After a beautiful dabble with the melodictronic in the March of the Zapotec / Holland EP, Beirut have returned with a third album that ties together every theme and sound they’ve ever touched on. The darkly Balkan folk of Gulag Orkestar has been tempered, as has the beautifully ragged soaring of The Flying Club Cup, and yet the sounds have been honed rather than forgotten. Without dismissing the accordion, the horns or any of the instruments that make Beirut what they are, the band has focused. There’s a sense of purpose – in Zach Condon’s heavenly voice, in the open melodies, in the measured percussion. In many ways it would be fair to say that Beirut have trimmed the fat but the richness of what remains invalidates that metaphor entirely. Condon’s potential to be powerfully melancholic isn’t wasted either, as the title track proves with a paced, absorbing brilliance, and the under-produced Goshen too (listen for chairs creaking in the background as the band waits to awe you). And the opener! Reserve it a place in the upper decibels. Hell, I don’t know how else to rave. I thought I loved this band before.
This album is best characterised by a man sitting in a barn in the mid-West strumming out songs on a collection of very well worn instruments. You can hear his mate thumping on a bass drum in the background occasionally, giving a couple of songs that bluesy deliberateness, but really this is just a sun-beaten country man croaking out his stories. You can even hear birds twittering between tracks and towards the end of the album the crickets chirp as night falls – it’s a lovely touch. For those of you with reservations about country music, I am one of you, but this isn’t country music. It comes from the country – just as Johnny Cash did – but like Cash it’s bigger than that, enhanced rather than restricted by paced, pained, I-don’t-fuck-around simplicity. This is Iowa-born Whitmore’s seventh album and damn it if he isn’t a charismatic dude. He taps into some sort of gospel for the hardships and beauties of rural living with the soul and voice of a much older man. In the same way C.W. Stoneking defies his external appearance, Whitmore is similarly enigmatic. Unfortunately the melodic simplicity of more than one of Whitmore’s songs becomes monotonous when his lyrics occasionally lose their potency – there is alluring simplicity and then there is just plain simple – but most of the time Whitmore hits the mark. Few songwriters handle a guitar and banjo with enough confidence to carry an album, but Whitmore can.
Pandas arefamousfor two things: being undeniably cute and not being good at reproduction. This bunch of pandas could certainly be accused of the latter. After big successes at the WAMIs in ‘04 and their debut album release, This Vital Chapter,in ‘06, the lads disappeared off the scope until delivering Charisma Weapon this July. The music is inventive and bold with a deliberate intention to challenge and confront. The album makes a statement that pop does not have to conform to the usual pattern of a single, smooth flowing, repetitive melody and rhythm. Cacophony, rather than harmony, is often king and a few calculated off key sounds are thrown in for fun. The opener We’re Almost Not Even Here throws together a zany mix of melodies and vocals in a semi-random manner. There are elements of prog rock evident as the song morphs as it advances. 51 Swimsuits,a sarcastic take on beauty competitions, has a carnival atmosphere to it, with the injection of intentionally jarring sounds. In Alligators, jumbled tempos spear off at tangents to each other, giving the track a clunky feel.Don’t expect to fall for this CD first pop, but it does grow on you the more you press play. Apart from the opener, the highlights come late in the track-list with the perky multi-mix of rhythms in Where The River Rises,and Cliff Dweller with its intriguing melodic mix surrounding the axis of a driving dance beat.
Bonfires in Silver City is a little beauty in the same vein as Lucie Thorne’s last release, Black Across the Field. Rhythms evoke the colour and texture of the NSW far south coast, which is the singer-songwriter’s abode. The opener Falling is classic Lucie, showcasing the elfin voice that is more a whisper than a song. While famous for her low, soothing tone, the faster songs such as Big News excite as her voice rises to match the electric accompaniment. This is a very crisp production, with a true sound producing a ‘right next to you’ feel. There’s a special bonus in Sweet Turnaround in which Lucie teams up with the deep vocals of soul singer Jo Jo Smith. Another highlight is Can’t Sleep for Dreaming which seduces the listener with the growling bass of Dave Symes and the shrill organ of Chris Abrahams. Great Wave, resonating with hidden meanings, rolls seamlessly into the gentle instrumental Correspondent. I listened hopefully for a song to match Alice, the pivotal highlight from her last record. There was nothing to quite match it, but a treat came in the form of Noir, a ballad laden with conflicting emotions and easily the most beautiful gem on this CD. The album ends with the luminescence of When I Get There, which repeatedly shimmers with the shushing sound of a struck gong. Lucie will sooth the punters’ troubled minds when she plays in our fair city on Sunday September 4.
What strikes the listener on this beautifully remastered album originally released in 1998, is the stunning sound quality with vocal and instrumental parts in sparkling clarity. Mercury Rev were in the habit of recording onto magnetic film tape, and a standout bit on the 1992 debut Yerself is Steam is the expansive sound. When that album hit the shelves raw production values and dirty guitars excited the public imagination, and although great washes of noise took hold whenever the music peaked, there was nevertheless an obsessive attention to detail accentuated by a meticulously crafted spaciousness. Although the band managed to hang in with a major label despite the affecting strangeness of the music it looked as if Rev was finished when Deserter’s Songs dropped in the lap of record label executives in 1998. This album became one of the finest of that decade with a heightened creativity birthing a cosmic Americana song cycle of epic proportions, and Jonathan Donahue pitching his vocals to just the right level of melancholy without overstatement on lines like, “she collapses down upon the ocean floor again.” A dreamy pensiveness and longing for unnameable lost things seeps into music that is simply beautiful in its intent and execution, much like Brian Wilson attempted on his magnum opus Smile. Although the bonus material on this essential reissue offers worthwhile glimpses of songs in their untreated state, the final versions are what matter.
Few bands get the party started like CSS. Their blend of cheeky high-energy guitar-infused synth-pop has been filling dance floors everywhere since the release of debut Cansei De Ser Sexy in 2006. New release La Liberación sees the band return with new material for the first time in three years. CSS is largely the vision of two people; ball of energy lead singer Lovefoxxx and multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/producer Adriano Cintra. Second release Donkey was met with a lukewarm reception, criticised for lacking the energy and hooks that oozed out so effortlessly on their debut. Whilst most in this situation would have caved under pressure and sought an external producer, CSS took a risk and kept things self-produced. That risk has payed off.
La Liberación is a welcome return to form. Opening track I Love You is classic naughty CSS; dramatic and dirty synths, an epic hook and a chorus that is both dangerously catchy and effortlessly simple. Whereas Donkey fell away quickly, La Liberación keeps the energy up. Hits Me Like a Rock (featuring Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie) is more upbeat reggae than all out dance-pop, but just works. Title track La Liberación draws on Argentinean punk and provides a brief pause between more dance-oriented tracks.
What is displayed on La Liberación is a truly masterful understanding of pop music, and a seemingly effortless ability to walk the fine line between tackiness and sarcastic homage.
Tribute albums are fiendish. The pull between being faithful to the source material to the point of miserable reverence and the urge to express individuality through ill-advised discursions into frippery is so strong that most tribute albums gather dust barely after one listen. But Steve Cropper has done the impossible – made an album that dutifully honours its subject and stands alone as a collection of songs, not merely rough-hewn covers.
The 5 Royales were a little-known but influential gospel, soul and nascent rock ‘n’ roll band from North Carolina from the mid part of the last century. Cropper is the legendary guitarist for Stax label’s in-house band Booker T and MG’s and co-wrote some of the greatest songs of the modern era – Soul Man, (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, In The Midnight Hour. His terse, expressive hi-treble twang defined the soul-rock-funk crossover but as Cropper admits he was merely copying The 5 Royales’ Lowman Pauling.
You’d assume most modern listeners are hearing much of this music for the first time – so the thrill of discovery is part of the appeal. And when you have Steve Winwood, Lucinda Williams, Sharon Jones and B.B King (amongst others) on board there’s the risk of muddying the waters. Yet the multiple vocalists fit perfectly from Cropper’s funky but not overly-respectful arrangements. Dedicated is neo soul, doo-wop and funk done by the best in the business and a tribute album that actually works.