So, Mike, what are you listening to these days?

Final update: Tuesday late night.

A few days ago, I said this in the comments:

Strange as it may seem, I’m not listening to much recorded music at present. The iPod is bust, and I’m seeing a lot of live music right now (how else does one get to listen to analog?), and spare time is often spent researching the acts I’m reviewing. Plus I’m going through a phase of enjoying silence – which is a bit like when Iggy Pop went sober, explaining that it was the one thing left that he’d never tried…

Of course, these things are comparative; by most normal people’s standards, I’m still devouring new music by the crateful. With that in mind, let us take a random peek into my current crate (actually an orange shoebox, which follows me from Nottingham to Derbyshire and back), and see what we can find.

Note 1: None of what follows is ordered by personal preference. These are merely the CDs which got picked out of the crate first.

Note 2: Artist links are to Myspace pages, wherever possible. This will generally allow you to sample a few tracks off each of the albums. If there’s no Myspace page, then the link will take you to YouTube instead.

Note 3: I’ll gradually be adding albums to the end of this post, as I get the time to write about them.

wayl01The Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager – Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.

When given this on promo a couple of months ago, I dismissed it almost on first sight. (“Well, that’s the last we’ll be hearing from him.”) Which shows you how much I know, as this has since hit the UK Top 40 album charts, and a blown-up version of the sleeve is currently on prominent display in the window of our local Virgin Megastore. How did this happen? And why was I not consulted? It’s Ray LaMontagne all over again!

A couple of hasty “actually I’ve been into him for ages actually” replays later, and I can sort-of see why Young Master Cape (for he is in fact a solo act) is doing so well. This is articulate, spikily engaged acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, beefed up from time to time with more contemporary sonic flourishes. Capey’s extreme youth is highly evident; there’s a pronounced precocious streak, which makes me think of the sort of earnest young people who sit up until 4 in the morning round the kitchen table in their shared house, debating the meaning of life. Hey, most of us go through that stage; I’m not knocking it. But this wears its cleverness a little too self-consciously; sometimes it attempts to deconstruct itself as it goes along, which can be an amusing trick, but it’s a bit played out for me.

However, it’s the vocals which are my main stumbling block. The Capester has a decent enough voice, but he does have a habit of over-singing most of his lines, in a guttural, throaty, veins-throbbing-on-reddened-temples style which isn’t necessarily called for in the lyrics. This gets increasingly jarring as time goes on, especially as it isn’t underpinned by much in the way of emotional range.

I’m nit-picking, though. I suspect that quite a few of the people who read me, but who skim-read through the music bits, will find plenty to enjoy here.

wayl02Writer’s Block – Peter Bjorn And John.

Containing as it does the fantastic “Young Folks“, one of my favourite singles of the year thus far, it was inevitable that the rest of the album would be a slight disappointment. However, having absorbed that disappointment, I find myself warming to this with every repeated play (usually very late at night, when my objective critical faculties are not necessarily at their most acute). There’s something sincere and tender-hearted at work here, which sneaks up on you from behind – and if you can get past the indie dirge of the opening track, there are also some fine tunes. Gorgeous packaging and all.

(Related aside: I recently read someone complaining about the current rash of decent albums with scrappy, off-putting opening tracks, and it’s an observation with which I have some sympathy.)

wayl03Smoke & Mirrors – The Datsuns.

Another promo, for review purposes; this isn’t released for another week, which gives me a couple of days’ grace to form a considered opinion about it. I used to like The Datsuns quite a lot; their debut album got played quite heavily, and they were excellent on the NME package tour in early 2003, when they headlined over Interpol, The Thrills and the Polyphonic Spree. But then the second album got poor reviews, and my personal tastes started wandering off in a less rocky direction, and so our paths diverged – only to re-merge a couple of days ago, leaving me looking at the band as one might at a dimly remembered crush/shaggee, struggling to remember what the attraction was in the first place. I’m rusty at this “New Rock Revolution” (as the NME called it at the time) stuff, with its nods to AC/DC and Led Zep – but I can sort-of grasp what’s going on here, and that when it rocks hardest, it rocks best. And it’s a damn sight better than Jet, that much I can tell you.

wayl04Walk With Me – Jamelia.

I like Jamelia on principle, and I like the strain of British R&B pop which she represents. (“Superstar”, “Thank You”, “See It In A Boy’s Eyes” – what a great run of singles that was.) First impressions of this are good, and I like the breadth of influences; The Stranglers (“Golden Brown”) and Depeche Mode (“Personal Jesus”) are both sampled, and successfully so.


The Eraser – Thom Yorke.

After the let-down of Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief, I wasn’t going to bother with this one at all, until repeated listenings to “Harrodown Hill” made me change my mind. Personally, I think this is Yorke’s best work since Kid A – as long as you can accept the incessant whining, that is.

(Feeling nervous at a party a few years ago, I once found myself trying to describe Yorke’s vocal style as “I want a toffee apple”. The puzzled looks can still make me wince to this day. That’s actually, physically, wince. I’m not talking figuratively.)

Once the whining has been absorbed and compartmentalised, the other elements in the music can start to take effect, such as the skittering funkiness of the electronics, and the intricate syncopated tickle of the rhythm tracks. This is great Saturday morning hangover music, ideal for scratching the itches of a gently fuzzed over brain. Best dressed album sleeve of the year, as well. (I am old enough to remember when music magazines still had “best dressed album sleeve” categories in their annual Readers’ Polls. Roger Dean must surely lament their passing.)

wayl06Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor – Lupe Fiasco.

You know what I was saying about being alienated by 90% of current commercial hip-hop? Well, this belongs with the other 10%, in the bag marked (albeit by snarkier souls than I) “Hip-Hop For People Who Don’t Like Hip-Hop”. Move over, Outkast and Kanye West! There’s a new “conscious”, “thoughtful” rapper in town!

wayl07Friendly Fire – Sean Lennon.

His first release in eight years, and a move away from typically 1990s Beck/Beastie Boys eclecticism, towards a more conventional songwriting style. Ace arranger and soundtrack artist Jon Brion has been drafted into the project, but not even his skills are enough to save this unsurprisingly under-par bunch of mid-tempo, moderately earnest, mildly woeful, totally forgettable scraps of well-intentioned but hopelessly unfocussed nothingnesses, which merely come across as the disengaged doodlings of someone who has never really needed to struggle. OK, so it’s easy to project that kind of easy criticism on the poor chap, who is never going to be able to escape the weight of his parental legacy – but Lennon Junior’s reedy, weedy dilution of his father’s singing voice doesn’t exactly help you to place much useful distance between the two.

Update: OK, so there’s a good deal more substance to it than that: the album documents the real-life disintegration of a love affair, as Lennon loses his girlfriend to one of his best mates. However, the burgeoning vengefulness (“You’re gonna get what you deserve”) of the opening song “Dead Meat” is nipped in the bud, as the close friend is promptly killed in a motorcycle accident a week after the song is written about him. (Um, instant karma anyone?) What follows is an exercise in muted, melancholy regret, with the mild-mannered, self-effacing Lennon unable to give vent to darker, wilder emotions. However, neither the songwriting nor the vocal performance are strong enough to sustain the concept. The Marc Bolan cover “Would I Be The One” almost cracks the veneer towards the end, but it’s still too little, too late.

wayl08Someone To Drive You Home – The Long Blondes.

I’ve had half an eye on this Sheffield band ever since a sharp-antennaed pal in the biz tipped them for future success, around 18 months ago. Last year’s limited release single “Appropriation (By Any Other Means)” was fantastic, all the “right” people have been raving about them, they sound great on paper… but this, on the strength of just two listens, comes as something of a let-down. I’m surprised that Pulp’s Steve Mackey was involved with the production, as it’s the production which intially disappoints: it’s too generically indie-dour, and could have used some added studio zing and sparkle. Also, where has all the promised art-school wit and sassiness gone? Basically, I was expecting Blondie but I got Sleeper instead. (K’s comment: “I don’t see the point in this album”.)

I might yet be wrong, though. If it turns out that I am, then I’ll be back here with a more positive update.

wayl09Ege Bamyasi – Can. (1972)

“What’s that you’re playing?”, I asked K on Friday night, after he had picked me up from the office (a rare, serendipitous treat).

“Aha! You don’t know it, do you?”

“But you don’t buy rock… go on, who is it?”

Several guesses and several huge hints later, I settled on Can. K’s musical tastes are a frequent source of surprise to me. Just as I think I have him pegged, he shifts the goalposts. There was the Northumbrian Folk phase of a few months ago (Rachel Unthank, Kathryn Tickell), and then the unexpected surge of enthusiasm for the Young Knives: the first guitar band since the Arctic Monkeys in which K has expressed anything other than bored disdain.

As there has long been a massive Can-shaped gap in my musical knowledge, this is a welcome arrival. What strikes me first of all is how little the music sounds rooted in the early 1970s. It stands outside of time, ahead of its time: timeless. It’s also more physical, less esoteric – funkier – than I was expecting. I want to hear Tago Mago next. And then a bit of Neu.

wayl10Boulevard De L’Independance – Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra.

Recorded at the same time as Ali Farka Toure’s Savane, in a mobile studio at the Hotel Bamako, on the banks of the River Niger in Mali, I envision this lot as manning the night-shift, while Ali Farka’s crew worked the day-shift. In this day vs. night respect, the two albums complement each other well. This is kora-led West African dance music, upbeat and richly arranged, and a departure from the unadorned contemplative stuff with which I have always associated Diabate before now.

Incidentally, BBC4 are currently repeating The African Rock And Roll Years, which opened last week with a look at Mali and Senegal. Acts included Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Orchestra Baobab, a surprisingly campy Salif Keita, and indeed Toumani Diabate. The next show airs on Wednesday October 11 at 7pm, and will be looking at the development of South African music during the apartheid years. Highly recommended, particularly if you don’t know much about African music and would like a comprehensive crash course.

wayl11Milkwhite Sheets – Isobel Campbell.

Another promo; this doesn’t come out until October 23rd. Considering that Isobel Campbell must still be basking in the critical and commercial glow of her recent Mercury Music Prize nomination (for her album of duets with Mark Lanegan), then this is a brave move indeed. These are stripped down Old English folk songs, many of them re-arrangements of traditional numbers, and most with dark/gloomy/morbid undertones. (I want to say “noir”, but I’m not quite that pretentious.) Campbell’s high, frail, fractured voice combines oddly with the genre. On the one hand, I feel she’s over-reaching herself technically; hers is a rough indie voice, not a trained folk voice. On the other hand, maybe that’s the whole point. I suspect that the 4AD/Dead Can Dance art-goth brigade will warm to this one, even if it is destined not to be a major commercial breakthrough.

And here’s the rest of the current crate, with pithy capsule reviewlets.

Voices Of Animals And Men – Young Knives.

Straight-up, concise, snappy, choppy, song-based mainstream indie, with enough interesting ideas to set it apart. The best of its kind since the Arctic Monkeys?

I Cry Demolition! – Punish The Atom.

A local band who have just split up. This was shoved into my hand outside The Social last week, by one of the former band members. (Either he had a load of spare copies to shift, or else he mistook me for a man of influence.) Noisy post-post-post-punk. Usual influences, but decent enough.

Through The Windowpane – Guillemots.

I have tried, and I have failed. They should work on paper, but they don’t in practice. Too clever-clever, lacks focus, and I really don’t like the harshly abrasive widescreen-epic bits.

Ta-Dah – Scissor Sisters.

Now that the initial “Woo, I’ve got a promo!” excitement has subsided (I need to watch out for that in future), I find myself undecided. (Ooh, Track 3!) I miss the electro-disco, my tolerance level for vaudeville is low – but I have no issue with the 1970s AOR-pop influences. Part of me says the songs aren’t strong enough – but when half the songs have turned into unshakeable earworms, I have to question that.

Back In The Doghouse – Bugz In The Attic.

Like a funkier, mellower Basement Jaxx, with added 1980s soul/funk influences. A good getting-ready-to-go-out album, and also a good all-back-to-mine album. In other words, it sets an “up” mood, without really standing up to close scrutiny (as the grooves have a habit of overpowering the songs). The new single, a fun re-working of Yarborough & Peoples’ “Don’t Stop The Music”, may raise their profile considerably.

Desire – Bob Dylan. (1976)

K’s other surprise Friday purchase (“I’m a twenty-three quid bloke!”), and the only Dylan studio album I’ve ever liked. (The mid-1970s live set Before The Flood also has nostalgic attractions.) The driving fiddle on “Hurricane”, the carefree syncopation of “Mozambique”, the melodic loveliness of “Sara” – it’s as good-time as Dylan ever gets (at least in my shallow, can’t-be-arsed-to-follow-the-lyrics understanding of the man), and hence it’s the only Dylan for me.

Let’s Get Out Of This Country – Camera Obscura.

Nice tuneful Glaswegian indie-pop, from a bunch of self-evidently pleasant and well-adjusted nice young people. Which sounds horribly damning-with-faint-praise snarky, except… well, it actually works very well, with a beguiling warmth and heart to it. A few people from the Peter Bjorn & John album are also involved with this one, and the two pieces of work are a good match for each other.

CSS – Cansei De Ser Sexy.

OK, so it’s something of a shambling mess, from a bunch of Brazilian art-school pranksters who could barely play their instruments when they formed the band – but there’s a rough, good-natured charm to it, and a sense that personal limits are being pushed. Contains another of my favourite singles of the year: “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above”.

The Warning – Hot Chip.

Having originally dismissed it out of hand as ugly, noisy, jarring and all over the place – and hence not a patch on the languid, low-fi, beer-and-smokes-on-a-summer-afteroon charms of their previous album – I am coming to accept that this might well be this year’s slowest grower. “Over And Over” has just been re-released as a single, and I suspect that it’s going to do rather better this time around.

Real Life – Joan As Policewoman.

Look, you just need to buy this, OK? It’s going to be neck-and-neck between Joanie and Ali Farka Toure at end-of-the-year list-making time, that much I do know.

Son – Juana Molina.

Tenderly strummed Argentinian folksiness, underpinned by lightly dissonant electronics. Haunting and atmospheric. Quiet unhurried mornings, and lonesome late nights in.

We Are The Pipettes – The Pipettes.

Some cool retro-girl-group singles, but too shrill and wacky over an entire album, like eating a bag of sickly sweeties all in one go. Also, a bit too Brighton for me, if you know what I mean. (You don’t, do you? Well, never you mind.)

Stadium Arcadium – Red Hot Chili Peppers.

By The Way was my guilty pleasure, but this sprawling monstrosity of a double album kills its memory stone dead. UGH. WHAT WAS I THINKING? Also boasts the ugliest album sleeve in living memory, which doesn’t help.

Old New Borrowed And Blue – Slade. (1974)

A re-mastered re-issue, and a joyous reunion with an album I loved and lost many years ago. There was always more to Slade than “Skweeze Me Pleeze Me” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”, and this shows them starting to get it back, after nearly losing their way to reductive formula. (Of course, the hits didn’t last much longer either, but theirs was a graceful, dignified fading away.)

Norman Jay MBE presents Good Times 6.

(Ooh, get him with his “MBE”, yes yes, great honour and all that, but there’s no need to flaunt it quite so brazenly.)

The appearance of the latest Good Times set every August, just ahead of the Notting Hill Carnival, is becoming one of the (cliché alert but it’s LATE and I want BED) highlights of the musical calendar (SORRYSORRYSORRY). I could have lived without “Rock The Casbah” and “The Israelites” yet again, but the likes of Lena Horne’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”, Pentangle’s “Light Flight” and Chris Montez’s “The More I See You” at the start of CD2 more than compensate.

1000 Years of Popular Music / Front Parlour Ballads – Richard Thompson.

My K’s on a Thommo kick right now – which surprises me (again), but when he’s happy, I’m happy. WHAT a guitarist that man is.

White Bread Black Beer – Scritti Politti.

Ooh! I forgot I had this! Much better than I thought it was going to be. Can I go to bed yet?

Show Me How The Sceptres Dance – Liam Frost & The Slowdown Family.

I haughtily ignored this on promo, but Hg tells me I should give it another chance, so I will. Right, that’s it. BED.

We now return you to your regular programming.

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