Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

A poster by me

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The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust

Published for http://www.13thfloor.co.nz

The Jayhawks are the original alternative country band and quite possibly the template for all that have come after: Uncle Tupelo & Wilco, Honeydogs, R.E.M, Golden Smog, Au Pair, Band of Horses, et al.  Emerging from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & Minnesota) music scene during the mid-1980s they’ve put out a bunch of influential several studio albums and have stopped and started several times over the years, notably a hiatus between 2004-9.  Most recently the group reformed (2014) to play some shows reunited but after the tour, founding member Mark Olson left because of a strained relationship with another founding member Gary Louris.   Despite this, late last year they announced they were recording a new album, produced by REM’s Peter Buck, as a follow up to their last reunification effort Mockingbird TimeI (2011).

Sadly, Olson doesn’t return this time but long term fans shouldn’t be dismayed.  For disc no.9 everything is as it should be.  There’s a quality mix of modest, gentle and approachable music here, save for the very Wilco like Ace, where Louris ambushes us with a cacophonic guitar squall over an exceptionally funky 80’s groove loop.  Lost the Summer is their best jump back to the 70’s (Why this didn’t make the soundtrack of TV series Vinyl is a total mystery).   Whilst not specifically a nostalgic effort, there are some references to the early albums here and there, especially their self-titled debut (1986) and Blue Earth (1989), mixed with just a faint whiff of digital progress.  You can hear that all clearly  on the drum machine percussion of Pretty Roses in Your Hair and the adult grunge on Comeback Kids (just a hint of sarcasm there, too).  With Buck on the controls, the REM influence had to seep in somewhere.  The instantly familiar dark groove of Lies in Black and White is a total giveaway.  Who beget who is unclear.   But who cares anyway?  With a band that’s travelled the parallel paths of indie and commercialism through umpteen genre changes and revivals you’d expect at least a few concessions and that comes on The Devil Is In Her Eyes, which could have been lifted straight out of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold session, right down to the harmonica squeals.

Ok, so this is not a ground breaking record, but it is a good one.  If you want to splash out on a vinyl pressing, I’d recommend it.  It has just enough of that mid-80’s aura about it.  The kind of stuff Fables of the New Construction, The River and even Runnin’ on Empty had.  And as we all know Buck’s a vinyl nut, so the sound has a warm, valve-amp quality to it.  It belongs in a collection where it can be inhaled slowly with a couple of brews and a Sunday paper.  Not quite ‘Dad rock’ but close enough.

 

Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers

blished on 13thfloor.co.nz

 

On her 3rd studio effort Corinne Bailey Rae goes all out recruiting Nu-soul and jazz artists Esperanza Spalding, Moses Sumney and flavour of the month R&B group KING to make an expansive, lush album with erratic mood-swings and a concentration of phat, spacious grooves.  It’s all a long way from her fluffy debut single Put Your Records On, with a frivolous, carefree video of friends through an idyllic countryside, not a care in the world. Three Grammy nominations and three Brit awards later, and debut sales exceeding four million dollars, she was set up to go far.

But then in 2008, Rae’s husband, Jason, died following a drug and alcohol overdose and Rae, understandably, went into a deep, dark place.  Her resulting result follow-up The Sea was a sullen, edgy affair reflecting her own feelings of loss and despair. But also, it was not that artistically strong or valuable.  The critics slated it and showed little understanding of where she was at or what was really going on.  The English press, in particular, paid her the worst compliments.  Then they ignored her.

That was six years ago.  And after another smaller hiatus, a few rare appearances and a couple of small collaborations where are we?  Rae’s ‘return’ finds her coming back into the spotlight with luscious new sounds and a vibrant, colourful vibe that completely blinds anything that she’s done in the past.  This record, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, was partially recorded in the glaring sunshine of Los Angeles where Rae took great inspiration from the city’s its Black Bohemian scene.  Peeps like Thundercat, J Davey, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and, of course, Kendrick Lamar were feeling her creativity.  You can hear that on Been to the Moon, Green Aphrodisiac, Horse Print Dress, and especially on the gentle pop-hybrid Taken by Dreams.  But whilst all Boho, they’re not grungy or rough.  The California sheen across every one of them sparkles brightly in the production.  Members of KING (Paris and Amber Strother) collaborate on parts of this album and are best heard on Tell Me, a momentous pop-funk-jam that totally eclipses their own sounds, as if it was almost too big for the own LP’s. The highly underrated Esperanza Spalding provides some very delicious BV’s on Green Aphrodisiac and Vocalist Moses Sumney adds some runny honey vocals to the aptly named. Caramel.   This one, in particular reminds me of early Erykah Badu ballads – dark chocolate smooth and infinitely deep.  What’s extra cool is the deft Charlie Parker influenced book-endings on Been to the Moon, with subtle horns and keys referencing back some of his great arrangements like Night in Tunisia. This is just of the many little points in the album where the ‘crew’ show their influence.  The keen slap bass that appears regularly throughout is another small welcome flourish.  Random samples and ‘producer blips and squawks’ remind us that this is definitely a studio production.  Rae might have her name on the cover but it’s pretty clear that it is not a solo effort. Her collaborators sit large on the bill this time round.  And unlike the dark gloomy album The Sea, this new record offers a broader emotional range, and Rae seems at peace with her life and newfound direction. Her lyrics appear to be more stream of consciousness, or perhaps dirty jottings as she sings of heady dreams, of walking through the darkness in search of light and happiness. Given what’s gone before her, this is a positive, logical path to take.  The best example of that is Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart, a ballad about summertime romance, cautiously optimistic and perhaps just a small indication that Rae’s ready to get back off the shelf and back into the dating game.  So on the surface this is a more commercially viable work, but it’ also a more intriguing listen and worthy of a few replays.  There’s both catharsis of the past and inspiration for the here and now.  While the past struggles are not directly mentioned they are there behind the lyrics, the music and the tone.  So by taking the opposite direction to her previous album she draws attention to what’s missing and what she’s moved away from.  It’s all about striking through, living for the future, shedding the old doom-skins and growing again.  For that alone there’s reason to try this one out.

 

Mitski – Puberty 2

Originally published on http://www.13thfloor.co.nz

American Japanese singer-songwriter-musician Mitski Miyawaki is all about happiness on her newest album, Puberty 2.  As she says in her publicity blurb: “Happiness is up, sadness is down, but one’s almost more destructive than the other.  When you realize you can’t have one without the other, it’s possible to spend periods of happiness just waiting for that other wave.”  So that’s the tension she creates throughout this album a mix of both beautiful and brutal romantic hinterlands.  “Happy came to visit me, he brought cookies along the way”, she drones against a manic metronomic jackhammer drum beat on the prosaic opener Happy.  Immediately you feel just a little depressed by her sullenness, as if this was the masterplan all along.  “I poured him tea and he told me it’d be ok.”  She applies the same layers of artistic irony and musical clash that you get with the first works of St Vincent.  The jagged sax that plays intermittently throughout is only one step away from Bowie’s Let’s Dance.  But ‘why’ is unclear.

 

This is the follow-up to 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, and picks up where that one finished as part 2 of the story: similar in sound, but more a direct growth.  The ‘Puberty’ reference is almost like the surly teenager coming out – all contradiction, rage and confusion.  That’s clearest in the Pixies-ish guitars on Dan The Dancer which is almost rock grunge funk at times, with a beautiful keyboard drone wig out as the bridge.

 

Barely 25-year-old this level of knowledge in a young artist is astounding.  Once More to See You could not be more different from Dan… floating over a simple 4/4 drum + bass guitar stagger cloaked in so many delicate layers of poetry whispered – “I wouldn’t have to scream you name from every rooftop of my heart” – a song of yearning.  Happiness would be the fulfilment.  And again it changes on Fireworks to a simple guitar rock song, similar to Pixies/Swerve Driver or even Bob Mould on his acoustic forays.  It smoulders along building up to a restrained climax “I listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”  This is not a Katy Perry moment, that’s obvious.

 

Born in Japan, Mitski grew up surrounded by her father’s Smithsonian folk recordings and mother’s 1970s Japanese pop CDs in a family that moved frequently: she spent stints in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, China and Turkey among other countries before coming to New York to study composition at SUNY Purchase.  She reflects now there on the feeling of being “half Japanese, half American but not fully either”.  It’s that alien everywhere feeling she that she’s confronting on the clever Frank Black grunge single, Your Best American Girl.  It’s an attempt to poke fun at her genre’s surplus of white males. “I wanted to use those white-American-guy stereotypes as a Japanese girl who can’t fit in, who can never be an American girl,” she explains.  In an American that living under the spectre of a Trump Administration this could well be all too close to the bone.

 

Ok, so sadness is awful and happiness is exhausting in the world of Mitski.  I Bet On Losing Dogs seems like such a tragic fait accompli, and with lines like “Won’t you kill me in Jerusalem” which she spits out on the punky, abrasive My Body’s Made of Stars it almost seems like she’s taken to standing in the middle of the road screaming at cars.  Such is the nihilism.  So tracks like the dreaming Crack Baby with its mood of resurrection, and the cinematically wide credit roller A Burning Hill, which both complete the album seem such a stark opposite.  In her world happiness is sadness: invigorating, inspiring and beautiful.

Review: Strange Little Birds – Garbage

It’s as if they never stopped – like 4 years has passed like a flash since their comeback album Not Your Kind of People.  Irish dark femme Shirley Manson, drummer Butch Vig, bassist and guitarist Duke Erickson and guitarist Steve Marker pick it up where they left off setting up the tone for Garbage’s sixth album, Strange Little Birds.  Manson, in particular, with her trademark deadpan sexy fatalism, which is immediately apparent on the opener Sometimes.  “Sometimes I’d rather take a beating…I learn more when I am bleeding”.  It seems the arsenal of self-deprecation and irony is still fully loaded.  It’s something of a lament of the absence of darkness and vulnerability in the current state of pop music that fuels this particular fire for Manson.  Which might also explain the over-helpings of cynicism and a lack of fun.  You have to wonder if old age has made her more than a little bit grumpy.  She might still be sporting pink hair and fishnets but ol’ Shirl can’t hide her growing discontent in music, life, and other stuff.  Let’s face it – things are what they used to be in the Goth rock world, these days.
Manson’s compared this album to their original self-titled debut, in that it was some kind of studio clash offering to counter the DIY garage grunge that was dominating the airwaves in 1990’s.  For her it’s a “romantic” record. ” romance, really, is vulnerability. I used to feel so scared, and I think that was why I was so aggressive — but I’m much more willing to admit weaknesses than I was before.” Each song, she says, addresses different points in her life between herself and someone she’s loved. – hot spots where she was afraid, vulnerable, defensive.

 

…Birds maybe more serious but what lacks in humour it makes up for in up for in grit.  There’s something of a keen determination here to prove Garbage are not just another bunch of middle aged has-beens hoping to get back on the bill at Coachella.  In fact, that is perfectly manifested in the words to Teaching Little Fingers to Play, which confronts the effects of aging head on.  The Morricone production on the song gives the guitars futuristic spaghetti western treatment making this a very cool little ballad.  I often wonder what it would be like at the retirement village when the listeners of hard rock all move there.  Would Def Leopard and Led Zep be played those morning tea entertainers in the communal lounge?  Or would stuff like this even be on the playlist?

As promised throughout this record Manson exposes her vulnerability like an open sore, especially on the oddly upbeat but melancholic If I Lost You and the accompanying slow burner Night Drive Loneliness.  On both she takes the uncharacteristic role of a fawning and jilted lover, vainly waiting by the phone for any sign from her man.  This is not the Shirley Manson who once spat venom on Stupid Girl.  This is a pathetic, apologetic version of her former self.  It’s a little perplexing.  The self-deprivation continues through the aching slow ballad Even Though Our Love Is Doomed, which also provides a phrase for the album’s title.  It’s all about the concept of fatal attraction and odds against.  It also seems very personal and somewhat cathartic.  At times all that self-wallowing gets a little dull.  Occasionally the slower ones come together. Magnetized is template Garbage, stuffed full of obvious references to 10CC’s deliciously ironic I’m Not In Love, but unfortunately this much synth-based soft rock is way too candy-coated to sustain multiple listens.  But the majority of the album still sports the grungy hooks, barbs and walls of guitars we’re used to from this band. The best example is on the single Empty, which is textbook Garbage.  Manson appears on the song’s video looking exactly the same as she did two decades ago – dyed hair, sexy skirt and ‘don’t mess with me boots’ – some kind of statement to younger players that she’s still very much here – and don’t you forget it!
Rock’n’Noise is still at the heart of this band’s work, though.  Their need to prod and procrastinate still seethes under the skin. The politically Fuelled So We Can Stay Alive Is a full on assault-fest, in the style of their last two albums, building menacingly up to a bass and guitar argument so ferocious it almost explodes in on itself.  If you’re an Old Skool Garbage fan then this is one song you definitely want on your play list.

Lead single “Empty” is Garbage-by-numbers: more self-deprecating lyrics, layers and layers of vocal overdubs and a mix of release and attack moments – quiet punctuated by blasts of metallic guitars and thundering drums.  For me this was the album’s highlight.  I wanted more of this.  Sadly, it was the only track in that mould.  Sure, this is a strong release from a band that always straddles the thin line between alt-rock and mainstream whilst reaching long for that credibility but there’s value in sticking to the knitting, even if you’re casting on from a more comfy chair these days.