erasing clouds

From Madonna to Math Rock in Four Easy Steps

reviews by john stacey

The female singer-songwriter genre is getting pretty crowded again. Rock, pop, angst, issue-led, roots, bluegrass, country, blues…the list is endlessly diverse and endlessly interesting. Of course, for every Caitlin Cary -- the former/existing, depending on what you've read, violinist/singer from Ryan Adams's band Whiskeytown -- whose albums are universally lauded and get to be discounted at places like Tower Records, there are dozens more who are probably better singers and more worthwhile of our hard-earned cash. Rebecca Bolam is one such. I took delivery of her album Prime Directive, which is her first independent release on the nattily-titled Supreme Overlord Music imprint, expecting to hear something bland and pretty middle-of-the-road; you know, the sort of stuff that's churned out ad nauseum and then speedily consigned to the trash bin. Boy, was I in for a shock. And the biggest shock was that Prime Directive is the sort of album Madonna would have made if she had started out as a singer and then became a dancer and not the other way round. The dancer Madonna always had a squeaky, disco duck type of voice that ultimately grated. Rebecca Bolam sounds incredibly like Madonna in that she Madonna's pitch, but lower, more mature and more memorable. The tracks "Nobody Home" and "Tonight," with their swelling piano and measured arrangements, are everything Madonna could have been had her career taken another direction. The backing, from the Grammy award-winning band Ozomatli and including drummer Andy Mendoza, is firm and supple and musical. Prime Directive demands repeated plays. You won't be disappointed. Just get your order in for the follow-up!

There's a movement in Britain which is, I suppose, the UK equivalent of Emo. It's punchy, wordy, traditional-ish rock that pulls at the heart-strings and itches the feet. Exponents like Travis and Coldplay - the more commercial end of the genre - have had much chart success with their albums, but neither band have really extended themselves, preferring to sweeten their songs than risk alienating their listeners. The Jack McCoys are a Massachusetts band who began in 1998 as an experiment, welding together various members from bands on the Boston scene. With their latest effort, All The Weeping Cameras (Ambiguous City Records), the fruits of their labours over the past three years have blossomed. This 45-minute collection takes us from post-rock ("Sinking In Sentences And Paragraphs" - great title!) through soulful rock ("A Star Is") to twangfest tracks like "Fossils and Artifacts". The music produced by Christian Cudari, Daniel Madri, Phillip Ouellete, Tyler Pollard and Matt Savage has at times a dry feel to it with stuttering time signatures and clever use of instrumentation. It isn't the finished article, to be sure, but the guys are getting there. Daniel's vocals are a sure plus point; if they were to rein in the experimentation and - dare I say it - construct the songs so they, ahem, rock out a little more, I can see a lot more doors opening for them. But they are a band to watch.

The Good Ship are something of an enigma - well, to me, anyway. That's simply because I could not find anything about them until my good friend Mr Google pointed me in the direction of Orange Twin Records, who put out their eponymous album, The Good Ship. Mr Google told me that the band comprise two librarians, a drifter/carpenter, a high school science teacher, a child prodigy and various friends & lovers, and they hail from Athens, Georgia (some other group comes from there but I can't remember who they are, something to do with rapid eye movement) and have opened for the B52s, Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power, so they've obviously building up momentum. But, forget all that; what's the album like and would you flash the cash to get a copy of their album in your hands? Good question, for The Good Ship are, as the man said, a bit of a curate's egg - sometimes they sound really, really good and you think 'Hey, this bunch are going places'. Then you get dragged back by the incompleteness of it all; OK, it all sounds fine; like they know what they are doing but, like The Jack McCoys, all the ingredients they throw into the sound stew don't always mingle in the best possible way. There's a touch of country there (a slight touch mind); a little bit of egghead virtuosity; that post-rock stuff that's all the rage (somewhere) and a soupcon of tunes, eventually. Damn it, it's all so literate. It's like walking through a desert desperate for a drink with the oasis 200 miles away. The Good Ship start with the best intentions - "From The Old Oak Inn" is very promising - but somehow something isn't quite right. Perhaps it's the sometimes off-key vocals, or the endlessly repetitive codas that you wish would break out into something else. I don't know. It ain't bad, but it ain't gonna ship millions. Maybe their next will.

And that brings us to the math. Irradio start their album Doctors Work (Terror 10) with discordant wind chimes and then launch into a beefy guitar-racked riff that is the opening track The Great Plain. The album then gets progressively better, with singer TK Atom flinging his words all over the 11 tracks as the group produce interesting - and melodic - shapes, like second track, the title track, which has an almost nursery rhyme quality to it. Godammit, this album is good; it has everything, really. Pretty songs, nasty songs, songs that make you want to dance, songs that make you want to change the world ("A Moment Of Clarity"). It's art school rock, self-satisfied and smart alec but containing one thing that other groups don't have; brains. Wordsmith Atom, whoever he is, spins some disturbing tales and the rest of the group use various effects to make his songs work. There's a pleasing use of programming that intrudes yet seems perfectly necessary; percussion is ubiquitous and "A Few Mistakes" really does groove. Irradio have thrown everything into the mix and it succeeds in spades; not only is this album well thought out, nicely arranged and packed with tunes, but it rocks where it should. In truth, reading the accompanying press release I feared the worse; it contained the sort of pseudo psychobabble that would have the reverse effect. Despite that, Doctors Work is a fine album and has lived on my hi-fi for many a day. Irradio have done their sums, got the formula right and have provided us with an excellent dissertation. Buy it.


Issue 14, August 2003 | next article

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