Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest (Because)



First published at:

Sung mostly in French, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new album, Rest, is no simple melancholic melodrama. There’s no bitchin’, cussin’ or swooning; no mumbling oaths or references to languid loss or betrayed consciousness. Instead we find her caught up in a tangle of grief, history and family legacies. It is both personal and intimate, yet cinematic and more oversized than an IMAX screening.

Being the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French musical icon/perv/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg Charlotte Gainsbourg never had a chance. With her family constantly in the spotlight, it was never likely that she would grow up to be a bank teller. Even as a young actor, the talent apple never fell far from the tree. She debuted on the silver screen as a precocious adolescent as Catherine Deneuve’s daughter in the film Paroles et musique (1984). Two years later she scooped a César Award (the French Oscar’s) for “Most Promising Actress” for L’effrontée. Since then she’s made dozens of French films and several more for controversial film maker Lars Von Trier.

Her music career also started with some attention when she sung with her father on the song Lemon Incest at the age of 12 and released an album with her father at the age of 15. Since then her releases have been more sporadic, but thanks to her collaborations with Jarvis Cocker, Air and Daft Punk, her album releases have become global events. The 2006 effort 5:55 was largely written by Cocker and the French electro-pop duo Air. And then she topped that one with 2009’s IRM, written and produced by Beck, apparently inspired by Gainsbourg’s 2007 head injury.

Like her father, her albums have been consistently lush, forward-thinking, well-crafted, challenging with their ideology, and pristine in their recording. She moves between simple guitars to overt orchestration as if it was simply an extension of her imagination. And you can’t discount her sexy, breathy, delicate and vulnerable vocals which often sound like a very young Jane Birkin – no surprise really, as all of this is part of the Gainsbourg family trademark.

However, despite all of this, as an artist we’ve never really seen the real Charlotte: – her feelings and her perspectives and observations. She prefers to hide amongst the music and lyrics of others. These individual stories are what makes us human, performance is only half of it. There’s only so much you can say with aesthetics. At some point, as a singer you must reveal and uncover with your own words, to let us know what’s really in there.

And so, on this new album Rest, Gainsbourg finally opens up and gives us her story, partially inspired by her grief following the death of her sister Kate Barry, who fell from the window of her Paris apartment in 2013. This is the first time she’s written her own lyrics, which move fluidly between French and English as she laments her sister, idolises her father and, through the eyes of her children laments how time passes so quickly and how life is so fleeting (the deliciously lush Dans Vos Airs Gainsbourg reflects on being a parent). On the surface. It all sounds a bit morbid and laconic but somehow her ‘Frenchness’ manages to make it all very beautiful.

The album’s title reveals all of the meaning: In English “Rest,” evoking eternal rest; in death; on the gravestone and in the religious connotations of the afterlife. However, in French when Gainsbourg sings, “reste,” she means means “stay”, remain, do not depart, eternally present – constant, even. Of all here, the title song was written in the closest proximity to her sister’s passing. It seems like she is simultaneously laying the body to rest and willing her to remain. “Reste avec moi s’il te plaît” (Stay with me please). It is a song is something of a low-key but slightly sci-fi -lullaby dedicated to lost loved ones. It was penned by and produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and, naturally shines like a beacon. It compliments Gainsbourg’s whispered vocals, and her intriguing lyrics that tell of ‘walking on air’ and ‘moonlit skies’. And because of its reserved, economic treatment it’s a clear standout.

It has been revealed that Gainsbourg’s sister may have fallen intentionally. If so, that makes the hurt even more intense. And in her song Kate, which is sung in French, Gainsbourg yearns for their life remain untouched; to remain together; to continue as it was: “On d’vait vieillir ensemble” (We should grow old together.)

Elsewhere, Gainsbourg incorporates childhood memories, playground games like on the dirge-like song Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses and fans of ex-Beatle Sir Paul will sit up and take notice of Songbird in a Cage, which was written and performed with McCartney, no less. And no surprise that it sounds just like one of his, too.

Sonically, if that is the right way to consider this, Rest is composed and produced under the watchful eye of Frank Ocean’s producer DJ SebastiAn (aka Sebastian Akchoté) who applies a rather predictable cinematic quality to the album’s electro-pop tracks such as the urgent and ominous Lying With You. Given that I’ve only just seen Branagh’s recent remake of Ms AG’s Murder on The Orient Express, I was instantly reminded of the film when I heard the playful Rococo-tinged number I’m A Lie. The track grows quietly on your subconscious, like the gnawing in Poroit’s brain cells when he’s problem solving. That’s probably helped along by the vaguely creepy synth hook paired with lyrics (in French, again) that describe physiological distress of longing and desire. “J’entretiens l’inconfort / À l’allure qui dort “(I maintain the discomfort / At the pace that sleeps) and later in the song she sings “Je m’installe sans pudeur / Face à mes repentirs / Vieux tracas, tendres peurs” (I settle without modesty / Facing my repentance / Old worries, tender fears).

DJ SebastiAn is responsible for the big beats on this album. From funky bass lines and sturdy, meaty beats to sweeping orchestral synths and some very elegant keyboard intervals he adds the colours that make up this variable palate. Although he’s not alone, co-producing alongside Danger Mouse and our own son, Connan Mockasin, plus some strings and horns arranged by Owen Pallett.

Still, it’s DJ SebastiAn’s versatility that surprises when he resets poet Sylvia Plath’s lines to a shimmering disco thumper – totally unexpected. Sylvia Says is a perplexingly funky but delightful nod to Plath’s poem Mad Girl’s Love Song (1953) (which feature the lines: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead/ I lift my lids and all is born again. / (I think I made you up inside my head.”

On her six-minute epic, Deadly Valentine, Gainsbourg she appropriates traditional wedding vows and delivers them in an unnerving, half-whispered/half sung manner that reminds me of David Lynch movies. Only the sweeping strings that swell the drama save it from diving deep into Blue Velvet territory. Only just. With images of demented nuptials and brides floating in water, close to drowning, close to ascending, the metaphors for grief are endless and overwhelmingly French. For only they could do this so well and get away with it.

Like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s entire career, Rest is imperfect, but remains beguiling and important. She almost wants to produce music that is slightly damaged and incomplete, lest you become satisfied and move on and away to someone else. Now that she’s pouring more of heart into her music, the need to remain compelling to give voice and an audience is more and more necessary. Yet, songs as deep as these also affirm life, transforming individual and personal suffering into something public. It’s a brave woman that can do that. There are few things are more terrifying than exposing raw wounds to others.

Tim Gruar






Album review: Typhoon – Offerings (Roll Call)

TyphoonWith songs that are dreamy, anxious, bombastic but yet fragile Portland’s beloved 11-piece collective, Typhoon, are everything I love about America’s art rock scene right now. They are Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear and Portugal The Man all at once. I just wish they’d choose something a bit more up-beat to write about.

“Listen, of all the things you’re about to lose/This will be the most painful,” declares vocalist Kyle Morton on the quiet storm, Wake, which opens this album, “This is not your loss, this is your offering”. You must ask if that’s a funeral party or a new dawning he’s referring to. In some ways, it is the start and the end of it all. “Wake and I have been reborn/The tide concedes that homely shore and I am benighted/All my lines unlearned/Cry out, “Will God, or somebody, please turn the light on?”” Musically this song barely breaths, hovering like gossamer above the lowest decibel before exploding at the ending into a rallying cry – a call to arms. Or maybe a confessional invite.

The song is also the disclaimer for the album’s concept which centres on a fictional character who is slowly losing his memory. This is something I’ve experienced very recently, as I watched a bright and vibrant soul wither to a dried husk as a result of Alzheimer’s. For me this was a painful listen and all too real at times. How could he know what I’d gone through?

Maybe Morton was speaking for himself or maybe he was channeling his influences like David Lynch, Federici Fellini and Christopher Nolan, providing a slightly surrealist mirror of all the sensations of fear, anxiety and claustrophobia. Over and over the album asks questions about what happens to a person when they lose their sense of self and history. ‘Do we cease to be?’ On Darker this is harshly revealed: “I don’t wanna live with the kinds of trouble I keep finding myself in/Mirror to my left, and mirror to my right/A void stretching out on either side/Is it your face or mine?”

It’s a deeply moving and challenging album and ambitious, not shying away from contemporary life and the feelings of fear and anxiety. To navigate the album, one requires some inside knowledge: It is divided into four movements (Floodplains, Flood, Reckoning, and Afterparty) to represent the mental phases the main character goes through where he first realizes that he’s going downhill, then the struggle to hold on, the chaos of the new reality, and finally, the acceptance before he succumbs to this horrific fate. In one sense this is pure opera, theatre macabre and reality, all too real. I saw this happen with my own eyes. This is how it happens. Anyone who’s experienced people with mental illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s will tell you.

This is a literate and wordy album and you will need liner notes (which are, fortunately available on the web). It also helps if you’re well read – unlike my self – or at least can access Google. It is packed with ancient and modern, and with tracks titled Empiricist and Chiaroscuro, as well as references to writers as varied as Dante and Samuel Beckett it’s a complex and often bleak listen. At times the general themes and narratives can be emotionally cold at times. The quiet, clinical track Chiaroscuro, in particular sounds like a Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens song, particularly from the recent album about his parents. The lyrics give us a stark kitchen sink drama of decline: “Car keys clatter on the tile/You lunge for the phone/Your voice like a frightened child/“He’s had some kinda stroke!”/Be calm my dear/I’m just moving a little slow/As it all approaches absolute zero.”

The story continues on Darker, which whilst more upbeat is far more sinister, too. The lines

How long can I keep this tired act together?/It’s a short ambulance ride and then the waiting room forever/So tell me how do I make the right move now?/Prepare me for the moment when my mind goes out/I am trying hard to follow the sound.”

You cannot fault the undoubted ambition and detailing that intertwines. From a compositional point of view, this one has a fierce collection of light and shade, ebb and flow, release and hold. One example is the fractured approach taken on Rorschach which samples not only indie rock, demented song writing in the verses and the emotional vocal manipulations employed by Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver. Also in there is a pristine violin, distorted interruptions and some semi-apocalyptic imagery. It reminded me of songs like Funeral by Arcade Fire and earlier material from Burial.

While that was one of the more accessible songs Offerings is not always so easy. At times it becomes overwhelmingly claustrophobic. Unusual shows us that even when pitched in surrealistic clothing the position of losing your mind is far from extra ordinary: “In his brave new world/It’s gonna take some getting used to/The cretin’s lips are curled/He swings a wrecking ball around the court room/And I’d say, “Just wait it out”/But I’m afraid it’s just a desert beyond the sand dune”. To make matters worse Morton turns the lost imagery into a courtroom drama, as if mental decay is a felony of some sort: “It’s unusual/Yeah I know I must be losing my mind/Yeah it’s cruel and unusual/Can’t tell the punishment apart from the crime/You’re running out of time”. The song finishes with a clutter of voices and wormhole distortions spiralling into an empty void as if our hero is being sucked up into a wasteland on nothing.

By the end of this record, which Morton calls the ‘fourth movement’, the poor fellow has been beaten in to acceptance, leaving behind exhausted, ruined listeners. Sleep, appropriately named is the final nightmare: “It’s a mixed bag for the living/Full of sorrow, full of grief/And the moment stretches on…Like a self-enclosed short circuit goes around forever until it’s gone”.

The hidden track that bookends Sleep (appropriately labelled Afterparty) brings us back to the wake that opened it all. Staring off like a sing-a-long at an Irish pub wake – boisterous and lustrous before developing into the finale of some imaginary Broadway musical we finally get that release all souls have when they reach Heaven, and all is restored (we hope). So, goes the chorus: “Out of time and out of place/From the mortal coil deliver/To the great expanse found in the space/Between celestial fissures/Where the sick or soft of mind/Where they’re hardly disfigured/You shed your clothes, you jump the boat/And join us in the river”.

This might be a sprawling, ambitious work but it offers a lot. I also came out of it in a fevered panic of doom. Having lived with a man who has gone through this for real, it was achingly real and devastating. I hate this band for creating this wonderful awful truth. Every line and every emotion on this rollercoaster ride seemed so real. No one else, even Trent Reznor, could make this scalpel cut so close.

Estere – The 13th Floor Interview

Originally appeared at:

Wellington musician Estere Dalton is about begin her My Design (Part 1) Release Tour, starting in her hometown on December 1. Tim Gruar had a bit of a catch-up with Estere prior to getting this show on the road.

The first time I met Estere was over 2 years ago when she gave a short and quirky performance in front of officials, politicians and dignitaries during the official launch of WOMAD 2015 at Parliament. At that stage, she was still a bit nervous and shy. Why wouldn’t you be? After all she’d only played a handful of times as a soloist and this was one of the biggest festivals in the country – technically global! Estere went on to play a stunning performance on the Gables stage at the New Plymouth Festival, where I met her again. Only this time she was interviewed and photographed by my daughter McKenzie, only 13 at the time. It was there that we, and the audience got to know this funny, charming, gracious, and articulate performer.

At that stage, she also had a unique selling point. Whilst she had plenty of friends, she considered some of her best mates to be machines – one in particular. A humble and loyal bandmate called Lola, an MPC, with which she has a kind of “parent-daughter vibe going, I nurture her, she’s my child. Estere told me that she had nothing against men, or women, playing in a band but she loved the autonomy and control she got from her digital friends. Before going solo she spent time in a “psychedelic neo-soul hip-hop chunk funk” collective known as Brockaflowersaurus-Rex & The Blueberry Biscuits – possibly the worse band name ever – but also the launch pad for three of the Capitals’ most extraordinary singers Louis Baker; Zoe Moon Mahal (daughter of Taj Mahal) and of course, Estere.

On her own, she was her own boss, controlling everything, taking on every aspect of the creative output – singing, writing, rapping, engineering, mixing even making the original samples by banging things like drumsticks against a desk and recording it or singing a specific note and then looping and making. “I love owning it all,” she told Mkenzie in that first WOMAD interview. I’m such a sound nerd. I did a Ted Talk about taking it back, not being just a pretty face in front of the big machine. It’s called “Girls in the Beat World”. It’s about sexism in the industry, making beats and the fun of making records in your pyjamas at home on a Friday evening!”. To McKenzie, she gave the best advice – be your own person, and follow your dreams, no matter what they are.

Given her penchant for digital-toys, I had to asked her if she was on first name terms with the owners of the local Rock Shop. “Amongst others,” she laughs, “I think they see me coming now and polish the shiny ones, to attract me. I can visualise what name I’ll give each one and their part in my little whanau.” Her synthesiser, the one that barks out grungy beats, is called Korgi.

However, when it came to taking her compositions into the studio she did concede that a little flesh and blood was required. Hence, she enlisted the help of Grayson Gilmour’s guitars, Matt Isaac (clarinet); Matt Steel (Piano) and a collection of horn players on various tunes. I want to call her out as a sell out to her own ideals but she tempers that. “The music was all created by my machine friends. Sometimes almost without me even in control, like I just pushed a button and there it is. But also electronic music is about layering So with the help of Lee (Prebble’s) Surgery Studios and him at the helm we got to do that. Digital meets organic, I guess.” Mixing self-produced backing tracks that vary from airy, jazzy soul to heavy nightclub EDM bangers, her music is an organic blend of family bonds, cultural diversity, comments on human human behavioural patterns, and coments on how we embrace, reset and resign to technological advancement. It’s organic and mechanic.

‘Organic’ could also describe the way that she’s been releasing this new album – like all her work – in dribs and drabs – a single here, an EP there, another single, a video, etc. “Needs must. And I’m quick and impatient. I want immediacy, I supposed. To know what you think – right now. It is a quirky way to get a record out there, I guess. So I just put out my six-track EP (My Design Part 1) and then a second EP (On Others’ Lives) will be available in March next year.” Together they are a full album: My Design, On Others’ Lives. I wanted to release them like a chapter of a book, with some space between each one (i.e. time) or like those old fashion movie serials. That way give the songs get a a chance to breathe, be absorbed and noticed instead of getting lost all together in one big collection. I think people are just too busy to stop and suck up an album all at once. When was the last time you got through a whole album on the bus to work or walking the dog?” Another ‘quirk’ of this release is that she’s dropping them in the chronological order of their conception. “I think that’s giving them a kind of freshness, too.”

Songwriter- wise, she’s not one for the mushy ballads. That’s Adele’s job. “I like to imagine places, the universe through lives of a range of characters I invent, like aviators in the real world telling you about what they are seeing and feeling. Different ages, cultures, backgrounds, and sometimes they aren’t even human”.

Her ‘album’ draws on her job as at times. 9 to 5, Estere spends many hours amongst the machinations of humankind, tutoring Anthropology Victoria University of Wellington. But when the sun goes down she retreats to her room in an old Mt Vic Villa to mix up jazz inspired hip hop, damaged beats, and “scrunched” soul into a brew she calls “electric blue witch-hop” with the help of a collection of very cool digital toys.

Her music, she concedes is a sort of audio document to that. “Anthropology (the study of human behaviour) like a lens from which I can look at the world around us”. Initially, she says that her major was psychology “but I ended up started diagnosing myself all the time with mental illnesses! Knowing too much is not good for you sometimes. Moving to philosophy and anthropology was not only good for her soul but for her creativity as well. She love cultural anthropology, which seeks to draw comparisons between different groups of people.

Anthropologically, Estere is a child of the world with family and roots spread as wide as Africa and France. “As someone with a mixed cultural background, I look at what I can use in my music, there’s so many rich influences”.

Estere, who’s name means “morning star” was born on Waiheke Island but grew up in Wellington. “Mum is Pākehā and lives in Aotearoa. My father is from Cameroon. He’s over in France with two of his brothers”. Estere says she’s lived in France and Germany as a teenager. She was taken by the way people from different cultural backgrounds mixed and how they interpreted information in the context of their own culture. “My songs are sometimes inspired by inspired looking at someone and their status and position from a different point of view – through their lens. “You can see that in the track Vietnam. “The lyrics are constructed around Vietnam’s history, from their point of view. And I wanted the feel of the place so I recorded the sounds of a bamboo plantation and forests from trips and I repurposed those for the song. When I was there, I kept hearing these trees knocking together, and so I recording them and sped up my sample to make it lie a percussion piece, a sort of loop with this crinkly, clashing sound. I knew how war had impacted this country. you can imagine always being on high alert with those sounds being your only warnings. I think it heightens the senses and helps you to think about the ongoing psychological impacts of conflict.”

Control Freak, which has a startling video by her partner director Paascalino Schaller, was more global in its themes drawing on everything from American elections to raising children. The video shows the manipulation of an auditioned applying to be in a show, requiring dancing styles that will remind you of Flashdance. “We brainstormed that one for a while. The 80’s were big hair and big egos. Sexist was clashing against money and fashion. It made sense. The music and lyrics and visuals all talk about the universal human condition. It’s about power and the struggle to control our surroundings and the pleasure of benign things to our will”.

Conjuring up one of her characters, the song Ambition is about a high-class call girl who dreams of standing for election to the White House. “We made this video with her dancing in massage parlour in a red classy dress surrounded by these sexy men in tuxedos. Kind of Maddonna-ish, I think.”

By contrast Pro-Bono Techno Zone has raucous blaring trumpets and a phat electro-bass throb but this ain’t no ordinary dance track as it contemplates the loss of ‘real-world connectedness’ thanks to overloads from social media, internet and television.

The most beautiful has to be her song Grandmother – about Estere’s paternal grandmother, whose has the same name but she’s only ever met in photos. She passed away before Estere could make it to Cameroon to see her. It’s the one really personal nod to her predicament of being so far from family members down her in the bottom of the Pacific and the loss you sometimes get of never meeting whanau you’ve heard about all your life. “It’s the only love song on the album, to my grandmother Estere”

Estere finally got to Africa and got a gig playing to a show of 5000 in Mozambique and more in South Africa, including a very special one in an underground amphitheatre in the desert in Swaziland. She doesn’t reveal much about that show, except it was a very long drive. But she does tell me about the shoot for a video for Grandmother. “We went down to Cape Town, near the beaches and made it there. We managed to get Sindiwe Magona (African author, actress and UN representative) to play the ‘role’ of my grandmother in the video. She was so gracious. She really understood my tribute and why I needed to film in Africa, where she was from.”

By now, I’m exhausted just compiling this piece but since my interview I’ve learned that she’s also done another three months performing across Europe last year, including Glastonbury Festival, to about 170,000 punters and a pile of events in Denmark, Australia, South Korea, New Caledonia, France. And anyone who saw Bic Runga’s tour recently will have already seen Estere. Bic’s a real fan. Perhaps the kiwi tour will be a bit more ‘intimate’, compared to those big international venues. But if you’ve got any sense, you better head along soon, before she heads overseas and the world swallows her up again.

Tim Gruar



initially from:

Grant Hart, a drummer, vocalist and songwriter for the influential Minnesota rock band Hüsker Dü, died on Wednesday. He was 56.

The band’s publicist, Ken Weinstein, said the cause was cancer.

Hüsker Dü was formed by Mr. Hart, the guitarist and singer Bob Mould and the bassist Greg Norton in the late 1970s in St. Paul. It soon became known for high-volume blasts of heart-quickening rock that could not quite disguise the hooks buried beneath the noise.

An early member of the hardcore movement, Hüsker Dü was a prolific presence in the 1980s, releasing six albums in fewer than six years. The band’s 1984 double album, “Zen Arcade,” was lauded by Robert Palmer of The New York Times, who said it might be the best record “to have emerged from the hardcore scene.”

Challenging punk orthodoxy with experimental takes on the genre and ambitious narrative elements, “Zen Arcade” introduced the band to a wider audience and reimagined the boundaries of hardcore.

Mr. Hart and Mr. Mould met in a record store in 1978 and soon began to play together, along with Mr. Norton, whom Mr. Mould had known previously. The group bonded over their love of significant punk bands of the decade, including the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

Though Mr. Hart was bisexual and Mr. Mould was gay, their sexual orientation was not a major part of the band’s identity.

“Really, it didn’t define much about the band,” Mr. Hart told the website The A.V. Club in 2000. “If anything, it would have been just another question mark, because we were so unlike the stereotype du jour.”

Mr. Hart and Mr. Mould, both independent-minded musicians, frequently clashed over the band’s direction — both were songwriters — and the group’s contentious breakup, late in 1987, came in the wake of substance-abuse accusations.

“I didn’t enjoy playing hardcore,” Mr. Hart said in the A.V. Club interview. “At the time, while I was drummer for Hüsker Dü even though I played other instruments, it was just such a damn boring job for a drummer.”

He said that even as he began to infuse the band’s albums with more of his ideas, Mr. Mould pushed back in what Mr. Hart characterized as a “showdown,” saying that the group would never be an even split in terms of their ideas.

Mr. Mould said in a Facebook post that Mr. Hart’s death was not unexpected, and he acknowledged their occasional differences.

“We (almost) always agreed on how to present our collective work to the world,” Mr. Mould wrote. “When we fought about the details, it was because we both cared.”

Mr. Hart’s contributions as drummer were not as visible as those of Mr. Mould, the more obvious bandleader. But Mr. Hart had plenty of devotees, as evidenced by the song the Washington band the Posies wrote and dedicated to him.

Mr. Hart wrote two songs released as singles from the band’s major-label debut album, “Candy Apple Grey” (1986) — “Sorry Somehow” and “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” — as well as two of the band’s most beloved tracks on “Zen Arcade”: “Turn on the News” and “Pink Turns to Blue.”

Ken Shipley, an owner of the reissue label the Numero Group, which is releasing a boxed set of early Hüsker Dü material in November, remembered Mr. Hart in a statement as “disarming and masterminding all at once.”

“Grant was tortured for sure, but he had a hell of a lot of fun bringing you in on the joke, even if you were part of the punch line,” he wrote.

Grantzberg Vernon Hart was born on March 18, 1961, and raised in St. Paul. He started playing music professionally at age 13 and had been in several bands before joining Hüsker Dü. After its breakup, he formed other bands and released his own music intermittently.

An accomplished visual artist who designed Hüsker Dü’s album art, Mr. Hart continued to draw and to read poetry in recent years.

He is survived by his wife, Brigid McGough, and a son, Karl.

Mr. Hart’s fourth and final solo album, “The Argument” (2013), was a much-praised testament to his ambition, drawing on William S. Burroughs’s unpublished adaptation of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

“Savage Young Dü,” the boxed set, is due to be released on Nov. 10.

“We pushed as hard as we could to get this beast into the wild, but it wasn’t hard enough,” Mr. Shipley wrote.

Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine (EMI)

Paul-Kelly-Life-Is-FineNot drowning but waving.  The cover of Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s new album indicates that he’s back in safer waters with a revisit his 1990s pop repetoire.   These are the waters that vividly recall his surging pop-rock fortunes of the Nineties.  

Literally, that’s true.  With long time backing vocalist Linda Bull taking own his own song Don’t Explain(from Live, 1992) with a full band behind her to add more ‘oomph’ to her powerful delivery.  Not that she needed it.  And just to show there’s no favouritism Vika Bull, Linda’s vocal partner in rhyme gets to complain her ears out with a thumping rendition of My Man’s Got a Cold, the eternal classic whinge in many a classic Aussie household concept.  But then Kelly’s always been a keen observer of the domestic, ready to sweat the small stuff

Kelly’s band on this record is a bit of a blast from the recent past, as it includes many of the crew who made 2014’s Merri Soul Sessions.  Alongside the brilliant Vika and Linda are Ashley Naylor (guitar); Bill McDonald (bass); Cameron Bruce (keyboards); and Peter Luscombe on drums.  It’s a a group of friends and familiars.   And they go way back.  That helps.

Relatable and reliable, sur, but sometimes a little restless. Kelly has taken some odd detours lately.  His last album was a collection of songs he’d been asked to perform at funerals and before that a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music.

Life Is Fine is a shameless attempt to time travel back and recapture the energy and vibe records such as Post. But this time Kelly’s collection is without a concept, rhyme or reason, nothing to confine him.  It’s just a Paul Kelly album without choirs, Shakespeare or any other themes – except, maybe ‘water’.

He’s returned to the piano, even learning to play better, which seems to have invigorated him as a songwriter, takes everything back to basics.  So ‘simplicity’ is at the core of the songs Finally Something GoodMy Man’s Got a Cold and I Smell Trouble. The latter, especially, is surely one of Kelly’s best songs in ages and reminds me just a little of his classic Sweet Guy (1989).

If you remember the wonderfully mundane romance of his tune Winter Coat (1991), then you’ll appreciate the first single Firewood and Candles which has a similar feel.   Maybe it’s his voice, maybe it’s the arrangement or perhaps the simple and clear lyrics.  Whatever the case, it feels genuine and down to earth – as if you might know the people in this scenario. It totally feels like one of his 80’s numbers.

Wanting this to be an upbeat record Kelly worked with Steve Schram (The Cat Empire), who engineered and co-produced. He likes to work really fast and get the performance of the band live in the studio, vocals and all at the same time.  You can hear this immediacy in the sound of the record.  It’s vibrant and lively.

Kelly’s enduring songwriting mojo is his continual drive to break old habits, find new ways to extend his creative powers.  But also, to link old songs with new.  Which is probably where the water theme comes from.

Early songs featured biblical references and fishing in streams, metaphors for atonement. The album’s title track has the lines “If that water hadn’t been so cold I might have sunk and died”.  Morbid but positive?  Actually, it’s not Kelly;s line  but that of American poet Langston Hughes, who died in 1967.  Still, Kelly can’t help appropriating it and mixing it with a Stevie Smith reference by “Not drowning, waving” on the cover of his album.  You get the feeling that the ‘fine’ reference is about details, like the ripples on a calm lake – individually, nothing but collectively the .sum of all nervous, unpredictable energies.  He actually says that:

Fans of Kelly can be certain – Life Is Fine is one of his  strongest and most evocative albums for years, Another reason to buy vinyl – so you can stack this treasure proudly next any of his earlier classic albums.

The Black Seeds: The 13th Floor interview


Originally published:

The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to The Black Seeds’ Barnaby Weir in anticipation of the release of the band’s new album, Fabric, due out this Friday.

Having just arrived back from a 10-date US and Canadian tour, Barnaby Weir, founding member and one of the main song writing forces behind Wellington’s enigmatic reggae outfit The Black Seeds is happy to be back home.

The tour was intense and busy. “It was exhausting, but fulfilling,” Barnaby tells me, over the phone from his home in the Capital.  “12 Dates in 15 days!  But, the usual… low budget, all in the van, all out, set up, sound check, play the gig and off again.  Plenty of fan time, though.  2 days off in the entire tour!”

The band has had a strong following Stateside for a number of years and continues to nurture that with regular visits.  That works both ways.  Kiwi fans will remember a memorable local a few back here with US dub crew John Brown’s Body.  Barnaby reckons the Reggae dub scene in the US is still strong.  “Smaller than mainstream but very dedicated.”

Some fans even turned out to one of the Black Seeds gigs at a Las Vegas bowling alley.  Luckily, their played loud enough to drown out the sounds of crashing pins and strikes.  They also got to play the Victoria Ska Festival in Canada.  “This is a 5-day thing, plenty of variety with the bands.”

I asked him if America felt any different, post-election.  “You mean now Trump’s in?  No.  Not really.  That’s what I noted.  Americans just seem to get on with everything the same as before.  He might be in the news a lot but most of the people that were up with politics and that were foreigners.  The locals were too busy with their lives.  They were (resilient) enough to keep going.  Most of the people we met wanted to know about New Zealand.  They were keen to learn about us.  That hasn’t really changed”

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from The Black Seeds but that doesn’t mean that Barnaby or any of the other band members have been sitting on their hands.  The last time we talked, Barnaby reminds me, was just before Christmas, when he was knee deep in preparations for the upcoming Fly My Pretties (String Theory) shows.  At the time, he’d hinted that the Black Seeds had been recording again and something was ready to drop.  And at last, he says, “Yes, it is ready.” The new album, Fabric, due for release in early September, and will be the band’s 6th studio album.  Five years on from Dust and Dirt the band returns to a more upbeat party feel.  That’s a result of their constant touring as perennial festival favourites that have seen them funk up the stages in nearly every corner of the globe.  “We’ve learned what makes people move.”

Earlier this year they dropped the single Better Days, penned by Barnaby, to mark the Band’s return.  It’s an upbeat and positive feel good song, he says.  “We wanted to install that good vibe again.  I wanted to write a really good Rock Steady tune.  So, I sat down and got this one out then took it to the band.”

“Taking it to the band” is always a small challenge with this group.  Between world touring, festival commitments and juggling individual projects (these guys are always busy and in high demand) The Black Seeds finally found some solid time to focus their efforts.  Barnaby says that the bulk of the work went on last year and early this year at long-time collaborator (Dr) Lee Prebble’s famous Wellington studio The Surgery.  “We tend to ‘binge’ record.  We did this over four big bookings, working 24 hours a day in shifts.  Efforts are tense but good.  It’s like the project needs to start and end.  If it drags on we lose interest and momentum.”

One result of that ‘focus’ is the intense kinetic energy you get within the album and that makes it physically infectious.  “You definitely want to ‘move’ when you hear this.”  And there are definite moments times for this.  Styles change.  From the uplifting dance hall stomp of Better Days to the gorgeous nostalgic late 70s/early 80s R’n’B funk of Freakin’ and the dirty bass groove you can hear in Everybody Knows.  They continue to rethink and rework all their influences.  And there’s plenty more to discover, too.  The title track is a nod to previous more experimental efforts but with a deliberate intention to be a crowd pleaser.

Having worked long time with both a steady band and an ever-changing collaboration like Fly My Pretties I have to ask what he’s learned from this experience and what he enjoys best.  “I can be pretty intense at times about my work.  I have a distinct idea about a song.  I learned with Fly My Pretties that you have to let that go and give up the ‘baby’ sometimes.  The results are always better if you just trust in that.”

As always, Barnaby says, the song writing was shared between himself and Daniel Weetman but the product, as a whole is always a collaboration from everyone.  Over the years the makeup has changed slightly.  It’s been two years now since Mike Fabulous left to pursue his Lord Echo project.  He’s been replaced by Ned Ngatae (Guitar).  But other founding fathers like Jarney Murphy (Drums) and Nigel Patterson (Keyboard) are still firmly ensconced.  Francis Harawira looks after Bass and the all-important brass section are supported by Barrett Hocking (Trumpet) Matthew Benton and Wellington jazz ‘legend’ Lucien Johnson (Saxophone).  Johnson also lent a hand to Mike Fab recently on his latest Lord Echo album and WOMAD gig.   In actual fact, all of the band members help each other out on other assignments.  This is one reason why every Black Seeds album feels so comfortable.

The band’s collaboration goes further that just music.  Daniel Weetman, for example, is also behind Fabric’s distinctive cover design.  “Daniel cut out paper and arranged it and photographed it for the cover.  He wanted it to have an abstract look, influenced by Pacific designs. But it also looks like a shield or coat of arms, which you get with some traditional reggae designs.   So, it really feels like part of our story, I think.”

There’s no denying the band has a definite ‘Kiwi’ sound .  Barnaby reckons this wasn’t something that was intentionally nurtured but being citizens of the South Pacific it’s difficult to separate out the accent or the influences.   “I don’t think it was ever going to work – us singing in Jamaican accents.  It only works if we a genuine”

Next year marks the band’s 20-year anniversary.  The band was originally pulled for a 1999 Radio Active gig.  “We did these ‘jokey’ Kiwi covers like Dobbyn’s Love You Like I Should and that led to some regular time at (Wellington’s classic bar) Bodega.  Which is sadly gone now.  We’d charge $5 on the door to survive a night with us.”  No hints yet as to how the band will celebrate.  20 years on the survivors are looking pretty good.

Tim Gruar

The Black Seeds – Fabric is out September 8th 2017 




Ane Brun – Leave Me Breathless (Balloon Ranger Records)

Ane-BrunLeave Me Breathless is the seventh studio release from Norwegian born, Stockholm based musician Ane Brun.  Brun is usually known for dark, introspective brooding work that challenges us and changes our perception.  So what possessed her to take on a collection of covers, half of which are the some of the most appalling songs ever conceived? 

Touted as her most personal album yet, it’s a collection of 14 tracks that “deal with those overwhelming themes of love and romance”.  But so what?  I mean why choose an abomination like Foreigner’s I want to Know What Love Is?  Admittedly Brun’s version is way more intimate, slowed down on guitar with some more brooding synths in the background, as is her custom.

The treatment is very much like her earlier stuff, especially songs like Big In Japan (2008).  Delicate, every, pronounced.  Lines delivered as carefully as a child stepping across flagstones in a stream.  But nothing can turn a pig’s ear like this one into a silk purse.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  The song is horrible and nothing can change that whining chorus.

Knocking off the blatantly gushy Elvis cover You Were Always On My Mind or the equally appalling Mariah Carey blast-fest Hero just makes you want to reach for the FFWD button pronto.  Fortunately, Brun doesn’t try the vocal gynastics, voting to go soft and subtle but both are so layered with cheese that Not even Brun’s pining, longing vocals can save them.

Worse, if that’s possible, is her version of The Righteous Brother’s Unchained Melody.  Thanks to The Big Chill every disco in the 80’s thrashed this one to death…one reason Brun chose it, no doubt.  Brun tries desperately to strip down the Spector Wall of Sound and get to the heart of the song but fails to really give us anything new or compelling.  The corny lines and annoying hooks are still there. I hated the song then and her version doesn’t really change that.

Things Finally improve with her sparse, slightly Celtic treatment of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms.  It works if you’ve never heard the original.  But Cave’s performance is so aching that it would be impossible to top it.  So instead, it comes across like one of those songs redone for a television show or pilot theme.  All very sincere but leaking the charisma of the original.

On the other hand her version of the old Shakespeare’s Sister number Stay really is more genuine.  It’s contructed around a simple keyboard/synth arrangement with tinges of Kraftwerk which makes the song less melodramatic but futuristic, more like something suitable for a sci-fi film like I Robot.  Towards the end you get the soft hum of what appears to be a distant Welsh Male Choir singing the chorus to fade out.

The highlight of the whole album is almost too late.  A truly haunting rendition of Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely comes in like the ambient music of a Norwegian noir crime show, just after the victim is found dead and cold on a misty country road. Her song shuns the original anxiety of a full band and uses lingering atonal chords and sparse piano notes so that your mind instantly drifts to an empty glacial plain or a frozen river.  It’s frigid and slightly creepy in places.

Another forget me not is Dylan’s Girl From The North Country.  I hated the original.  Dylan mumbles through the thing like he’s embarrased or something.. But Brun slows down it’s usual chug and adds a slight country twang with some haunting hints of Ry Cooder style slide guitar to build atmosphere.  It would work well in a Townes Van Zant or Lars Trier film.

The other song of note claims it’s inspiration from the ‘Doo wop’ chorus-line of the original Joni Mitchell tune Big Yellow Taxi is redone as a choir piece.  I suspect that Brun has overdubbed her voice countless times to make a backing track of human voices as a bed over which to sing her version of the song.  Again, like many of the others on this album, she’s slowed down and takes care with every vowel and consonant, savouring each sound as she makes them.

It’s a shame that her best efforts and most creative appear at the very end of this album.  I would have liked more innovation.  After you can see great performers at your local pub do covers on a guitar or keyboard.  There’s nothing special in that.

Brun has claimed that the original idea behind this project had been to interpret love songs, romantic songs – it didn’t have to be a specifically sad or happy love – but, in the end, there are a few songs with other themes as well.  That it was a a concept of simplifying or interpreting emotional songs in my own way.  Well, sure.  She’s done that but sadly there’s little to get excited about.  And her choices, bar one or two, are simply appalling.  There’s really little else to write home about here, sorry.