erasing clouds

12 Music Reviews

Clem Snide, End Of Love (Fargo/ SpinArt)

Clem Snide were named after a character in William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, and that really explains this long-lived group's peculiar take on Americana. For, in the 14 years they have been together, Clem Snide has managed to fuse elements of country, rock, jazz and folk to create an idiosyncratic stew that is topped off by singer Ed Barzelay's distinctive vocals. Revelling in their quirkiness, End Of Love is smart, goofy and at time laugh out loud (witness fourth track, "The Sound Of German Hip Hop", the beautifully-realised "Tiny European Cars" and the classy "God Answers Back" for surrealism), while at the same time managing to hit the sweet spot with tracks like "Fill Me With Your Light", where a sturdy beat, rolling bass, insistent percussion and Barzelay's voice create a song that sounds like it could have come off an R.E.M album. For those who like their music to be solidly crafted, immaculately played and containing a sense of fun, Clem Snide - and indeed End Of Love - is for you. - john stacey

Entre Ŕos, Onda (Darla)

Sometimes collecting, over-categorizing, and hyper-analyzing music can disguise music's role as a soundtrack to life. Forget what albums you think are important for a second, what do you really enjoy listening to? What record, when you put it on, instantly makes your day better and puts you in a better frame of mind? What music do you put on when you're alone, not for something to analyze but as a companion, a source of comfort and joy? In 10 years when you look back at the summer of 2005, what music will you associate with it? One album that for me has been an absolutely integral part of my summer 2005 is Onda, the fantastic third album from the Argentinean group Entre Ŕos. Their sleek, gorgeous, electronic pop music is immediately captivating and endlessly pleasurable. There's synthesizer sounds that feel so deep and luxurious that it's almost jaw-dropping, yet the feeling of the album overall is light and bouncy, perfect for summer. While both of their previous albums blended pretty melodies with layers of electronics in a unique way, treading softly between experimentation and pop sweetness, Onda does the same in a more unified and streamlined way. Opening track "Cerca & Extrano" begins slowly, like a wave coming from afar, with singer Isol singing in a seemingly cautious way. But it builds into a beautiful tune, filled with heart and also atmosphere, which begs at your brain until you listen to it again, and again, and again. The entire album is like that, a true delight from start to finish. Fresh-sounding, innovative music doesn't have to be boring or ultra-serious…here's more proof of that in case you didn't know. – dave heaton

The HaveNots, Never Say Goodnight (Cooking Vinyl)

A lot is expected of young Leicester duo The HaveNots, and that's simply because of the high standard of their work. For Sophia Marshall and Liam Dullaghan possess that rare quality - the ability to write classic songs that, in a parallel universe, would be played 24/9 on radio stations across the world. The HaveNots' secret is essentially simplicity their songs hit the mark quickly and stay there. Falling mainly in the Americana/Alt County genre, songs like "Never Say Goodnight" stray into country soul category as Sophia's sweet-as-honey voice tumbles into melancholy, while "Papercuts"' sizzling rhythm guitar propels the song into dance territory. The key to the success of The Havenots is Sophia and Liam's harmonies - layered gently over every track, their voices merge beautifully. While the instrumental credits are extensive, the duo are not ones to overplay, preferring to give the songs the space to breathe within their own sounds, particularly on the eerily pretty title track. Never Say Goodnight is an album that flourishes throughout, growing with every listen. - john stacey

Her Name In Lights, Into The Light Again (Laughing Outlaw)

At first listen, Her Name In Lights sounds like prototype Cowboy Junkies with a rockier, poppier edge. But then you realise that singer Mary Wyer's vocals are a damn sight stronger than Margot Timmins'. And you have to admit that, as much as you like the Junkies - and I have been a fan for years - that whispery voice of Margot's can get on your nerves at times. So, Her Name In Lights has b*lls. Mary might come across as some fey, cutesy, fifties ballad-singer type, but the songs are nothing of the sort. They have a strength and sturdiness that belies her voice. Not only that, but each song is embroidered with detail that becomes apparent on further listenings - spectral organ on "You Know I Loved That Boy" and deep down and dirty bass and almost skiffle guitar on "Wicked Girl" are two examples. Initially, Mary had brought a collection of songs to the studio with the intention of creating a solo album. But the sessions were so enjoyable that Mary and her pick-up band - which includes Simon Holmes of Hummingbirds on guitar and bass, Alison Galloway on drums and Almond Cafarella doing strerling work on guitar and lap slide - decided to start gigging. They have produced a little nugget of an album; a work of buried treasures that deserves to be unearthed. Maybe one day Mary will get her name in lights. - john stacey

Magnolia Electric Co., What Comes After The Blues (Secretly Canadian)

There's a primal feel about Magnolia Electric Co. A sit veers between jagged rock and mournful tales of loss. The eight songs written by lead singer Jason Molina have a ruggedness that brings to mind Neil Young - coruscating guitar solos, slide guitar and Molina's aching vocals all combine to produce heady music. On the weary lament "The Night Shift Lullaby", the group veers towards almost traditional folk, with Jennie Bedford's tremulous vocals and Mike Bremner's steel guitar underpinning a queasy nursery rhyme. "Leave The City"'s elegaic trumpet gives the song an almost jaunty feel, while Molina's vocals are heartbreakingly poignant on "Northstar Blues", where the stately arrangement is perfectly in keeping with the song's melancholic air. Molina himself admits a debt to country icons Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson, and with "What Comes After The Blues," he and his group have managed to perfectly fuse traditional C&W with rock in a CD that should satisfy lovers of everything old and new in the genre. - john stacey

Math and Physics Club, Movie Ending Romance EP (Matinee)

The Seattle-based pop group Math and Physics Club may have only released two EPs so far in their career, but already they sound determined to write and record songs that people will remember, songs that listeners will hold dear to their hearts. And while it's always best to err on the side of caution when praising a group that's only just begun, judging by their first two releases they seem well on their way. Their latest 4-song EP, Movie Ending Romance, may be even better than their first (Weekends Away, released earlier this year), though it's hard to tell because they're both so strong. Where Weekends Away for me occasionally recalled MAPC's fellow Matinee musicians the Lucksmiths, in the literate, sensitive approach to catchy pop songs, Movie Ending Romance is more openly evocative of the Smiths, perhaps only because of lead singer Charles' singing style here. Influences don’t matter, I know, I know, but at the same time it is important to mark the fact that while Math and Physics Club's songs occasionally indebted to a whole host of intelligent, open-hearted, and classic pop groups of the past, they also strongly hold their own next to the songs they recall. In other words, the feeling that Math and Physics Club is aiming to write classic pop singles may be merely because these songs are so damn good that throwing the word classic around doesn't seem disingenuous. The three original songs here – the title track, "White and Grey", and "Graduation Day" – represent the art of songwriting at its best. And then the EP closes with an absolutely dynamite cover of the Beach Boys' "You're So Good to Me", which has its own unique energy, and an intriguing sound that answers the never-before-asked musical question, "what would have happened if the Smiths and the Beach Boys had formed a supergroup?" – dave heaton

Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar)

Okkervil River's previous album, Down The River of Golden Dreams, was a magical journey through Americana - sleepy, almost dreamlike songs full of delicate instrumentation and propelled by writer and singer Will Sheff's lived-in voice. It was rightly regarded as one of the best albums of the genre. On the follow-up, Black Sheep Boy, the title track of which is a cover of a classic Tim Hardin song from the sixties, the eight-man group - augmented by a string section, chorus and a chap providing 'field recordings' (the sound of passing cars, birdsong, etc) - broaden their palette to provide music that is bucolic and traditional but has its feet firmly rooted in rock. Utilising lap steel, pump organ, mandolin, wurlizer, vibes and 'whirlies' (whatever they are) Okkervil River is simultaneously challenging and comforting. "A King And A Queen", for example, with its delicate tracery of trumpet, has a the sort of melody and luxurious waltz beat that makes you want to keep hitting the repeat button. Offbeat, quirky, but frequently compulsive. - john stacey

The Primary 5, North Pole (Microindie)

Paul Quinn played drums for Teenage Fanclub for a decent stretch of time, from 1995's Grand Prix to the 2001 Jad Fair collaboration Words of Wisdom and Hope. During that time he was the non-songwriting member of the band, each album featuring songs written by all of the group's three original members. Listen to The Primary 5's North Pole, Quinn's debut in the lead role of singer and songwriter, and you'll wonder 'Couldn't they have fit one of his songs somewhere in the mix?' For not only are these songs very similar in style and tone to Teenage Fanclub's, they're quite good, with brillantly catchy melodies and softly expressive singing from Quinn. 'In the style of Teenage Fanclub' of course means modern-sounding songs in the style of many great pop and rock bands from the past. Though much more of a streamlined, mostly one-man band (no intricate vocal harmonies, then), the Primary 5 is drawing on many of those same influences. Microdindie's press blurb mentions the band receiving comparions to Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Hollies, Ricky Nelson, the Beach Boys...all of those are right on the mark. Yet as with Teenage Fanclub, you don't feel like you're listening to simple retreads, more like the work of a skilled songwriter who doesn't hide what music that he loves and draws on for inspiration. The songs here are classic in their own right, truly splendid pop tunes - some sharp and bouncy, some with a mellow sort of lazy-afternoon dreaminess - that are immediate and personal, conveying emotions in the midst of succinct melodies that'll stick in your head like the best of them. - dave heaton

Sam Shinazzi, Stories You Wouldn't Believe (Laughing Outlaw)

Sometimes, in this over-digitised, over-produced and over-hyped world it's refreshing to listen to something that has an honest-to-goodness simplicity about it. Sam Shinazzi's second album is like that. Twelve straightforward songs that stand or fall by certain principles - the music is unadorned by any unnecessary elaboration; no smart-ass sampling, electronic tomfoolery or so-called cutting edge worldview. Just Sam, his voice and guitar and straightforward bass, drums and keys backing. The songs start and they finish. They use major chords and minor chords. Now, the more cynical of you might think; 'Hang on, that means it's plain boring.' But that could not be further from the truth. Because sometimes the simple way is the best way. After all, rock music doesn't have to be rocket science, does it? Occasionally there is a slight diversion into country rock - the mandolin on 'My Friend And A Free Day" provides a lovely counterpoint while "Scotty Come Home"'s lyrics - namechecking Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs in a song of love and loss - has an addictive guitar figure that bears repeated listening. Stories You Wouldn't Believe is at times mellow, poignant and melancholy, but has an honest, almost home-made charm to it. After creating quite a buzz in Australia, Sam - who has played alongside Bonnie Prince Billy, Evan Dando, Josh Rouse and the Pernice Brothers - toured the US earlier this year, playing in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Later this year he plans to stop off in the UK. You should check him out if you get then chance. Meanwhile, grab a copy of this old-fashioned, intensely personal and curiously satisfying album. Then maybe you'll believe the stories about him. - john stacey

The Temperance Union, Songs From The Distance (self-released)

I had to admit I knew nothing of this group when this CD popped through my letterbox. Apart from a letter urging me to review it, there was precious little autobiographical material to go on. Still, I stuck it in the CD player and ...whoa! What an album! First off, you would swear this lot were from the American midwest and not from London. Opening track "Blackwater Canyon" really sets the template for authenticity, and as the album progresses you would be hard-pressed not to notice similarities with classic Americana band Whiskeytown or with its workaholic former leader, Ryan Adams. Mind you, if you've got to have influences, they might as well be good ones. The Temperance Union - four guys and two girls - run the gamut of song types ... lachrymose ballads, snorting hoedowns, girl-boy call and answer duets and straightahead rockers. It's classic - and classic stuff - and worth chasing up. If you're interested, do yourself a favour - and them - and get the album off john stacey

Volebeats, Like Her (Turquoise Mountain Records)

The Detroit-based band Volebeats' new album Like Her has a retro look right from the cover, or the font on the spine even, and the sound of the music is similarly reminiscent of years past. Close your eyes and it's not hard to imagine the catchy opening number, the title track, as a song playing over the radio of a car in the early '60s. Its a study in simplicity, in relying on a great melody to carry the day. Yet it isn't bubblegum fluff, either; it's a sad song, with some bitterness to it from the first line: "No I'm never gonna be like her / no I'm not gonna say the words / 'I don't care anymore'". The album continues to carry both that love for a classic pop-rock sound and the expressions of sadness. "World's Looking Lonely" is the title of one song, and it describes the feeling of the album as a whole. Despite a couple hopeful come-ons, like the country-ish love song "In the Garden," there's a general feeling that good times have passed, that loneliness is what remains. The remarkable thing about Like Her is the way that several of the songs project that feeling while also sounding very snappy and fun. Indeed, the album is most successful when it pairs a memorable melody with sincerely expressed feelings of disappointment, regret, or hurt, whether it's on an uptempo number or, as on much of the album, a slow-dance ballad. Some of those slow songs are dour and indistinctive enough to risk pulling the album into stagnant territory, but for the most part the group's skill with crafting and playing tuneful, classic-sounding pop songs keeps the album compelling, a worthwhile experience. - dave heaton

Danny George Wilson, The Famous Mad Mile (Fargo)

A member of Grand Drive, who have been flying the flag for British-based Americana over the course of four fine albums - Sutton-based Danny has opted to temporarily venture down a solo path with the release of this stunning album. Fans of this genre know that the divine pairing of country rock legends Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris produced music of blissful excellence many decades ago and served as the blueprint for this type of gentle, back porch-style musing. The Famous Mad Mile picks up from where Parsons' legendary Grievous Angel left off. From the very first track, you're hooked. A strummed guitar here, a weepy pedal steel guitar note there, a touch of melancholic cello and Jess Klein's sorrowful voice providing gorgeous counterpoint.. Each of the nine tracks have a slow-burning elegance about them that makes them sound quintessentially American while maintaining a certain Britishness at the same time. For sheer beauty, "Old Soul" has to be one of the finest country songs ever written. Not bad for a local boy. - john stacey

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