Three great albums from recent weeks that were by passed because of, well, life.
The Hanging Stars – Over The Silvery Lake
If you’re not sold on The Hanging Stars from the very first chords of the very first track of this their very first album, then there’s simply no hope for you. It’s pedal steel heaven. But it’s not just track one. From the start to the sublime finish, ‘Running Waters Wide’, this is a great debut. London-based, LA recorded, think of it as The Byrds by way of E17.
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Complete with the theremin-like sounds of a real singing saw, Kevin Morby’s third solo release is a gem. There are times, like towards the end of the title track, when it’s trippy enough to put you right in the zone, but then there are moments when it’s just balladry at its best, ‘Drunk And On A Star’, being a highlight. Expect to be reunited with it on best-of-the-year lists.
Woods – City Sun Eater in The River Of Light
Even minus Kevin Morby, Woods continue to prosper. There’s a reggae-like vibe to ‘Can’t See At All’, and no lack of funkiness on tracks like ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Sun City Creeps’. And it’s all wrapped up in the usual psych-folk that makes us so fond of Jeremy Earl and his band of Woods people. Check out the finale of ‘The Take’.
I went to see Damien Jurado last night. Truly great gig. Opening for him was Siv Jakobsen and it reminded me that I had been meaning to say a few words about her album for some time now. So, here are a few words.
Siv Jakobsen – The Lingering
The centrepiece of Siv Jakobsen’s new(ish) album is a version of Britney Spears ‘Toxic’. It’s a bold choice, but a memorable one. It does exactly what every really good cover should do. It transforms the track and almost makes you forget who the original artist was. Almost. And that’s the neat trick. You’re hearing a radically new version, but you can still just about picture the original artist singing it this way, which conjures up the image of a very different world. And that’s the beauty of the cover of ‘Toxic’ here. It not only sounds great in itself, it takes us to a whole other counterfactual world. A better world. One in which we can almost imagine Britney herself singing it this way. Modest. Head firmly on her shoulders. Great career ahead of her. Back in our world, Siv Jakobsen’s own compositions aren’t too shabby either. They’re fragile, but not weak. Often built around a lonely guitar line, there’s some lovely yet understated orchestration. ‘Dark’ being a fine example. The Laura Marling influence is plain to hear, and the songs are none the worse for that. Perhaps the stand out track is ‘How We Used to Love’. There’s a beautiful piano theme and some personal-sounding lyrics. “I ran into a woman on the sidewalk, ‘Cause I was thinking too much about us, Dreaming of you and all we’ve lost”. On her new album Siv Jakobsen takes us to some special places. Oh, and track 3, ‘Fix You’, is not a cover of the Coldplay song. Now that would really take something special.
It may be four years since Hands of Glory, but in between times Andrew Bird has been plenty busy. There was last year’s instrumental experiment, the fine set of Handsome Family covers from a couple of years ago, as well as the Pulaski at Night project from 2013, the title track from which, or at least a version of it, is included in some editions of his new album. And while even four years is a time too short to make a world-without-end bargain in, he’s also gone and got married and had a child in the meantime. It’s enough to drive almost anyone to distraction and certainly exhaustion, but there’s little sign of either here. There’s plenty of polyrhythmic pizzicato and postdoctoral prolixity that’s the hallmark of the native Illinoisian. “Used to be so wilfully obtuse, Or is the word abstruse?,” he asks, “Semantics like a noose, Get out your dictionaries”. But there are new elements too. The opening track, ‘Capsized’, sounds like it could have been written and performed by a different artist altogether. It’s a 70s-style, slightly snarly rocker that scarcely befits the man who by popular acclamation is second only to John Vanderslice as the nicest man in indiedom. There’s also ‘Left-Hand Kisses’, which is a duet with Fiona Apple. Think of it as the theme song from The Platonic Affair. While it’s always interesting to hear a musician out of their traditional comfort zone, and these tracks are no exception, perhaps the best songs from Are You Serious are the ones that build on Andrew Bird’s traditional musical strengths and at the same time mix in some of his recent life-changing experiences. ‘Valleys of the Young’ is perhaps the most fully realised achievement in this regard. With an orchestration that’s reminiscent of his work on Armchair Apocrypha, the music swells and soars. And the lyrics also more than hint at the anxieties of his new-found fatherhood. “From their cradle to our grave, Is it selfish, or is it brave?”. It’s life. And all’s well. Just like Are You Serious.