04 August 2008

AMG review round-up, volume VI

more abuse of nonexistent word limits... selected "day job" output circa june-july 2008. some swedish stuff [currentish, poppish]; some soulful stuff [future/retro], and...here's the shocka: some honest-to-goodness (vintage) swedish soul. who knew? i can barely contain myself (but i did.) oh yeah, and a mediocre dancelectrockpop record (did i ever decide what to call that?) from canada. as always, you can click through to [slightly longer, usually] full version of the reviews in situ.

Lykke Li: Youth Novels review

Advance hype fueled by the Little Bit EP had Lykke Li pegged as the next in a growing string of cool-kid-approved perfect-pop fixes to leak out from Sweden's endless supply, but Youth Novels doesn't entirely play out as expected, with neither Robyn's electronic dance-pop precision nor the affable strumming of Jens Lekman or Peter Björn and John (whose Björn Yttling handles production duties here and co-wrote every track). Although it does bear some traces of these approaches, as well as El Perro Del Mar's earnest melancholia, it's decidedly odder and harder to pin down, proffering an idiosyncratic, stripped-down vision of pop that foregrounds repetition and simplicity over familiarity or even melody (though rest assured, there is ample catchiness to be had here). The graceful symphonic layering of the beat-less, spoken-word opener "Melodies and Desires" starts things off on a deceptively lush note, but much of the album is about as instrumentally sparse as pop can get, often sounding as though it were cobbled together from a scrap yard of barely functioning instruments and non-instruments. The painfully introverted hip-shaker of "Dance Dance Dance" ("my hips they lie/cause in reality I'm shy shy shy") lilts atop an aptly minimalist groove consisting of nothing but two insistently bowed bass notes, some found-sounding percussion, and a brief sax solo, while even the assertive standout "I'm Good, I'm Gone" gets by on little more than hand claps, driving drums, a bit of vibraphone doubling, and a simple bass line pounded out on a piano's lower register. These and the similarly skeletal arrangements that make up much of the album are deployed inventively enough that they rarely feel incomplete, but they're effective mainly because they keep the focus squarely on Lykke Li's understated yet captivating vocals. It's a daringly direct approach that emphasizes Li's marked emotionality (which runs the range from tenderness to bitterness), and allows songs to succeed -- or, rarely, flounder -- on their merits. Brimming with ideas but understated, even tentative in executing them, and big on hooks but nervously intimate in presentation, Youth Novels is a curious, decidedly unorthodox but endearing record. Both novel and youthful -- Li was twenty-one upon its release, which may explain both her occasional goofy vocal affectations and the hesitant freshness of her sound -- it's hard to pigeonhole but refreshingly easy to enjoy.

Cloetta Paris: bio, Secret Eyes review

Cloetta Paris is easy enough to lump in with the Italo-Disco revival of the mid-late 2000s, and she certainly shares many of the relevant '80s-dance reference points, but her sweet, lovingly crafted ten-song debut also functions as a reminder that - hipster-historical trendspotting notwithstanding - sentimental synthesizer pop hasn't exactly gone anywhere in the last 25 years. From always-reliable originators the Pet Shop Boys - still going strong - to indie pop pioneers St. Etienne, Momus and Stephin Merrit (in his various guises), underground torchbearers like I Am The World Trade Center, Baxendale and Soviet, and high-profile resurgents like the Postal Service and Ladytron, people never really stopped making music that sounds like this, especially in Scandinavia (the home of Europop from Abba to Ace of Base to Annie.) Secret Eyes fits right in with both the overtly dancy and the more song-oriented strains of this tradition, boasting prominent beats and synth hooks as well as a readily evident, quintessentially twee-pop heart - no surprise considering that Roger Gunnarsson, who wrote and produced the album under the pseudonym Clive Reynolds, has long been an active figure on Sweden's indie-pop scene, but also due in equal measure to Cloetta's fragile, winsome vocals, delivered with just a dash of classically indie detachment. All that said, there's no point pretending that Cloetta Paris is doing anything breathtakingly original here - still, this kind of music always has a certain freshness when it's done really well, and Secret Eyes has enough creativity, charm, and good old-fashioned catchiness to capture that spirit common to all the best synth-pop, regardless of era. Manna for mixtapes and dancefloors alike.

Air France: No Way Down review

"Evading the structures, waiting to fall but not quite yet"
- so read the liner notes to the second EP from Air France, which arrived a year and a half after their slight but celebrated debut release, On Trade Winds. Partially excerpted from "No Excuses," the EP's most lyrically and rhythmically prominent cut, it's an apt epigraph for the duo's music, which seems to evade conventional structures both compositional and taxonomic, while evoking the sense of openness, endless possibility, and detachment from reality that can come in moments of transition and in-betweenness. Evocation is more or less Air France's primary mode of functioning - their defining characteristic is how much more difficult (and, seemingly, less relevant) it is to describe what they actually sound like than to list the images they so dreamily conjure up: beach parties, sea foam, airiness, swaying palm trees, endless summer, indescribable bliss... At twenty-three minutes, No Way Down comes close to doubling its length of its predecessor (at this rate, the group should have a full album's worth of material by at least 2010), but its contents follow similar, utterly distinctive paths of lush, hazy, atmospheric pop/techno/faux-worldbeat-psychedelia. "Maundy Thursday" and "Windmill Wedding" are the cinematic, near-ambient book-ending tracks - one stately and enigmatic, the other gracefully meandering - while the four pieces which form the EP's core are slightly longer groove-based excursions that feel simultaneously exultant and wistful. Sonically, almost nothing is off-limits so long as it's swathed in a sufficient amount of reverb - "June Evenings" alone encompasses birdsongs and basslines, trumpets, strings, and marimbas (real or synthesized), countless layers of synths and breathy, indecipherable vocals, off-tuned guitar strums, and sampled shouts of "bombaclat!" Expanding and improving upon their already striking debut, No Way Down) is a stunning accomplishment on so many levels: the amount of care and attention to detail that so clearly went into its creation; its stylistic uniqueness (The Avalanches' Since I Left You is a ready and resonant point of comparison in spirit and tone, but you'd be hard pressed to find much out there that truly sounds like this); and sheer, subjective beauty. Clearly aware of their own strengths, they're somehow too earnest and endearing even to come off as cocky for alluding to them, as they do, subtly, in a dialogue snippet looped intermittently throughout "Collapsing at Your Doorstep", which more or less sums it all up: "Sorta like a dream, isn't it?" "No: better."

Doris: bio, Did You Give the World Some Love Today Baby review

A vintage pop oddity of sorts, but one that's worthwhile for its musical content at least as much as its curiosity value, the lone LP by Swedish chanteuse Doris (née Svensson) is an accomplished and somewhat offbeat collection of lush pop, soul and light funk. Cut in 1970 with a handful of veteran Swedish jazz and rock musicians who sound completely at home playing in a variety of primarily American idioms, Did You Give The World Some Love Today, Baby? reveals Doris to be a singer of considerable range and plenty of personality. She's a throaty belter on the funky, country-inflected "Waiting at the Station," the Northern Soul-styled groovers "Don't" and "Beatmaker" and the brassy pop-soul title tune (even coming off a bit worryingly unhinged as she exhorts "you've got to love the one you love/and the whole darn world as well") - but she scales back the fireworks for sweet, if somewhat fey, ballads like "Grey Rain of Sweden" and "Daisies," which call to mind the sophisticated songwriter pop of fellow lost gem Margo Guryan. There's also a heartfelt, tastefully orchestrated rendition of the Band's "Whispering Pines," and - easily the album's most unusual moment - the bizarre, unsettling jazz-psychedelia of "You Never Come Close," which sounds like nothing you'd expect to hear on an ostensibly pop record from any era (it evokes something similar to Portishead's enigmatic melancholy, or Candie Payne's tormented retro-pop noir, several decades down the line.) Add in a smattering of upbeat big-band swing tunes - "I'm Pushing You Out" and the organ-led shuffle "I Wish I Knew" - the goofy, vaudeville-ish "Won't You Take Me To The Theatre," and a jaunty cover of Harry Nilsson's "Bath", and you've got a true smörgåsbord - a little something for everybody, although it's all still quite listenable as a single entity. The world may not have given Doris much love in her day, but she's certainly comparable in terms of raw vocal ability to would-be peers like Lulu and Petula Clark - or, as the liner notes suggest, Melanie - arguably outstripping them in the adventurousness of her musical range (in a single album, no less), and is outfitted here with perfectly decent if not necessarily exceptional material. Worth rediscovering, particularly since several CD reissues have made it readily available.

Owusu and Hannibal: bio, Living With... review

To judge strictly from the album artwork, living with Philip Owusu and Robin Hannibal (who, if you want to get technical, actually live across the street from one another, in Copenhagen's poly-ethnic Nørrebro neighborhood) would involve a lot of lounging around, eating spaghetti in front of the TV in an apartment cluttered with dirty clothes, blank CDs, musical instruments, and greasy pizza boxes. The music on Living With... isn't anywhere near that slovenly -- in fact, it's quite meticulous; artfully arranged and layered with crisp, inventive production -- but it would be ideally suited to such a laid-back, lazily indulgent lifestyle. The tempo rarely rises above a genial amble as electronically tweaked R&B grooves, twitchy but languorous, stretch on into the five- to six-minute range, and even those that don't seem like they should (indeed, the album feels longer than its relatively concise one-hour length). It's good stuff, inspired even, as urban-inflected downtempo music goes -- certainly several notches hipper than your average mass-market chillout release -- but the first half of the album, in particular, tends to drag on one's attention, in spite of unconventional production touches, Owusu's capable neo-soul vocal stylings (he recalls a less strained Jamie Lidell), and intriguingly oblique lyrics if you can be bothered to pay attention (an exception, and a highlight, is the would-be baby-making slow jam "A Million Babies," with the admission "I'm really too drunk tonight to try"). Half an hour in, however, Owusu & Hannibal reveal that they've got more up their sleeves than a somewhat tepid 21st century updating of quiet storm's relentless vibe: "What It's About," an abrupt about-face from nearly everything else on the album, is a practically perfect, if decidedly eccentric, pop song, strikingly reminiscent of soulful sophisti-pop greats Scritti Politti. Consisting of very little other than doubled falsetto vocals, luscious backing "oohs," and a syncopated, Bo Diddley-esque drumbeat, with some occasional electronic embellishments (those 808 cowbells), it has the infectious simplicity and flirtatious nonchalance of a naughty schoolyard ditty, with surreal, hilariously confused pubescent sex fantasy lyrics to match. Laid-back but utterly funky, it's an unexpected standout that isn't really followed up on anywhere else on the disc, although the lovely, lilting "Watch" (which seems to be about either voyeurism or watching TV on the couch, or both) is nearly as appealing in its way (and features a quirky, FutureSex/LoveSounds-styled extended coda). Otherwise, the album's second half does have more of interest to offer than the first, including the digital electro grooves of "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Another Mile" and a touching cover of the Beach Boys classic "Caroline No."

Breakestra: Hit the Floor review

A solid serving of contemporary funk at its finest, Breakestra's first outing for Ubiquity moves beyond the classic funk covers of their Live Mix series for a set of all original material, and the results are consistently impressive. Mind, the songs - roughly half of them instrumental, the rest mostly party-minded jams sung with ample soul chops by Mix Master Wolf and Breakestra ringleader "Music Man" Miles Tackett - aren't necessarily going to stick in your head for days, nor are they even all that easy distinguish one from another (the soulful, mid-tempo "Hiding" and the street-racing story-rap "Hit Tha Flo!" are among the more distinctive.) But they sound great while they're playing, and most importantly they never get in the way of the relentlessly funky grooves and top-notch ensemble playing which are this record's unambiguous raison d'être. As contemporary interest in vintage funk and soul continues to develop - by the mid-2000s, the music was becoming more prominent in the American popular consciousness than it had been since its heyday in the '60s and '70s - it remains to be seen whether its current practitioners will find a way past the nostalgic lens that necessarily accompanies their chosen style (by which standard the highest possible compliment would be "Hey, this sounds like it was recorded in 1972!") For their part Breakestra seem content simply to channel the spirit of the classic funk bands - the JB's, the Meters, Tower of Power, etc. - something they do exceedingly well - with neither the self-consciously retro trappings of their East Coast counterparts the Dap-Kings nor any apparent compulsion to innovate, although they do highlight their hip-hop roots with the stand-out posse cut "Family Rap," featuring members of Jurassic 5 and People Under The Stairs. No more or less than flawlessly executed stylistic revivalism, Hit the Floor is highly recommended to anybody who enjoys a good groove.

v/a: Because You're Funky review

As stated right there on its garish, rather incongruous fuchsia cover, Because You're Funky is a compilation of rare funk 45s - more specifically, it's an incredibly solid compilation of twenty-four ultra-rare, never-before-[and-scarcely-since]-compiled instrumental funk and soul 45s dating from the mid-'60s through the early '70s, culled from the crates of veteran British DJ/collector The Rustler (aka Russ Smith, formerly a guitarist with A.R. Kane.) If anything is known about the colorfully-named outfits responsible for these scorching sides, you're not going to find it here - a far cry from the lovingly-annotated likes of, for instance, The Numero Group's Eccentric Soul series, although the music is every bit as worthy of such treatment, the information contained in the liners is limited to songwriting credits and occasionally a producer, presumably transcribed off the 45s themselves. In that respect the set fails as history lesson, although the very obscurity and anonymity of so many eminently enjoyable, if admittedly generic, recordings may suggest some history in itself, an evocation of the grassroots energy, seemingly endless wealth of talent, and lack of critical regard that accompanied funk music in its original flourishing as vernacular form. In any case, the volume of scraggly guitar licks, hip-hugging basslines, ragged but righteous horn sections, reedy organs, and hard-hitting drum breaks amassed here is just staggering. It nearly risks being too much of a good thing, unless of course you're a true funk fiend, but there's just enough subtle variety in sound and feel to keep casual more listeners grooving. And yes - it barely requires mentioning - this is a dynamite party record.

Woodhands: Heart Attack review

Toronto's Woodhands mine similarly vigorous, often abrasive, electronic dance-punk territory to the likes of Austin's Ghostland Observatory and England's Does It Offend You, Yeah? (those are just among the more recently notable of an extensive, overcrowded lineage). Their main point of distinction being that they do it all non-digitally, with real drums, analog synths, keytars, and so forth, and reportedly recreate it all live (an impressive feat given that they're just a duo). You might not think that such a commitment to (frankly, pretty flimsy) 'authenticity' would count for very much when translated to disc, but Heart Attack does maintain a sort of unrelenting grubbiness (despite some very sharp, precise playing) which helps to evoke the breathless energy of a sweaty, uninhibited dance party. Plus, it's just relentless: save for the brief ambient break "Monsterdinosaur" (a waste of a decent title) and the halfway credible, if ironic, slow jam "Straighten the Curtain," the beats barely let up for an instant, even between songs, though they do grow somewhat more nuanced as the album progresses. The jokey "Dancer" will grab attention with its insistent crunch and the absurd interplay between guest vocalist Maylee Todd's cooed verses and Dan Werb's manic, aggressive ranting (the hook, in case you can't decipher it: "You're a very good dancer!/What is your name?/What is your name?"), while "I Can't See Straight" is deliciously menacing with its strobed synths and stuttered breakdowns, but the really good stuff comes through in individual moments more than entire songs. Though there are synth riffs and processed vocal hooks sprinkled liberally throughout, the ride is mostly worth it for the unexpected groove shifts and jammed variations that come toward the close of most tracks. As party music -- and there's little pretense that this is anything else -- it's perfectly serviceable stuff, and more inspired than plenty of the recent output in this vein.

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