Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Ys, by Joanna Newsom

1 Emily 12:08
2 Monkey & Bear 9:28
3 Sawdust & Diamonds 9:55
4 Only Skin 16:53
5 Cosmia 7:17

My Review of Ys
Whilst Newsom's 2004 debut, The Milk-eyed Mender, was a quirky but loveable debut, it scarely hinted at the quantum leap that would take us to Ys, and Newsom to packed concert halls around the world just two years later.
    Dating from the age of vinyl records, I have a particular respect not just for the music but for its packaging too. Much as I love my internet-buying, MP3-listening lifestyle, it doesn’t replace the quiet thrill a music loving teenager got from the tactile record sleeves of his newest aquisitions, read and enjoyed on the bus or train home from the shops, like the aperitif before the main course of actually putting the vinyl on the turntable. Hence, the first thing to impress me about Ys is the embossed slip case (we oldies are suckers for a nice bit of embossing!) , with its Holbein-esque portrait of Newsom. Very fetching. Next comes the gilt-edged 30 page booklet, most of which are printed with beautifully laid out lyrics. What's not to like so far? I put on the CD and play it in the background while I mess around on the computer (i.e. work). Joanna caws and crows and coos, and talks and sings and squeaks and squeals, and sometimes just seems to spit out the words, and it seemed on first listen that she barely stops for breath the whole 55 minutes running time. Despite a few nails-on-blackboard moments I like what I hear.
    Several plays later and some of the words are stuck in me like barbs, like on the opening track 'Emily', a song to her sister.
    The refrain is like a song within a song. “I promised you I’d set them to verse, so I’d always remember,” declares Joanna, and then delivers on that promise.

The meteorite is the source of the light
And the meteor's just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee
And the meteorite's just what causes the light
And the meteor's how it's perceived
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee

    It's been noted elsewhere that the above statement isn't technically correct. However, given that sister Emily is an astrophysicist and sings backing vocals on the track we can safely assume this is a private joke. In fact all of the lyrics are private, says Joanna in an interview. The listener is left to savour the pure poetry of her familial ode of love and commitment. To her well-travelled sister Newsom later sings:

Emily, they’ll follow your lead by the letter.
And I make this claim, and I’m not ashamed to say I know you better.
What they’ve seen is just a beam of your sun that banishes winter.
Let us go! Though we know it’s a hopeless endeavor.
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined, and hold us close forever.

    'Monkey and Bear' tells the story of two circus escapees, and their conversations, it's safe to say this is an aesop-like fable... of our inability to escape from the expectations of others? Like much of Newsom’s lyrics it’s an dense and inscrutable as Eliot’s Wasteland. I’d live to read somebody’s analysis of the bear’s second escape.
    The first two tracks are considerably enlivened by the creative orchestrations of Van Dyke Parks, but he and the orchestra take a rest for the central track, Sawdust and Diamonds and it's a testament to Newsom's prowess as a vocalist and harpist that the listener may take a while to note the orchestra’s absence. It’s a good artistic move, showcasing Newsom’s harp playing, while giving the orchestrations a breather, but certainly not the listener as the pace barely lets up for 11 minutes, Newsom spitting out such as:

I wasn’t born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight
No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright.

    In the days of vinyl the 17 minutes of ‘Only Skin’ could have occupied a full side, and in many respects it would benefit from such a physical separation. The range of melodies, the numerous changes of pace, the variety of backing instruments, and the scope of lyrics is engrossing and handsomely repays a listener’s (and reader’s!) attention. The climactic tune, a duet with boyfriend Bill Callaghan, is thrilling.
    The last song Cosmia is (from what I understand) an emotional ode to a passed-away friend. At 7 minutes it’s the shortest and most direct and moving of the songs, and is my favourite. The harp motif and the rapturous refrain that follows it, would do justice to any great classical composer.

And all those lonely nights
down by the river
You brought me bread and water, water in
But though I tried so hard, My little darlin
I couldn’t keep the night from coming in.

    I’ll nail my colours to the mast. Ys is a landmark recording in music, one which I’m sure will stand the test of time for generations. This quirky twenty-four year old musician must now be considered a fully-formed talent, but hopefully without the knock-knees!

Media Reviews
HULIQ.com Rapturous comments about Ys

Monday, 4 September 2006

Grizzly Bear, Yellow House

4Central and Remote
5Little Brother
8On a Neck, On a Spit

My Review of Yellow House

Choose your definition...

The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), also known as the silvertip bear, is a subspecies of brown bear (Ursus arctos) that lives in the uplands of western North America.

Grizzly Bear is a Brooklyn-based indie rock band!

One thing the bear and the band have in common is I admire them both, although have yet to encounter either in the flesh. That aside, it’s a slightly misleading name for such an urbane outfit from the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

Currently on Warp Records and consisting of Daniel Rossen (songwriting/guitar), Ed Droste (songwriting/guitar), Chris Taylor (bass/woodwinds/electronics/vocals) and Christopher Bear (drums/vocals). The band employs traditional and electronic instruments, ranging from a recorder to a laptop, and all four members contribute vocals. Their sound is categorized as experimental rock, folk rock, or just indie rock, and is most dominated by the use of acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies.

Yellow House is the band’s second album, but the first recorded as a real quartet, and arguably the beginning of the Grizzly Bear we know. The title come from Edward Droste’s mother's house where it was recorded, and where I presume the photos that dominate the booklet are taken, although this isn’t explicitly stated.

The first thing to be said is that I missed this for a year (I’m a music fan, not a critic so I don’t get everything dropping on my doormat at the time of release!) Here’s the thing... the band’s name and the soft-toned album cover didn’t trigger my alerts. However, finally I happened across their sound and was compelled to obtain this CD.

So what does it sound like? Not like the cover art, and with little resemblance to grizzly bears! Ostensibly this is a band of guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, but that does little to prepare you for the sound they make. Yes, that’s the instrumentation, but these instruments and many others (piano, xylophone, glockenspiel, autoharp, banjo, clarinet, flute, saxophone) played by the band feel like they’re orchestrated rather than simply played, you’ll rarely hear the drummer keeping a steady background rhythm for long, his percussion is very much part of the orchestra. Add in their accomplished harmonies and we have an intriguing brew for baroque pop fan.

The flute & wind ensemble that kicks off Easier instantly shows this is nor your normal band. Folk? Rock? Pop? Wind, electronics, glockenspiel, finger picking, brushed percussion, and effortless harmonies. The song is more of a prelude than a complete song, a framework onto which they lay their beguiling sounds.

Lullabye teases. It’s moody, not willing to fully reveal itself. Grizzly Bear prove themselves masters of the half-song, just enough of a framework on which to lay their awesome musical structures.

Knife is the band’s signature tune to date, a portentious drama let by a beautifully fat-toned electric guitar. For the first time on this CD we have a familiar verse-chorus structure.

Central and Remote sounds like a madrigal reimagined by Elliott Smith, the breathy intakes of breath seem almost a homage to the late singer.

Little Brother pits a picked banjo and fluttering flutes against a vocal ensemble that evokes the swirling south seas with a sprinking of Weill.

Plans shows there’s no drop in inspiration yet, a bizarre 2/4 tune with a rude tenor saxophone pumping out as much rhythm as the drummer. With the sax, soaring harmonies and diliberate drama, I puts me in mind of Supertramp, and it’s not often I say that!

Marla is dominated initially by its atmospheric waltz time upright piano The strings arranged by Owen Pallett are effective, giving the piece a nostalgic ghostly echo. Then a vocal tune and harmony appears that seems lift straing from Dark Side of the Moon, except here the music is more interesting.

On a Neck, On a Spit is perhaps the most upbeat track, and apart from its acoustic guitar riff makes it difficult to say this is a folk band as they are often labelled.

Each day, spend it with me now, All my time, spend it with me now, But each day spend it with you now, All my time, spend it with you now, But out here, no one can hear me, Out hear no one can hear me

Reprise is a subtly gorgeous, harmonically rich song, led by a Sufjaneque banjo riff.

My love's another kind. From the first morning light, I can follow along, chance to stumble and find, what turns out to be wrong. And my love's another kind. From the top, children yell. You can't talk to me now. You can search for a while, when you're rumbling around.

Colorado, has a fugal harmony dominating its stately six minutes. An utterly satisfying final track to this CD, an atmospheric masterpiece.

Monday, 10 July 2006

The Avalanche, by Sufjan Stevens

1 The Avalanche 3:14
2 Dear Mr. Supercomputer 4:40
3 Adlai Stevenson 2:34
4 The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies 1:49
5 Chicago (acoustic version) 4:40
6 The Henney Buggy Band 3:16
7 Saul Bellow 2:53
8 Carlyle Lake 3:15
9 Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair 4:17
10 The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself) 3:24
11 Kaskaskia River 2:15
12 Chicago (adult contemporary easy listening version) 6:06
13 Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne 1:25
14 No Man's Land 4:45
15 The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake 1:38
16 The Pick-up 3:23
17 The Perpetual Self, or "What Would Saul Alinsky Do?" 2:24
18 For Clyde Tombaugh 3:43
19 Chicago (multiple personality disorder version) 4:35
20 Pittsfield 6:41
21 The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo) 4:59

My Review of The Avalanche

Looking forward to reviewing this wondrous collection when I get a chance. Meantime, feel free to comment.

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

Gulag Orkestar, by Beirut

1 The Gulag Orkestar 4:38
2 Prenzlauerberg 3:46
3 Brandenburg 3:38
4 Postcards From Italy 4:17
5 Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) 3:15
6 Rhineland (Heartland) 3:58
7 Scenic World 2:08
8 Bratislava 3:17
9 The Bunker 3:13
10 The Canals of Our City 2:21
11 After the Curtain 2:54