220px-dondeestanlosladronesReview by Joseph Middleton-Welling

Assigned by Nicolás Martínez Heredia

I’d previously only knew Shakira from ‘Hips don’t lie’ back in the late 00s. That song was never one of my favourites but I didn’t dislike it, it just wasn’t super on my radar. But from that song I thought I knew what Shakira’s deal was- latin dance pop. So when I got round to listening to this record, her forth, from the late 90’s I was pleasantly surprised.

The sound of this record is quite varied; there’s a bunch of horns on the opening track and a lot of the songs are built around a solid chassis of guitars and keys. Hell there’s even a harmonica solo on the second track Si Te Vas. The only place where electronics really get a look in is with the drums, which sometimes get super 90’s in a slightly unpleasant Vengaboys-esque manner. Gotta get the kids to dance somehow I guess… The album is about a third ballads and some of these are a bit soupy but the rest is a solid pop-rock-dance-latinx-crossover-smoosh. Shakira’s vocals on the whole album have a great amount of bite to them and she’s bends a lot of notes in an oddly bluesy way. Her actual vocal tone is sometimes quite biting, which means the songs have a lot of energy. There’s also a lot of emotion that comes across in her voice, which is useful as all of the songs are in Spanish, so it’s good be able pick up on the emotional contours of the songs for me at least; I don’t speak Spanish, I barely speak English.

But wait! There’s more…. There’s actually a psychedelic song on here! It’s halfway through the record, hovering at track 6 and its called Octavo dio…. And its great. Seriously go listen to it now. It’s got a lemony piano melody and a really cool windup into the chorus. Plus theres some mellotron and backwards piano on it. What’s not to love.

In conclusion, this record is definitely worth a listen. It has its ups and downs, but generally it’s a really fun experience. Would recommend.

Be-Bop Deluxe–MODERN MUSIC (1976)

71grgknawul-_sl1300_Review by Alejandro Muñoz G

Assigned by B.b. Fultz

The songs here are beautifully crafted: they’re full of little intricacies and ornaments (owing especially, though not exclusively, to the guitar) which enhance and reward a listener’s attention. Also, some of the songs have fairly interesting structures: ‘Twilight Capers’ shifts from 4/4 rock, to reggae (or is it calypso?), before ending with a 3/4 kinda space-rock coda, without any of the changes feeling forced. The album’s overall style –an amalgam of glam and prog with a step towards new wave – is successfully accomplished by the band without it ever sounding pretentious.  

Guitar work is terrific and the drumming is delightful too. The synths, however, do sometimes feel purposeless (for instance, in the last minute of ‘Twilight Capers’).  As for the vocals, I think they’re one of the album’s weaknesses. While not annoying or poor by any means, Nelson’s voice sounds rather limited and I can’t help but imagine how the songs would benefit in the voice of a more capable and dynamic singer.

The opening sequence, from ‘Orphans of Babylon’ to ‘Kiss of Light’ is possibly my favourite part of the album. ‘The Bird Charmer’s Destiny’ is a sappy below-average 70s ballad but, thankfully, is kept short to give way to the much better ‘The Gold at the End of the Rainbow’, a beautiful love song. ‘Bring Back the Spark’ may start as one of the most straightforward rocking songs in the album but its worth lies in its coda: an instrumental crescendo of piano-arpeggios and gorgeous guitar work (and somehow reminds me of the ending to Baba O’Riley).

Side-B seems to me less strong than the first one. The ‘Modern Music Suite’ flows smoothly and effectively across diverse sections but for most of it, it didn’t grabbed my attention. It’s mostly good but not really great (and certainly not epic despite its length). ‘Down on Terminal Street’, with its sing-along-type chorus provides a grand ending to the album before ‘Make The Music Magic’ briefly lightens the mood one final time.

When first listening to this album, I thought the best way to describe it was as being the work of a skillful artisan rather than that of a gifted artist. It seemed accomplished and enjoyable but not particularly enthralling; a tad too tamed and lacking memorable tunes. After a couple of additional listens I still think the work the band put onto this songs is considerably higher than the output the listener takes from them. However, the album has grown on me and now I find some of its songs to be truly gripping and effective. In any case, in spite of is limitations, the album is certainly worthy of multiple listens, even if it’s only for its craftsmanship and guitar work.

Black Heart Procession–2 (1999)

r-668060-1395352929-9136-jpegReviewed by Franco Micale

Assigned by Alex Alex

Who are Black Heart Procession? They are a group. What kind of group? They’re a 90s indie rock group, who aren’t anywhere near popularity, but acclaimed enough to have a sizable following. The leader of this band is Pall. A. Jenkins, who, from what I have gathered, played nearly every single instrument on this album, and wrote all the songs. So essentially, this album comes close to being a one man project, yet it never feels like a one.

So, what is this album? It’s their second album, and it’s dark and dreary. It’s very much a singer-songwriter album, but full of all sorts of subtle, experimental atmospherics that are scattered throughout the tracks. Because of this, the album comes off slightly reminiscing neo-folk, such as Current 93 and The Tear Garden. However, with that being said, is the album actually any good? Well, let me give a run through of this work…

The album opens with a booming tampani mimicking the sound of the wind, and it immediately colors up an image of a lonely, desolate harbor along the sea, with the creakling of empty ships and the watery movement of soft waves being the only source of noise in the area. The music starts playing, and it’s sad, mournful, and depressed, but creates imagery of the group playing in an nearly empty bar, located in this empty era. Accompanied by a fender Rhodes piano, an echoic guitar, and changaling chain-like percussion, Pall A. Jenkins sings lyrics that reflect this atmosphere:
“In the time of this winter the waiter had not much to say
He could hear the clock but he could not find his way
If I’m so far from your heart why do I feel it beat
And time won’t wait for us”

Clearly, the waiter is not very happy. But why? Heartbreak? The fear of dying alone? Despair from the loss of a loved one? I honestly don’t know. I’m very bad with lyrics. However, the musical atmosphere in this track is extremely engaging, and does a great job of sucking you in within its first five seconds.

The next track, “Blue Tears”, is even better. This song further cements the imagery of a sad group  playing in a sad empty bar, not only because it has an accordion, but also a trumpet, and a very lovely melody. It’s augmented by a waltz-esque rhythm (though it’s in 4/4, so its not technically a waltz), and very beautifully raw singing from Pall.  The lyrics, again, and very sad. Here are some of them:

“Now I know that I must leave
And I can’t remember when I ever felt so great
It was my time spent with you before the war

But now these blue tears
They keep falling
Falling down from my lonely eyes
They’re falling for you”

After this track, we return back to the sea dock, with the song “A Light So Dim”, which may be my favorite song on the album. It chugs along at a slow, lengthy pace, but is undercovered by beautiful rhythmic piano lines, layers and tinkerings of guitar and organ chords, and a great melody at its core. It creates a picture of seamen rowing an old, broken up boat, on a darken red night.

Following this, comes the acoustic driven “Your Church Is Red”. There’s a lot of imaginary in this song I don’t understand, but it’s  a very beautiful acoustic driven piece that never ceases to sway positive reactions from me.

At this point the album begins to escape me, and I lose  the capability to write pretentious imaginary based on the album. To me,  everything interesting and captivating are condensed in the first four tracks, and after that, it just draaagggs. The music gets so subtle that it simply stops becoming subtle, and is just boring to sit through. It’s not just because the melodies are weak (though they really, really are), but mainly because the atmosphere the music is trying to create is just almost nonexistent. There are a lot of beautiful instrumentation and productional touches, but it never seems to move the music forward or create any sort of defined aural environment, or even any sounds that I find interesting. There’s also the fact that, while the Pall sounds good on the songs that are good, his voice really doesn’t work anywhere else. This is an issue, because this is very lyrically and personality driven music, and while Pall’s voice is fairly soulful, it sounds like a very average indie rock singer, with no distinct tone or mannerisms in his voice. After track four, the whole album just feels like a giant bland, uncolorful mush of pianos, organs, and delay’d guitar.

There is one really good track after the sea of absolute lethargy, and that’s “Beneath The Ground”. It’s a nearly instrumental track that tries to create atmosphere in a manner different from the standard piano + organ + guitar + generic singing routine of the other tracks. Set to the rhythm of a sparse drum machine, Pall uses guitar harmonics to create an illuminous sonic field of fuzz that I find very pleasing to sit through. And the last track is a reprise of the first track, which in of itself, since it’s a good song to begin with, but what sticks out is how fantastically it ends the album, with about 4 minutes of dead, blank windy atmosphere surrounding my headphone
All in all, this is a very tiring album that I’m struggling to review effectively. There’s some very great moments, but it’s such a chore to listen to all the way through that I’m unsure if I would ever desire to play this album again. Perhaps I’m missing something, because from what I can tell, this is actually a fairly well acclaimed album, but simply put, this is just simply not for me. If I depressing, atmospheric indie-folk music that I can genuinely enjoy, I’ll stick to Current 93. There may be quality moments on this record, but sorry Alex, I just can’t click with this. Except for the first three and last two songs. So I guess that’s a good slice of the album. But still, overall this album just as a very lethargic effect of me. I think you get the point.

Wild Beasts–TWO DANCERS (2009)

220px-wildbeasts-twodancersReviewed by B.B. Fultz

Assigned by Oliver Lewis

I’m pretty rusty on review writing and I promised to get this one in tonight, so I’m just going to do a song for song take and give you my general impressions.

The Fun Powder Plot — Interesting beginning. Peaceful, lethargic, synthy background that lulls you to relax. Almost ambient at first, but then picking up momentum and moving in a direction instead of just meandering as ambient would. Strange vocals. I thought it was a woman at first. After a few verses it dropped in register and sort of sounded like Dave Vanian from The Damned. A half-gothic half-comic croon. Hard to describe. I couldn’t make out most of the words but the voice blended in well with the music. I wanted to understand the words because with a title like The Fun Powder Plot it’s not clear what the song is about, and I’m still curious. I guess I can google the lyrics later. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this one.

Hooting & Howling — This singer has a really interesting style. He shifts from an almost soprano croon down to a warbly tenor, often in the same line. This song starts with a simple bass pattern, then builds up into a busy (yet still somehow ethereal sounding) rhythm with quiet interludes. Sustained keyboard notes, little bongo riffs, guitar pings. It reminds me of The Cure crossed with early 80s Psychedelic Furs. The vocals are more varied here and put to better effect in this song than the first. I kinda dig this one.

All The King’s Men — “Normal” vocals for this one, mostly. With some screechy high vocals in the mix. It reminds me a little of the Mercury-May “high/low dialogue” in Brighton Rock. A cool percussion drives this song, bap bap ba ba ba doom, with all kinds of pretty little embellishments. It’s hard to describe but it’s all done to great effect. For some reason I can’t explain at the moment, it reminded me of that early 80s band Big Country. The percussion mainly, which feels Celtic somehow. And maybe it is. I actually like this song quite a bit. It’s really catchy but not in an obvious way. You have to pay attention to it or you might miss the hook. It’s worth seeking though. It’s a good song. Rather than going strictly for atmosphere this time, they actually try for a more traditional song structure, except with a lot of different things going on between the different instruments, and even the vocals. I’ve listened to this one a few times and every time I hear it, I hear something more in it, and subsequently I like it a little more. There’s something irresistible about the way it all dovetails together in a hundred unlikely patterns. It’s like a kid making seemingly random squiggles with a spirograph but when you step back they somehow connect into an amazing design.

When I’m Sleepy — Okay so what the hell’s up with that “Excuse me sir, would you happen to know the time? Yeah bitch, it’s time to –” intro??? So far it’s in three songs in a row and I still don’t get the point of it. It’s time to track, as in record the album? It’s time to trap, as in trap music? It’s time to trek, as in nerd out? What? What is that? … … … This one’s weird and airy and hard to pin down. The percussion is all that anchors it from floating away I guess. It’s not very hooky and before you can try to get into it, it’s over. I’m drawing a blank here.

We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues — I guess the stupid intro is going to be a regular thing. I wonder why they excluded it from the first song but not the others? Life is full of mysteries. This is another one that sounds like it’s from some New Romantic band in the early 80s. No great shakes, but pleasant. Oddly, the most memorable hook is the weird vocal trick where he sings “tongues” as a five syllable word. He has a freaky voice, but at least he knows how to use it to interesting effect.

Two Dancers — Another intriguing percussion pattern. These guys seem to favor upfront percussion. The drumming plays the lead role in this song, in the same way another band would use a guitar. It’s too prominent in the mix to just be considered a rhythm section. The other sounds are again ethereal and disjointed. I’m not sure I’ll remember this later, but it’s an interesting listen when it’s playing.

Two Dancers II — At least the dumb spoken intro is gone. This is another ethereal song full of strange little pings and pongs, and a catchy tap-tap-tap-tap drum shuffle. He goes for a deep croon on this one. His voice gets interesting in this lower register, almost like a Brian Ferry pastiche. Not the sound of his voice so much as his style, if you follow me. Just when I started to like it, it was over.

This Is Our Lot — These guys really love atmosphere. This one’s got the stuttery guitar lead, bubbly bass, and complicated drum tattoo of some really inspired sophisti-rock song from the New Romantic era. This is a pretty good song. The singer goes for a mid range (for him) croon here that might take some getting used to — he seems to be at his strongest when he’s much higher or much lower. But I forgive the voice because the music behind the voice is elaborate and interesting. The bass and drums dance together like old lovers.

Underbelly — The dumb intro is back. Doesn’t this guy know the fucking time yet? Why does he keep bothering the other guy? Doesn’t he know the other guy is trying to track? Or trap? Or trek? People can be so annoying … … … this one’s got a weird echoey monotone beginning with an almost operatic vocal, then becomes a music box of sorts, playing something Eastern and mystical. It’s maybe the strangest song so far. And then it cuts off. Right in the middle of whatever it was doing. I don’t get it. And it’s so short that I didn’t have much time to try.

Empty Nest — Should I call this one haunting? I don’t know. It’s strange, like the rest of the songs. I can’t resonate with it on an emotional level because my brain is too busy trying to internalize this weird music. Not a criticism, just an observation. This one’s melodic, with a lot of interesting rises and falls. That “gone gone gone gone” is haunting though. And hooky. When the higher “going going gone” weaves into it, it’s almost magical. Which is to say it’s greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t seem like it should be anything special, but somehow it is. The whole song has a dreamy kind of sway to it. The rest of the songs mostly passed me by in a pleasant but forgettable blur. But Empty Nest stuck with me. I just listened to it again and I was wrong. I CAN resonate with this song. At least after I had time to get used to it. It’s the kind of thing you should play a few times before judging it. Its greatness is subtle and it creeps up on you. It crept up on me, at least.

In Summation …

I liked this album. It’s not something I’d be in the mood for every day, but when I’m in the mood for New Romantic or Sophisti-Rock, or just something that reminds me of those strange days in the early 80s where the music was getting as weird as the hair, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw this on. My one main complaint — and it applies to nearly all of the songs — was that the songs were too short. They take a little while to get your head into the same groove, and when you’re starting to feel like you’re getting into them, they’re over. Some are over before you even half get into them. I guess if the songs were bad, they’d seem too LONG, so the songs seeming too short must mean they’re good songs. Or at the very least, interesting songs. If you can get past the sometimes ear-grating vocals and the fact that most of the songs sound the same, you might dig this. It’s not stunningly great but on the other hand there’s nothing all that wrong with it either. For the kind of music they were going for, I’d say they acquitted themselves more than adequately. Thumbs up.

Best song : ALL THE KING’S MEN and/or EMPTY NEST

Staff Carpenborg and the Electric Corona—FANTASTIC PARTY (1970)

r-2217018-1382991477-6010-jpegReview by William Quiterio

Assigned by Schuyler El Luis

Staff Carpenborg and the Electric Corona would seem to be a musical collective designed to prompt a kind of Residents-style mythologization amongst enthusiasts of bizarro cult music, though it is a fairly safe bet that this resulted more from circumstance than calculation.  Apparently the brainchild of a German musician named Paul Bucher active in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the Electric Corona’s one and only LP Fantastic Party was released in 1970 to little fanfare and seemed fated for oblivion if not for the peculiar fate of a highly influential and stylistically diverse contemporaneous musical movement.  Of course, I am referring to Krautrock, a loose collection of German rock musicians active during the late 1960’s and 70’s whose decidedly grim and angular approach to rock music would end up influencing nearly all popular music with an experimental bent that would come after. Exploring the more obscure corners of this historically important musical movement has, inevitably, unearthed the occasional forgotten gem.  

Can, Kraftwerk, Faust, and Amon Duul are probably some of the more well-known and well-regarded musical acts associated with the krautrock scene, and each one of these groups would launch their experiments from a somewhat different stylistic musical base, with some preferring jazz, others blues, and others whatever the then-current electronic aural technologies could provide.  Fantastic Party is very much a jazz-flavored oddity that gives one the impression that Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band (but not the Beefster himself) had decided to hook up with Third-era Soft Machine to throw a party at a haunted house with a drunk Ray Manzarek. I’ve encountered a review (or two) on the internet that suggests the title and album artwork are something of a deception, as they imply a good-time party atmosphere that any Eurovision enthusiast would dig, but instead the music they accompany is a dissonant, creepy, and highly experimental, collection of jazz fusion stylings from a bunch of Frank Zappa types who never bothered to develop a comparable sense of humor and seem to be haunted by an abstract post-war middle-European malaise.  I would say the notion that the title is inappropriate is something of a half-truth. Fantastic Party is a highly energetic album that does, indeed, give the impression of a party, but it is a fantastic party in the second-most common sense of that word; it is a party that defies credulity, seems distant from conventional reality, and alienated from ordinary human experience.

Let’s break this down, shall we?     

“All Men Should be Brothers of Ludwig” starts things out with a deliciously deceptive beginning; after the fake-out sample from Beethoven’s Fifth, a creepy film-noir bass line rudely intrudes on the listener’s senses and fights a compelling duel with a very Doors-like organ part, establishing a haunted and haunting atmosphere from the get-go.  The almost mechanical beat provided by a methodically beaten tambourine serves as something of a rhythmic anchor to a musical proceeding that seems in danger of falling apart at any second, very much in the manner of a Trout Mask-era Beefheart tune, or really, any of the more audacious jazz fusion or Krautrock compositions. The bass would not be out of place on a Portishead song.  “The Every Day’s Way Down To The Suburbs” provides a rare number featuring vocals, and seems to exist at an intersection between a cut from Zappa’s Uncle Meat (complete with sassy satirical lyrics that would come off as sarcastic if they weren’t so bizarre) and the third Soft Machine album. “Lightning Fires, Burning Sorrows” is propelled by a driving, stuttering- I’m tempted to say ‘neurotic’- bass line and maddening, repetitive, metallic tinkering percussion, which contrasts with bizarrely beautiful organ noises that drift in and out of the mix.  “Swing Low If Like to Do” is probably the most Soft Machine-esque track, with a powerful, if somewhat frustratingly-mixed drum part that anchors a feast of almost-but-not-quite dissonant instrumentation. The organ part seems to belong to a different song, and these fuzzed-out, unidentifiable, distorted electronic noises provide an infectious groove while the electric guitar fills out the mix with this incredibly high-pitched, ‘chiming’ tone that seems to emulate an exceptionally shrill songbird that has lost its sense of rhythm.

“Stainy Heavy Needles” is another bass-driven tune with distant, cymbal-heavy drums that seem to be provided by a drummer intent on playing fills a thousand times more complex than strictly necessary.  Meanwhile, incessant hand-claps provide a bit of effective Chinese-water torture percussion (and are much more prominent in the mix) while an eerie, and seemingly improvised, flute part twitters like that aforementioned rhythm-deprived neurotic bird.  “P.A.R.T.Y.” (aka, “Have fun guessing the probably-non-existent acronym”) has probably the most complex bass part on the album and eerie Suzuki-esque Can vocal wailings that complement the haunted-house organ, even if they maddeningly never congeal into a proper, angular Suzuki-esque vocal melody.  In fact, they seem to play a compelling, call-and-response game with the jagged electric guitar fills. “Let the Thing Comin’ Up” is another vocal track that relegates the vocals to a supporting role; as usual, an appropriately hypnotic bass line is the main event. The completely indecipherable vocal ejaculations seem to derive from a combination of a possessed evangelical preacher and an eccentric German’s idea of what an ‘African tribal chant’ is supposed to sound like.  Bongos and that same incessant, metallic chiming from earlier provide the percussion, and the whole affair perhaps best exemplifies the album’s haunted party aesthetic. “Shummy Poor Clessford Idea In Troody Tapestry Noodles” has an insistent, repetitive guitar line that seems to be filling the prominent groove role usually reserved for the bass (not that the bass is slacking off on this track), and the jazziest drum parts yet. A second, seemingly improvised guitar sporadically pops up and seems to whither under the assault of the main groove, which has a driving power comparable to Can’s “Mother Sky.”  This served as the album closer on the original vinyl pressing, but the cd reissue provides the listener with a memorable ditty called “Afro Rock,” and it lives up to its title. It’s probably the funkiest number on here, opening with a hilarious but still somehow eerie, ghostly vocal ejaculation before settling into a funky groove ably complemented by some smooth, and strangely mournful, saxophone wailings, and some nice Funkadelic guitar.

Really, I have been trying to avoid the adjective ‘trippy’ while writing this review, as it is paradoxically too appropriate to be interesting and just inappropriate enough to be misleading.  Inasmuch as Fantastic Party can be said to be psychedelic, it is the psychedelia of genuine madness, not chemical hallucinogens. As I’ve already hinted, contemporaneous krautrock, the jazzier side of Zappa and Soft Machine, and Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica are the precedents and analogues that most inform the album’s style, and like those works Fantastic Party derives (or at least seems to derive) its tripped out sensibility from the haunted corners of the human mind.  The music is weird because the people who made it had a deep psychological acquaintance with weirdness, and were not merely experimenting with drugs or responding to the vagaries of a cultural zeitgeist.

Built to Spill—KEEP IT LIKE A SECRET (1999)

220px-keep_it_like_a_secretReview by Alfredo Duarte

Assigned by Jonathan Hopkins

Prior to writing this review, i only knew Built to Spill by name. Never actually heard anything by them, but i read some people mentioning BTS as an influential and important band for the indie pop groups that came later. The cover art looked like something good was gonna come out and it was indeed, there’s always more room for 90’s power pop in my heart (oh excuse the cornyness)! I love Jellyfish, Posies, etc.

Problem: this album came out in 1999, and in 1999 for some reason all rock dudes were playing midtempo grooves or jump music. So this is midtempo power pop! See, when it comes to garage pop or power pop, i think that when you have a nice melody is more exciting if you play it fast, at least kind of fast. I remember at a show i saw a patch with The Flash playing drums with someone pointing a gun at his head and saying “PLAY FAST OR DIE!”. How cool is that? Best drummer ever!

Where was I? Oh yeah, so the tunes that sound more exciting to me are the faster ones, like “Sidewalk” wich kicks ass, or the ones who display some intense emotion despite being slow, like “You were right”, my favorite track here, gotta love those clichéd phrases and the whiny chorus. The clichés make it sound like everything is tongue in cheek but the overall mood is so depressing i guess no, is not a joke, he’s just dressing it as a joke but he kind of, wants to die and shit.

First song is also nice, the singles for some reason did not impress me much. “Center of the Universe” has an annoying guitar riff, stop doing that guitar players! “Carry The Zero” is cool but way too fucking long with not much happening in between. OK, there’s some changes but waaaayyyyy subtle for my patience. How about playing it faster? FASTER!

Back to the first song “The Plan”, sweet album opener and it has a ‘Sonic Youth’ dissonant noise rock section wich makes you hope the whole album has moments like this, but sadly nope, that’s the only one.

Overall a pretty solid CD, I am definitely going back to this or other item inside the discography of The Built To Spills for some more midtempo power pop enjoyment.

Sheena Ringo—KALK SAMEN KURI NO HANA (2003)

220px-sheena-kalk_samen_kuri_no_hanaReview by John Short

Assigned by Dinar Khayrutdinov

So I was told by my dear friend Dinar that this Sheena Ringo lady is the Japanese Prince, and I have to say that after listening to this album I was highly disappointed. Not one single song on this album was about incest, bizarre and nonsensical spiritual/sexual themes, or fantasizing about changing genders and engaging in kinky lesbian sex with your girlfriedn. Well, not that I picked up on, but then I don’t speak Japanese, so perhaps it’s only natural.

The circumstances of this review (computer died in the middle of it and this is all roughly from memory of the sadly aborted first draft) make it hard for me to really recall what I originally thought about the album, but the gist of it was that cliche as this observation is, it reminded me a lot of Björk. This is a cop out I’ll admit-  Björk has become a ubiquitous comparison for every female singer not in the Madonna vein ever since the late 90s at the very latest, but being compared to Björk is often a very good thing, and this is certainly the case here. Sheena Ringo clearly belongs to a very long tradition of talented Japanese women stretching back to luminaries such as Sei Shōnagon or Murasaki Shikibu. All and all I’m glad I listened to this, and that I finally know what dear Dinar is talking about, but I’m afraid this is the sort of thing I’ll have to give a lot more listens to to make any kind of definitive statement on it, and sadly at this particular juncture in my life I just don’t have the time for that.

Donmar Warehouse—THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1994)

mi0002173465Review by Graham Warnken

Assigned by Dina Levina

I knew Brecht by name before this, but had never got around to reading any of his plays. Based on this I need to, though. This album is hitting aaaaaalll my musical theatre buttons, and I’m kicking myself for being so late with the review that I have to keep it short.

Snappy, Gothic orchestration? Check. Revisionist satire on capitalism in Ye Olde Europe? Check. The word “shit” appearing a lot? Check. There’s this aura of muck and dirt that hangs around the whole thing, and it’s just so much fun. This particular English translation is pretty obviously period-inaccurate, but for this sort of thing it’s more important that the spirit is gotten across, which the numerous swear words and sex jokes do admirably.

I can’t speak to the wider story/satire, as I have yet to read the libretto, but I’ll be remedying that posthaste. Probably seeking out other cast recordings, too—I love the vernacular/vulgar approach this one takes but am interested in finding older versions as well. Especially as this kind of modernizing approach to translation drives me insane when it’s employed for books. 😛

Shopping Trolley—SHOPPING TROLLEY (1989)

shopping-trolley-self-titledReview by Filip Mašić

Assigned by Benjamin Lefebvre

The visual aesthetic’s a bit.. conformist, innit? A goofy pop-rock album, no-one was surprised to learn. But those can be valuable in all sorts of different ways. So let’s dig in. Released in 1989, it’s quite retro in style, but more than that, it essentially *is* a sequence of tropes welded together mercilessly and unapologetically. Confidently. It could easily have been blandly derivative and amounted to nothing, but the flair with which it’s done makes it something more.

The tropes, tho… there’s a crapload of them. Unapologetic! Every song clearly aspires to a tradition, mostly in the pop canon. Upbeat hectic anthem, Carole King-ish piano ballad, quirky blues-rocker, ambient dirge, then… I mean, idk how to describe “Renaissance Man”, but I damn well feel like I’ve heard the whole thing before. So much déjà-vu. Country ballad. 80s smooth pop. And zooming in… you def know the sus4 thing in “Moose” (e.g. at the very end) from like every piano ballad ever. “Hyde Park Corner” has that lick at 0:20, Hendrix chords, vocal/instrument call-and-response, boogie-woogie walking bass. The all-together-now ending on “Renaissance Man”… its jaunty clarinet, vocal growls, mystery dramatic false chord (bonnnngggg!). Lots of cues from the Beatles around ’67, ’68, like the endings of “Hyde Park” and “Graham”. “Whistle Song” ends just like Jethro Tull. Tons of stuff that’s hard to verbalise but you just *know* – the whole album has that reconstituted feel, of awaiting the next throwback.

So, the album fundamentally doesn’t assert a strong original identity. That’s not what it’s about. In some limited senses, it does. The biggest is Melanie Pappenheim, the female vocal. Best known for the Bad Wolf theme from Doctor Who? Seriously beautiful singing, *all* over the album, with a glassy pristine texture that suits the quirky lyrics. They are kinda stereotypically quirky, but Melanie’s prim, clean vocal cooing “or will I play staccato… which might cause instant death?” on “Moose” is the charm of the album. Those melodies about “contemplating crayons” and “hearing table-tennis” save the otherwise stolid, empty song.

Another sense is the off-the-cuff musical-theatre feel running throughout the album… a bit unconventional. But these aren’t the point – what makes the album *work* is that all the tropes are woven together really skilfully. Exploring the songs is a joy. Take the musical-theatre aspect, enacted most vividly by “Graham, Return!”. The song stitches together so many disparate segments, some overtly *theatrical* and story-telling, others with a strong *musical* identity, namely this kind of honky-tonk rhythm and mixolydian scale (whose major-with-a-bluesy-twist feel is used well throughout the album, to make it upbeat yet weird). Take my notes from the song’s breakdown:

“bang bang bang bang trombone

theatrical revving

regal british brass tune

chill mixo honky reprise

big-band brass optimistic chorus

eerie electronic melody”

It’s colourful, wonderful, has comedy brass (shoutout to the random trumpet note introducing each chorus, ha). Great! If that’s too choppy and theatrical, other songs show serious subtleties that elevate the album beyond the pastiche I first insinuated it might be. The keyboard (I guess from sole album composer/lyricist Johnny Miller) and Melanie’s vocals run through the verses of “Whistle Song” in total unbroken unison, with breakneck acrobatics from Melanie (+ hilarious lyrics about looking slim to please him..), then flows into creative comping under the whistle solo (of course there’s a whistle solo), fleshing out some identity. Not to mention the dynamic breaks that bookend the solos and imbue a rollicking feel. Which reappears on <s-e-g-u-e> “Hyde Park Corner”, where the sense of tropes being strung together is matched by a sense of cool melodies, harmonies, vibes being strung together. It’s the little things like the emphatic increases in pitch within the staccato string-section bursts punctuating the Lovely Rita–esque coda of that song. I was at this famous corner the other day. It’s a confusing hellish trap well-deserving of those shrill bursts of anxiety.

Check the accidentals and modulations where you least expect them – 1:20 into “Len Smoothchurch”, or the end of each phrase in “Roundabout”. It’s all about subversion; you expect a different chord at 1:20 and so get taken on a journey. Same goes for all the detailed arrangements – the music actively resists repetition, throwing twists and subverting, which is a boon I see throughout all the music I like. So props to them for that. That 1:20 moment actually prompted me to dig into the harmony a bit… I decided that bit is Em7 → E♭M9. There’s depth and colour to most arrangements, jazzy subtleties tying together the material unobtrusively, accentuating the simple yet diverse pop harmonies that define the album. This does make it feel uninteresting on first listens, but it rewards digging a bit deeper. Even on a yucky saccharine 80s song like “Smoothchurch”! Which is lyrically some sort of character assassination or…

I rate the texture, too. An acoustic feel complemented by all sorts of strings, brass, woodwinds, organ-things, ethereal electric pianos. Some distinctive, creatively-applied textures from the clarinet and baritone sax, not to mention the strong backing vocal arrangements everywhere. The production is clear but sadly reflects the compartmentalised feel of classic pop-rock, lacking the intricate dynamics, drive, expansiveness of more modern orchestration-heavy rock, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral.

The best song by far is the ambient dirge, “Bring Back The Mary Hopkin Days”. That’s a, err *checks Wikipedia* 60s folk singer signed to Apple. Well. The throwback continues. But this song is *the* one that feels like it breaks free from the pervasive homage vibe, more like a serious work in its chosen style, which is still pretty familiar. I left it till this point in the review because it’s a peak in so many of the things that I’ve said make the album great. Melanie’s lead vocal is extraordinary. It goes full operatic soprano, going into awesome slides, playing the changes brilliantly, changes that are as pretty and subversive as ever. The counterpoint she sings in the second verse, over a male vocal reprising the melody of the first, is clever, exploratory, and just fits, with the clashing lyrics adding great rhythms to boot. The song structure is staunchly anti-repetitive – stately Dorian ambient chords, a weeping slide guitar, all brought to life by the electric organ, with details I love like grim power-chord cadences (0:27) and chords that get coloured in halfway through (2:42).

And the bit at 3:05 is *something else*. As a modern abstract jazz–head, these 30s are my album highlight. After the slide-guitar bit resolves into a hopeful major chord, the key jumps up a semitone and goes into an ethereal Velvet Underground–like texture, with fuzzier organ and double-time as a mellower Melanie comes in over some Sunday Morning–like bells, wordlessly meandering over a Lydian scale (an even-brighter version of the major scale), sometimes dramatically plunging into the parallel minor, controlled so it doesn’t disturb the dream. This exploration and intertwining of brightness and darkness is kinda breathtaking and a rare creative step that boldly escapes all the retro. The closer “Roundabout” goes for a similar vibe, with a sick intro that sees a bass note gradually descend for 2 minutes as the harmony is fleshed out among bell-like notes and morse code–ish rhythms, and has a lovely whispery male/female vocal duet, alternating with Melanie’s leading operatic runs.

This album celebrates music. It rifles through the history of pop-rock, a vibrant guided tour held together by clever arrangements and an undercurrent of subtleties that reward a closer look. It’s just that this doesn’t make for an album that stays with you long after the initial celebration. Musical identity is forged by innovation, by individual out-there ideas that can be passed down by word-of-mouth and quoted. There are some here, demonstrably, but not enough to be timeless.

Berry Sakharof—SIMANIM SHEL CHULSHA (1994)

268x0wReview by Dinar Khayrutdinov

Assigned by Nitay Shifroni

Well, this guy has to be the Israeli Nick Cave… or the Israeli Lou Reed… or someone similar in any case. I’ll get one thing out of the way – as much as I love Nick and Lou, I didn’t really enjoy Berry Sakharof much. Don’t get me wrong: this record sounds cool in a bleak mope-rocky kind of way, and the mood this album is aiming for is obviously emulated pretty well but overall I’m afraid I found it mostly generic-sounding, apart from a few interesting ideas here and there. The only track that really impressed me from start to finish was Im Hayiti, which, in my opinion, was the only instance on this album when Sakharof sounds fresh and original: the gloomy bass-guitar interplay here, the inventive production and the almost three dimensional, reverby, rich sound design reminds me of… Swans, of all bands (so yeah, the originality is still relative). Attempts are made later in the album to replicate this sort of apocalyptic, brutally grim and darkly beautiful soundscape, but these are often mixed with the singer churning out the lyrics in a singer-songwriterish way, which diluted the whole experience for me. Granted, I do not understand Hebrew, so maybe the lyrics are really great? Judging by the cover art, it might be some sort of a political message but how the heck should I know.

Anyway, to sum things up, this album uses gloomy production, bleak guitar tones and the singer’s world-weary voice to create a certain mood, but in ways that have been used in popular music much too often. I guess it’s not a bad album overall (lyrically it might even be a masterpiece for all I know) but I don’t really see myself ever returning to this because it’s just not that interesting musically for me.