Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Goldfrapp "Seventh Tree" (Mute)

With this currently number two (two!) in the UK Album Chart, it seems almost redundant to be reviewing it now. But I wasn't one of those cheeky sods who downloaded the album when it leaked in November. Not that I'm overly concerned about the "damage this sort of thing does to the artist" you understand. It's more to do with my still present juvenile excitement at buying a record on the first day it's out in the shops. I like to swoon over the lyrics before I get to hear the songs in question. Imagine my surprised expression as I sat on the bus back home as I encountered the now immortal line "Roasting, roasting, roast indeed, mahogany titties that live on and on" ("Clowns"). Goldfrapp have always revelled in bizarre imagery, and lyrical curveballs like the one just referred to are part of what make them such an exciting, unpredictable pop group. Much has been made of their current joke-folk-opus (as Roy Harper once almost had it), but for all the acoustic sounds on offer it's still a pop album. It's stuffed with melodies. So long as they don't lose their talent for cooking up truly corking tunes, I don't care if their next album is an exploration of the musical possibilities of the Bulgarian noseflute. "A&E" is the lead single here - already a top 10 hit - and it's not even the catchiest thing on the album. That award goes to "Happiness", a sarcastic Beatles-y thing which evokes some scary alternative version of the Salvation Army, doling out cynical advice to the downhearted. It goes: "Join our club and you will find/ Harmony and piece of mind...Donate all your money, we'll make it better". On tracks such as "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" or "Little Bird", Alison does sound remarkably like a cross between Kate Bush and Elizabeth Frazer. Perfect for one of those spring/summer days when the trees are dappled in glorious golden sunshine (and we get a lot of those in Ireland don't we), "Seventh Tree" leaves the impression that Goldfrapp have a whole lot further to go before they run out of ideas. God knows what they'll do next, and that's the most brilliant thing about them in a way. (9 out of 10)

Magnetic Fields "Distortion" (Nonesuch)

It's hard to escape the feeling that this album - a sort of tribute to the sqwalling feedback of The Jesus and Mary Chain apparently - is slightly hamstrung by the noisy arrangement. Stephin Merritt contends that the last original or interesting development to take place in rock music was the release of JAMC's "Psychocandy" LP in 1985. I'm looking at a copy of Smash Hits here from July 1986, brothers Jim and William Reid are peeping out at me from the centrepages and declaring "To get in the Top 10 you've got to write a nauseating, obnoxious record, something like The Housemartins or Dr and the Medics..." JAMC would have a top ten hit 10 months later with "April Skies", but Magnetic Fields will have to wait a while yet before they reach such lofty heights. It's not that Merritt hasn't written some really good songs again, songs which display once again his knack for wordplay and melody. It's just the feedback sounds like a dull joke, a gimmick. Nothing wrong with gimmicks per se, but here it does get in the way. A bit. "Distortion" also harks back to early Magnetic Fields albums "The Wayward Bus" and "Distant Plastic Trees". Even the sprightliest songs here like "California Girls", "Please Stop Dancing" and "The Nun's Litany" sound decidedly lo-fi. It's the more subtle, gentle tracks which ultimately prove most rewarding; "I'll Dream Alone" and "Drive On Driver" being particularly pretty. "Too Drunk To Dream" wins the award for best opening line. It begins "Sober, life is a prison/ Shit-faced, it is a blessing". In conclusion then, was "Psychocandy" that good an album? No. So why bother? But you can't keep a genuine songwriting genius down. (7 out of 10)

Hot Chip "Made In The Dark" (EMI)

Not the hoped-for world-beating triumph to capitalise on the chart success of recent single "Ready For The Floor". This finds Hot Chip add to their repetoire of interesting-and-all-that, but still-slightly-annoying, technopop. The in-jokes can be a bit tiresome - this features an unwelcome spoken word bit from Todd Rundgren in the middle of "Bendable Poseable" - but when Hot Chip reign in their wackier tendencies they are quite affecting. "We're Looking For A Lot Of Love" is a gorgeous ballad, rather calling to mind New Order's "Thieves Like Us". "One Pure Thought" is just a smidgin, a remix perhaps, away from being a surefire hit. And "Ready For The Floor" is of course a great single, but you already know that. There's nothing bad here, it's just hard not to feel slightly disappointed that this isn't BLOODY GREAT when it feels like it could/should have been. (7 out of 10)

Vampire Weekend "Vampire Weekend" (XL Recordings)

What do they call this kind of thing? Mathrock or something silly like that? Sometimes labels aren't that helpful. This does sound rather like Paul Simon's "Graceland" in places though, and it's no wonder as Vampire Weekend are well to do college-going types from New York who just so happen to be into West African music. And good on them too, for they seem to be part of a new indieband mindset that has broader musical horizons than the dreary old Smiths/Oasis/Radiohead followers we've become so immune to. And if "Vampire Weekend" leads to a youngster buying Bhundu Boys or Hugh Masakela record, then all's well and good. The standouts are; "Oxford Comma" (ultra-pretty tune, swearing), "A-Punk" (something to dance to) and "Campus" (the rather touching moment). (8 out of 10)

The Orb "...The Dream" (Dragonfly)

Here's something of a surprise. After 12 years distancing themselves from the classic ambient dub sound of their brilliant "Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld" and "U.F.Orb" albums, The Orb don't just revisit similar territory but practically offer us "U.F.Orb II". Turns out the Mike Oldfield influence ran deeper than remixing "Tubular Bells" for him after all... Well, this isn't quite as great as "U.F.Orb" of course, but it does throw in a similar array of beguiling samples; I spotted Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man in there somewhere at one point. And "Lost and Found" is to this album what "Towers Of Dub" was to the "U.F.Orb" LP - that is, a dub reggae track with farty noises over the top, and lots of echo. Unlike their 1992 career-highpoint, this album is a bit lightweight in the tunes department. Only "Vuja De" and "The Truth Is..." threaten to burst into something resembling "song" at any point. But it's good to have them back, sounding just a bit like their old selves, and they've even put a tiny little picture of Battersea Power Station on the back to remind us of "Orb Live 93". Aw. (6 out of 10)

Billy Bragg "Mr Love & Justice" (Cooking Vinyl)

First album in six years, in which time he's written a book on the subject of Englishness - a very good book it was too. But perhaps it took something of his zest for creativity out of him. This album struggles to reach the great heights of the Bragg of "yore". "I Keep Faith" features a guest appearance from Robert Wyatt (one which WON'T scare everyone out of the pub I might add) and it'd sound right on Radio 2 but that's ok. Elsewhere not many songs make a huge impression initially, but "O Freedom" is a good old attack on the so-called war on terror, and "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show" is a strident attack on the tabacco and advertising industries. So while old-age may indeed have "mellowed" him, it's nice to hear Bragg have a good rant now and then. Initial copies come with a version of the album without Bragg's backing band The Blokes, so it all works out rather well in the end. It's no "Don't Try This At Home" or even a "Brewing Up With Billy Bragg" for that matter, but it'll do.
(6 out of 10)