Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Hell-On - Neko Case

It takes a determined person to carry on working through the devastating aftermath of a house fire. It takes something more than determination, to record an upbeat song called Bad Luck the day after the event, in a country thousands of miles away from the home you’ve just lost. Yet, this is what Neko Case did during the production of her latest album Hell-On. The album’s cover features a picture of Case, on fire herself, wearing a wig made of cigarettes and she even went on to film a video for the song in a studio set depicting a burnt out living room. In interviews since, Case has been philosophical about the fire, noting that the people and animals she loves are all safe and that her lost possessions are just “stuff”. Case reserves her ire for other, more deserving targets a point she hits home time and again on her new album.

Case’s feminism is very much to the fore in this album and her always poetic, often enigmatic lyrics both uplift the women who have influenced her and detail some of the many injustices borne against both herself and woman kind in general. One example of this, Halls Of Sarah, may also be the best song Case has written in years. “Sarah” is an avatar for the countless women who have been used as muses and “inspiration” by artistic men only to be silenced and dehumanised in the process, whilst female artistic voices have been simultaneously ignored. Moving from tender alt-country to brilliantly anthemic pop-rock, Halls Of Sarah is an absorbing and layered piece of production work and songwriting as well as a powerful social statement.

Hell-On isn’t all, big picture commentary, there is still room here for some more personal stories. My Uncle’s Navy for example chronicles one man’s cruel bullying of Case as a child. Through waves of deep, chorus drenched guitar, Case’s voice doesn’t betray much anger, though her lyrics tell another story. The line “I hated those who gave him access to our days/ the ones who did nothin’/ I still can't love them” which presumably refers to her estranged parents, is delivered with a calmness that renders the emotion in those words even more powerful.

On songs such as Furnace Room Lullaby from the album of the same name, Case has managed to capture a ghostly, ethereal quality that is both compelling and chilling and demonstrated her impressive knack for writing dark, eerie songs. Hell-On’s title track, which opens the album, has some of those qualities and whilst it may not have the same creepy, darkness as Furnace Room Lullaby, Hell-On is a powerful opening statement. The tense, creepy-carnival-esque glockenspiel at the start gives way to Case’s strong, yet soft vocal over a singular strummed guitar. This simple arrangement easily grabs your attention, purely because of how powerfully stark it is.

As she has done with previous albums, Case surrounded herself with trusted collaborators for the production of Hell-On. Laura Veirs and K.D Lang, with whom she made 2016’s case/lang/veirs, make an appearance as does her New Pornographers bandmate A.C Newman. A standout addition is Mark Lanegan on Curse of the I-5 Corridor, which lies somewhere between backing vocals and a duet as his and Case’s voices weave in and out of each other. On Sleep All summer, a Crooked Fingers cover, Case enlists the help of the song’s composer Eric Bachmann. This slow, sad duet is a standout on the album though interestingly, it has more in common with the version recorded by The National and St Vincent a few years ago, than Bachmann’s original.

Neko Case’s reputation as a musician has hinged primarily on her voice. It’s certainly a remarkable instrument and its qualities are almost unique in contemporary music, though I feel it can often overshadow her talent as a songwriter and a producer. Hell-On, however proves to be a showcase for both those skills, with Case’s production choices and arrangements complimenting the songs beautifully. It’s an album that could only be made by someone with a strong idea of what they want to say and the hard-won understanding of their own work and voice that comes with experience. It’s clear that Case has put all she has into this record, even at times where not doing so would be perfectly understandable. The result is a strong and compelling album that demonstrates just how talented Neko Case is.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Lookout - Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs' new album The Lookout begins with Margret Sands, a track that would fit in perfectly on any of her records from the last 14 years or so. The soft acoustic strumming and harmony vocals that sound as if they were recorded in a beautifully acoustically treated cave, are part of the style that Veirs and her longtime collaborator and husband Tucker Martine have honed to perfection. It’s a sound that has come to feel familiar over time, but due to Veirs’ ability as a songwriter never feels tired or overplayed.

It's partly because fans of Veirs are so familiar with her signature sound that the second track seems like such a departure. Everybody Needs You has a more electronic sound to it than almost anything Veirs has done before. Programmed drum samples and delayed vocals give this song an airy feel, quite different from the grounded acoustic guitar of the record’s opener. Though not so different as to be jarring, the track is a pleasant change of style and paves the way for the following song Seven Falls to open with a synthesiser, before heading back to more familiar territory. 

Generally Grateful Dead covers rarely manage to live up to the originals, Veirs makes a rare exception with her take on Mountains of The Moon from The Dead’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa. Shedding the odd, faux medieval tone of the Dead’s recording, Veirs’ version is wonderfully hazy and peppered with country music influences. It’s an approach that pays tribute to the Grateful Dead by incorporating elements of their wide ranging sound, while simultaneously diverging significantly from their version of the song.

Track titles like The Meadow, Heavy Petals and Margret Sands hint at a preoccupation with nature and as Veirs herself puts it “the need to pay attention to the fleeting beauty of life and to not be complacent”. The Canyon, a song about the loss of a loved one, encapsulates this sentiment perfectly. Lines like “I’m here now but my time will come / to be blowing through the canyon” demonstrating Veirs’ ability to take comfort in the natural order of things.

The Lookout feels like a deep breath midway through a stressful day. Meant to calm the listener (and the writer as well I think), it’s Veirs’ reaction to the fear and instability of living in Trump’s America. But whilst the sound of the album is as tuneful and easy on the ears as Veirs’ previous work, the tension and worry is audible under the surface. Lines like “I can't read these people / I can't read their eyes” from the album’s title track, betray the unrest under the music’s comforting placidity. It’s not an album of certainties or solutions by any means, though it is in its own way a hopeful album. Veirs makes sure to take stock of the thing’s she’s thankful for and with lyrics like “Gather the children / And hold them close / And teach of love / And peace devout / When it grows darkest / The stars come out” it’s clear she sees some light in the distance.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Prodigal Son - Ry Cooder

Musicologist, composer and renowned guitarist Ry Cooder’s last album (2012’s Election Special) was an entire record of songs about current affairs. Primarily a swipe at the Republican Party and its supporters, the album covered the many things Cooder finds wrong with America and its political system, in a style not dissimilar to the folk and blues tunes of old that he has so readily drawn from in the past. In hindsight, Election Special may have been better saved for the next election cycle, when Cooder would have had a much deeper well of hypocrisy and horror to draw from. But many of the points he makes on that album and its predecessor, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, hold up well enough to re-appear on his new record The Prodigal Son.

Cooder gets right to down to business with Gentrification. As a track heavily influenced by African guitar playing builds behind him, Cooder decries the spread of coffee shops and “Googlemen” buying up poor urban areas and forcing the inhabitants out of their homes. It’s delivered with a wry sense of humour, though the argument he’s making is honest. And one that has weighed on his mind for years, as evidenced by his 2005 album Chavez Ravine, which focused on a particularly brutal example of gentrification where a Latino neighbourhood in LA was bulldozed completely to make way for a baseball stadium.

You can’t revisit old blues and folk music as much as Cooder has over his long career, without including some religious songs in your repertoire. Christianity features heavily in The Prodigal Son, from the title of the album, through to the dark, dirge-like version of Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Whilst in his haunting original, Johnson’s fear of losing his soul to the devil and was palpable, Cooder expands on Johnson’s unease here. Soft, but menacing sounding strings and brass sit under Cooder’s plaintive, moaning vocals, like some distant terror, simply biding its time. A loan slide guitar interjects a minute or so into the track and reminds us that this is a blues song but it does little to ease the discomfort. A choir softly joins in with Cooder’s singing and I’m torn as to whether this chorus is trying to help him save his soul or if it is made up of the voices of the damned calling him to join them. The result is stark, thoroughly disquieting and as atmospheric as any of Cooder’s much celebrated soundtrack work.

Having memorably covered his How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live in his early years, Cooder again revisits the catalogue of American folk singer Blind Alfred Reed. You Must Unload is presented here as a hymn against hypocrisy reinforced by Cooder’s simple yet powerful arrangement. Written in 1927, the song’s message rings true over 90 years later. Perhaps even more so. When Cooder, backed by a less sinister chorus this time, sings lines like “You money loving Christians who refuse to pay your share / You must unload”, it’s hard not to think of the myriad of televangelists and political figures in the present to whom these lyrics apply. 

Cooder again mixes religion with politics in Jesus and Woody. Here he imagines a conversation between Jesus and Woody Guthrie, with Christ seeking some solace in Guthrie’s “Oklahoma poetry”. It’s a tender tribute to Guthrie, whose political folk songs have had an obvious effect on Cooder’s own work but it also takes aim at the same targets as You Must Unload, with Jesus’ admission that he “like(s) sinners more than fascists”. 

For all the references to God and the Devil on this album, it’s left unclear as to whether this is an expression of Cooder’s own faith or if he’s simply using the religious imagery to make a political point. His inclusion of Budha in the lyrics to Nobody’s Fault But Mine, is perhaps a clue that Cooder’s personal beliefs are somewhat more complex and varied than the music lets on. 

Whilst Cooder’s legendary guitar skills are not at the forefront here, his work as a producer and arranger makes up for it. Whilst the production isn’t sparse exactly, Cooder has defiantly tailored the sound of this album to focus on the songs rather than the instruments playing them. With The Prodigal Song, Cooder’s contemporary take on American folk and blues pays loving tribute to its roots as well as taking a stern, critical look at where America is today and how much hasn’t changed.

The Prodigal Son is out May 11th on Fantasy Records. You can listen to it here (via NPR) until then. 

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Years - Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

There is a distinct weariness to Years, the new album by Sarah Shook and The Disarmers. Shook’s songs are full of angst and disappointment over failed relationships and the people on both sides of those relationships. But along with the anger there is a sense that every break up and argument catalogued here is, understandably, wearing her out. 

However, this album is anything but tiring to listen to. It may not be anything new to combine elements of country and rock, but Years has a sound that’s very much it’s own. It’s clear that Sarah Shook and the Disarmers take some inspiration from a diverse range of classic country music, though Shook’s delivery and lyrics are clearly not the overly polished stuff of Nashville past or present. Tracks like New Ways To Fail have a touch of the Bakersfield sound to them, whilst Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t  has a Rockabilly meets Honky Tonk feel. But despite having the hallmarks of some classic country sounds, the tone of the record is grittier, more rough around the edges than a lot of country music and really fun to listen to as a result. 

Shook’s lyrics also incorporate a twist on classic country tropes, and she happily plays around with gender roles and perspectives. Women rarely get to be the hard drinkers in country music but Shook is willing to take on that role, claiming that booze is “the only thing left that I got that I can / Make me feel the man I used to be” in The Bottle Never Let’s me Down. Also, the pleading, locked out drunk on Damned If I Do… is a familiar figure in country lore (think Hank Williams’ Move It On Over) but one that, again, has usually been played by a man. Obviously Shook doesn’t shy away from self criticism here. And it’s that honesty when it comes to her own faults that makes songs like Good as Gold, where she takes a soon to be ex-lover to task, seem even more cutting. 

Whilst it’s Shook’s songwriting that stands out most on the record, the Disarmers deserve some credit for the fantastic job they do backing her up. The intertwining lines of pedal steel player Phil Sullivan and guitarist Eric Peterson in particular provide some of the most memorable moments of the album and work perfectly with Shook’s melodies. It’s the cohesive sound of a band that’s been playing together for sometime and know just what they’re doing.

Years is above all, an honest album. It’d be easy to categorise these songs as well written works of fiction if it wasn’t so easy to hear the weariness in Shook’s voice. That’s not to say she’s not giving it her all in her performance here, she clearly is, but Sarah Shook means every damn word of this record and it shows. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not - Dinosaur Jr

Dinosaur Jr are one of American indie rock’s most interesting stories. Loud, loose and noisey but with a strong sense of melody, not to mention some some of the best musicianship in the punk scene, they were one of the most beloved bands of the late 80’s underground. Along with many other groups of the era, they signed to a major label and had some commercial success during the early 1990’s when alternative rock was thrust into the mainstream. However by that point, the original band had crumbled due to clashing personalities. So for most of their major label period, the band consisted of guitarist/singer J Mascis and various session musicians, before Mascis finally retired the Dinosaur Jr name in 1997. The story of the band has been well covered and for an engaging and more detailed account of the early history of Dinosaur Jr, I can thoroughly recommend the band’s chapter in Michael Azzerad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life”.

In the early part of this century, after both J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow (also of Sebadoh and Folk Implosion) had embarked on decent solo careers and Azzerad’s book had generated some renewed interest in the band, the original line up of Dinosaur Jr reformed and have just released the 11th studio album with the band’s name on it.

Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, is not an album that you could mistake for a record by any other band. Even down to the cover, toned with copious amounts of purple (Mascis colour of choice), this is clearly a Dinosaur Jr album. Even before the first note, you know what you’re in for. “Goin' Down” has all the hallmarks of a classic Dinosaur Jr song. Chugging power chords, a strong drum beat, Mascis' slack vocals and the beguiling guitar flourishes that he uses to punctuate his songs. As expected there is a powerful solo, delivered in Mascis’ signature style. In fact it’s so much of that style that it seems eerily familiar, perhaps plagiarised from one of the band’s earlier records?

“Tiny” again harks back to the band’s earlier work, this time taking on some of the smoother edges that the band adopted in the 90’s. With it’s catchy, memorable melody it’s easy to guess why this was chosen as the album’s lead single. Whilst “I Told Everyone” and “Good To Know” both serve to prove that Mascis hasn’t lost his ability to write fantastic guitar riffs, his best guitar solo in the first half of the album is reserved for the Lou Barlow penned “Love Is…”, one of Barlow’s two contributions to the album. Not surprisingly, it’s Barlow’s songs that depart the most from what would be considered “The Dinosaur Jr Sound” and feature instrumentation that, in a rare move, steps ever so slightly away from the guitar, bass, drums formula of most of the band’s other songs.

“I Walk For Miles” find’s the band exploring early Black Sabbath territory with a heavier sound than usual. It’s not an unwelcome change of pace and serves as a bit of a break because as soon as “Lost All Day” starts, we are back on familiar ground.

“Knocked Around” and “Mirror” don’t deviate much from what you would expect, though the first half of “Knocked Around” is far softer than the rest of the record. Mascis’ signature guitar tone is still present though, leading the listener to expect (correctly in this case) that soon the gloves will come off and the volume will go up.

The most surprising cut on the album is saved for last. Lou Barlow’s “Left/Right” is a bit more experimental than the rest of the album. There’s some synthesiser drones mixed in and whilst it’s not a total departure from what we’ve come to expect here, there is at least some room for movement.

Overall, I like this album. It fulfils what I want and expect from a Dinosaur Jr album in pretty much every way. But, inevitably perhaps, it’s not their best work. There is nothing here to truly surprise me. The lyrics that focus on social isolation and lost love are the same as they’ve ever been and each song on this album has a well worn, familiar feel to it. The album’s title, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, seems almost prophetic in that there really are only brief glimpses of the musically unexpected on this record.

If Dinosaur Jr were a younger band, this would be anathema. But as a band that have been going for over 30 years on and off, they’ve created a legacy and a signature sound. One that is often imitated but never equalled. It’s not that they’ve never deviated from the formula (check out the trumpet part on 1997’s “I’m Insane”) but after decades together and apart, they seem very much aware of where their strengths lie and they’re going to keep playing to them.