Album Digest, May 2011
Four albums this month:
- Kate Bush Director’s Cut
- Africa Hitech 93 Million Miles
- Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
- TV On The Radio Nine Types of Light
There is a pleasing red hue to all the covers this month. I had time to write four full reviews of the major albums I listened to. Like last month I have included a video at the foot of each review. Enjoy!
Kate Bush Director’s Cut
Director’s Cut is not a new album from Kate Bush but a collection of re-visits to old songs, four from The Sensual World (1989) and seven from [The Red Shoes](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Shoes_(album) (1993). It is certainly an interesting idea to re-examine old songs with hindsight, something usually only done with live albums or dodgy remixes. It is rare to have an artist to even admit flaws in their earlier material, let alone for them to go back and attempt to fix them.
The success of the project depends on how much you buy into whether the rehashing of old material is value for money and whether you believe that the songs need alteration in the first place. For me, I can buy into the first thing - I am always curious to hear multiple versions and re-interpretations. On the second issue I am more ambivalent because I happen to really like The Red Shoes and yet have never felt that much of a connection to The Sensual World.
So if we tackle the songs from The Red Shoes first, I feel a bit cheated that she didn’t do all twelve songs. I would preferred for new versions of the tracks that weren’t so strong. Because The Red Shoes was an album that I enjoyed as I was really starting to love music (age 13 onwards), I am very attached to the songs and particularly the ones that have been re-recorded. I would have loved a new version of You’re The One, a song that is rather painful for me to listen to for personal reasons, because it might have taken away my own personal context around the song. This is just selfish nit-picking of course.
The Red Shoes’ songs are re-trod well, I particularly like the new version of Lily, while the title track is brilliant in either version. I wasn’t sure about the new version of Rubberband Girl at first simply because the original is such a pop delight (albeit an unconventional one) but the new arrangement does better suit what the song is actually about. Perhaps the one revelation is the new version of Top Of The City, given that it now sits well with the songs around it, instead of passing me by as it did on the original album.
The songs from The Sensual World are less well-known to me. I remember listening to the original version of Deeper Understanding on my way home to St Albans one cold evening before Christmas a few years ago, mainly because the subject of the song seemed so in tune with my situation back then. A man who is lonely turns to love at the screen of his computer - the new version has a video featuring Robbie Coltrane as me in 2009 (see below). The problem with the new version is that in eschewing the original’s vocodered computer voice for something constructed entirely in the machine, it has ended up sounding like Mr Burns in the X-Files episode of The Simpsons: “I bring you peeeeeeace!”.
I don’t like Flower of the Mountain, it sounds a lot like King of the Mountain off Aerial and I am not sure the irish pipes over the end are that interesting probably because the words are different and I didn’t really have that great a connection to the original. A lack of connection to the original is also true for Never Be Mine (perhaps a why not tackling You’re The One) but I am going to have to re-listen to the original a lot in this case because it is a cracking song. Meanwhile, the reworking of This Woman’s Work turns it into an amazing ambient ballad that just seems to hang around and coo into your ear.
The first time I listened to Director’s Cut I was on a rare peak time tube journey, the combination of the intimate sonics and my new seal-out-the-world earphones completely transported from what is normally a very stressful scenario for me to a place of complete calm. For that reason and because The Red Shoes is so special to me, I really recommend this album.
Africa Hitech 93 Million Miles
I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive knowledge of electronic music but when I saw that 93 Million Miles by Africa Hitech was a collaboration between Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek released on Warp Records, my curiosity was well and truly piqued. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue who Steve Spacek was and I only really knew of Mark Pritchard from his remixes, he did a rather cracking one of Once More by The Orb - no mean feat because the original was not one of the Orb’s finer tracks. It was a bit of a face-palm moment when I discovered he was also one half of Global Communication and so partly responsible for that awesome remix of Lamb’s Gorecki - you know the one and if you don’t, call me and I will play it to you.
Anyway, 93 Million Miles has a nice cover and a good pedigree so it was definitely worth a punt. I don’t think I am choosing one album over all the others this month because they are all so good but it probably trumps most of the albums I have written about in the digests up to now. This is mainly because, as I have often mentioned, I have been after a really good new electronic album for some time. 93 Million Miles meets this need easily, it sounds fresh and new and it sounds abstract while still being chunky and huggable enough to bounce along to on the way to work. The opening titular track sounds like a cross between Kraftwerk and dubstep (hey, there is a reason why I am not a professional music writer!), detailing various physical constants including the titular one - the distance from the earth to the sun.
Following that Do You Wanna Fight? and Out In The Street gradually raise the pace to frenetic, the latter starting to sound by the end like an afrobeat version of The Prodigy’s Theme From Speedway off Music For The Jilted Generation. There is a youtube capture of that track at the foot of this review. The next track Future Moves is probably the most abstract and “Warp-like” track here, a commanding bass-squelch with a glassy synths making intricate patterns over the top. It’s also chocka with analogue (or analogue-sounding) synths, which are pretty much a direct link to the centre of my lizard brain.
I shall save you from my awkward descriptions of the remaining tracks but it is all very good. Of particular note is Our Luv, a track that is probably even more Kraftwerkian than the title track - a big stomping tune with some warm chunky synth sounds and a disinterested vocodered vocal that means as much as any other element in the tune, and Spirit, which is a variation on the other tracks that features some big drum lines that the Afro-Celt Sound System would be proud of. Elsewhere the focus is almost entirely on a propulsive core layered over with interesting melodies and deep rich synth sounds, as though taking the best of electronic music’s gold age (1995 to 1997, as we’ll discuss in the understated classics series some time soon) and marrying it with some more modern rhythms. It sounds as good on headphones in the sunshine as it does coming out of laptop speakers in the dark.
Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
I hate having to say that I loved Fleet Foxes’ two EPs but not their début album. It makes me sound like one of those jerks who hates bands for becoming popular. Don’t fear though, I have resolutely populist tastes. In a way those tastes are responsible for my reaction to the début album, it seemed like a band with a demonstrable talent for writing great songs (see Mykonos, In The Hot Hot Rays and Icicle Tusk) had got a bit too caught up in a folky sound. Worse still, the singer seemed to have equated bellowing his a capella lyrics with “really meaning it”. To my ears, the album soon grated and I really didn’t listen to all that much.
So listening to the NPR stream of Fleet Foxes’ second album Helplessness Blues was a pleasant surprise. Listening to it through, it seems the excesses of the first album (as I perceived them) were really dialled back and it seemed that this was another great batch of songs like those on the EPs. I fear that typing out all the songs that I think are great would simply repeat the track list. Here is an attempt to mention the outstanding stuff: the bluegrass violin on Bedouin Dress is a real delight; the delicate shadows in both the lyrics and arrangements of Sim Sala Bim; the wise advice and strike-for-life that oozes out of the title track and the gentle emulation of Mike Oldfield’s great 1970s albums on The Cascades.
Although it appears late on in the album, the epitome of the songs here is perhaps the double-header The Shrine/An Argument. You do have to be wary of the old throw two songs together and put the show on here routine but in this case (and earlier on in the album) it kind of works. The first is a quiet and sinister trip “down to the dust and the pollen” to the old stones of the titular shrine, a tale that echoes many of those told on this album and the first. It’s sweet with plenty of the wonderful harmony vocals that make Fleet Foxes so compelling, it even has some of the vocal stylings that I found annoying on the first album but are forgivable here. It soon slips into The Argument, which is longer with a more traditional structure (with more mentions of Innisfree) and it then breaks down into an extended instrumental jam at the end (via a reprise of the acoustic tune), complete with skronky sax and treated violins. It is a nice touch taking that song somewhere different; sometimes a wig out is a symptom of “difficult second album syndrome” but I think here it’s a legitimate direction, particularly when it is then followed up by the Blue Spotted Tail, an acoustic number that sounds like something off Paul McCartney’s first solo album.
I also really like Grown Ocean, which is a great radio-friendly song that almost seems tacked on at the end. It means that the album pretty much closes with the feeling that it is just getting started again, perhaps it is a clever trick to make it all sound good on repeat!
TV On The Radio Nine Types Of Light
I feel embarrassed for two things about Nine Types Of Light, the new album by TV On The Radio. The first is that I have only just got around to hearing it and the second is that my only reference point for how they sound on the chorus of the first song Second Song is the Scissor Sisters. It’s a great tune though, definitely one for getting you up and moving in the morning.
I am starting to really like TV On The Radio. I first noticed them after seeing the amazing video to the single Wolf Like Me and even though I found its parent album Return To Cookie Mountain to be a bit angular for my tastes, I persevered with Dear Science, which was probably one of 2008’s best albums.
It is funny how as I have got older I have begun to obsess over every aspect of a band less and less. Is this because I am not looking for influences for my identity, is it because I listen to so much more music now, is it because the information is easier to find on the internet? I am not sure. All I know is that I know next to nothing about this band even though I love their songs!1
Anyway, I think this is a great album (it’s been a very good month). While there is nothing as good as Halfway Home, Golden Age and Family Tree off Dear Science, it’s very solid collection once again. From that Scissor Sister chorus on Second Song to the gorgeous crooning on You to the clever and topical lyric of Repetition: “What’s the matter with your next door neighbour? / I heard he had sex, drugs and danger / but you can kick it with a complete stranger / I think I hear him calling”. Actually the good bit is the stuff about the bankers: “I can choose my victims and I can shed my skin / and if the world keeps turning I can do it again”.
Overall, it’s a good solid album that I need to listen to a bit more. My main emotional connections at the moment are to Second Song, the aforementioned Repetition and the wonderful post-apocalyptic dreamscape of Forgotten. I remember writing rather odd praise of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake back in February and not realising how utterly fantastic it was until I’d really got to know all the songs some time later. I think there’s a similar situation. In the mean time, Nine Types Of Light has my heartfelt recommendation, as with the other albums I’ve talked about this month.
Why is it important to know stuff about bands anyway? Well, later on when you are old and lonely you can write about the albums you love on your own website. ↩