Sympathetic Stupid

Friday, September 29, 2006

All the Sparkly Horses

I never got into Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous) yet, but apparently now is the time. He just released Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain and I just got a spiffy new pair of cans (the Sennheiser HD595 as recommended by James and HeadRoom).

Good timing, too, cause this album's about simple tones played well, carried by slow tempos and sweet sound pictures rather than hooky riffs and big soft-loud builds. The tempos and full landscape are similar to what I've heard of Okay, though the vocals are less rattling - Mountains especially is similar to Marty's layered, slightly messy production. Or like an Eels album from the great period before E got happy, but without the guitar driven crowd-pleasers. It's Not So Hard approaches this, but Steven Drozd's in-your-face drums and Dave Fridmann's feedback blanket bury the Beatle-esque refrain "come on/come on/come on/it's not so hard", and the guitar part lacks the mass consumption hooks.

The album has plenty of guests. Drozd, of The Flaming Lips, does some drumming. His colleague Fridmann plays some bass. Producer of the year Dangermouse works some knobs. Joan (as Policewoman) Wasser and Tom Waits apparently give violin and piano to Morning Hollow. But they're unobtrusive contributions rather than "Drum Solo!" guest spots.

My favourite track, at this point, is Shade and Honey, a Linkous piece from top to toe. It's the first point on the album where we hear his voice unadorned by effects, gently singing us into a sunny country landscape over a couple of simple guitars, before just a taste of bittersweet snare-driven intensity under the held "honey", disappearing quickly into the blue sky. Eventually, he's unobtrusively joined by strings, a keyboard twist, tiny xylophoney highlights. It's the balance of the track which is most impressive; the melding of the elements into a seamless whole, reward multiplying on each listen. It's an anthem that no-one needs to shout out.

[MP3 - 5.3MB] Sparklehorse - Shade and Honey

[buy from amazon]

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

It's More Than Alright

Can I just say, I'm not sure about the album Ground Components - An Eye for a Brow, A Tooth for a Pick; I've only been all the way through twice and it strikes me as schizophrenic and hard to grab onto.

But the 10:39 long cover of Dylan's It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding) which closes the album is scorching. I don't remember the original with any clarity but this stands up all on its own. The vocal delivery is more hipster than Dylan but we get his passion all the same. The raw guitar is understated so doesn't dominate. The bass line rocks the house. Tempo and instrumentation changes keep it rolling, culminating in the band heading off in four different directions, before dropping into a fervent vocal break.

Here it is:

[MP3 - 14.1MB] Ground Components - It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

[record available in stores only]
Ground Components website, myspace, at Shock

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sodastream Stackhat

By an unimaginable coincidence, I need to write about two things both named after icons of the 80s.

Stackhattery is a notable new blog. He's not only posted four times in six weeks, but thrice in the past week! So if anyone wants to read an actively maintained blog, adjust your links now.

Otherwise, stay here and I'm gonna talk about Sodastream.

I've seen their name on gig listings since eternity, it seems, and they're in great company, friends with bands I love like Khancoban, Art of Fighting and Grand Salvo. But I only actually saw them a week or so ago, on Pat's advice. Like a good kid, I studied up in the two days beforehand by purchasing Reservations, their latest album from earlier this year. By the time I got to the gig on Saturday night, I'd listened enough to be impressed.

By the time I walked out I was truly hooked. So much so that I picked up the previous CD and EP at the show. And then played them 63 times last week, according to Which doesn't include on my iRiver and at home on the CD player.

The music's sumptuous, full-bodied and warm and dark, so much so that it belies their size as a two/three-piece. The core is Karl Smith on guitar and vocals, maybe keys, and Pete Cohen on upright bass, backing vocals, maybe musical saw. They're joined more often than not by Marty Brown, royalty of Art of Fighting and Clare Bowditch, on drums. And various tracks on the album have muted horns sitting in behind, or a single violin, or multi-tracked vocals for extra body and bounce.

The two immediate standouts on the album are the big singalong choruses of Twin Lakes and Reservations, upbeat despite their black subject matter. There's the Simon & Garfunkel picked guitar and soaring vocals of Tickets to the Fight, again pleasant though the refrain is "because I'm starting to hate, girl". But the album generally is a picture of melancholy, creeping along quietly through mental landscapes of sadness and longing. The keystones of this feeling are then Warm July and Firelines. Heated titles, rich music which fills every corner of your eardrums, and constrasts the bleak, lonely subject matter. "Bury me with the things I wouldn't share." "It's already too late to bring you flowers."

And contrast, perfectly melded opposition, is the band's schtick. Karl's pure voice soaring above Pete's subterranean baritone. The light picking guitar part over the pushing bowed bass. The space in the middle filled alternately with strings, horns, keys or so-sensitive touches of brushed kit drums.

All this and a magnificent live show. The boys chat comfortably on stage, then are into the tunes, Pete subsumed into the music with his hair cascading over half his body, it seems, while Karl's penetrating gaze wanders the audience as his heart leaps into space. Marty's there up the back, but despite the lack of any other instruments, they fill the space in all but the quietest songs. Which are unsurprisingly spoiled a little by the usual pay-fifteen-bucks-then-chat-up-the-back crowd. It's a good show when I'm more impressed by the tracks I don't know (the majority of the set) than those I do - Horses, Keith and Tina and Charity Board all great. The build on Horses is amazing live.

These guys are great. Shame they're in Europe till next year.

[MP3 - 3.9MB] Sodastream - Firelines

[buy from the band's site]

Aside: I don't know if this was written immediately after some sort of breakup, but it's an interesting comparison with another recent purchase of mine, Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats, which definitely was. Get Lonely has a stark, empty aesthetic reflecting maybe the unbearable void inside John Darnielle at that time, intensified by the soul-black lyrics. Reservations is different - pain in the words but balm in the music.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Start Spreading The News

So, I'm back in town after a European odyssey not yet fully documented in the blog linked below. To celebrate my return I've spent large amounts of money on CDs, with mixed results. There is one I really want to mention, right now:

Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther

I'd downloaded bits of the album, notably Roscoe and Head Home. Both of which I still think are good tracks. The album as a whole is whimsical and smooth with a wide variety of styles, mostly pretty competent though getting a bit MOR in places. (Just learnt that acronym so I'm probably using it in the wrong.) It's almost the definition of a solid indie pop album, a little bit interesting but not too challenging for the masses.

But this minute I'm listening, on repeat, to We Gathered in Spring and It Covers the Hillsides. It's the upfront synth which makes these. Key moment 1: 23 seconds into We Gathered in Spring - "I think they were giants" with the simple synth chords. Key moment 2: 1:51 in when we're gifted with a transcendental climbing keyboard solo. Key moment 3: 6 seconds into It Covers the Hillsides when the noodling synth and piano are given purpose by the top-string bass riff, and the best driving beat on the album. Key moment 4: 1:06 in, after "head out towards the ocean", when we get into the bridge, with dueling guitar and synth solos all underpinned by that single-malt rhythm section.

An honourable mention to Head Home 2:21: "There's someone I like to see/She never mentions a word to me/She reads Leviathan", and the room-filling layered guitars temporarily pull back to reveal the piano line hidden underneath.

It's a pretty fun album, possibly a great one, definitely better than Bamnan and Slivercork. I'm way looking forward to seeing these guys at Meredith.