Monthly Archives: April 2015

Album Review: Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

1 Villagers bbc.co.uk

Hirsute high notes: Villagers’ Conor O’Brien (photo: bbc.co.uk)

Villagers

Darling Arithmetic (Domino)

1 Darling ArithmeticConor O’Brien is a songwriter of intriguingly distinct crispness. Three albums into his career under the Villagers title, everything he has released thus far revels in clarity and precision. Every sandy strum, every piano curlicue, even every syllable lands with a refined delicacy; his bewitchingly soft vocals given the space to weave their own little worlds amid the folk-rock backdrops. All elements combine to form a smooth, clean sound which can occasionally seem a little too well-varnished.

2013’s {Awayland} has proved to be his most multidimensional work so far, and it’s a veritable box of tricks when compared to Darling Arithmetic, which boils his musical flavours back down to the twangy balladry of Becoming a Jackal. That album’s literary sweep and Ivor Novello-bothering mysteries are here replaced by more reflective, personal ruminations on – in the plain words of a tube advertisement – “love and relationships”. Based on previous evidence, one would imagine that O’Brien would scrub up well at exposing his own heartaches, utilising those well-clipped tones of his to great effect with minimal accompaniment. However, that clean, precise tendency of his wears a little thin across these nine songs, and only a handful of cuts pack the power that one would hope for.

Sweet and simple, opener ‘Courage’ wears its fragile heart on its sleeve, loping through O’Brien’s admissions of frailty and gradual self-recovery in a basic yet earnestly charming fashion. Unfortunately, following this introduction, there’s little to give the album any sense of propulsion, the gears staying resolutely low without a flourish or sense of adventure to whisk us away. O’Brien settles into his penchant for gentle balladry within the opening moments, and mires himself there for the remainder of the record. ‘Hot Scary Summer’ pulls through thanks to its melodically sharp chorus and a poignant bookending lyric, one that hones in on a moment of uncoupling with real tenderness. “So you thank me for my hard work / But you’ve had it up to there / Because this shouldn’t be hard work / But I’ll fight to care if you’d care to fight.” The callousness, hurt, and regret experienced somehow linger on in these lines, and it’s a shame that such alchemy isn’t echoed with similar success throughout Darling Arithmetic.

Instead, many of these songs seem content to flutter prettily without stepping into bolder terrain. ‘Everything I Am is Yours’ is over before it has the chance to take flight, fading out before O’Brien tosses in any of those twists that {Awayland} feels comparatively awash with. The likes of ‘Dawning on Me’ and ‘No One to Blame’ are dotted with pretty couplets, though lack the throbbing pulse required to bring them to life. It’s more than a little frustrating, because O’Brien’s recent personal history is clearly charged with intensity, but it’s rendered all too prettily here; these tracks seldom splintering into something tangibly raw.

The album’s one real diversion, ‘Little Bigot’ is the standout by a country mile, its slippery melodies invading the genteel landscape like a theatrical fever dream. Although still well-polished, O’Brien doses his compositions with a mischievous bite, demonstrating a flicker of fire in his belly as well as his way with a dexterous melody. Once it has passed, one can’t help but wonder why O’Brien abandons the shadows so readily elsewhere on Darling Arithmetic. As it stands, it’s in no way a bad album, but it is far too anodyne in its presentation to resonate beyond its fleeting moments of acuity. Plenty will find gifts in O’Brien’s crisp brand of songwriting, but fans of his more adventurous streak may find Darling Arithmetic a touch too formulaic to bore beneath the skin.

“There’s a mystery in your eyes / A kind of swimming pool / For swimming fools like me.”

26/04/15

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Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

please credit © Denny Renshaw

Head in the clouds: Sufjan Stevens (photo: Denny Renshaw for metrotimes.com)

Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

1 LowellIt’s a truth which is sad in more ways than one, but songs – and albums – rooted in heartbreak are ten-a-penny, and have been for years. As well as the bleak implication that this is a world filled with upset and distress, this has also resulted in an oversaturated market of songwriters purging their most personal demons by pouring their hearts onto the lyric sheet. From the quietly cryptic to the brazenly overwhelmed, many of these contenders are capable of producing heartfelt, sincere, and (for them at least) necessary work, but the unfortunate matter is that not all attain lasting status. There are only so many ways of articulating one’s own grief, and capturing wider imaginations with projections of highly personal turmoil is more difficult than it may seem.

Sufjan Stevens, however, has achieved something remarkable with his seventh studio album, in which his characteristically autobiographical songwriting is at its most painfully sharp, mining a casket of intimate memories in the wake of his mother’s death. Structurally, the traditional contours of folk ballads are in use, but Carrie & Lowell is quietly astounding, as the artist’s gentle poetry unfurls and entrances anew with each listen.

Stevens’ mother – the Carrie of the album’s title – was a strange presence in his family. She left him and his siblings early in their lives, and from then on contact was allegedly sporadic, and smudged with tension. Her own life was pockmarked with troubles of her own, including depression, substance abuse schizophrenia, and biopolar disorder: issues which left their scars throughout Stevens’ family. Carrie & Lowell indicates that Stevens spent a lot of time following his mother’s death trawling through this muddy past in the hopes of finding closure. However, anyone hoping for a record of hard-earned catharsis is out of luck: Stevens’ emotions are too complex to be reduced to crystal-clear wisdoms.

Stirringly, most of Stevens’ allusions to his mother fixate on her absence, felt even prior to her passing. Even so, the connection felt by son to mother is palpable, weighting these songs with a considerable power, belying their wispy fragility. Stevens opens his feelings in such a public form, making no bones about his mother’s flaws (“she left us at that video store”), and yet he constantly sounds like a man aching to retrieve a lost bond. Carrie & Lowell is peppered with references to longing: a desire for reunion if not reconciliation, in spite of – and maybe partly due to – all her flaws. ‘Eugene’ finds him clinging to Carrie’s sleeve, where she was known to conceal her cigarettes; one of many recollections which juxtaposes aching love with vague detachment.

By referring so openly to his feelings, Stevens sheds any wreaths of artisanship and creates something which sounds pure and sincere. Musically, too, the sounds feel unblemished. ‘Should Have Known Better’ dots itself with keyboards which feel as organic as the waves of plucked banjos and choral harmonies, and the cloudy piano figures which billow during ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ emphasise the hazy blurring of fractured memories. Stevens himself seldom raises his voice above that of a whisper, in a style strongly reminiscent of Elliott Smith’s own, though the latter’s brittle anger is here supplanted by a gaping sadness.

The album’s most overtly affecting song is also its opener, and it holds the key which unlocks the incoming labyrinth of recollections, tangents, and sensations. Over supple, bright arpeggios, Stevens lets his tuneful melodies rise and swell over lyrics which multiply in weight the more they are heard. “Your apparition passes through me,” he croons in falsetto, and likewise, Carrie’s spirit pervades the fabric of his music. She becomes a distraction, her face appearing at every turn, culminating in the central motif of the reeling ‘The Only Thing’: “should I tear my eyes out now? / Everything I see returns to you somehow.”

Carrie & Lowell is whole without feeling conceptual, chiefly because Stevens’ writing is so delicately wrought. Never once does a sense of calculation or artistry touch upon this music; instead, Stevens bares his soul in a manner which sidesteps the raggedness without losing the sentiment. His emotions are a tangled mess, yet he picks through them all with a touching poise, evading melodrama in favour of honest, plain-spoken beauty. During the final verse of ‘Death with Dignity’, his suffering rings through every word, without the need for sweeping crescendos or cracked vocals. “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”

Carrie & Lowell is not an artistic statement, but it feels thoroughly necessary and remarkably moving nonetheless, with beauty and hope nestled amid the sorrow. “Make the most of your life, while it is rife / While it is light,” Stevens sighs at the album’s core, dosing his lamentation with light. There may be no shortage of heartbreak in music, but it’s rare that something of this distinction, resonance, and purity rises above the fray.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

21/04/15

Album Review: Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

1 Courtney Barnett (diymag.com)

Magpie eyes: Courtney Barnett sits, possibly thinks. (photo: diymag.com)

Courtney Barnett

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)

1 BarnettCourtney Barnett is the latest pin-up in a long line of observational songwriters whose remarkably specific tales precisely capture the imaginations of particular groups. Arguably the past decade’s pre-eminent commentator is Alex Turner, who hoovered up the grim glamour of urban debauchery and refracted his findings into songs with a rapid-fire energy to match. For countless listeners, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings had never felt more sharply rendered. With 2013’s Double EP and her début album proper, Courtney Barnett achieves a similar success in a different field, tapping into the bewildering quandaries faced by those attempting to navigate the more trivial moments of fledgling adulthood. Sometimes I Sit… is littered with references to the most mundane of occurrences, namechecking public humiliation, urban insomnia, and the gloom of house-hunting, and exploring the humour and the disquiet triggered by such moments.

Naturally, as is always the case with this experiential brand of lyricism, some listeners will find more common ground with this album than others. Nevertheless, what remains undoubtable is that Barnett is an exceptionally likeable narrator. Her deadpan Melbourne twang, bone-dry sense of humour and gently-wrought weariness present her as a talented storyteller unclouded by affectation. It’s already clear that Barnett can spin a yarn with the best of them – as ‘Avant Gardener’ made apparent in 2013 – but just as captivating is how endearing her presence can be. Hers is compulsively enjoyable company, with the next charming analogy or punchy refrain never far away.

As with Barnett’s previous work, Sometimes I Sit… is forged on foundations of thumping, fuzz-flecked garage rock. Although full of homespun appeal, there’s nothing to elevate such noise above pleasantly rustic listening, but it’s Barnett herself who gives this music its spark of life, her careening vocals bringing an essential flourish to the earthy, tumbling arrangements. Even after all the jigsawed couplets and morbidly funny twists have been unearthed, the way Barnett’s words bounce off of her musical backing is so well-executed that their charm shines on multiple listens.

The peppy stomp of ‘Elevator Operator’ doesn’t waste a second in establishing the record’s welcoming, wandering tone, setting up a shaggy-dog story which culminates in the protagonist denying suicidal thoughts from a rooftop: “I come up here for perception and clarity; I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity.” It’s pretty daft, of course, but Barnett delivers this – as with much on Sometimes I Sit… – with a lightness of touch, nixing any notions of self-seriousness from the get-go. On the fantastic ‘Pedestrian at Best’, she unloads her neuroses as if she’s on the edge of a panic attack, tripping over her syllables in a rush to force the pressure out of her chest. The song also boasts the album’s most visceral chorus, and amid the witticisms and crunching chords, Barnett’s own frustration still echoes loud and clear.

Across the album, the amusing asides are kept in check by a sense of encroaching fatigue, and it’s on the album’s two longest cuts that Barnett bores most deeply into her own anxieties. The structure of ‘Small Poppies’ resembles a strung-out carousel ride, the squalling instrumentation complementing Barnett as she circles herself, spiralling into despair over her own identity – or perceived lack thereof. ‘Kim’s Caravan’ is queasier still, Barnett tipping into hopeless exhaustion as she stares down an environment on the brink of decimation. It’s hardly skin-curling stuff, but such moments bring a greater depth to a collection which could be perceived as negligible by unsympathetic ears.

But regardless of how much one is able to invest into it, Sometimes I Sit… is delightful because of its humanity. Barnett could be your best friend relaying a story about a swimming misadventure or organic vegetables, but she goes one further than your average raconteur by delivering it in a tumbling slam-poetry style which veers between wryly amusing and quietly touching. Whether it stands up to scrutiny in a decade’s time is anyone’s guess, but Barnett is one of the brightest voices of her moment, and her début is warm, witty, and frequently wonderful. Especially for twentysomethings in the throes of an existential time crisis.

“Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey.”

08/04/15

Album Review: Laura Marling – Short Movie

1 Laura Marling guardian

LA Woman: Laura Marling ponders new shores. (photo: theguardian.com)

Laura Marling

Short Movie (Virgin)

1 Short MovieAlthough Once I Was An Eagle was my favourite album of 2013, it’s strangely refreshing to know that Laura Marling isn’t totally impervious, as an artist and as a person. Her recent sojourns in Los Angeles have added some colour to her backstory, whisking her away from what may have become a comfort zone, and shaking up her personal and creative views. With several of her endeavours (including an application to a creative writing course) spurned, and a fresh taste for psychedelics, spiritualism, and rootless American wanderings indulged, Marling clearly travelled a bumpy route in the interim between Once I Was an Eagle and Short Movie.

Perhaps as a consequence, the latter feels much more grounded, with Marling’s characteristic poise a little less sharp, in a way which – if not radical – makes for an earthier listen. Uncertainty plays a large role in Short Movie, with Marling’s own unsteady path over the past two years yielding some very direct chorus refrains, and leaving behind some of the overreaching literary references of yesteryear. Rather than losing herself in allusions, this time Marling anchors herself in more straightforward writing, with her most forthcoming lyrics arriving in ‘False Hope’, wherein her guard is briefly lowered as she releases basic admissions of doubt: “is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone?” This tone is abetted by her loudest arrangement yet; her descending riffs and backing band’s propulsion summoning figurative storm clouds, which make a quietly menacing return for the snarling ‘Don’t Let Me Bring You Down’.

A similar moodiness surfaces occasionally across the album, with its first half in particular given to Marling’s various frustrations. On the whole, however, this is the artist’s loosest album since her debut, sounding much less tightly-wound than I Speak Because I Can and Once I Was An Eagle. The minimalism of Short Movie’s predecessor is rebuffed with a tasteful emergence of electric guitars, and an interesting use of ad hoc string arrangements gives these songs an organic sense of spaciousness. The marvellous title track is a prime example of this more welcoming approach; a warm, widescreen standout which gallops to its stirring mantra with palpable joy.

This lightness of touch dovetails well with Marling’s first stint in the producer’s chair. Although there’s barely a difference aesthetically, these songs frequently feel less ornate than her past works. Aside from a few common musical and lyrical threads, these thirteen songs feel gathered together, rather than intensely curated. Consequently, Short Movie seems to cover a lot of ground stylistically, and Marling’s willingness to branch out is largely very becoming, birthing gems such as the jangling ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’ and the lovely ‘Worship Me’.

It’s not a flawless album, and Marling’s (possibly conscious) tendency to add an American twang to her singing voice is only heightened here, never more overtly than on the playfully sardonic ‘Strange’ – this record’s Marmite moment. Taken in a single listen, Short Movie is also less cohesively gripping than its precursors, but by the same token, it’s good to hear Marling loosening up after several years of intense refinement. Five albums in, and she continues to incrementally tinker with her winning formula, without breaking its captivating spell.

“It’s a short fucking movie, man.”

03/04/15