Album reviews: Ray Davies, BNQT, Robyn Hitchcock, Mark Lanegan Band and more

Andy Gill

Ray Davies, Americana


Download this: Americana; The Deal; Rock’n’Roll Cowboys; The Invaders

On his first album of new material in a decade, our most newly-ennobled songsmith focuses on a personal fascination with America that has endured even through the New Orleans gun attack that almost drew a premature close to his career. Americana is the kind of concept album that Bernie Taupin might have written for Elton John; but being Ray Davies, it’s not so much comprised of fond, mythopoeic imaginings as the more specific (non-political) relationship that still subsists between Britain and America.

Fittingly, it was recorded with a band based around the emblematic Americana outfit The Jayhawks, who animate Davies’ songs with a wealth of relaxed, appropriate detail, from the laidback country-jazz swing of “I’ve Heard That Beat Before” to the country-rock tints of the title-track, which opens the album with “my baby brother and me, in the land of the free”, agog with their memories of pioneer spirits and wild west heroes. It wasn’t, in truth, quite that simple, as Davies later reveals in “The Invaders”, an unstinting recollection of US officialdom’s churlish reaction to The Kinks’ camp style during their early visits as part of the British Invasion. The mandolin and accordion arrangement underplays the sour edge of bitterness that obviously taints the memory, but Davies dines on his revenge with due coolness, exulting in the long-game victory: “The world as we knew it turned upside-down, and things would never be the same”.

Not least, it transpires, for the architects of that change, lured in pursuit of an American Dream as stable and secure as jelly and marshmallows, “living an illusion on the Wings Of Fantasy”, as Davies characterises the situation. For the pampered occupants of the celebrity bubble, film stars and pop stars alike, it’s a strange half-life, vividly evoked in “Rock’n’Roll Cowboys”, where Davies reflects upon old showbiz heroes shuffled off into redundancy, now existing more as myth than man, always uncertain of their status: “Do we live in a dream, or do we live in reality?”.

One staple American Dream fantasy is of the six-cylinder pioneer cruising across endless vistas, which in “The Great Highway” Davies sets to a riff with echoes of the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane”. But again, it’s a Janus-faced existence, here ingeniously summarised in a pair of duets with Jayhawks’ Karen Grotberg, “Message From The Road” and “A Place In Your Heart”, which confront the contrasting moods of life on the road in homesick epistles, respectively sad and jaunty.

But the most vivid portrait of the transatlantic connection is “The Deal”, where Davies turns his gimlet eye on Brit expats trying to weasel themselves business opportunities, contrasting their former lives in “dreary Angleterre, real but disillusioned, travelling on the tube and bus”, with their flimsy LA lifestyle of convertible cruising and poolside parties. Despite a delivery oozing irony, it’s obvious that, behind the contempt, Davies retains a certain fond respect for these “fabulous, fraudulent, on the make” Brits, perhaps rooted in the anxieties and ambitions of his own American experiences?

BNQT, Volume 1


Download this: Restart; Unlikely Force; Failing At Feeling; Mind Of A Man; Hey Banana

It’s a short step from guest spots to what used to be known as “supergroups”, one eagerly grasped here by BNQT, an alliance between Midlake and songwriter friends Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Fran Healy (Travis), Jason Lytle (Grandaddy) and Ben Bridwell (Band Of Horses), each of whom, along with Midlake’s Eric Pulido, contributes two songs to Volume 1. Despite their diversity, a mood is sustained through Midlake’s arrangements, which draw on fond ‘70s influences, from the glam-rock boogie of “Restart” to the sweeping yacht-rock sheen of “Unlikely Force”. In most cases, the songs locate almost perfect surroundings: Healy’s “Mind Of A Man” is persuasively anthemic, while Kapranos’s enigmatic “Hey Banana”, draped in bells and strings, takes on a personality akin to Love’s Arthur Lee. Jason Lytle is particularly well-served by the orchestrations applied to the prancing pop of “100 Million Miles” and the more sensitive “Failing At Feeling”, a gorgeously melancholic outtake from Grandaddy’s recent break-up album.

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock


Download this: I Want To Tell You About What I Want; Virginia Woolf; Mad Shelley’s Letterbox

Like BNQT, Robyn Hitchcock’s musical sensibilities remain rooted in an earlier era – as he self-deprecatingly notes in “Time Coast” here, “I’m singing like a fossil”. But for him, the guilty pleasures of the ‘70s are more of a betrayal: “1970 In Aspic” depicts that year as almost the cusp between good and evil. He remains a more psychedelic soul, as witness psych-rockers like “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” and “Detective Mindhorn”. With a sort of repressed power anchoring its drive, the chugging rocker “I Want To Tell You About What I Want” opens proceedings in fine fettle, Hitchcock yearning for “a non-invasive kind of telepathy that lets you feel what it’s like to be someone else” - an empathic urge applied, over the strident guitars of the following “Virginia Woolf”, to literary suicides. “Sometimes you feel what you don’t want to feel,” he muses; “Sometimes it hurts where you don’t want to hurt”. A fossil that feels, clearly.

Mark Lanegan Band, Gargoyle


Download this: Death’s Head Tattoo; Beehive; Emperor; Blue Blue Sea; Old Swan

Gargoyle suggests a new direction for Mark Lanegan: while the imagery remains predominantly dark, and Alain Johannes’ arrangements plumb glorious Gothic textures, there are glints of optimism and lightness of spirit peeking through some songs, reminding one of Leonard Cohen’s wise nostrum “There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in”. There’s a transcendent sweetness, for instance, to “Beehive”, with Lanegan admitting “Honey just gets me stoned”; while despite his plaint about “all these demons to enslave me”, an offbeat guitar riff lends a jaunty, carefree feel to “Emperor”. And with its acclaim for “my mother and my queen, honest and serene”, the closing “Old Swan” has an almost redemptive message. It’s not all sweetness and light, of course: the stalking motorik of “Death’s Head Tattoo” is a prime slice of LA apocalyptism, a “garden grown from evil seeds”, and in “Drunk On Destruction” Lanegan considers himself both “the target and the gun”, just one of a wealth of arresting images sprinkled throughout another excellent album.

Fujiya & Miyagi, Fujiya & Miyagi


Download this: Solitaire; Extended Dance Mix; Impossible Objects Of Desire

“Too electronic to rock, too rock to be electronic,” Fujiya & Miyagi vocalist David Best summarises the Brighton band’s plight in “Extended Dance Mix”, a wry reflection on ageing, arthritis and their career, self-deprecatingly likened to “just pumping electric current through the leg of a dead frog”. While that might be the case with more utilitarian, dance-oriented electro-synthesists, there’s always something more going on in F&M’s music, whether it’s the writhing guitar solo slashing through the cycling electronic motorik of “Serotonin Rushes”, the lovely metallic percussive timbres augmenting the sequenced synth lines of “To The Last Beat Of My Heart”, or the drums adding the subtle funk-swing accent to the groove of “Solitaire”. This album, drawing together their three recent EPs, also displays the diversity of Best’s lyrical interests, ranging from brain chemistry (“Serotonin Rushes”) to psychoanalysis (“Freudian Slips”) and, in “Impossible Objects Of Desire”, the enigmatic allure of records which defined so many lives.

Ciaran Lavery, A King At Night


Download this: Beast For Thee; Bad Man; Horses

As with many of the best singer-songwriters, there’s a captivating contradiction at the heart of Will Oldham’s work, whereby the genial warmth and benevolent tone of his voice is often applied to the cruelest of sentiments. It’s a twist which Ciaran Lavery, for all his qualities, doesn’t quite nail on this EP of Bonnie Prince Billy songs released for Record Store Day. Instead, navigating the shift from seeming affection to sudden betrayal in “New Partner”, his delivery rasps with an emotion that cauterises its cool contempt. Elsewhere, such intimations are more musically conveyed, via the waspish fuzz guitar and snaky violin evoking the sneaky menace of “Bad Man”, and the wan violin lending a poignant edge to Oldham’s hymn of bestial devotion “Beast For Thee” - to which is also added the ghostly refrain of “I See A Darkness”. But it’s a decent, thoughtful anthology nevertheless, with care and imagination applied to clearly beloved material.

Angaleena Presley, Wrangled


Download this: Only Blood; Dreams Don’t Come True; Country; High School; Good Girl Down

Angaleena Presley may be the feistiest woman in country music since Dolly Parton – she admits her early ambition was “I’d play like Elvis, but with lipstick and boobs” – though Wrangled suggests she’s less prepared to toe the Nashville line. Or any line, if it comes to that. Songs like the title-track and “Good Girl Down” kick against the pricks of masculine assumptions, while the raging country-punk counterblast “Country” unleashes her disgust at the Nashville establishment’s backward attitude towards women. Elsewhere, her sympathies remain firmly with the downtrodden and desperate, as in her straight-talking depiction of teen pressures faced in “High School”, a bruised parade of class clowns and cheerleaders, pep pills and pregnancy. Most startling of all is “Only Blood”, co-written with Chris Stapleton: what starts out as an apparently romantic song gradually acquires sinister abusive undertones, until the drunken husband comes home one night to find her wielding a gun.

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