BRITISH SEA POWER THE DECLINE OF BRITISH SEA POWER (Rough Trade)
The first several plays suggested an overabundance of cleverness in lieu of anything approaching songs, but while the arrangements are indeed complex and the tunes well hidden, around the middle of the Brighton-based band's album from 'Remember Me' through 'Blackout' Yan's voice and Noble's guitar work coalesce to great effect. Some listeners hear echoes of the McCulloch-Sergeant axis in this combination; fair enough, but I hear Clinic, Teardrop Explodes and Devo just as readily.
Highlight: 'Carrion'. Sorry. I'm a fan of real songs, and this one's a corker, by any comparitive standards.
THE CONTRAST WIRELESS DAYS (Rainbow Quartz)
Acts on the jangly psych pop label Rainbow Quartz are always good, but rarely great. The Contrast's second album strives to up that batting average, and just about succeeds. Clearly rooted in late 60s harmonic psychedelic pop, though unafraid to tackle the odd garage rock riff, the Peterborough based quartet offers up plenty a worthy hook (especially on the opening trio of songs), many appropriately dreamy lyric I particularly like "you left your dreams on your answaphone" and some highly competent musicianship. (Drummer James Crossley frequently brings attention upon himself without grand-standing.) Sadly, David Reid's thin voice struggles to accentuate the choruses; proof, perhaps, that it's the singer, not the song, by which we remember our music.
Highlight: 'Drop Dead Gorgeous Love Song,' and not just for its title: a 6/8 time signature rarely goes amiss.
ELBOW CAST OF THOUSANDS (V2)
A quietly confident, constantly ambitious, ultimately thrilling follow up to the Bury band's acclaimed debut Asleep In The Back. Elbow has been commonly compared to Doves (who appear somewhere here) and Radiohead, but judging by opening track 'Ribcage', with its dark repetition, luscious string arrangement, and employment of the London Gospel Community Choir, they've clearly been listening to Spiritualized too. There's so much beauty in the opening songs that it seems inevitable the attraction will fade, yet before it does, Guy Garvey uses his voice the band's obvious ace - to deliver particularly ethereal magic on 'Switching Off' and 'Not A Job', each of which has a soaring and sad chorus. Held back in the States until January 2004.
Highlight: There are many, but 'Fugitive Motel' written about the group's long-distance love affairs from their overnight digs in a seedy Texas highway motel is particularly poetic.
ELECTRIC MUSIC AKA - THE RESURRECTION SHOW (Sanctuary)
Their name suggests minimalist German techno, and indeed they were forced to add the AKA after legal action by a Kraftwerk member. But as fans of their debut album North London Spiritualist Church may already know, London-based Scottish duo Anth Brown and Tom Doyle play highly crafted, carefully restrained vocal music. Think of Turin Brakes remixed by Doves and you're getting close. So while the single 'Something Up With The Stars' was apparently cut-and-pasted in homage to the Avalanches, such arrangements are tucked into the background, allowing Doyle to sing gently about distance, the atmosphere, the ineffable and the inexplicable. ***
Highlight: 'The Slapback Sound.' A slowly rolling drum and what sounds like a clarinet add to the subtle complexity of this beautifully eerie song, which uses a guitar-playing term as a metaphor for internal emotions.
SLIPSTREAM TRANSCENDENTAL (Hidden Agenda)
Given the extent to which Transcendental reminds me of Spiritualized's debut Lazer Guided Melodies, it's reassuring to know that Slipstream's leader Mark Refoy actually played on that seminal 1992 album, as well as its successor Pure Phase and its predecessor, the influential 1991 Spacemen 3 opus Recurring. It's less comforting to consider that Slipstream labors in obscurity while Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized have become legends: Transcendental was predominantly recorded on 4 and 8-track Portastudios over a six year period. Yet such constraints don't limit the album's musical scope no render it remotely dated. Opener and closer 'Everything and Anything' is a beautiful ballad delivered in 6/8, 'Just You And Me' features a bagpipe guitar line to accompanying drum rolls, 'Sophie's Blues' is the archetypal hypnotic shoegazing instrumental, 'Nothing At All' is relatively pure pop with a Duane Eddy twang, and 'Clare's Ghost' features graphic novelist Alan Moore reciting a poem by Edmund Blunden. Yes, tracks like the sub-three minute instrumental 'Pulsar' sound so close to Spiritualized that it's almost beyond humorous, but anyone who holds Lazer Guided Melodies close to their heart will gratefully accept this beautiful bastard offspring as emanating from the same space(men).
Highlight: 'Lost In Space'. An eight-minute psych-out that never loses its sense of power-pop, exudes romance ("And when I see your face, that's when I'm lost in space") and is none the worse for the fact it resonates with cheap echo effects.
SPIRITUALIZED AMAZING GRACE (Sanctuary)
Few Spiritualized fans will bemoan leader Jason Pierce's decision to make a new album in a relatively 'normal' amount of time. And for sure, Amazing Grace contains all the familiar Spiritualized ingredients: gospel songs ('Lord Let It Rain On Me,'), rock-outs (a typically Pierce-like inversion of the controversial Carole King composition, now entitled 'She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)'), and the big ballad finale ('Lay It Down Slow'). But for the first time in his career, it's obvious that Pierce isn't trying to rewrite the rock rule book and it's hard not to hide our disappointment. And while one can understand Pierce proving he can rock as hard as all the young punks, some songs like 'Cheapster' fall short of his usually impeccable high standards. Are we impossible to please? I hope not. So while Amazing Grace is satisfying in the short term, I also trust there's another mind-bending, genre-busting epic lurking within Pierce's ambition.
Highlight: 'Lord Let It Rain On Me.' Pierce sounds like a non-believer when he sings, "Jesus Christ look what you gone done, 2000 years of looking down the barrel of a gun," but I tend to think he's just a doubter. Either way, I share his sentiment - and I admire his ability to get Gospel choirs to sing along with him. Truly spiritual.
STARSAILOR SILENCE IS EASY (Capitol)
Starsailor: It's Heaven Up Here!
I could only take Starsailor's debut album Love Is Here in small doses; I know I'm not alone in saying that vocalist James Walsh's constantly trilling voice quickly became condescending. But Silence Is Easy holds up better: these are strong songs with consistently good arrangements. Much has been made of Phil Spector's involvement, and even more of the fact that Starsailor ultimately rejected him. (No one has yet asked the uncomfortable question, so allow me: did a sense of rejection contribute by such a young band contribute to Spector's psychotic relapse and eventual murder charge?) Of his two productions, the title song certainly screams of Spector involvement it has the incessant quavers that are a Spector hallmark, and Walsh's voice is rendered as close to John Lennon's as possible. But 'White Dove' is one of the weakest songs here, suggesting Starsailor were right to follow their own instincts. Besides, their own string arrangements on 'Four To The Floor' prove that imitation is not only a sincere form of flattery, it can be a simpler one too. *** 1/2.
Highlight: Opening track 'Music Was Saved,' the group's most amenable, amiable and immediate song to date. And only mildly patronizing.
TEENAGE FAN CLUB FOUR THOUSAND, SEVEN HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SIX SECONDS: A SHORT CUT TO TEENAGE FANCLUB (Jetset)
When it comes to tripped-out Brits, few offer a greater legacy than Teenage Fanclub, perhaps the only band to have been lionized by both the biggest American rock sensation of the 1990s (Nirvana) and the biggest British rock sensation of the same decade (Oasis). Of course, such credibility must mean little when those you have influenced sell a thousand times more records than you do, but listening to this 21-song compilation you understand both Teenage Fanclub's appeal and their limitations. For a start, the long-winded album title: wouldn't 79:43 have told the story better? (And in terms of filling an 80-minute CD to the max, wouldn't it have sold the album stronger?)
Similarly, while 'Star Sign,' 'What You Do To Me,' 'I Need Direction' and 'Neil Jung' all emit everything that's good about vaguely west coast, slightly psychedelic guitar-driven pop, they stubbornly refuse to advertise themselves with an unforgettable hook a la 'Teen Spirit' or 'Wonderwall'. It's not that Fanclub mainstays Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley aren't capable of going commercial; it's that they appear more content to survive on the sidelines, building an ever larger catalogue while skirting comfortably clear of the charts. Two new songs here ('The World'll Be Ok', 'Empty Space') suggest there will be no likely change in their status any time soon; the third, the closely harmonized 'Did I Say', confirms that they nonetheless maintain a stricter quality control than almost all their peers. Allowing that Teenage Fanclub's last four albums appeared on four different American labels, there can be few who've kept completely up to date: 4,760
is therefore both ideal introduction and necessary retrospective.
Highlight: Everyone will have a different fave; mine is probably 1995's 'Neil Jung' for offering a story on top of all the melodies and harmonies.
THE THRILLS SO MUCH FOR THE CITY (Virgin)
I feel as frustrated by The Thrills' debut album as I did when I saw them live. Three stand-out songs ('Santa Cruz', 'Big Sur' and especially 'One Horse Town') that exemplify the Irish group's love of West Coast harmonies and 12-strings and which also serve to highlight Conor Deasy's angelic voice and then too many other numbers that veritably define the term "wimp-rock." And while it appears perfectly logical for The Thrills to follow their influences to their roots and record in America, I would question their decision to name so many songs for the experience, which makes them sound infatuated beyond all common sense. (cf. 'Your Love Is Like Las Vegas' and 'Hollywood Kids,' and the lyrics "Let's go to San Diego" from 'Deckhairs and Cigarettes,' all on top of the opening two songs.) An album of occasional beauty and very rare originality that could otherwise do with some balls. ***
Highlight: 'One Horse Town' is brilliant, the one song from this album the world shouldn't have to do without.