Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Album Review Compendium (Part 3 of 3)

Open Season, the second album from Brighton's British Sea Power, has been one of the better-received albums of the year to date, and what with the general lack of hype about the band, they have slowly but surely emerged as the greatest underground indie hope in Britain since Belle & Sebastian. So is the record any good, or are fans of the maritime-obsessed group merely wreckers, diverting unsuspecting pop punters into murky waters? Dead Kenny donned his mackintosh, sucked on a packets' worth of Fishermen's Friends and put his critical compass to constructive use.

The record starts off strongly with recent single 'It Ended On An Oily Stage' which sets the template (the dominant male vocal, surreal lyrics, pleasing melody and 'Big Music' style of production) that the rest of the record pretty rigidly follows for the remainder of its duration. To be fair, there are 4 or 5 other tracks that would be releasable in single format (including Be Gone; Oh Larsen B; Please Stand Up and The Land Beyond) but it's frustrating that a band with such a wide vocabulary and lyrical obsession with the great outdoors operate with a musical tunnel vision that suggests they have only ever listened to 6 albums and 5 of those were by Echo & The Bunnymen. It's not that it's a bad record, but at times it's almost painful to listen to musicians play so safely within themselves, and the effect is so claustrophobic that, despite lyrical concerns on matters such as the arctic shelf, the over-riding desire it stirs in the listener is to gasp for fresh air.

As opposed to grasping for fresh hair, which is something Sam Endicott seems to have done after ditching his ska dreadlocks for a Morrissey quiff and The Bravery, whose debut self-titled album is upon us with seemingly indecent haste upon the heels of the excellent 'Unconditional' and 'An Honest Mistake' singles. Contrary to the received wisdom of younger NME readers, Dead Kenny feels that there is room for both The Killers and The Bravery, although for what it's worth, there's also room for both The Killers and The Bravery to be better. In truth, there's less filler tune-wise here than on 'Hot Fuss' but the concentration of toytown keyboards and nursery-rhyme choruses as often as not recalls Kajagoogoo and A Flock Of Seagulls as readily as it does New Order or Depeche Mode. Endicott's Morrissey aspirations are also unfulfilled in the lyrical content: in place of The Smiths' social militancy and romantic wanderlust, The Bravery seemingly aspire to no more than making lots of money and having vaguely kinky sex with young people. OK, this doesn't separate them from most of the population, but that's Dead Kenny's dispiriting point. It's ultimately a happy meal of a record: enjoyable to a degree, but you end up regretting the surfeit of protein and lack of any real fibre.

So it's left to Bergen's Annie to nail the defining feature of the 80s that Dead Kenny recalls most fondly - blonde bombshells in bleached denim - on the cover of Anniemal while on the record itself concentrating on producing subtle and provocative dance-pop material with a thoroughly modern sheen. While admitting that 'Chewing Gum' isn't too far removed from being a 'Barbie Girl' for the modern age, and Annie's breathy almost-but-not-quite-there vocals may not to be everyone's taste, this is still a smart and consistently enjoyable record, chilled and cultured but with just about the right amount of frosted cheese topping to keep hyperactive hedonists happy. It contains one of the singles of the year in the gorgeous 'Heartbeat' and my only real reservation is that the 50 minutes runtime feels perhaps ten longer than a genuinely tight pop classic ought to be.

This album review compendium lark is exhausting stuff, but fortunately here's an Ambulance in sight to take us away from it all, the self-titled album from unlikely New York outfit Ambulance LTD. Despite glowing reviews across the water, this has had something of a quiet and understated release here in the UK, and had Dead Kenny not caught the band supporting The Dears earlier this year he may have ended up overlooking a minor gem. The band come across as unassuming sorts live, a million miles away from the high-fashion divas we've become accustomed to from their city of origin, and this also translates itself in the music where they are not constricted by an insular approach. They take on a variety of styles (sometimes within one track, such as on 'Heavy Lifting' and 'Young Urban') depending on what suits their songs best, from old-school indie to bar-room blues to crashing shoegazing-style guitars, and this approach works because it comes across as instinctive and uncontrived. The result is a record with no alarms but many pleasant surprises, and when they do lock into a powerful and emotional groove (which is often) this feels like the most genuinely satisfying indie album of the season. Sometimes White Van Men really do deliver.


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