Nadine Shah walks into the aspiring-artist back-story music store. “I’d like the one”, she says, “where the person I think for years is my sister is actually my mother and the person I think is my mother is actually my grandmother”. “Sorry”, she’s told, “Eric Clapton took that one ages ago”. “Hmm”, she says. “Well, how about the one where I only find out who my real father is when I’m 11 and it turns out to be the cook.” “Gone. Rumer snapped that one up”. “OK”, she says, “How about the one where I grow up in the north-east of England with a Norwegian mother and a Pakistani father who loves to sing Urdu ghazals around the house”. “Congratulations. You’re in luck”. The great thing about the aspiring-artist back-story music store is that all the back stories are true and Nadine Shah has a good one. Does her background make any difference to the music? Not obviously. She seems to be charting her own musical course. And it’s an interesting one. There’s a unity to the sound across the album. It’s always cold, serious, and very intense. But the journey is unpredictable. The opener, ‘The Aching’, sets the stage for what could easily be 45 minutes of industrial gloom. The next two tracks, ‘To Be A Young Man’ and ‘Runaway’, are equally dark, threatening and guitar-heavy. ‘The Devil’ is more melodic, but still brooding and guitar-led. Then suddenly things get quieter. Much quieter. ‘Floating’ picks up the melody from ‘The Devil’, but now the intensity is expressed more in the voice than any musical Sturm und Drang. And thereafter the songs are mainly piano-led. They’re sparse, but not empty. They’re given the room to ebb and flow in a way that the early tracks weren’t allowed to. By the time the last track ends with its tinkling piano notes, the musical transformation is complete. The early songs sound like the work of an angry young artist. The later ones like the work of someone already much more mature. And in that regard, Nadine Shah, with her wonderful aspiring-artist back story behind her, has time on her side.
Like break-up albums? You’ll love this one. Ten songs all dealing with Alela’s break up with husband-guitarist, Tom Bevitori. It’s so focused, it’s almost a concept album. There’s a chronological element to it. The sense that things are ending. The knowledge that it’s finally over. The looking back misty-eyed. The packing up and moving away. There are no good times times at the beginning. There’s no catharsis at the end. This is just an album about the bad bits. And it’s all the more moving because of that. The observations are so detailed that at times there’s almost a Mrs Dalloway quality to some of the writing: “The four white walls in every damn hotel, A light by the bed, Stains on the floor, And it’s here I will wait out the storm, Killing time on the fringes again, Before the leaving”. But while the lyrics tell the story, they’re only a part of the experience. The songs are fragile, quiet, but they sound great, fully realised. Nothing really comes close a full-on band sound, but the basic palette of guitar and voice is rarely unaccompanied. The backing varies between piano, cello, violins, double-tracked vocals, slight percussion, another guitar, and plenty more. And it varies from one song to the next. There’s no formula. And then there’s the voice. Alela Diane’s vocals are some of the strongest around. Right across the range, there’s a Neko Case power to them. But she’s restrained. Here, there’s absolutely no showing off and she could if she wanted to. Instead, the vocals just emphasise the power of writing, the sadness of the situation, the beauty of the music. If there’s a weakness, then it’s the sense that things are left hanging at the end. There’s no resolution. No excoriating kiss-off. No reconciliation – fat chance. No sense of moving on. But maybe that’s the point. Time is the only healer. And it sounds like there’s still plenty of time to go.
Ariel Pink featuring Jorge Elbrecht – Hang On To Life/No Real Friend
Two songs. One great collaboration. Ariel Pink and Jorge Elbrecht of Violens come together to create a perfect summer sound. There’s more than a little 70s AM to both tracks, but this is no quaint throw-back or simple pastiche. ‘Hang On To Life’ has enough classic Ariel Pink touches to make it stand out. The neat middle eight breaks the rhythm nicely. And the faux telephone conversation throws things just slightly off-kilter, taking the song out of its comfort zone and making it sound all the better. ‘No Real Friend’ begins unassumingly and slightly tweely, but soon starts to shimmer. The pace on both tracks is stately, but the melodies are uplifting. A full album might have been a little too much to bear, but two tracks works just fine. They create their little magic but leave you wanting more. Now that’s a great trick.
Daughn (that’s Don to those who prefer their names with fewer vowels and consonants) Gibson delivered one of the most stunning albums of last year. All Hell was so cold, it was difficult to love. But it was utterly unique and exciting for that reason. In his deep baritone he sang sad but syncopated songs over samples of old country cuts. It wouldn’t be BBQ listening, but it was strangely affecting. In a short time, Daughn Gibson has moved on. Late last year, he released a single, ‘Lite Me Up’, that promised a more uptempo sound. Now with Sub Pop, his new album, Me Moan, builds on this change. The first track, ‘The Sound of Law’, starts things off frantically. In fact, pretty much all of the tracks are now backed by a much stronger beat. Whereas last year he seemed to reside in the funeral home, this year he’s heading for the dance floor. Well, perhaps an alternative, slightly gothy, Nashville dance floor, but a dance floor nonetheless. When it works, it works really well. Backed by some female vocals, ‘You Don’t Fade’ tells a typically scary story. ‘Mad Oceans’ samples the bagpipes in the best way that you’ll hear all year. But sometimes it doesn’t quite work. The rockabilly-lite ‘Kissin on the Blacktop’ sounds like the bastard son of Brian Setzer. And then there’s the vocals. There’s no getting away from them. They have to be discussed. Daughn Gibson has an unmistakable voice. It resonates. It adds depth, both sonically and emotionally. When he sings about tragedy, you feel he’s been there. It’s his strongest suit, but it can be his weakest too. Listen to the elongation of the word “campfire” on ‘Franco’. The way the vowels are tortured. The manner in which the word is deformed and distorted. The delivery is no longer a calling card. It’s a schtick. And on ‘The Right Signs’ it comes close to being a novelty act. Me Moan is an interesting album. Musically, it sounds great. Daughn Gibson has still got something exciting and unique going on. But there is a risk that he’ll become a parody of himself. And that would be a waste of a great talent.
The Silver Seas are a guilty pleasure. They’re an easy listen. A very easy listen. If you want to hear genre-busting musical innovation, then tune the dial to another station. If you want to hear words that capture the angst at the heart of the human soul, then turn the lyrical page. The Silver Seas offer nothing in either regard. What they do offer, thanks to the all-round talents of writer and lead singer Daniel Tashian, are cute songs and most of all great production. The temptation is to liken them to a 70s MOR outfit. But they’re much more like an 80s band with a contemporary sound. More Lexicon of Love than ‘Life in the Fast Lane’. More Rupert Holmes than Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell. For one thing, this an Americana-free zone. There are banjos and pedal steel on a couple of songs, but they’re just another instrument. They’re not part of the ethos. For another thing, the bass is so up front, it would make Level 42 blush. But it’s never fussy or showy-offy. It’s just wonderfully syncopated. It makes the songs bounce. And that’s the general feeling from the album. It’s no manifesto for the next generation. No sound of restless youth. It’s just sunny. Lively. Uplifting. It’s a throw-away album that you’ll want to keep. Great to listen to, but not to reflect on. Just don’t own up to liking it.