This is an almost perfect album. Touted as a confessional record, it’s supposed to contain a revealing set of songs about how Isbell overcame his alcohol addiction and fell in love with his now wife. There are indeed first-person songs with exactly these themes. ‘Cover Me Up’ sets up the album along these lines, “I sobered up, And swore off that stuff, Forever this time”. ‘Stockholm’ continues the story, “Once a wise man to the ways of the world, Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl”. But what’s great about Southeastern is that these aren’t just a set of intimate, personal songs, they’re songs about simple human relationships. Loving ones, abusive ones, caring ones, murderous ones. They’re stories, but they’re self-reflecting. What happens when you know that you’ve changed, but when you also know that things in your past won’t go away? “There’s a man who walks beside me”, he sings, “It is who I used to be, And I wonder if she sees him, And confuses him with me’. There’s also some lovely black humour: ‘I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them, And as his fist cut the smoke, I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke’. And behind it all, there’s the music. Most of the songs are based around acoustic guitar, plaintive electric guitar and unobtrusive percussion. There’s a fiddle on a couple of tracks, but think Scarlet Rivera not hootenanny. They’re quiet songs, but they’re not sparse. Far from it, they’re lilting, full of fantastic hooks, lovely bridges, and beautiful key changes. The song craft is impeccable. This is a master song-writer at his peak. Only ‘Super 8’ spoils the mood by cranking it up Drive By Truckers-style and feels totally out of place for that reason. Jason Isbell has come a long way. And Southeastern makes it clear that sometimes it’s been a difficult journey. So, what’s next for a sobered-up, newly-wed, former hellraiser? The middle-of-the-road would seem to beckon, but somehow there’s a feeling that Jason Isbell is unlikely to wind up there just yet.
When you set out to write an album about cricket, you’d expect to be sent back to the pavilion pretty quickly. What exactly does rhyme with ‘googly’? When you set out to write a second album about cricket, then surely you’re going to be out for a golden duck? Well, two albums in, Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh of The Duckworth Lewis Method have got a steady partnership going. Nothing’s taken too seriously. And there’s just enough to keep the scoreboard ticking over. The songs work best when the cleverness of the music and the lyrics combine. Here, there’s nothing quite as wonderful as ‘Jiggery Pokery’ from the previous album, but at times there are flashes. ‘Boom Boom Afridi’ has a beautiful instrumental break that’s interrupted by the genius idea of sampling David Lloyd at his most Lancashire. ‘Judd’s Paradox’ is simply poetic, “Sweet is the sound as leather bound the well-timed willow strikes”, and sounds beautiful too. ‘Line and Length’ is pure Thomas Dolby, musically and lyrically. ‘Chin Music’ breaks the rule in that it’s an instrumental, but one that a mid-1960s Brian Wilson would have been truly proud of. At times, the lyrics work, but the music is uninspired. ‘The Umpire’ is a work of pure pathos, “Take the wheel of my Escort, sixty-five, middle lane, Watch the Jags and the Ferraris, leave me in their wake again”, but scarcely troubles the musical scorers. ‘Mystery Man’ manages to pack a wonderful variety of deliveries into a four-minute over, “Yorker, seamer, bouncer, beamer, Doosra, slider, just can’t decide-er”, yet the musical delivery is well wide. ‘Out In The Middle’ is the opposite. The music hits the sweet spot, but the words slide down the leg side. And just sometimes, nothing quite works. ‘Nudging and Nurdling’ is utterly self-indulgent. An excuse to invite celebrity luvvies to Abbey Road Studios to record three words. The bottom line, though, is that The Duckworth Lewis Method have now produced the two best records about cricket ever. True, the competition isn’t intense. Think Clive Lloyd’s West Indies against Tony Greig’s England. But if you can get beyond the whimsicality of it all, there’s plenty of rewarding material. Hat-tricks, though, are very rare.
In 2007 John Vanderslice released Emerald City, undoubtedly the best set of songs about 9/11 and its aftermath. Fully six years after the events of that day, it was no mature reflection. These were totally immediate, eye-witness accounts. Full of bewilderment and shock, they were strong, powerful, memorable tracks with great melodies. It must have been utterly cathartic, because since then things have become much quieter. The follow-up, Romanian Horses, was a restrained affair. The next outing, White Wilderness, was played with an orchestra. His latest release, Dagger Beach, is more experimental. He’s called it an “abstract” and “weirder” record. He’s right, but it’s still recognisable as a John Vanderslice album. The songs are filled with short bursts of sounds that complement the melodies. Twinkling keyboards, electronic burbles, brief guitar licks. Like his previous outings, this is an album with lots of notes. The difference is that there are none of the great sing-along tunes from previous albums, such as ‘Exodus Damage’, or ‘Pale Horse’. Sure, there are songs that in a different mood could have been supreme slices of Vander. ‘Damage Control’ with its plaintive “oh let me go” refrain has hints of ‘They Won’t Let Me Run’ from Cellar Door. ‘How The West Was Won’ with its fuzz guitar and belting percussion starts off as if it’s going to reprise ‘Numbered Lithograph’ from Emerald City. Neither song, though, fully gets going. Instead, Dagger Beach is a thoughtful record. At times perhaps it’s a little over thoughtful. ‘Harlequin Press’ sets up a classic Vanderslice melody, only for it to be taken away by a woodwind interlude. ‘Song For David Berman’ has similar stop-starts, but perhaps comes closest to a fully realised gem. John Vanderslice is the undisputed ‘nicest guy in indie rock’. He has a wonderful ethos. He’s made great albums. He’s almost beyond criticism. This isn’t his most memorable outing. But as ‘abstract’ and ‘weird’ records go, this one is still very listenable.
There are some phrases you can never imagine yourself uttering, but then suddenly they just pop out. KT Tunstall has just released a really interesting album is one such phrase. The album is interesting for two reasons. The first is that half of the songs were written around the death of her father, while the other half were written about the end of her marriage. While death and bitter break ups are common themes, these are extremely personal songs. Indeed, there are moments when listening to them dispassionately, critically, like you would the new Jagwar Ma album, seems somehow wrong, disrespectful. The second reason is that the album was produced in Tucson by Howe Gelb of Giant Sand fame. Unsurprisingly, he’s done a wonderful job, giving the music an authentic twist without simply turning it into a Howe Gelb album. Unquestionably, though, it’s an album of two halves. The first, Invisible Empire, is the least adventurous musically. Despite some nice Tucson touches, especially on ‘Old Man Song’, it’s piano and acoustic guitar fare and at times, particularly on ‘Made of Glass’ and ‘How You Kill Me’, echoes of a KT Tunstall lounge act can be heard. The second, Crescent Moon, is the most rewarding half. The title track is pure Kate Bush. There’s even a ‘waxing and waning’ motif that could have come straight from Aerial: A Sky of Honey. ‘Waiting On The Heart’ has some wonderful desert guitar and a lovely rhythm. ‘Feel It All’ is restrained here, different from the more radio-friendly version of the first single. ‘Chimes’ is a lovely melody with Howe Gelb himself on backing vocals. And the album closes on a relatively upbeat note with the full Howe Gelb band in play. One of the biggest compliments is that it doesn’t sound like a standard KT Tunstall album. But neither does it sound like an artist who is trying to reinvent herself for the sake of shifting a few more units. Instead, it sounds like someone with a bunch of heartfelt songs that needed to be recorded in the right environment with the right people. In that regard, KT Tunstall has succeeded.
Free from The Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor Friedberger’s first solo album was a paean to New York City. Better than a Baedeker, she told us intimate stories of a city she loves. Her second solo album is equally intimate, but the themes are broader. This time she writes the lyrics with John Wesley Harding and perhaps the biggest compliment is that it’s nigh-on impossible to determine who contributed what. More than that, the collaboration generates some nice puzzles. On ‘When I Knew’, Eleanor sings about a woman she keeps hooking up with. “Well I couldn’t get her out of my head”, she says, “So I got her out of hers instead, I know I couldn’t get her out of my head, And then we ended up in …”. Are they John Wesley Harding’s lyrics. Is that why she doesn’t sing the last word? Or are they Eleanor Friedberger’s? In one sense, who cares? The ambiguity is what works. Only at times do the themes get stretched a little too far. On ‘Echo Or Encore’ the full-length music analogy loses its appeal early on. And ‘I Am The Past’ sounds just a little too hippy-dippy to be a true Eleanor Friedberger song. Is that really a flute solo? But this is a fine record. The songs rush by. There are no attempts at lush orchestration. Everything is pretty much pared back to guitar, synths and percussion, but it doesn’t feel cold or empty or cheap. There are moments of pure Stephen Malkmus in the guitar work. ‘My Own World’ being a nice example. Other songs have some great hooks. ‘I’ll Never Be Happy Again’ and ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow’ both get a grip on the mind. In the end, though, the best thing about a Eleanor Friedberger solo album is that it could only be an Eleanor Friedberger solo album. There are plenty of musical influences from 70s soft-rock to indie guitar bands, but the mix of the distinctively dry delivery and the authentically personal stories make it sound unique. And that’s always a good thing.
On their last album, Camera Obscura started with a bang. ‘French Navy’ was up-tempo indie-pop heaven. On this album, Camera Obscura play things down. There’s a meditative intro called ‘Intro’ and the first song proper, ‘This Is Love (Feels Alright’), is mid-tempo indie-pop reflection. The change is deliberate, of course, and presumably signals a new-found maturity. Relocating from Glasgow to Portland, Oregon, Camera Obscura have called upon the services of producer Tucker Martine, who has worked with über-serious artists such as The Decembrists and Sufjan Stevens. More than that, they’ve received help from indie-rock-americana royalty, specifically Her Serene Highness Neko Case and His Holiness Jim James, who appear on a number of tracks. Even the album cover marks a new departure for the band. So, after all these changes the big question is why, for the most part, does Desire Lines still sound like most other Camera Obscura albums? The answer lies partly in the lyrics. It’s not that you’d expect to hear a bunch of songs about the school run or the problems of filing a tax return at this stage of their career, but Tracyanne is still singing about the sort of relationships you can only have in your late teens and very early twenties. It’s not inappropriate, just slightly anachronistic. The answer also partly lies in the percussion. Camera Obscura have always been backed by perhaps the least imaginative drumming in contemporary indiedom. And this album is no exception. The beat is hit with a wallop. There are scarcely any fills. And sometimes the drums can be too high in the mix. ‘Troublemaker’ being the best (worst) example. That said, this isn’t just a repeat of previous albums and the lyrics and percussion are only occasional irritants. The title track shows how just a little slide guitar and organ can transform a band’s sound without taking away the essentials. ‘New Year’s Resolution’ weaves some nicely restrained guitar work into a classic melody. ‘Cri Du Coeur’ has more passion than most Camera Obscura songs. Overall, this is a good album, but there’s just that nagging sense of how much better it could have been if Camera Obscura had fully embraced their inner Oregonian.