Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds

Since it's just days before the holiday season begins – and because your blogger is pretty busy presently – this post will be an exercise in brevity. But a short post is better than no post. Plus, much of the backstory on this week's artist – former oasis songwriter, guitarist and part-time lead vocalist Noel Gallagher – was already taken care of in my review of his brother Liam's post-oasis project, Beady Eye. So, if you're looking for my thoughts on all things oasis and Gallagher brothers, head there. Here, we'll focus on Noel's competing project, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. His debut album of the same title was released on November 8 on Noel's own Sour Mash Records.

After the demise of oasis, my initial expectation was that Liam and his mates in Beady Eye would have a tough time songwriting without Noel's creative force, and that Noel would emerge with a steady effort, building on his two decades of songwriting for oasis. I was only half correct. Beady Eye defied all expectations, and delivered a well-constructed, ambitious debut outing on Different Gear, Still Speeding last March. Meanwhile, Noel has responded predictably with his High Flying Birds, turning out a solid, consistent 10-track product infused with his trademark Beatles-style constructions, some heady orchestral arrangements and professional-quality musicianship. But, it's also not terribly exciting.

Noel always benefited from the better pure singing voice of the two brothers; a smoother, more balanced counterpoint to Liam's rusty nails sneer. And he exploits that talent well here, hitting and sustaining higher notes beyond Liam's range and routinely employing his well-honed falsetto. This is apparent as soon as the opener, "Everybody's on the Run," with Gallagher shepherding the tune's soaring chorus, and benefiting from sturdy drumming from session percussionist Jeremy Stacey. Gallagher always demanded solid, but unspectacular work from his drummers in oasis, and he finds a willing partner in Stacey throughout the record. He also effectively deploys a mix of horns and strings across the album, boosting the complexity of his songwriting, especially on the album's closer, "Stop the Clocks" – apparently a would-be oasis number than never left the studio over a decade, according to Gallagher.

The problem with the collection, though, emerges quickly: the tracks are nearly all indistinguishable from each other, one mid-tempo cut to the next. This isn't to say that any are bad on their own; in fact, not a single track is a must-skip. They're all carefully structured, well-executed pieces of pop-rock, and several are a step above, such as leadoff single, "If I Had A Gun" and the catchy chorus of "Dream On." And if the Gallagher's acoustic guitar progression on the former of these sounds familiar, you're right: it's nearly the same as oasis flagship number, "Wonderwall." 

But the pace on all of them is largely identical, not moving too fast or too slow. Some variation in tempo and intensity would be welcome. There is a bit more pep on a couple of numbers, though: the optimistic "AKA...What A Life" and it's fluttering counterpart, "AKA...Broken Arrow." But neither hardly qualifies as a barn-burner, and it's hard to believe Gallagher no longer has the more upbeat stuff in him, considering high-energy oasis tracks spanning that band's catalogue, from the early "Supersonic" to the more recent "The Shock of the Lightning." And perhaps his forthcoming full-album collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous – expected in early 2012 – might boost the intensity level. But in the battle between the Gallagher brothers as to who could produce the more interesting material without the other, the victor is surprisingly Liam.

Come for: "If I Had A Gun"
Stay for: "Dream On"
You'll be surprised by: "AKA...What A Life"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Los Campesinos!

When I was younger, I was often perplexed when listening to performers from the non-American English-speaking world as to why the accents (or lack of accents, depending on your perspective) so prevalent in their speaking voice nearly always vanished when singing. From the Beatles to Elton John and on to U2, there seemed to be little distinctiveness of their respective deliveries from their American counterparts (by American, I mean North American, as Canadian accents are only just slightly different from those in the states). Of course, there are been exceptions. The punk movement stressed authenticity, and artists reaching as far back is Ray Davies in The Kinks to Johnny Rotten's Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer's The Clash all emphasized their British roots far more than their predecessors. Later, the frontmen in alternative-era acts like oasis, Blur and – to a far less lasting degree, The Proclaimers – mildly stressed their homelands' vocal uniqueness, although their peers in Radiohead, Bush and Coldplay could hardly be spotted as brashy Brits on a first listen. Conversely, some American vocalists – namely Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong and The Killers' Brandon Flowers – chose to adopt a pseudo-British sneer to fit their sound.

As this to say that when you come across an artist or band featuring more identifiable accents in song, it's noticeable. And such is the case with the Cardiff, Wales-based septuplet, Los Campesinos! and their duly British-sounding primary vocalist, Gareth Campesinos! (the band goes Ramones-style, adopting Campesinos! surnames for all its members; campesinos itself means peasants in spanish). From the outset, it's clear you're encountering a group from Her Majesty's empire. Gareth's punk-infused snarl harks back to influences like Davies, Rotten and Strummer, and is fitting for the group's hard-charging demeanor. But, in contrast with the band's punk-tinged Romance is Boring – their third full-length release in 2010 – their new 10-track collection, Hello Sadness (out today on Wichita Recordings) blends the punk sneer of its predecessor with the more bright and boastful pop collective approach of their first two records, Hold on Now, Youngster... and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, both released in 2008 on the same label.

This combination of styles – the post-punk power found in outfits like Tokyo Police Club (NMT) and We Were Promised Jetpacks (NMT) with the big, poppy multi-gender collectives like the Arcade Fire (NMT), the recently-on-hiatus Broken Social Scene and the Givers (NMT) – breeds an offspring that's both lively and edgy, and allows a coterie of sonic habits to trickle in, not only from their aforementioned peers, but hints of U2, The Hold Steady (NMT), The Cure, Weezer (NMT) and more. The album's dawning track, "By Your Hand," points most directly to the latter set, with its boisterous chorus and hand claps suggesting a communal vibe, and the tawdry details of Gareth's verses much in keeping with tracks like The Givers' "Up Up Up" and Library Voices' (NMT) "If Raymond Carver Were Born in the 90's." Gareth – who's also the band's glockenspieler (glockenspielist? glockenspielmeister? I've longed for the opportunity of such a quandary in this space!) – allows plenty of room for the rest of the band to shine here, especially back-up vocalist and keyboardist Kim (Gareth's sister), bassist Ellen and guitarists Neil and Rob.

Meanwhile, the following "Songs About Your Girlfriends" – while still sufficiently poppy – lands closer to the post-punk tradition, with its its clenching guitar intro setting up Gareth's gnarly lyrics and the track racing across its 3:18 of runtime. But it doesn't stray far from the Arcade Fire-style group sing-alongs found on the opener, either. Next up, the record's title track is a bit more restrained and moody – a nod to their Cure influences – but features some nice violin contributions from now-former member Harriet (who amicably left the band this September to continue her education) and builds to a swirling zenith later on.

In "Life is a Long Time," the band arrives at it its closest counterpart to the Arcade Fire's most recent offering, The Suburbs, as if Win Butler and crew contributed a lost track meant to fall between "We Used to Wait" and "Sprawl 1 (Flatland)." Gareth's tale of disillusionment mirrors Butler's description of suburban malaise, in lyrics like:

Over time they build up the city / And our arguments show it all /
Every ring road, every motorway / Displayed in crease and wrinkle


You know it starts pretty rough / And ends up even worse / And what goes on in-between / I try to keep it out of my thoughts

The post-punk vibe returns on "Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)," with its less exuberant tone and featured keyboards from Kim echoing a similar use on Tokyo Police Club's Champ collection. Interestingly, the cut contains a reference to ABBA's "Waterloo," with Gareth slightly reworking lyrics that song's chorus prelude to, "and how could I ever refuse? I feel like I loose when I loose." After the slow-moving ballad, "Hate for the Island," the group delivers the record's most shimmering track, the U2-flavored "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope." Guitarists Neil and Rob are at their pinnacle here, with their The Edge-like minimalism providing an emboldening lift. Moreover, the split vocals between Gareth and Kim are a welcome change of pace, although I wish Kim had been utilized more on this record, in keeping with the band's greater use of smoother female voices to balance out Gareth snarly foundation (Kim succeeded her predecessor Aleksandra on back-up vocals and keyboards in 2009, after Aleksandra also left on good terms to pursue studies). I always prefer bands with shared lead vocals, and even more so when they're split between girls and guys.

Like "Hate for the Island," "To Tundra" is largely a plodding affair, although it very gradually builds some steam and benefits from some greater conviction near its conclusion. The slower stuff continues on the concluding pair of numbers, with "Baby, I Got the Death Rattle" and "Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II" easing the effort on a more restrained note. However, the former isn't far from a slower version of The Hold Steady's "Sequestered in Memphis" in its second half, with Gareth reprising Craig Finn's call-and-response chorus alternating "headstones" and "headboards" much like Finn's "Texas" and "Memphis."

Come for: "By Your Hand"
Stay for: "Songs About Your Girlfriend"
You'll be surprised by: "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Decemberists – Long Live the King

(I had fully intended to post on schedule the previous two Tuesdays, however, technical difficulties involving my email machine had prevented me from actually listening to the new music slated for review. Now, with fully computing power restored, this is my best attempt to catch up, which explains for coverage of only an EP-length release)

Often, when you hear artists or bands describe a recent studio session, and boast how they had written and worked on boatloads of new material, but most of it never made the final release of 10 or 12 tracks. Now, surely, there were fragments of songs that didn't quite pan out, and others that needed more cultivation, possibly to re-appear on a still later record (next week's profilee, Noel Gallagher, includes a track on is first solo album that he claims was in the works as an oasis tune for more than a decade, but never released). Regardless, it would be nice to have a chance to hear some of that discarded material left on the cutting room floor, especially from bands or artists who routinely turn out top-notch material, but take longer breaks between new releases. This is exactly the sort of desire fulfilled by one of this blog's favorite acts, The Decemberists, with their recently-released EP, Long Live the King; a half-length compendium to the full LP, The King is Dead, which came out early this year and reviewed by us here.

Of course, the flip side to my advocacy for the release of studio hold-backs is that sometimes when they do emerge, it's a load of fluff – shoddy acoustic demos, fly-by-night covers and other uninspired fare. One recalls the b-side material box set of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness concept album as particularly trivial (although both "Medellia of the Grey Skies" and "Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)" were solid cuts). In other words, there's good reason the band chose to leave them off initially. But, fortunately for us, this is not the case with the six tracks of Long Live the King (itself more than half the number of tracks found on the original source material).

The connection between the two records is explicit, from the medieval monarchical phrase that represents the title of both collections to their alt-country overtones. Why chief songwriter and frontman Colin Meloy and his mates declined their inclusion on the full-length album is uncertain, but most could have been slotted among the rest without dampening the quality or context of The King is Dead – in fact, they would have likely only added to it.

Opener "E. Watson" is a somber, acoustic graveyard lament from Meloy, dedicated to the title character. Although The King is Dead certainly featured much of Meloy's trademark quirky intellectualism, what it lacked was the more intricate narratives that defined much of the band's work prior to that album. Here, the nuanced and interesting real-life tale of Edgar Watson – one of Florida's first pioneers – is the sort of output many longtime fans of the group have come to expect. Meloy's lyricism here is at it's finest, as witnessed in the second verse:

Watson had it in from the beginning
He built that house on Chatham Bend
A white-washed knotted pine
Ninety acres furrowed for the cane
And he drove it down from Georgia
His dad a martyred soldier
In the war between the states

Meloy is one of the few contemporary songwriters who possesses the talents to push his listeners' intellectual capacity – along with Okkervil River's Will Shelf – and he should be encouraged to continue. But The King is Dead seemed to be a slim retreat from that mission, and my review of that record noted that shift. In a track like "E. Watson," those fears may be allayed.

Moreover, when paired with "Burying Davy" two tracks later, the numbers could have been pulled from the pages of the morose, but fascinating Spoon River Anthology collection of poems by Edgar Lee Master (another Edgar!), where the accounts of those who passed away in some small hamlet are far more interesting than those who remain. The tracks link back to The King is Dead through the exemplary backing vocals of Laura Veirs (who also previously contributed guest vocals to "Yankee Bayonet" off the Crane Wife record) and Annalisa Tornfelt, who mirror the fine work done by Gillian Welch on the previous effort.

Meloy's macabre stories are balanced by the more meatier, alt-country duo of "Foregone" and the band's cover of The Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy." The former is easily this record's strongest offering, with it's tangy Gram Parsons vibe and honey-laced steel guitar by guitarist Chris Funk buoying Meloy's pangs of regret, which he dubs "the reach and the wrecks and the wrong." It melds nicely with the Dead cover, which replaces the original's blues sketch with a more robust roots foundation and a more subtle bridge part via pianist and organist Jenny Conlee (who's currently recovering from successful cancer treatment after being largely unable to participate in the band's tour this spring and summer).

The one that doesn't fit here as neatly is "I 4 U & U 4 Me." Just judging by the title, it would, at best, seem to be an odd Prince rarity, or at worst, the latest garbled vomit by whichever boy band is reuniting at the time. Instead, it's delightfully closer to the Violent Femmes or The Pogues (both of which Meloy has noted as influences on the band), with its galloping acoustic parts from Meloy and Funk contrasting with bassist Nate Query's sludgy acoustic bass and drummer John Moen's stiff snare. Even though it's listed as a demo version – and the production sounds just a bit unrefined – that's alright considering the tune's upbeat and unpolished ethos.

Rounding out the collection's half-dozen tracks the understated "Sonnet." Although it begins as a somewhat vanilla Meloy ballad, the addition of the full band and horns just before the number's midpoint enlivens the melody and ends the proceedings on an upturn. Sounds like the perfect place to leave things until next time...

Come for: "E. Watson"
Stay for: "Foregone"
You'll be surprised by: "I 4 U & U 4 Me"