[Warner Bros] 2011
I’m not sure how you see it, but when people use the term “folk” to describe music, it conjours up to me visions of down-home troubadours with guitars and plaintive lyrical storytelling. (There may or may not be a lute involved.) Think Nick Drake, Woody Guthrie or Pre-electric Dylan. Kiss Each Other Clean is not that kind of muisc. And yet, as I was casting around for some kind of pigeonhole to put this into, I felt that I kept coming back to “folk”.
Iron & Wine is the nom de plume of Sam Beam, a South Carolinian singer and songwriter,now based in Austin. Kiss Each Other Clean is his fourth studio album, and it’s a richly detailed tapestry of carefully crafted songs with considerable lyrical depth.
It’s not always easy to explain – it’s probably better if you experience it for yourself.
Here’s a link to listen to the first song on the record, Walking Far From Home:
Click play, close your eyes for a moment, and as you listen, let your mind conjour up each of the things Sam saw on his travels, and share the fast-edited strangeness and curiousness that the musical landscape has to offer.
Did you do that? No, you didn’t. Go on, I’ll wait right here. Don’t worry about looking silly. Close your eyes, it’s important.
This review will be much better once we’ve both been through the experience…
Now, wasn’t that a weird adventure? (My favourite bit was the strippers and the little white dog.)
And that is just the vestibule of what turns out to be a thoroughly intriguing record. Sam Beam’s dense lyrics, lilting voice and the whole production of the record serve as pallete, paint and easel to some unique and engaging artwork. Kiss Each Other Clean always has something tasty to offer your ears – be it jazz flute, marimba, Hammond organ, ska-like horns and dense pulsing electro basslines.
The entire collection of songs sports a musical diversity that transcends genres and influences in a way that seems effortless. If you are a fan of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, I think you will also like this record – both artists have a delicate, intelligent and almost fragile view of the world, and a deep, swooping melodic skill when it comes to songcraft.
And like Illinois, this record seems to be about individuals, about society, about faith and behaviour and love and time. And so, we’re back to that notion of “folk” music. At it’s roots, the word folk means “the people”. All of these elements are things that define people, and so for me, this is a folk record – an electric, clever, delicately crafted and well produced piece of art for people who love music, and love people.
Musichord Rating: 7.5/10
With over 30 years of recording and touring already behind them, the Church have persevered through lineup changes, label changes, and many years of relatively disappointing sales following their worldwide breakout hit, the mystically brilliant “Under the Milky Way Tonight”, from their 1988 Starfish album. Thirty years can make even the hardiest bands fall apart, or, at the very least, break up for a number of years until it’s time to reunite for an “oldies” reunion. And though “Under The Milky Way Tonight”, their one and only U.S. top 40 hit, was 24 years ago, the Church has soldiered on, building a cottage industry from their 23 studio albums (based on Australian issues of original studio recordings, including EPs), live albums, DVDs, and other merchandise (Church refrigerator magnets?) and sustaining it all through consistent touring, and recording new material, separated by a few solo projects and occasional time apart.
For this, over 30 years of recording and touring, they are a rarity in the world of professional music. Other than a drummer replacement very early on and in 1994, and Koppes’ temporary departure, the Church’s lineup has also remained relatively stable, with Peter Koppes and Marty Wilson-Piper on guitars and backing vocals and Steve Kilbey on bass and lead vocals.
Formed in Sydney, Australia in 1980, the Church have been through plenty of career ups and downs, but today they seem to be as unified as a band as ever, taking full advantage of the digital age, and even forming their own label, Unorthodox Records. They are also in the midst of a release of remastered versions of their first eight studio albums, and are planning a triumphant 30th Anniversary show in April at the Lyric Opera House in Sydney. (Who knew without the Church, there may have been no Smiths?)
Their current tour follows the recent pattern we’ve seen of bands playing entire “classic” albums all the way through, and the Church have gone all out on this tour, playing their most recent album, Untitled #23, the brilliantly experimental Priest=Aura, and the iconic Starfish in their entirety (in reverse chronological order), much as the Cure performed their classic “Trilogy” sets in 2003. The Church also added a guest keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist for this tour, “whose hopes and aspirations I will not speak to”, said Kilbey as he introduced the band. This helped to fill out the sound, as well as providing the needed instrumentation to play through three complete albums from their catalog – over three hours of music.
Unfortunately, after listening to Untitled #23, and then hearing it live, compared directly against Priest=Aura and Starfish, Untitled #23 sounded slower, drawn out and discordant. However, after the 15-minute intermission between the first and second sets, there was an entirely different feeling of creative energy emanating from the stage. What followed was brilliant and captivating, and much more inspirational. What preceded was disappointing, though still interesting from a musicianship perspective.
While some of the Church’s albums from their prolific career have longer songs and more experimental music, Untitled #23 sounded as if each musician was playing their part separately from the other musicians and was more focused on experimental and meandering guitar, keyboard and bass work, than on presenting cohesive songs. This is fine, in and of itself, and there were a few redeeming moments, however, the second and third sets featured more potent and powerful songs, as opposed to what felt like a collection of people playing their instruments at the same time.
After the success of Starfish, the Church felt constrained by the label’s pressure to have “hits” as well as dealing with label-picked producers controlling their sound. After the relatively lackluster sales of Gold Afternoon Fix, which the Church unfortunately dismissed as “hashed together” and “lousy”, they started working from a base of much lower expectations. In many ways, this allowed them to have more freedom with their music and allowed for more experimental, expansive and longer pieces, but these soundscapes sometimes lacked the cohesion of their earlier work. This came through loud and clear live, as the more the Church worked their way backwards through their catalog, the more coherent, and musically accessible side of the Church’s earlier work came through, in sharp contrast to the extended-jam, non-song feel of Untitled #23.
To put it more succinctly, the second and third sets ROCKED. The songs were tight, the band picked up the pace and each song seemed to be building towards a greater climax. Priest=Aura featured extensive and elaborate guitar work, and ferocious interplay between Wilson-Piper and Koppes. Songs like “Ripple” and “Feel” were brilliant and sounded fresh again. “The Disillusionist” still felt timely, speaking to current world events, just as it spoke to events going on during the Iraq War almost 20 years ago. As Peter Koppes described it in a recent interview, “‘Priest = Aura’…is the artistic high point, the overlooked, monumental masterpiece of the band,” and it felt like it this night.
And, to top it all off, hearing them play “Under The Milky Way” “Spark” and “Reptile” from Starfish was breathtaking as well, and they just seemed to pour out more energy the longer they played. “Hotel Womb”, somewhat appropriately, closed out the brilliant set and the extraordinary evening.
In this, their 30th Anniversary year, the Church are still showing why they belong in the pantheon of the greatest alternative rock bands ever.
Check out the Church’s live KEXP performance from February 8th for yourself here: http://goo.gl/sPCFc
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10
Soaring vocals, dub beats, electric guitar and mellow psychedelic grooves is what comes to mind when you mention the British group, Morcheeba, and, in their first concert in the U.S. since Skye rejoined the group last year, they displayed the full power of their fusion of trip-hop and rock from their 6-piece band, and – most importantly – Skye’s gorgeous lead vocals.
Opening up was Lance Herbstrong, a DJ combo who has worked with Perry Farrell and Thievery Corporation, accompanied by a lead electric guitarist, playing over their swirls of electronic sound and dub beats. This act was very entertaining, and “played” a very cool mixed up version of the Who’s “Eminence Front”. Using just their knobs and dials, and almost hiding behind the two Apple laptops in front of them, they mixed the lead guitar with beats, trippy dub sounds and an approaching thunderstorm of sound/noise that dissolved into one note spiraling downward from the electric guitar…and then back into the beats. Very trippy, very Pink Floydish, and very entertaining music. You can only go so far with this for a live show though..
Morcheeba was sparked from the musical genius of the Godfrey Brothers, Ross and Paul, and Skye Edwards’ incredible sultry voice, the three founding members. Very much like 90s contemporaries Portishead and Massive Attack, Morcheeba emphasized the mellower side of trip-hop, with spooky sound landscapes, electric guitar, Skye’s gorgeous vocals, and DJ mixing. For whatever reason, “creative” or “personal” differences, the Godfrey brothers split with Skye in 2003 after their Charango album. This was after running multiple lead singers through the turnstile, and even doing a Santana/Thievery Corporation type of “lots of different guest singers” style, which provided some interesting music, but still failed to satisfy. As is often the case, for Morcheeba, the original lineup is the best. They even compare their reunion to Coke Classic vs. the new formula on their website – “sometimes you just have to accept that some things are tastier the way they were, and leave it at that.”
Seeking to recapture the magic of their first six years, Skye and the Godfrey brothers have kissed and made up, and, after releasing Blood Like Lemonade last summer, launched a supporting tour. According to Ross, “…there’s a definite vibe that happens when the three of us work together, a combination of things that’s unquantifiable.” Ross Godfrey describes it himself on the Morcheeba website, “I can come home from the pub and spend hours going through thousands of old vinyl records trying to find the one perfect record to fit the moment, and that’s always the one we wanted to make ourselves, with that 3am, spliffed-out sound, like a warm, fuzzy blanket of psychedelia.”
Morcheeba opened up with “The Sea”, a classic from their masterpiece second album, Big Calm – If you get only one Morcheeba album, this should be it. “Never an Easy Way” was introduced as “from the first album, one for the old fans” and stayed true to the downbeat trip-hop that made their first album “Who Can You Trust” such a major breakthrough. Playing a song or two from most of their albums, they announced “this one’s for all the hippies out there,” and launched into “Trigger Hippie”, their first single from their first album, Who Can You Trust? “Crimson” from the Blood Like Lemonade rocked harder live than on the album and turned into a full-scale jam. There was also a surprisingly minimal amount of lightshow and background visuals overall, with Trigger Hippie about the only track that enjoyed background flowing lights; for this show, Morcheeba just came out and jammed.
They were enjoying themselves as well; Skye asked “how do you like my dress?” as she spun around, displaying her bright red dress with a cloak in the back, making her look more like a vampire countess than a pop singer. They enjoyed a few drinks as well, as Skye asked the other members of the band what they were drinking: “Whiskey”, and “Tequila and beer” were the immediate answers. They closed the encore and the night with “Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day”, (with a medley of From “Russia With Love” mixed in) one of their poppiest and most upbeat songs, from Charango (an album that also showed them displaying their rap and hip-hop influences, working with Pace Won and Slick Rick).
Morcheeba will be visiting WXPN in Philadelphia on February 14th for a World Café performance, which should be available to listen to afterwards – don’t miss it (http://www.wxpn.org).
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10
When I was first curious about The Radio Department’s third and latest album, Clinging To A Scheme, and read a review on Amazon, one of the band’s fans mentioned “shoegazing”, a popular term for the churning guitar alternative bands from the late 80s and early 90s, some of whom were so shy on stage, (or had so many guitar pedals on the floor) that they barely moved, and often stared at the floor – all the while putting out swirling guitar noise and rock that was positively hypnotic. Synthesizers and keyboards were a big part of the shoegazer “wall of sound” that was so great – used by bands like Lush, Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine. And at least some of Clinging To A Scheme brings to mind some great early 90s dream pop bands like House of Love and The Ocean Blue. But with shoegazing, a repetitive drone sound is expected, and while the term is possibly apt for The Radio Dept., there is not as much noise and distortion, as there is melody, beats and rhythmic grooves.
The strongest band comparison, however, is where the trippy sounds and bouncy beats actually bring to mind Royksopp, mixing acoustic guitar with mellow vocals and interlaced keyboard melodies to create some toe-tappin’ pop nuggets. I noted the comparison to Royskopp before I found out the Radio Dept. was originally a duo from Sweden, just as Royksopp is a duo from Norway. (The Radio Dept. is a 5-piece band now) They don’t list Royksopp as an influence, but there is a definite comparison to be made. The Radio Dept.’s website does, however, list among their influences Nick Drake, Chet Baker and French crooner Charles Aznavour, an eclectic selection.
The Radio Dept. utilizes bits of random psychedelic sounds, muted and synthesized vocals, and even clips of background voices to build their sound (voices which seem to be cut from radio interviews – one of which is godfather Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth espousing how we “should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture”), at the beginning of “Heaven’s on Fire” a super catchy and upbeat keyboard-oriented 80s-style jam. Clinging To A Scheme builds on steady beats with guitar and keyboards; and while I don’t prefer synthesized beats and drum machines, they are certainly used to great effect here.
Throughout this album, the Radio Dept. stay true to their form, though with some definite experimentation and mixing of genres, which helps keep the music from becoming too stagnant. One or two tracks had a slight reggae feel, like “Never Follow Suit”, with a slightly funky bassline, while “A Token of Gratitude” is a decidedly spacey, almost Pink Floydish track with atmospherics and layered textures of sound.
Because of this, Clinging To A Scheme is the type of album that is appreciated even more when listened to through headphones. This album isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch, but it is an excellent collection of trippy synthesized pop grooves, definitely worthy of your ear. And if you like this album, the Radio Dept. has just released the double CD Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010, effectively a compilation of rarities and b-sides – something more for the hardcore fans, but it may not take you long to become that type of fan.
Musichord Rating: 7.5/10
Parades are a 4-piece band from Sydney Australia, who play uniquely unclassifiable pop music that draws from a rich and diverse background of influences, and is delivered with commitment and intensity. Check out LoserSpeak in New Tongue, from the Album Foreign Tapes.