A new regular column in which freaky Peter Kearns casts a spell on a bunch of new album releases! You’ll wake up screaming!
Sounding at times like Robert Smith on steroids with ’70s-era Sparks as his backing band, Sleater-Kinney skid back into our consciousness just stopping short of colliding. A decade since their last new material, rather than flagging, these girls are tearing up the joint. This fiery Washington State unit propelled by Carrie Brownstein, perform with skills that are a tad slick for something categorized as punk. They’re more like the 1978 post-punk poppers who waved fists and banners bearing a punk emblem. They’re very musical, and additionally the high energy level should surely satisfy the average punk nut. The early New York punk groups and the Sex Pistols (at least at the beginning) had an even energy/talent quota too – It was only in the immediate painful aftermath that punk sonically delivered on its promise that any guy on the street could be in a band, before the genre descended into fat-cat-satisfying, mascara-wearing, new romantic mung. One was worse than the other depending on your viewpoint. But the period between the punks and the make-up exposed some real magic, at least to my ears. Hearing Sleater-Kinney’s opener here, ‘Price Tag’, is like stumbling on one of those obscure old post-punk single flops of 1980: It’s harmonically interesting, fast, brief, and exciting. In fact the album as a whole arrives, makes its point, and before you know it the show is over. In the ‘10s we’ve devolved from ‘anyone can be in a band’ to ‘everyone thinks they can make a record’. But the vast majority will never make one as accomplished in its field as No Cities To Love. B+
Okay, now we’re talkin’. Someone who’s on album number nine, not to mention his swag of priors with Camper Van Beethoven and Monks Of Doom. Victor switches it up and cruises around in country here. He moves from swamp to bluegrass and back quite effortlessly, incorporating different shades of the idiom. Hard To See Trouble Coming is colourful but very dark in places, like when it spreads itself into an alt-rock edge on ‘All Of This Is Mine’, which feels like you’re parched in a California desert sunset on the hottest night of the year. Krummenacher and producer Bruce Kaplan have summoned a fine entity from the most humid swamp I’ve heard since Jim White. A-
There’s a quiet self-effacing intellect lurking within the songs of Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian. I was going to use the word ‘existentialism’ but I thought better of it. After all it just means every-day stuff, right? This potentially dangerous and pretentious substance bubbles just under the innocent Cracklin’ Rosie pop veneer of these gems, polished just enough to not make a big deal of themselves by sparkling too much. Subtle hooks are the order of the day. Sarah Martin’s vocal delivery flirts with the memory of classic Prefab Sprout in much the same way as did the sultry voice of that band’s Wendy Smith. The album builds, kind of tails off in the second half, but all-in-all is a satisfying listen. If the British street life weaved through the tense augmentations of The Electric Soft Parade or Squeeze are too clever for you, Belle and Sebastian might just be the ticket. B+
As if Chris Rea was singing Doors songs, Dan Mangan’s characterful voice slides around these moody pieces like silk. If you wander around enough, you might even imagine a fleeting skewed reflection of fellow Canadian Bruce Cockburn in this sonic house of mirrors. Hauntingly brooding and chilly, Club Meds lacks the momentary highlights and dark-mood alleviation that some Stratocaster licks could provide to help break the monotony of the often constant guitar-neck-strangling that scrapes over these songs like barbed wire around your ear lobes. But hey, you don’t always expect to see a heart-throb in an art house movie. The thing is – and this is might be a creative choice but definitely not a failing – that the album has a focus on mood over song substance, which is a real thing now. But what a mood it is. A-
To open What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, The Decemberists literally address their audience with ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’. The irony is palpable and the humour is novel. I can’t recall another lyrical self-reference in recent history that didn’t come in rap form. It feels new. (And they said it had all been done.). The likely accidental originality is refreshing in a time when everyone seems to either wear their influences on their sleeves or betray the secret with singing characteristics lifted from someone else’s vocal cords. From the second song onwards, most of the first half is an outing of indie-pop tokens succumbing to more than a smidgen of an REM ingredient, minus their power. But close to half-way, the record breaks out into The Decemberists’ own brand of folk tales proper, pretty much for the remainder of the ride. It is a pleasant journey, but unfortunately one with few memorable landmarks. B-
The predominantly pentatonic melodies of the Absent Fathers country recipe lull the sometimes emotional lyrical sentiments into a submission repetitively bordering on boredom. That’s to say that the dominant 7th element which gives the blues scale its over-riding power is missing from even the blues influenced songs here. The result is a character who when singing of his troubles, actually doesn’t sound too disturbed by them. Maybe that’s the point. Better that than pushing into condescending spirit-lifting bunkum, which this album thankfully does not. It’s a strange line. However you define it, the present aesthetic plays it very safe indeed and wouldn’t be too distracting over dinner. But if you’re a hi-fi buff, it would be well worth getting up from the dinner table and turning your amp up if only to luxuriate in that big fat beautiful snare drum working your crossover. C.