Thursday, October 23, 2003

Leaves Them All Behind (AKA The Parallax View Autumn Album Review Compendium)

I would think that, if you were of a mind to so (although to be honest if you *were* of a mind to do so, you'd probably be, like, insane or something) to look back as objectively as possible at the last forty years or so of rock music you'd reasonably conclude that at any one time there was a relatively even mix of good and not-so-good records on release. And yet the fusion of hype and mythology always leads us to believe in golden eras and dark ages, and its sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly why these concepts seem so seductive. But perhaps this current season of renewed optimism about the rock'n'roll rollercoaster can be neatly attributed to one underlying trend: the big hitters are delivering the goods, and that's not something we've been used to in recent years.

Perhaps biggest surprise of all is the flamin' groovy Room On Fire from The Strokes. Who in their right minds (apart from feverish NME hacks never more desperate for a sure thing, obviously) was seriously looking forward to the second Strokes album, after all? And yet...Room On Fire sounds even more perfectly realised and effortlessly cool than their uncannily prescient debut. What's more, it doesn't sound great in a way you might expect from a big commercial blockbuster, but great as in a splendid new addition to the work of your favourite obscure and unloved band (if that makes sense to anyone other than your humble reviewer he will die a happy man). And despite whatever you might read, there is not, repeat NOT, an R&B track on this record. Although if your looking for an alternative US rock take on that sort of thing, may I point you in the direction of the Afghan Whigs back catalogue?

If The Strokes had something to prove with their sophomore record, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (or BRMC for those with tired typing fingers) needed to pull something ferocious from the fire just to remind people why exactly they're necessary in a post-Interpol/Raveonettes world. Good news is that the competition seems to have bucked up their quality control - newie Take Them On, On Your Own sustains its own momentum far more satisfyingly than their erratic, over-praised debut. And on Shade Of Blue they manage to crystallise all the best features of every great shoegazing record in history into one perfect pop song, a definite contender for track of the year. They're still pretty shitty live, though.

And that's something you could never level at Muse, but how could they possibly top the hysterical grand guignol of their second album, 2001's spaced-out odyssey Origin Of Symmetry? When third album Absolution starts with goosestep stomps it appears to be with more of the same, although the album does settle down to a pace just ever-so-slightly more restrained than OOS: not exactly mature, but perhaps slightly more considered and better balanced with some some slower, more reflective tunes. They're still pretty demented compared to most other bands out there though, and entropy's never sounded more energising than on standout track (and lead single) 'Time Is Running Out'. There are those that argue that Muse can be taken no more seriously than The Darkness, but whereas Justin Hawkins & Co are pop winkers with their one open eye on the past, Muse are staring with wide-eyed lust straight ahead at the future. For true believers, Absolution comes close to a religious experience.

The birth of dibdibdib-hop is heralded with I Am by Scout Niblett (out not on Hut records, but on Too Pure), the first album in a long while that I bought on the basis of its cover. She looks so sweet and she plays her instruments so well, as she herself pronounces on one of the tracks and the wibbly-wobbly sonic universe created posits her as the crazy, wilful offspring of Chan Marshall and Jonathan Richman. Niblett doesn't quite attain the ethereal gravitas of this year's Cat Power record, but she's a helluva lot more convincing and scarier when it comes to the harder, rockier numbers, despite the minimal musical backing to her apparently stream-of-consciousness vocal delirium. An unusual record then, but mostly in a good way: if Scout is indeed (as she proclaims on the title track) an emergency vehicle, she can expect quite a few ambulance-chasers in the coming months.

We're back in relatively unfashionable waters with the latest Maria McKee record High Dive. McKee called this her 'little indie album' at her Birmingham gig earlier this year but given the lush strings, blaring brass, big choruses and pre-punk guitar flourishes on show, that's a little disingenuous to say the least. But if the lack of mod-ish pretensions has meant this is the best album this year to be critically overlooked, try to avoid making the same mistake and give this one a listen. Her voice is as authorative and poignant as ever, and the overboard pop genius of 'High Dive'; the brooding and worldly 'We Pair Off' and the grand drama of 'From Our TV Teens To The Tomb' represent some of the best songs in the McKee of life. The quality control over the whole album is set to a high standard, and although it might take a few listens to really grab your attention, I think you'll soon agree that 'High Dive' is indeed top bombing.

Another slow-burner is If We Meet In The Future from Reading's Saloon, whose vaguely jazzy take on lo-fi electronica makes for soothing late-night listening without insulting your intelligence. But then, given that they're on Track & Field records maybe we should be checking what's in those cigarettes they're smoking. Standout track for me is 'The Sound Of Thinking' in which singer Amanda Gomez saucily admonishes us with the fact that 'everyone needs to/ have their heart bro-ken' over a swirling, insistent beat. Fans of Stereolab and the last Saint-Etienne album should be beating a path to their local record emporium with immediate effect.



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