Album reviews: LCD Soundsystem - American Dream, Jake Bugg - Hearts That Strain, Mogwai - Every Country’s Son
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
Download: Other Voices; Change Your Mind; Call The Police; American Dream
It’s been seven years since the last LCD Soundsystem album, This Is Happening; but it doesn’t sound as though the band’s creative mainspring James Murphy has bothered expanding his musical outlook too much during that hiatus. American Dream, which began life as a solo album before Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney rejoined to give Murphy sounding-boards off which to bounce ideas, is effectively a straight continuation of its predecessor’s amalgam of electropop, new wave and krautrock, in varying proportions, with varying success.
“Oh Baby” opens proceedings with a softly metallic pulse, like a polite jackhammer, with keyboards gradually layered over before propulsive fuzz-bass punches in, heralding a yearning organ line. With its typically oblique lyric (“oh baby, you’re having a bad dream, here in my arms”), it’s agreeable without quite engaging, much too mechanistic to evoke emotion in the way that seems second nature to, say, Vince Clarke. And Murphy’s vocal stylings seem deliberately off-putting in places, whether he’s ranting hysterically over the Neu! motorik of “Call The Police” or getting all uber-cool over the quacking Daft Punk-ish synth riff of “Tonite”. The soft rhythmic bounce of “American Dream” itself, meanwhile, finds him employing a hurt yearning akin to Morrissey, aptly enough for a lyric which advises, “Get up and stop your complaining/You’re the only one who’s been destroying all the fun”.
Which is not to say that it’s an album entirely without attractions. “Change Your Mind” skillfully conveys alienation through the alliance of Can-style groove and Fripp-style shards of “skronk” guitar – shades of Bowie and Eno in mid-‘70s Berlin – while the hop, skip and jump beat, crusty bassline and damped, nibbling guitar of “Other Voices” has an infectious appeal. “I’ve heard it, and it sounds like the ‘90s”, sings Nancy Whang, but it’s actually more like the ‘80s – specifically, Talking Heads circa Fear Of Music. But it’s given greater depth of intrigue by the left-field interventions of squally synth-horns and the odd vocal disharmonies which impose a discomfiting imbalance on the song.
Too many tracks, however, suffer from a shortfall of melodic potency, and a lack of lateral development, especially in longer pieces such as the 12-minute sci-fi musings of “Black Screen” and the declamatory nine minutes of “How Do You Sleep?”. Both use puttering beats in cavernous spaces, with synths lowering from above, but for such marathons, there’s too little narrative: it’s all vertical, with sounds simply piled on top rather than providing narrative shape; and often, the journey just isn’t worth the destination.
Jake Bugg, Hearts That Strain
Download: Waiting; How Soon The Dawn; Hearts That Strain; Burn Alone
Ed Sheeran isn’t the only folkie troubadour expanding into other genres. Each of his four albums has seen Jake Bugg, for instance, pushing his stylistic envelope – except that where Sheeran adopts modern R&B livery, on Hearts That Strain Bugg eases gently southwards into country, soul and ‘70s retro-yacht-rock territory. Recorded in Nashville with some of the musicians featured on Elvis’s late classics, the downbeat “Southern Rain” and “This Time” are pedal-steel-laced country exercises, while “Burn Alone” is a predatory rockabilly canter brandishing a subdued fuzz-guitar hook by Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys frontman is more unusually employed co-writing the guilty pleasure of opener “How Soon The Dawn”, in which the gentle Latin flavour, allied to acoustic picking and Bugg’s own cooing harmonies, recalls Josh Ritter’s nuevo-yacht-rock. But the most impressive item here is the deep-soul duet with Miley’s sister Noah Cyrus, “Waiting”, in which Bugg’s aching delivery is perfectly tempered by her fragile sweetness, like vocal salted caramel.
Gregg Allman, Southern Blood
Download: Once I Was; Going, Going, Gone; Willin’; Blind Bats & Swamp Rats
It’s always tempting, with a singer’s late work, to hunt for valedictory hints of impending doom, as with Bowie’s Blackstar and Cohen’s closing trilogy. Here, lines like “I hope you’re haunted by my music when I’m gone” are a little on the nose, as is an admittedly impressive cover of Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone”; but it’s songs by two prematurely passed talents – Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and Lowell George’s “Willin’” - that are more affecting, mined by Gregg Allman’s weatherbeaten growl for every ounce of melancholy retrospection and road-weary resignation. For his final recordings, Allman returned to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, where gospelly backing vocals and burring horns bring a deep-soul tone and texture not just to a soul standard like “Out Of Left Field” but also to material like “Going, Going, Gone” and the Dead’s “Black Muddy River”. A Dr. John-style voodoo cover of Johnny Jenkins’ “Blind Bats & Swamp Rats”, meanwhile, offers a timely reminder that the original was produced by Gregg’s brother Duane.
Mogwai, Every Country’s Son
Download: Coolverine; Party In the Dark; Crossing The Road Material; aka47
It always seems to be dusk or dawn in Mogwai’s world. With their music’s slow swells and subsides, they excel at calibrating subtle shifts of light and dark with a painterly grasp of sonic chiaroscuro. With calmly descending triplets drizzled over a shimmer-shudder keyboard figure, opener “Coolverine”, for instance, is like sunrise suffused with wistful resignation, while the quiet, airy murmur of “1000 Foot Face” expands glowingly through rolling tom-toms and guitar. Though rooted in familiar influences – “Crossing The Road Material” is like a more anchored Neu!, while “Old Poisons” is old-school psychedelia, with squealing organ and guitar swathed in drums – Mogwai apply subtle details that are unmistakably their own. Here, the tiny wisps of guitar keening like an injured animal in the ambient space of “aka47” are especially effective, as is the blend of ghostly voices and Mellotron sheets in “Party In The Dark”, one of a few songs featuring semi-audible vocals – in this case, reflecting burdensome insight: “I see everything/All our struggling”.
Martin Simpson, Trails & Tribulations
Download: Blues Run The Game; East Kentucky; Maps; St. James Hospital
While Martin Simpson’s peerless fingerpicking is in full effect throughout Trails & Tribulations, what’s equally impressive is the way his arrangements reflect the material with empathic sensitivity – as when, for instance, his version of the anti-war standard “St. James Hospital” (aka “St. James Infirmary”) is accompanied by just the mournful low whine of his Weissenborn slide guitar; or when the perkiness of his electric ukulele setting of “East Kentucky” is tempered by doubting smears of strings. It’s a mixture of traditional songs, covers, and originals such as Simpson’s “Maps”, celebrating the anticipation of wanderlust and the proxy voyages afforded by maps, and “Thomas Drew”, an attempt to give the victim’s side of the murder ballads about the killer John Hardy’s grisly botched execution. Of the covers, “Blues Run The Game” is most beautifully realised, the folk standard couched in a lovely warm arrangement of acoustic picking, slide guitar and strings harnessed to shuffling drums that gently whisk along Jackson C. Frank’s evocation of a weary and a lonesome traveller.
The Rails, Other People
Download: The Cally; Other People; Dark Times; Leaving The Land
Aptly enough for a release on the Orchard label, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree in Kami Thompson’s case. In particular, her inflection here as she sings the line “I’m tired of hanging on for dear life” seems imbued with the austere rigour of her dad, Richard; and supported by husband James Walbourne’s harmonies over a rich blend of accordion and electric guitar, the title-track brandishes brooding Fairport feistiness. Elsewhere, the duo come closer to Fleetwood Mac on “Late Surrender”, while the electric 12-string of “Shame” unavoidably evokes The Byrds – just one of a remarkable portfolio of diverse instrumental modes explored by Pretenders guitarist Walbourne. But there’s a starkly engaging contemporaneity to the couple’s material, whether they’re casting a wistful glance back at scuffling street-life in “The Cally”, lamenting the sell-off of London in “Bricks And Mortar”, or addressing an abuser’s shamed regret, in “Dark Times”, at being driven by stress to violence: “Black and blue/The whole town knew”.
Winwood, Greatest Hits Live
Download: I’m A Man; Dear Mr Fantasy; Glad; Medicated Goo; Why Can’t We Live Together
Right from his opening salvos as tyro teen frontman of The Spencer Davis Group, Steve Winwood had talent to burn. Combining Ray Charles’ vocals and Jimmy Smith’s organ, he all but invented the notion of blue-eyed soul; add to that the innovative alloy of pop, rock, soul and jazz that he forged with Traffic, and it’s clear he was often thinking several steps ahead. He had the all-round chops to realise it, too, playing every note on solo albums that re-established him as a solo artist, especially in America. But mononym notwithstanding, Winwood’s always best experienced amongst simpatico musicians, as on this double-album yoking together his diverse career paths. On previous live offerings, certain tracks have stretched out into low-wattage jazz-funk jams; but here they’re mostly reined below 8 minutes, polished to a more compact lustre, with standouts including “I’m A Man”, “Dear Mr Fantasy”, “Glad” and a particularly funky “Medicated Goo”, along with a peppy cover of Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together”.