Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Baby, let's transverberate"

So, the most prolific band in the mini-genre of middle-class indie rock masquerading as working class hero, blue-collar rawk (cf. Drive-By Truckers, um, no-one else), The Hold Steady are about to release their fourth album, Stay Positive. I must say that I approached the record - as a fan, may I add, in case you didn't know already - with some trepidation. I have my problems with the previous album, Boys And Girls In America, despite originally creaming myself over it on these very pages.

Well, I'd like to say that I needn't have worried, that The Hold Steady have made the album that would put my mind at ease as both fan and critic. Stay Positive isn't that record. It is, however, a record that ticks all of my fanboy boxes and pushes so many of my buttons in the way that previous Hold Steady albums have in the past, but the critic in me sees through it like so many hotdog grease-stained napkins.

Stay Positive sees the band expand and grow as musicians in so many ways and also features some of their strongest songs. The practically sordid 'Navy Sheets' (complete with a flamboyant, Edgar Winter-esque keyboard riff from Franz Nicolay) is the closest the band has come to outright sexy and the dust-blown Western licks of 'Both Crosses' both measure up to anything they've done before. Also, the way that the bass, guitar and keyboards intertwine and rub up against each other in 'Yeah Sapphire' is phenomenal.

BUT - it's a big one, hence the capitals - Stay Positive makes me feel even more dirty for liking this band than any of their other records. I'm not the type of guy who dislikes things just because I think I should. For instance, is there any other better way to enjoy Nutella than by dipping your fingers into it? It's wrong, but it's so good. However, I know I shouldn't enjoy The Hold Steady's music as much as I do, especially this album.

Why? Well, the key to my status as a self-loathing THS fan lies squarely at the feet of frontman and lyricist, Craig Finn. It seems to be getting increasingly easy for him to write songs that pander to those who already love the band, so you get the feeling that he's getting lazier and more eager to preach to the converted with each release. Every reference to drunken misadventure or fucked-up love in Ybor City or St. Paul on Stay Positive makes me groan each time I listen to it. If this is all Finn has to draw on, that's fine, but he doesn't even deal in relatable universals anymore. His lyrical palette is getting narrower as the band mature musically.

Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay and bassist, Galen Polivka own this record but Finn lets the side down time and again. Just write a fuckin' book already. This band could be special but the guy who writes the words is stuck in a massive rut. I smell a backlash coming up around the corner.

The Hold Steady - Joke About Jamaica (mp3)

The Hold Steady - Yeah Sapphire (mp3)

More essential summer listening tips coming up over the weekend.



Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Yer Mam!'s Guide To Essential Summer Listening, Or: Can Anybody Think Of A Better Blog Post Title Than That?

Hello there, faitful readers,

I know you've probably all been refreshing this page constantly for the last four weeks in the vain hope that it may at some point be updated, but I've been quite busy/lazy (delete as applicable, depending on how well you know me) lately and have let the blog gather dust. A thousand apologies. That's all about to change (I know I've said that before, but I really, really mean it this time) as over the next week or so, a flurry of posts should appear here on all kinds of music that's been tickling my ears while I've been away.

Bloggerpalooza was a blast - seems so long ago now - so thank you to everyone who came down. I'm pretty sure we'll be doing it again at some point in the not-too-distant future, so keep 'em peeled.

Anyway, seeing as we're edging towards the summer months - although you wouldn't be able to tell from the gale-force winds lashing past my windows at the moment - and seeing as music and nice weather go together like Ashlee Simpson and that tool from Fall Out Boy (ooooh, topical!), I thought I'd tip you off to some tunes and albums that should be rocking your barbecues and box socials from June through to September. Let the sunshine in...

Strut are on a superb roll at the moment. I guess it's a making up for lost time thing, but after the Disco Not Disco, Funky Nassau and August Darnell compilations, the next on the roster is a more streamlined follow-up to the 3-disc Nigeria 70 comp released by the label back in 2001. Subtitled Lagos Jump: Original Heavyweight Afrobeat, Highlife & Afro-Funk, Nigeria 70 is a timely, funky document of Nigeria's musical legacy, leaning heavily on the highlife sound that's recently been appropriated by the likes of Vampire Weekend, High Places and Yeasayer.

Packaged with some of the best sleevenotes I've ever seen, Strut have really done their homework again. I'd write more about it but the Cosmic Disco boys have covered it better than I ever could already and, well, the music really speaks for itself. All I can do is urge you to seek out this thrilling, succinct collection of some of the best, funkiest music West Africa has to offer. Check out the samples below. They should be all the convincing you need.

Dynamic Africana - Igbehin Lalayo Nta (mp3)

Ify Jerry Crusade - Everybody Likes Something Good (mp3)

Robert Owens is inarguably the greatest vocalist in the history of house music. 'Bring Down The Walls', 'Tears', 'I'm Strong', 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes', etc. All great tunes. His latest solo album, Night-Time Stories slipped by without much fanfare back in February, a sign, I guess, of the lessening cultural impact of modern house music. While electro, disco and techno continue to thrive and be lauded at every turn, the perception of house as a dying artform seems to be worryingly more cemented with every passing day.

It's not a school of thought to which I subscribe as there are still lots of producers doing great things in the house spectrum (Arto Mwambe, Marcus Worgull, Laurent Garnier with his new 12" on Innervisions), but most of those guys are cross-pollinating, incorporating elements of techno and electro whilst jackin' as hard as they can. Owens pulls together some of house's best producers for Night-Time Stories, and the overall effect is of the house cognoscenti thumbing their noses at the tastemakers in a highly-replayable act of defiance with the great soulman at the helm.

Owens pulls out all the stops here, summoning up some of his best vocals in years for collaborators such as Wahoo, Atjazz, Simbad, Charles Webster, Jimpster, TJ Kong & Nuno Dos Santos and Marc Romboy. It's also remarkably fresh, frequently breathing life into tired old tropes. Owens saves his best for Ian Pooley, with the unifying, twilit gospel of 'I'm Chained' (one of my favourite tunes of the year so far), but he delivers great turns for the aforementioned Kong & Dos Santos (the unbearably deep 'Merging'), Webster (the florid, yet moody 'Never Give Up') and Romboy (the light-fingered Booka Shade-isms of 'Back To You'). Even the house-heads may have dismissed this as more of the same, but they'll be missing out on one of the more surprising full-lengths of the year.

Robert Owens - Merging (produced by TJ Kong & Nuno Dos Santos) (mp3)

Robert Owens - Now I Know (produced by Atjazz) (mp3)

When Pimp C died late last year, I feared that the upcoming Bun B solo effort, II Trill was going to be a mawkish, teary affair, endless .40s being poured on the kerb and all that. I was wrong, as Bun has offered forth the best tribute to his late partner possible; a record that keeps the UGK flame alive in a suitably fiery manner. The production (from names such as J.R. Rotem, Clinton Sparks, Jazze Pha, CHOPS and Scott Storch among others) is cavernous and Bun is on fire on pretty much every track.

The supporting cast reads like a who's-who of Southern hip-hop (as is the norm for UGK-related projects), with Rick Ross, David Banner, Lil' Wayne, Z-Ro, 8-Ball & MJG, Young Buck and more weighing in with some great verses. Outsider Lupe Fiasco even proves himself adept at the Southern style on 'Swang On 'Em' and Mya crops up on surefire pop-rap hit of 2008, the S.O.S. Band-sampling 'Good II Me', while Chamillionaire fits like a glove on 'Underground Thang' (replete with the only Pimp C verse here). Bun's rhymes are as complex and winning as usual, ensuring this bass-heavy opus rocks trunks and clubs from now until doomsday.

Bun B - Good II Me (feat. Mya) (mp3)

Bun B - Swang On 'Em (feat. Lupe Fiasco) (mp3)

Bonus: S.O.S. Band - Just Be Good To Me (mp3)

And if that lot don't turn you on, you ain't got no switches.

Back later in the week with more sunshine picks.


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Friday, May 02, 2008

Blogasaurus Rex!

It's coming. On Sunday in Manchester's Contact Theatre (next to the Academy on Oxford Road), the stars of the Manchester music blogging miniverse are joining together like some sort of web-savvy/music-spoddy Voltron to create the beast that is Bloggerpalooza. From 6pm onwards, the cream of the crop of Manc's mp3 bloggers will be providing a sensory treat for your ears and eyes (beautiful guys and gals that we are, once you look past the pixel tans) as part of Manchester's five-day Futuresonic festival. Sod The RZA, we're the big draw this year so you really should be there.

There'll be various web 2.0 kind of shenanighans going on like live internet streaming, an ongoing Twitter feed telling you what we're playing as it spins and all sorts of other fun stuff. It's going to be great so if you're in the area, there's really no excuse for not coming. Your selectors for the night are Just Hipper and The Ledge from The Indie Credential, Niles and Baggy from Cosmic Disco, the Best Foot Forward crew, Shoplifters, Jon The Beef from Black Country Grammar and, of course, yours truly. Hopefully the weather will stay nice too.

I might well play this...

6th Burrough Project - So Glad (mp3)

... but not this, although I think you'll admit it'd be funny if I did...

Tim And Eric - Doo Dah Doo Doo (mp3)

See you there?

More from me soon, honest...


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