Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

That question about the virtues of the retro has been in my mind again, whilst listening to Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, the debut album from the Durham siblings. The youngest of them is 16, and the eldest 20, but they are influenced by 50s swing and R&B (and helped out by their ma and pa), and their music less betrays its influences as it does faithfully reproduce them. They are callow, for sure – a cover of “I Got My Mojo Working” and the quoting of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”‘s signature riff hardly speaks of a depth of allusion – and at times the record feels a little redundant.

Yet the trio have real beef, and “Going Up The Country”, “Buggin’ Blues” and “Polly Put The Kettle On” are all dancefloor shakers of the old school which are dextrous contributions to a tradition, rather than ham-fisted love letters to better players. It’s almost a shame that the kids spent ages collecting retro recording and production equipment – ribbon microphones, ancient mixers and masterers and RIAA curves – when making a record with this sort and level of  musicianship which also sounded like it was recorded now might have been a more interesting proposition. But it’s hard to like a record whilst also dissing its ethic.

Worth watching out for live, it might also be interesting to see some originals from the group – “Buggin’ Blues” is penned by 18-year old Lewis, but otherwise the 10 tunes on this album are old standards of one sort or another. It’s in that shying from originality that this album fails to be much more than a diverting – and very well executed – retread. Great fun and not a little refreshing, if they take their straightforwardly rootsy sound to a new place as for instance did Nickel Creek, Kitty, Daisy and Lewis may also still become something very special, to boot.

In the meantime, and for those of you who like your rockabilly rawer and more mature, I recommend Swampmeat. Yee-haw.


Mellencamp, Burnett, and ΧΟΔΕ

Life Death Love and Freedom

Life Death Love and Freedom

I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp’s Life Death Love and Freedom, sent to me by a friend who clearly knows my taste in music very well. It’s a very fine CD, made so of course by Mellencamp’s undoubted gifts as a songwriter, but also by the sympathetic production of T-Bone Burnett. Burnett has made something of a career for himself as a producer of grainy acoustic Americana, following the runaway success of his soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brother’s Dustbowl Odyssey. Most recently, his production for the Robert Plant / Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand helped that release not a little towards its Grammies success.

Another friend recently likened the production style of a CD of my own songs, Walk The Floor, to Burnett’s. This is high praise indeed (and I won’t be so churlish as to modestly pooh-pooh it, though I could): Burnett is my kind of producer, with a love of traditional virtues allied to a keen eye for modern possibilities. No doubt this fidelity to the particular qualities of music, and awareness of the limitations and capacities of technology, led to GBurnett’s conception of the format in which Life Death Love and Freedom was released. ΧΟΔΕ (or Code) aims to do for recorded music what THX did for movie sound, reproducing the experience of listening to the studio masters. The ΧΟΔΕ disc can only be played in DVD players, and since my own player is currently attached to a 14″ TV with a  hopeless mono speaker, I haven’t been able to test it out. Has anyone else out there?

Left only with the CD, meanwhile, the songs’ strengths have of course still been more than obvious. The CD makes for a dark listen, but its bluesy forms and clear arrangements also make it an entertaining one. We probably have T-Bone to thank for that, too. Recommended.

The Angles of My Future

Rayguns Are Not Just The Future

Rayguns Are Not Just The Future

Where lies the line between retro and pastiche? It’s a question The Puppini Sisters might ask themselves, or for that matter Ocean Colour Scene, BR5-49 or Camera Obscura, all of whom have dabbled or revelled in evoking sounds of yesteryear. Camera Obscura in particular have managed to craft a sound recognisably their own, which nevertheless wears its influences not so much on its sleeve as it does fashion a three-piece suit from them.

I’ve been listening to – am listening to as I type, in fact – ‘Rayguns Are Not Just The Future‘, the second album from The Bird and The Bee, the joint project of well-connected musos Inara George and Greg Kurstin. As suggested even by the record’s title, with its wry evocation of a now outdated but once cutting edge future, this is an album rooted very much in the 1960s. Everything from the artwork to the clothes worn by the duo proclaim a very conscious retroism, inviting us to expect the loungey Bond themes many of these songs so very much resemble.

It’s easy to wonder what the point of all this is, except that between retro and pastiche lies invention, and The Bird and the Bee manage very ably to inhabit that hinterland. So Polite Dance Song is all jagged lines despite its swelling brass, and Diamond Dave or Witch, whilst groovier than the 78 it no doubt wishes it was on, benefits from just the right hint of electronica.

There are missteps – Love Letter to Japan is too twee even for fans of Aberfeldy – but by and large the songs are accessibly familiar without sounding stale, George’s cool, often brittle voice offering a compelling counterpoint to the lush, dreamy arrangements of the multi-instrumentalist Kurstin. They are smooth and light, for sure, but all those swinging coffee houses have cappucino on the menu, right?

Dark Was The Night

Dark Was The Night

Dark Was The Night

We’d completely forgotten about Matt’s heads-up last month over on Colour, but when we saw Dark Was The Night sitting on the shelves at HMV, we dimly recalled that it was something we wanted to buy. Checking the back cover only confirmed that; Arcade Fire, Beirut, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket, Gillian Welch and countless more have contributed tracks to the compilation. You couldn’t have made up a better selection of artists if you’d tried.

Even better, it’s being released by Red Hot to support AIDS awareness. We’ve spent most of the day listening, and particularly like the atmospheric first disc, which it will come as no surprise to anyone is the folkier of the two. The second, though, also features some fine contributions from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, My Morning Jacket, and Yo La Tengo, among others.

Most compilations like this tend to have the feeling of being thrown together hastily and with off-cuts. Here, almost every act brings a song worth listening to. We confess to being a bit disappointed that Iron and Wine’s song was so short, and not yet being much of a fan of Kronos Quartet’s title track, but this is an album with some very fine stuff indeed (we might single out, for instance, My Brightest Diamond’s cover of Feeling Good, which Muse wish they’d thought of) … and, of course, it’s for a beyond good and hugely important cause.

Buy it.

CDs Forgotten, CDs Found

'Come Get Some', Willis

'Come Get Some', Willis

I’ve been listening to some new music today, but something about The Bird and the Bee’s sophomore release, Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future, reminded me of a record I had to do a bit of searching for: 2003’s Come Get Some, by Willis. Back in the day, I helped promote a live music night called State of the Nation. It was high concept stuff: indoor camper vans, video screens, and a decided leaning towards the softer stripe of indie (despite our grand multi-genre claims) which wasn’t at the time much represented on the Birmingham music scene (and probably isn’t now, either).

Willis played State in February 2004, and what I saw of her performance was enough to persuade me to buy the record (released a few months before on 679), which turned out to be a genuinely tip top collection. In fact, I thought the songs better than the live show gave them credit for, and it was a sad thing when she wasn’t given the opportunity to record another batch. Her twisted country soul, alas, didn’t quite fit with what was happening at the time. Listening back to the record today, it’s as good as it ever was.

To which end, it’s encouraging to see she’s still making new music in much the same vein. Huzzah!

Songs I Listened To Too Much in 2008

Albums, 2008

Albums, 2008

The guys over at By Fuselage have quite rightly pointed out that end of year lists can be exercises in the arbitrary – after all, most years we’ll listen to a lot of old music, or new music that’s not quite that new, or indeed not like a great deal that the year produces. One of my favourite albums of 2008 was Bob Dylan’s Desire (1975), but more of that in another post I suspect.

Yet the urge to make some record of what you liked in a given year is pathologically strong – and it seems to me that one way to get around the snap critical judgements such lists force you into is, well, not to make them, and limit your obsessive taxonomy to the quality of mere entertainment. So here’s a list of ten songs I listened to, or just sang aloud in innapropriate public spaces, a lot – for whatever reason, and regardless of their how well time may treat them. Most of the songs below may well not be the best song on their given album (Writer’s Minor Holiday), or be on an album which shouldn’t be on anyone’s top 10 list (For Our Elegant Caste). But captured by each of these in their year of release I was, for better or worse. (Which will be yours to decide!)

Okkervil River – Lost Coastlines.
From ‘The Stand Ins‘.

Lyrically, ‘The Stand Ins’ might be the album of the year. But musically it was at times a bit predictable – perhaps it is so here, too, but Lost Coastlines really got into my bones, everything from the rhythmic acoustic guitar to the melody line and the voice changes. It’s a great song with a good deal of meat to it which still manages to engineer itself a lot of space – not easy to pull off, and well worth a gold star.

Calexico – Writer’s Minor Holiday. From ‘Carried To Dust‘.

One of the records of the year, Calexico’s ‘Carried to Dust’ didn’t grab me on first listen, but by the time we saw them at the Forum in October I was sold. If not as eclectic and whirling as ‘Feast of Wire’, it may nevertheless be true that the songs themselves are stronger. This is a great example – the usual Calexico strengths are here allied with a variety of rather nice hooks, to create an off-kilter guessing game of a pop song. You shimmy to this, without quite knowing why.

Frightened Rabbit – My Backwards Walk. From ‘The Midnight Organ Fight‘.

Scottish folkies Frightened Rabbit might just have produced my actual album of 2008 – there are quite a few contenders for that title, but I might’ve played ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ more regularly than any of them. Rich, arch and cooly catchy, each of the songs is a perfect little package of wise melancholy – perfectly put together and with not a single verse wasted. “I’m working on erasing you – but I just don’t have the proper tools,” is such a lovely term of expression, and one so delicately delivered, that I demand you all buy this record immediately.

Fleet Foxes – Blue Ridge Mountains. From ‘Fleet Foxes‘.

Once the warbling’s done away with = tune. Deceptively simple, thoroughly haunting. That is all.

Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers. From ‘Asking for Flowers‘.

2008 wasn’t the most exciting year for country, and this third album from Kathleen Edwards wasn’t her best effort. But its title track was one of my favourite songs all year – it’s one of the most traditional tunes on my list, but Edwards always offers a contemporary spin on timeworn country conceits. S’catchy, too, innit?

The Bowerbirds – Hooves. From ‘Hymns For A Dark Horse‘.

The opening line is worth putting this in the list alone. But it’s a little ramshackle epic to boot, all fragile vocals and loose time-keeping. The strings are a bit of a sell-out, but try finding a smarter song this short released this year.

Mumford and Sons – White Blank Page. From ‘Lend Me Your Eyes‘.

Marcus Mumford plays drums for Laura Marling (of whom more anon). We caught them supporting A Hawk and A Hacksaw at the Glee club, whom they very almost upstaged – no mean feat. Live this song was a thing of beauty, and it’s not bad  here, either. For my own music, this was a competitor the most inspiring set I saw all year.

Bon Iver – Skinny Love. From ‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘.

Indie purists would have it that this was actually (self-)released in 2007, and though they’d be right they’d also be self-righteous fucks. ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ received wider release on the thank-God-for-it Jagjaguwar label (also Okkervil River’s stable) and then finally 4AD over here, and Skinny Love is the song from it which hooks into the heart and doesn’t let go. Recorded in an isolated shack in northwestern Wisconsin, this fragile record is like a pinned butterfly: poignant, beautiful and untouchable.

Laura Marling – Ghosts. From ‘Alas I Cannot Swim‘.

Laura Marling could have done without the hype – she and her songs are too unprepossessing to shoulder them well – but it’s her own fault for crafting so fabulously old-fashioned a record which somehow manages also to be contemporary. This is mostly a trick achieved by teenagerly angst allied with tried and tested song structures and the sensitive but rich production of Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink. It worked a treat, although Ghosts remains the only song from the album I can remember without a relisten. Make of that what you will.

Of Montreal – For Our Elegant Caste. From ‘Skeletal Lamping‘.

Skeletal Lamping was a sloppy mess, the least cohesive record I heard all year. To be honest, this is the album in microcosm – great hook, no song – and it isn’t anywhere close to any of the cuts from last year’s magnificent ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’, but it was the most effective ear worm of the year. When you find yourself in major train stations falsettoing the words ‘we can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I take it both ways’, it’s clear a pop song has done its job. Kevin Barnes, you are bonkers. Please to be writing more good songs soon, kthx.