Category Archives: Album Review

Steve Von Till, Wino, Scott Kelly – Songs of Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt is said to have been embarrassed when Steve Earle proclaimed him to be ‘the best songwriter in the whole world’ and threatened to clamber up on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and tell him so. Such potent soundbites don’t disappear, though, and this one is wheeled out to accompany every new piece of Van Zandt – related merchandise. And right enough: as a songwriter, Van Zandt gives anyone a run for their money. In a genre that’s saturated with wounded troubadours, few have come close to capturing their grief and that of those around them as effectively and tunefully as he. As a recording artist, however, Van Zandt often paled in comparison to his more celebrated peer.

He was a reluctant presence in the studio and producers frequently struggled to capture his personality on record. No doubt at label behests to make his work more marketable, many of his albums were over-produced: laden with schmalzy strings and polished to a high sheen that simply didn’t belong. It’s why the terrible jokes and nervous laughter on Live at the Old Quarterand Live at McCabe’s are so integral to his legacy. The spit and sawdust setting, the simple yet skilful arrangements and the relaxed, unceremonious atmosphere placed Van Zandt firmly in his element.

To set out to record a full album of Townes Van Zandt cover songs, then, is something of a poisoned chalice. In reworking the songs, you risk making the same mistakes as his producers of yore, whose unwillingness to leave well alone arguably damaged the material itself (many of the most famous Van Zandt covers fall heavily into this territory). On the other hand, the requirement for a set of faithfully recorded updates is negligible.

Scott KellySteve Von Till and Wino, who have teamed up for Songs of Townes Van Zandt, have chosen to stick rather than twist. The trio of metallers have recorded three tracks apiece and for the most part, have eschewed frills, keeping things simple, tasteful and palatable. The problem is: anybody who is already familiar with the material will struggle to find a reason to return to this record.

Perhaps inevitably, none of the covers improve on the original, and only a few offer a viable alternative. Returning to the Dylan analogy, neither he nor Van Zandt could be classed as technically great singers, but both possessed hugely effective voices that are and were (naturally) perfectly suited to their own material. While Kelly, Von Till and Wino each has their own distinct delivery, they all fall short of capturing the emotional punch the songs demand.

Take Scott Kelly’s contribution. The Neurosis singer and guitarist has chosen three of Van Zandt’s most celebrated songs: ‘St. John the Gambler’, ‘Lungs’ and ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and in each case has attempted to make the track darker, mainly by slowing the pace and adding a tiny bit of drone-ish guitar. But tracks like these require little assistance: they’re already dark enough. His take on ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and ‘St. John the Gambler’ (both lifted from what was arguably Van Zandt’s finest studio hour, Our Mother the Mountain) come across as heavy handed – his growl becoming increasingly grating the more you listen to both.

His bandmate Steve Von Till fares better. His rendition of ‘If I Needed You’ betters covers of the same track by names as prestigious as Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett. It’s as plain and bare as Van Zandt would’ve intended and is by some distance the best song on the record. His other offerings, however, are less memorable, with ‘Snake Song’ in particular struggling under the weight of some dodgy sound effects, which swim against the stylistic tide of the rest of the album.

In the sleeve notes, Van Zandt’s bass player Wrecks Bell commends the trio for taking ‘possession from the first note’, a statement that couldn’t be further than the truth. Instead,Songs… is reminiscent of an earnest pub-cover. It sounds fine on the surface and for a while, you might find yourself tapping your toe and humming in time. When you come out the other side, though, it’s forgotten. Neurosis or Wino disciples aside, it’s difficult to see a place for this in anyone’s collection.

5/10
Written for Drowned in Sound
Advertisements

Meursault – Something for the Weakened

It’s been a fascinating few years for anyone following the progress of Edinburgh’s Meursault. The band’s 2008 debut Pissing On Bonfires / Kissing With Tongues was a masterful cauldron of ideas that buried beautiful melodies beneath stratospheres of scratches and fireworks. It sent critics scrambling for superlatives and set the bar sky high. So much so that the response to its follow up was, relatively speaking, underwhelming. In retrospect though, the scruffy, lo-fi All Creatures Will Make Merry seems a more realised, focused record. Perhaps Meursault decided that it was better to bottle all the disparate ideas, shake them about a bit and pour out something a bit more consolidated, but no less interesting or enjoyable. And hey presto: it worked.

Their third leap along the evolutionary path (because it most certainly represents progress) is the most drastic yet. The general direction is the same: album number three is more consistent, structurally, and the melodies are more nuclear still. For the first time though, the band has released a cleanly polished set of songs, as nature intended them. The electronics have been discarded in favour of a more analogue setup: keys and strings are to the fore.

And then there’s The Voice. When these ears first bore witness to a Meursault live show, they were stunned into submission by Neil Pennycook’s booming, beautiful vocals, which filled the venue, leaving us to wonder if he’d had a megaphone lodged in his larynx. On album number three it’s been bumped up the bill and unleashed in all its glorious technicolor. Meursault the capricious art project has given way to Meursault, the band. And boy, do they scrub up well.

It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. Arguably the most enjoyable moments of the first two albums were the simplest: the plaintive ‘A Small Stretch of Land’ from the debut and ‘Weather’ from All Creatures… being fine examples. Indeed, if fault is to be found in their earlier output, it’s in the band’s erstwhile penchant for gilding the lily. On Something for the Weakened, though, it seems Meursault are satisfied to let the core song do the work. The wonderfully straightforward opening track ‘Thumb’, then, is an appropriate harbinger. Over a strummed ukelele and gentle backbeat, Pennycook repeats the mantra: “We will not be weakened any more”. It’s more resigned than defiant, but sets the tone beautifully.

‘Lament for a Teenage Millionaire’ originally appeared on the first album as a jittery, fuzzy electronic stomp. Here though, it’s reworked as a gorgeous folk song, swept along by a banjo, some strings and a lilting piano riff. Pennycook’s voice, previously submerged in a maelstrom of synths and beeps, is bare and broken. It’s this visceral outpouring, inescapable on stage, that defines Something for the Weakened. On ‘Settling’, you can almost sense the frontman’s veins rupturing his neck as he bellows, sardonically: “Ha, fucking ha”, while on ‘Hole’, amid some lovely harmonies, you can just about see his eyes welling up with tears.

Just as some lamented the scratchy production of All Creatures Will Make Merry, you can bet that there’ll be those who bemoan the slick production and relative uniformity of Something for the Weakened. Such is the cross a band as changeable as Meursault have to bear. Thankfully, though, they’ve always been aware that unbroken eggs do not an omelette make and this is the strongest set of songs the band has offered up to date. So pick up the record and enjoy it, but just don’t expect Meursault to rest on their laurels for too long.

8.5 / 10

Star Wheel Press – Life Cycle of a Falling Bird

When a lead singer possesses such a distinctive burr, it’s often easy to overlook everything that sits behind it. Not so on Life Cycle of a Falling Bird, the parentheses friendly-debut album from Aberfeldy-based Star Wheel Press. For while frontman Ryan Hannigan’s larynx purrs like Aidan Moffat on the happy pills, the songs on here are so finely crafted, so wonderfully nuanced, it’s but another instrument in a superb alt-country orchestra.

Hannigan is joined by a medley of strings: banjo, slide guitar, pedal steel and fiddle on 15 literate and buoyant tracks, which are melodically simple, but beautifully composed. There’s a touch of Whiskeytown circa Stranger’s Almanac about opening track Railway Lines (the North Carolinans’ spectre hangs heavy over much of the record), and Betamax Waltz is a real lyrical treat – funny, clever and impossible to shake, hours after spinning.

4/5

Spiritualized – Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Sweet Heart Sweet Light opens with a sumptuous, succinct instrumental (Huh?), before diving balls first into a nine-minute glam rock opus (Hey Jane) that’s four minutes longer than it should be. Little Girl opens with the line: “Sometimes I wish that I was dead,” before leading into one of the simplest and best songs J. Spaceman has written in years. If you’re after an analogy for Spiritualized’s career, you could do worse than this opening trio, and the pattern continues throughout. There are moments – like the brilliant Freedom and gospel-tinged I Am What I Am – of sublime clarity, where he sounds like delivering on his promise of a perfect pop album, a la Brian Wilson. Elsewhere, though, he seems destined to spin forever through the stratosphere on the back of an intergalactic tangent (the protracted Headin’ For The Top Now and Get What You Deserve). Many of Jason Pierce’s talents are apparent on this album. Unfortunately, restraint isn’t one of them.

3/5

Written for the Skinny

Seamus Fogarty – God Damn You Mountain

Rita Jack’s Lament, the centrepiece of Seamus Fogarty’s startlingly good debut album, features a recording of a County Kerry native on her first trip to Ireland in 50 years. She’s standing in the house she grew up in, talking about her childhood, as a traditional Irish guitar track plays out, distorted and unwound. You can hear the birds singing in the background and, to coin a phrase, you can almost smell the cowshit off it. The ethereal mood permeates throughout God Damn You Mountain, a record that nestles beautifully at the point where the digital and analogue worlds collide. It’s a wonderful, woozy mix of folk, country and blues, in which Fogarty’s weary vocals and ghostly field recordings are fused fast with the plaintive banjo, plucked guitar, organ and violin. At times it’s heartbreaking, but, like a good daydream, you come out the other side wistful, smiling and longing to go back in for more.

5/5

First published here

Buy God Damn You Mountain here

We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

 

It’s hard not to admire Billy McCarthy, frontman and chief lyricist of New York band We Are Augustines. Their debut album is based loosely around the concept of “family”, but more precisely around the heartbreaking death of his brother, who battled homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems. Yet, far from a rampageous car crash, this is a measured outpouring of grief; dignified and tuneful. With a larynx like Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, backed by the kind of honest-to-goodness, anthemic indie-rock that’s been so kind to the Gaslight Anthem and (dare we say it?) the Killers, sans Brandon Flowers’ Anglophillia, Rise Ye Sunken Ships is lyrically superb. Between Chapel Song, Augustine, Book of James and Strange Days, it has a quartet of tracks that each come close to bettering anything penned by the aforementioned pair. The much-trodden road from tragedy to triumph has rarely sounded so good.

4/5
Originally published here

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

Now eight albums deep into his career, it’s tempting to view Andrew Bird as a latter day, violin-toting Paul Simon. With the syrupy, seductive voice and the tunes (my God, the tunes) considered; the greatest trick the two have in common is convincing the world that their songs are simple: they share a marvellous knack of creating a sum that’s far less complex than the parts. This is the abiding impression of Break It Yourself – an album which thirty years ago might have made Andrew Bird a superstar. After all the loops, the tangents and the breakdowns, remain a set of fantastic, hummable pop songs that we can confidently call Bird’s strongest to date. From the lyrically kooky Near Death Experience Experience (“and we’ll dance like cancer survivors”), to the beautifully maudlin Lazy Projector and folksy Orpheo Looks Back, it comes with the multiplicity expected from a Bird album, but with a consistency he hadn’t previously presented.

 4/5
Originally published here

Dry The River – Shallow Bed

Elbow, Arcade Fire, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake. These are the highlights from a list of artists that Dry the River don’t bear any audible resemblance to, yet to whom they’ve already been saddled with comparisons. As if the BBC Sound of 2012 wasn’t enough of an albatross. Shallow Bed is the inflated big budget debut album from the London quintet and there’s little here to titillate. Instead, a minor update of the already hackneyed blueprint for contemporary folk-rock that’s enjoyed chart success over the past few years: let’s call it Mumford 2.0. But whereas Marcus and co try papering over the cracks with balls to the wall, senseless hoedowns, Dry the River occupy “swollen swings and pregnant crescendo” territory, all thoughtful and weepy. Competent, yes, but there’s nothing new or remotely daring about Shallow Bed – even the most palatable tracks – Shaker Hymns, for instance – begin to grate after just a few spins. If you want the classics, go out and buy them, because you won’t find any here.

 2/5
Originally published here

Lambchop – Mr M.

 

At this stage, it’d be mad to expect sweeping changes from a new Lambchop record, and the loungy, intricate and patient Mr. M (Mr. Metuntil a libelous baseball mascot got involved) satisfies the rule, for the most part. But in its four-year gestation period (the longest in the Nashville band’s history), Kurt Wagner has added a few, subtle strings to his bow.

Since 2008’s OH (Ohio), Wagner’s collaborated with Cortney Tidwell on the collection of country covers, KORT. And while Mr. M never comes close to a hoedown, it contains some of the most direct songs to have flown the Lambchop banner, including a straight up love song: Never My Love. Alas, the finest moments remain when Wagner is at his poetic, observant best. “The wine tasted like sunshine in a basement,” he sings on the stellar Gone Tomorrow, reminding us that while new tricks aren’t beyond all old dogs, sometimes they just aren’t as good.

 3/5
Written for The Skinny

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa

 

Damien Jurado’s last album was a game changer. Having spent 15 years churning out folk/folk-rock albums that were sometimes excellent, but otherwise showed little sign of progression, Saint Bartlett saw Jurado explore new depths of style and production, harnessing a bit of reverb and a set of strings to great effect.Maraqopa proves it was no fluke. Opening misstep Nothing In The News aside, this continues in the slick vein of its predecessor.

Whereas the opener morphs, ridiculously, into an excessive 70s superjam, the rest of the album is sparse, tidy and perfectly formed. Richard Swift remains at the mixing desk and shows again that he knows how to get the best from Jurado’s simple, plaintive melodies. The superb Life Away From The Garden, complete with a glorious call-and-response and the gorgeous Everyone A Star are the standout tracks on the latest installment of Damien Jurado’s second wind. Long may it continue.

 4/5
Written for The Skinny