The British Are Coming!: A Look at the Latest Releases From the UK
by john stacey
Heather Nova: Storm (Pinnacle)
Nova, daughter of a Canadian mother and Bermudan father and now living in the UK, has been a little bit of a secret. Over a career that has spanned 10 years, seven albums and almost as many labels, she has quietly worked her craft. Possessor of a voice that is simultaneously earthy and fragile, Nova has transcended her early days gigging with just a guitar in the coffee houses of London to become a mature artist whose latest release is positively sublime. The music on her latest album, Storm, places her firmly in the role of a singer-songwriter of the Joni Mitchell variety: the songs are simultaneously uplifting though melancholy, as though she has distilled her experiences of life into the 11 songs on offer. Eschewing smart arrangements, producers The Divine Sparks have pared the arrangements back to their bare bones - and they are all the better for it. Classic strumming, an echo of Hammond or piano and tethered percussion allows her voice to soar and achieve its purest renditions yet. Indeed, "Drink It In" has an almost spiritual quality to it and I doubt if her voice has been better. The track has a yearning that really does tug the heartstrings. Storm the album title may be, but Heather Nova has created a placid pool of calm and invited us all to enter. Dive in and enjoy.
The Christians: Prodigal Sons (Verdala Records)
Back after an absence of 10 years, Garry and Russell Christian and Henry Priestman have brought their sound bang up to date. But the almost obligatory use of modern technology, rapping, scratching etc., hasn't disguised the fact that the trio of soul-lite harmoniezers can still write a good tune and sing it, too. Indeed, it is nice to hear them branching out and exploring new sounds and ideas. Third track in, "No Pain," utilises accordions to give it a simultaneously French and folkie feel, while track four, "Chasin' Rainbows," could be something off a Temptations LP from the mid-Sixties. Admittedly, there's nothing quite as good as their earlier stuff like "Forgotten Town" and "Ideal World" - but, to be fair, they were absolute pop gems, unlikely to repeated by anyone - but this is good stuff and reason enough for a) the Lighthouse Family to be worried and b) fans to rejoice that the Christians haven't exactly thrown their careers to the lions just yet. Not a stone cold classic, but worthy of a listen.
Cara Dillon: Sweet Liberty (Rough Trade)
Irishwoman Dillon has been singing since she was 14 and has built up a fair amount of experience since then. A winner of the All Ireland Singing Trophy while still a teenager, she has worked with no less than Mike ("Tubular Bells") Oldfield and has reaped rewards from British radio stations. All this is very well, but what's this like, you may ask? Well, put it this way: Dillon's voice is one of the purest this reviewer has heard, and puts me in mind of the likes of Mary Black in its Irish clarity. Sweet Liberty, her second release, carries on from where her highly-acclaimed debut began in 2001. Dillon's County Derry home of Dungiven has provided the inspiration for several songs, including "The Winding River Roe." She also tackles "There Were Roses"; written by Tommy Sands, this elegant song evokes the troubles in Northern Ireland and Dillon's fine singing is perfectly accompanied by sympathetic backing of simple piano, whistle and snare drum. Her harmonies on the chorus make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Sweet Liberty has a gentle innocence; Dillon's voice is a startling beacon of pure Irish velvet.
Stiff Little Fingers: Guitar And Drum (EMI)
Still in Ireland - Belfast to be exact - with one of punk rock's survivors, Stiff Little Fingers still produce the kind of knee-jerking, limb-stretching, adrenal in-pumped pun/power pop that gets even the most dedicated couch potato jumping from one leg to another. Time hasn't really moved on for frontman Jake Burns - he rasps and snarls and entreats and threatens as if this were still 1978 and tight-fitting trousers were still the now fashion. What has happened, of course, since that year's Inflammable Material is the SLF have perfected their craft. Then, they were young and brash and not exactly over-proficient in their art; an amazing 25 years on - and it is amazing to think that punk is still spitting in rock's face - whereas now they have at least mastered their instruments and - lawdy, lawdy - know how to get those axes grinding, the drums pummelling behind. These are songs; real songs. This ain't punk any more; sure. It's got its roots in a rebel yell era a quarter of a century ago but the music on Guitar And Drum (and that's what this album is, no less no more) has verve, spirit, drive and power. The group know where they are going; they have ploughed their own particular furrow and aren't deviating: chords slash and burn, drums batter, the bass snakes behind it all and the tracks rock. In the end, perhaps not without a little irony, Stiff Little Fingers have become the sort of classic rock act they and their ilk so despised so long ago. Guitar And Drum sees them as vanguards of a kind of punk mainstream. This is great stuff. I think I'll go and get my hair cut short again! Phew.
Michael Weston King: A Decent Man (Evangeline)
Weston King has been a staple of the British alt.country scene for years, receiving crucial acclaim for his work with The Good Sons. As a measure of The Good Sons stature, they were the first British group to sign for Glitterhouse Records and the first British outfit to release for the US label Watermelon.The band went their separate ways in 2002 but Michael Weston King continued to tour Europe and America, sharing the bill with the lies of Steve Earle, Chris Hillman, Rodney Crowell and Ron Sexsmith. So he's got some pedigree. A Decent Man is his third solo album and possibly his finest yet, marrying Byrds-like guitar to wheezing Dylanesque harmonica and a trace of esoteric brass. Opener Celestial City sets the benchmark, opening with the sound of trumpets before evolving into a Springsteen-style slice of high energy Americana. A Decent Man is one of those albums that doesn't grab you all at once; it has energy, for sure, and depth; this is the sound of a man who has distilled everything from his colourful career and life - he was almost killed in a bush crash while touring Germany - into a solid block of songs that resonate with assuredness. Producer Jackie Leven adds a dark sheen to these paeans to love, loss and confusion, with Weston King taking his responsibilities as a songwriter seriously, painting evocative pictures of a world where 'Airfix wings tilt back towards the skyline' and resisting the temptation to chat up a 22-year-old woman because 'I'm a decent man, I do the decent thing...when I can.' A Decent Man sees Weston King finally find his own voice; and if that voice is a little familiar it's no worse for that.
Longview: Mercury (14th Floor)
This is the sound of British rock in all its splendour - resolutely rhythmic, melancholy and not really that original. Tapping into the style that has made the likes of Travis and Coldplay so popular across the Atlantic, the Manchester group's anthemic songs utilise swathes of chunky guitar set alongside cellos to produce a sombre, hymn-like sound that tries so very to move the hard but ends up being...well, ordinary. Singer Rob McVey has a decent-enough voice, alternately sweet and gruff, but there's nothing on this album that makes you want to press the repeat button. Which is a shame, because Mercury has got all the ingredients in place - the careful, neat production, the introduction of texture in places, chord progressions that have been thought out...but that's the trouble. Mercury has been conceived by a group that knows how to press all the right buttons but then end up with a product that makes for listening. Want anthems? You got 'em, namely "Can't Explain"; want indie scratch - try "Electricity"; want piano led melancholy? You got it on "If I Would." Sadly, Longview sounds like it was recorded by a committee - and one that stopped listening to records about 1985. This is an indie record pretending to be a rock record. Its schizophrenia is at once appealing and repellent.
Bell X1: Music In Mouth (Island)
If schizophrenia is what you're after, you can't do better than Bell X1 with their second album. The opening song, "Snakes & Snakes," begins like a David Byrne/Talking Heads song circa 1980 then descends into a crashing, jangling bore. Follow-up track "Alphabet Soup" fares no better, beginning with mandolin and coming across like an uneasy collaboration between Radiohead and Peter Gabriel during his world music phase. The trouble with Music In Mouth is that it has several different faces - and phases. Some say it is Radiohead with tunes, but the tunes Bell X1 have created aren't that interesting. Based in Dublin, and the former backing band of Damian Rice, whose exquisite album O has (justifiably) received plaudits everywhere, Bell X1 struggle to overcome many obstacles, the main one being their way with an arrangement. Listening to Music In Mouth is hard going; everything seems in place - apart from an over-reliance on bombastic drumming which reduces even quite lovely numbers like "Eve, The Apple Of My Eye" to lumbering cod-ballads. The lads have obviously thought about what they are doing but - like Longview -Bell X1 have simply tried too hard to cover all their bases.
Broken Family Band: Cold Water Songs (Snowstorm)
Hailing from the country heartlands of Cambridge, England, this full-length CD follows a mini-CD The King Will Build A Disco that garnered a lot of interest last year. Cold Water Songs is the sound of an English band beating American country bands at their own game. It has wit, style, humour and great playing - plus some great songs that pay respect to the lo-fi elements of Pavement and Will Oldham in a happier frame of mind. Vocalist Steven Morris does a reasonable approximation of a heartbroken country dude while fashioning lyrics that actually make you smile, particularly in the tracks "Don't Leave That Woman Unattended" and "Hitting Women," which examine the whole man-woman relationship from a more shall we say, British aspect. The Broken Family Band poke fun at the whole genre but they are obviously sincere, allowing the humour to shine in songs that are ably embellished with traces of pedal steel, banjo, flute and cornet. This ain't smart-ass alt.country. It ain't real country, either. How can it be, coming from the heart of English academia? What it is is fun; good humoured songs - songs that bear repeated scrutiny.