The Ones That Got Away #3

Sometimes it takes that old fart GARY STEEL weeks, months or even years to get around to reviewing albums. From the sublime to the frankly ridiculous, here’s another selection to dip into.

 

How could I almost have missed this one? Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar) is the album debut of Moses Sumney, and the minute you’re giving it your full attention it sweeps you up in its extreme intimacy and quiet yearning.

On one level it’s as if Marvin Gaye had applied the sensuality of Let’s Get It On to the worried sense of sadness that pervades What’s Going On? Gaye’s early ‘70s masterpieces rewrote the book on soul, and were singular works featuring his multi-layered, fragile falsetto in an orchestral context. Sumney seems to be reaching for a similar singularity of style and vision on Aromanticism, which restricts itself to a limited palette of instrumentation in which his close-miked falsetto is the clear focus. And it’s a wonderful instrument, which he navigates with skilful deployment of vibrato and a keen sense of melodic acrobatics that skids across notes in a fashion familiar to early jazz-influenced American songbook classics.

While there’s some of the sweetness and warmth of early Jill Jones and the confident octave-shredding of Al Green, this is not an R&B record, and the instrumental bones of the music – made up of an odd assortment of skeletal guitar lines, new age synth gloss and harps – indicate that what Sumney is reaching for here is the kind of beyond-genre introspection of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or John Martyn’s Solid Air. It would have benefited from expression of tonal colour and textural detail of those records.

Aromanticism seems to be a rumination on either the lack of romance in the modern world or his doomed reaction to the lie hidden just behind the myth of the Western model of romantic love. At times, it’s easy to feel his pain and to appreciate the complexity of a single person’s sexual life in 2018, but there’s a song called ‘Indulge Me’, and sometimes I felt that a bit of levity or wit might have prevented it from being at times bogged down in its doom-laden perspective.

The fact that Aromanticism is flawed doesn’t, however, prevent it from being one of the fresher, more surprising releases of 2017. Rating = 7/10

Robert Finley has a pleasingly raw blues holler that’s tonally similar to Captain Beefheart, (the texture of his voice and his style is like a cross between Beefheart and Tom Jones) but a lot more musical and nuanced and minus the Howlin’ Wolf affectations. Goin’ Platinum (Easy Eye Sound) starts out promisingly with a down-home blues track that benefits from Auerbach’s fat production, but quickly loses its impetus as it side-tracks into soul and rhythm and blues pastiche.

It’s not devoid of entertainment value, and that voice is a reminder of just how few baritones exist in popular music. But unlike say, Little Axe, where the blues tradition is mutated and played around with in order to genuinely renew the form, this album is as wholly predictable as it is needlessly eclectic.

I guess it sounds a lot better than the genuine period pieces it seeks to emulate, but there’s something stilted about a musical backing that tries so hard to be authentic. Rating = 5.5/10

I’ve read that Salad Boys’ second album, This Is Glue (Trouble In Mind/Southbound) is supposed to be ‘lo-fi’, but that’s just wrong. The thing is, it sounds just fine bounding out of a $30K stereo system: there’s plenty of detail and dynamic and little noticeable compression. It’s a typically stupid misuse of the word ‘lo-fi’ when in fact, it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘rough’, in the sense that it sounds a lot like an actual band in an acoustical space (aka a room) thrashing around in real time, and it’s a pleasing thing to listen to.

It’s all an illusion, of course. If you read interviews with frontman Joe Sampson he talks about the protracted recording of This Is Glue, and how he ended up producing and engineering the album and all the layering and plug-ins and what-have-you that were used.

Salad Boys appear to be a Christchurch-based three-piece signed to an American record label, Trouble In Mind. It’s easy to understand why the group – and this album in particular – would be of interest to a USA indie label, because it’s infused with an early-to-mid-1980s Flying Nun flavour without coming across like a pathetic remake/remodel.

While the group don’t sound like The Chills, the influence of that group is pervasive, and can be heard clearly on a song like ‘In Heaven’. Where Martin Phillipps’ deep melancholy is usually somewhat disguised by ‘happy’, child-like vocal melodies and musical filagrees, Salad Boys are overtly jaded and disenchanted, which occasionally gives them a hot flush of Australian band The Church.

This is alt-folk rock but with a few elements that make it more interesting than would otherwise appear. For instance, on ‘Velvet For Sale’, the rhythms are prototypical Neu!-style motoric, while occasionally they’ll add a guest violinist, or Sampson will replicate Mellotron-like sounds with some guitar gizmo.

It’s not going to change the world, but This Is Glue is combines comfort and angst in equal measure, which might prove just the right tonic for some. Rating = 7/10

 

Anyone remember Step Chant Unit’s ‘Painting Pictures’ 12-inch? Thought not. The Hamilton group’s one release – which made it briefly onto the national charts and even had its own video – came out through Wellington’s Jayrem records in 1985. It’s not bad, but nothing to get hung about. Step Chant Unit was Zed Brookes’ first band of note, after he’s more renowned for having recorded hundreds of other groups while running studios in the Waikato.

Brookes’ O Sweet Cacophony (Rhythmstick Records) came out in 2016 and hardly created a ripple. It was sent to me in late 2016 and I steadfastly resisted the opportunity to really listen to it for more than a year. Its lack of traction is a bit sad, really, because Brookes’ solo project – which came out of his time at MAINZ in Auckland where he worked with the late Dave McArtney – is actually a beautifully crafted and well-thought-out piece.

There’s a definite 1980s sound at work here but we’re not talking about the tinny pop that proliferated back then, but the acts that were making quality product. Brookes’ sing-speak vocal is often reminiscent of The Stranglers’ original singer/writer, Hugh Cornwall, as well as The The’s Matt Johnson, and actually, this project reeks of both the kind of pop smarts and dedicated craft both Cornwall and (especially) Johnson applied to their respective projects.

Make no mistake, this is a kind of pop music; just not pop music for today’s tween demographic. I don’t even really want to know whether the album is performed on ‘real’ instruments or is totally electronically generated, but it sounds like a hybrid that works seamlessly. The rhythms percolate in a way that will be familiar to the sound of late ‘80s/early ‘90s English music with a slight dance influence, especially the likes of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream.

Brookes knows how to vary things as well by having several vocal cameos, the better of which is by Jan Hellriegel on ‘Not The Girl You Were’, a song that pontificates on the inevitable evolution of a relationship over time as the rapture of hot romance fades.

‘Black Water’ reminds me of another 1980s icon, that stylish crooner David Sylvian, except that Brookes goes for a dulcet near-whisper instead on a piece that demonstrates his ability to write choruses that really catch the memory. The title track, on the other hand, comes on like a pop-oriented (complete with power-pop chorus) manifestation of Nine Inch Nails. ‘Can’t Align’ and ‘Last Call’ both somehow remind me of early New Order.

O Sweet Cacophony is produced in a nice, clean, sparkly fashion that’s pretty unhip in this age of premeditated, intentional lo-fi-means-we’re-cool, but that’s entirely in keeping with its 1980s vibe, and will see its music remain fresh long after music fans have realised that denigrating your sonic integrity on purpose just ain’t that cool of an idea.

I’m surprised this album didn’t get more attention on release, but it proves the point that now there’s just such an avalanche of music being made and pushed into an uncaring world all the time that anything not somehow enmeshed in the machinery just doesn’t stand a chance. Rating = 7/10

 

Speaking of lo-fi as a signifier of ‘cool’, Meghan Remy’s career as U.S. Girls has depended on it, until now. The sound on her 2015 4AD label debut, Half Free (she has six previous indie albums) was so bad that I couldn’t stand hearing it on a quality playback system, and had to retreat to a shitty computer speaker to try and assess its artistic merits.

The American singer/songwriter’s latest release, A Poem Unlimited (4AD) actually sounds okay, but if anything the sonic clarity exposes Remy’s inherent problems.

I read the PR (and a bunch of pathetically promotional reviews) that went on about what a brave political work this is, the inference being that it provides some kind of corollary to the Me Too movement with its brave critiques of men in power and the machinations that support the injustices of society. And as someone who supports equality and justice and desperately wants to live in a fairer world, the ideas behind her songs appealed.

Problem is, the music really sucks. I’ve tried to enjoy her singing – or the thin, toneless and textureless sound that passes for her singing – but it’s just such a joyless experience hearing someone whose vocal abilities are only marginally better than those of The Shaggs, and a whole lot less enjoyable. It’s almost like I imagine it would be like listening to early Patti Smith trying to sing Spector girl-group stuff: excruciating. Then there’s the much-vaunted lyrical content. Only problem is that her horribly multi-tracked voice is mixed in such a way as to make it impossible to decipher the lyrics, so the only recourse is to look them up online, only to find out that they’re pretty ordinary, really.

The music? Well, this time rather than those sonically degraded samples and backing tracks, she’s actually deployed some jazz guys from her new neighbourhood in Toronto, and yeah, there’s a bit of jazziness coming through now and then, and even a short sax wig-out on the last track, ‘Time’. Elsewhere though, it’s mainly an ungainly and seemingly arbitrary hybrid selection of sound-alike Blaxploitation soundtrack (‘Velvet For Sale’), nasty disco-pop (‘M.A.H’), old rock and roll tropes (‘Rage Of Plastics’) and the aforementioned girl group affectations.

Remy would probably argue that U.S. Girls is as much art project as music project, as if that somehow improves its cultural cache or makes it more listenable. It doesn’t. Rating = 4/10

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery to the person who is being imitated, but personally, I’d prefer not to have to listen to it. The Daptone label specialises in imitation, or replication, or whatever you want to call the slavish reanimation of a certain type of crummy old soul sound. While a few of its artists rose above mere emulation (the late Sharon Jones springs to mind), The James Hunter Six don’t do anything special enough to warrant making the effort.

Like a lot of the Daptone artists, I’m sure they make for a great, rowdy night out of dancing and drinking, but Whatever It Takes (Daptone Records/Southbound) fails to provide any evidence that they wouldn’t be doing what they do better had they limited their ambitions to being a decent covers band.

English singer James Hunter has a gin-soaked voice that handles those Sam Cook imitations with aplomb, but fails to engage with genuine heart-stopping moments of pure soul power that the late lamented star could handle with ease. His backing musicians have a lot going for them, and I’d happily hear an album of quirky instrumentals with this lineup, which features some particularly enjoyable stroking of Andrew Kingslow’s organ and some pleasant dual sax lines courtesy of Lee Badau and Damian Hand.

Unfortunately, the group are saddled with original compositions which are simply emulations of various styles associated with the early 1960s – proto rhythm and blues, chitin’ circuit grooves, and the type of rather sticky, rather safe soul-pop so prevalent back then. There’s not a shred of originality here, and it’s sad to know that the full resources of a label have gone into something as pointless as this.

Recorded in mono (of course, of course), it’s certainly a warm and well-rounded sound that lacks any of the digital brittleness of so many contemporary recordings. Sigh. Rating = 5/10

I find the favourable critical reputation of The National totally inexplicable. I really tried to like Sleep Well Beast (4AD) but it annoyed the fuck out of me. I kept on thinking: “This has got to be music for people who want to like Nick Cave but just find him too weird and too dark.”

I mean, throughout their latest it sounds like Matt Berninger just can’t be arsed enunciating his boring lyrics. And those lyrics, they’ve got about as much intellectual muscle as Coldplay on Ecstacy. Is the music intentionally anaemic? Am I missing something?

There’s just so much not to like about Sleep Well Beast, but leading the list would be the occasional irruption of The Edge-style guitars, the sterile synth sounds, and the dull lyrics. Oh, I mentioned those lyrics already? On ‘Walk It Back’ he groans: “I’m always thinking about useless things” and I feel like sending back an operative volley that goes something like: “But you don’t have to turn your rancid thoughts into stupid lyrics, do you, dumb ass?!”

On ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ there’s the sense that they have something, you know… important to say, but they kill the vibe stone dead with the backing singer ‘woo-woos’ and the bog standard guitars.

They certainly love that faux old-time gospel feel that Nick Cave has rested his laurels on for too many years, but who needs yet another pretender?

I’ll admit that it has small moments where I pricked my ears up and thought: “This is alright. Why can’t we have more of that!?” The repetitive desolation of ‘Empire Line’, the chattering drums machines of ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, and one great song title: ‘Darkside Of The Gym’.

Otherwise, it’s got me baffled. I wonder when the inevitable collab with Coldplay and U2 will occur? Rating = 4/10

 

 

 

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