Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Band Of Skulls - Sweet Sour (Electric Blues Recordings)

If Led Zep were a bunch of Brummies who became the best rock and roll band ever, then why should the fact Band Of Skulls are from Southampton get in the way of us enjoying the ride? There’s definitely a template being followed on Sweet Sour, Band Of Skulls’ second album, and it’s one that will be very familiar to anyone who uses the ‘sign of the horns’ as a greeting method. 

Hard rocking is never off the menu on Sweet Sour’s first half, even when it looks like we’ve ordered a nice, mellow, acoustic love song- as the middle of ‘Lay My Head Down’ proves. 

Band Of Skulls have supported both BRMC and The Black Keys recently and it’s obvious the unisex trio would be a top notch support act – all cheap thrills and direct, impressive musicianship. It’ll be interesting to see which of the two Black band’s career paths Skulls will end up going down - the former appear down and out, while the latter seem to be miraculously giving rock music CPR. 

On this evidence, it’s hard to say. However, as the pensive, affecting ‘Navigate’, ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Close To Nowhere’ from the album’s second half show, there’s at least one more string to the band’s bow than would first appear.

The Big Pink - Future This (4AD)

Most of the bad things said about The Big Pink are said in reference to their breakthrough hit ‘Dominos’, an infuriatingly catchy song which we now know was written in cahoots with a well known pizza chain in order to subliminally brainwash the minds of students. But, no matter what you say about the London duo, at least they have a ‘sound’ that they can call their own. 

This ‘sound’ is one founded on a bombastic chorus, faux-futuristic guitars and a big, thumping beat. In shampooing terms, it is washed, rinsed and repeated on their second album Future This. 

Opener ‘Stay Gold’ satisfies as a more tolerable version of the aforementioned ‘Dominos’, while ‘Rubbernecking’ exemplifies their characteristic use of a juvenile vocal propelled by a heavily processed drum effect. Let it be known that, for better or worse, subtle is not a word that exists in The Big Pink dictionary. 

On ‘Give It Up’ there’s some evidence of the hip-hop direction that lead-singer Milo Cordell alluded to in interviews, but the influence is most obviously borne out in the extra beef put behind the album’s notable production. Indeed, the gargantuan effects on ‘1313’, a heartfelt ballad about waking up and then going back to bed, are certainly a treat for the ears, should they be listened to on good enough speakers or earphones. 

As on the latter song and album closer ‘77’, the band appear more palatable when they inject an earnest lyric or two into the mix, to counteract the sheer clout of their techno rock orgy. (Yet, it has to be said, The Big Pink are no wordsmiths). 

Essentially, Future This won’t disappoint those who enjoyed The Big Pink’s debut. It will, however, also vindicate those who never claimed to like them in the first place.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Columbia)

Back in 1988, Leonard Cohen, whilst promoting his album I’m Your Man, said he’d just read in a newspaper that as you get older, “the brain cells connected with anxiety begin to die, and you start feeling a lot better”. 24 years later, Cohen repeated the same neurological titbit in an interview with the Observer, crediting his overall better mood to this process of ageing.

But Cohen, not unfairly caricatured as rock’s Don of Despair, is a man for whom sounding downbeat has long been a way of life. Resolutely philosophical, Cohen has specialised in ruminations on the relative merits of death and birth, religion and spirituality, hatred and horniness since he first put pen to paper back in 1956.

It would be something of a shock then if ‘Laughing Lenny’, the ironic nickname given to Cohen by journalists in reference to his less than chirpy demeanour, suddenly made an appearance on Old Ideas.  

Thankfully, any fears that Cohen has lightened up as he has matured are quashed by the self-referential lyrics in the powerful opener ‘Going Home’. “I’d love to speak with Leonard”, Cohen tells us, “he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit… He will speak these words of wisdom like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tune”.

Old Ideas is defined by Cohen’s growing sense of his own mortality, and listening to the characteristically confessional and intensely stirring songs together is hugely engrossing. The grizzled 77 year old, one of the few songwriters journalists can call a poet without it sounding conceited, is as brilliantly lugubrious and self-deprecating as ever throughout.

‘Darkness’ is a particular highlight, during which he growls, “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few”. Few expected Cohen to write another classic to join the likes of ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ after so long out of the game- but this timeless song rises very near to the top of his canon.  

Cohen’s unfeasibly deep voice charges every song with an indomitable sense of importance. He makes today’s most eminent baritone vocalists, such as Nick Cave or Matt Berninger from The National, sound fit only to serve as backing singers for Alvin & The Chipmunks. When Cohen sings, “I’m naked and I’m filthy, there is sweat upon my brow” on ‘Anyhow’, the seismic rumblings are of such a force that they risk dangerously interfering with any Richter scale that may be nearby.

But as the overtly hymnal ‘Come Healing’, and laborious ‘Lullaby’ testify, not every song on the album is vintage Cohen. However, occasional overbearing female vocals aside, each song’s modest production ensures nothing sounds pompous or dated, which is where some of Cohen’s latter day synth-infused albums have come a cropper. Instead, a classy, jazz-inflected style defines the understated instrumentation, purpose built for Cohen’s sonorous waltzes.

‘Crazy To Love You’, simply an acoustic guitar straddled by Cohen’s bottomless voice, is very much early-era Len, and will no doubt transport many diehards back to the bedsit in which they first heard the so called ‘Master of Erotic Despair’. Then, closing the album, ‘Different Sides’ is typical Cohen, playing his own relationship counsellor in a confrontation with a sultry female vocal.

Over the course of the album it becomes clear that Cohen is much too wise to even attempt reinventing himself for any new generation(s). He simply doesn’t need to, and so Old Ideas sees him playing entirely to his strengths.