a-ha “Hits South America”

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a-ha’s contribution to this year’s Record Store Day was a mini album titled “Hits South America”, where we are brought back to a show in Brazil during the summer of 1991. These recordings are previously unreleased, and a sweet package for those of us who are fond of the 90s rock version of a-ha. This album is only available on vinyl.

The previously released video/DVD “Live In South America” is from the same tour that “Hits South America” stems from. Fortunately this EP has no overlap with the video, which was released on DVD for the first time ever as a bonus disc on last year’s deluxe edition of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”

“The Blood That Moves the Body” is the opening track, and this is an excellent version. Paul Waaktaar plays a driving guitar, infusing the song with a strong rock element which gives a totally different experience than the studio version from “Stay On These Roads.” I definitely think the rock expression of the 1990s suits the band best.

The band had a fantastic rhythm section at this time, with bassist Jørun Bøgeberg and drummer Per Hillestad contributing a very tight and organic sound. For this reason alone it is a shame that we don’t have a complete concert recording from the period 1991-1994, but fortunately we do have some things to enjoy from this period. With the release of “Hits South America” we are a lot closer to having live versions of all the songs from the 1991 tour, but a few are (of course) still missing.

“Manhattan Skyline” has always been a highlight in a-ha’s catalogue, whether studio or live. This time we get a version with more of the urgent Waaktaar-guitars, whilst Magne Furuholmen adds the usual atmospheric keys on top. Morten Harket is just the right amount of ballsy up front, and all in all this leaves us with the toughest version of this great song to date. Just to hear Paul take off in the solo is worth this album alone.

“You Are the One” is another song which ends up quite different than the studio version, but not quite as raw as some of the other tracks. It features some saxophone solos from Sigurd Køhn, and otherwise the well-known cheeryness of the song is more than present in this version as well.

The guitars are back again on “Stay On These Roads”, both energizing the song and contributing a lot of spice on top of it in the process. Still, this beautiful ballad never loses its core melody and is a relatively faithful rendiion. It has always been a showcase number for Morten’s vocal, but then again, which song isn’t? It ends up being a great combination of the original expression with some more interesting things also happening here and there.

It all ends with “Hunting High And Low.” The acoustic guitar is brought out, and Magne plays some hauntingly beautiful piano lines on top. Morten nails it as usual. After a while, Paul brings in the electric guitar again, giving this song some of the same embellishment we saw on “Stay On These Roads.” And, of course, we get to hear some 200,000 Brazilians sing the chorus in perfect unison. Goosebumps. Pure goosebumps.

The only problem with “Hits South America” is that it only contains five tracks. You’ve eaten the entire meal, but you’re still left hungry. In any case, this is a-ha on top of their game, and the combination of melodic gens and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s rock guitar is nothing less than phenomenal.

Album Review: The Waterboys – Modern Blues

Mike Scott and company release their freshest album since Fisherman’s Blues with a focus on sharply-observed lyrics and accessible tunes

Mike Scott and The Waterboys are one of music’s most enigmatic and interesting acts. In their three decade career going back to their 1983 eponymous debut, Waterboys (and Scott solo) albums are always marked by intricate, poignantly poetic lyrics combined with outstanding musicianship.

On their first three albums (The Waterboys, 1984’s A Pagan Place and 1985’s This Is The Sea) the Waterboys were often grouped together in with U2, Big Country, The Alarm and Simple Minds in what was called the Big Music movement (after a song on A Pagan Place). More a convenience for journalists than a conscious music collective, the description fit though and stuck through the 1980s; these five bands were writing songs based on Big Ideas of spirituality, politics and the politics of love in a complex, soaring, anthemic way that was in another universe than the vapid pop of the day. The music was uplifting, the singing was passionate, the lyrics were mind-expanding and no band exemplified this spirit better than the Waterboys, culminating for me with one of the 10 best songs of the 1980s, This Is The Sea’s “The Whole Of The Moon”.

After this opening trilogy of albums, Waterboys founding member Karl Wallinger (late of World Party) and others departed the band, and Scott and the Waterboys relocated to Ireland and took a hard right turn into a more rustic Celtic style for the stone-cold classic 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues and its raggle-taggle followup, 1990’s Room To Roam. This was an extremely fertile time for the now-sprawling combo as shown by the magnificent six-disc version (!) of Fisherman’s Blues released in 2013 that showed the depth of the work that they were doing in that period. This version of the band is one of my favorite groups of all time.

In 1991 Scott broke up this version of the Waterboys (as he is want to do from time to time), moved to New York and essentially restarted the band from scratch, with a more conventional rock electric sound that continues on to this day with a focus on exquisite word play and a harder-edged sound starting with 1993’s Dream Harder.

In the 22 years since Dream Harder, Scott has released two major solo albums and by my count eight studio Waterboys albums that have all been consistently high quality additions to the catalogue and solidify Scott’s place as one of the great writers of the rock era bringing to mind comparisons to Dylan and Morrison (Van, not Jim).

I admit that from time to time as Scott has delved deeper and deeper into literary allusions and mystic references, he sometimes has gone so deep as to risk losing even some of his devoted fans like me. For every accessible album like 1997’s solo Still Burnin’ or 2007’s Book Of Lightning, there are more impenetrable albums like 2003’s Universal Hall or 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, (based on the poetry of William Butler Yeats) that are carefully crafted but so personal to Scott that I personally find them to be difficult listening. At his most obscure, the literary allusions, location references and mystic quotes that I understand only highlight how much of his writing that I don’t understand. I’m convinced that Scott is a lyrical genius even if I don’t understand the half of what he’s on to.

Live, Scott and the Waterboys are one of the most interesting bands going. I’ve seen them probably a dozen times over the years and no two shows have been the same. More than most musicians, Scott channels his muse in his live shows and it can be a remarkable experience to witness. I’ve seen Scott rapturous, expansive, mercurial and funny on stage, and I’ve also seen him angry and churlish; but, never anything other than absolutely authentic.

At their best live, it is as if each musician is not playing their own instruments, but rather the instruments of the other band members around them. It’s hard to explain, but startling to watch, particularly as they play within rhythms, melodies and tempos within a single song. It’s what every jamband aspires to, but the Waterboys at their best are effortless at at it. Their Washington DC show in the weeks after 9/11 was maybe the most empathic show I’ve ever seen both within a band and between a band and an audience.

On their Fall 2013 US tour, I was delighted to hear some new songs and a new direction in their music, which brings us to the nine songs on their excellent new album Modern Blues, released in the US on 2015-04-07.

Recorded in Nashville with American session musicians and long-standing musical ally Steve Wickham on violin, Modern Blues is Scott’s most consistently successful album in years, rating with the best work in his canon.

Modern Blues shines the spotlight on some of the sharpest, most observant and incisive lyrics of Scott’s long career. The music serves to support and highlight the lyrics, and the lyrics demand to be heard. They are more personal and less literary (and thus more universal) than much of Scott’s recent work; they really are more like poems set to music than traditional rock songs.

More than just the words themselves it is the way that Scott enunciates, pronounces and accents the words shows the exacting and precise placement of the writing. There’s not a single sloppy or excess word, even though some of the couplets are stuffed to the brim.

Released in the US a week after Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, Modern Blues is an interesting counterpoint. Barnett seems to work hard to have a spontaneous stream-of-conscious, nearly throw-away style to her lyrics that belies the obvious care and craft that she’s put in, whereas with Modern Blues Scott let’s you see the meticulous, crafted brilliance he’s employed throughout.

Whether it’s a quick line like his description of Elvis Presley as “razor-quiffed and leather-squeezed, sideburns flickering in the breeze” in his vision of musicians and famous figures mixing together in the afterlife in I Can See Elvis, or the extended excellence of “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”, each song has at least one lyrical sequence that pops out to you as you hear it.

“The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” is a sly, lyrical standout from start to finish. Based on the light-hearted title and chorus, it sounds like sort of a throwaway until you hear his description of a sexual tryst:

“…When we sang in tongues together and our synchronized guitars

Played music to the rafters and made love among the stars

And our bodies beat like light in love’s beautiful embrace

As her tiny kisses burst like popping suns around my face

But then drift, recline, collapse, the lights went out, she fell asleep again

Before my kiss-wet face was even dry”

Or try this verse I’m picking at random from the first single, Beautiful Now”:

 “Look down a carousel of years and darling there you are

A Dancer crying salty tears, a Vagabond, a Star

The Slayer of Mediocrity, of every sacred cow

You were beautiful then, sweet angel

You’re way more beautiful now”.

However, before you think that this is one of Those Difficult Albums That Are Hard Work To Listen To, this is actually perhaps the most accessible Waterboys album musically since Fisherman’s Blues. Whether it’s the up-tempo romp of the opener “Destinies Entwined”, the mid-tempo ballad “November Tale”, the jaunty and self-deprecating “Still A Freak”, the doo-wop vocals and handclaps of “I Can See Elvis”, or the gentle slow-dance elegy of “Nearest Thing To Hip”, this is inviting and entertaining music.

Beautiful Now” is probably the most poppy and dare I say radio-friendly single from Scott in years, with a bouncy beat, organ and backup vocals over an innocuous hook and melody that rewards repeated listening. In a more just world, this would be a hit on Adult Alternative Radio in the US.

Before I nominate Scott for sainthood, I personally didn’t think that “Long Strange Golden Road” needed the sample of Jack Kerouac reciting from “On The Road”, and I personally found the kissoff to a romantic rival in “Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy” to be too vitriolic to be appealing on repeated listens.

However, these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable, likable album from start to finish, and for me it’s bound to be one of the notable albums of the year.

The album is scheduled to be on streaming services in the US as of 2015-04-07, but in the meantime you can find the album as a YouTube streaming playlist at:

Mr. Scott – feel free to continue making Big Music for the next three decades as well. I know that you never went away, but welcome back anyway.

Download: “Beautiful Now”, “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”. Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Waterboys-MODERN

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities To Love” – The Welcome Return of the Riot Grrrls

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Sleater-Kinney return after a decade’s hiatus with the best album of their career. 

When a band reforms after a long layoff, there’s always a bit of trepidation. For every example of a successful reunion that results in an album that’s a welcome addition to a band’s canon, such as Big Country’s “The Journey” or Toad The Wet Sprocket’s “New Constellation”, both from 2013, there are many more examples where the band was obviously unable to catch the previous magic and frankly embarrasses themselves.

Rarest of all is the case where a reunited band creates the best work of their career, which is exactly what Sleater-Kinney have done with their outstanding new album “No Cities To Love” on Sub Pop. “No Cities” is the most assured, confident and accessible album of their career, and may stand as a career-defining work for this three-piece from the Pacific Northwest.

Background: Sleater-Kinney was the most proficient and well-known band to come out of the 1990s seminal “Riot Grrrl” movement. “Riot Grrrl” was a broad label applied to a group of post-grunge female alternative bands, primarily based out of the Seattle scene such as Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Riot Grrrl was as much a political movement as a musical one, featuring a feminist political stance and a DIY aesthetic.

Sleater-Kinney (named after an Interstate exit near Lacey, Washington where the band practiced) consists of Corin Tucker (vocals and guitars), Carrie Brownstein (guitars and vocals) and Janet Weiss (drums). Sleater-Kinney released seven well-regarded albums between 1995 and 2005 starting with an eponymous debut in 1995 and ending with “The Woods” in 2005. After breaking up, Tucker continued to play with various bands, and Brownstein/Weiss went on to form a band called Wild Flag that released a well-reviewed album in 2010. Of course, the most visible project from any of the members has been Brownstein’s turn as half of the creative team behind the satirical “Portlandia” TV series with her partner Fred Armisen.

Always a critical favorite, their influence was disproportionate to their commercial success, with their highest charting album being “The Woods” at number 80 on the US charts. However, their influence was felt throughout the indie/alternative scene throughout their career, influencing bands from L7 and Hole to No Doubt. Sleater-Kinney featured the interplay between Tucker’s dramatic vocals, variously shouted, yelped and sung at top of her range reminiscent of PJ Harvey, over Brownstein’s angular, skittering and alternately heavy and sludgy guitar (and occasional vocals) and anchored by Weiss’s solid and metronomic drums.

I admit I was slow in climbing on the bandwagon. From the start, I recognized what they were attempting to achieve, agreed that they were hitting their mark, and that what they were doing had value. Truthfully, though, although I liked individual songs from them I never really clicked on an entire album from them until their fifth album “All Hands On The Bad One” from 2000. I suppose that I liked the idea of early Sleater-Kinney better than the actual thing until I finally caught up to what they were (and now are again) doing.

I saw them live once, and they were just a crashing wall of sound. I only really remember two things: Janet Weiss bashing the drums like a maniac, beating them as though they’d crashed her car, and the way that Brownstein/Tucker traded off lead guitar licks, and without a bass player in the band one of them (usually Tucker) would occasionally play bass lines on the guitar. I liked that – it’s always good to remind bass players that they are optional. Here’s a linked overview that gives you some of the history if you’re unfamiliar with them:

Which brings us to “No Cities To Love”. This album is a 33-minute, 10-song revelation, if not revolution, full of ferocious and inventive riffs, licks and melodies. The guitar tones draw as much from Gang Of Four, Wire, and Television as they do anything from 90s or 00s alternative.   The guitars can veer from Sabbath-esque sludge to post-millenial Futureheads/Editors within a single song, reaching all the way to pre-synth Devo or early B-52s on occasion. Tucker’s (and occasionally Brownstein’s) quasi-operatic vocal prowess is undiminished, Weiss’s drumming is outstanding, with lots of quirky polyrhythmic touches to complement her jackhammer style.

The lyrics show a mature self-awareness and multiple shadings whether discussing domestic life and the struggles to make ends meet – and also maybe also the price of fame – (“Price Tag”) or “Fangless”’s kissoff to an unnamed person that also hints at regrets for their past (“Where’s the evidence, the scars, the dents That I was ever here?”). Perhaps the most curious lyric is on the title track. Given the identity that the band has with the Pacific Northwest, it’s strange to hear them sing “There are no cities, no cities to love; it’s not the city, it’s the weather we love!” The implication is that all cities are the same, it’s only the geography that matters, but given how specifically they have been tied to Seattle in the past and of course now Portland due to Portlandia, I don’t quite get the lyric.

But I digress.

The album leads off with “Price Tag” which sets the tone for the full album, full of spiky, quirky and occasionally atonal guitar lines, straining vocals and a bludgeoning drumline. “Fangless” is built around a classic S-K swirling guitar figure. “Surface Envy” (featured live on their recent Conan O’Brien performance) has demented guitar accents that squonk and squeal and a descending guitar line over a classic alternative sing-along chorus.

“No Cities To Love” is perhaps the most memorable song on the album. Over a propulsive beat and bass-line played on guitar and another bouncy, spiky guitar riff, the song has a great bridge and chorus that is instantly memorable and will have you humming it all week. “A New Wave” and “No Anthems” complete a strong three-song mini manifesto at the center of the album. Brownstein sings the galloping beat of “A New Wave” with punky enthusiasm “It’s not a new wave it’s just you and me….invent our own kind of obscurity” and it’s clear that although she’s become best known as a comic actor on Portlandia she can still bring the noise.

“No Anthems” is a bit of misnomer; the bridge/chorus are as anthemic in their own way as anything they’ve ever done. “Bury Our Friends” is another winner. Spitting furious lyrics over insistent guitar lines, it’s a call to action, a manifesto that rings as true as anything they’ve ever done while lamenting the passage of “our own gilded age”.

The album runs out of breath a little bit in the last two songs, but with the first eight songs being as enjoyable as they are, “No Cities To Love” is already a candidate for rock album of the year. Welcome back, ladies, we missed you.  Download: “Price Tag”, “No Cities To Love” Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Here they are doing “A New Wave” on Letterman:

Single Review: St Vincent – Bad Believer

Not content with giving us the standout album of 2014, St Vincent has treated us to a new single in the first month of the new year.

Often described as avant garde (a term I don’t like as it suggests ‘art for art’s sake’) I would describe St Vincent’s music more as a sort of ‘warped pop’ and I think that description fits Bad Believer more than most.

An exhilarating mix of frantic beats and trademark fuzzy guitar and synth, the song wastes no time in getting straight into the chorus. And it’s all over in 3 minutes. There’s still time for a breakdown though, containing a sound I can only describe as a Wurlitzer organ that strangely doesn’t sound out of place.

Maybe a leftover from last year’s album which didn’t quite fit, but a welcome one all the same.

Single Review: John Grant and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – GMF

I’m generally not a fan of collaborations; they usually mean at least one person has run out of ideas, but I do like an orchestral collaboration and this is one of the best.

Not a new song as such, but a new live version, performed with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Taken from an album released at the end of last year, this track has recently been released as a single, if the concept of a single still exists. As this is my first attempt at a review I’ve gone for a single, rather than a whole album – I don’t want to run before I can walk.

To the song then – it opens with a short intro from the singer, telling us of his propensity for swearing, more of which shortly. Starting off with a solo piano and quickly joined by smooth bass and beautiful strings, it has a big ballad feel. Which probably makes it the only ballad to contain the word “motherf***er”. If not, then it is most definitely the only ballad to contain the line “I wonder who they’ll get to play me, maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse.” An immediately funny (to me at least) but thought provoking line.

So obviously not a ballad, unless ballads are meant to be cynical and arrogant. To be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of the studio version of this song; the music sort of matched the arrogance and cynicism, but I think it actually comes across better against the orchestral production. John Grant has a great voice which is well suited to an orchestral backing, and I hope he continues down this road in future, as it works incredibly well.

Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – “Cecilia And The Satellite”

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I think one of the greatest things in pop music is when an artist you’ve never heard before makes a song with a chorus so great that it’s immediately your new favorite song. You think you must have known it all your life and you listen to it over and over on repeat until the song burrows its way into your brain like an ear worm.

Andrew McMahon, formerly of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin, did that to me with his new single “Cecilia And The Satellite” written for his infant daughter (that’s them in the video). It’s a very 2014-sounding song with the heavy drums, the soaring refrain and the requisite “whoa-oa” choruses that make you want to start the Zippo Lighter app on your iPhone and hoist it in the air.  The rest of the album is definitely worth a stream as well; it’s full of songs that in a more fair world would be singles on the pop chart.

I had lost track of Andrew McMahon after Something Corporate; good to see him making a comeback.