record reviews february 2013


DAN REED

Signal Fire (Zero One)

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Best known from his time fronting funk rockers Dan Reed Network, these days Reed leans far more towards an Americana sound and the sort of classic American rock associated with Bob Seger and his like. Case in point, the opening title track with its driving rhythms, punchy guitar chords and instant hooks, a formula worked with equal polish on the likes of the shimmering All I Need Is You, the urgent pumping Avalanche and the acoustic country rolling Soul Warrior.

The genre naturally requires a couple of reflective big ballads, duly supplied with the gradual swell of Beloved, Only Love and the big building End Of the World.

With 13 tracks, there’s some fillers and flatliners, the droning Phil Collins-recalling Indestructible the guiltiest party, but as the uptempo poppy singalong Slow Down shows, he still knows how to get a party started.

Mike Davies

HELENA JESELE

Sweet Sticky Fix (World 6)

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The latest name on the retro soul scene, Manchester born, Dublin raised Jesele is unlikely to avoid the inevitable Amy and Adele comparisons, not least since five of the songs on her debut album are produced by Paul Duffy who co-wrote Wake Up Alone while the other half were handled by Brooklyn based Truth & Soul, the team that worked on 19. But while the six-footer may have soul influences, she was also reared on a diet of Ella and Frank, so there’s a good deal of jazz in the blood too. Indeed she paid some of her dues singing in such clubs as La Pigalle and Ronnie Scott’s, a grounding you can hear in the late night smoky torch trip hop smoulder of Angel Save Me and the sensual slink of the title track, a number which has a definite touch of Bassey does Bond and provides a perfect companion to the decidedly John Barry feel of Smash My Heart.

Soul, though, is the through line, be it the urban beats of Pretty Pretty Lights, the Barry White influence of Lovesick Avenue with its seductive brass and string arrangement or the Motown colours to the closing Sun Is Rising.

The latter track comes as a welcome shift of tempo from the slow femme fatale noir grooves of pretty much everything else and while it’s an impressive debut there is a danger of its narcotic atmosphere sometimes inducing slumber rather than a dreamlike haze. Next time round, a little more variety and a little more blood may determine whether she really is another Amy or Adele, or just this year’s Duffy.

Mike Davies

SOUL ASYLUM

Delayed Reaction (Freeworld)

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Still best remembered for Runaway Train from their 1992 breakthrough Grave Dancers Union, where they once pumped out a new album every two or three years, things have slowed down since 1998’s Candy From A Stranger. When that performed badly and they were dropped by their label, they took time off to reassess where they’d been and where they wanted to go, the result being an eight year gap before The Silver Lining came along, during which time founder member bassist Karl Mueller died of cancer.

Now, another six years on, the band returns with their tenth studio album and frontman Dave Pirner the only original member. Not that much else has changed since grungy guitar pop of 21 years ago, opening in punchy guitar slinging, chord-descending shape with Gravity and continuing in a similar vein equally bounce and chug singalong 80s brat rock numbers Let’s Kill Each Other, Take Manhattan, and The Streets.

It doesn’t all cast fond glances back to the glory days; By The Way serves reminder of their influence on the then fledgling alt-country scene, the five minute I Should’ve Stayed In Bed builds from a slow dirge into a grand swelling finale and Cruel Intentions is a lazy late night piano bar jazz number that might have come from the 40s. As such it feels like an album that sets out to give the fans what they want and in return taking a couple of opportunities to please themselves too. I doubt if either will feel disappointed.

Mike Davies

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS

Push The Sky Away (Bad Seed)

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Drawing on assorted weirdness he found trawling the Internet as well as the landscape of his Hove home, Cave’s fifteenth album with the Bad Seeds, their first in five years, maintains his trademark Biblical darkness, returning to sombre, pensive moods and filmic soundscapes after the garage howls and scuzzy riffs of the Grinderman projects.

We No Who U R sets the tone, Leonard Cohen influence permeating its air of weary air of menace tinged sadness until, almost as if the effort were too much, the song simply fades away with him repeating ‘we know where you live and we know there’s no need to forgive’. Wide Lovely Eyes lifts the pace ever slightly, Cave here mingling the Cohen with the Cash for a pulsing romantic evening hymnal with spare organ and scuffling percussive backing but then comes the sexually charged Water’s Edge, Warren Ellis’ violin underscoring the mood of Cave’s dramatic delivery, part shaman part beat poet, as he tells of the hordes of city girls who ‘take apart their bodies like toys for the local boys’ and ‘dance at the water’s edge, shaking their asses’.

The spirit of Jim Morrison, another of Cave’s touchstones, hovers over the desert noir atmosphere of the equally spoken six minute Jubilee Street with its steady metronomic beat, spooked guitar and desolate violin and to which he returns for Finishing Jubilee Street, weaving a Coleridge-like tale of the song’s creation and the dream it induced.

In between you get the smouldering sexual heat of Mermaids (‘She was a catch …I was the match that would fire up her snatch’) with its stew of desire, religion and temptation and yet another association of women and water, and, another spoken blues, the throatily bass grumbling We Real Cool.

Nudging eight minutes, recalling a trip to Geneva, the penultimate Higgs Boson Blues gets existential with particle physics, another heat heavy hallucinatory talking blues noir with visions of Robert Johnson at the crossroads with a $10 guitar and Lucifer with (if I’m hearing the lyrics correctly) ‘a hundred black babies running from his genocidal jaw’, Cave musing ‘don’t know who’s gonna rip off who’, as well as Hannah Montana in the African Savanna, cursing the king of the Zulus as the simulated rain season begins and moving on to Amazonia, crying with the dolphins.

Unfolding on keyboard drone, the title track closes the album in suitably foreboding manner as he sings ‘I’ve got a feeling that I just can’t shake’, a song guessingly about following his own musical path (‘if your friends think you should do it different and if they think you should do it the same’), and keep on pushing because ‘some people say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll, ah but it gets you right down to your soul.’ The dark night rises.

Mike Davies

CHRIS STAMEY

Lovesick Blues (YepRoc)

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Founder member of seminal 70s jangle pop outfit The dBs (who reunited last year), Stamey has been a minor but significant force in American music for near 40 years, whether as part of the band, with solo albums or collaborations with fellow dB, Peter Holsapple. This is his first solo release since 2005's A Question of Temperature (on which he was backed by Yo La Tengo) and reflects the more folk pop aspect of his music, although not, as You n Me n XTC shows, without abandoning those chiming guitar melodies.

An air of melancholy bathes the album, whether on a number like London’s intimate weary working musician love letter (“why don't you stay home, I'll call you when I get up. I've been thirteen hours on the motorway, I think the bass player quit. I've got three more weeks of overdubs”), the woodwind coloured Leonard Cohen morning reminiscences of The Room Above The Bookstore ( "In the hotel round the corner, we have packed our memories…and folded our unease) or the resignation of the seven minute title track ("sometimes I feel so sad….I've shut out all my friends. there's no way to even pretend that it will ever change”) with its minimalist guitar shivers.

As embodied by the acoustic Wintertime, there’s a frosty chill too, not the cold that numbs the bones but rather that of a crisp, quite evening when the air feels pure, Occasional Shivers evocative of Paul Simon’s late night lounge bar confessionals and haunted memories. The album ends with a catchy 60s pop feel and both Astronomy and Anyway also take relatively uptempo paths, but it’s the songs that make you want to curl up in a warm blanket and embrace your sweet sadness that makes this most worth seeking out.

Mike Davies

CUDDLY SHARK

The Road To Ugly (Armellodie)

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As you might expect from the city that gave the world the Glasgow kiss, it produces bands who get in there, do what they do and get out without making a fuss or trying to dress things up in fancy airs and graces. This trio is one such. They take their cue from 90s indie rock disco and deliver 12 tracks in around 30 minutes with no fat or wimpy ballads (or at least not until the closing Local Hero) along the way. It’s like The Fratellis without the finesse.

SPMG races out of the traps like some amalgam of The Jam, Kinks and Pixies and that’s the way things continue, drums thumping, guitar stabbing, bass throbbing and singer Colin Reid yelping, shouting, warbling and occasionally breaking into a declamatory speak sing style. On Overpriced, one of the stand out pounders, he sounds a bit like Feargal Sharkey.

There’s a touch of country evident on the rolling rhythms to Fiddly Dee, but generally speaking the regular comparisons to Husker Du and Sonic Youth seem to sum it perfectly, with perhaps a smidgeon of the Ramones brand of dumb rock on the likes of My iPod Made Me Do It.

The controlled melody and rhythm of Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind reveals there’s more to the trio than simple three chord stomp (BMI has a David Byrne undercurrent), suggesting a future beyond Friday night in the pub noise.

Mike Davies

ALAN BONNER

Balladeer (Own Label)

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Born in Suffolk, a graduate of the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and now resident in London, the title of his second album pretty much tells you what to expect from Bonner. He’s been musically (and vocally) likened to Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, Cohen and Bolan, but while there are definite shades of Bowie’s early work you’d be hard pushed to identify any of the others. You might, however, find yourself thinking of Justin Hayward and early Elton John, not to mention Chris De Burgh and Gilbert O’Sullivan. When he adopts a mannered semi-spoken delivery on the jaunty ukulele backed Lighthouse, even Mike Skinner may come to mind.

Largely working from behind a piano, he’s undeniably got a way with folk shaded melody and emotional timbre. Reflective opening number Autumn with its tinkling piano, violin and cascading chorus line is quite lovely and the same melancholic emotional warmth glows from Look At Me, Talia’s violin-soaked hymn to growing up, love and red wine, Little M’s sentimental but not syrupy acoustic guitar love letter to his (?) baby sister and the closing hymnal Better Man.

Much is autobiographical and confessional, however Rainbow Man is a poetic yet powerful recollection of the murder of gay Wyoming University student Matthew Shepard, a devastating image bitterly evoking how, left tied to a fence, he was initially mistaken for a scarecrow by the cyclist who discovered him.

It’s a testament to Bonner’s writing powers, though it should also be said he’s still learning his craft. The repeated back up lines of Autumn don’t really work and the use of fuck up on Lighthouse is unnecessary in an otherwise perfect airplay number, A little more such variation of tempo wouldn’t have gone amiss especially since by the time you reach the somewhat sluggish Ocean and Redemption the pace is starting to feel very one level. There is, though, plenty here to mark him out as a name to watch closely, and, given a sympathetic producer, he could well become very big indeed.

Mike Davies

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