In which that old sourpuss GARY STEEL bends his tattered ears in the direction of his Dad-rock wind-up gramophone to assess a selection of the latest sounds.
It was an awkward moment in time and hardly anyone mentions it now, but after punk and before synth-pop there were two kinds of bands negotiating the times and changing circumstances: post-punkers getting conceptually and musically ambitious, and post-proggers reigning in their pretensions.
The post-proggers found themselves in a world openly hostile to 18-minute keyboard solos and hour-long suites about goblins and dragons, and many musicians who had grown up with prog were clever enough to know how to carry some of the genre’s aesthetics through to a punk-influenced faux-genre called new wave.
Great examples abound, from The Stranglers to XTC through to The Police and lesser-known but fantastic groups like Random Hold.
Auckland band Mecuzine sound like they’re cut from the same cloth, although their Facebook page inexplicably describes its sound as ‘indie rock’. These seasoned musicians are said to have spent time with bands as diverse as Hello Sailor and The Cure, as well as National Anthem (who?), Shade (who?), Child (who?) and First Base (who?) but there’s nothing on the website or Facebook page to explain who, what or where.
Cutting Strings (no label) is the group’s debut album and it makes for an enjoyable listen. It’s increasingly rare to encounter this kind of old-fashioned rock sound – propulsive and slightly dramatic and not even a hint of NZ alt-rock jangle-folk guitars.
The first song, ‘Jump The Rope’, is a chunky piece with a solid bottom-end and a slight air of mystery that conjures visions of Steven Wilson and mid-period Stranglers. You sense that these guys can actually play, and it’s the keyboard more than anything that takes an old bastard like myself right back to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s new wave sound.
‘Breaking Hearts’ is only the second song and it almost qualifies as a ballad, which is too bad. In terms of sequencing, the third of fourth song would have been a much better time to pull back from the rock momentum. If anything, this song reminds me of Australian band Hunters & Collectors after they started going a bit soft, but it doesn’t have the resonance of a song like ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ and its lyrics are a little bland.
Over the course of its 10 songs there’s almost too much variety, in the sense that the band never quite establishes its sound. ‘Go’ sounds like its writers have spent a lot of time listening to mid-‘80s depressive Matt Johnson/The The, but it works. ‘All In Chains’ appears to be a lament about our lives being dominated by humdrum jobs. I’m all in favour of any song that kicks against institutionalised slavery, so that one gets the thumbs up. But there’s also a tendency to fall back into bland lyric phrases, comfortably familiar chord progressions and predictable chorus patterns that might be viewed as a saving grace for some but will be anathema to those (like me) who look for innovation in music.
Mecuzine play well and their professionalism makes Cutting Strings a fair listen, especially when they’re negotiating a fretless bass run or dabbling in a short piano solo, but they’re not well-defined enough to leave the impression I’m sure they’re hoping for. And sadly, despite a recording that doesn’t lack for clarity, because of an engineering boo-boo (presumably) the kick-drum is so damn loud that it’s totally overwhelming. This criticism is coming from someone who loves bass, and would love to have the whole of rock-era music remixed to bring the bass and drums up in the mix, but the constant sonic impact of the big bulging bass on this record gets tiring really quickly. Rating = 6/10
* Cutting Strings is released on Friday July 13, and the album release party is at Auckland’s Dogs Bollix on the same day.
How to create an impediment to consumer discovery by coming up with a really off-putting title! Okay, deep breath, then: Thomas Bartlett And Nico Muhly/Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music (Nonesuch/Warner). And if you want to get even more confused, try reading about this project. Then listen to it. Um, Javanese? Really?
It turns out that the Javanese connection is tangential at best. Yes, there are a few exotic Balinese touches (gongs, chimes) but this is really an arty singer-songwriter record that at times recalls the moody emotional terrain of Scottish group, The Blue Nile.
Some of its tracks feature multiple pianos or gentle, electronic facsimiles there of, but there are also touches of glitch electronics, orchestrations by the talented Nico Muhly, and mostly, gently sung songs. I presume that these songs (and the singing thereof) is the work of Thomas Bartlett of the group Doveman.
This may be a product of New York’s cutting edge avant-garde, hence the ridiculous title, but it’s really a kind of singer-songwriter project that incorporates all of the above and inevitably, recalls classical minimalism just as much as it hints at Javanese ceremonial music. Rating = 7/10
Parquet Courts really missed the boat, even the second time round. The post-punk revival had all but fizzled out by the time the New York group released their debut in 2010, and its taken five subsequent albums to get around to even testing the water stylistically.
On Wide Awake (Rough Trade) they hire Danger Mouse to fatten up the sound and to help them figure out how to get a little groove on and it works, sort of. It’s on the second track, ‘Violence’, that the funk influence starts to infiltrate, but it’s only towards the end of the track that the groove – and the wiggly synth line – asserts itself. Their punk-funk try-out is back on ‘Normalization’, and goes the whole hog on ‘Wide Awake’, which sounds like Supergroove without the cultural cringe.
That’s about it, though. Most of the time Parquet Courts retreat to a post-punk sound that’s somewhere between the throaty voice and football sing-alongs of The Clash and the chunky rock of The Stranglers. The two singers are reliably yobbish in a way that sounds more English than American and the music is fairly simple, but without being carbon-copyists.
There are also a few other deviations from the norm. ‘Before The Water Gets Too High’ – with its skeletal construction and cheap synth – inevitably recalls Young Marble Giants and ‘Back To Earth’ sounds like The Stranglers after they got a bit of New Romantic in them in the early ‘80s.
While Wide Awake is a transitional album, and by no means a classic, there’s something genuinely enjoyable about these guys that’s hard to put your finger on. Perhaps it’s simply that it feels alive, and that the sound of it all isn’t simply one-dimensional. Rating = 6.5/10
Virginia Wing is an English dream-pop duo (formerly a trio) on their third album, Ecstatic Arrow (Fire/Southbound), which appears to be an attempt to expand their sound beyond the confines of a rather limp genre.
Their voices are artless and listless and at times horribly compressed, and I couldn’t help feeling that if they’d been around in the 1980s they’d have been one of those underperforming, musically malnourished indie groups that never seemed to be bothered learning more than a chord or two. The entirely electronic sound palette is unconvincing, and seems to consist of pre-sets and simple sequences that a computer could have automatically generated for them. In a word, it feels lazy.
Ecstatic Arrow isn’t terrible but neither is it particularly stimulating. It’s easy to imagine them performing on the outro sequence of one of the episodes of the 2017 Twin Peaks. You know the drill: blank couple standing distracted, blankly singing while single fingers hit simple note sequences/triggers on their synths. Rating = 5/10
Back in the ‘90s guitarist Ry Cooder raised awareness of the rich heritage of AfroCuban music by producing albums with veteran musicians (Buena Vista Social Club, Afro-Cuban Allstars). It was a revelation for many to discover this rootsy, unpretentious seam of jazz-influenced music, which had become somewhat neglected since America’s embargo on socialist Cuba.
Anyone wanting a further fix of Afro-Cuban music from a younger generation might find themselves initially disappointed with the work of Harold López-Nussa, whose Un Dia Cualquiera (Mack Avenue/Southbound) has an audiophile gloss to its sound together with a much more overt jazz influence. Take the time to soak up the whole album, though, and it’s clear that the young pianist/composer is very much in touch with tradition.
It’s a beautifully crisp recording, which should appeal to Witchdoctor’s many hi-fi freaks, but the audio fidelity never compromises the deep soul of this music. López-Nussa is academy-trained and won awards for classical performance before he ever dipped his fingers into the improvisatory world of jazz or started mining the music of his own culture. It’s not surprising, then, that his playing tends to sound like 50 fingers on a keyboard – it’s florid and expansive and there’s a pronounced classical influence in some of his own pieces, but by the same token, it never sounds showy just for the sake of it.
The entirety of Un Dia Cualquiera (Just Another Day) is achieved with just a trio format: no guest musicians, singers, rappers, dancers or clowns. And for that we can be grateful. Its 11 tracks display an eclectic range, but work together seamlessly as a whole, and while a chunk of them are composed by López-Nussa, he also pays tribute to vintage Cuban composer Ernest Lecuona’s work on two tracks, one of the highlights being the supremely graceful and fluid ‘Danza de los Nanigos’.
Another highlight is the self-composed ‘Elegua’, on which López-Nussa apparently translates bata drum rhythms and chants for a Yoruba diety to a jazz-trio format (you read it here first) to create a dynamic showstopper with one of the coolest bass riffs I’ve heard in yonks.
It’s an excellent album, and while it might lack a little of the grit and spit of historic Cuban music it makes up for that in a virtuosic performance that’s a pleasure to experience. Rating = 8/10