Friday, 28 September 2007

spunkytown, #9 dream, art star peaks and plummets

Monday saw the release of two artists' startlingly consistent new albums. PJ Harvey and Devendra Banhart have committed much to tape, but their new albums prove coherent pinnacles in their careers. First, the prolific eccentric Banhart.

‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’s leaf reveals an intriguing “In loving memory of (amongst others) Elliott Smith”. Venezuelan-raised Banhart has been characterised by clap-fests over South-American grooves such as ‘I Feel Just Like A Child’, seemingly distant from America’s bleakest songsmith’s work. Yet ‘Smokey’ is a distinctly American record, exploding refreshingly from not the New York scene pit but Pentecostal Churches and hot skies. ‘Bad Girl’ smacks of Smith’s regretful self-scolding and chimes both Conor Oberst with its country slide-guitar sustains and Deep South soul with its raspy, declamatory ending. ‘Lover’ could be a great Motown record recovered, while the piano on ‘I Remember’ (Spirograph-reverberations and emotionally loaded descents) sounds of the empty dance hall. The weighting of the orchestration is subtle and magnificent: ‘Seahorse’ begins all Hank Williams, solo voice and effortless guitars, before fusing ragged double bass and piano syncopation with an underwater barbershop choir; finally a lick-laden electric guitar morphs the track back to Americana, this time Springsteen 4-4 stomps.

South-American rhythmic statements offset North-Western song conventions brilliantly: ‘Rosa’s pianistic intro is Sufjan meets Chopin before a playful exchange of on- and off-beats spawns an earthier dance.

‘Smokey’ is a record with traditional roots that is remarkably exploratory: from a mingling of various influences Banhart’s emerging portrayal is of catch-fire melodies and his notions of the’l’s: love, loss, life, liturgy, Lucifer and the rest. It’s ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ vs ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by a Latin soul samurai with an ear for seductively hymnal melodic and rhythmic saunters and grinds.

Devendra Banhart - 'Bad Girl'
Devendra Banhart - 'Lover'

Devendra Banhart - 'I Remember'

PJ Harvey has flirted with the piano before. 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea's 'We Float' is driven by a piano bass, sensually punctuated by higher chords, and she contributed the sinister finish to 'Dead In Love' on Desert Sessions 9 and 10. Much has been made of the piano's dominance on new album 'White Chalk', and it is fascinating to hear Harvey's trademark semitonal chord shifts rendered on not crunchy guitars but ghostly keys. "Ghostly" is another common soundbite for the record, with its creator the vision of an abused apparition on the cover. Most vividly conjured are the Dorset clifftops, one of which she wrote the album on, armed with a blackboard and a piano. 'White Chalk's instrumentation (acoustic piano, banjo, mellotron, broken harp, cig fiddle) recalls Patrick Wolf's 'Wind In The Wires', though Harvey's album is propelled by not recorded electricity and horse clops but guiding piano strokes that ring emotional rises and falls with constant chords and well-placed flourishes. Most expressive on this album though is Harvey's voice. Whether expressing the binds of memory and longing with a stately vulnerability on 'Silence', proclaiming her creation and destruction on 'Grow Grow Grow' or earnestly howling isolation on 'The Piano', Harvey's thin vocals electrify and display, on tracks like 'To Talk To You' and 'The Mountain', adventurous melodic direction that makes them sound as if they were caught on a sweeping wind; Harvey's claims that listening to Vaughan Williams while making this album freed her approach to melody are reflected here.

'White Chalk', Harvey's ninth album, is as consistent as Mercury Prize winner 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea' yet exhibits a new freedom in her songwriting approach, resulting in melodically unpredictable and innovative, ethereal triumph.

PJ Harvey - 'Grow Grow Grow'
PJ Harvey - 'To Talk To You'
PJ Harvey - 'The Mountain'

'These New Puritans'' musical involvement in the Dior Homme Awards 2007 has heightened their profile ahead of the 5th November release of their debut album 'Beat Pyramid' (Angular/Domino). Their 'White Heat' performance on Tuesday didn't have art-types queueing down the street as I anticipated but was suitably crammed. Their thrusting beats, gnarly, groping bass, distorted vocals and melodically-revelatory-as-function guitar varied enough to keep them compelling throughout, with highlights being 'Elvis' and set-closer 'Doppelganger'. Frontman Jack Barnett incites curiosity, infusing more interesting subject matter into his lyrics than most of the indie scene combined. Their myspace is teasingly elusive, offering mostly previews and sample clips that suggest 'Beat Pyramid' will be an exhilirating proposition.

To the dank, wanting side of indie-electronica. My friend Patrick said this of the new Hot Chip single: "From the get-go, ‘Shake A Fist’ has the emotional integrity of the very action after which it is named". He is a classically trained snob who would probably say the same about Joy Division, but here he's got a point. Inane keyboards, drum loops that sound like poor imitations of Justin Timberlake and buzzing-fly vocals with little to say, Hot Chip prove here (after the barely passable 'Over And Over') that they really are a bunch of guys with little talent, too much time and a synth stash. The bald one's art star glasses might add a touch of hilarity to the concoction, but it's really no excuse.

Finally I'd like to echo jehan's plea for 'Shotter's Nation' to be judged on musical merit and to salute the faithful who will go out and buy it on Monday braced to wade through durge from the press and the artist himself to discover the very very good new bits from Britain's most scandalised wastrel and his troupe.


Anonymous said...

I so agree, I really love your work.

Anonymous said...

Are you the same Mike Jones that writes for the London Student Paper?