Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Album Review Compendium

Margarine Eclipse is something like Stereolab's twelfth album, and despite the twin traumas of Margaret Hansen's tragic death and the Laeticia Sadler/Tim Gane lovesplit, it's a record that shows little deviation from their usual soundscape of electronic whirrs and flutters. In their own way, they have perhaps become as predictable and comforting as Dido or Zero 7 - providing chillout music for people having a bad assymetric-hair day. So much so, that after the first few plays you find yourself thinking 'Margarine Eclipse? I Can't Believe it's Not Better!' And yet over time the album draws you in, and the subtle identities of the individual tracks insiduously coil themselves around your brain making it curiously addictive stuff.

If Margarine Eclipse is the sound of a band increasingly comfortable within their own skin, The Power Out by Brighton four-piece Electrelane captures the excitement of a group flexing their creative muscles and exploring/extending the scope of their boundaries. Their first album was predominantly instrumental and found them labelled a distaff Mogwai, but for their second record Verity Susman adds her polylingual vocals, sounding not unlike a stroppy pre-menstrual Laeticia Sadler. Some alt-jazz sax is also thrown into the mix and closing track 'You Make Me Week At The Knees' is a low-key ruminative piano piece but the real epiphany is their re-working of Siegfried Sassoon's 'The Valleys' complete with male voice choir. It's the sonic equivalent of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis confines.

Last year Sub Pop unearthed one of the years surprise packages in The Thermals, and they appear to have repeated the trick in 2004 with the release of Shine A Light by The Constantines. It's the second album from a band who have drawn comparisons with both Bruce Springsteen and Fugazi! While the title track and 'Young Lions' do have a certain punchy anthemic feel and the singer's earnest, gravelly growl is indeed reminiscent of The Boss, on the whole the Fugazi comparison is nearer the mark, and I'm guessing for most of you that will be a good thing. It's a dense, noisy and vaguely unsettling record that has the benefit of sounding quite unlike any of the other young pretenders on the block.

Like The Constantines, The Stills come from Canada and in Logic Will Break Your Heart they may have released my favourite album this year to date. While for some much of the fun may be gleaned from spotting the various 80s reference points (I think it's fair to assume there are some Echo and the Bunnymen and Cure records in the bands' collection, for starters) I'd prefer to sell the record to you on the strength and variation of the songwriting. The Stills seem to be a bit more clued-up than many of their contemporaries, and while they may not have the most innovative sound around they have certainly succeeded in creating a highly enjoyable and accessible record with enough distinctive tunage to merit a wider audience than they're currently getting.

As far as I can find out, The Workhouse hail from Oxford but their obsession with Greater Manchester clearly extends beyond their obvious devotion to Joy Division as their songtitle allusions to soccer stars Michael Ricketts and Gudni Bergsson suggests someone in the group is also nuts on Bolton (Wanderers). I was drawn to The End Of The Pier by the epic title track which led me to compare them to Ian Curtis-fronted Slowdive, but the bulk of the remainder is surprisingly instrumental, although no less beautiful or desolate for that. Fans of Joy Division and/or early nineties shoegazing would do well to search out this overlooked gem, available on Birmingham's Bearos Records.

Another new British band to keep an eye on are The Duke Spirit, whose opening release roll, Spirit, roll late last year has to be treated as an album as they slipped in one too many tracks for it to qualify as an ep for the single charts. 4 out of the 6 tunes are crackers, including a 30 second track that for once isn't a throwaway but arguably the most powerful piece in the collection. The fact that I can't immediately think of another band to compare them to is the strongest recommendation I can give. Lead singer Liela Moss is apparently a star in the making, which you can check out for yourself as they are supplying support for The Shins and British Sea Power over the next few weeks.

As I mentioned last night, I inadvertently won the debut album from The Stands via 6 Music a few weeks ago. But while it's quite refreshing to hear of a new Liverpool band who admit to listening to anything other than Captain Beefheart and Can, I find their earnest karaoke take on Bob Dylan ultimately quite dispiriting. There's no doubt there's some half-decent tunes on 'All Years Leaving', but the point of the exercise as a whole completely eludes me. It's the sound of The Bland leading The Band, it seems.


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