Archive for sufjan stevens

Gold Soundz: Songs for the Summer

Posted in Feature, List with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2015 by David Hall

Summer has definitely, belatedly made its way even to the UK, which you can tell probably most reliably not from the weather outside, but when you see releases like this being made. Obviously this is money-grabbing of the most blatant variety, those aren’t summer hits any more than any other time of year; they aren’t season-specific. Which begs the question, just what is summer music? Would any of us actually know? Well, in an attempt to answer this never-asked question, I sought out some albums that would actually suit a nice day rather well. Sometimes there’s no telling what will happen to a record in a new context, and the only way to find out is to throw it in the pool and see if it sinks or swims. So let’s get this particular witch trial underway:

Warpaint – Warpaint

Warpaint’s confident self-titled second album stands out as music perfectly suited to a stiflingly, paralysingly hot day, which demands barely a toe-tap or a laconic head nod with closed eyes. Plumbing its hazy, druggy depths proves almost mirage-like in the heat, bassy swells washing over the listener in great droning waves. ‘Keep It Healthy’ begins the album brightly with melodic guitar lines, a pleasant morning with dawning sun that hasn’t quite gotten its claws into heating the earth just yet. Compare that with the atonal and sticky twilight of ‘CC’, which pours viscously like molten magma from the listeners’ speakers with almost perceptible heat. Lead single ‘Love Is To Die’ cavorts about the listener mockingly, circling a coastal bonfire at midnight, chanting and flitting out of the moth-ridden darkness. There’s also more than a hint of feverish threat in the death march of ‘Disco//Very’, which forges aimlessly onwards into the heady evening, verses and choruses melting and melding into one another thrillingly. The overwhelming sensation however is fearsome midday heat in Warpaint; you can almost hear the buzzy chirrup of cicadas in ‘Biggy’, its keyboard riff emerging from a blanket of heat haze, whilst ‘Feeling Alright’ falls asleep in the shade, vultures circling overhead.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon

The lengthy evening shadow of Woodstock looms large over Joni Mitchell’s third album, from the brightly sparkling curtain pull of ‘Morning Morgantown’ through to the thrumming, throbbing keys of Woodstock and the existential nursery rhyme closer ‘The Circle Game’s choral chant. It’s a sparsely arranged album, sounding particularly in the title track like a slow drive through the Californian desert, lonely humanoid cacti gliding by in scrubland by the secluded roadside. Though sparing and often unadorned, Mitchell’s material is heady and perfumed, such as on the gorgeous title track. ‘Morning Morgantown’ is the most perfect capturing of a summer dawn as is imaginable, a charmingly and seemingly earnest paean to the possibilities of a new day. However, ‘Woodstock’ is much more arch, sun scorched and serious, almost apocalyptic at times in its imagery – “I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky” Mitchell sings – but ultimately hopeful in its assertion that “they were turning into butterflies above our nation”. Even the atmosphere of ‘Rainy Night House’ and its interspersed choir and cello, suggests a dusky summer evening thunderstorm rather than autumnal downpour. To paraphrase Mitchell herself, sunlight streams through curtains of ‘Conversation’s setting, her open-tuned chords sounding effervescent and thriving. Plenty of Mitchell’s output, particularly her early-to-middle period exemplified by the later Court and Spark, invokes the sunshine of the American west coast.

The Avalanches – Since I Left You

First and foremost, Since I Left You is quite simply an incredible album. It’s like the best party you’ve ever been to, and everyone has been invited. From the moment you press play, it never lets up for a moment. It’s as full of ideas and self-reference as its copious use of samples suggests, motifs recurring throughout like it is its own little self-contained universe. Track after track tagteams in, each bringing with it their own distinct personality, like ‘Two Hearts In 3/4 Time’s cut-and-paste vocal melody bleeding through ‘Avalanche Rock’ into the juddering, jungleish, almost blaxploitation-flavoured ‘Flight Tonight’, before bass dips in and out of ‘Close To You’ as if being heard through the walls. As a whole, Since I Left You is a big, open-sounding record, easily enough so to be a played at an outdoor party at great volume and be equally pleasing to all ages. It’s a sunkissed, optimistic thrill to dip casually in and out of (the bouncing beats of ‘A Different Feeling’ into ‘Electricity’ prove to be highlights, and quite rightly form the spine of the album), or to listen through.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

From the quietly percussive videogame soundalike intro of ‘Get Innocuous!’, Sound Of Silver album stretches its limbs up to a cloudless, frighteningly blue sky. The opener is soon swarming around, all clattering drums and multitracked vocals, then peeling itself back before crowding in once more. Throughout, James Murphy’s sophomore LCD record proves a very urbane album. It reeks of uncomfortably overheated concrete, of opened windows breathing out the hot air from within and shines with the fierce glare of steel and glass under a summer sun. Sound of Silver longs for night to fall and for the city’s dingy nightspots to open; it feels busy, populated. The informal party atmosphere tells tales of a misspent but regret-free youth, most notably in ‘All My Friends’, which along with ‘Someone Great’ and ‘Us V Them’ flanking it, elevates the album to a genre and period classic. The production is about as crisp as seems possible, each instrument on ‘Time To Get Away’ focussed sharply enough to cut yourself upon even as the track clutters. Finally, ‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ feels like a late night or early morning train ride home anywhere in the world, spent but already reliving the previous evenings’ exploits.

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Radiohead have always harboured a tendency to create soaring music, often hiding this light under a bushel; frequently very well, as on The King Of Limbs, which really only breaks out into the open on final track ‘Connector’. So, perhaps deservedly given the glacial atmosphere of albums like King Of Limbs or the chilly Kid A, they have earned themselves something of a maudlin reputation. To suggest In Rainbows is Radiohead’s summer album then? Surely not. And yet it works. It’s a record on which the band decided to go as full-on pop as they’ve ever been, sounding natural and full of enjoyment. On ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, Yorke describes the all but alien environ of a club – like, a nightclub, with people smiling and having a good time and stuff – over a danceable rhythm section with looping, whirling guitar parts encircling his vocal. ‘Reckoner’ stands as the highlight of the album, its monolithic, triangular upswells of strings creating giant blocks of sound in a desert-like atmosphere. ‘House Of Cards’ follows in its churning wake, again with eastern-sounding strings and a spacious, yawning mix suggestive of gigantic panorama. ‘All I Need’ sounds sunburnt and migraineous, fully realising the bands’ intention to mirror the overwhelming sonic concussion of a band playing loudly in a small room. Rumbling bass synth impels Yorke’s voice to loom over the track, who in turn seems to recognise and stoke the sweltering atmosphere, “I’m an animal, trapped in your hot car” he sings in a cloying, and disarmingly unrequited lovelorn lyric. Following up from Hail To The Thief’s form-finding swagger, In Rainbows found Radiohead in loose but immediate form, and suits long, warm days beautifully.

The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Track after track from The Field’s much-praised debut album lolls in on the breeze, like hearing a distant radio playing loud but broken snippets of songs, somewhere off in a housing project window. ‘Everday’ for example cuts and pastes Fleetwood Mac’s polite radio pop of ‘Everywhere’, drawing out from a harsh, hacking synth until Christine McVie’s vocal is whisked into a constant, looping hook that throbs and pummels and never lets go. ‘A Paw in My Face’ stretches Lionel Ritchie’s treacly ‘Hello’ into gorgeous, bleeping techno, ending as an authentic-sounding early 90’s slow jam rather than the lampoonable mid-80’s radio ballad of the original. Centrepiece ‘The Deal’ is minimal techno loving life in the open air, freed from bedroom laptops into a world of lawn sprinklers and dizzying heat.

Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene

It’s hard to choose just one record from the Canadian supergroup’s catalogue to sum up that summertime feeling, as all do it so perfectly. I’d love to go with the often-overlooked Forgiveness Rock Record, if only because it presents an opportunity to give that album a well-deserved day in the sun. The real winner however must be their second eponymous record, which is every shade of summer, from blissed out (‘Our Faces Split the Coast in Half’), through joyous (‘7/4 Shoreline’), to sweet and smiling (‘Swimmers’). Each track is a near-whitewash of vying noise, a roaring cacophony, constantly on the point of clipping. ‘Ibi Dreams of Pavement’ features Kevin Drew’s half-shouted vocal struggling to be heard above the shrieking squall of drums, synthesizers and brass, relentless and near-blinding. ‘Superconnected’ comes on like a rush of heated air, even the tempo rocketing after a much-needed midsection lull including the simmering, shimmering ‘Swimmers’. The saturated sound of Broken Social Scene perfectly encapsulates the heady, giddy thrill of the season. Days spent so long in the searing sunlight that your head throbs, that your sight is funnelled with brightness when stepping back indoors. It’s a time of overwhelming, endless-feeling possibility, a sensation that Broken Social Scene’s work encapsulates joyously.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

A jammy, noodling affair, Kurt Vile’s fifth solo album is like the most pleasant of commitment-free summer days, which starts when it starts and just keeps pressing onward irrespective of time. The opening title (ish) track stretches on endlessly towards the horizon for nearly ten minutes, seeming both longer and shorter like some sort of perspective trick, its riff repeating hypnotically and ploughing through half-formed solos and drawled verses, at once impressionistic (“Don’t worry about a thing, it’s only dying” Vile sings at one point) and at times smartly focussed and astutely observed, “I gotta think about what wisecracks I’m gonna drop along the way today”. Song titles are repeated like mantras, Vile venturing out in verses only to return to the touchstone, punning and messing with the words playfully. ‘Goldtone’ is a case in point, with its morphing chord sequence spiralling outwards like a galaxy as Vile explores the lyrics’ phonetics, all strange annunciations and unexpected rhymes and declarations. Again like the album as a whole, it feels improvisational, informal and open-ended, just as the season it represents and celebrates should be; Pretty Daze is as pretty and meandering as a summer stroll.

Sufjan Stevens – Come On Feel the Illinoise!

Twee, but never overbearingly so, Come On Feel the Illinoise! is painstakingly researched, a lush and vibrant concept album exploring the geography, communities and history of the state of Illinois. Nothing short of a tour de force, it’s spirallingly lengthy and stands as the pinnacle of Stevens’ career; it took him five years and a dramatic shift in both direction and approach to properly follow up. Even tales of cancer death, religious cults (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’) somehow manage to sound at once uncomfortably specific and personal, but also expansive and macrospective. If it’s expansive you want, Illinoise has that aesthetic in spades. Segueing in and out of characters, places and landmarks throughout its considerable running time, this is an album that demands a free afternoon or a long journey, to sit and be appreciated in full. Track-by-track however, Stevens is also generous with the hooks and choruses, with earworming chord progressions and lovely, lapping melodies that wash like sunlight onto painted walls. ‘Jacksonville’s, sawed, scale-hopping strings give way into banjos and wandering, tremulous guitar lines and pattering drums before brass pogos the track into a pleasingly ornate chorus. Also muscular in places, instrumentation towering around Steven’s trademark barely-whispered vocal on the bristling, anthemic ‘Chicago’, choirs rising and falling along with flutes and woodwind, marching band cymbals crashing like breakers all around. In amongst all this grandeur and splendour, moments like ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting…’ and the breathtaking, eerie ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ provide goosebumps, a darker, more overbearingly intimate Sufjan Stevens explored further in this year’s exceptional Carrie & Lowell, further signposting how vast and vaulted Illinoise was by comparison. It’s an album of scorching, state-sized beauty.

Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

Like Broken Social Scene, many of the 90’s alt-rock icons’ five albums would be welcome on a summer playlist, reflecting the Californian locale of the bands’ surroundings. However it’s their charmingly shambling, and correctly acclaimed, debut Slanted and Enchanted that crackles most brightly with almost solar-powered energy. The untutored, gleefully-pounded drumming of ‘Summer Babe’ opens the album as it means to go on, guitars buzzing full of warm distortion. ‘Loretta’s Scars’ jangles more, Malkmus and Spiral Stairs finding a beautiful range of textured tones for their guitars to occupy throughout Slanted, ‘Zurich is Stained’ played almost entirely cleanly for example. Melodic, high-fretted bass hovers delightfully over blankets of distortion on ‘Jackals, False Grails’, its bashed-out drum track and frenzied soloing recalling an image of sunlight breaking repeatedly through a canopy of tree branches. ‘Our Singer’ sounds frazzled, ‘No Life Singed Her’ appropriately fried and frayed around the edges, there’s barely a track that doesn’t imbue some kind of warmth. Malkmus’ drawling, free-associating wordplay mesh with his infantile, sing-song vocals is sweetly addictive and permanently optimistic-sounding. As mentioned, most if not all of Pavement’s output stands up as excellent summer material. The alt pop of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a fantastic soundtrack to a sunny day, the more structured material making for a slightly more coherent listen, with more dynamism and more build-up and release of tension. Away from the obvious single cuts ‘Range Life’ and ‘Cut Your Hair’, ‘Stop Breathin’’ and ‘Gold Soundz’ provide the keening, sun-bleached moments of uplift on Crooked Rain. Even their eclectic Wowee Zowee! middle period and more restrained and studied later records retain the same shambling, slacker mood than makes Slanted and Enchanted such a summer delight.

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The Voluntary Butler Scheme – At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, August 2009.

According to their press bumf, The Voluntary Butler Scheme mainly consists of “One-man-band Rob Jones”, and their sound “is like a mix of Badly Drawn Boy and Brian Wilson’s more acid-fried work”. Brian Wilson, eh? Hmm, we’ll see. A less hyperbolic appraisal finds the model is bass-driven indie-pop, encompassing Regina Spektor-ish kookiness and a cutesy innocence. The music is relatively well-written and tracked, nicely layered in its production, with infectious melodies at every turn. Although by the same token, At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea is relentlessly, relentlessly annoying.

Generally the shorter songs – such as Tabasco Sole – are better; their limited exposition renders them significantly less irritating than the lengthier tracks, which seem to drag gratingly. Breakfast provides a Sufjan Stevens-ish opening, mimicking the miniscule interludes of his work. This ushers forth Trading Things In, its Noah and the Whale-style ukulele, appropriately tinny drum sound and cute handclaps supporting a brilliantly fuzzy bass sound. The one-line chorus is great, as are the brief successive bridges; the verses aren’t so good, mainly lyrically. Their wretchedly sweet sentiments only hit the mark every once in a while, “Just like coffee and tea I need you regularly” being a ‘did he really just say that’ moment. At any rate, the organ solo is pleasant, representative of the instrumental variation and high novelty factor of The Voluntary Butler Scheme. Dancing With Ted Danson is a highlight, its brief instrumental My Doorbell-style groove essentially providing an intro to the aforementioned lead single Tabasco Sole. When the main melody line of Until My Watch Runs Out Of Battery kicks in, it couldn’t sound more like 1234 by Feist if it tried. The pitter-patter drums nicely compliment the trombone honking, piano and quirkily cool synthesized voice; although I doubt even Ms. Feist could muster anything as twee as this.

Multiplayer revolves around a Beatles-y guitar riff and Motown backing vocals until the verses begin, when the pleasant beginning is usurped considerably. Lyrics are crammed in around the leisurely tempo like luggage in a family hatchback on Bank Holiday weekend. Their tongue-twisting fashion gives the illusion that they are saying something vast and profound; in actual fact they are mostly pointless statements devoid of context. Of particular guilt is the chorus, parading what Jones seems fairly convinced to be a chin-stroking musing in annoyingly conceited manner. “Love is a game, a game for two. Love is a game I wanna play with you” is how it goes – now where have we heard that before? Well, for a start, loads of places; everyone from Santana to Lady-arsing-Gaga has conceived of love as a game. Maybe you’ve noticed NSync bleating about being “Just another player in your game for two” once you’ve stopped dancing, ‘Scrubs’-alike. Bat for Lashes’ single Sleep Alone conceives of love as “A two-hearted dream”, which is simple, yet a lot more profound than what The Voluntary Bulter scheme has to offer. The most famous song Multiplayer’s chorus recalls is Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E, massacred by Joss Stone on a perfume advert not-long-enough ago. This seems like a pretty damning indictment, one that suggests Jones’ lyrics deal in hackneyed stereotypes. The two guys who wrote L-O-V-E decided that “Love is more than just a game for two” over forty years ago; you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s time enough to come up with something new. To address the point that it’s unfair to heap criticism on an album’s lyrics, the retort is that it depends how important a role the words to that album play. At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea’s lyrics are fairly prominent and the focus given to these infuriatingly-inane lyrics and voice is completely unwarranted. The fact is that lyrics are not the be-all and end-all of any album; but they seem to be here. Whilst the album’s musical flourishes are by-and-large successful, the lyrical ones never ever are. When they’re at a premium – ironically on Hot Air Balloon Heart most notably – the results are vastly more satisfying.

Laundry’s clicky Maccabees guitar sound quickly gets old and boring. There are lots of layers, but none really do anything to keep the attention except bass and keyboard, and even they simply mirror each other’s riffs. Jones tries to sound earnest, a tactic revisited on Turn Country Lanes Into Motorways and failing both times. He tries to be sincere and grown-up but just ends up hollow and boring; his attempts to plumb depths that he can’t possibly hope to reach simply come across as mawkish. It’s also predictably the longest track. Because obviously the longer the song the more serious artistic merit it deserves. Split ostensibly deals with a relationship breaking up in the same remarkably bland, depthlessly naive manner. The intro is great – all cartwheeling synths and frantically-bashed toy drums – but the track gets decidedly less great after that, particularly Jones’ knuckle-whitening keening on the words “wheels” and “heels”. The thing is, there’s always something lurking on the underside of twee pop. The most obvious comparison with The Voluntary Butler Scheme is The Boy Least Likely To, most notable for minor hit and insurance-peddling soundtrack Be Gentle With Me. That song includes the offhand line “Be gentle, ‘cos I’m mental”, delivered in the same fey, cheery manner as all their other lyrics. Similarly, I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes deals with hypochondria, paranoia and hallucinations, but still sounds like you could cuddle it. It’s this sudden revealing of darkness – like Mickey Mouse abruptly confessing he hears voices telling him to burn things – that makes twee pop interesting. And it’s the lack of this which makes At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea so irritating; butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, and that’s enraging. It’s hard to tell what’s less welcome; shallow, bouncy and twee songs such as Multiplayer or uneventful attempts at songwriting maturity like Night Driver. Slightly more positively, Sleeping On Top Of Things is more interesting than most of the album’s latter half but is a pretty obvious choice as a final track, seeming suspiciously tailor-made for that specific role.

To put it in terms Jones would be enamoured with, At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea is a bit like blowing soap bubbles, in that all ages will briefly be amused. Whoever you are, however old you are, blowing bubbles is awesome; similarly, the doe-eyed appeal of The Voluntary Butler Scheme will snag you at certain moments. However the difference is that small children can be amused with these pointless sacks of air for hours on end, whereas the rest of us soon go on with our bill-paying, plant-watering, shower-fixing lives. The same applies to this album, the songs are essentially just insubstantial bubbles and as soon as you try to grab onto them they vaporise. You do feel like slapping Jones around the face at times and scream at him to stop being so unbearably twee; he lays it on with a trowel, which is both infinitely annoying and sickeningly smug. This is the case in The Eiffel Tower and the BT Tower when he sings “And like when you said you loved the songs of the Pet Shop Boys but hate the way they sound, so I play them all out for you on just guitar and kazoo”. If you’re thinking maybe this particular line doesn’t translate well into black-and-white, there’s really no other way of putting it; you’re wrong, it’s just shit. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s certainly not cute. And Jones, fuck off about ghetto blasters, they’re namechecked twice! You’re trying to be endearing and retro; we get it.

If you really, genuinely adore the cutesiest bands mentioned in the tags – and only if you practically worship the ground they walk on – feel free to add another point to the score. And if you like your music ‘Will and Grace’ sickly sweet, then buy away. If neither of these applies to you, then stay away.

3 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 2 out of 6

Split Records
The Voluntary Butler Scheme on Myspace
The Voluntary Butler Scheme on Last.fm