Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sparks live photos -- May 16-21, 2008

You can find the whole batch at a set on my Flicker page.

Here are three samples (these action shots have some blurring, but most are in focus -- really!):

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Long Blondes -- "Couples" (2008)

The Long Blondes -- “Couples” (Rough Trade)

The Long Blondes are an interesting proposition. They play precise post-punk influenced pop with incisive lyrics, made all the better when sung by the captivating Kate Jackson. Her clear vocalizing is sexy and smart, as she manages to make bittersweet and cutting observations with both a hint of hurt and the wisdom of a survivor.

There is a tension in the band’s sound that both attracts and repels me. As human as Kate Jackson is, the music has a certain chilly aspect to it that tantalizes. As anyone who’s loved Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” or other mechanistic pop knows, cold and hot make a great combination. But Jackson has just enough reserve to make many Long Blondes tunes a mix of cold and a bit warm. It’s not always the same effect.

I think this is why I liked the band’s debut, but could never get fully excited about it. On its sophomore effort, the band moves even further into the frost, with more pensive tunes, and some tracks which take clear inspiration from sources such as the discofied Blondie and 154-era Wire.

I feel pretty much the same tension this time around, but find this album a little more attractive. What this says about me, I don’t know. So The Long Blondes are now an oddity, as I think I respect the band more than I love it. But there is a lot to respect (or love).

The Blondie vibe gets going right away on the lead track “Century”, which starts with Jackson cooing ethereally like a certain Debbie Harry. The music is pulsing mid-tempo disco and the lyrics are more impressionistic than usual for the Blondes, which fits the airy nature of the tune. This vibe continues on the lightly funky “Guilt”, a great song about a woman with a boyfriend spurning an overly amorous suitor: “And now you’re telling me you want this to work/but don’t say I shouldn’t worry till the morning/‘cos I’m worrying now.”

Even more intriguing are the deeper forays into post-punk. The spartan “Nostalgia” has an overmodulated keyboard rhythm, augmented by a sad piano and light drums. Jackson carries the elegant melody as she details how the past is just a bitter curse: “I may never have a daughter/‘cos I’ve too much to tell her/and far too much to answer for.” Here, the chilly music and her warm voice are an unbeatable poignant combination.

On “Erin O’Connor”, the disco meets the post-punk, sounding like a peppier Portishead. Reenie Hollis’ bass drives the verses, with Screech Louder’s drums following in lockstep. On this track, the texture is what’s different. The hook is classic Long Blondes.

The centerpiece track is “Round the Hairpin”, where white noise, a gurgling bass tone, and dissonant guitar (a la Magazine or Wire) back Jackson, her voice just above a whisper, her articulation perfect and perfectly sexy. Louder’s beatkeeping is particularly creative on this song. The groove set down here is hypnotic and the band just lets the film noir atmosphere build as things simmer and the intensity burns hotter and hotter. Cool stuff.

The Blondes haven’t forgotten the pure pop for you people. With its chanted chorus and big bouncy beat, “Here Comes the Serious Bit” is an out of the box winner. And “The Couples” is sly and playful event though it’s about being lonely. This song is so riddled with good lyrics, I almost don’t know which one to quote. Let me try this one: “I used to come here to have good time/but I can feel like this at home.” The chorus is a killer, with a rising and falling melody, and Jackson rides it for all it’s worth.

Yep, this is a good one. But I find that breaking it down by tracks makes it seem a bit better than the way it flows. It’s like the album is one great cut away from making me a slobbering Long Blondes loving fool. I’m still a bit shy of that, but I’m going to stick around to see if that will happen next time around.

Santogold -- Santogold (2008)

Santogold -- Santogold (Downtown)

It seems appropriate that Santogold’s debut is on the same label that brought us Gnarls Barkley. As much if not even moreso than the Cee-Lo/Dangermouse combo, Santogold ably mixes genres, with a foundation of R & B and hip-hop, but branching out into about any pop style that suits her needs.

Santogold is the stage name for Santi White, a noted songwriter and A & R person who just happens to be a pretty decent singer. Her voice isn’t the gold standard, but she’s really expressive and enjoyable.

She works with a lot of top talent, including producers Diplo and Switch. Although it’s Switch, and not Diplo, who produces “Creator”, there’s no mistaking M.I.A.’s influence on this track. I don’t find White’s take on ‘hip-hop gone world music’ as rich and dense as M.I.A.’s. Still, it sure is catchy and easy to dance to. That’s never a thing.

Her forays into straight reggae are more effective. This especially true on “Unstoppable”, which Diplo produced. The blips and beeps that accent the riddims give this a certain degree of authenticity. Not that authenticity is what this is about. What this is about is a vision of pop as a genre unto itself, without worrying about meddlesome categories.

This is an album that sounds almost like a singles compilation. Whether it’s the 21st Century new wave update of lead track “L.E.S. Artistes”, which is the great lost Missing Persons track, with a more listenable lead singer (this has an indelible hook) or the giddy mid-tempo pop-rock of “Lights Out” or the Two-Tone inflected “Say Aha” (if No Doubt actually sounded like their inspirations), White delivers the goods on track after track.

Although this album came out in the early spring, it sounds like a summer soundtrack.

Adam Marsland -- Daylight Kissing Night (Adam Marsland's Greatest Hits) (2008)

Adam Marsland -- Daylight Kissing Night (Adam Marsland’s Greatest Hits) (Karma Frog)

If you’re a long time fan of Marsland, both as the leader of Cockeyed Ghost and as a solo artist, this disc is an automatic playlist for your iPod. If you haven’t heard him before, this compilation hits a number of the highlights in his career. I’m a fan, and like any fan, I’d probably trade a few personal faves for the a few of the ones Adam chose. Hey, that’s just how it goes.

Marsland is such an enjoyable artist because both musically and lyrically he displays intelligence. He also tries to resolve impulses that sometimes seem contrary. He can rock out with punk rock intensity, yet he is a Beach Boys disciple. He has, on occasion, found a way to meld those two impulses into the same song, which is pretty thrilling.

Marsland also grasps, as well as anyone since The Pursuit Of Happiness’s Moe Berg, that a guy can be sensitive and empathetic and still have the desires that make him a pig (or horndog, if you prefer). Moreover, he has no problem singing about the struggles of an indie musician (check out the hilarious “Big Big Yeah” and “Burning Me Out (of the Record Store)” for proof of that).

In combination, and I know I’ve written this before about Marsland’s music, he is a verbose guy but has found a way to fit his many words with his tunes. There haven’t been too many artists associated with power pop who’ve provided more mental nutrition.

This comp has my two favorite Marsland songs. “The Fates Cry Foul” is a piano driven number, that matches a rollicking Elton John/Ben Folds vibe (I guess those are inevitable comparisons with piano pop) with Beatle-esque touches in the chorus. This song combines the usual clever lyrical obligations with a dazzling arrangement. Marsland and his band pull out the stops, from a brief a capella vocal arrangement at one point, to a great middle eight, and Wondermint Probyn Gregory’s trumpet adds to the majesty at the end.

But I don’t think that Marsland will ever top “Ginna Ling”, a true masterpiece. This song starts buoyantly, with Marsland detailing meeting an excited fan, and really being geeked by it. The bouncy rhythm and chugging guitars match the happiness in the lyrics.

The song takes a turn, and the tune stays the same, but the musicians tamp it down. Marsland starts narrating the lyrics, as he explains how Ginna committed suicide.

Then the music breaks down to quiet levels, and Marsland imagines what he could have done, the energy building up to double that of the way the song started, hitting that great chorus. The intensity builds up as the mixture of joy and frustration is unleashed all at once.

If you haven’t heard this song before, it’s worth the low, low price of $6.49 just for this track. If you’ve had, the photo in the jewel case tray card will really hit you.

This comp has brought some songs back into my radar. “Halo Boy”, from the second Cockeyed Ghost album Neverest, is a driving melodic rocker that just can’t be stopped. Then there’s the mid-tempo “At the Bookstore”, which sports some bluesy lead guitar licks. It is about a guy who is getting blown off by a girl, but he finds comfort hiding out amongst the books and the reading crowd. This is one of a handful of songs that were on the first Cockeyed Ghost album that Marsland, due to recording quality, decided to re-record with his new band. It’s sounds really nice.

Another one of those redone tracks is “Married Yet”, which is a hilarious tale of a guy who was spurned but his lover returns. This is another guitar fueled track, chock full of lacerating lyrics: “Even now at this late date/when I think of your decision to conjugate/your memory still has the power/to hit me full force in the shower.”

Meanwhile, “How Can You Stand It” is a nifty reflective number. If you’re feeling insignificant and down in the dumps, check this one out, as it is based on accepting that nothing is ever perfect. Great stuff.

And there’s plenty more here to get into. Now that he’s summed up his past, I’m looking forward to whatever Marsland will kick out next.

Doleful Lions -- 7 (2008)

Doleful Lions -- 7 (Parasol)

I think the phrase “transition album” is not being used much anymore, perhaps since so few artists make enough albums to reach that point. But the seventh album from Doleful Lions fits the phrase to a ‘t.’ Although Jonathan Scott has made various changes in how he presents his music, none have been so drastic as this one.

And we can thank his brother Robert, who is back in the Lions’ fold, for effectuating this change. Robert has provided electronic backing for Jonathan before, but never before has it been so extensive. Jonathan’s acoustic guitar is less prominent on this album, with Robert providing an array of sounds and effects to back Jonathan’s songs.

Does it work? Most of the time it does. But this new approach hasn’t been perfected yet. That being said, Jonathan’s often mystical lyrics are well suited for the spacey and warm sounds that Robert concocts. The biggest drawbacks are that the sound can be a bit sterile and, at times, the busy backgrounds threaten to overwhelm Jonathan’s angelic vocals. This latter point is critical, because the heart of the Doleful Lions sound is Jonathan’s special voice, childlike and vulnerable, which creates an instant empathy.

What is most encouraging is that despite this shift in sound, the songs are as good as ever. I have to first discuss “Winfield Walker”, which clocks in at just shy of eight and a half minutes. The song immediately gets going, with vigorous electronic drums and icy melodic synth lines. The haiku-like verses have Jonathan singing over lighter percussion and strummed guitar (sounding a bit like New Order) before flowing back into the harder percussion of the intro. The lyrics are exceptionally spare and slowly reveal a very ominous tone that doesn’t quite fit the vibrant and atmospheric music. This song could be from the perspective of a jealous lover or an angry god, asserting the ultimate control: “What destroyed your soul/this blade insane/forever shade/heaven made/today.”

The main components of the song are contrasted with a beautiful breakdown with elegant keyboards suggesting flutes and also a great New Order-ish instrumental break about two-thirds of the way through the song.

This song really shows how fruitful this new sound should ultimately be, as it sacrifices none of the beauty of Jonathan’s songwriting, but casts it in a new light that is extremely attractive to listen to. I especially like the fact that it integrates Jonathan’s guitar playing with Robert’s most impressive sonic soundscape. I think that the guitar should always have a place in Doleful Lions music, though not necessarily on every song. And the same holds true for keyboards. Whatever the song needs, within this configuration, should be used.

After seeing a couple of live performances of “Magic Without Tears” done by Jonathan with just his acoustic guitar, hearing it reimagined in a percolating mid-‘80s fashion was a surprise. But Robert’s additions, particularly with the rhythmic components, turn a fragile and lovely song into an inspiring piece of modern pop. This tune may be as close as Jonathan will come to a positive thinking tune. The song itself has a great build up, with verse after verse chronicling the pitfalls ahead and the chorus finally coming in to save the day.

Okay, the odd percussion breakdown in the middle may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if Alastair Crowley has a Top 40 chart down deep below the surface of the earth, he’s bopping to this right now. He also can sway a bit to “Here Come the Star Nations”, which moves more into the turf of Vince Clarke’s work with Depeche Mode and Erasure, at least in terms of the keyboard sounds coming from Robert.

Even with the markedly more electronic backing (because I should note that it’s not like there haven’t been keyboards and drum machines on prior Doleful Lions efforts), the pastoral side of the band has not been shunted aside. “White Lotus Day” is a lovely song, with the electronics giving it a orch-pop bent. And on “Holy Hill”, Scott’s acoustic guitar moves to the forefront on a song that floats and glides, with Robert providing just the right amount of ornamentation in the background.

If this album has a weakness, it’s that there are too many instrumentals, and a couple of them, especially the opener, “Blazing Sun Rising Over the Mountains of the East”, go on a bit too long. I think this made it a bit harder for me to get into the album at first, as the instrumentals disrupt the flow of the album. This is exacerbated by the fact that three of them come on the second half of the disc.

Still, I’m excited that Doleful Lions is remaining fresh and open to new approaches. As long as Jonathan’s voice doesn’t get lost in the mix of the dazzling soundscapes, I am even more excited about hearing the next album, as the Scott brothers perfect this sound.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sparks live reviews below/Quick thanks

If you've come to read the Sparks reviews, just scroll down below. Thanks to everyone who's taken a look at them, and extra thanks for all of the positive feedback (and any corrections of mistakes). I'll have a review up soon of the new album, a link to some pictures (review in a week or two, pictures in a few days), along with getting back to reviewing other stuff. I hope many of you will come back to check this page out.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sparks -- Indiscreet, Carling Academy at Islington, May 21, 2008

This was the most challenging show of the five shows so far, and perhaps of the whole stand. Indiscreet is Sparks' big production, with Tony Visconti aiding them with loads of strings and horns. The band didn't want to disappoint, and there were strings and horns. The end result is that there were more flaws in this show than the others. However, this was certainly offset by the truly great moments.

The strings were supplied by the opener, a Belgian whose name I've already forgotten. He opened his set with a piano rendition of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us" and then expressed his love for both Sparks and the album on tap for the night.

Then he played some honest-to-god chamber pop with a five piece string section (bass, three violins and a cello). I liked the songs and his lyrics were interesting, but his vocals, while not terrible, were the weak link. So the support was alright, but with a better singer might have really been something. But the contribution from the strings was just beginning.

Unfortunately, one member of the sting section seemed to blank out during his moment in the sun. The gent was called upon to provide some fiddling for "It Ain't 1918", and he did his part in the intro. And then he fell silent. He kept raising his instrument slightly, appearing ready to play, but I could see in his eyes that he was utterly confused as to when he was to come in. So the remainder of the song was played sans violin.

This was not a problem, as everyone else was spot on. Leading the way was Russell Mael. Five shows into the residency, and he sounds better and better every night. Moreso than any other night, there were times when I could have closed my eyes and imagined I was hearing the album. Yes, he was that good.

One of those times was on one of Russell's rare solo compositions, "Pineapple". The richness and the fullness of his vocal was astonishing. However, my eyes would have opened during the second verse, because the backing vocals, although they sounded good, were inaccurate. Throughout the song, Jim, Marcus and Steven (McDonald) kept singing "shares are gonna divide/if in us you confide", instead of changing the backing with each verse. Yes, I'm quibbling.

There were other rough patches in a few songs, but none of them were damaging. One song seemed a bit flat, but I think that's more because of the company it was keeping. "The Lady Is Lingering" is a perfectly fine song, but the other songs on the album are so full, it seemed a bit puny in comparison.

The other rockers on the album were outstanding. "Happy Hunting Ground" and "How Are You Getting Home" were both driven by Steven Nistor's fab drumming and, respectively, Jim Wilson's pithy guitar leads and Ron Mael's swinging piano. And "Hospitality On Parade", a number that Sparks has had in their sets in recent years, is still such a great gem, and when the guitars finally kick in, everyone feels like royalty.

But the biggest highlights were the augmented songs. The full string compliment came out for "Under The Table With Her" (correction from when I spaced out and typed "Without Using Hands", see comment below, thanks), and it sounded absolutely brilliant. Ron added to vocals, with a quick turn as the waiter, and then returned to his keyboards looking puzzled at the microphone in his hand. A bunch of high school kids were conscripted to provide brass for two songs. It took them a few measures or so to catch up with "Looks Looks Looks", but once they did, I was smiling like Herbert Hoover (or Hoobert Heever).

Yet all of those paled in comparison to the top performance of the night, the outstanding rendition of "Get In The Swing". Here, the teenage horn section was ready from note one, and the full glory of one of the oddest pop songs to every hit the British charts blossomed in full view. The shifting tempos, the rousing chorus, the hilarious lyrics, played with vim and vigor to spare. As many great renditions as I saw during my five nights, this had to be the tops for me. This is a song that I've always liked, but this time around it became a classic.

The night was concluded with "Gone With The Wind" and after Russell gave his usual thank yous, Ron stepped up to the mike to make some gracious comments. As he was talking about exceeding expectations, someone yelled out, "You sound fucking brilliant" or something along those lines. Ron put the mike down on the drumstand and walked off, until he was encouraged to go back, and he finished off his remarks about what a great experience the fans have this for him.

And this is what strikes me most about this whole shebang. For all of the humor and irony, Sparks has such a high degree of sincerity to what it does . As the band's career has taken more directions than Lombard Street in San Francisco, it has developed a hardcore fan base that has supported them all of the way (with new fans cropping up all the time). This residency is a publicity stunt, but, even better, it's a gift to the fans.

Everyone who is coming to these shows loves Sparks. I think that everyone coming out loves them even more. From that standpoint, these shows couldn't be any less than a rousing success.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sparks -- Propaganda, Carling Academy at Islington, May 20, 2008

I'll have to make an admission. While everyone else cites Kimono My House as Sparks' masterpiece, I actually favor Propaganda. For my money, the songwriting is just a hair better -- the lyrics, the melodies, and the hooks. So many little surprises. Not a bad song in the bunch.

Perhaps others in the audience would have strongly disagreed with me, but they wouldn't have cared, based on the enthusiastic reception. It helped that there was finally a solid support act. Dan Le Sac And Scroobius Pip play laptop hiphop. Dan is the wizard of the Mac and Pip is a very British, very smart and smartass guy with a rapid flow.

Musically, their songs were somewhat hit and miss. But Pip's personality made up for it, to a large degree. He had lots of props like a periodic table (the long bearded Pip noted, "Betcha didn't think you'd see a terrorist with a periodic table."), various hats and such, and desk set up by which he became a newscaster of sorts. That was for a song that was a tribute to a magician who died while performing (apparently he was someone known in England). They also did an odd version of Prince's "Cream" -- a bit of Flying Lizards in there. They were entertaining and passed the time well.

Of all of the 21 albums, other than perhaps Number One In Heaven, there could be no greater test for Russell Mael than Propaganda. Not just the album, but the song. With some electronic assistance for the backing (NOTE: please see comments -- someone else who was at the show disagrees with me, and I won't claim to be perfectly right about this), Russell went through the a capella intro and then the band ripped into "At Home, At Work, At Play". I think this is one of the great starts to any album, ever. In a week that's been full of "I can't believe that I'm hearing this" moments, this was the only time where I've been dumbstruck for a few moments, hearing the music, yet not quite listening.

I quickly snapped out of that condition, while Russell dashed his way through the words -- enough for three three minute songs -- and the band acquitted itself well with the stop-start tempos. That being said, this is one hell of a tough song for musicians to start with, since it's such a powerful burst. I wish they had done the song again further down in the set, when the guys had really warmed up.

By the end of the album, they were really cooking. It doesn't get much better than "Who Don't Like Kids". The song has about five distinct catchy parts, from the simple chorus, to the verse, to the middle eight, to the second middle eight, which has a variation (Russell singing the title very quickly), and a brilliant rocking ending. For this gig, it was Jim Wilson and Marcus Blake playing a guitar riff over and over and over and over and over, while Steve McDonald joined up on bass and Steven Nistor crashed the cymbals. They suddenly stopped, the crowd went wild, and Russell clambered to the front of the stage and yelled the title out...and it was back to that riff.

The power of that riff was so great, that Ron Mael came out from behind his keyboard outpost to do the odd shuffle jig that has been his dance ("Everybody Do the Ronald"?) for years. He soon thereafter apologized for getting carried away.

But let me get back to a point I made earlier about Russell. As you know, he can sing really high. Or rather, he can still sing really high. He first showed that he hasn't lost a thing on "Don't Leave Me Alone With Her", a song which has perhaps the most furious take on an Eastern European melody that I've ever heard. Each verse requires Russell to go up and up in his range, ending in falsetto stun range. He did it perfectly each time, and this deep cut got one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.

After the breather provided by the always lovely "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth", Russell tackled his other big challenge of the night, "Something For The Girl With Everything", a great deal of which is sung in the falsetto range. And lyrically, it makes "At Home, At Work, At Play" seem laconic. He navigated the song with expertise, while every musical piece fell into place, from the great use of dynamics (especially when everyone drops out so Ron can plink out a few notes) to the roaring guitar solo by Wilson.

The band (which Russell noted was, with the exception of McDonald, the backing band for Daniel Lanois -- what a contrast) had to really love tonight, as this, along with Big Beat, is one of Sparks' most rocking albums. Quite a few songs had extended endings. I'm not talking about pointless jamming, but just locking into a great part of the song and letting it go on just a bit longer.

The encore du jour was "Lost and Found". A nice way to end the evening.

Only one more night to go. I'm hoping that these reviews so far have given everyone an impression of the shows (I suppose there is nothing else to do). I'm trying to be objective as possible, and noting any major fluffs that occur. There have barely been any. Probably the only other criticism so far is that the sound at times could be better, especially with regard to the guitars, which sometimes aren't loud enough. But otherwise, I'm hearing top flight musicians play some of the best albums ever. It's hard to find too many flaws with that recipe.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sparks -- Kimono My House, Carling Academy At Islington, May 18, 2008

While talking to people in the queue, I note that in America (well, Chicago), pretty much no one knows Sparks. Over here, everyone notes that everyone knows Sparks -- for "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us". This is the lead track on the album that broke Sparks in England and the rest of Europe. Not only was it a smash in 1974, but a remake, with Faith No More teaming with the Maels, charted here in the late '90s. And, lest I forget, Justin Hawkins of The Darkness had a hit cover of the tune under his nom de plume British Whale.

With that legacy, it should be no surprise that Kimono My House would be the most highly anticipated show of this 21 night residency, selling out speedily. What a special night it was.

How special? One of the album cover models was in attendance, and I was standing behind her (and her gorgeous daughter). Even more significant, Ron Mael came out with The Moustache. No, he didn't grow the toothbrush 'stache that had Lennon musing about seeing Hitler on the telly (after seeing the band on Top Of The Pops). Ron colored over his pencil thin moustache and drew in his iconic trademark.

Furthermore, during the first couple of songs, he was particularly animated...facially, that is. His glares and odd stares were in full form, bringing back those glory days.

Unlike the first two albums, which had songs that are tricky to perform live, Kimono is made for the stage. It doesn't hurt when you can open with a one-two punch of "This Town" and "Amateur Hour", sending the crowd into an immediate frenzy.

However, the rest of the album holds up so well and sounded brilliant live. Songs like "Talent Is An Asset" (where Russell and the axe wielding members of the band did all of the requisite handclapping) and "Complaints" were short, punchy, and automatically winning pop songs. In a different era, this album would have spawned more than two hit singles (they didn't flog LPs for singles the way they do now).

Even better were the extended songs from the album. "Thank God It's Not Christmas" is a mid-tempo work of genius. It's full of great guitar lines, ably played by Jim Wilson (who was joined for the whole show by Miles...I forgot his last name, on second guitar). Russell tore into the brilliant lyrics, and I could tell that even he recognized this bit as especially brilliant: "If this were the Seine/we'd be very suave/but it's just the rain/washing down the boulevard."

This was followed by the unique "Hasta Manana Monseur", one of many Sparks songs with an international flair. Here, Russell, who was also the most animated yet, showing not only what a great front man he is, but that he could still sound quite boyish.

Meanwhile, Russell's falsetto abilities were put to the test. He passed with flying colors on "Here In Heaven". He was even more amazing on the neo-Brechtian showtune weirdness that is the album finale "Equator". Here, the band really stretched out, at times probably to give Russell a well-deserved breather. It was yet another rousing set closer.

One other observation -- it's interesting to hear a different drum style applied to these songs. While generally faithful to Dinky Diamond's drum parts, Steven Nistor doesn't favor coming down on the kick pedal and hi-hat in combination with a bass note, a real hallmark of the Sparks sound (even moreso on Propaganda). It's not a good thing or a bad thing -- just an interesting thing.

The encore last night was the Kimono era b-side "Barbecutie". There was a delay due to a problem with Steve McDonald's bass. Russell first joked about how vital the bass was to the song (and a solo bass opens the track) and then did a nice job of passing the time, showing customary wit. It's nice to know he can do it without a script.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sparks -- A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing -- Carling Academy at Islington, 5/17/08

I learned something on the second night of the residency -- contrary to my first review, Russell Mael is getting some help on the lyrics. My vantage point was just a bit more towards Russell and I could see that he was looking down at a monitor to grab some of the words. I have no problem with that -- there's just too much to remember.

This was the album I was most anticipating, simply because it is one of the oddest albums I've ever heard. The flair for the dramatic hinted at on the debut burst forth fully on this LP. Moreover, the expanding songwriting prowess of Ron Mael fully revealed itself.

Yet the track that some people find the most striking originated with bass player Jim Mankey (who went on to Concrete Blonde). That number was one of the highlights of tonight's performance. "Moon Over Kentucky" is high drama, beginning with Russell's gentle vocals over a stately keyboard part, with the tension building with some sharp building guitar. The chorus is all menace, with the coda -- Russell singing a "la la la, la la de de da" (approximately) and the second time this part comes around, the organ gets all church-like, the band rumbles in and you expect a monster to burst out. Hearing the expert treatment this edition of Sparks gave was thrilling.

Likewise, the brilliance of "The Louvre", which is sung mostly in French, contrasting delicate verses, with a sweet slide guitar accent, with German beer hall stomping, until the last verse soars, Russell singing in English. The song is from the perspective of a statute, who ends up daring the tourists watching him to lift him. Again, the song reaches a crescendo that made the live rendition positively -- may I say it again? -- thrilling.

There were lighter moments. Russell's falsetto was in fine form on the rollicking ending to "Nothing Is Sacred". Strings were rendered unnecessary for the Gilbert & Sullivan go L.A. tomfoolery of "Here Comes Bob" (about a guy who gets into car accidents to meet people). "Girl From Germany" was pop fun as usual (they actually play this live from time to time) and they made "Do Re Mi" rock as much as it possibly can.

The only bobble of the night was during "Underground", where guitarist Jim Wilson fluffed one part (he went into it prematurely) but he found his footing. Regardless, that song turned out to be the hardest one to bring to the stage.

That could not be said about "Whippings And Apologies". It's a lacerating rocker, which required a second guitarist. Everyone played with abandon, including Ron Mael. Quite the finish, even better than the album.

The encore was, as Russell noted, Morrissey's favorite Sparks song. This was part of the Halfnelson demos and released on a collection of Morrissey's favorite tracks by anyone. They did a nice job on "Arts and Crafts Spectacular".

Finally, I spent more time watching Ron Mael. His ability to hold glares and odd looks is quite something. He is committed to his oddball image and stays in character all the time. Of course, it might not be an act...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Sparks live -- Halfnelson, 5/16/08, Carling Academy at Islington

Leave it to one of rock's most original bands to come up with an original concept to hype up its 21st album. Sparks is doing a long residency in London, playing every single one of its albums. Just think of the rehearsals! What is more amazing than thinking of trying such a feat is that, based on the evidence from the first night of the stand, Sparks is going to pull it off quite nicely.

The first Sparks album (which actually was the first Halfnelson album, since that was the band's name until it was convinced to make the change by Bearsville record label head Albert Grossman) is a weird mix of British Invasion power, post-Invasion tweeness, and Mael-ian eccentricity. It has a few of Sparks' most conventional songs, balanced by some of their weirdest. It's quite the corker of a debut.

Before I discuss the show, a word on the opener, Rod Thomas. He's a personable lad from Wales, who used various digital effects that are becoming somewhat commonplace. By that I mean that he would play a bit of guitar or percussion or do a vocal, digitally record it and loop it. I saw Liam Finn do it and others since.

Thomas has a nice voice and a decent way with a melody. However, he's a bit too constricted by his on-the-spot samples, which limit where his songs go. That being said, the last number, where he simply strummed a ukelele, was a winner.

The anticipation built amongst the 450 or so folks (my estimate -- the venue holds 800) who had come to see the Maels make history. From the first notes, it became apparent that the musicians joining Ron and Russell Mael were primed too. Guitarist Jim Wilson played chords with a thick contemporary sound, but not so heavy that they overwhelmed the songs. His lead playing, essential to the accents and hooks on some songs, was simply superb, as he recreated the tone of the originals perfectly.

On bass, Redd Kross's Steve McDonald was his usual wonderful self, having a great time throughout. And drummer Steven Nistor was truly top notch. On the rockers, he played with authority, and he was creative on songs where the percussion was not as prominent. He drove the band quite well.

Ron Mael was in fine form, with a variety of facial expressions. Well, more like four or five. Brother Russell dazzled simply by remembering all those lyrics. While the musicians all had easels and cheat sheets, there was no monitor or anything in site for Russell. He can still hit the high notes, as he proved on "Biology 2" (which he introduced by noting that folks wondered if he could do it). His performance of that song was followed by raucous applause.

That song came off a bit better than a couple of other songs that I thought would be tricky live. The versions of "Roger" (with Steve McDonald on acoustic guitar) and "Fletcher Honorama" were certainly fine, but they lost the most in translation to the stage. With "Roger", it was just hard to recreate the full fledged twee wigginess of the track. As for "Honorama" (my fave track on the LP), as well as it was played, it's hard to recreate the atmosphere of Todd Rundgren's production.

Beyond those songs (which again, were good), the rest of the tunes from the debut album sounded outstanding on stage. Whether it was the bounce of "Big Bands" transforming into a fast pace, the pop glory of "Wonder Girl" or the bizarre drama of "High C", it was all working. The crowd ate it up. One thing that surprised me, and then I realized I shouldn't have been surprised, was all of the singing along. But really, if you're going to see Sparks play an album released more than 35 years ago, you probably like it.

[Two notes on that point. 1. I did speak to a guy in the queue who had never heard the album before. Before tonight, that is. 2. Russell thanked the audience, noting that going to see one of their most obscure albums meant those in attendance were "cool."]

The best was saved for last, as the band tore into "(No More) Mr. Nice Guy". This is a flat out rocker and it was played with glee and abandon. Ron had my fave facial expression of the night -- he'd scowl like a not so nice guy during the verses. Steve McDonald was pogoing near the end. Jim Wilson was smiling. It was fantastic.

The band encored with "England", the b-side of their "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" 45, an Earle Mankey composition. Every night, Russell said the encore would be an obscure track.

What a great night -- this totally justified my reason for coming here. Four more to go. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Dirtbombs -- We Have You Surrounded (2008)

The Dirtbombs -- We Have You Surrounded (In The Red)

Mick Collins is yet another charismatic Detroit rock ‘n’ roller. From Iggy to Ted Nugent to Jack White and Wendy Case, the Motor City is teeming with idiosyncratic rockers who want to kick your ass, but in their own personal way.

Listening to this album, it is clear that Collins strongly disagrees with Sammy Hagar’s claim that “there’s only one way to rock.” Although The Dirtbombs are usually found in the garage rock section at your local hip record emporium, the limitations that are associated with the retro genre are exploded by Collins and Company time and time again. On the latest Dirtbombs plate, Collins touch more bases than the Detroit Tigers, while never losing the band’s identity.

You want classic R & B flavored garage rock? Look no further than “Ever Lovin’ Man”. Relentless guitar riffing, Collins pleading over an insistent rhythm, and a major hook-filled chorus, his pleading becoming shouting.

Maybe you’d rather dance? Collins rigs up a Midwestern version of LCD Soundsystem on “Wreck My Flow”. The relentless disco beat is doubled up by keyboards. Collins unleashes a laundry list of beefs with the world. It’s a pet peeve party and you’re invited.

This is followed by the inspired “Leopard Man At C & A”. The lyrics are taken from an Alan Moore’s Negative Man (issue # 35 to be exact -- and yes, I Googled that). The Dirtbombs place the defiant lyrics in the midst of tribal drumming cacophony and glammy guitar lines from the Ziggy Stardust era. Great track.

Collins also taps tunes by Dead Moon and Sparks for Dirtbombs treatment. The Dead Moon cover, “Fire In The Western World” is a good companion to “Leopard Man” with military style drumming and more strong lead guitar lines. Meanwhile, the ‘bombs do a very faithful cover of “Sherlock Holmes”, and uncharacteristically sweet tune from Sparks’ 1982 new-wave masterpiece Angst In My Pants. Dig Collins showing off his falsetto.

And for those of you who don’t like songs at all, “Race to the Bottom” is 8 minutes and change of feedback, reverb and other sensory overload. It’s the song Wilco wanted to do, but didn’t have the balls to!

The Dirtbombs -- something for everyone. Well, everyone who likes their rock ‘n’ roll with a twist. And I didn’t even get to the song sung in French.

Goldfrapp -- Seventh Tree (2008)

Goldfrapp -- Seventh Tree (Mute)

I only jumped onto the Goldfrapp train with their last album, so I can’t make any knowledgeable comparisons to much of the band’s previous work. I can say that this new album is a bit more “organic” than the last one, as this is more of a slow, round about midnight effort.

I find Goldfrapp to be akin to Saint Etienne. Both groups specialize in sophisticated slices of dance inflected pop, and have the songwriting smarts to not be slaves to the BPM. It helps that Alison Goldfrapp has an angelic voice that at times is reminiscent of Kate Bush. Goldfrapp and Will Gregory compose creamy melodies for her voice to float upon, and the arrangements are so well thought out, with each instrument, whether the track is spare or jam packed, perfectly in place.

The album begins with the lush “Clowns”, Goldfrapp trilling over an acoustic guitar and pillows of string accompaniment. The string arrangement is captivating, and the multi-tracked harmonies of what sounds like a choir of Goldfrapps is breathtaking. All in support of lyrics like “roasting, roasting, roast indeed, mahagony/titties that live on and on and on.”

The album mixes the pensive, pretty tracks with insinuating mid-tempo songs like “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” (in the running for song title of the year). This track sports a slowed down R & B groove, with warm bass playing and string vamps. The groove flows into a strong melody leading to a chorus with Goldfrapp singing at the top of her range. This song is very comparable to recent Saint Etienne.

If there is a sure fire hit on this album, and trust me, there should be a few, it’s the jocular “Happiness”. Goldfrapp’s breathy vocals manage to be warm and cool at the same time, bouncing over a fingersnapping rhythm. In the midst of this giddy tuneage, the lyrics reveal the darker subject of the song -- the allure of a cult: “We can see your troubled soul/give us all your money/we’ll make it better.” Frothy subversion of the highest order.

This duality is also found on “A & E”, where Goldfrapp, where the soulful synth-pop works in service of a song about a woman who unsuccessfully committed suicide. The rhythm track sounds like Erasure slowed down, while Goldfrapp sings things like “think I want you still/but it may be pills at work.” The Kate Bush meter hits its highest level on the dramatic middle eight. This is a very poignant number.

This is an album with very appealing surfaces, but rewards those who dig a little deeper. Goldfrapp has cemented its status as a British pop treasure.

Ken Sharp -- Sonic Crayons (Unpublished 2007 Review)

Ken Sharp -- Sonic Crayons (Jet Fighter)

It’s been a while since Sharp put out his last disc, but rest assured, his pop instincts are still intact. In fact, the second song on his latest effort is a top notch bit of psych-pop (a little psych, a lot of pop). “The Man Who Couldn’t Be Wrong” sounds like a great lost Jellyfish track, with sterling lead guitar work, and fairly indignant lyrics.

Sharp looks back to more innocent times on the ‘70s AM radio style ballad “Candy”. This is a quality love song akin to artists like The Vandalias and Linus Of Hollywood. The song reaches towards the sublime after a breezy instrumental break. The emotional quality of the track is ratcheted up a couple of notches and the sadness reaches its peak with a pretty piano interlude and then stretches out with heavenly backing vocals near the end.

The electric piano makes an appearance on the slinky “Rush Rush”, an R & B inflected number in the vein of mid-‘70s Bee Gees (if Michael Quercio was the lead singer).

There are some crunchy big guitar numbers with indelible riffs, the best being “New Attitude”. Sharp deftly balances quiet acoustic verses with the larger than life choruses.

The only caveat is that Sharp’s voice may be an acquired taste for some. If you missed or didn’t get my reference to the Three O’Clock’s Quercio, let’s just say that Sharp sounds quite boyish. Which may be proof that having such a deep knowledge of pop keeps Ken Sharp forever young.

John Hoskinson -- Pancho Fantastico (Unpublished 2007 Review)

John Hoskinson -- Pancho Fantastico (Tallboy)

Hoskinson should put on his business card, “Power pop for all occasions.” The second album from this SoCal singer-songwriter is a dazzling display. He has clearly mastered the sparkling power pop sounds of the latter part of the ‘90s, and fans of artists such as Jellyfish, Doug Powell, The Tories, and The Gladhands should pass go, collect $15 or so, and order this puppy immediately, operators are standing by. However, even if the mention of any of those four artists doesn’t immediately make you a bit faint in sheer delight, hear me out.

That’s because the glossy production and ebullient melodies are not all that Hoskinson has going for him. He’s an ace songwriter, who writes terrific lyrics. Moreover, this guy is having fun. He’s not content with conquering his sound and so he does not let genre become a prison.

This leads to a gem like “Just Think It Over”. This is a lush ballad, not quite in Roy Orbison territory, but not too far away either. Hoskinson’s vocals are picture perfect, particularly his soaring tenor in the choruses. This is a gauzy love song about a guy who gets up in the middle of the night to tell his lady just how he feels. Yet there’s more than meets the eye, as revealed by the last verse. This ain’t the typical love song and it’s all the better for it.

Hoskinson breaks out the horns and a light Motown rhythm on “Make It Come True”. This bouncy track gets off to a good start. It gets even better as the song flows from verse into the slight rise of the melody in the chorus. The second verse is where classic soul backing vocals (provided by Hoskinson and labelmate Eugene Edwards) come into play, the track chugging along in a winning way. The cheery music contrasts the lyrics which detail a struggle to make a dream a reality. This song will give even a pessimist hope.

“Hard to Say” sounds like a lighter variation on some of the work of Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. At least it does in the verses. Roger Keast plays tuba, trumpet, and tuba during the verses, which sound like something from Bourbon Street with a Brecht-ian rhythm. Hoskinson has no problem juxtaposing this old school sound with some gorgeous melodic ideas, including a delightful middle eight.

While showing off all of this ability, Hoskinson’s can handle the bread-and-butter of power pop: the breezy guitar fueled song. I haven’t heard too many better this year than “Please Stay Off My Side”. Imagine a mix of Gigolo Aunts, Jason Falkner and Cheap Trick. That will give you an idea of the brilliance of this cut. It rides in on a pack of buzzing electric guitars, hits a rocking rhythm and then gathers momentum in the chorus with some urgent keyboard playing. Brian Whelan’s darting guitar solo is the icing on the cake.

For something in more of a mid-tempo, sunny vein, “She’s Changing My Mind” is an utter success. Hoskinson finds his skeptical demeanor eroding due to one particular woman: “but the cynic is undone/because now I’ve found the perfect one.” The positive lyrics are backed by plenty of guitars (including a Robbie Rist solo) and a rhythm that I couldn’t help but sway to.
My favorite song on the album is the slow and pensive “Guaranteed”. This has a very slight psych-pop feel to it, and is the most dramatic cut on the album. Here, a former lover is coming to talk to Hoskinson. And what does he have to say to her: “Don’t take my advice/you’re better off to/blindly roll the dice/more than any tips you’ll get from me.” I love the lyrical conceit and the gentle yet intent music fits the words perfectly.

I somehow missed out on Hoskinson’s debut, which is something I most certainly should rectify. He’s a major talent and has so many ideas that he should have plenty more good albums in him.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

For Against -- Shade Side Sunny Side (2008)

For Against -- Shade Side Sunny Side (Words On Music)

After album after album of great songs built on atmospheric swirling guitar, For Against’s long awaited new album manages to maintain some of the band’s musical sensibility while charting out new territory. The band still has a spacious sound, but instead of filling it with sparkling six-string sounds, the music has a much harder edge. This is the only way to accompany the bitter lyrics that Jeffrey Runnings has penned on almost every track.

The album starts off in menacing fashion. As Runnings sings, “You can only get so far/with that jenay say qwa [Pardon my phonetic French. I took Spanish in high school -- so sue me],” the instrumental backing is faint. Then Paul Englehard (drums) and Runnings (bass) kick in and Harry Dingman III unleashes lacerated guitar lines. Runnings is pissed off and the floating melodies that typify For Against tense up. The first time I heard this, it was a shock, but it’s a powerful opening cut.

“Game Over” is equally powerful, without any guitars putting it over the top. This is a haunting piano piece. As the title indicates, the relationship is done. As Runnings ruminates, he cuts back on the sorrow by noting that “sometimes it wasn’t so fun.” The song stretches out, juxtaposing the mournful, defiant verses with increasingly intense instrumental interludes, building to a slow thunderstorm of guitar fury. This song seethes so beautifully.

All throughout, Runnings keeps his lyrics fairly economical and extremely direct. There is no need for him to go overboard with the words, because the music is in perfect sympathy with what he’s singing.

Although some of this is pretty dark, there are some very strong melodies to be enjoyed. Indeed, “Underestimate” is on par with the best work of Richard Barone, either solo or with The Bongos. The downcast melody in the verse suddenly elevates into the refrain, Runnings singing as well as he ever has and showing his range. The song adds a slowed down middle eight which really brings the loathing expressed throughout the track home. Someone must have really done Runnings wrong.

Most of the album is urgent and, well, tense. But it’s channeled tension, in the classic sense of using music as a release to deal with one’s problems. This manifests itself in both the explosive “Aftertaste”, which is as rocking a number as this band has ever recorded, and the percussive “Friendly Fires”, where the rhythm carries the song, and the guitars get to the verge of breaking out, but never quite boil over. This is the heart of darkness, or the darkness of the heart, I suppose.

It is a real credit to For Against that the band continues to grow and progress musically, finding new ways to play to its strengths. For longtime fans, it might take a little bit to get used to, but this ranks right up there with For Against’s best.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Nice Outfit -- Kissing Jocelyn (2008)

The Nice Outfit -- Kissing Jocelyn (Easter)

This is a short and sharp EP from some veteran Milwaukee musicians. The music is loud, riff-oriented power pop, with some Anglophile leanings. Shall we go track-by-track? Follow me.

The title cut kicks things off, with ringing guitars (the Outfit never lacks for guitars). This mid-tempo number has a solid melody and nice harmonies, with vocals that remind me a little bit, range-wise, of Bob Geldof and Grant (The Smugglers) Lawrence. (By the way, everyone except the drummer sings here, so damned if I know who sings on this track). This is jangle supreme with ragged edges and catchy lead guitar lines that make the thing sound so darn attractive. And it’s over before you know it.

"This Time Next Year" again lets the lead guitar take you in. Then it settles into a nice little chugging rhythm that splits the difference between pub rock and early power pop. Or the latter day Replacements, if they were a bit poppier. The song conveys its mood very well, which is good, because the vocals are in the middle of the mix (not a complaint, but an observation) and not every lyric may be immediately audible.

My favorite track is "One Minute Forty-Five" which is 30 seconds longer than its title. There are more of those urgent vocals and the song starts off with a bit of rhythm guitar strum before the band kicks and gets things moving. I dig the line that gets the chorus going: "I know what life is like/a summer song." This is one of those songs that rocks without being real fast or overly loud. Instead, the band plays as if it is on the verge of exploding at any moment, without quite doing it. The Last always did this well, and this track is as good as the best of that wonderful L.A. band.

Hmm...that Last comparison really means something to me. They predated the Paisley Underground and mixed the charm of jangly folk-pop with garage rock urgency. That's not an exact fit with this band, but the end product ends up in the same wonderful place. Like The Last, all of these songs would sound swell played just on acoustic guitars. But the Outfit amps them up, infusing them with a lot of emotion. This holds true for "He Don’t Want You Now", which has a killer middle-eight and more great lead guitar work.

All of this in less than 10 minutes. I presume there’s a whole lot more good stuff in the pipeline.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

British Sea Power -- Do You Like Rock Music? (2008)

British Sea Power -- Do You Like Rock Music? (Rough Trade)

British Sea Power has always been an inviting proposition. Yet another band inspired by the original post-punk movement, BSP distinguished itself in a number of ways. First, the band displayed a cheeky sense of humor, going back to early live shows where they decorated the stage with flora, fauna, and stuffed animals (of the realistic, i.e. dead, variety, not the fun plush ones). Second, lead vocalist Yan had a powerful voice, but didn’t immediately go into Bono or Ian Curtis mode, showing off a pensive and sometimes playful personality. Third, the band simply wasn’t quite as obvious in its lifts from the past, trying to navigate its own path and find its own sound.

The first British Sea Power album, The Decline Of British Sea Power had a couple obvious anthems, and lots of exploring, which was enjoyable because the band communicated its joy of discovery. On the follow up, Open Season, the boys dialed things down a bit, as if they wanted to deliberately avoid bombast. The result was some pretty tunes and burgeoning melodic skill. But in holding back, the band went away from its strengths. The ‘Power’ in its name is not a misnomer.

Here, on the third album, everything comes together, as they soar on large rock songs that don’t have an attendant heaviness. This is big music with a deft touch.

Three songs immediately stand out as guaranteed crowd pleasers, with gigantic hooks and dazzling lead guitar lines. "No Lucifer" and "Waving Flags" are a one-two punch that very few 2008 releases will be able to top. "Lucifer" is built on pounding drums over strings and chanted vocals, and it’s enervating. Yan intones very gently over the marital drums, and the bridge holds off the momentum, which then releases in the rush of the chorus, with the guitars strumming away. The percussion really drives the track, as the guitars are never so out in front to dominate. It’s a song that is made more powerful by the fact BSP holds a little back on some fronts.

"Waving Flags" is also much more fluid than your typical rock anthem. It starts with a swirling choral effect that is strongly reminiscent of the Doves. Again, the drums are the most prominent element in the verses. Then the swirl comes back while Yan soars and the drums keep things exciting. Okay, the more I think about it, this is basically British Sea Power’s attempt at a Doves song, and they pretty much nail it.

There is one traditional riff based anthem, "Trip Out". Here, the central guitar riff keys the whole song, yet BSP doesn’t overuse it. And the drumming is, yet again, spectacular. Although this song, as with "Hey Lucifer" and "Waving Flags" is a look at militarism and sending young men to war, it’s not overly heavy.

The lyrics on all of these tracks are very interesting. Can you decry and celebrate fighting for one’s country at the same time? Based on these songs, I’d say yes. The sweep of the music is consistent with the fervor that sweeps people up in war, and the notion of a just cause. But in each song, any romanticizing of the glory ahead is done with a certain measured distance. Yan and company aren’t being tongue-in-cheek, but they aren’t selling these songs as if every word is true as it is said. British Sea Power sees things from both sides with a depth you don’t often find nowadays.

There are also moments of great beauty on this record. "The Great Skua" is a sweeping, beautiful instrumental. "Canvey Island" tells the story of a man who killed a swan and seems to be as cursed as the Ancient Mariner (with the albatross around his neck). The lone guitar in space, with strings way in the background, key this lament that is a real showcase for the pure emotion in Yan’s voice.

"Open The Door" is cut from a similar cloth. However, this song moves from it’s shuffle drums and pithy guitar figures into something much larger and enveloping. It’s yet another BSP song that has a classic feel without sounding obvious about it.

This is real stirring stuff. Although it is sometimes hard to know exactly what it’s all about, the feelings come through in every track.

Headlights -- Some Racing, Some Stopping (2008)

Headlights -- Some Racing, Some Stopping (Polyvinyl)

This album snuck up on me. The core trio of Headlights play wispy pop music that touches on lighter melodic sounds from the ‘60s and ‘70s, while incorporating some modern elements. These songs breeze by so easily, it took a few spins for them to begin to entice me.

This process was made easier by the presence of Erin Fein, who was a key member of the Champaign, Illinois band Absinthe Blind. Her pretty vocals are a more integral part of the Headlights sound, enhancing their lush sound. Tristan Wraight is also a nice presence with his calm singing.

On "Market Girl", the band displays all it strengths. The foundation of the track hearkens back to ‘80s British indie rock, with the fixed strumming acoustic guitars and a busy New Order-ish bass line. And the handclaps are a nice touch. The addition of bells and strings make it all the better. Wright sings during the pulsing verses, but the song slows and twists to a lovely string laden chorus, where Fein takes over on the vocal. It’s like the Ladybug Transistor melding with The Smiths. "Catch Them All" comes from a somewhat similar place, Wright and Fein harmonizing deliciously.

Fein takes the lead vocal on "Cherry Tulips" which has a bit of a Motown vibe and builds up nicely to the sweet chorus. The song is gentle yet moves, if you know what I mean. The arrangement is very creative, and instruments are layered to add atmosphere to this winning track.

"School Boys" starts off with a sad reverberating lead guitar line. The organ line and the rhythm are reminiscent of the early Cure (and thus, The Shout Out Louds). But the song doesn’t quite go in that direction, even with the bursts of guitar chords that fade in and out of the track. Again, strings add a whole lot to this wispy track.

This disc straddles the line between orch-pop and more straightforward indie pop. The quality is consistent, and if Headlights can up the songwriting just a bit more (many goods songs here, but no great ones), the next album could be quite something.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Afternoons -- Sweet Action (2008)

The Afternoons -- Sweet Action (Saturday)

This Cardiff band continues its classic Brit pop winning streak on its third full length. You can mention these guys (and one gal) in the same breath as The La’s, The Housemartins, The Candyskins, and the pure poppy side of Super Furry Animals -- they are that good.

Even better, The Afternoons manage the difficult trick of writing genuinely happy pop songs without being sappy, or undercutting the joy with irony (nothing against irony, mind you). Moreover, they absorb influences into their sound, making their sound pleasingly familiar without being derivative.

This is illustrated by the superb "High Summer Lovers". This fizzy hypermelodic is driven by a pulsing rhythm that sounds like a cross between Wizzard and early Roxy Music, Paul Rapi actively pounding the keys and guest Ceri Rees honking away on the sax. This is one of many tracks that screams ‘summer single!’ Another great up tempo track is the bouncing "Touch And Go", with its rubbery bass line, intent strumming and keyboard accents.

Frontman Richard Griffiths, who co-writes the songs with drummer Pete Morgan, is a real strength, with his expressive voice. Griffith’s emotionally resonant vocals are showcased on the finale, "Winter Is Dead", a soft piano ballad. While R & B is not a major part of The Afternoons’ sound, there is a soulful underpinning to this track.

Jangle fans will lap up "Don’t Turn Back (Open Your Eyes)", a variation on the motif of The La’s standard "There She Goes". This pithy tune wastes no time in hitting on both the familiar primary melody and a succulent secondary melody. The band whimsically salutes George Harrision on the mid-tempo "We Could Start Over", with a brief lead guitar interlude nicked from "My Sweet Lord".

This is a timeless set of premium pop music, just in time for spring and summer.