GARY STEEL reviews ace albums by Myele Manzanza, Faye Webster and Aldous Harding along with a few real turds.
Despite its sometimes-arch over-intellectualism, Holly Herndon’s last album – 2015’s Platform – worked on its own terms as a very clever form of sliced and diced electronic pop. Sure, you could study its ideas and its execution and probably find levels of detail, but you could also just enjoy the way the beats slammed and stuttered, and how the ghost-in-the-machine vocal fragments contributed to an idea of song, no matter how fragmented and desiccated.
“I’m all for outrageous and unwieldy concept albums, but to these ears, Proto sounds pretentious and unenticing”
No such luck with Proto (4AD), an album where Herndon’s runaway ambition far exceeds the album’s musical values. It’s some sort of concept about the birth of an AI baby that I just couldn’t get my tired head around, and listening to it dissuaded me from putting in the requisite effort to understand it.
I’m all for outrageous and unwieldy concept albums, but to these ears, Proto sounded about as pretentious and unenticing as the last few records by that Radiohead-gone progressive pomp trio, Muse. But at least with Muse you don’t have to have a Masters in arch art-concept wank to understand what the fuck they’re talking about.
Herndon still turns out the odd pop tune on Proto but instead of the intricate cut-ups of Platform there’s more of an emphasis on glowing, intentionally alien sounds, with the vocals coming across like an AI Enya. It’s all at once familiar and audacious and a little bit ridiculous with its fake medieval church song vibe, and it seemed to just go on and on until I desperately wanted to shut it down, never to return.
Which is a bit sad, really, because I’m open to the idea that there may be rich seams to explore on Proto that I’ll never get to simply because I dislike it so much that I can’t quite bring myself to listen again. Rating = 6/10
Faye Webster is a much simpler proposition. Like most young people with the hormonal imperative in its peak years, the obsession here is love, sex and especially, lost love and yearning for love and probably more sex. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that but oh my, how she sings it!
The press release goes on about Webster being influenced by R&B on Atlanta Millionaires Club (Secretly Canadian) and one track features a cameo by a rapper called Father, but really, this is a very white kind of candy confection that’s closer to The Carpenters’ suburban neuroses than to anything vaguely soulful in the normal usage of the word.
“The lolly on top is Webster’s voice, the mere sound of which could speed up the production of determined sperm in a young male”
I’m in two minds about this album because it’s so light and fluffy and unchallenging that it could pale really quickly, yet on the other hand it’s also fundamentally appealing. It’s almost the complete opposite to the Herndon album, a slight wee thing that shuffles along on a bouncy bed of pedal steel guitar and occasionally a bit of flute or sax and a sound that’s like an attempt to recreate the light folk-rock of The Mamas & Papas.
The lolly on top and easily the most enticing thing about this slight album is Webster’s voice, the mere sound of which could speed up the production of determined sperm in a young male. It’s a cute, honey-kissed voice belonging to a young woman who always seems to be sitting in a room rueing the end of something or predicting its imminent end or remembering when things were still on the boil.
Atlanta Millionaires Club is a very attractive proposition, but it’s slight stuff, and Webster has this tendency to repeat her verses so often that it gets a bit boring, because they’re hardly artfully constructed or carrying any hints of depth or latent passion that we didn’t get the first time we heard it. Rating = 7.5/10
You couldn’t accuse Aldous Harding of being fluffy or light. There’s always something ominous and troubled about her songs, and her reaction to the same existential dilemmas as Faye Webster are processed in a completely different way. Designer (Flying Nun/4AD) – Harding’s third album – is a magnificent thing.
There was a really terrible story on Harding in the New Zealand Herald when the album came out that displayed a profound lack of understanding of her art, and many reviewers seem slightly confused and perturbed by her music. I get that she’s emotionally and lyrically complex, but what’s wrong with that? To me, this is an entrenched kind of sexism that has to go, and it’s the same attitude that puts Cohen on a pedestal above Mitchell or Cave on a pedestal above Harvey (PJ, that is).
“I get that she’s emotionally and lyrically complex, but what’s wrong with that?”
Speaking of which, Polly Jean’s producer John Parish is back in the producer’s chair for Designer, but does the right thing and remains invisible, letting the full flow of Harding’s dark and twisted imagination flow through each of the nine tracks on this all-too brief album.
It is, however, something of a departure. On her self-titled debut and its follow-up, Party, Harding seemed possessed by characters, and there was an intentional artifice that many found off-putting. Designer has toned down the theatricality and neither the sound design nor the singing are as extreme. Alarmingly, there are songs here that could pass for conventionally tuneful and which tend to replay in one’s head just like pop earworms.
Reviewers have talked about the supposedly cryptic lyrics, but that’s just lazy. Her songs are not puzzles, and without being at all clichéd, they deal imaginatively and searchingly with the kind of thoughts and obsessions typical of an intelligent and complicated 29-year-old.
“Her songs deal imaginatively and searchingly with the kind of thoughts and obsessions typical of an intelligent and complicated 29-year-old”
Musically, Designer is gorgeous. Harding has always been a wonderful and dextrous singer with several octaves at her disposal and a complex artillery of emotions to work with, and here she’s on the top of her game.
Like Faye Webster, the sound here sometimes verges on pastoral folk-rock psychedelia, but overall, it’s not as narrow as that, and she makes good use of sax and clarinet as sound colourings. It’s a lovely canvas over which to sing labyrinthine examinations of existence in relation to the confusion/wonderment/disconnect/madness of relationships, and more, and I’m fully expecting it to be one of my albums of the year. Rating = 9.5/10
Just about as good is Smells Funny (Rune Grammofon/Southbound) by the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, a rare album of fiery power trio moves that will appeal to fans of Massacre (Frith/Laswell/Maher) or the roiling, Hendrix/Santana fusion of John McLaughlin’s Devotion album.
Comprising of Hedvig Mollestad (guitar), Ellen Brekken (bass) and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad (drums), this is the sound of musicians with jazz chops who have given up the fancy moves to allow the formation and eruption of monumental riffs. Which isn’t to say that their playing ability isn’t on display, just that there’s none of the fiddly shit that annoys so many.
Mollestad is clearly the star here and she gets a guitar tone at times that summons up the Hendrix spirit. I’m not sure what the title refers to, but if it’s the infamous Zappa quote about jazz not being dead, but just smelling funny, then it’s apt. I’m pretty sure that both Hendrix and Zappa would have been happy to have these musicians in their bands, and it’s a really cool album. Rating = 8.5/10
If you dig Rufus Wainwright’s over-emoting and florid vibrato, then Devotchka might fill a space. This Night Falls Forever (Concord/Southbound) sounds like some kind of unholy union between late period Echo & The Bunnymen and Beirut with Nick Urata turning on his best Wainwright impersonation, and it’s horrible.
This is all anthem and no style or grace, just a lot of piecemeal styles – Latino exotica, Dean Martin greasiness, folksy strumming, country twang – while the band tend towards a galloping grandiosity that lacks any kind of definition or genuine dynamic.
When I hear something like this I wonder if anyone in the world actually loves it, and why, because it’s so annoying that I couldn’t even listen to its bitter end. Rating = 4/10
The self-titled double album from Auckland-based duo Fear Up Harsh (independent) is full of dark drones and synth eruptions, shuffling, rattling, monotonous rhythms and insect chatter.
It’s the work of Jeffrey Gane (percussion, voice, found sounds) and Michael Ferriss (synthesizers and treatments) and it’s nothing like the beautifully sculptured synth compositions found on Ferriss’s solo albums.
There’s a vaguely industrial feel around this music with its sense of ennui and chugging along on a cloud of darkness that every now and again gives it up to a Krautrock groove or some gentle, wafting piano.
Unfortunately, I can’t get the second CD won’t play so my critique is limited to the first disc, with its 13 rather episodic pieces that play around with familiar genres – electronica, industrial, ambient – but often feel more like fragments taken from a jam session than defined pieces of music. For all that, however, not bad. Rating = 7/10
Fear Up Harsh sounds like a work of genius compared to the Boom! Boom! Deluxe album, Teenage Juvenile Delinquent RockNRoll Horror Beach Party (independent). Look, I get it. You wear your influences on your sleeve and you’re out to have a good rockin’, retro time of it and maybe when everybody’s half cut your music can even make for a memorable night out.
In the cold light of day, however, the Kiwi cultural cringe kicks in like it was still a thing.
Since the advent of rock and roll loads of bands have attempted to recreate the naïve, semi-acoustic charm and energy, 1980s band The Stray Cats just being one of the more corporate examples. Boom! Boom! Deluxe, however, have little going for them apart from their ability to hit the right notes. Their songs are weak attempts at humour (“I’m gonna slap that bottom if you don’t behave!”?) and there’s just no panache about them.
Once again, a band makes an album that might make some kind of memento for those who have experienced them in performance, and mistakes it for a real record that can stand on its own. Rating = 2/10
Durand Jones & The Indications are big on nostalgia, too. They’re a studious young band that are infatuated with a certain kind of soul-based ensemble singing that fits into the doo-wop tradition, and it’s to the fore on their second album, American Love Call (Dead Oceans).
This is, by and large, really smoochy stuff. It’s easy to see the appeal of ensemble singing – although generally there’s a lead voice – and what makes it more appealing is that it’s beautifully recorded. There are pulsing vibraphones and the rhythm section sounds warm and deep. The engineer has done a spiffing job in getting a lot of space in the sound, which contrasts with the typical Daptone-type production.
Still, the innate creaminess of this stuff can be a bit cloying after a few songs. Occasionally they erupt in a civil rights-era sound that’s close to the 1970s reinvention of The Temptations, and that’s great to hear. Rating = 6.5/10
A much more interesting attempt to revive a style and give it a contemporary bearing is Myele Manzanza’s A Love Requited (First Word).
Manzanza is apparently the New Zealand-raised son of a Congolese master percussionist. A damn fine drummer himself, in A Love Requited – apparently his third album – he’s come up with a work that astonishes with its take on the conscious jazz of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s the kind of music that was roundly ignored for years as jazz disappeared up its own ass in the ‘70s, but has made a startling return in the 21st century due in part to artists like Kamasi Washington taking up the challenge.
“He’s come up with a work that astonishes with its take on the conscious jazz of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s”
Listening to A Love Requited is to be reminded of artists like Sun Ra, late period John Coltrane, and especially Alice Coltrane’s string of beautiful early ‘70s albums that combined the music with a deep spirituality and a sense of searching for meaning. But this is no shallow ode to the past, and although Manzanza’s work is clearly influenced by those great artists, his music is more like a continuation or recalibration than a mere ode to the past.
This is certainly a drummer’s record and there’s plenty of dynamic, explosive percussion to be heard, but he doesn’t dominate in a negative way. There are lashings of horns and Manzanza also tries his hand(s) at piano. He’s clearly no virtuoso at the instrument, but figures out how to do his own, distinctive, repetitive thing with the keys.
This 13-track set is perhaps a little generous in length, but it’s uniformly excellent. The band also adept at ballads and there are some gorgeous mellow moments to be had. A surprising and enriching set. Rating = 8/10