A nearly new regular column in which freaky Peter Kearns casts a spell on a bunch of new album releases! You’ll wake up screaming!
One reader recently said they didn’t understand some of the terminology I use. It’s a fair comment. I would like for any musicians reading this to get something out of it, but equally for the reader with a general interest or curiosity to also take something away. Generally, I find reviewing to be a good playing field to bring up virtually anything at all. It’s a fine line between being understandable and abstruse. But I would hope you might be inspired to explore some references further. After all, music and its history are still fascinating subjects. If it all stopped tomorrow, we’d still have oodles of musical subject matter for decades to come. Warning: Minor moments of audio gobbledygook coming below.
The minor keys of the folk music of Asaf Avidan’s homeland of Israel colour this fusion of western pop, world music instrumentation and dramatic orchestration resembling a John Barry 1960s movie soundtrack. The token pop songs, though worthy, are dispensed with early, followed by dark strident pieces reflecting themes of awareness and wisdom when caught in the fray, and distrust of pretenders that hide in plain sight. Overshadowing all is that voice, at once high, compelling and pointed, as if reprimanding your desire to leave before giving you your wings. It combines the catch-me-if-you-can elusiveness of Earth Kitt with the melancholy resolve of Shirley Bassey – very unusual for a male voice. On ‘The Labyrinth Song’, Asaf sounds like a possible future Regina Spektor after decades consuming cigarettes and whiskey. This entire concoction is fascinating and is received as being totally natural with not a hint of contrivance. A-
Former Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman aka Father John Misty described this concept as being about himself “engaging in all manner of regrettable behaviour”. So considering the trouble taken to list his numerous transgressions, you’d have thought more care would’ve been taken in order to make meaning clear. Take this example from ‘Holy Shit’: “Ancient holy wars, Dead religions, holocausts, New regimes, old ideas, That’s now myth, that’s now real”. An accomplished lyricist would develop something in connection with one or more of these solid ideas rather than merely listing them. That shopping list bears a lot of wasted opportunity.
The occasional profanity also serves to obscure the point and just plain irritate. I’m not against profanity in songs, far from it. But like any word, its use should be perfect for the moment, and not a feeble attention-getting device. But then, Father M did write ‘Holy Shit’ on his wedding day – sometimes a great song’s just gotta come out – so I guess he was pressed for time.
In tandem with the release of I Love You, Honeybear, the artist’s label Sub Pop released the following official statement:
“Due to its length and the wide audio spectrum of the recording, we at Sub Pop, together with Father John Misty, decided that the album sounded much better cut at 45 RPM over 2 pieces of vinyl. Though we all prefer the listening experience of a single piece of vinyl, we decided in this case to prioritise audio quality (an admittedly very subjective determination).”
Audio sound quality is subjective? I don’t think so. Audio fidelity is either high quality or it’s not. As for the ‘wide’ audio spectrum they mention – this is sheer hype. The spectrum itself, at least for the human ear, is as wide as from 20hz-20khz, that’s it. Mention it if the audio band is narrower than that, Sub-Poppers, but don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes by promising me something impossibly larger than life please.
Ironically, in this case the sound quality is indeed superior to the music, regardless of the praise a string of stateside critics are heaping on Papa John’s sincere, occasionally pretty but ultimately underwhelming dud. There are high points – for example, the accomplished lead vocals carry the light song-writing in an Andrew-Gold-sings-John-Denver kind of way. But I can imagine the pleasant voice here on some really strong material. We’d really have something then. Meeehh, this record got me all bent out of shape. I hope the wind doesn’t change. C-
I first became enamoured with country/swamp musician Jim White after hearing the growling fretless bass and evil tremolos of ‘Still Waters’ from his 2004 documentary Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Since then his music has continued to pervade a dark, twisted American-gothic romance that spits humour in one eye and skewers the other. On this collaboration with Georgia’s Packway Handle Band, the humour is to the fore. Or maybe it just seems that way due to the lightness of the bluegrass quintet accompaniment. Still, there’s no denying a line like, “A bar is just a church where they serve beer”, or the killer, “Gravity won’t fail but you will let me down”. Other lyrics are delightfully ambiguous such as the following entire lyric; “Blood on the fiddle, blood on the bow, Blood on the fiddle, I told you so, Blood on the fiddle, you oughta know, Blood on the fiddle, let’s go let’s go”. Crucial information is being left out. Maybe it has something to do with one of those skewers. B
It’s doubtful that any of us go to Madonna in search of philosophy or modesty, but failed attempts at both still appear. On the best song here, ‘Joan Of Arc’, Madonna says she’s not Joan of Arc, but she sure as hell has been beatified on most of these songs. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.) Joan of Arc was posthumously beatified and eventually canonised, which all basically means the big cheeses ultimately forgave her. This could be what Madge expects for herself if the line ‘I’m not Joan of Arc, not yet’ is anything to go by. To attempt to decipher these lyrics as Madonna’s own words could be a mistake considering half her stuff has four or five authors. Even part of a seemingly autobiographical lyric like ‘Joan Of Arc’ coming from a collaborator’s pen makes it unclear who said what and reeks of putting words in her mouth. Suffice it to say, Madonna’s lyrical content only strengthened when her ever-elevating success provided her with a life that became interesting song fodder. Though not a singer/songwriter per se, her best songs are the ones where it seems she’s trying to figure herself out. So in spite of the present preponderance of weaker material, sleep-inducing beats, autotune, the obligatory Nicki Minaj duet, and the unbelievable lyrical admission that critics can make her cry, I’ll refrain from pointing the bony finger at Madonna too much, even though I am dying to give her a poke. C
This time out The Unthanks recorded in their own facility – an unused Northumberland granary building, and released on their own label despite offers to continue with majors. After two years of work, the results reveal music of a traditional folk base that lifts off to an ever-widening panoptic aerial landscape view. The use of orchestra gives the proceedings a real depth and avoids the landlock that can arise from a glut of traditional characters like Celtic violin trills and up-tempo compound time, both of which are kept to a tasteful minimum and pretty much saved for the instrumental closer, ‘Waiting’. But even then the inventive combination of glockenspiel and tabla offsets them.
Mount The Air is pristinely recorded and the final mastering EQ is beautiful. But at around the 7m:30s mark in ‘Foundling’, the volume brick wall obviously kicks in and temporarily destroys the dynamics. Over the past decade this sonic decline has become widespread. When an industry practice becomes ingrained in this way, it’s those down the line that suffer most – those like The Unthanks sweating their butts off building studios so they can control their work, only to get to mastering time and have the music squeezed through a straw for the sake of a few more db of over-all level. It’s particularly offensive in acoustic music of this nature. However, in this case its effect is sporadic and momentary and doesn’t infect the album quality as a whole – one of those qualities being the ability to restrain the desire to over-decorate, enabling the music’s natural translucence. A-
Though augmented by additional musicians including the album’s producer and Steely Dan trumpeter, Michael Leonheart, the debut of Invisible Familiars (Sean Lennon’s recent backing band) sounds more like band leader Jared Samuel is busting out on a solo record. It has the aloof solitary goulash of ‘80s Prince at his most eccentric, and the happy concern of an Adrian Belew water-colour like Mr. Music Head. All is reined in by a tight pop approach and the clear ability to know when to stop adding building blocks. An additional flare for a Neil Finn-esque hook makes Disturbing Wildlife’s most accessible moments ineffably infectious. A happy marriage of commerce and the clever. One to watch. A- PETER KEARNS