Monthly Archives: November 2015
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union)
The new lease of life afforded John Grant after The Czars disbanded in 2006 has yielded a bizarre series of chapters in his personal history. Between being lavished with praise for his solo albums Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts, he disclosed his HIV-positive status live on-stage in 2012, has collaborated with disco flagbearers Hercules and Love Affair, rubbed shoulders with Elton John, and penned Iceland’s 2014 entry to the Eurovision Song Contest (Pollapönk’s ‘No Prejudice‘). Now approaching the ten-year anniversary of The Czars’ breakup, it’s striking to glance back and marvel at Grant’s steady rise to subversive alt-hero.
Now 47 and having taken up residence in Reykjavik, Grant is coming at his midlife crisis from a sideways angle, surveying the world and his place in it with an arched eyebrow and no shortage of sarcasm. The title of his third album owes its name to an amalgamation of the Icelandic name for middle-age and the Turkish phrase for a nightmare, and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure prods at notions of ageing with equal parts resentment and playfulness. There are self-mocking nods to Grant’s more out-of-touch preferences, whether he’s mistaking Joan as Police Woman for Joan Baez, or bemoaning missing out on New York debauchery circa the 1970s. Fabulously, these references click rather than cloy: there is remarkable pleasure to be derived from hearing Grant purr “I do love me some Angie Dickinson” on the lascivious funk of ‘Snug Slacks’. The twelve songs sandwiched between the album’s spoken-word bookends are so rich in genuinely funny observations and well-stacked syllables that the whole showcase is inviting even at a comparatively hefty runtime.
It’s not all merry, but as has worked so well on Grant’s previous releases, the more confessional touches come tinged with self-laceration and pithy asides to what the songwriter himself recognises are “first-world problems”. The grand, loping title track rises to Grant’s realisation that “there are children who have cancer / and so all bets are off / ’cause I can’t compete with that”, puncturing his musings on life after diagnosis with a sentiment both tender and petulant. The record continues through numerous phases, from the distorted guitar crunches of ‘Guess How I Know’ and ‘You & Him’ into a run of songs fixated on impending apocalypse. ‘Global Warming’, ‘Magma Arrives’ and ‘Black Blizzard’ portray the grisly consequences of climate change as imagined from Grant’s Icelandic retreat, the instrumentation increasingly wigging out before finally bubbling into the turbulence of ‘Black Blizzard’. The album is rounded out with ‘No More Tangles’ and ‘Geraldine’, a warm pair of graceful, simmering ballads that document the disintegration of a happy union and a frustrated sigh at derogatory attitudes to ageing and sexual orientation. Grant appeals to the spirit of actress Geraldine Page on the latter, grumbling “please tell me you didn’t have to put up with this shit”. What in lesser hands would have become far too maudlin or syrupy, Grant ties into a fitting end to an album that finds the absurdity in grave matters and rides it out with élan.
Thematically, Grey Tickles… runs a gamut of messy topics, but the songs themselves are cast in a smooth sheen courtesy of John Congleton, characterised by bubbling bass and synthesisers that pinball between stripped-back and dancefloor-ready. The Americana of Queen of Denmark merges with the more erratic thrust of Pale Green Ghosts beautifully, the resulting successor sounding varied while still cohering around Grant’s authoritative persona. The aesthetic features enough of a throwback charm to appeal to Grant’s fellow midlifers, though his presence boasts such frank wit and empathy that Grey Tickles… should attract listeners well beyond that demographic. There are a number of cuts which are outstandingly catchy, such as the love-song-in-reverse of ‘Disappointing’, which perfects Grant’s penchant for disco theatrics over a strutting rhythm and a fantastic cameo from Tracey Thorn.
On caustic kiss-offs such as the grinding romp ‘You & Him’ (featuring an excellent duet with a snarling Amanda Palmer), Grant’s husky baritone serves up barbed remarks as cutting as those on Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. Both are records of this year set apart by their strangely affecting blend of black humour and almost confrontationally direct emotional pleas, yet where Joshua Tillman takes a more extravagant approach to his songwriting, Grant commands his material with earthiness, his pop-culture nods rightly casting him as a single idiosyncratic character. Maintaining such a strong grasp of humour while touching on heavy ideas is a tricky balancing act, but not only does Grey Tickles, Black Pressure succeed from the first listen, its pleasures sound built to last. There’s enough depth and sophistication to these songs to weather many spins, rendering Grant’s third solo album yet another highlight in a career which only shines brighter with each passing year. Bring on the cranky fiftysomething dispatches, please.
“You’re so cute but you remind me of somebody else / It’s on the tip of my tongue, no it’s not Orson Welles.”
Divers (Drag City)
It only takes the most cursory of listens to appreciate why so many are drunk on Joanna Newsom’s wordplay. Even those who aren’t so keen on the work of the Californian singer/composer/actor/general polymath tend to size up her encyclopaedic vocabulary as one of her central attributes, and indeed, Newsom’s four-strong discography is bursting at the seams with intoxicating language drawn from arcane phrases and precise poetry. The much-celebrated ‘Sapokanikan’ offers a thinly-veiled history of Manhattan Island, recounted through various perspectives, temporal shifts, and regular references to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In her characteristically florid tongue, Newsom rushes along the timeline of a land discovered, raised, ravaged and rebuilt, examining how the city’s identity is continually reborn anew. If only they could, New York’s ancestral inhabitants would “look, and despair” upon the blissfully ignorant parades conducted on soil under which once-cherished bodies rest. In five minutes, some legacies are lost and others are twisted into unrecognisable new forms. And that’s just the single.
The poetic distillation of such rich and imaginative themes is impressive enough to delight even the stiffest of scholars, but the musical arrangement that preserves these themes of time and expiration is just as wondrous. Crystal-clear and moving in something close to a strut, ‘Sapokanikan’ is utterly accessible in its beauty as well as admirable in breadth. The neatest details aren’t cloying enough to irritate, instead neatly serving the gathering momentum of the whole: the drums that snap to attention when Newsom namechecks them twenty-eight seconds in, the steady ascension of trombone and recorder that lift the song’s trajectory until it crescendos. There are those who find Newsom’s attention to her craft gratingly flamboyant, but such derisions are laughably obtuse. This song – as with every song on Divers – is a remarkable compositional feat, encouraging boundless repetition and rediscovery in an age where music’s value is muddied by the day.
If that sounds a bit lofty, then in more simple words, the work behind the end result is breathtaking – as has increasingly been the case with Newsom’s music. She may not be breaking new ground in the strengths she displays on Divers, but here her skills are deployed in a much more instantaneous fashion than on the likes of Ys and Have One On Me. Running at a comparably manageable length and with her topical horizons broader than previously, Divers appears more conventional on the surface but is just as brimful of beauty as any of her past releases. As expressive as ever, her voice is soft yet flexible, her rapturous falsetto braced with a time-tested confidence, clearly demonstrated on the final ecstatic rushes of ‘Time, as a Symptom’ and the theatrical ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’. Above all, her powerful delivery emphasises the conviction of her writing, making the album’s concepts resounding enough to linger beyond the record’s close. It’s a masterful balancing act when taken with such a stunning display of instrumental prowess, but the duplicity lies in how simple she makes it sound. At this rate, Newsom could produce a song that stretches to ninety minutes while still sounding more organic than the average contemporary single.
Having focused her gaze on Time (capitalised because its significance on the album practically renders it as its own character), Newsom immerses herself in its associated concerns: mortality, love, loss, companionship, the changing of landscapes both natural and man-made. Thankfully, there’s space in abundance, the ideas landing considered rather than crashing like waves. ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ provides one of the album’s more straightforward narratives, rolling between sea-shanty (echoing the 19th-Century ‘Lowlands Away’) and piano ballad as Newsom sings about fleets of military men bound to fight wars in different time periods, battling their own ghosts and precursors in an unending cycle of futility. The electrifying ‘Leaving the City’ opens up the dichotomy between stasis and movement, soaring to a choppy climax that marks the record’s most aggressive moment. Most spellbinding is the title track, following on the heels of the gentle wisdom of ‘The Things I Say’ (“our lives come easy and our lives come hard / and we carry them like a pack of cards”) with glittering elegance, sounding as expansive and encompassing as the depths Newsom sings of her lover disappearing into. The song’s intimacy is as striking as its chord changes, drawn between two lives wrenched apart by Time’s relentless pressures.
One of the album’s most magical moments arrives at the close of the twinkling opener ‘Anecdotes’. For the final verse, Newsom proffers a deceptively simple quatrain: “And daughter, when you are able / come down and join! The kettle’s on / and your family’s ’round the table. / Will you come down before the sun is gone?” Followed by a twinkling harp descant and one final flourish of piano keys, the sentiment could so easily be syrupy, but Newsom’s poise – as well as the atmosphere conjured over the preceding minutes – invests her words with a clear emotional gravity. Amid her more complex and cryptic musings, verses such as this sit significantly, tingling with a poignancy that feels thoroughly earned.
Divers offers plenty for Newsom diehards to lap up, and makes a strong case as the optimal gateway record for newcomers to her music. In terms of its place within the artist’s canon, Divers lacks the bolder approach of Ys and Have One On Me; records which captured minds in different ways. However, pitting these albums against one another feels meaningless, given that Divers so easily ranks among the most beautiful and enveloping listens of the decade so far. There is so much to praise: the riddles buried like pearls, the inviting lushness of the instrumentation, and the frankly astounding songcraft from a mind as expansive as the vistas Newsom’s imagery portrays. Divers is a mesmerising album, and one which should triumph over Time’s cruelty for years to come.
“We came to see Time is taller than Space is wide.”
Scala, London (29/10/15)
To access Scala on the night of Lower Dens’ show, fans had to pass beneath the huge webs of scaffolding surrounding the main entrance, and once inside the converted picturehouse itself, the atmosphere was one of amicable warmth shrouded in dry ice and shadows. This odd blend of a welcoming ambience within a rather cavernous setting was perfectly suitable for the Baltimore quartet, whose music has blossomed into backwards-glancing, forward-thinking dream-pop without losing its inky layers of intrigue. The show itself was something of an embrace into Lower Dens’ universe, where insightful reflections on heartache and identity are packaged in well-woven guitar-band structures.
On this particular night, guitarist Walker Teret was absent, instead operating as the “ghost in the machine” (Jana Hunter’s phrasing, delivered with a smile following a triumphant rendition of the band’s new go-to anthem, ‘To Die in L.A.‘). His pre-recorded parts were broadcast in tight syncopation with the tightly-wired remaining players, with Nate Nelson’s unshowy but imposingly precise motorik rhythms meshing seamlessly with Geoff Graham’s fluid bass playing. The latter had a miniature fan club heckling from the small but enamoured crowd, and the levity in performers and audience alike was refreshing. Applause in the wake of the group’s biggest numbers (‘Electric Current’, ‘Your Heart Still Beating’, ‘Brains’) was drawn out for more beats than expected, and Hunter responded to such a warm reception with short-but-sweet declarations of gratitude. The three clearly enjoyed performing together, and off-record, the electricity between elements was foregrounded: Nelson’s ever-steady drumming only needing to kick off-beat by a fraction to propel a song to its crescendo, Hunter’s dramatic vocal leaps and impassioned choruses delivered in the flesh with real heft.
All ten of Escape From Evil‘s ripe pickings studded the thirteen-strong set, with the reshuffled order giving pleasantly fresh perspectives on the likes of ‘I Am the Earth”s moody pomp and the juddering rush of ‘Company’. In leaning away from their older material, it was perhaps a suggestion that Lower Dens are keen to advance even further from the sharp, occasionally pulpy tinges of their first records and embrace the more open-chested aesthetic of their third album. Even so, the set’s easy highlight – as well as its greatest surprise – was the resurrection of old curio ‘Batman’, the 2011 standalone single which packs a naggingly effervescent spring. Within thirty seconds of its campy, infectious fretwork, it had gleeful grins on the faces of the collective, and crowned a set that drew attention to the band’s pop trajectory, highlighting the chemistry and confidence between the three performers, while reminding listeners that one of the pop albums of the year is well worth discovering anew.
Sucker’s Shangri-La // Quo Vadis // To Die in L.A. // Non Grata // I Get Nervous // Electric Current // I Am the Earth // Batman // Your Heart Still Beating // Company // Société Anonyme // Ondine // Brains