Sunday, April 26, 2015

Brittle Pop

Don't call it an invasion - it's just three records of note from across the pond.

Slug - Ripe Before XTC was XTC they were the Helium Boys and that name might better convey the contents of this terrific album. There's certainly nothing sluggish about the brainy and effervescent avant pop dished out by Ian Black and the crack cohort he has drafted in service of realizing the sounds in his head. Black has played bass in a touring version of Field Music, and if you're a fan of that band you'll find much to love here, especially in the brilliant drumming of Peter Brewis.

Brewis and his brother David also produced the album, giving it a very live but highly detailed feel. You get the idea that all involved were willing to try anything to make each short song as memorable and action-packed as possible. The album begins with Grimacing Mask, a pensive little overture that slides right into Cockeyed Rabbit in Plastic, which combines angular rhythms and high-pitched vocals to great effect and even manages to shoehorn in a snaky guitar solo in its 2:47. Classic. Sha La La has a touch of exotica and suspends dreamy vocals over some sturm und twang, and Eggs and Eyes is a sprightly romp. Greasy Mind has a dark undertow that comes to the surface in the form of some wonderfully brutal guitar and Shake Your Loose Teeth starts off with Morricone-esque suspended chords before opening up with nice harmony vocals and sweeping melodies.

I'm not sure it was necessary to include Weight of Violence, a steel drum instrumental, but it's over fairly quickly and then we're back in the thick of things with Running To Get Past Your Heart, which is like a Motown song gone wonderfully wrong. Peng Peng, another instrumental, features glassy and atmospheric piano, a little to the left of the lounge, as well as a touch of slide guitar and is simply gorgeous. The album ends with Kill Your Darlings, as dramatic as the title suggests, and At Least Show That You Care, a malevolent, dub-infected capstone to a most engaging debut from Slug.

Ghostpoet - Shedding Skin I've had my eye on Obaro Ejimiwe since his debut album was nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2011, but always filed his stuff under "interesting" without particularly connecting. That first album plowed some of the same furrows as Tricky, with spoken-word vocals over noirish soundscapes, while the second album added more electronics and occasional female vocals. Now on his third album he seems to have pulled everything together, making a huge leap forward and clambering out of "interesting" into essential.

Right from the opening track, Off Peak Dreams, there's a new sense of purpose combined with a musical structure that is highly compelling. After a soft voice speaks some words in Japanese, questioning piano chords lead into jazzy drums, hooky guitar patterns and Ghostpoet comes in, rapping more than reciting and when he says "I'm ready to roll," you believe it. X Marks the Spot features vocal sweetening from Nadine Shah and has an epic flair that belies the chorus of "I don't care anymore," and Be Right Back (Moving House) is long and beautifully lonely and finds Ghostpoet honing his speak-singing to nearly as fine a point as Lou Reed did on his later albums.

The title track is spooky and hypnotic, with spare guitar and keyboards augmenting a foundation of pure bass. "You think you know me, you never know me," Ghostpoet repeats, voice barely limned by Melanie De Biasio's singing. By the time we get to Yes, I Helped You Pack, with it's barely contained rage, a bit of a backstory to the album begins to develop. There's been a failed relationship, with emotional wounds dealt out by both parties and several lives disrupted. Shedding Skin may not really be a concept album but its certainly a series of postcards from the same ledge. That Ring Down the Drain Kind Of has Nadine Shah singing "I'm back where I started" and features cutting guitar straight out of Once Upon A Time In The West. The slightly nasty sentiment of Sorry My Love, It's You Not Me is softened by Lucy Rose's singing and Ghostpoet's question: "I want to feel magic in the stars again - is that too much to ask?"

While Ghostpoet doesn't quite find light in the darkness by the end of Shedding Skin, he does muster up a grim determination shot through with hope. On album closer Nothing in the Way he tells himself "We all fall down, but when we get up, nothing in the world can stop us. It's what I believe." And as the strings swell, you will, too.

Wire - Wire On their last album, Change Becomes Us, post-punk legends Wire revisited material left unfinished after their very public dissolution in 1979 - but it was in no way a retread. In fact it was one of their best albums, exploring new emotional terrain in a pristine and powerful production. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Wire, their self-titled new album. While it's not airless and arid like 1990's Manscape, a far worse failure, it does make me feel similarly that they are coasting.

Although these are all new songs, either developed on tour or handed to the band by Colin Newman just prior to recording, there is a pervasive sense throughout that we've been here before. Melodies feel undercooked, the arrangements are fairly rote and the mastery displayed on their last three albums seems to have been replaced by complacency. While Wire is not unlistenable by any stretch, it feels like just another Wire album and, after Change Becomes Us and the three great albums that preceded it, I expected so much more.

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