Sunday, February 27, 2005

Album Review Compendium (Part 2)

It was about this time last year that young singer/songwriter Willy Mason won the hearts and minds of today's tastemakers with his live performances at SXSW in Texas and twelve months on, following ringing endorsements from yours truly, he now has a Top 30 hit with 'Oxygen' and his debut album Where The Humans Eat in the stores. 'Oxygen' is arguably the best new tune of the year to date, a song about something, with words that are clever, charged and poetic delivered in an unusually haunting manner resulting in a record that genuinely sounds like no other (and how many of those come around?). Mason may never write as good a song again, and such a nailed-on classic could easily dwarf the contents of a lesser album than 'Where Humans Eat'. And yet while it's true that no other song on the record could thrive as well in isolation as 'Oxygen', taken as a whole the album stands up really well and definitely qualifies as a 'grower'. The comparisons with Dylan and Leonard Cohen are as understandable as they are lazy, and while those influences (and others, such as Woody Guthrie, and more latterly, Evan Dando) are evident, Mason never sounds anything other than his own man, carving a distinctive niche in what is rather a crowded marketplace at the moment. 'WTHE' may not quite qualify as a 'complete' album, and you might argue that Willy sounds a little too world-weary than any rich young white kid of 20 has any real right to, but it's a record that demands and repays attention, and is a pretty damn good calling card nonetheless.

In contrast to his namesake Mason, Will Oldham has been around the scene for a long, long time in many different guises, but his latest Bonnie 'Prince' Billy project, a collaboration with Matt Sweeney (best known in recent years for his contribution to Billy Corgan's ill-fated but rather good Zwan) entitled Superwolf, is the first record of his that Dead Kenny has bought, prompted by listening to and being impressed by a couple of tracks played on 6Music. Biting the bullet has paid dividends in this case though, as this represents Kenny's favourite album of the year to date: vibrant, atmospheric material, with Oldham's smoky, folky vocals and vaguely sinister lyrics complemented by Sweeney's spare post-rock rumblings. It's a great record for listening to late at night, with the lights on low and a glass of Jack Daniels in your hand. Just be sure the shotgun's safely out of reach, though.

Probably the most striking moment on 'Superwolf' comes towards the end of the penultimate track 'Blood Embrace' when the music quietens down to a hush and some noirish movie dialogue spookily comes from nowhere (on first hearing, this really set the hairs on the back of the Dead Kenny neck tingling). Another band who famously know how to get their fans to enjoy the silence are Duluth trio Low whose The Great Destroyer sees them pair up with Mercury Rev/Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann for the first time on what is their seventh album. The Fridmann effect sees a reduction in the diversity of sounds that characterised their preceding effort 'Trust' for a more radio-friendly production and their first real sniff at a possible hit record (former PV single-of-the-week 'California') in search of 'the Modest Mouse dollar'.

The album's also gone down well with critics, possibly because of the lyrical concerns and middle-age melancholia (the central theme of 'When I Go Deaf' is self-explanatory, followed by 'Broadway' which contains the lines 'I see my favourite record store/Where is the laughter?') and indeed, there is a valid argument that the record is actually more interesting to think and talk about than it is to listen to. That's perhaps a bit of a harsh verdict because 'The Great Destroyer' certainly contains some great songs, but I don't think it's the best Low album because the lack of quieter moments and the wasteful scorning of the female singer as lead vocalist on any of the 13 tracks, means that the louder, more aggressive songs don't have quite the same impact as on previous efforts like 'Things We Lost In The Fire' and the aforementioned 'Trust'.

Fridmann's on more familiar territory with the latest opus from Mercury Rev, The Secret Migration, another set of songs lush with atmosphere and fertile with double meanings. It's a difficult album to review in some ways because if you're familiar in the slightest with the Rev schtick you could close your eyes and imagine what this latest record would sound like and you wouldn't be far wrong. And, therefore, I guess, there's a criticism implicit in that the band have failed to really kick on from the huge breakthrough that was 'Deserter's Songs' and 'The Secret Migration' is unlikely to win new fans, aside from a few folk who might be curious about how the Spector-inflected 'In A Funny Way' sounds uncannily like The Raveonettes. On the other hand, Dead Kenny doesn't feel like being too dismissive about a record, which, like the Low album, contains too many strong tunes to totally disregard, and could yet extend a lingering influence over his listening pleasures over the next few months.

More album reviews to follow after another short break.


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