the background sound like they’re wandering through the next room, and the clicking rim-shots keep it all ticking along keenly. Best of all, though, is that Au have remembered to but in nagging descending harmonies, agonizingly sweet/rough and the key to the song’s success after the opening.

Elsewhere, things develop a little more slowly. There are valiant soundscape attempts, with the close of Summerheat sounding like The Low Lows at their most placid, but for the most part these err on the side of underdevelopment. When the songwriting style becomes direct, it’s a tremendous relief that we’re back at the delirious level of what is so often termed as ‘wonky’ pop. This is not to say that pieces with more scope are unwelcome in general within this context, but that within Verbs, the contrasts between them and the more direct sections could be harsher – crucially enlivening the impact.

It’s quite an uneasy mix to behold. What is, essentially, Americana and alt.indie expanded into wider academic and musical frameworks, suffers not because the falsities of its ambition, but because of the minimal methods used to attempt these expansions. When Verbs kicks and judders, it is faultless entertainment. When it sits and contemplates, it is less engaging. The pace sags, and the listener yearns for more. The gentle crafting of more elaborate contemplative sections could well result in a magnificent, dynamic album from Au in coming years, but Verbs is not quite it.

Verbs is released on November 3rd (this Monday!). Visit the band’s MySpace.


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Left With Pictures – Secretly EP

The following is a full reprint of a review written recently for Drowned In Sound, where it was sub-edited almost out of all recognition and had marks knocked off for fear of the site becoming too generous with points. It can be viewed in that state here.

Left With Pictures – Secretly EP (Organ Grinder)

I interviewed Left With Pictures some time ago for DiS, and was very struck by how bright they were. Answers needed no editing for ums or ahs, everything they said was meticulous in its delivery, eloquent and illustrative. Can you see a parallel flying at your face? 

 There are so many artists whose press releases nonchalantly fart out phrases such as ‘classically trained’ or ‘baroque pop’ or, maybe, ‘channelling the majesty of Haydn’s sturm und drang period’ or something equally flaccid. On almost every single occasion, these claims are included to impress the reviewer and the listener, to foist upon them unjustly the idea that this particular record is that little bit brainier than most, that because these guys know the difference between exposition and development that their complex, terribly rewarding music is just the bollocks. On almost every single occasion, this is terrifyingly wrong, tiresome and, frankly, quite insulting to the listener. Let us judge for ourselves how brainy they are, we don’t need to be told to listen out for the string arrangements. And you’ve use the word ‘crescendo’ incorrectly.  


Left With Pictures are one of the very few examples of the tide turning right back on this rough maxim. A bendy hybrid of early classical chord shapes, very pure pop melodies and brilliant nuances, hilariously correct and satisfying in their deployment, they manage at all times to be terribly aware of how to fill the musical spaces. They can’t really be described as a rock act or a folk act or, really, a pop act – they’re just an ensemble. They use traditional instruments, but sensitively. The temptation when, y’know, doing one of those records where the singer stands at the front of patronised session musicians and conducts a song that really needs no conducting, is to just use ‘an orchestra’, ‘a string quartet’, ‘some horns’. Left With Pictures use the right instruments to involve the listener with the right sound, to augment melodies, harmonies and lyrics, they don’t just throw everything at it. The arrangements here are expert. 


‘We Clutched’ is a soft tale told in rubato, gently teased into acceleration and finally settling into a dainty dance, all the time carefully letting us hear clarinet harmonies, double bass throbs and a lovely lyric. The chord progression is simple, functional even, but it’s the variety of ways in which it is tweaked, the attention to detail in what we’re allowed to hear that makes the whole thing special. Similarly, ‘Boats’ is a tiny miracle of escalations and descents, of fine and pleasingly florid instrumental harmonies and another lovely lyric. I’d never really noticed before that Left With Pictures’ lyrics are very poetic, idiosyncratic and conversational without being ridiculous and, at times, quite moving. There’s nothing at all bad about a line like “I can’t push this boulder from out of the door, could you help me please?”  


To bring this all refreshingly into context, it seems that Left With Pictures will have to be a pop band for the sake of practical things like record labels, venues to play live at and the internet, but they know what they are really. They are an ensemble, some musicians and writers and composers that painstakingly arrange their pieces. A more complex description than that would undermine their excellence. 






Visit the band’s MySpace here.

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Girls Aloud – Out Of Control (part 2)


Girls Aloud – Out Of Control (Polydor)


Part 2

Largely, where attempts are made to engage with Girls Aloud‘s desired critical audience is where they come across with less conviction. Revolution In The Head is one such example, a rather vague and simplistic rallying tune in the girls’ ‘sassy’ mode. Worse, though, is the faux-ragga intro which seemingly has no relevance apart from how, y’know, reggae songs are about revolution and stuff. Still, the arrangement is extremely inventive – listen out for the droning oboe line in the background, it’s an eerie and almost inaudible effect that is more powerful to the subconscious than any of the lyrics.

Fix Me Up is very unsexy because of how brazen it is, Live In The Country is purely bizarre, but the worst song here is undoubtedly the closing We Wanna Party. Seemingly an attack on emo kids, or maybe Goths, it aims so directly at its targets that the term ‘preaching to the converted’ might be a tremendous understatement. Of course their existing fans will share the opinion. The purpose of this song is, arguably, to put forward the notion that Girls Aloud are very aware of their position in the media and for them to gain further valorisation from ‘serious’ music fans, but it comes off as slightly ignorant. “We wanna party but we got no love!” is slightly too strong a refrain to be as intelligent as it hopes.

Still, The Loving Kind is as wistful as they come and another excellent example of the pleading, beaten lyrics working far better than any others. Without sounding chauvinistic, Girls Aloud come across far better when they are devotional and not spurning their men so strongly and obviously. As far as their audience-splitting trick goes, they can’t ever stick with pure pop or attempts at crossing over into credibility. The fact is that they only achieve that credibility when they don’t mean to, when they’re simply singing songs with emotions and without agendas. In terms of furthering perceptions of the ‘girl band’ as a form, type or genre, Girls Aloud will only succeed if they ignore the external influences that have somehow convinced to them to strive for critical success. Deny it all turns they probably will, but it’s difficult not to think that someone has told them “hey, you girls could be Madonna when ‘Ray Of Light’ came out”. It’s not a guise that suits them – they should react to Out Of Control with a follow-up of the purest pop possible.

Read part 1 of this review here.



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Girls Aloud – Out Of Control (part 1)

Girls Aloud – Out Of Control (Polydor)


Out Of Control represents a simultaneous step forwards and backwards, not just for Girls Aloud, but for girl groups in general. There are attempts at authenticity that, on the whole, will work among the record’s audience, but there are misfires that will alienate both their already-ensnared fans and those (of supposedly more discerning tastes) who want to valorise them in higher critical circles. In the last few years, it has become increasingly acceptable to laud Girls Aloud and, to a lesser extent, some of their contemporaries as examples of acts doing nothing more than producing fine, unpretentious examples of what they do best – popular songs. This is all well and good, but the message has become distorted with Girls Aloud, and critics are becoming increasingly insistent that they are the high watermark in intelligent pop.

Their sixth album, then, goes some way towards prove these critics right – there are flashes of excellence throughout. Some of the vocal performances are sweet and well-delivered, particularly from Sarah Harding, and there are differing shades from track to track that encompass dance, soul, classic pop and several ambitious (for the existing audience) hybrids. Lead single The Promise is a simple and effective mission statement of sorts, both weary in lyric and buoyant in execution and arrangement. Taking cues from The Blues Brothers cod-soul and exhibiting an insanely confident and strident chorus, it works on every level as an example of the noughties pop song. It’s reflective and referential of its influences and has the requisite ennui in the lyrics to make lunges at the desired critical audience, but because of the girls’ public persona (we’re in a privileged position whereby we can see their lives unfolding in the tabloids) we can’t help but feel these lyrics are truer than most.

“Here I am, a walking primrose…” Harding sings plaintively. “My Aladdin’s lamp is down and I got a fear…ooh baby down here” chimes Cheryl Cole (slightly below her range). These are strange, curiously admirable attempts at poetry that lend the song a rare excellence that doesn’t last for the remainder of the album. Production choices here dictate that the girls aren’t all that polished (this is by no means a criticism), and we can hear the timbre of the ensemble grating like a live performance. It’s heartening that, with occasionally the most synthetic of musical backgrounds, there has been an attempt to humanise the vocals.

Part 2 of this review will be published tomorrow. Until then, have a listen to Girls Aloud at their MySpace.

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Notes on The X Factor

This Saturday’s X Factor live heat threw up two interesting and equally indigestible examples of the power of, respectively, the wrong attitude and the wrong approach.


Firstly, Rachel Hylton‘s performance of the Nina Simone standard Feelin’ Good  (above) was billed as an expected return to form for the reformed drug addict and convict. A difficult first two weeks saw her tackle, with muted results, somewhat unsuitable songs, with Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana being of particular note for its mistake-covering excess. With the show’s ‘Big Band Week’ in the offing, however, Hylton was expected to do well. Sadly, so did she.

It begins in perfectly acceptable style, credible and strong, and remains in that fashion until the final phrase. It is natural to labour a pause in a song with such conflict and focus on the creation of tension, but Hylton’s bravado and overconfidence led to her to labour it so much as to utterly spoil the effect of the performance. At the song’s climax, the band’s accompaniment stops to leave the soloist with a simple enough continuation of the tonic, but Hylton holds the silence before beginning for a full seven seconds. She looks one way and then the other, as if to say “You know this is good. I know this is good.” She comes back in nearly a quarter of a tone sharp, a distinctly amateurish mistake considering the atmosphere of self-valorisation she attempted to conjure.

Other elements of the performance grated, from the put-on hip-holding, the tired improvisations and the unforgivable decision to warble, Carey-esque, after the band had stopped playing. This, in particular, signifies that Hylton knew she has fluffed the last note and was desperate compensate and make it appear effortless. Hers is a terrible attitude that bears the mark of a singer with delusions of her own brilliance.

Later, in the results show, Daniel Evans‘ performance of Josh Groban’s To Where You Are (above) was transparently manipulative in securing his survival in the series. It has been laboured throughout the series that Evans’ late wife was the reason for his entering the competition, and his participation has been billed as a sort of tribute to her. Though he personally has not been overly vocal, this performance (part of the final sing-off round) shows that even he is not above using this situation as a way of guaranteeing votes.

The sincerity of the performance is not in question (though it could be argued that it is tastelessly over-wrought), but the reasons for it most certainly are. The lyrics speak of someone who is “gone”, of joining that person on another plain and the sadness of missing them. Evans’ delivery relies heavily on whispers and vibrato, and he can clearly be seen to be crying at the end of the song. Scott Bruton, the opponent in the sing-off had nothing in the way of an emotional back-story, save for a stock rags-to-riches tale that was never completed, and so Evans’ progression to the following week was never in any doubt. Had these singers performed two songs without any contextual factors, the result may have shifted in the other direction.

The point here is that, now he’s sung an emotional song that clearly references his late wife, Daniel Evans now has nothing left to offer the series. When he undoubtedly sings in next week’s sing-off, which song will he perform? Anything in an even slightly similar vein will be criticised for looking even more like taking advantage of his own misfortune, and performing a more upbeat song might not allow him to play to his technical strengths. Because of this position whereby artistic and performance progress is not possible, it’s a safe bet that he will be leaving the show come next week.

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Mogwai – Hammersmith Apollo 24/10/2008

Mogwai – Hammersmith Apollo 24/10/2008

Their legend completely installed in the story of post rock and experimental instrumental music, the return of Mogwai is not quite the hero’s welcome one might reserve for acts of similar stature. The reason for this is that, admirably, the Glasgow stalwarts appear to have no conception of their own success or attention that anyone might give them beyond the most practical things – enough people turn up to gigs, enough records are sold to make a living. That they’ve carved such a niche is remarkable, and Hammersmith reaps the reward of that staunch normality this evening.

Pieces from their latest offering, The Hawk Is Howling, signify a new focus on intricacy, on musical lines reacting against one another. Batcat is a good example of this – a simple, unusually ‘rock’ riff is explored, but most interest can be found in the background flourishes. It’s definitely in line with Mogwai’s battering volume guise, but the almost delicate licks underneath the chaos show that they have become more than experimenters in dynamic range. Similarly, Scotland’s Shame shows that they aren’t always so fussed about that dynamic range, instead swelling and dying without much fuss, but with a strong, beautiful melodic idea.

As these balding men glide about the stage, Stuart Braithwate occasionally hooded, it’s clear they have the same love of craft as they always have. There’s no sense of any new pieces being more important than old ones, there’s no back-catalogue shunning, it’s all apparently centred around creating the consummate live show. That, they manage very easily this evening. Christmas Steps retains its two points of shock value (listen to it if you’re not familiar with the two moments referred to here), and the encore-closing 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong is extended, freewheeling and judged perfectly. 

Griping, though, must be directed at a sometimes-ridiculous audience. Have they no respect for an artist? Why pay money to then arrive drunk, dancing and shouting? There are times and places for dancing and drinking, and those who revel in dancing with literally no rhythmic aid from the music might make others less irksome by stopping. One man knocks a girl’s pint from her hand with his desire to judder about to white noise. No one’s happy about that. Do you think you get it more than everyone else by dancing with your hands in the air? Onlookers are not impressed that you can tell when the drums will kick in. They think you look stupid.

Mogwai’s MySpace and Website – try the website for a hilarious tour diary.


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Various Artists – Kung Fu Super Sounds

Various Artists – Kung Fu Super Sounds (De Wolfe)

Kung Fu Super Sounds
Kung Fu Super Sounds

Trawling through the archives of the Shaw Brothers Kung fu soundtracks must’ve been an exhaustive, rewarding affair, and it’s gifted the listener with a perfect time capsule, a glimpse into mad fusions and extreme musical statements. That every single one of these assorted works is composed by Westerners is of no surprise – though the cinematic devices were pure Hong Kong, there’s always been an eye on Europe and the Americas. What was saleability, it seems, has now become nostalgia.

Consequently, there are devilish Mahlerian trills throughout the orchestral movements, but also light Afro-American funk touches. Horror House from 1975’s The Four Assassins utilises painfully shrill Shostakovich-esque military woodwinds, but the incomparable energy of the bongos on anything from Dirty Ho provides curious balance. Similarly, the final chord of Ivor Slaney’s Shaolin Handlock theme recalls the very same of Holst’s Mars, while the triumphant workout of Return To The 36th Chamber is pure faux-heroic blaxploitation fare.

Moodier mise en scene dictates eerier music, and the images conjured by pieces wherein assassins are stalked and hunted work extremely well. You can hear footsteps, approaches and attacks – the very tenets of soundtrack composition are rammed in your ears so hard that it’s impossible not to see Gordon Liu tiptoeing before roundhousing their fucking head off and flying toward a tree via wireworks. Notions of this material will be familiar to Wu Tang Clan fans, and their remaining number would undoubtedly revel in this retrospective delight. Their heavy sampling of the imagery, dialogue and ideology of many Shaw Brothers classics have lent their oeuvre a distinct credibility and lofty, almost religious dynamic, but to gain the most entertaining readings of these great snippets, one need only dwell on the source material.


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