[Album Review] James: La Petite Mort

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James - La Petite Mort

James – La Petite Mort

La Petite Mort is James 14th album, and the 4th since reforming in 2007 following Tim Booth’s temporary departure. It’s part of a second era for James, distinguished by a change from songs that emerged through lengthy jam sessions to a more standard song-writing method. And so these later albums have a different feel to the chaotic early years, but all the lyrics are still the sole work of Booth, and themes and feelings are shared with all points in their career.

The phase documented on the album is front and centre: both Booth’s mother and his best friend passed away in the last few years, as did Doris Lessing, the third woman he credits here for his inspiration. The album deals with the pain felt both during and after such partings. It also ponders what comes after life, and even beyond that.

The phrase ‘la petite mort’ also means a release (of, ahem, all kinds) and a part of us ‘dying inside’ after a particularly moving event. So the album could be viewed also as a psychological marker in James’s life, a document of where they are today. Indeed, on six minute pounding opener ‘Walk Like You’, Booth threatens “Welcome to our coming of age, to embrace all that we’ve become”. But then again every James album feels like a coming of age, a document of the band’s (or at least the singer’s) growth and development as human beings.

If Walk Like Me is a reminder of who you really are (‘We’re made of stars//we’re made of dirt) second track Curse Curse is a nightclub-anthemic abandonment of responsibility (‘Two shots more tequila//Raise the flames to fever’). Combine these two tracks and you lay out all of James’s approaches to life and death: it’s earthly, it’s magical, but just get on with it.

Moving On is the stand-out track of the album, and the second single from it. It’s a lesson in, well, precisely that. The Jamesian twist here is the point of view: we’re being simultaneously reassured and implored by the soon-to-be-deceased himself – ‘I’m on my way, leave a light on’. The narrator questions what’s to come (‘Will this cycle start again//will we recognise old friends?’), and lays bare their hopes and fears (‘When my pulse beats slow//hope to have you close at hand’). Musically it’s a euphoric statement, a heartbreaking moment soundtracked by signature James trumpets, reminiscent more than any other recent offerings of 1992′s soaring, religion-musing album Seven. It feels appropriate.

Frozen Britain was the first single, and fits the category of ‘live for today, for tomorrow we…?’ Through dance, and possibly other strenuous activity (this is James, after all), Booth hopes to ‘wake the dead’, ‘escape the coffin’. Again the spirit is uplifting, a drum-and-guitar-driven pop affirmation in the face of the inevitable.

Frozen Britain is followed by the start of the come-down. The second half of La Petite Mort is in parts angry, bitter, resentful, remorseful. Interrogation is self-blame, a thudding, panicked cry over rasping sinister electronic noise. The jury retire mid-song, only to return a dramatic and cymbal-laden verdict of guilt based on the singer’s own testimony. It’s the indictment of a singer forever blaming others in his lyrics, only to find the crimes closer to home. Life’s too short for this nailing of others, he rues, and the following track, Bitter Virtue, is the slower, sadder elegy for a misspent (or unspent) life. It’s not anger but incredulity: ‘compress a life til life expires//I’d rather live in sin… how can you sit on everything?’.

James have always been about life lessons, reminding you that they’ve been there too, and first (‘those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me’). This feeling pervades La Petite Mort. But in contrast to older albums content to whisper such reassurances in your ear, this latest offering feels compelled to pound it into you via the drums and piano which underlie everything. Perhaps the singer is simply overcome with the need to let you know what’s going on; there’s rarely much of a let-up between the albums opening bars and Interrogation half way through. The aforementioned Bitter Virtue brings the tempo down for the first time.

Of the final tracks, All in My Mind admits that the dead don’t stay down – they’re here with us all the time, for good or ill. On Quicken the Dead, with it’s piano arpeggio and insistent vocals, we’re reminded that life is not a choice, and neither is death (‘Breathing’s so crude… press-ganged to get here’). We’re living life on borrowed time.

We’re brought to the end by All I’m Saying, which in its very title suggests that we’ve been listening to a lecture on the topic of death, but finally we’re going to get the bare facts. It’s a simple song, starting off with guitar strums and spare piano notes before raising the tempo in one final push. Here, at last, the singer is straight-talking with the deceased, a son at a graveside. But this isn’t a moment for saying what should have been said before. This is a confession of the here and now: ‘missing you… meeting you in a dream tonight’. It’s mourning, laying to rest, a counter-viewpoint to ‘Moving On’ and an open question about what happens afterwards, the ghostly, vocodered ‘all I’m saying, I love you, see you next time.’

[Live Review] Devendra Banhart / Rokia Traoré , Barbican, London, 2nd May 2014

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Tonight’s double-header kicks off a month long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Nonesuch Records at the Barbican. This is a fitting place for a label with such a rich and varied cultural history – it has been home to the likes of John Zorn, Caetano Veloso, The Black Keys and of course tonight’s performers.

Devendra Banhart ambles on to kick things off. He is back to his solo roots this evening, and appears full of nervous energy. Ever the dapper and entertaining raconteur, Banhart begins with a endearingly rambling tale about pre show nerves and the pitfalls of expressing joy when dealing with the UK Border Control.

The solo performance means tonight’s set delves into the more mellow, dreamy songs from his back catalogue.

He lulls us in with Quedate Luna, and the whispery Golden GirlsCarmensita sounds super-seductive with just vocals and guitar, under the smoky lights (even if it is punctuated with the odd mid-song giggle). His deft guitar picking comes to the fore this evening and serves as a reminder of his instrumental skills as well has his distinctive vocals.

The latter half of the set become a chaotic call and response affair, with people shouting out requests. “I don’t know how to play any of this shit…I normally have a band” he quips, fielding one of many shout outs.

I didn’t shout out, but I did think to myself “I wish he’d play Little Yellow Spider”, and he did.

He tells more stories, including a brief history of Nonesuch, and one about visiting labels in NYC to put ‘Mala’ out on which became reminiscent of the Coen Brother’s titular character Llewyn Davies as it went on.

The Body Breaks is rare moment of stillness and (relative) seriousness, it’s nice to hear the old songs, intimately played. He meanders off, as chaotically as he came, he’s unlikely to ever be a slick showman, and I hope that never changes.

I have to confess to knowing nothing about  Malian singer and guitarist Rokia Traoré prior to tonight’s gig.  In contrast to Mr Banhart, she is flanked by an impressive array of backing singers and musicians. She is a small woman with a big guitar and an even bigger voice. She is elegantly spoken when she addresses the audience, thanking them for enabling her to exist as an artist. Rokia Traoré is paradoxical performer: simultaneously powerful and delicate.

She is joined by Devendra Banhart for Saram, one of the only English language songs and a beautiful tribute to African women. Whether you understand the lyrics or not, it’s clear from her recent album’s title ‘Beautiful Africa’, she is a storyteller with a very definite sense of place and given Mali’s very recent troubles, being a musician is certainly not an easy occupation in her homeland. However, the mood is a celebratory as it is reflective. Kouma builds to a heavy crescendo, and Traoré’s enthusiastic dancing and her beaming smile are both infectious. I’ll consider the second half of tonight’s gig an interesting chapter in my continuing musical education.

[Album Review] Hauschka : Abandoned City

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It’s been 3 years since KV fell in love with Salon Des Amateurs, so  Hauschka’s (aka German neo-classical / experimental composer and musician Volker Bertelmann)  Abandoned City was a much anticipated record around these parts.

As the name suggests, this is record with a colder, more industrial sound than its predecessor. The tracks are named after real-life abandoned cities.  It gives the sense of taking us out of the club and  on a shadowy tour of foreboding landscapes.

Elizabeth Bay has a 60s spy soundtrack feel, metallic percussion sounds like terrible old machines cranking back into life, or an empty underground train winding through dark tunnels.

Thames Town has a brooding dancehall / reggaeton type beat underpinning his signature prepared piano sounds. It conjures up images of a small, subterranean community dancing  in the shadows – to  my mind, at least.

Who Lived Here? is heartbreakingly melancholy, piano and woodwind instruments meld together in a lonely chorus.   By contrast  Agdam  has a much more urgent pace, it reminds me of listening to my Dad’s cassette of the Giorgio  Moroder’s soundtrack to Midnight Express while driving through Slough Trading Estate on the way to school in the late 80s. But, I digress, the sense of foreboding also makes me think of 28 Days Later.

Hauschka has talked of depicting an “inner tension” on the record, which certainly runs through the album, particularly on tracks like Sanzhi Pod City  with its plucked strings and unsettling rattling noises.

Craco is quite stripped back and restrained. It’s more of  straight piano piece than on many of his tracks,  very haunting and beautiful.

Stromness the album’s closer feels very much like a musical epiologue, with a trippy crescendo and then fading out solemnly.

I continue to be amazed at this man’s talent and musicianship. The fact that he was able to record this in only 10 days following the birth of his first son bowls me over.

Abandoned City’s eerie soundscapes are bleak and evocative.  At times they are so nightmarish they could rouse David Lynch from a lunch time nap.  It is however, rather infectious and an album worth experiencing and savouring: both in your ears and your mind.  The album is out now on City Slang.

[Live Review] Connan Mockasin, Shepherd’s Bush Empire 28th January 2014

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Warhol-haired, Kiwi musician and singer Connan Mockasin may be a slight figure, but he’s quite a formidable presence.

Opening song It’s Your Body envelopes the place with a sound that is a heady cocktail of Pink Floyd and Prince (if the latter were singing inside a fishtank), replete with woozy, whirly guitar effects. This segues into some spooky chanting, amid hazy pyschedelia and groovy bass.

Do I Make You Feel Shy? he sings to us. If I’m honest, Connan, you do a bit. This is a pretty big show for Mockasin and his band, and the audience are a mixture of still appreciation and excitable squealing.  New album Caramel appears to contain added layers of funk , and there seems to be more emphasis on melody on than on the rather more trippy  (and much loved) debut Forever Dolphin Love.

His on stage persona veers from awkwardly overwhelmed to seasoned entertainer.  When he does interact with the crowd he is mischievous. “I’ll take my shirt off if you take yours off” in response to someone down the front. But of course he doesn’t, that would be far too obvious.

Instead, his antics include mock-slapping a female band mate who proceeds to weep and whimper in perfect rhythm to the music in Why Are You Crying.

During the encore, on I Wanna Roll With You he sings using a vocal effect that makes him sound like Barry White, he serenades a woman who is sitting on stage wrapped in a duvet. It’s both unsettling and dreamy all at once.  He ends with a fast version of Forever Dolphin Love, before  bidding us farewell.

Mockasin is an esoteric showman, making the kind of mind-melting sounds that  bring some much needed colour to a rain-soaked night.

KV’s Night Vale Weather Report

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A  Halloween gig by my pals Without Fidel lead me to my latest audio obsession. Two of the attendees at this fancy dress shindig were dressed as characters from the utterly brilliant festival of the strange that is Welcome To Night Vale.

For the uninitiated, Welcome To Night Vale is a  darkly-comic podcast from the US, that makes for excellent twilight listening.  A Podcast seems like an undersell: the brainchild of writers Joesph Fink and  Jeffrey Cranor, it is a  faux community radio station set in the fictional town of Night Vale.  In this town, inexplicable events occur and interns mysteriously die, all in such mundane surrounds as Pizza parlours and the dreaded Dog Park.  It’s a place of looming, omnipresent ‘hooded figures’, where the macabre and the moribund rub boney shoulders under a terrible cloud.

Imagine something that channels the spirit of Twin Peaks, the lyrical whimsy of Flight of the Conchords or The Mighty Boosh with a touch of the creepy ambience of Blue Jam and you’ve got yourself an introduction to the world created by Commonplace Books.

It’s the cult show that became the most downloaded podcast in the world last summer.  But enough of the facts and figures ,  there is one feature, dear reader that I particularly wish to share with you.

Aside from the very amusing,  sinister  yet strangely lulling tones of host Cecil Palmer (pronounced Cee-cil, UK fans), WTNV has introduced me to some musical gems via its Weather Report section.

 

There are lots to choose from, but I’ve rounded up a few for your aural delight:

 

The Felice Brothers – Penn Station

Sounds like: Tom Waits on a happy day.  A gravel-throated footstomper.

 

 

Sam ‘n’ Ash – Peanuts

Sounds like:  Yan Tiersen jamming with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

 

Cigarette Burns Forever – Adam Green

Sounds Like:  Lo-fi meets 50s Americana, swoon.

 

Tom Milsom – A little Irony

Sounds like: A young Ben Folds, lyrically deft and very catchy.

 

Mystic – Neptune’s Jewel

Sounds like: A female hip-hop artist who has had quite enough of your nonsense, pal.

 

All the songs from the weather are listed at the Night Vale wiki page.

[Live Review] Pokey LaFarge and Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, the Fleece, Bristol, 10th November

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Pokey LaFarge

Pokey LaFarge. Photo by Matt Law

It’s a full house tonight at the Fleece, with a few people adopting a thirties/ forties retro look to match that of Pokey LaFarge (and few more, almost but not quite getting it right, with a fifties greaser look). Opener Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, touring as an acoustic trio in support of their self-titled album, come from San Francisco and play assured country rock with some bluegrass leanings. There’s some impressive guitar work here, gorgeous harmonising with husband Tim, and a soulful voice reminiscent of Sheryl Crowe, especially on recent single Little Too Late. Check out a video of them performing that song  in Colorado here.

Nicki Bluhm. Photo by Matt Law

Nicki Bluhm. Photo by Matt Law

Pokey LaFarge‘s energetic mix of ragtime, country, blues and swing makes for an excellent live show. New album Pokey LaFarge, on Jack White’s Third Man label continues this exploring strangely authentic vein, decorating very traditional sounds with some thoroughly modern references. The band are now joined by a clarinet and a cornet, and new songs such as Close The Door (an excellent satire about the US healthcare system) and Central Time show that Pokey still has plenty to give.

[Live Review ] Ghost Poet @ Hackney Empire 24/10/2013

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Shining brightly, Ghostpoet at Hackney Empire

Shining brightly, Ghostpoet at Hackney Empire

The stage is awash with dreamy blue hues, and powerful laser beam lights as the artist known as Ghostpoet (better known to his Mum, who is in tonight apparently, as Obaro Ejimiwe) takes to the stage with a heavy rendition of Gaasp.

He’s an artist that it isn’t always easy to attach a pesky genre too, which is no bad thing.  Along with a tight backing band, there are aspects of hip hop, trip hop even deep house in his sound.

But, at the heart of this mixed electronic sound, beneath the funky keys, and occasionally aggressive beats lies a first-class storyteller. Like predecessors of lyrical storytelling Roots Manuva and The Streets, his early work explores themes of city life, love and artistic aspiration.  He is currently touring his second album, Some Say I So I Say Light but the set dips into highlights from his debut as well.

Cold Win and Them Waters are menacing and moody – there is a darker groove at work on the newer stuff.

Survive It  is mellow and pretty,  and the anthemic Liiines sounds even bigger tonight with a guest string section.

He stands on the stage in this beautiful old venue, beaming “London, I love you, I really do” I think he’d hug us all, if he could.  A fitting hometown gig, for a London electronic troubadour.

SHHH Festival comes to Bristol

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Ichi at the Green Man Festival last week

Ichi at the Green Man Festival last week

The SHHH festival, a moving festival established by The Local and dedicated to quiet music, is coming to Bristol this year on September 15th at the Folk House. The event will be curated by the excellent Rachael Dadd, and features live appearances from the deeply odd Ichi, kora player Will Newsome, and the phenomenal Rozi Plain, along with Nancy Elizabeth, Amadou Diagne, Rachael Dadd and Le Ton Mite.

Music starts at 2pm, and tickets are on sale here

[Review] Fairport Convention – “Rising for the Moon” (Reissue)

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Like most people who have ever heard her, I have a definite soft spot for Sandy Denny’s voice, which this album showcases on some excellently ethereal tracks (charming opener White Dress is wonderful, ‘A Stranger To Himself‘, ‘Dawn‘ and ‘After Halloween‘ are full of atmosphere). Denny’s return to the band lead to this 1975 release, which I think was intended to be the big breakthrough album – all new folk-rock songs, some a little reminiscent of American country rock, with not a traditional song to be heard. It wasn’t the commercial success the band hoped for, and Denny, along with husband Terry Lucas and Jerry Donahue left the band shortly after its release (drummer Dave Mattacks left during the recording session, being replaced by Bruce Rowland on six of the tracks).

The reissue is packaged with live tracks (White Dress sounds gorgeous live on LWT too), alternate versions, studio and home demos, and a second disc, recorded live at LA’s Troubador shortly after Denny’s return in 1974 – with a stunning version of the Denny-penned classic Who Knows Where The Time Goes (followed quite incongruously by a version of That’ll Be The Day).

The complete tracklisting is

DISC ONE

01: RISING FOR THE MOON ( 4.08 )
02: RESTLESS ( 4.01 )
03: WHITE DRESS ( 3.44 )
04: LET IT GO ( 2.00 )
05: STRANGER TO HIMSELF ( 2.51 )
06: WHAT IS TRUE ? ( 3.33 )
07: IRON LION ( 3.27 )
08: DAWN ( 3.42 )
09: AFTER HALLOWEEN ( 3.38 )
10: NIGHT-TIME GIRL ( 2.56 )
11: ONE MORE CHANCE ( 7.58 )

BONUS TRACKS

12: WHITE DRESS ( 3:24 ) Live on LWT – 9/8/1975
13: DAWN – ALTERNATE VERSION ( 4:11 )
14: WHAT IS TRUE ? – STUDIO DEMO ( 3:16 )
15: AFTER HALLOWEEN – DEMO ( 3:00 )
16: THE KING AND QUEEN OF ENGLAND – HOME DEMO ( 3:12 )

DISC TWO – LIVE AT THE LA TROUBADOUR

01: DOWN IN THE FLOOD ( 3:13 )
02: BALLAD OF NED KELLY ( 3:59 )
03: SOLO ( 5:40 )
04: IT’LL TAKE A LONG TIME ( 5:35 )
05: SHE MOVES THROUGH THE FAIR ( 4:09 )
06: THE HENS MARCH THROUGH THE MIDDEN & THE FOUR POSTER BED (3:17 )
07: THE HEXAMSHIRE LASS ( 2:44 )
08: KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVENS DOOR ( 4:33 )
09: SIX DAYS ON THE ROAD ( 3:38 )
10: LIKE AN OLD FASHIONED WALTZ ( 4:19 )
11: JOHN THE GUN ( 5:10 )
12: DOWN WHERE THE DRUNKARDS ROLL ( 4:14 )
13: CRAZY LADY BLUES ( 3:54 )
14: WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES ( 6:54 )
15: MATTY GROVES ( 7:05 )
16: THAT’LL BE THE DAY

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