Monday, January 25, 2010

The Decemberists (Billboard, January 24th)

It was a first time gig in Melbourne for the Decemberists, currently in Australia on their first tour here. There was a crowd of devoted fans who knew every lyric to every song and sang along loudly and passionately. From the band there was crazy Colin Meloy, lead singer, guitarist and someone who clearly loves playing gigs. The set was punctuated by some audience sing alongs of great enthusiasm. Their songs are full of interesting material- old folk tales, war, infanticide, being eaten by a whale...

The Decemberists are masters of the story telling song so it was fitting that they chose to open their set last night with The Tain, a fifteen minute-plus epic that traversed through heavy rock riffs, folky interludes and an array of instruments played by the members of the band. This was followed by the jaunty Sporting Life from Picaresque and another fast number, Billy Liar. A couple of songs from last year's story book album The Hazards of Love were also played, The Rake Song and Annan Water, good even out of the context of the album's story.

The Crane Wife's three parts were another set highlight, played this time in order, unlike on the album. Following this were O Valencia and 16 Military Wives, both obvious crowd favourites.
The encore included a deliberately chosen cover of Bye Bye Pride (originally a Go Betweens song) and Sons and Daughters which inspired another mass singalong of the closing refrain. After stomping, cheering and drowning out the background music that was supposed to signal the set's end, the band came back to play a hilarious rendition of The Mariner's Revenge Song. The whole audience was swaying in time with the fictional boat's motions, the band members played dead on the stage and the audience all had to scream upon being eaten by the whale.

A most enjoyable show from a very talented group of musicians and songwriters.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Top Gigs of 2009

Seven Worlds Collide, Powerstation, Auckland
Some of the world's best artists playing a range of their songs, as well as songs written especially for the event. And it was all for charity. Anything involving members of the Finn family has to be good.

Ani DiFranco, Palais
My first chance to see her play live. A great set that showcased a wide range of her material and showed what an energetic and passionate performer she can be.

Ben Folds, Palais

No Army, but was otherwise a set containing songs from his solo albums and Ben Folds Five songs as well. The highlight of the show was the two new songs he performed from the forthcoming album written with Nick Hornby.

Tim Finn, The Athenaeum
A career-spanning retrospective featuring Eddie Raynor and a range of material from Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers music and his solo stuff as well.

Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, Corner Hotel

One of Australia's best relatively unknown bands. Jen Cloher is a talented songwriter and the music has substance and beauty.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Top 10 Albums 2009, continued

4. Wilco, Wilco (the album)
Highlights include the guitar work on Bull Black Nova, title track Wilco (the song), the duet You and I which features Leslie Feist and the rollicking You Never Know which also appears on The Sun Came Out.

5. Flight of the Conchords, I Told You I Was Freaky
A great follow up to their first album. This one centres more around r & b with Sugalumps and Too Many Dicks but strays into folk music and reggae. Best song is easily Carol Brown.

6. Regina Spektor, Far
The original and funny Dance Anthem of the 80s is an album highlight, as is the single Laughing With, opening track The Calculation and quirky Folding Chair.

7. Blitzen Trapper, Furr
Technically this was released in very late 2008 but who would have noticed? The title track is fantastic, as is the jazzy Saturday Nite. Explores a wide range of styles and contains some catchy songs.

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!
A departure from their previous more rock oriented style, this album contains the addictively catchy Zero, Heads Will Roll and the softer tones of Skeletons.

9. Andy Bull, We're Too Young
A late entry to this list, as I discovered this album in November. Piano in the style of Ben Folds, the excellent She's a Ghost, title track, Young Man and Do You Recall are the best tracks here.

10. Jordie Lane, Sleeping Patterns
A great folk/country/soul album with well written songs. Highlights include Walking That Way, The Publican's Daughter, War Rages On and I Could Die Looking At You.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top Ten Albums 2009

It's that time of year again where we start looking back on the year's highlights music-wise. Hottest 100 voting opens in just over a week, so let's start with my top ten albums for the year. I'm starting at number one and working up this time!

1. 7 Worlds Collide, The Sun Came Out
Too many great artists contributed to this album for it to be anything but number one. A great mixture of styles and paces. Highlights include Don McGlashan's Long Time Gone, Neil Finn's All Comedians Suffer, Phil Selway's The Ties That Bind Us and anything Wilco has been involved with.

2. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More
A beautifully constructed folk-rock extravaganza which brings the banjo into the forefront of cutting edge music. Some heart felt tracks here including the excellent title track, The Cave, Winter Winds, Roll Away Your Stone and Little Lion Man. No bad songs to be found.

3. Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, Hidden Hands
Some terrific music here- soul, rock, folk all rolled into one. The title track is great, along with Fear Is Like a Forest, Mother's Desk, I Am Going But I Am Not Gone, Eden With Eve... it's an album full of energy, a mixture of sweet folk driven songs and harder edged stuff too.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Wilco will love you, baby

In fact they're loving us not just once but twice next May, playing gigs at the Forum on the 5th and 6th. The gigs were a surprise as nothing has been mentioned on and nothing even in the EG's gig guide. Today an advertisement appeared and tickets were on sale Monday. Very exciting news!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mumford and Sons

Responsible for one of this year's best albums, this English band sounds very Irish, sings some beautiful harmonies and has brought the banjo back into fashion. Their recently released album Sigh No More has been at the top of the Australian albums chart for two weeks and is now still a respectable third place. They are a little like many artists with the rhythms of Wilco's Airline to Heaven, the voice of Jordie Lane, the Irishness of Flogging Molly, but are exactly like no one.

And this is only a good thing. Listening to their album you will be struck by the complexities in their songs, the slow starts that build up to frantic instrumental and vocal crescendos. There are soaring horns and violins that rise above the guitars. Opening track Sigh No More starts with only soft guitar, then the elements of the band all click into place one by one. Second track The Cave has one of the best choruses this year and Winter Winds is a beautiful sad tale. Most of the album consists of break up songs- perhaps this melancholy aura permeating the tracks is what makes it such a great recording.

Other highlights include Roll Away Your Stone, single Little Lion Man, and I Gave You All. If you are one of those people perturbed by hype, pretend you aren't and jump on the growing bandwagon which for once is entirely justified.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tim Finn (The Athenaeum, 7th November)

Tim Finn's current Anthology Tour is a retrospective exploring songs from his whole career. He appeared on stage singing the opening bars of Six Months In A Leaky Boat before being joined by Split Enz's Eddie Raynor and the rest of his current touring band. The show revealed the talents of one of the best songwriters around and managed to satisfy the die hard fans who were really only hanging out for more Split Enz songs.

As well as the opening track there was a jaunty My Mistake, Dirty Creature and the set closer I See Red. Each performance of these songs showed off the performance energy Tim has even now which doesn't seem to have waned at all. He also played some solo stuff including Fraction Too Much Friction, So Deep, Persuasion and the recently penned Light Years Away. From the recent Poor Boy 'musical' he also played (or forgot the lyrics to) Into the Water. Most songs were from the Anthology album, released to coincide with the tour, although a few others played are not on this compilation.

Tim indulged one audience member's request by performing an impromptu Hermit McDermitt, and indulged other fans by playing the first Split Enz single Maybe. There was also a strange Neil Finn-less Weather With You, but still beautiful and Luckiest Man Alive from the Finn Brothers' 2005 album Everyone Is Here. Every song was well constructed, performed with passion and was well received by the audience of fans.

There were also two great support acts. First up was Leena, a female singer-songwriter with a voice reminiscent of the lead singer of the Cardigans. Her brief yet impressive set was followed by Andy Bull. He sings like Antony from the Johnsons, he plays piano like Elton John and Ben Folds and he has the tongue in cheek lyrics of Tim Minchin. His cover of The Shins New Slang was a highlight of the set, along with Pretty Girls, a stinging critique of the female private school girls from Sydney. And he signed a copy of his CD for me.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I Told You I Was Freaky

I've come to the conclusion that to properly appreciate Flight of the Conchords' music, you must be slightly silly. There's no other explanation for why their latest album has received one or two mediocre reviews in the past week when in many ways it is musically better than their previous effort. It doesn't have the same range as their first self titled album- many of the tracks rely on R&B for their sources of inspiration and many are about relationships- but there is still plenty to like here.

The opening track Hurt Feelings reminds us that Bret and Jemaine are indeed rappers, even if Bret was told to try on a ladies' wet suit and Jemaine's family didn't call on his birthday. Anyone who has ever been told that they looked like a llama will be able to sympathise with the boys who deal out their 'autobiographical raps'. This is followed by the hilarious Sugalumps, a song which must have been inspired by a particularly well known Black Eyed Peas track from a few years ago about certain parts of anatomy.

Other highlights include Too Many Dicks On the Dancefloor, which warns of the perils if you don't check the 'bro-ho ratio' before going down to your nearest club. This song is addictive and tends to stick in your head. Also there's I Told You I Was Freaky, which proves that Bret's habit of standing around with a cup on his head reveals his true personality of craziness. Or Jemaine might break into your house and have a seance. There's a tribute to eighties pop in Fashion is Danger, the cannibalistic tale of Petrov, Yelyena and Me and a plea to Jermaine to avoid prostitution in order to relieve his debts. There's also a Peter Sarstedt tribute in Wandering Through the Avenues of Time.

The highlight of the lot is the incredibly catchy, funny and well written Carol Brown which is one of the best songs of the year. It's proof that the boys have moved on from clever lyrics to writing great songs. There are one or two less exciting patches here and there, like Angels, Demon Woman and Friends, but these are still enjoyable enough in their own way. Maybe you just need to watch the TV series as well... the 'video clips' accompanying each song are also great.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Current Musical Annoyances

Maybe I'm getting old. I think I'm already too old for Triple J, because I find Zan Rowe really annoying, but as long as Richard Kingsmill is still kicking along I suppose I can listen. Although I don't still listen. I now listen to 774, because for some reason I'd rather hear up to date Melbourne weather reports than music in the mornings now. Like I said, I'm getting old.

This week's little rant is overdue, because I've been busy doing non-musical things like marking exams and engaging in educational philosophical debates with various people and entities, but it was inspired by this morning's listen to the new Sufjan Stevens album. In typical Sufjan style, it's a tribute to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, perhaps after he realised making an album for every single US state was slightly overambitious. Instead he's moved onto notable roadways of the US. Now, Sufjan fans who got hooked on Illinoise have been waiting a fair while for this. When he toured at the beginning of last year, there was no promise of any album in the pipeline and we all wondered what the hell he'd been doing for almost three years besides touring.

The BQE as it is dubbed on its cover is not an album at all. It is an anti-album. Songs move seemlessly into each other, there are no lyrics (at least up until track 8, my current listening limit). The album is accompanied by a DVD like Beck's The Information, inspired by its subject matter, and a small 3D viewing disk that looks like it's meant for our old Viewmasters from the 1980s. There is also a thick booklet devoid of many words but containing images and flourescent coloured scribbles. Pretty cool.

I'm sure a number of people will love this album, will declare it cutting edge and postmodern for failing to conform to the norms of the music industry. Sufjan, I will point out, can get away with this because he publishes his stuff on Asthmatic Kitty Records, which I assume is his own label. But I don't want cutting edge. I want traditional. I want some songs with LYRICS, for goodness sake, which Sufjan is good at writing. And he has a great voice. I want some of those four minute symphonies he produced on Illinoise with multiple parts, songs with stories like Casimir Pulaski Day and John Wayne Gacy Jr. I'm not in the mood for self indulgent tributes to roads in foreign countries unless those tributary songs contain WORDS, as well as soaring orchestral arrangements played by people who are very talented.

On a similarly annoyed note, JB don't seem to have Flight of the Conchords new album I Told You I Was Freaky, at least in the case of two of their stores. Get some better suppliers! Borders has it, why can't JB get its act together? Mutha'uckas.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Questions In Song Titles

Questions in song titles can be rhetorical, they can be pondered by the singer in the song's lyrics or they can merely be opening up a broader philosophical debate. Or they can be direct suggestions for action to be taken by the song's intended audience. The list below contains a few of these in my music collection.

Why Don't We Do It in the Road, The Beatles
Because 'no one will be watching us', apparently. A John Lennon song with bluesy guitar.

Where's Summer B?, Ben Folds Five
No one seems to know where Summer has been but much has gone on since his/her departure... Ross and Frank are still together and Joe Cavalo is hanging out with Darren's girlfriend. And they're all asking Ben where Summer is, but how should he know? One of their best from their first self titled album.

Are You Magnetic?, Faker
The stand out track and second single from Be the Twilight. Quite addictive and a little anthemic too. More questions raised here- do you collapse? Apparently not if you 'land in the right place'.

You And Whose Army?, Radiohead
With your cronies, you might manage to destroy the Roman Empire or at least drive Thom Yorke crazy.

What's Up?, 4 Non Blondes
What's going on anyway? Apparently the only way to work it out is to get up early and shout at people. It doesn't seem to work though because the lead singer still doesn't know what's going on.

Who Was I Kidding?, Martha Wainwright
Well, it obviously wasn't her father, judging from other material on this album. Maybe herself, but at least it wasn't about her songwriting abilities which are exceptional.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, (Corner Hotel, 20th September)

Jen Cloher is one of the best relatively unknown Australian artists around. She's a performer with a subtle yet assertive stage presence and writes great songs that have a complexity to them in their instrumentation and arrangement. After her first album Dead Wood Falls, this year she released Hidden Hands to much critical acclaim. The album launch at the Corner Hotel last night was an energetic showcase for Cloher's talents but also the talents of her band. From the sublime violin, viola and backing vocals to the lively drumming, the band serves her well. Jen Cloher herself has a rich, smooth voice that carries the lyrics across her carefully constructed tunes.

The gig opened with Spring from Dead Wood Falls, followed by new album highlight Fear is Like a Forest. This was followed by Fingersmith from the first album. Most of the new album was played including Mother's Day, Birdsong, Hidden Hands, It Must Come Through, Eden With Eve and Watch Me Disappear. We also heard plenty of songs from the first album including the single Rain. There were two covers, one of a Grant Lee Buffalo song and another of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues.

And thankfully, the Corner Hotel's sound gremlins from the previous night had all but gone. It was a lot less crowded but still a receptive crowd. I'm looking forward to listening to the album more over the coming months.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Liam Finn, (Corner Hotel, 18th September)

Attending this gig was a last minute thing, after receiving a ticket from a generous unwell friend. Liam is always good value and I've never seen him play a full set. Previously I have seen him being all the members of Led Zeppelin at once at Sound Relief and playing the guitar parts for absent Radiohead and Wilco members at 7 Worlds Collide. He was accompanied by the excellent Eliza Jane on various tuned and untuned percussion instruments. Too bad his set was wounded by the terrible sound problems at the Corner Hotel. I hope they fix the lead microphone cable in time for Jen Cloher tonight, and also the mysterious squawks that appeared whenever a high pitched guitar or vocal was performed. In Liam Finn's sets, that happens quite often and even he grumbled quietly (and politely) about the strange gremlins in the sound system.

Liam is great value mostly for his stage presence, perhaps Split Enz inspired. He dashes from guitar to drum kit and back to the guitar and propels himself across the stage like a man possessed by the music. His voice has a quality more similar to his uncle's than his father's and his repertoire is quite varied, from poppy rock to more soulful vocal harmonies.

The set contained a large chunk of material from I'll Be Lightning including Better to Be, Energy Spent, Remember When, Wise Man, This Place is Killing Me and the title track. He also played, after a request, Red Wine Bottle, the richly layered track from The Sun Came Out. He and EJ have a new EP out and they played a track (or possibly several) from that too. At the end of the set we saw Second Chance, a popular crowd favourite and Gather to the Chapel. Later on, Elroy Finn appeared to help out with I'm Only Sleeping and another song. You wonder if one day Elroy and Liam will mirror the efforts of their father and uncle with more collaborative musical efforts.

Too bad about the sound, but even that couldn't dampen the enthusiasm and energy of a talented musician.