5 Music Reviews
by dave heaton
Camera Obscura, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (Merge)
Want to witness lazy journalism in action? Try to find a review of the Scottish band Camera Obscura, positive or negative, which doesn't say 'they sound just like Belle & Sebastian' and pretty much leave it at that. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely similarities in sound between the two bands, and yes Stuart Murdoch produced one of their songs ("Eighties Fan"), but to play those links up too much ignores the fact that Camera Obscura is a unique band with its own personality. Their second album Under Achievers Please Try Harder alluded to pop music of the past (doo-wop, Motown, 50's 'girl groups') within laidback pop songs with gorgeous melodies and sweet, equally gorgeous vocals from singer Tracyanne Campbell. In the wake of that album, the band's debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi has been resissued - and though it's overall more gentle than the second album, with a bit less diversity in style, it's just as spellbinding. The album contains an ample share of pop gems. The ballads "Pen and Notebook" and "Let's Go Bowling" are wonderfully melodic and filled with concisely worded insights into human behavior; more upbeat songs like the opener "Happy New Year" do the same with an extra bounce and sense of humor; "Anti-Western" is a duet between Campbell and the group's other singer, John Henderson, which nicely nods toward Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra duets; "Double Feature" is perfectly evocative of a bleak winter afternoon spent inside a cinema. Overall Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is an album of easygoing but sophisticated and heart-warming pop music, definitely not an imitation.
Graves, Yes Yes Okay Okay (Hush)
28 minutes is too short for an album, many would say, but sometimes that's all it takes to present a fully realized musical world and songs that'll stick with you and mean more to you than most. Graves' second album Yes Yes Okay Okay is what I'm referring to here - it's 10 songs short, with the 10th one lasting under a minute, yet it's a remarkable work that creates a unique mood. Head Grave Greg Olin's songs are laidback in a comfortable, friendly, un-dull way, yet also have a playful, loose nature to them, like an old friend who still manages to surprise you. In his biography on Hush Records' web site, Olin mentions liking fans to " feel some sort of mood change" from his songs; that's a vague but dead-on description of the effect the album has, the way it comforts your mind and puts you in a different state of being. Yes Yes Okay Okay is filled with mellow, lightly orchestral daydream pop songs that have an unmatched sense of intimacy to them - when Olin sings of a "Headphone Brigade" it resonates with the closeness the songs have for the listener. That closeness also works nicely with the personal focus of the songs, whether they're sharing an intimate moment between lovers ("Connection Time") or contemplating the difficult intricacies of love ("Holding Your Arms," perhaps my favorite on the album, with its lyric "Hard trying to love someone who's holding your arms/who's holding your arms and your heart"). All of these and many other indefinable things make Yes Yes Okay Okay a warm and thoroughly enticing album, a companion worth keeping close by.
The Guild League, Inner North (Matinee Recordings)
The first Guild League album, Private Transport, had The Lucksmiths' Tali White and a gaggle of his friends leading us on a trip around the world; the album's handily crafted pop songs were filled with the starry-eyed confusion and ecstasy of travel. On their second album Inner North the Guild League feels less like a gang of explorers - they've dwindled down to White and two others (with guitarist Rodrigo Pintos-Lopez co-writing many of the songs). But that's more than appropriate for the songs, which are sadder in both style and content. While the album still has its moments of energy (witness the spunky "Shot in the Arm," which is more in step with the last album), overall the atmosphere is melancholy beauty. White's vocals are more carefully developed than ever (he sounds like a crooner in places, and I don't mean that as an insult), and his melodies are splendid as always; he uses both to capture a sense of loss and a yearning for a brighter tomorrow. "It's all coming undone," White declares on one song, and that's the basic theme of so many of the songs: a relationship unraveling. That "what happens next?" feeling is everywhere, along with White's poetic descriptions of scenes and settings. All of the songs perfectly capture complicated emotions; perhaps the album's most sublime moment, and one of the many that are quietly devastating, is the final track "Shirtless Sky," where the pain of absence emerges through a day where the weather is exactly the kind that the departed lover enjoyed most ("my heart is thirsty in your absence/knowing that your idea of bliss is days like this"). That song, like the 11 others on Inner North, is a prime example of how a pop song can be simultaneously gorgeous and heartbreaking, bringing listeners right into the hearts of the musicians.
Manual & Syntaks, Golden Sun (Darla
Golden Sun, the new album from Danish electronic musicians Manual (Jonas Munk) and Syntaks (Jakob Skøtt), has as its cover a flowing, impressionistic picture of the sun over palm trees. There are a multitude of hard-to-pinpoint feelings one can gets from something majestic like the sun - Manual & Syntaks try to translate those feelings into music throughout this vivid, atmospheric yet gently energetic album. I'm a huge fan of beautiful, freestanding ambient sound sculptures - pieces to soak yourself into. But that's not really what's going on here. Golden Sun does have those qualities of beauty and dreaminess, but these songs are complex, and the album taken as a whole is even more so. Sort-of divided into two halves, Golden Sun begins with a batch of rolling dream-funk tracks that are like soulful hip-hop grooves crossing paths with intricate, minimalist modern compositions and emerging as a completely new creature. Track after track has more levels to it than you expect, even though at first it all strikes you as potently mellow mood music tilting towards the dance floor. Around halfway through this 65-minute newborn, though, the music gets spacier and less propulsive - but at the same time somehow even prettier, like we're moving even further into whatever heavenly place we've been hovering around. Vocalist Maja Maria, who sings on three tracks, brings an otherworldly pop melody to the second-to-last track, "The Sizzle of Stars," which feels like the album's apex. Golden Sun ultimately is a majestic and deeply satisfying album - my hope is that listeners stick through it to the end, because giving up too soon will leave them without the complete picture.
The Minders' 1998 debut album Hooray for Tuesday opens with Sgt. Pepper horns, and was produced and recorded by the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider at his Pet Sounds Recording Studio...yes, welcome to the neo-1960s. The recently reissued Hooray for Tuesday is both the Minders' most overtly pop album and their most explicitly 60s' album - later on they both dove further into psychedelia and pushed their music further away from obvious Beatles/Stones/Hollies/Zombies, etc. references. All of that said, to me Hooray for Tuesday is one of their most thoroughly enjoyable albums, because it's absolutely overloaded with fantastic melodies. The album is a retro trip in a way, but that sure doesn't matter when you're listening to it. Song after song is bright and catchy, with spunky guitars and memorable hooks. It's not too happy to stomach - in fact, sadness and darkness are lurking beneath the surface - but it does have the energy and hopeful drive you need to lift your day up out of the fog.