STEFAN VALDOBREV (СТЕФАН ВЪЛДОБРЕВ) – …to (…към) (1998)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Nina A

 

 

…към features fairly decent but not outstanding and somewhat generic 90’s pop rock. The songs are all well arranged – in particular I like the sound of the lead guitar which seems influenced by Reeves Gabrels’ work with Bowie on Hours. And the singing is competent. The overall sound is upbeat, accessible, melodic, mostly based on drums, bass, (alternating acoustic and electric) rhythm guitar and lead guitar. On some places horns and female vocals are added. There are a few excursions to other genres, like light hiphop on “Da”. It all sounds a little derivative though I can’t really pinpoint it to any artist that would be an obvious example. Though sometimes U2 comes to mind – I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Apart from the language in which it is sung and some minor details in the arrangements (like the start of the first song “Nov”) the sound is very Western – you wouldn’t know it was a Bulgarian album apart from that.
All in all it was a mildly pleasant listening experiment though I found the refrains of some songs quite cheesy. Especially on the first song, I found that really so off putting that at first it coloured my view of the whole album.

DE KIFT – Vlaskoorts (1999)

Review by: Syd Spence
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

De Kift is a band that plays a modern reconstruction of early 19th century cabaret music. All of these tunes seemed born from working class music halls during the turn of the 20th century, and then given a slight discordant modern touch with the odd arrangement or spoken word bit. It’s not too discordant to off shoot the old fashioned songs, but it’s enough to know that the musicians probably own a few Einsturzende Neubauten records. The question though is it any good? And that’s where we have a problem. 

I came to this record with multiple prejudices and inadequacies that hinder my enjoyment. One, It has taken me lots of repeated listenings to jazz, soul, and reggae records to not hate brass instruments. I come from America and the tradition of big brass bands playing in our sports is an endemic anachronism, and I find those old war marches a combination of quaint and shrill. Cabaret brass comes from a similar heritage and despite a bit of a jazz influence on this record, it still has that frumpy uptight feel. 

Two, I really hate accordions. I don’t know why exactly i’m turned off by them. Where i’m from, the accordion is super popular with Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, and perhaps some hidden racism or classism is afoot. It’s the main instrument in tejano music which is a combination of Mexican folk and German polka music. I’ve always loathed it, as well as polka music. Something about the rhythms just seem so sexless, and uptight. And polka is a hop skip and a jump from cabaret, or is literally a subgenre of it. I really don’t know much about European folk brass dance music. In my mind, Europe’s best musical invention was combining synthesizers and disco rhythms, and well, this is a long way from Giorgio Moroder. 

And last, I’m American. I speak one language. It’s ridiculous and limiting, I know, so the parts where spoken word poetry is happening, I tune out. It’s not melodic and I don’t understand what’s being spoken. I have hunch it’s political in some regard but i don’t know. The cleverness or beauty of the poetry is completely absent in my loathsome ignorance.

So I did not like this album, but I feel i have no real way to adequately critique it due to my prejudices. I will say that they didn’t go far enough beyond cabaret cliches to make me question my prejudices. I have heard some gypsy punk and dark cabaret groups that make me second guess my hatred of old European dance music. This just made me want to delete it from hard drive as soon as possible.

IVY GREEN – Ivy Green (1990)

Review by: B.B. Fultz
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Note : I was one of the two or three people that asked for a good album to review, rather than a deliberately bad album, so this review will not be a “panning” per se. I thought maybe this was important to mention because nearly all of the other albums in this round were bad (at least in the opinion of the people who assigned them).

Ivy Green is a late 70s punk album by the band Ivy Green. It has most of the earmarks of early punk — short song lengths, simple chord structures played at a fast tempo, and clipped, snotty-sounding vocals where you can’t always make out the words but you know it’s something being repeated over and over. It’s very much a straightforward punk album from the days when punk was still new and exciting. The band does a competent job with it, as long as you don’t mind them borrowing from other bands left and right. You’ve heard all these songs before, even if they were different songs by different bands when you heard them. 

The Ramones influence is obvious from the very first song. As soon as you hear the chainsaw buzz of “I’m Sure We’re Gonna Make It” you know where these guys are coming from, and have a good idea where they’re going. The more you listen, the more shades of 1978 you’ll find. “Another Sub-Culture Going Bad” has the barked vocal style of Johnny Rotten over a simple guitar phrase that would be right at home on Bollocks, and “Sue” sounds like some obscure 60s surf rocker that would have been covered on the Great Rock & Roll Swindle. “Why Not Tonight” also sounds like a song from the early 60s updated for the punk age — the rockabilly drive on that one reminds me of Johnny Cochran. I can’t tell if Ivy Green listened to a lot of 60s music themselves, or if they subconsciously picked up that sound by imitating other punk bands who listened to a lot of 60s music. 

They settle into this basic punk/proto-punk groove and stick with it for 36 minutes. Once in awhile they deviate from the pattern (a little) — “Every Day The Same” has some breaks in the monotonous guitar-buzz where they try for something a little different — but for the most part the songs all sound similar, and rarely stray beyond the stereotypical punk sound of 1978. 

The album is very much a product of its time, with all the good qualities (drive, youthful aggression, cool guitar tones) and bad qualities (stripped down structures, monotonous sound) that go with it. If you like punk, you’ll probably like this album. If you dislike punk, you’ll probably hate it. Ivy Green doesn’t try to be much more than just another punk band, but what they try they succeed at. Which is more than you can say for many other bands who tried for bigger things and failed. And even if Ivy Green’s debut was not exactly a milestone in the history of music, it’s a pretty cool album all the same.

ZEZÉ DI CAMARGO & LUCIANO – Zezé Di Camargo & Luciano (1991)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

Oh, I’ve heard beautiful things: the first four notes of Zezé & co’s version of “And I Love Her”, “Eu te amo” performed by deep and low strings bring the hidden melancholia of this song to the surface so that instead of a contemplative and happy love song it turns into a contemplative wistful and sad love song. I could easily imagine a band like the Tindersticks using that as a template for an autumnal version.

These four notes are the only things that are truly outstanding on this album. The rest of it is a dime a dozen sun, sea and beach & bikinis pop music.

This kind of music is sort of timeless and sort of locationless. They’ve been producing it all over the world since at least the late 1960’s.

I find it not too repulsive though obviously it is not “good”. It is not meant to be.

In my country there’s a TV program called Music Party On The Square. Dutch versions of Zezé & Luciano lip sync their latest hits before a mildly enthusiastic crowd. Spectators always start to dance spontaneously when they notice that one of the TV camera’s picks them up. I’ve always wondered what it would be like at such a party.

This album is very suitable for cafeteria’s and half price pizzeria’s.

My colleague says Zezé and Luciano are actually Ron and Russell Mael in disguise. And she would like to add that Russell’s mullet was fabulous in 1991.

SUFJAN STEVENS – The Age of Adz (2010)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

Sufjan Stevens gives you constipation of the wrong kind. The right kind is constipation caused by for instance Phil Collins; when you hear the music and you instantly know it’s bad shit. Your body cramps up and it takes you a few days to get it out of your system if you just set your mind to it.

The Sufjan Stevens constipation is different. It consists of a lengthy inability to figure out if you like his music or not and if is his music is good or not. It might be best to avoid this kind of constipation altogether but you agreed to write a review of “The Age of Adz” so you had to deal with it.

So you listened to the album. You heard an album by an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who for a change used mainly electronic instrumentation to accompany vaguely confessional reflections on love, sex, life and death. You heard some things you liked, more things you disliked and many things that made no sense to you

You listened not once or twice but fifteen to maybe twenty times over a couple of weeks. And it was a strange experience because the album appeared to have the properties of some old fashioned psychology test, like a Rorschach test but not quite similar; the album seemed to reflect your mood in such a manner that on alternate listens you would either like it or severely hate it. You did not hear anything new or different in it and you could definitely pinpoint some things you loved or hated in it but you could never predict what your emotional response to it would be. Let alone analyze it or summarize in one sentence what informed your judgment. Add to that the fact that even after several hearings you could not reproduce a single detail of the album in your head; even “The Division Bell” performed better on that score.

You developed a mild obsession with “The Age of Adz”. You thought about it and the review you had to write all the time and in your mind you had already written a dozen different versions of the definitive review you are about to write. You knew what you liked about it but you were anxious that you would never figure out what you disliked about it so vehemently. 

Nor could you really decide if this would be a “Recommended-Album-Despite-All-It’s-Obvious-Flaws” or “Seriously-Flawed-Album-With-Touches-Of-Brilliance” type of review.

And you put off writing until the very last moment. And you fear that your Sufjan Stevens obsession will become a lifetime occupation.

Awful constipation.

Then finally you set out to write the review. You start off by mentioning the things you like about it and the thing you like the most about it is the beauty that can be found in the details of the arrangements. As one would expect of Sufjan Stevens the album is meticulously crafted and multi-layered and he uses a many sometimes unusual but often pleasant instruments to adorn his pieces. And when that approach works it is really quite good. Instances of this are strewn across the album; for example the horn coda on “Get Real Get Right” is really beautiful. Also the big-fartin’ electronic drum and bass foundation and the glitchy, slippery synthesizer sounds are at the very least fun. And you should mention the celestial female backing singers on many of the tracks but especially on “I Walked”; they are really delicious. As the sum of all it’s different parts “The Age Of Adz” is really a unique album. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good album. In fact you have a number of problems with it that one by one wouldn’t be so disastrous but when you add them all up you are stuck with an album that is only partially palatable, in small portions.

The biggest problem is that even for a Sufjan Stevens album there’s a lot of Sufjan Stevens on it. Too much, in fact. One has to, for example, like Sufjan Stevens’ voice to fully appreciate this album because on this album at least there’s no escaping it.

You dislike his voice. He sounds so sincere and introspective that after listening to it for a while you think Lemmy and Antony are the same person. It’s so intrusive and all over the place that it reminds you of Freddie Mercury. And you don’t like Freddie Mercury, to put it mildly. Furthermore, Stevens sounds so sterile, sexless and dorky that it’s like he lived in Mike Love’s throat for a long while. And he has a tendency to crack into falsetto all the time.

You dislike the density of the sound. It’s so stuffed to the brim with little cosy, well crafted, pretty ornaments on top of ornaments on top of bombastic or——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

THE MOTHERFUCKER’S ELUDING ME

Look, it took me too long to write this review and that’s because so far I don’t understand what I like about it. It’s quite obvious what I don’t like about it. The voice annoys me. The album is overcooked like somebody produced a cherry pie with not just cherries but also apples, kiwi’s, strawberries, pineapples, pears, peaches and etcetera and what have you.

I think “Less Is More” is a valid principle but I can appreciate a certain lushness, for instance on Pet Sounds, if the embellishments at least serve decent songs. This album, however, lacks memorable hooks and the one song that sticks in my memory “I Walked” is uncomfortably similar to Dido’s “Thank You”, of all things. Many pieces consist of repetitive chord sequences with varying instrumentation, chanted phrases and with Stevens’ voice to the fore that can be very off putting. Take for instance the title track; it is just awful.

Stevens’ lyrics do nothing for me and I am non-plussed by the combination of supposedly intimate lyrics and very bombastic arrangements. On “The Age of Adz” Sufjan Stevens comes across as too eager to please and impress. He reminds me of a guy I once worked with who would, at the mere mention of the word coffee, jump up and get you a cup. Awful, servile creep. Seems like Stevens strives for beauty but never achieves more than prettiness. And thereby he leaves nothing to the imagination of the listener.

And what’s sorely missing is anything that really kicks ass or lays down a groove. Yes he applies a disco rhythm in a section the overlong (25 minutes), seemingly pointless and tedious album closing suite “Impossible Soul” but it does not take me to Funky Town.

So all in all there are so many things to dislike about this album for me that I would obviously dismiss it completely and put it in the trash bin of my mind. If it weren’t for I don’t know what.

And for me that’s the most intriguing thing about “The Age of Adz”; that in a certain light and at certain times I quite like it. Like a guilty pleasure, maybe. A very annoying guilty pleasure though. It is something about the atmosphere, and yes , of course some bits and pieces are quite beautiful. But in the end I just can’t figure out what’s the up side to “The Age of Adz”.

And frankly, at the moment I just don’t feel like delving any further into it. I’m tired (of it).

So, there it is: a failed review attempt.

When I was a kid my family used to own a jigsaw puzzle which was insolvable. The last piece would never fit. My mother promised five guilders to the kid that could finish it. Of course no one ever earned that money. Until I took a hammer and forced the piece into the puzzle and my mother, exasperated and because I was the youngest of the eight, paid the sum.

If I were to think any more of Sufjan Stevens I would like some money first.

THE SAINTS – Eternally Yours (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Okay, so, on the three major components to this album:

  • The guy’s VOICE. He’s probably the most Australian vocalist I’ve ever heard in my life, and he’s such a quintessential rock singer too. Utterly snotty, disaffected, rough and raw, contemptuous – and yet also capable of projecting surprising amounts of personal emotion when necessary, not to mention carrying a tune if he really exerts himself. He’s a sarcastic rock n roll demon with some personal demons of his own; in other words, he’s like Mick Jagger if Mick Jagger was genuine. He’s my favourite thing about this album, and the chief reason I’m planning on seeking out some more Saints in future.
  • The guitars. They’re what you might expect from a punk rock album recorded in 1978 – scuzzy buzzsaws aggressively sizzling about at high speeds, playing mostly chords and riffs. There’s a few cleanly-picked segments (well, clean here being contextual; they still sound like they’re struggling to swim their way out of a cloud of fuzz). The riffs, thankfully, are great, inventive and catchy stuff, and the few solos (still more than the average punk rock album of the time, mind) are a little amateurish but usually quite blistering and cool.
  • The rhythm section. The drummer’s pretty good, all told, but unspectacular – he rarely draws attention to himself and instead just focuses on keeping time in a way that is just primal enough to not be boring and just professional enough to not sound lazy. The bassist is the real talent here, I think – his basslines are all super cool, noticeable, swaggericious and precise, and his tone ain’t bad at all.

Now, as for individual highlights: The first track, “Know Your Product”, is one of two tracks to contain noticeable horn arrangements. They’re used awesomely, and create probably the most memorable riff on the album. It’s fascinating just how well these pristine, majestic instruments blend with the mudslinging guitar and acidic vocals, but they really do fit perfectly and it makes me wonder why more punk rock bands didn’t think to do something like this.

There’s also three acoustic tracks on the album. I wouldn’t call any of them ballads, and in fact only the middle one – “A Minor Aversion” – is really noticeably slower than its surrounding electric rockers. All of them are awesomely evocative, anyway. They sound a bit too irreverent, irreligious and acerbic to be redolent of the American west, but they certainly sound like an old wooden dive bar in a desert somewhere, which I guess is fitting considering that Australia’s probably the only other place in the Anglophone world you can really find those sortsa joints. The vocalist in these songs really fits in perfectly – I can’t picture him as anything but a leather-covered, gun-toting motorcyclist fleeing some distant personal failing, kinda like Mad Max without the civilisational collapse. The harmonica used on one of the electric rockers – “Run Down” – adds pleasingly to this impression.

The track “This Perfect Day” is two and a half minutes of fuckin’ punk perfection, and I love it. Aside from this wonderfully, effortlessly cool clean guitar bridge which – again – sounds like the soundtrack to a cowboy walking through a tiny Australian outback town, the chorus sounds like it’s constantly falling over itself again and again in preoccupation with the vocalist’s self-loathing. This is how self-loathing in rock music really SHOULD sound, by the way – disguised, presented as a careless spit in the face of the world that he’s trying to hate in order to distract himself from himself. This song is part of a string of tracks, starting at track 7 and lasting the rest of the album, that doesn’t breach 3 minutes long, and that’s just what I need from my scuzz-rock. Lawd knows this kind of music can get tiresome if it sticks about for too long – I mean, a leathered-up biker cowboy might be fascinating to have in your town for a bit, but do ya really want him greasing up your spare bed for a week?

Some other things of note include: the riff on the final song, “International Robots”, which is such an exact and precise rhythmic match for the riff on Green Day’s “American Idiot” that it makes me suspicious of the latter group; the guitarwork in the chorus of “No, Your Product”, which sounds like it’s trying to reach the sky before flaming out and falling down into the sea like an early SpaceX rocket; the chorus on “Private Affair”, which is just gloriously catchy; and, finally, just the general joyousness I feel from this record. That might seem contradictory, considering how much I’ve just been talking about the guy’s self-loathing, but this music really does sound as if it is enjoying its rebellion against the world on at least a primal level. After all, even if you’re running from winged demons on a motorcycle, there’s gotta be some pleasure in the visceral thrill of going so fast, and that’s what I get out of this album. It’s characterful, soulful, genuine, evocative, powerful, loud and, best of all, damn good fun – listen to it at once.

ROWLAND S. HOWARD – Pop Crimes (2009)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

After all these years it’s nice to hear from Rowland S. Howard again – no surprise though.

By the time the Birthday Party ended in 1983, Nick Cave was sick of Rowland S. Howard and his omnipresent guitar and decided not to take him along into the Bad Seeds but trade him in for Blixa Bargeld and his much more sparse guitar. As both gentlemen weighed almost nothing at the time the trade in can’t have been too hard on Cave’s back.

My budget was also quite sparse in these days and, as a lover of the Birthday Party, I did buy Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums at the record store in my hometown but I couldn’t afford to travel to Amsterdam, Brussels or London to purchase the various releases by Howard, be it solo or in various bands. So I lost track of him, apart from occasionally hearing the stuff he did with Lydia Lunch at that time.

Obviously I was curious to know what became of his music when I was asked to review his 2009 release “Pop Crimes”. I found that his sound is basically unchanged. “Pop Crimes” could have been released in 1985 as well.

I was a bit disappointed at first until after a couple of listens I realised that it is a very pleasant and well made album nonetheless. And of course to me it feels like home.

So: “Pop Crimes” is a short (38 minutes), well arranged and accessible album by the former lead guitarist of the Birthday Party, released in 2009; the year of his death. It contains eight songs of which six are originals and two are covers (“Life’s What You Make It” by Talk Talk and “Nothin’” by Townes van Zandt). The style of these eight songs varies from defiant, dirgelike and bluesy goth rock to mournful dream pop. The lyrics are ruminations of a bad boy in a worse world. One of the chief attractions is Howard’s guitar playing; sharp as surgical scissors yet soothing as the nurse who handles them.

Howard also sings and for 38 minutes that’s alright with me – the guy is not a singer by birth. He sounds like a cross between latter day Joey Ramone and Leonard Cohen when he was losing his voice on “Death Of A Ladies Man”. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing of course if he didn’t also sound like he was trying to gulp down a pint of peanut butter at the same time.

The songs are all decent though not spectacular. Highlights for me are: the darkly suggestive dream pop duet “A Girl Called Jonny” (about a girl called Jonny and she also bangs the drum – did the guy listen to the Waterboys in 2009 or what?), the from life affirming to menacing makeover of “Life’s What You Make It” (with a double bass and piano line that sounds a lot like ditto in the Bad Seeds’ Cabin Fever), the dirty rocking title track with a fantastic bassline and the mournful love lost song “Ave Maria”. Letdowns there are none.

“Pop Crimes” was released in the year prior to Howard’s death and I wonder if that knowledge is really important for your apprehension of the record. I don’t think so; the record does not really sound like a black star to me nor do the lyrics hint at Howard’s End as far as I know (of course the lyrics hint at the End in general but that’s par for the course with the genre).