Record of the Week
The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
“Knowing Country For Old And Young Men Alike”
Americana is experiencing a sustained period of popularity, and it is thanks to albums like this. Charlie Darwin takes Dylan’s stoic harmonica and introduces it to the Eels knack for storytelling. They then layer that sound with a smattering of finger plucking before heading out to the barn with Tom Waits to jam until the sun rises.
This album has the uncanny ability to recall an alt.folk hoedown and yet allow for moments of rarely heard, restrained introspection. Gentle, title track ‘Charlie Darwin’ recalls a more melodic Band of Horses or a falsetto My Morning Jacket. This pretty voice is all the more gruffer for the stomping ‘Horizon Is A Beltway’ and positively growling and unrecognisable for the moonshine-soaked square-dance that is ‘Home I’ll Never Be’.
‘Ticket Taker’ is pure Everett of Eels fame and could well have come from their sparse and tragic ‘Blinking Lights’ album. It also witnesses use of the much-undervalued clarinet. ‘Champion Angel’ comes on like an early Kings of Leon record, before they went all stadium: stately in its Southern flavour and liberal harmonica. The Low Anthem hail from Rhode Island but their home is distinctly less Eastern-seaboard and more Mid-Western. The double indication lies in album closer ‘To Ohio (Reprise)’ and second track ‘To Ohio’, which start in Louisiana before heading North.
Certain tracks are a little plodding and in isolation would struggle to captivate the listener (Cage The Songbird), but serve The Low Anthem as a satisfying, if uneventful, canvas on which to paint the stronger numbers. ‘Omgcd’ brings the album full circle, ending it in gentle, nodding strumming. The handclap percussion only adds to the warm production.
Darwin amazed the world with his theory of evolution and whilst this titular homage (and pun) may not have quite the same profundity, I think he would have thought it nevertheless a rather handsome beast, a product of natural selection, having opted to take the best bits of its stellar peers and use them to their alt.folk, country-stained advantage.
Deer Tick – War Elephant
Two major genre influences craft War Elephant into an alt.country, indie-rock experience. McCauley is both responsible for the nasal, bluegrass hum as well as each of the instruments here present. He finger-plucks with the best of them, and toys with pedals and snare to pleasing Van Morrison effect throughout.
The opening trinity of tracks is excellent, catchy and full of moonshine gruffness. ‘Ashamed’ is so damn alt.country it should come with its own spittoon, the slide guitar of ‘Art Isn’t Real’ exemplary for the genre. ‘Standing At The Threshold’ is a good as Two Gallants ever managed with similar material. This track also introduces the indie-rock shuffle, which accompanies many of the others.
Whilst hinting sporadically at Neil Young, Bob Dylan and on ‘Long Time’ at a Velvet Underground raised away from heroin, War Elephant’s middle section is uneventful and drag the album out needlessly to a flabby 48 minutes. ‘Baltimore Blues’ is predictable, as is ‘Sink or Swim’. ‘Those Old Shoes’ however is a pulsing, prairie-beat toe-tapper. ‘Not So Dense’ witnesses the electric guitar punctuation heard fleetingly elsewhere.
‘Christ Jesus’ and the cover of ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ shows McCauley is more than just smoky beards and bourbon and the former belies a lo-fi Cobain, the execution of the track however sadly leans it toward pastiche. The latter is an honest if unnecessary croon worthy of the material.
That said, War Elephant is an achievement by anyone’s standards. That it was written when McCauley was just 19 is remarkable. When he can add life-experienced, true blues to his burgeoning repertoire of commendable Americana he may well be very special indeed.
Red Light Company – Fine Fascination
“Green Light For Success”
Whilst there is nothing ostensibly wrong with Fine Fascination, there is a constant nag that although singles like ‘Scheme Eugene’ and ‘With Lights Out’ are hands-in-the-air, enjoyable pop-rock, this is an album very much designed to shift units rather than push boundaries. There is nothing wrong with this sort of honesty, but the lingering body-of-the-iceberg-rather-than-the-tip feeling casts an insidious shadow across Red Light Company’s radio-and-dancefloor friendly material.
There are dollops of Editors-sized post-pop-rock to be found here, nuggets of U2 indulgence there. Sadly for Red Light Company, so many bands can achieve infectious indie-rock that they will not stand out with this otherwise earnest effort. Arcade Fire were a success because they jittered from template to template, tempo to tempo, throwing in a string section to boot. The margin between such bands is unfortunately too great to garner RLC anything more than passing attention.
This said, their collection is pleasing in blockbuster-movie kind of way. There is little to get, as such the smiles that their spiky guitars and polished vocal cadences muster are entirely deserved and innocent. With the right marketing Red Light Company cannot fail to sell well even though their sound is approaching well-trodden. The path most often chosen is chosen for a good reason, that we musn’t forget, though the path less trodden is often the more interesting.
Teitur – The Singer
Teitur is more than he lets on. Firstly, he is more than a singer. He is an able singer-songwriter. And his pleasant sounding mélanges of piano, horns and percussion are under-laid with menacing double bass strings. ‘You Should Have Seen Us’ even sounds like the Jaws attack sequence! The vocals are often equally disturbing. ‘Of course I’ll break your heart’ he repeats on ‘Your Great Book’.
The title track opens with him declaring ‘I always had the voice, and now I am a singer’, which is true. However, his voice on this opener is debatable to the point of Antony Hegarty. It is a little nasal and wearisome on the ear, but happily, elsewhere it is less so.
The Singer suffers from never being more than a plain template, generously festooned in placed with an arsenal of instruments to supplement his tales of love and loss. Certain moments are left disappointingly barren of bedecking and the result is immemorable songcraft.
Where the dressing works though, The Singer is a worthy listen. The xylophone, horns and reeds of ‘Catherine The Waitress’ culminate to a poppy, catchy tale similar to that of Aberfeldy or Belle & Sebastian.
In general, however, this is a collection more mute than those fey comparisons. There is a knowing, Nordic restraint to these tracks. It appeals to the listener in the way that a documentary might, offering a snapshot insight into another world. There is however an obtrusive distance in documentary-making that separates the audience from the production, and that niggles the listen.
Teitur has embraced brass as openly as Beirut, but where he stamps an identity onto his, Teitur’s are anonymous. Brass may be foreign to his native Faroe Islands or his adopted Denmark, but some statement of origin would have lifted this collection from anonymous to orchestral.
Howling Bells – Radio Wars
“Casualty Of Conflict”
What made the eponymous debut great was its menacing blend of mildy gothic pop-rock and hints at alt.country. The debut was brooding and haunting, the sound was PJ Harvey enjoying a knees up with Josh Homme, the Cocteau Twins spinning in the background. In retrospective brutality, that debut has not aged well and sounds a little MOR in comparison to some of today’s experimental and challenging luminaries. Yet, stand out tracks still stand out. The bombastic induce yawning indifference.
Radio Wars does not differ from this template. All that has changed is the ratio of pop to rock. Where previously Stein convulsed with meaning now she coos passively. Like the debut, Radio Wars’ stand out moments appeal. ‘Cities Burning Down’ welcomes back the trademark menace, the latter half of the title track is sinister melody embodied. ‘Into The Chaos’ picks up where ‘Low Happening’ left off, but is neutered in comparison.
The weaker tracks on the album are sadly bland to the point of banality. ‘Nightingale’ is a cadent pop-rock piece, delivered lethargically. ‘Let’s Be Kids’ reintroduces the shoe-gazy element of the debut, vocally recalling the Cocteau Twins afresh, but it’s a pity these lyrics are so trite. The musical backdrop is frustrating indie Muzak. ‘Golden Web’ is an inadvisable and wistful duet, which embraces lost love against a spider and fly analogy.
Radio Wars is not a bad album, let that be clear. In fact, it is a lot better than initial listening suggests. The good does indeed outweigh the bad, but the so-so outweighs both. The problem with promise is sustainability. It is rare to achieve commercial and critical success and Radio Wars appears to have aimed to please the former rather than the latter. Only time will tell if the radio bites.
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