Monday, January 24, 2011

Album Review: Emily Smith - Traiveller's Joy

Emily Smith - Traiveller's Joy

The Guardian calls Emily Smith "surely the most impressive young instrumentalist and songwriter singing in English". That's quite a bold claim, so I thought I'd check out Traiveller's Joy, her new album.

Traiveller's Joy is a folk record, although within a more traditional 'folk' definition. At times, there's a certain 'hey nonny nonny' flute-esque sound to this record and so it's not to be confused with the modern Mumford-driven folk scene. It's certainly the sort of think you're more likely to hear at a Robin Hood event than it is to pipe from a student's bedroom....

Traiveller's Joy is, at times, beautiful. Lord Donald is a terrific track and her cover of Richard Thompson's Waltzing for Dreamers is absolutely spellbinding. It is an album that is certainly a grower - I have enjoyed it more on each of my listens so far - and whilst it may take you a little while to get over the occasionally medieval sound of the instrumentation, it is worth persisting with as there's some stunning vocals and melodies to be found.

I wouldn't say it is for everyone - but it is certainly worth a couple of listens to see what you think. I reckon your persistence will be rewarded....

Album Review: Joan As Police Woman - The Deep Field

Joan As Police Woman - The Deep Field

Not knowing much about Joan Wasser, I wasn't sure what to expect from The Deep Field. Apparently, it is more upbeat and melodic than her previous efforts and, many say, more commercial. Indeed, I have heard it described as 'veering a little too close to MOR'.

There's certainly a dreamy, wispy quality about The Deep Field which is nice without ever being particularly engaging. It is a record which gently washes over you without ever really making you sit up and take notice of what you're listening to. As background music to my work today (I have listened to it three times) it has been fine, but it's not catchy enough that I could recall any of it and not lyrically interesting enough that I can recite any of the themes either.

Perfectly listenable, but it has gone in one ear and, pretty much, straight out of the other.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Album Review: The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

The Decemberists - The King is Dead

It is always a joy when you find a record by a hitherto unknown (at least to you) band that you really enjoy. I'm lucky to say that I have had this experience this morning with The King Is Dead, the sixth album from the Decemberists.

A simple collection of guitar based tunes, The King is Dead is melodic and pretty. Sounding an awful lot like REM in places - in a good way, I would hastily add - it is a very accessible, very likeable record. The two seasonal anthems - January Hymn and June Hymn - are highlights, as is the great opening track Don't Carry It All which starts with a superb mid 1970s Springsteen-esque harminoca riff.

The Decemberists are described on Wikipedia as 'indie folk rock', which seems like a reasonable assessment. There's country guitar, some violin and the odd bit of harmonica here, all combined to make an album which is extremely rich and varied. Whilst it hasn't made me want to explore the band's other work (I gather that some of it is quite, er, 'challenging') I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed The King is Dead. Highly recommended.

Album review: Bruno Mars - Doo-Wops and Hooligans

Bruno Mars - Doo-Wops and Hooligans

With his first two singles already making number One in the UK singles chart, it is clear that Bruno Mars is set to be something of a superstar. Debut album Doo-Wops and Hooligans is out this week and expected to sell by the truckload.

As albums go, it certainly has a strong start. Singles Grenade and Just The Way You Are are both great pop songs although both are something of a red herring for the rest of the record. Cee-Lo Green guests on The Other Side and there is certainly a Gnarls Barkley-esque sound to some of the record, particularly the funked up Runaway Baby. At other times, Mars takes the Jason Mraz approach, with chuggy, acoustic numbers such as The Lazy Song and Count On Me designed to be heard on a Hawaiian beach.

And then, it sounds like Bruno Mars is making a direct assault on the vacant King of Pop crown left vacant by the untimely demise of its previous incumbent. Our First Time is so Jackson-esque that if you heard it on the radio you'd have sworn it was the begloved weirdo.

What I like about Doo-Wops and Hooligans is that it doesn't use any of the bogstandard, bland R&B production favoured by many of today's biggest artists. It is, fundamentally, a modern pop record blending different styles but all under a simple pop umbrella. Marry You is a rollicking, synth driven radio-friendly tune whilst Talking To The Moon is a giant, bombastic pop ballad. For me, the two singles alone justify the purchase of this album and whilst I am surprised by the lack of any true originality, it is a likeable (if fluffy) pop record.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Album review: British Sea Power - Valhalla Dancehall

British Sea Power - Valhalla Dancehall

British Sea Power are a band that have, broadly speaking, passed me by. This is actually in spite of the fact that I own at least one of their albums (The Decline of British Sea Power, I believe) - a record which I'm not sure I can remember ever having listened to.

So, I confess to knowing very little about them, apart from the fact that their last 'proper' album, Do You Like Rock Music? was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize a couple of years ago.

So, I approached Valhalla Dancehall with only my preconceptions to guide me. The Guardian says the album "stakes out as-yet unclaimed territory between the wide-eyed indie wonder of bands such as the Flaming Lips and the Manic Street Preachers" and that seems a reasonable assessment. I expected Valhalla Dancehall to be spikier and more aggressive than it actually is - indeed there are times when the band's addition of lush orchestration make it quite soft and gentle.

There are loud, bombastic moments - opening track Who's In Control? yells "over here, over there, over here, every f***ing where" - but I like it when the band rein themselves in a bit. Georgie Ray is reminiscent of Mercury Rev at their most melodic whilst Cleaning Out The Rooms is a lovely sweeping seven minute slice of Arcade Fire-esque indie pop.

I have listened to Valhalla Dancehall three times now and, whilst it's not a record I love, it's certainly a record that changed my opinion of who British Sea Power are (and what they do) for the better.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Album Review: Emma's Imagination: Stand Still

Emma's Imagination - Stand Still

Emma Gillespie seems to have completely slipped underneath my radar. Apparently, she won the Sky talent show Must Be The Music last year and had two top ten hits in 2010 - the chirpy This Day and the more melancholy Focus. Her debut album (released on Gary Barlow's Future Records label) is her 'prize' for her TV success, although I'm not sure it's going to catapult her into superstardom.

Stand Still is a nice enough record. It has a gentle, acoustic sound reminiscent of Natalie Imbruglia or, oddly, Alisha's Attic (remember them?!) and Gillespie has an ear for a decent melody. Its main problem, however, is that it sounds rather like countless other similar records by similar female singer-songwriters. Quirky and whimsical, Stand Still has very little to distinguish it from a raft of other records, meaning it lacks a little bit of personality.

I enjoyed it enough, and it's certainly something I will come back to in the future. Just don't expect to be mesmerised by Stand Still - it's perfectly fine but you do get the distinct impression that you've heard it all before.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Album Review: My Cheap Little Dictaphone - The Troubled Tale of a Genius

My Cheap Little Dictaphone - The Tragic Tale of a Genius

Concept albums are always a bit of a risk, I think. Although, I suppose in many cases you'd have to know it was a concept album, wouldn't you? In the case of The Tragic Tale of a Genius, I don't think you'd ever know of this fact, unless (as I did) you read it elsewhere.

The concept (and the 'genius' in this case) is Brian Wilson and his descent into mental illness. Whilst this sounds like a bit of a depressing subject for an entire album, it is actually a surprisingly great piece of work. The Belgian four piece sound alternately like the Arcade Fire and Coldplay, indeed vocalist Redboy sounds particularly like Chris Martin when he gets slightly falsetto on on No Self Esteem and Face to Face.

Ignore the precociousness of a concept record (Wikipedia calls The Tragic Tale of a Genius 'proche d'un opera rock') and, instead, you ahve the fourth album from an indie-rock band who offer much more than their daft name suggests.

If you like MGMT, the Arcade Fire (or, indeed - any sort of downbeat guitar indie) The Tragic Tale of a Genius is definitely an album you should try.

Album Review: Rabih Abou-Khalil - Trouble in Jerusalem

Working from home means I get to listen to literally hundreds of albums every month. So, in 2011, I am going to try and listen to as much new music as I possibly can in the hope of unearthing a gem. I appreciate I will have to take the rough with the smooth, but that's half the fun. OK. Here we go...

Rabih Abou-Khalil: Trouble in Jerusalem

Trouble in Jerusalem is not the sort of record I would normally listen to. Being perfectly honest, when I read that Rabih Abou-Khalil was a leading oud player, I had to look up what an 'oud' was (which, you'd have thought, didn't bode well for my enjoyment). However, it is actually quite a nice listen.

The Guardian says: "Some might be intrigued by the historical context: a brief episode of Judeo-Christian-Islamic harmony from the Third Crusades celebrated in the 1922 German silent film Nathan the Wise, and rekindled by Abou-Khalil's TV-commissioned symphonic score for that movie."

Gulp. Let's be frank: I have no idea what that previous paragraph is all about. Ignoring the historical context or the "composer's usual exuberant spontaneity, surrealism and political wit" being "overwhelmed by great-and-good obligations", it's an album of instrumental music in a broadly Middle-Eastern style. And, actually, it works rather well. There's some bombastic orchestral interludes (which reminded me of some of John Barry's folk tinged James Bond soundtracks) and, all in all, it's a nice mixture of European and Middle Eastern influences.

I'll probably never, ever listen to this record again. And, I am sure many people will think it sounds like the sort of background music you'd hear in a ropey Turkish restaurant. Still, I didn't feel the need to turn it off before the end, and so that represents something of a triumph.