Thursday, March 31, 2005

Album Review Compendium (Part One)

So, Conor Oberst, the latest Indie-Autist Pin-Up Boy, or the Newest Dylan On The Block? Oberst himself appears to be straining painfully for the latter on I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, even wheeling in one-time Zimmerman collaborator Emmylou Harris to provide pretty back-up vocals on a handful of tracks of this handsomely-received opus. It's a move that exemplifies the very conservative musical tone of the record as its' stateside chart success seems much less remarkable given the mainstream combination of sleepy ballads and angry protest songs contained therein. The record is lyrically strong and has its' share of rousing and moving moments, but overall it lacks the nonchalant charm of Oberst protege Willy Mason's debut, or the edgy atmospherics of the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy/Matt Sweeney collaboration and is ultimately a little too self-conscious for its' own good.

Bright Eyes' other release this year, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, is, by contrast, as easy to like as IWAIM is to distantly admire, delivering a looser and, indeed, funkier brand of alt.rock as Oberst lets his hair down with some friends (who include Nick Zinner from Yeah Yeah Yeahs). The sound isn't what most of us would understand as 'electronic' music as such, standing better comparison with Beck and the rumbling post-folk noodlings of Stephen Malkmus and Isaac Brock's side-project Ugly Casanova. The standard of songwriting isn't as high as its' companion record, but it has an organic, undisciplined charm that grows with each listen.

Fans of the funkier brand of Beck have been holding out for a Guero for some time now, and this latest record largely doesn't disappoint, with Mr Hansen goofing amiably over a choice selection of beats. Admittedly, the album's a couple of standout tracks short of an all-out classic, but it's a blessed relief all the same that Beck has eschewed (for the duration of one record at least) the maudlin folk bollocks of his last couple of efforts in favour of something with a little more cojones to it. This means when he does slow things down a little, as on the colossal centrepiece 'Broken Drum', the impact hits like a triple tequila slammer.

Although they have their odd moments, Messrs Oberst and Hansen are made to look like establishment paragons of conformity in comparison with The Mars Volta, whose second album Frances The Mute is wiggy enough to render a cocksure coke fiend dumbstruck. This is music so wild in its' free-form pretentiousness, it makes Muse at their most bombastic sound as down-to-earth as The Wurzels. Which would all be quite terrible news indeed, 'cept for the fact that it sounds absolutely fantastic. Essential listening then, and a tremendous remedy to the britpop-by-numbers fabrications of the ludicrously over-praised Kaiser Chiefs.

Mind you, after all those duelling guitar solos, underwater sound effects and latin song titles arranged into suites, you might fancy a bit of a lie down and if so, More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley might just be your cup of tea. With its' woozy melodies, confessional tone and warm inclusiveness, this is such a lovely record it makes you want to hug everybody you know and tell them how lovely they are, spend some quality time with your pets and ring up long-lost relatives for a chilled chinwag. Perhaps best not listened to on the Ipod on the tube to work, then, or else you might find yourself sectioned for making eye contact with somebody in a lascivious and, indeed, licentious manner.

Part Two of this Album Review Compendium will follow shortly, with Dead Kenny's considered deliberations on the latest records by Brendan Benson, Bloc Party and The Wedding Present, amongst others.


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