Posts Tagged ‘john smith’

Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest (2011)

Issued some eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, it would be wrong to describe The Harrow and the Harvest as a hotly anticipated release, a phrase usually reserved for the second album of a promising debutant. Instead, I, like many, had largely forgotten that Welch was still out there in the musical ether, battling against writer’s block to compose a new batch of lazy country numbers with long-time partner and collaborator, David Rawlings (both of whom were heavily involved with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker).

The Harrow makes no attempts at a new musical direction, nor should it when you are widely regarded as one of the finest roots singers of your generation. Instead, it’s business as usual as Rawlings’ fingers scale the steel strings like an enchanted spider on gentle opener Scarlet Town before giving way to the naked beauty of Welch’s soaring voice on Dark Turn of the Mind. Each song is exemplary and without flaw, and I can think of few finer albums to stick on at a generous volume on a Sunday afternoon while reclining, eyes shut, on the sofa while the woozy charm of classic Americana passes over you. It is a cleansing experience.

By all accounts the duo come into their own during live performances, where familiar songs are treated to new meandering arrangements and I must make a point of seeing a show the next time they are in the UK. Check out the gorgeous clips below. Admittedly, Miss Ohio is not from the new album but it is one of my favourite songs – any excuse etc…

Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (2011)

The inclusion of Adam’s 13th studio album on this list (not taking into account his Whiskeytown records, Suicide Handbook, bootlegs etc) is more a reflection on my joy at hearing him put out some decent music for the first time since Cold Roses, a two-disc release from 2005, rather than this being a gold-plated must have. For those not familiar with Adams other than his Wonderwall cover (which Noel Gallagher started to use himself afterwards), to many people he was – for a few fleeting years – the finest musician of his generation who proceeded to waste his prodigious talent on liquor, drugs and dubious musical choices. I can still recall the goose bumps on my arms when I saw him for the first time at a sweaty Bristol Academy in January 2004 (Jesse Malin stood a few feet away from me) –a performance that ended with the wasted Adams deserting his band and playing Nobody Girl on the bar while bumming cigarettes off the ever-obliging and rapturous crowd. Despite his inebriation, the show was a blinder. At his next performance in Liverpool, his luck ran out and he feel off the stage, braking his wrist in the process which hampered his playing for many years.

Ashes and Fire is a welcome move away from the guitar-driven sound of the later Cardinal albums to the country soul/stripped-back sound of Whiskeytown and his masterpiece, Heartbreaker. As with all of Adams’ best records, the guitar playing is simple yet thoughtful and tight, with percussion only- if at all –featuring as gentle back-up, rather than a dominant instrument. Not all of the tracks work: Come Home is a pedestrian non-event and Save Me is – to quote Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of a Monster – undoubtedly ‘stock’. However, the rest of the album is solid fare, with Dirty Rain, the title track and Lucky Now welcome additions to the Adams cannon. You get the feeling listening to Ashes and Fire that this is the sober Adams working out how to write decent music without the sauce – a record as therapy, if you like; fingers-crossed the next ones will see him reach the levels of old.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

Jewellery - Primark-chic, as modeled by Kanye

Kanye and ‘The Jigga’s’ 2011 joint offering is the aural equivalent of going full retard – a brazen homage to fame, excess and bathing in the benjamins carried off with the musical and lyrical panache of two commercial rappers at the top of their game. Much has been made of the similarities to Kanye’s excellent Twisted Fantasy album, and it is true that The Throne takes in the layered vocals and eerie synths that dominated Kanye’s last album, although this is a more polished commercial sound designed to rattle the tills.

The pair are at their best delivering solid crowd pleasers such as the Redding sampling Otis, a strong contender for the Cowboy’s wedding playlist (I’d die a happy man after seeing my grandma shake her booty while mouthing “looking like wealth, I’m about to call the paparrazi on myself”), and the dirty slider Niggas in Paris (“fuck that bitch she don’t wanna dance, excuse my French but I’m in France”). Critics of the album cite the leaps in sound between tracks and indeed they don’t all flow, mixing by-numbers Rhianna-flavoured R n’ B with tight James Brown vocal samples. However this is a minor quam.

Personal favourites are Welcome to the Jungle, which shows off Jay-Z at his best, riffing to a mundane yet hypnotic staccato beat, and opener No Church in the Wild, heavy on strings with a predatory bass grove, while Kanye muses on drugs, threesomes and how Jesus ‘laid beats’. An album built on two guys talking about how great they are will to many be a nauseating affair, but I for one enjoyed shuffling on my sofa, vicariously drinking in their glory. It would be a cold man who would begrudge them their right to brag.

John Smith – Eavesdropping (2011)

Those of you who read my post on my most-listened albums of the past decade (https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/) will be aware of Devonian musician, John Smith, one-time school friend of my missus and unsigned by choice. His second and last album Map or Direction was a beauty and is available to all on Spotify – give it a go.

His latest offering was recorded on a whim at his bassist’s house over a one-week period and is, as the album title suggests, a collection of covers taking in mainstream sources as diverse as The Stone Roses, Elton John and Christina Aguilera, as well as lesser-known bands. Smith is a virtuoso guitar player in the mould of John Martyn who was his mentor and with whom he played for a number of years before his passing. Therefore like Martyn, his songs rely heavily on imaginative fret work, dropped-G tuning and groove riddled guitar-slapping. What stands Smith out from other talented singer-songwriters is the depth of his voice which he showcases to good effect on Eavesdropping, in particular the wonderful Elton John cover, That’s Why they Call it the Blues (see below); a voice that hushes and booms from one moment to the next.

Other highlights are This Killer Wave penned by a local band in Liverpool (where Smith now lives) and Jenny Again by obscure folk-act Tuung. The Aguilera cover is Genie in a Bottle, and I feel truly old realising that this was released by the scantily-clad Glitter-fodder in 1999. Smith’s version is a stripped-down plucking affair and I hear that it has recently gained airtime on BBC Radio6, however for me it’s a bit of a non-event and the same applies to Not Over Yet, formerly a dance anthem (yeh man Ibiza bruv innit etc) by Paul Oakenfold, whose face I always thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a compressed pickled scrotum (or rather my projection of one). Clearly, Smith is the kind of musician who likes a cross-spectrum of styles and will never lose the desire to throw in the odd curveball. But these are minor gripes on what is otherwise an excellent interim album, pending his next proper release.

Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

This was an impulse purchase after a suitably wordy 8.8 Pitchfork review (“the sound casts Bejar’s songs in a very particular light, and reinforces the feeling of the singer as persona” – yup, sure) and therefore I must confess to coming to the record with no prior knowledge of Destroyer or their members’ work.

The most striking thing about the album is the overall tone and sound, which flitters between Roxy Music, Steely Dan and The Pet Shop Boys, with a bit of Talking Heads thrown in (the album’s title track has a similar retro glitchy computer effect to that used in Once in a Lifetime). There is also a sense of film noir to proceedings, and I doubt that the naming of Chinatown and its inclusion as the album’s opener is a coincidence. Songs are cultured out of Casio synth, lazy chord strums, occasional heavy bass hooks and cheesy woodwind; for a moment they catch your ear before drifting off with the breeze.

Indeed, if I was to offer a one-line critique to stick on the front of the album it would probably be “sumptuous porn music by the XX” and I am pretty sure that if you crank up the volume on Blue Eyes and crane your ears to the speakers at 1:58, you can hear the gentle patting of Ron Jeremy’s waist against the buttcheeks of an obliging freshman. Ok, perhaps not but you get the idea.

It is difficult to explain why an album that is so inconsequential and derivative is both fresh and revelatory, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that each song is executed incredibly well. The title track is a good example – a multi-instrument number where deep thought has clearly been given to the timings of the various parts. The result is a rich array of sounds soaring against one another complete with soft male/female harmonies. Closer The Bay of Pigs catches you on the blindside, with a rambling vocal about nothing in particular suddenly brought to life by strings, percussion, harmonies and euphoric hand-clapping. It is a joy. Shit name for a band, though.

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Inspired by the perverse choices in the Observer’s top 50 albums of the decade (Franz Ferdinand, Jamie T or Gorrillaz, anyone), I thought I’d have a scratch around my CD collection and see whether I could come up with a more refined and credible alternative. The only consideration for the list was playability, so while Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest is a decent, technically accomplished album, I would struggle to muster the enthusiasm to listen to it all in one sitting and therefore it won’t make the cut. I thought about eliminating any album that Pitchfork has awarded a score of 8 or more to, but realised that would leave me with few entries on the list; nothing against Pitchfork per se as it is still capable of uncovering good new music, but it’s unhealthy pre-occupation with the average-at-best Animal Collective is difficult to tolerate. I have attached some video links to songs by each artist, although not necessarily from the album in question. Honourable mentions for those not on the list include: The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, The Black Keys, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Arctic Monkeys, At The Drive In, Arcade Fire, Flight of the Conchords, Wilco, Grandaddy, The Hold Steady, Jeffrey Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, Tom Waits, Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, Rachel Unthank, Feist and Rik Waller (ok, not really). 

10. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III

On the basis of name-checking former WWF wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the Jay-Z aided Mr Carter, and seamless rhyming the words “yeast infection” and “geese erection” in Dr Carter, Lil Wayne’s ludicrous, multi –award winning Tha Carter III already deserves a place on this list. However, after a few listens, it is clear that this latest product of Lil Wayne’s surreal imagination is a beast of an album in its own right, a kind-of X-rated Alice in Wonderland where Cheshire cats and Mad Hatters are replaced by guns and bitches, and logic, order and reason devoid of place or purpose. Showy opener 3 Feat is an indicator of what is to follow as the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive revels in his lyrically absurdity (“abracadabra I’m up like Viagra”) amidst a hypnotic mix of strings and irregular drum loops. As the tracks skip by, future sounds are mashed together with little regard for genre while the lyrical lunacy never lets up (“blind eyes could look at me and see the truth, wonder if Stevie do?”). The results are both laugh-out-loud funny and seriously accomplished. Album stand outs include A Milli and Dr Carter, both of which feature Lil Wayne’s trademark staccato phrasing, while gospel-driven thumper Let The Beat Build does exactly what it says on the tin. 

9. Doves – Lost Souls

Back in 2000 when Lost Souls was released, music resembled a CJD-riddled beast standing in line for the abattoir; the airwaves spewed out nu-metal, the worst musical genre of all time, and people still listened to The Charlatans and Shed Seven (or Shit Seven, as I liked to call them). Just as I was ready to throw in the towel and put on Cigarettes and Alcohol, I heard radio saviours Mark and Lard play The Man Who Told Everything from Doves’ first album Lost Souls, and I almost wept with relief as my faith in music was restored. After buying the album, I was – and still am – amazed at how fresh it sounded, from ethereal slow-burner Firesuite and the folky hypnotism of Sea Song to the rampant celebration of The Cedar Room. The album is also far looser and experimental than its successors, but hints at the layered sound that would become the band’s hallmark in successor albums Last Broadcast and Some Cities. Following the underdog success of The Seldom Seen Kid last year, many critics are tipping Doves as the next Elbow i.e. ready to attain greater mainstream success. Perhaps rather selfishly, I hope they remain favourites of the informed, rather than the masses.

8. John Smith – Map or Direction

I have a lot of things to thank my girlfriend for; a well-honed loathing for American teen dramas, amateur theatre productions and Radio 1, to name but a few. On the plus side, however, she did introduce me to her old school friend, John Smith. An innovative acoustic guitar player from the buzzing hood of Dartmoor, John marries the virtuoso finger-picking styles of the late John Martyn and the evergreen Bert Jansch with the raspy soul of Ray Lamontagne. Map or Direction is John’s second album and was recorded in weird and wonderful places in Hicksville America, including a forest, the side of a lake and a motel toilet. The locations enhance each song, with sublime opener Invisible Boy underscored by whistling trees and chirping cicadas, the result as beautiful as two kittens wrestling (platonically) on a blanket of morning snow. The draw of John’s music is the sheer range of his ability, from frantic banjo-led lament Watch Her Die (recorded under a Louisiana church), to the conversational, percussive folk of Axe Mountain. Even songs which should have a more mainstream feel, such as A long Way For A Woman, standout with inspired chord progressions and tight fret work. Unsigned by choice, you can buy his CD safe in the knowledge that not a penny goes to the Man.

7. The National – Alligator

I first listened to this record driving across the Hover Damn en route to Vegas, readying myself for a feverish night of irresponsible gambling, overpriced bourbon and crystal meth. From memory, we crashed at midnight, stone-cold sober although we lived the dream in a tenuously vicarious manner, after seeing Vince from Entourage bungling three top-heavy blondes into a taxi outside the Bellagio, and some guy who may or may not have been Kanye West leading a ho-train through the MGM Grand. Anyway, back to the music. At first, I refused to take the band seriously in view of their terrible name, however one full listen and I swiftly back-tracked on my original thoughts. Key to the band’s appeal is the hang-dog baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger, a man with a voice so deep, he makes the late Barry White sound like a ruddy-faced pre-pubescent. While Berninger’s monotone but emotional delivery is a constant, the music is a lush feast of varying styles, with preppy indie-rock (Lit Up) rubbing shoulders with understated acoustic (Daughters of the Soho Riots), all exquisitely produced and arranged. The big surprise of the album is the raucous closer and stand-out, Mr November, driven by furious off-beat drumming and gorgeous scaling guitars, while Berninger finally cuts loose with his vocals, proclaiming in desperation to be “the great white hope” who “used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. It’s at once affecting and uplifting, and the sound of a band at the top of their game.

6. M Ward – Post-War

Finger-picking solo artist and member of the latest supergroup, Monsters of Folk, M Ward has spent the past decade honing his languid country sound to the point of legal patent. Listening to Monsters of Folks eponymous album, for example, it doesn’t take much more than a few seconds to identify M Ward creations such as Baby Boomer and Slow Down Jo, which feature his trademark top-string shuffles and bluesy chord changes. For his fifth studio album, Post-War, M Ward decided to broaden his sound by using a full-time backing band, and inviting cameos from alt-country stalwarts Jim James and Neko Case. The resultant record is tighter and more musically diverse than its predecessors, but no less celebratory. Opener Poison Cup is classic M Ward, a gorgeous slow-burning love song showcasing his cracked vocals amidst swirling strings, while later offerings such as Chinese Translation and the beautifully lazy Rollercoaster prove that easy-listening doesn’t necessarily mean Radio 2-friendly cack. However, the most fun is to be had in the up-tempo band numbers, such as To Go Home, a thumping celebration of life and love’s limitations with M Ward promising “to be true to you forever, or until I go home”, and the almost childish joy of Magic Trick, a short, throw-away ditty about a woman who disappears. Arguably, The Transfiguration of Vincent is a finer technical album, but Post-War shades it for sheer optimism and energy.

To be continued…

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