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Mark Lanegan Band - Bubblegum

This album was recommended for a long time before I finally went out and bought it. Lanegan hails from the Screaming Trees, about whom I know absolutely nothing, so as interested as I was, I never quite succumbed.

The track that finally pulled me in was Hit the City, a dark, bluesy number on which he duets with Polly Harvey in a way that reminded me very strongly of the time Nina Persson of the Cardigans sang with Mark Linkous on the last, brilliant Sparklehorse album. The overall sound is not unlike It's a Wonderful Life throughout - dark, brooding, and at times downright menacing. The latest Giant Sand album is also similar, although more during the rockier, bluesier moments.

The tone of the album is nailed halfway through Methamphetamine Blues. The pure filth of Molly McGuire's breathless 'I'll do it, Daddy' is a moment of inspiration to which Harvey can only aspire. Absolutely brilliant! The gentler songs - more morose than gentle, really - are also superb. Again, words like brooding and menacing spring to mind, although there is a tinge of melancholy as well in the brilliant Wedding Dress. Some of the tracks in the second half don't quite hit the heights of the first, but by and large this is a terrific record.


Brian Wilson - Smile

Given the number of 'Album of the Year' accolades this album won, I actually expected it to be decent. Silly me.

I heard the song Cabin Essence on the Uncut compilation of the year for 2004, and it is a good song - strong melody, surprising twists and turns and genuinely fresh and new. It reminded me of the old Beach Boys without the sort of tra-la-la nonsense they often get up to, and offering something new at the same time. I actually quite like some of the Beach Boys tracks, but I really couldn't like this record at all.

Apart from some tired old songs that I assume appeal to Beach Boys afficionados in the same way that Tales From the Underground Vol 1-5 appeal to a Tom Waits anorak like myself, this really has nothing to offer at all. I geniunely enjoy playful, bizarre music but by the time the sub-Muppet Show bollocks of Barnyard came along I had just lost all interest. I really wanted to like this album, but I am afraid I thought it was utter, unmitigated shite. It's not even poor enough to hate, which is what annoys me the most. Sorry Brian.


Giant Sand - Is All Over the Map

Quite what distinguishes a Giant Sand album from a Howe Gelb album escapes me, given that Joey Burns and John Convertino didn't appear on this latest Sand album at all. According to an interview in Comes With a Smile fanzine (highly recommended, by the way), he 'just knows' the difference. Which, I suppose, is fair enough.

This album certainly doesn't meander anything like as wistfully as your average Gelb album. There's rather less wandering strings and gentle plucking that make his other stuff so ramshackle and - when it's good - so beguiling. Instead, there's a scuzzier, rougher take on the same American blues, folk and roots music from which Gelb draws most of his inspiration

Standout tracks for me include Flying Around the Sun at Remarkable Speed, which is very reminiscent of Wilco, although perhaps not the Wilco of A Ghost is Born era, and Cracklin Water is the sort of delicate gem that will appeal to more Gelb than Sand orientated fans. But for me, the true highlight is a genuinely bizarre cover version of Anarchy in the UK, embedded in the middle of Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle. For absolutely no fathomable reason, it is sung in a style halfway between falsetto and the Animaniacs. As ever a little erratic, but a really good album, this.


Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus

Nocturama wasn't great. There were undeniably some terrific songs on it, but it was a bit of a stray album. This is not stray. Whether you call it one or two albums or a double album or whatever, this represents one of the best, most vital, energetic, focussed, powerful albums the Cavester has ever produced.

I tend to call Nick Cave 'Satanic Church Music' - to Tom Waits' 'Satanic Circus Music' - and this album is squarely in that territory. The backing - by some London choir or other - gives it a rising, uplifting hymnal quality, almost as if someone had perverted a Southern Baptist choir and led them irretrievably astray. Add to that, the combination of the driving guitar and Nick's deep, dark voice and you have an album that moves from the darkly lascivious to the apocalyptically threatening at will.

As for tracks, well a couple are disappointing. Slightly. Everything else is brilliant. Nature Boy and Breathless seem almost happy, but nonetheless classic Cave in a weird way. Get Ready For Love and There She Goes My Beautiful World are dark and powerful. Breathless and Spell are flipsides of the same love, and Babe You Turn Me On is salacious and dirty. And this brings me to my final point. Musically, this is a brilliant collection, but to top that, Nick display's a confident facility with his lyrics that, despite some of the more audacious rhymes I've come across, suggests someone in total command. My favourite of the year, by miles!.


Tom Waits - Real Gone

Okay, I knew this one was going to be a little, er, difficult. Anything by Ol' Tom with no piano and which he himself describes as 'cubist funk' was never going to be the most accessible album he's ever made.

Apparently this one's a little more political - see Hoist That Rag, Sins of the Father and Day After Tomorrow - but I am not sure this is something I am that interested in, As far as I'm concerned, Tom is a storyteller first and foremost.

There is some great stuff here. Hoist That Rag and Baby's Gonna Leave Me are superb. And there are other classic Waits moments - more from the Rain Dogs era, and possibly a bit of Swordfishtrombones too. The problem is that I really have to concur with the Uncut reviewer - however good, there is a lot here that he has done before, and slightly better. This makes the album very much worth listening to, but the chunk of similar sounding tracks in the middle let it down a bit.


The Dears - No Cities Left

These chaps were touted as the new Smiths, which sounded a bit less than promising, but actually there are some superb moments on this album. It's not immediately accessible, and I thought I was going to hate it the first time round, but a couple of the tracks pull you in. Then, just as I thought I was warming to the whole album, I just didn't quite. Having listened to it through quite a bit now I think it sort of tails off somewhere after the halfway mark.

The first four tracks - We Can Have It, Defenders Of The Universe, Lost In The Plot, and The Second Part - are all brilliant. Swelling, moody indie is sort of what to expect, although there are influences there in the subtleties that give the album real depth. It touches on prog-rock, cabaret and god knows what else in little bits that drift in and out of songs in greater and lesser amounts. The Death Of All The Romance is the most obvious example - playful and excellent.

The best tracks on this album tend to be from the standard dark indie template that The Stills liked so much, and there is half a great album here, just not quite sustained all the way through.


Marianne Faithfull - Before the Poison

I'm not sure I have any real idea what Marianne Faithfull is actually like as a songwriter. I love her cover of Strange Weather by Tom Waits. I loved her renditions of Tom classics in the recent stage production of The Black Rider. Sister Morphine is alright. But basically it is her gorgeous voice that keeps me coming back.

This album was largely cowritten with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey - although separately, not as a pair. And that is largely the problem. I just don't rate PJ Harvey's songwriting, and her songs here are invariably just what I feared they might be. They sound about right, but the instrumentation style never changes from Standard Indie Ladyrock, there are no memorable tunes and no real nuances that might pull you in.

The day-saving is bascially left to Nick Cave who has provided excellent intrumental backing to a couple of tracks (and not so great backing to another), and a suprise visit from Damon Albarn who, after Think Tank, is clearly just getting better and better with age. Conclusion? A patchy album, but it's hard to shoot the messenger. Faithful can really sing, but Harvey can't really write.


Wilco - A Ghost is Born

This album took me ages to get into. You know one of those that just doesn't distinguish itself at the first listen, but has just enough to keep you coming back for more. And slowly you realise that it's absolutely brilliant.

Those couple of tracks that pulled me in were Hummingird - light and folky and catchy - and Company in my Back - again quite a light touch, and slightly mournful. Then, snuck in at the end comes Late Greats which is catchy, upbeat, and irresistible.

It is moments like these that slowly lift the album out of a nondescript blend of feedback and static with drifting, whispered folk acoustica. And once this starts to happen you get hooked, one song at a time. I am still not entirely convinced about Less Than You Think, but I am definitely entirely convinced about the rest of it. Brilliant album, this. Eventually!


The Libertines

Given how absolutely unreservedly brilliant I thought their first album was, I was always rather nervous of being disappointed by this one, and I am afraid that's putting it mildly.

Thinking about what made Up The Bracket so brilliant gives you a pretty good idea of what's gone wrong: raucous, snarling, hectic guitars, brilliant tunes that you couldn't get out of your head, and boundless, infectious energy. So here we have the follow up, and it lacks spirit, memorable riffs or catchy tunes more or less throughout.

A couple of tracks are good - Narcissist and Last Post On The Bugle spring to mind - but all in all there is just none of that snappy, aggressive bite that made the first album so brilliant. If the first was so good because this lot kicked the shite out of The Strokes, then this one is so disappointing because they have actually become England's answer to The Strokes after all. And that means bland, over-polished, tame and joyless. Bah, humbug!


Andrew Bird - Weather Systems

Apparently Andrew Bird is a classical violinist, which is something I think bodes well for the whole album. I nearly didn't buy this but after hearing Lull, which I downloaded from his website, and hearing a live song on a Comes With a Smile sampler I caved in and I'm glad I did.

The album meanders a bit, in a similarly 'work in progress' way to Giant Sand, and this speculative, exploratory aspect works really well. Lull is brilliant, as is the title track, and the first song, which is called First Song. There is a mournful, low key wistfulness to this album which I really like, and the violin really lifts it above a lot of folky, acousticky stuff around at the moment.

There's also a free movie on the CD, which blends bits of songs with dialogue, rehearsal and gives a really nice insight into where this album is coming from. I really liked this feature, and wonder if maybe making it downloadable from the website might have made an excellent promotional tool.


The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat

The reviews and approach for this album, not to mention its predecessor, really really made me want to like it. The playful, manic, circus lunacy of the music, the weirdness of the subject matter, it's all as brilliant as the reviews say, but I just can't quite manage to like it that much.

There are some terrific moments - Chris Michaels is really good, and Inspector Blancheflower is good, but for all the variety of sounds the songs do tend to blend into one a bit. The fact that there is so much variation actually exacerbates this, as even single songs can sound nothing like themselves from one minute to the next. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, there are no really killer tunes - nothing really hummable - that really drag you into albums like this.

Ulitmately, I feel like a bad person not liking Blueberry Boat.


Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News

I listened to the samples on their website I was never really that interested. Don't know why, just the soungs didn't really grab me somehow. I actually got into it by working late and having nothing else around to listen to.

I am not really sure how to describe them. There's a lot of Tom Waits in there at times, and bits of Yo La Tengo. There's almost a bit of US Shout-Pop at times, and odd little instrumental interludes that tend to be largely apropos of nothing, but hold the album together quite well. Basically, it's just a terrific indie album, and apparently their ninth (!!!!) so might be worth investigating further.

Of particular songs, Blame It On The Tetons and The World At Large are really low-key. Bury Me With It is a bit much first time round, but takes maybe a listen and a half to become brilliant. Bukowski is playful, as is the whole album really, and contains the marvellous lyric 'God who'd want to be such an asshole'. The Tom Waits influence is most obvious on This Devil's Workday, which could almost be straight off Rain Dogs.