Tindersticks – The Waiting Room

Tindersticks – The Waiting Room

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One of the great things about Tindersticks is that they’re not afraid to rummage through their back catalogue, pick out an old idea, and fashion something new from it. On 2012’s The Something Rain, they began with a spoken-word, story-telling track that was reminiscent of ‘My Sister’ from their second album. Here, there are a couple of Stuart Staples duets that create echoes of ‘Travelling Light’, again from their second album. One of these duets is with Jehnny Beth of Savages and it’s pretty tough as well you might imagine. More remarkably, the other features Lhasa de Sela, who died in January 2010. You’d expect it to be a morbid affair, but it’s a light, playful, and endearing composition. In fact, if you listen closely enough you can almost hear de Sela stifling a giggle when she responds to one of Staples’ more exaggeratedly louche propositions. As a tribute, it’s a really nice one. While variations on the past are usually the sure sign of a band suffering from artistic exhaustion, it never feels that way here. Maybe they’re still shellshocked from scoring the various battles of Ypres in 2014, but this is a gentler Tindersticks than on their two most recent conventional outings. There were a number of urgent tracks on both Falling Down A Mountain and The Something Rain, but here there’s a more relaxed, mellow, and soulful sound throughout. Yet it’s still the same old Stuart Staples. With moments of wistfulness, “Were we once lovers?”, wisdom, “We can only hurt each other the way that lovers can”, and tenderness, “With his hair combed, He stood in the doorway, Like a lost dog holding his missing poster”, there’s a welcome familiarity to the themes. Timeless. Like Tindersticks themselves.

Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20

Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20

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Lucinda Williams seems to be in a good place. She’s just set up a record label, giving her control over her musical affairs. She’s backed by a fine band, Buick 6, providing stability and real chops. She’s also on a great creative run. Her new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, which clocks in at 14 songs and 87 minutes, comes hot on the heels of last year’s 20-song, 104-minute collection Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Of course, these things are relative. To say that Lucinda Williams is in a good place is like suggesting that Lear is content with his lot. Because it almost goes without saying that The Ghosts of Highway 20 is full of the pain of the past, angst about the future, and a general discomfort with the present that marks out any Lucinda Williams album. And therein lies the greatness. The opening track, ‘Dust’, like ‘Compassion’ from the previous album, features lyrics from one of her father’s poems. Putting poetry to music is always tricky, but this is a real triumph. And it’s repeated on the magnificent ‘House of Earth’, which puts Woody Guthrie’s words to music. But there are many personal moments too. The title track is a trip down a two-lane blacktop memory highway. “I know this road like the back of my hand”, she sings, where “Every exit leaves a little death”. But even if the spirit on this album is the same as on its predecessor, this offering is a slower, more sombre, very deliberate affair. At no point do we hear the almost Crazy Horse-like riffs of ‘Protection’ or ‘Burning Bridges’ from last year’s outing, even though the songs were all written and recorded at around the same time. Instead, there’s a sense that the new-found musical freedom has given her the space within which to express herself more completely. One thing’s for sure, though. Even if The Ghosts of Highway 20 may continue to speak to Lucinda Williams, they also have plenty to say to us too.

Dylan LeBlanc – Cautionary Tale

Dylan LeBlanc – Cautionary Tale

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Dylan LeBlanc is 25 years old. This is his third album. The first, Paupers Field, was a relatively rollicking sort of affair that wouldn’t have been out of place coming out of the speakers in a long cross-country drive in the early 1970s. By contrast, the second, Cast The Same Old Shadow, was a much more sombre and altogether less uplifting listen. Three years later, his new album provides perhaps a clue as to why. By his own admission, he went through some dark days around that time, alcohol seeming to play a major part. Now, he’s back with us again. He looks great. Sounds good. And has delivered a much more radio-friendly product than its predecessor. The main theme is inescapable. From the title track to songs to such as ‘I’m Moving On’, we’re never left in any doubt as to the upwardness of his trajectory. And that’s a good thing. Of course this isn’t the first redemption album ever to hit the shelves. Some chronicle the struggle itself. Think Split by The Groundhogs or, more recently, The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus. Others reflect on the period of pain and are still marked by it, even if there’s a sense that things are progressing. Almost anything by Lucinda Williams comes into this category. And yet others still are fashioned by such great songwriters that you get to learn their story while singing along to all the fine melodies. Southeastern by Jason Isbell springs to mind in this regard. For its part, Cautionary Tale doesn’t fit into any of those categories. The songs are superbly crafted, carefully delivered, and easy on the ear. Very easy. And while that’s undoubtedly their greatest strength, it’s also perhaps their slight failing. It’s as if we have to take Dylan LeBlanc’s word that he went through a rough time, rather than actually experiencing it with him for 40-odd minutes at least. For sure, there are worse sins for an album to commit, but it means it’s not quite the classic it might have been. So, if you’re angry with the world and want to listen to something with the volume turned up to 11, then this is not the album for you. However, if you’ve just signed up to a 12-week course on mindfulness, then this is almost the perfect companion.

Some incoherent thoughts on the death of David Bowie

I turned on the radio at about 7.15 this morning and the first words I heard were “I know some of you will want to know more about the unexpected death of …”. And my mind immediately started racing. Who? A politician was my first thought. But when the announcer said “… David Bowie”, I was utterly shocked. Knee-tremblingly shocked.

I didn’t meet David Bowie. I never saw him live. I didn’t connect with any of his music after Let’s Dance (until a couple of days ago). I didn’t really even think about him for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet for me, like for so many others, he was a part of my life.

One of the first songs that ever registered with me was ‘Life On Mars’. I was about seven. Back then, I had no idea it was by David Bowie. Over time, I got to know his music pretty well. I was never a Bowie head, but I liked his stuff (at least up to Let’s Dance). I wasn’t alone. Everybody I knew liked Bowie about as much as I did, apart from the Bowie heads, who really, really liked him.

About 5-6 years ago my youngest son developed a liking for Hunky Dory. We’d play it in the car. His interest was piqued by the Mickey Mouse reference in ‘Life on Mars’. Three years ago, almost to the day, my oldest son announced out of nowhere that he was going to buy The Next Day. Given his usual taste, it was a real surprise. A pleasant one. I didn’t really care for the album, though.

On Friday I listened to Blackstar on YouTube. I was really impressed. My wife liked it too. On Saturday I bought the album on iTunes. He hasn’t done anything this good since Let’s Dance, I thought. It got me thinking about him a little. On Sunday morning I played his 1993 compilation The Singles Collection. My youngest son poked his head around the bedroom door when ‘Life On Mars’ started playing.

When I turned on radio this morning and heard about his death, I was truly shocked. I couldn’t quite think straight. When I dropped my son off at school I realised that I’d forgotten to pack his bag in the car and had to return with it. It’s a long journey and it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that.

David Bowie wasn’t part of my family. My feelings can’t compare to those who really knew him. But, like millions of other people, I am truly shocked by the news of his death. At the moment I can’t bear to play any of his material. In a couple of days, though, I’ll be able to. And he’ll be part of my life again.

Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

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Some live albums are released warts and all. Think of Hendrix at Woodstock. Some albums are recorded live, but are re-recorded so heavily in the studio that they end up being live only in theory. Thin Lizzy’s ‘Live and Dangerous’ is the standard example. Conor O’Brien has done something different. He’s recorded an album live in the studio with his band. There’s no applause at the end of any of the tracks. Only one song is counted in. In essence this is a studio-quality re-recording of old material plus one cover. Sure, the voice wavers perhaps once or twice on some of the longer notes, but you’d hardly know it was live at all. And therein lies the danger. The pleasure of the live album is found in the inherent tension of the event. The spontaneity of the performance. The live-in-the-studio concept takes all of this away. In fact, it takes it even further away than the radio sessions on stations such as KCRW, KEXP, or MPR, where at least the possibility of a monumental fuck up or faux pas by the band maintains a certain frisson of excitement. By contrast, the pristine nature of the product here raises a very simple question. What’s the point? Happily, Conor O’Brien gives us some answers. The arrangements are beautiful. The playing is tight. And the voice is as ethereal as ever. In other words, it might not have quite the same vibe as Motörhead’s No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, but it still sounds just great. More than that, it does exactly what only some great live albums manage to do. It allows the listener to reinterpret familiar material. This is particularly the case for the Jackal and {Awayland} songs. Following the revelations at the time of Darling Arithmetic, it’s difficult not hear certain lines differently from before. “He lies awake in his bed every night devising ways to conceal the strain” from ‘That Day’, or “No time for innocence, or sitting on the fence, What are you gonna do?” from ‘The Waves’. It also adds a certain nuance to the cover of ‘Wichita Lineman’. Where Have You Been All My Life? may be a live release, but it’s carefully curated all the same. It’s no One More From The Road, but it has its own special qualities nonetheless.

Minor Moon – A Whisper, A Shout

Minor Moon – A Whisper, A Shout

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In the fallow period between the holidays and the first releases of the New Year, it’s good to discover some sounds that slipped through the 2015 net. This December release from Minor Moon is one that’s highly recommended. Fronted by Sam Cantor, who’s been based in New England but who’s soon to be from Chicago, A Whisper, A Shout is the band’s first full-length release. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a Jason Molina thing going on. There are dark themes based around powerful guitar work, notably on ‘Call Out’. But this is no second-rate, copy-cat misery fest. And, despite the name of the album, the songs aren’t based around the standard quiet/loud formula. The vocals are always confident and persuasive. There’s some great bass work on tracks like ‘Futon’. And even some jazzy elements on ‘Bare Light’. Sam Cantor is a friend of Dan Knishkowy, whose band, Adeline Hotel, opened up 2015 on Half-Life Music. Twelve months on, Minor Moon have provided another great start to a new year. Check out A Whisper, A Shout over at Bandcamp.

Here’s to 2016

This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.