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.
I love the fact that Merrill Garbus is a boundary-pushing, gender-blurring female warrior who’s proud of her facial hair, and the fact that I Can Feel You… (4AD) – the fourth album by her group Tune-Yards – features songs about feminism, race intolerance and identity politics. It’s just a pity that the music is so dire.
No doubt those who identify most strongly with what she’s hollering about will make a special effort to love it, but at its best, I Can Feel You… is a fairly hum-drum type of electro-disco.
But it’s Garbus’s horribly toppy vocals that trip my fight or flight reflex. While there are many vaguely annoying singers around at the moment, hers is particularly irritating, and in combination with the threadbare musical aesthetic makes for a pretty poor slab of vinyl. Rating = 3/10
Finn Scholes is clearly an idiosyncratic young man who looks at life through a refreshing and some might claim eccentric lens. He plays trumpet, tuba, various keyboards and pitched percussion on his latest creation, The New King (No Label), which happens to be the second album by his pleasingly named group, Carnivorous Plant Society.
It’s a good deal more disciplined than CPS’s occasionally over-reaching self-titled debut, achieves lift-off without any of its faltering moments, and is instrumentally richer, yet without sacrificing any of the charm.
But what is it, exactly? The New King is a set of (mostly) instrumentals that sound like the music for a children’s imaginary movie, a set of small group orchestrations that happily fuse one style with another. It’s not untypical to hear a ‘scary’ synth effect complemented by an early ‘60s-style guitar twang, or mellow mallets battling it out with chirping recorders.
This time, Scholes has attempted to vary the formula by adding a few spoken narrations and a few guest vocals by the likes of Don McGlashan, Lawrence Arabia and Hollie Fullbrook.
Latino motifs vie with the odd lick of trumpet, clomping percussion or parping tubas, which gave the odd whiff of Morricone. But Scholes seems uninterested in authenticity and will happily mix and match seemingly ill-matched styles and sounds that somehow work anyway.
Occasionally it all lapses a bit too much into film or television soundtrack territory but ultimately, there’s enough personality to give it a nicely skewed perspective on the world, and it’s lightly spiced by humming femmes, and the occasional irruption of unexpected organ or walking bass lines. Rating = 7/10
I’m told that Sonny Smith has been around for decades, and that before Rod For Your Love (Easy Eye Sound/Warner) he’d already released 10 albums that no one had ever heard of. Good on him. Now he’s got a short 10-track album with a ‘name’ producer (Dan Auerbach) that is so slim on ideas or memorable songs that you wonder why anyone bothered.
Smith’s songs are slight wee things that often have a Byrds-like jangle to them. On ‘More Bad Times’ he sings: “Everything they say… it bores me to tears.” I feel much the same way about this album. Rating = 4/10
And then there’s Suuns, whose Felt (Secretly Canadian) is my favourite album of the year so far. It’s the kind of album that puts just about everything around it in the shade, because its personality is so strong, and it’s such a defining statement. And it’s the hardest thing to review. This came out back in March and I’ve been soaking up the review disc since January, and I still don’t quite know how to explain why it’s so great, except to say that listening to it is both a challenging and gratifying experience and that it surprises the listener at every turn with a whole set of welcome provocations.
There’s something of the adventurous sonic imprint of bands like The Residents and The Flying Lizards about Suuns, but of course the technology they use is utterly different. Still, they revel in abstruse use of techniques that challenge our preconceptions about what is authentic with odd, cartoon-like voices and unexpected irruptions of different incompatible style-tics.
Maybe I’m just a musical sadomasochist, but a big plus for me is that I actually enjoyed the unexpected sonic barrages and the punk attitude and the sound itself, which plays around with lo-fi aesthetics but actually has a sonic integrity that a group like UMO could take cues from. There are groups that are so relentlessly dissonant that listening to the music becomes a chore, and a tiring one at that. Suuns aren’t like that.
But if you’re a person who likes conventional song structures and a regular/predictable beat, then Felt ain’t for you, buddy. Right from the get-go on ‘Look No Further’ they’re busting out with odd time signatures, time-stretched guitar and funny voices, and exploiting the mixing console to get cool emphasis on drums and especially, cymbals. ‘X-ALT’, however, destroys any preconceptions with a pounding techno beat, odd guitar arpeggiations and more. It’s like a techno/rockabilly fusion with a mad free jazz sax break, to which they add (eventually) Ben Shemie’s becalming, almost Thom Yorke-lite vocals. Phew.
They’re punks by any other name, really. That is, they’ve taken the energy and musical potential of punk and experimented with it just like so many post-punk groups did at the time, except what Suuns do isn’t just a re-run like so many of those early 2000s post-punk-inspired bands.
There’s a couldn’t-give-a-fuck transgressional vibe to a song like ‘Baseline’ that summons up the bent spirit of Throbbing Gristle, then we get to ‘After The Fall’ with what sound like surging degraded Mellotrons and Shemie’s sad sneer of a voice and an oddly enticing yet mind-bending drone and a cool drum stomp and cooler stereo guitar effects. Turn it up!
Felt is a record that you can never really quite grasp onto and quantify and for that reason it keeps reverberating enticingly over extended listening. It really is something else, and I don’t know why there aren’t more groups out there doing this kind of brave, imaginative stuff. Rating = 9/10
Delaney Davidson is the Kiwi singer-songwriter the critics love to love. Lacking the angelic voice of his former collaborator Marlon Williams, his is a much craggier, dark-edged talent, but like both Williams and Aldous Harding, he’s in great demand internationally.
Shining Day (Rough Diamond/Southbound) is a typically beautifully recorded and engineered piece of sonic art from Ben Edwards, but it’s a little hard to grasp its totality, given its various styles and approaches, from the cornball country of ‘Strange I Know’ through the dirty, down and mean Iggy Pop-style rock of ‘What Am I Doing Wrong?’ (featuring Neil Finn!) and the filtered Spector sound and Flamin’ Groovies retro rock and roll stylings of ‘Such A Loser’ and… well, you get the point?
If there’s a noticeable change or evolution it’s Davidson’s move towards a much more rock-based sound, and it suits him on tracks like ‘Ever Gonna See’ with its big drums and distorted vocals. On ‘The World Of Mine’ (which features SJD) it’s all Lee Hazelwood inflections and twangy guitars, however, so he’s always moving back to and away again from his comfort zone.
It’s a worthy album with several very good songs but for all that, never seems to aspire to greatness or overall consistency. Rating = 6.5/10
Commercial Grates is a long, long double album (30 songs, no less) of ‘radio cuts celebrating 25 years’ of Kaikoura’s favourite reggae sons, Salmonella Dub. It’s hard to figure out what they mean by ‘radio cuts’ except that it’s possibly their terminology for singles, or songs that were edited or remixed specifically for radio, but in the end the project doubles as a sequential best-of that starts with the present and works its way back all the way to their beginnings in 1995.
Salmonella Dub deserve credit for instigating a new thing way back then, years before Wellington became the cultural capital for dub-influenced acts like Trinity Roots and Fat Freddy’s Drop. They were clearly keen to tap into the zeitgeist and their early material finds them trying their hand at then-current styles like drum’n’bass and techno, while later tracks sometimes sound like they’re going to morph into the slamming stadium sound of Shapeshifter any moment.
My issue with SD back then and now is that it seemed much of their energy went into providing live entertainment while their musical aesthetics were never developed to the point where they were artistically stretched. As a live unit they had an almost rock-band energy that audiences loved, but festival pleasers seldom galvanise into creatively focused recording units.
The band – and many of their fans – would disagree with me, and I’m just one asshole howling my opinions into the wind, but man, listening all the way through Commercial Grates was a chore. Ironically, my favourite tracks were their earliest. The Technova mix of 1995 song ‘THC Winter’ is more sonically interesting by miles than their later work, and ‘Drunken Monkey’ (’97) is unpredictable and non-derivative.
Quite a chunk of running time exposes SD as a slightly more adventurous Kiwi iteration of UB40. Listen to ‘Slide’ or ‘Longtime’ (2003) and tell me otherwise. On a song like ‘Problems’, that relaxed UB40 skank works for them, and if they’d stayed with that style their whole career at least they’d have a body of work that audiences could depend on for relaxed, weed-enhanced good times. But, for reasons known only to them, they allowed Tiki Taane to do that horrible metallic robo-voice, which utterly ruins a bunch of these tracks.
The vocals have always been SD’s weakest point, and although Taane can be a capable vocalist, their tracks are bulging with raps so bad that the cultural cringe makes a successful comeback, as well as song lyrics that are so bland that it’s hard to understand why they weren’t vetoed by the body corporate.
Sadly, it’s the first disc (and most recent recordings) that really suffer. So much of this is generic festival dub. Possibly the nadir is reached with ‘Dub Shakes’ (2009) with its monotone and characterless vocals and snapping beats that squeeze all the life out of their sound. No, I take it back: ‘Walk Into Your Mind’ does the same thing but it’s even worse. There are a few tracks from the very pleasant Heal Me album, their first without Taane. This is the only SD album in my collection, mainly because they stick to the dub-reggae template and it’s beautifully produced/engineered and the vocals, though not strong, are nicely harmonised.
Overall, Commercial Grates is the best and worst of Salmonella Dub, a band that seems to bend to whoever they’re being produced by (the Paddy Free tracks sound a little like Pitch Black at times) and through a long career have never quite figured out how to do a Fat Freddys and get their own thing going. Rating = 5/10
Tigran Hamasyan’s For Gyumri (Nonesuch/Warner) has been one of the quiet highlights of my listening pleasures so far this year. This mini-album follow-up to last year’s equally ravishing An Ancient Observer melds Armenian folk melodies with ECM chamber jazz, and the result is 30 minutes of utterly gorgeous, deeply felt music that feels more like a personal rumination than anything.
Hamasyan’s instrument is the piano, and at times his disarmingly lyrical playing reminds me of Chick Corea on his two great ECM albums of the early ‘70s, Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 & 2, where elements of classical, folk, Latin and jazz all intermingled on a close-recorded, intimate set.
Like Keith Jarrett, Hamasyan tends to hum along as he plays, but unlike Jarrett, this feels entirely natural and never distracts from the music. Happily, Hamasyan is also no traditionalist: on ‘Rays Of Light’, for instance, he adds subtly tweaked electronics to enhance the dreamlike feel. He’s clearly something of a virtuoso, but never shows off. On ‘Self-Portrait’ he plays so fast it reminds me of Conlon Nancarrow’s compositions for player pianos, but despite its bustling speed there’s nothing automata-like about anything Hamasyan does.
‘Revolving Prayer’ is the key track and at 12:03 it’s something of an epic. Cock an ear to this and you’ll hear many of the qualities that are great about Hamasyan: he’s melodic but never in an easy, pat fashion, he’s expressive but never too demonstratively so, he’s fluid but capable of abrupt time changes, and in this composition he manages both without destroying the flow. How cool is that? Rating = 9/10