Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Laneway 2012

The third annual Laneway festival took place on Auckland Anniversary day at its third venue in as many years with the vendors hoping that the Wynyard Quarter location is permanent after previously trying the Britomart Quarter and Aotea Centre. The festival is certainly growing with an estimated 6,500 attending this year relative to around 2,000 for the first two versions. And with the recent demise of the Big Day Out, the city certainly needs it to be a success so as to maintain at least one international class music festival in the city.

2012 also saw the use of a second stage area allowing time and space for 22 bands to demonstrate their wares. With such an abundance of choice, there really was something for everyone as well as an almost cast-iron certainty that you will discover a great new band at Laneway. Indeed, in the internet age where no-one listens to radio to discover new bands, festivals are rapidly becoming one of the most important expositions of your future favourite bands. With the pervasiveness of YouTube, the ability to perform on stage is becoming a critical element in a bands’ success. In the Nevstar’s humble opinion, this is undoubtedly a good thing.

Perhaps part of the reason for the demise of the Big Day Out was that it lost its core alternative audience. The headline acts increasingly became nostalgic rather than cutting edge (Iggy, Metallica, Soundgarden, Neil Young et al). Laneway has a different perspective which I hope they stay true to. They aim to deliver the bands that are just starting to make a name for themselves particularly in a live context. In keeping with this modus operandi, much of what follows is an introduction to a whole lot of bands you may not have heard of as much as a concert review. However, the fact that they played Laneway at all suggests that they are probably worth paying attention to.

Austra

The first band that the Nevstar saw were Canadian electronica band Austra. I was implored by a friend to get there early to see them because the lead singer was “really hot”. Admittedly this is rather a shallow marketing strategy to garner audiences attention but it certainly never did Blondie any harm. Having survived the ½ hour queue for beer tokens (which soon lengthened to an hour), we arrived near stage to take in the efforts of our first band of the day. Austra’s debut album, Feel It Break was released last year and it met with fawning critics reviews and landed on several “Best of 2011” lists. To call them electronic is perhaps a small dis-service actually. My main impression was that the music sounded like 60s influenced dance music with some 80s synths thrown in (a common theme for the day). The band set up is unusual as well with three female progeny of the tie-dye, flower power generation on vocals parading around the stage as if they were playing Woodstock. Behind them sit yet another female on drums. They are supported by a male bassist wearing standard band attire of jeans and a t-shirt but also by another guy on the synthesiser who was wearing only tight black shorts and a black vest.

Lead singer, Katie Stelmanis, (who for the official record is definitely smoking hot) has a terrific voice and she was in fine form parading around the stage dancing in her Maid Marionish outfit. She was supported by the other two vocalists in producing hippy music updated for a new generation. The music moves over you in ethereal waves of electronic rhythms yet is spliced with meaty hooks and synthesised melodies. Indeed, our feet were tapping throughout the show and it didn’t take us long to find the first band that we had never heard of that we really liked.




Cults

Next up was the New York duo known as the Cults. Describing the Cults is relatively easy. Firstly, they are absolutely nothing like The Cult. Instead they are simply about playing infectiously joyous and simple pop songs which are irritatingly sweet and seductive. Think of the Tings Tings but with better lyrics! Unfortunately they suffered a little from “left stage” issues. The main stage area had two main stages side by sides with the acts alternating on each side. Unfortunately, the left hand stage suffered from poor sound quality all day, possibly because of the wind direction. Getting the perfect sound at concerts is always tricky but this was certainly one of the gripes of the day particularly after the near perfect sound at Aotea Square last year.

However it was a minor distraction with both Brian Oblivion (guitar) and Madeline Follin (vocals) launching into their work with gusto, precision and a whole, whole lot of hair! Both possess quite impressive black manes which they proceeded to fling around with joyous gay abandon throughout their entire set. I possess their eponymous debut album and enjoyed it without loving it, but they were absolutely terrific live. Brian introduced themselves by saying that they were “here to bring you some good old American rock and roll” and they sure did. The songs have a childhood innocence about them which is equal measures sugary and sparkling. Undoubted highlight of the set was the incriminatingly catchy Go Outside which features an intro played on a xylophone. Yes, a xylophone. The same instrument you give to your 3 year old niece. A more apt metaphor for the band is hard to imagine.




Girls

Next up were one of the must-sees for the Nevstar in Girls who have produced two sensational albums in Album and Father Son Holy Ghost. I wrote extensively about the latter in the previous Nevstar Music Guide as it was my number one album of 2011 so it was fair to say that I was a wee bit excited as they strode onstage. You knew it was a band called Girls up next as every microphone stand had a bunch of flowers attached to it (and everyone knows Girls love flowers).

They appeared onstage to enthusiastic applause and then did nothing but sound check their instruments for the next ten minutes! Grrrrr. I normally applaud perfectionism in musicians but this was definitely an example where it was ill-considered. A festival needs to run to time with all the acts back to back, and the sound is never ever going to be perfect given the limited set up time each band has. I think I would rather have had the extra ten minutes of them playing rather than exact right amount of treble.

Anyway, they finally launched into their show and it was a delight. Sampling from both of their albums, Girls played a ripping set, alternating evenly between their sunny California pop songs, and the shadowy, mysterious prog rock efforts flowing from their darker side. While they were slow to start playing, they certainly made up for it during the set as you could see and feel the unadulterated joy with which they were playing their music live. The crowd reaction was a bit of a dichotomy though. Some up the front were enraptured but it must be said that quite a few others drifted away over time to check out the other stage (or join the ever lengthening beer queue). I was definitely one of the former group however and felt their live prowess easily matched their exquisite song-writing skills. It was also interesting to note that a sizeable contingent of their fellow musicians from the other bands were 3-4 deep backstage enjoying their set. Bands that are favourites of other bands are always intriguing.

The final track was the immaculate Vomit which was absolutely note perfect. The plaintive, melancholic vocals were interspersed with messianic bouts of maniacal instrumentation. A triumph which left me for the first time that day a jabbering idiot post-show. However, it was fair to say that my erstwhile companions were not so enamoured when I asked them their thoughts. Perhaps intense familiarity with the content was required to fully appreciate the show. But no matter, adjudging quality of music is ultimately subjective and your pleasure should not be contingent on others. Suffice to say that I loved it and was definitely one of the highlights of the day for me.



Laura Marling

After three bands in a row, I was getting a little foot weary. Perhaps the major downside of the new site was that the two main stages were located in the central car park for the Wynyard Quarter. As such, you are standing on hot tarmac pretty much the entire time you are watching bands playing the main stage. There is no grass, virtually no seating, and no shade. As you can imagine, spending inordinate amounts of time standing in a car park is not generally the first place I would elect to spend my holiday afternoons so I’m afraid Laura Marling suffered as a result. Following the conclusion of Girls, I made a dash for a beverage and some shade. Due to the inordinately long beer queues, I only made it back for her last couple of songs so am not really able to pass judgement.

For the record, Laura is a singer song-writer who alternatively sits or stands at the front of the stage gently strumming her acoustic guitar and singing plaintive, heartfelt folk ballads like a dreamy blonde Joan Baez. My companions who watched the entire slot said that she was pretty good although she front-loaded her best songs at the start of her set. One to check out if you like that sort of thing.




Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Next up were the delightfully titled Pains of Being Pure At Heart who won the prize for the longest name of the day (indeed forcing the organisers to use much smaller font for their name in the programme). They were playing on the Park Lane stage which was the (much) smaller stage off towards the western waters edge of Wynyard Quarter. The upside of the location was its intimacy and the grass beneath your feet. The downside was that the space for fans was way too small. It was very full for POBPAH who are barely known and then absolutely jam-packed to the point of discomfort for some of the later bands. I think the general idea of two stages was a winner, and there was no problem with sound overlapping the two stages, but the second site was simply too small for the majority of the acts that played on the back stage. One side effect of the location was that the backdrop to the stage was two giant super yachts moored behind the canopy. Quite a surreal framing for a rock band touring the world playing obscure festivals in out of the way locations while struggling to eek out an existence doing what they love.

No matter, POBPAH played an absolutely fantastic set. As my companion at the time noted, there always has been and always will be a place for immaculate, guitar infused jangly pop. They reminded him of Ash whereas I thought they were more descendants of Teenage Fanclub bloodlines. Regardless; they were outstanding, bringing an edgy verve and enthusiasm to their great collection of powerful and poignant pop songs. They have obviously been playing a bit together as well because musically they were extremely tight with absolutely precise timing and execution. A very enjoyable show. Check out their 2011 album Belong which is a great listen and perfect for summer BBQ playlists.




Pajama Club

The Pajama Club is Neil Finn’s latest band and consist of Neil and his wife plus their two neighbours. When their two kids (Liam and Elroy) left home, the Finns built a music room in their house and just started jamming away together (presumably in their pajamas) before being joined by their (obviously musical) neighbours. The jam sessions led to a selection of songs which were soon recorded onto a self-titled debut album in 2011.

As befitting the rather random story of their formation, their musical output is also rather random. It tends more towards the funky than any Enz or Crowded House material with most of the songs accompanied by pretty groovy bass lines. Probably only fitting that, having mastered virtually all other musical genres, Neil has now devoted himself to Southern boogie. That said, a couple of the tracks also had a bit of a reggae feel to them which perfectly suited the summery, Caribbean feel the crowd felt in the hot sun. Then they brought a huge smile to my face upon launching into a stonking version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity which was, I think, the only cover played all day!. Great song and a great cover version.

All good fun. It didn’t blow you away or leave you aching for more, but it was a fun show to watch and provided even more evidence, if such was ever needed, that Neil Finn is really a living freaking genius with any musical instrument in his hand.



Washed Out

On reflecting back on my entire day, my one regret was that I probably focused too much of my attention on seeing all the bands that I already knew a bit about and very little on the days other attractions. This is obviously pretty standard behaviour for most festival goers but the very intimacy of Laneways coupled with its kaleidoscopic array of musical talent really implores you to stretch outside your comfort zone and take in the offerings from those you don’t know.

I say this now because the only two bands that I saw which I knew nothing about prior to the day was Austra and Washed Out. And both absolutely rocked! The lesson as always, is that I’m an idiot.

How to describe Washed Out? Hmmm. Well I was struggling on the day so perhaps the indispensable All Music Guide can assist some writer’s block. Their website describes them as “drowsy, distorted, dance influenced, pop music’. WTF? See what I mean?! On reading that, you wonder how on earth can music be ‘drowsy’? But, indisputably, it was. Their first track of the day had the sounds of the sea washing over the audience as a soon to be dominant club beat slowly but irredeemably started jacking up the intensity. The hypnotic beats continue to rise and fall, interspersed with lashings of pop sensibilities and iced with some irretrievably eerie dance deck supplemented samples. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Over and over. Under and out. Calming and hypnotic but absolutely catchy as hell.

If you need a marker, at times, they reminded me of the classic space rock track Oxygene 2 by Jean-Michael Jarre. Every song is distinct, but part of an overriding theme of chilled out resolutions of life’s larger mysteries. A truly epic performance of some quality sounds and had me checking them out on YouTube as soon as I got home.




Feist


Perhaps the headline act of the entire Laneway 2012 festival was the musical superstar Leslie Feist. While she was undoubtedly the biggest act of the day, the organisers made the correct decision to put her on just as the sun started to descend towards the horizon. It was the perfect call as the entire stadium fell under the spell of her seductive collection of sensuous compilations in the quiet hour as dusk started to fall.

Feist leapt to public consciousness as the voice behind the ubiquitous 1-2-3-4 track which Apple licensed for the initial marketing of the iPod. But she is much more than a one hit wonder. She was an early collaborator in Canadian super group Broken Social Scene who produced a number of top albums including the incredible 2003 release "You Forgot It In People”. She has since released several stellar solo albums culminating in last years Metals which is simply outstanding and was right near the top of the Nevstar’s Top Ten of 2011. So, I was getting pretty excited as she strode onto the stage.

My first impressions of seeing her for the first time live was simply how comfortable she seems on stage. She has a relaxed, inimitable style encouraging of audience participation and simultaneously supremely confident of her ability to entertain. She is complemented by an excellent band from the three nerdy looking back-up vocalists to the extremely professional piano/synth and bass players. The sound (on the right hand stage this time) was extremely good which was quite important given the layered nature of most of her songs.

Feist sampled her back catalogue extensively but the biggest cheers were reserved for the best tracks of her latest album and she soon had the entire crowd singing along to her perfect pop masterpieces. The show never lagged and was mesmerising throughout. The music somehow occupies a knife-edge between sentiment and sentimentality. Never sappy but somehow still sweet. Best track for me was probably the incredible Graveyard but their was barely a weak song throughout the nearly hour long set. Definitely one of the highlights of the day.




SBTRKT

Several of my companions had SBTRKT at the top of their Must See list. I personally wasn’t that familiar with them but they were well to the fore in several "Best Of" lists in 2011 that I read so I wandered over to see what the fuss was all about.

However, the moments leading up to the concert were somewhat bizarre. According to my “Double The Monney” correspondents who were present nice and early, there were only about 15 – 20 people waiting for the show five minutes before the start. The band members quietly went about their preparations probably cursing their decision to come to Laneway in the first place. However, that decision was soon vindicated when a good-sized crowd soon rocked up right on the stroke of 7.40pm and which soon expanded to a stadium threatening sized crowd five minutes later. (I think perhaps a lot of punters watched as much as they could of Feist before dashing over to see SBTRKT).

From the moment they started, you could see that SBTRKT were going to go all out to reward those who had turned up. The resplendent joy they must have felt in playing to a packed crowd was self-evident. They launched into their show and soon had the crowd thrashing away to their agglomeration of dance, funk, dub and bass.

I am a little ashamed to say that I did leave after the first track (in order to see more Feist) but it wasn’t because they weren’t any good (I also hate being jammed up like a sardine in concert crowds nowadays and find people smoking right next to me in such scenarios just a tad off-putting). So I am relying on second-hand accounts in writing this review. But by those same accounts, and each were verified independently by your faithful correspondent, SBTRKT were one of the show-stopping highlights of the day. Rather than read anymore about them, do yourself a favour and take in some of their antics on stage courtesy of the good people at YouTube. Their album is also one for anyone who likes drum n bass of the likes of Basement Jaxx or Underworld.




The Horrors

One of the performances I was most looking forward to was The Horrors. I saw them in 2009 play a brilliant set at the Big Day Out just following the release of their superb sophomore album Primary Colours which I wrote extensively about in an earlier Nevstar Music Guide. They followed that with a 2011 album entitled Skying which was only slightly less than excellent as they successfully modified their gothish sounding rock and roll introducing more levity and melody. As such, I was eager to hear their new work live and revel once again in the exigencies flowing from their dispassionate disposition.

Unfortunately, they were really quite rubbish. Their previous modus operandi when playing live was an absolutely acute non-recognition of the audience as they belted out their domineering derivative of guitar based rock. Dressed all in black, their ambivalence to the paying audience somehow accentuated the intensity of the live performance. Such passion required their full attention and thus demanded yours. No effort was wasted in superfluous crowd pleasing antics. Supreme confidence in the quality of the delivery seemed to require, nay demand the audience listen just as assertively.

But at Laneway, that was all missing and it was too their detriment. Now, they dress in a variety of colours, interact with the crowd but fail to excite, and jump randomly around the stage as if that alone is sufficient to inspire adulation. But it is not. Artists must command and demand your attention through their magnetic presence. Some do this through boundless energy and enthusiasm (think Iggy, Flaming Lips or Eddie Vedder) while others demand it through the sheer will of their musical performance (Led Zep, Neil Young, or Jack White). Unfortunately, The Horrors now seemed alternatively to be either going through the motions of entertaining, or attempting to be what they are not. They rolled through their set and I hummed along to a couple of the tunes which I liked, but I was bored halfway through the show. Very disappointing and the low point of the whole day for the Nevstar. Fortunately, the high point was shortly to follow.




M83

As darkness fell on the Laneway concert stage, the long day started to take its toll on the concertgoers. I had a couple of mini-breaks during the day but was considering calling it a night after 8 hours or so and the disappointment of The Horrors. Festivals are a, ahem, big day out and it is very hard to maintain your passion and intensity throughout the whole day.

However, I now know the perfect cure. When you are feeling a bit down and out, worn and weary, just put on some M83 and they will instantly re-energise and reinvigorate you. There is no other way to put it. M83 were simply epic. From the moment they walked on stage, let alone played a note, they commanded and demanded your attention. Following The Horrors, it was like seing the amateurs being replaced by the professionals as M83 put on a showcase spectacular of how to perform live. From the conviction of the two lead singers, to the energy of the performers, the amped up nature of the crowd, this was a show to remember from the start and will not soon be forgotten by the Nevstar. For the first time all day, you felt the beat rather than heard it. You were part of the show rather than merely watching. M83 elevated you to that magical concert netherworld where the music is a mere backdrop to the outer body experience of simultaneously being right there and up in the sky.

The music of M83, on record, is pretty standard dance music fare. It has pop sensibilities and derives much of its charm from repeated loops of catchy codas and riffs. But exposure to a couple of their albums did nothing to prepare me for seeing them live. What a show. It was exhausting yet exhilarating, tiring yet tremendous. They tried to slow down the crowd at one point to play one of their slow songs, and even that ended up being a cathartic anthem which everyone sang along to. And it worked perfectly too as you need to be low before they can take you higher. The final track they played was their monster single Midnight City which was absolutely outstanding and had the entire crowd transfigured into an amorphous mass of dancing humanity.

The age of the digital music is seeing record companies die and much wailing from the entrenched interests that there will soon not be a recorded music industry. C'est la vie. To me, music is about seeing great bands perform great deeds on great stages. Music is not to be merely listened to, it is to be experienced. Playing it on your iPod merely reminds you of the time you saw the band live and were at one with them. Music is not dying, music is thriving. You absolutely cannot, nor ever will, be able to pirate a concert experience. Bands that can perform live are drawing ever greater crowds because the record buying public are after experiences, not digital files. What we are losing, in reality, are the soporific pre-packaged pop acts who cant sing but have a great marketing department. Good riddance. The future (just like the past) belongs to those musicians who not merely play their music to you, but giving you a memory that lasts a lifetime. M83 is such a band. Go and see them as soon as you can. I’m still shaking as I write this recalling it.




And that was it for me. Gotye were the last band on stage but I decided that it is always best to leave on a high. Why M83 weren’t the last act was one final question for the organisers (along with exactly how many beer outlets are needed for 6,500 thirsty concert-goers? Answer; a phuqen lot more than you had!).

So that was my Laneway experience. In total I saw exactly half of the 22 bands on offer. Of the bands I missed, Anna Calvi and Twin Shadow were reportedly the best and warrant further investigation. Overall, Laneway was a pretty good day out. As above, I perhaps regret focusing most of my attention on bands I already knew but that is a lesson learned. The new venue had its issues (long beer queues, insufficient grass/shade and a second stage area that was far too small), but overall it delivered what it promised. We saw a wide range of sparkling musical talent perform their deeds live on stage which makes Laneway each year a day to be savoured. I’m already looking forward to next years and so should you.

If you were also at Laneway, leave a comment detailing some of your experiences particularly the bands you thought made the most impression on you.

Until next month.

Nevstar

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Top Ten of 2011

Welcome back to the Nevstar Music Guide. Am planning back to back instalments over the next couple of weeks. First up is my Top Ten for 2011 and will follow with my review of the recent Laneways Music Festival. Over the course of the two posts, I will review material from about twenty of the best bands making music right now which may hopefully assist in your acquisition of music to soundtrack your summer. So without further ado; let’s get this party started.

Top Ten 2011

The major theme for my top ten in 2011 is the number of acts who are making their second or third appearances in a Top Ten list. Remarkably, eight of the top ten this year are from artists that have previously featured in Top Tens from previous years. This is no doubt partially selection bias (you are more likely to buy a second album from an artist if you like the first), but also reflects that I came across very few new artists or debut albums that blew me away this year. Having said that, the quality of the Top 10 is the best for several years with the top four in particular being outstanding albums which I will be playing for a long time to come.

So, here is the Nevstar Top Ten Albums of 2011.

10. The Adults : The Adults

At number ten was the debut album from our very own local supergroup with Shayne Carter, Jon Toogood and the lovely Julia Deans combining to form The Adults. Crafting together a range of songs written by themselves and others (notably Ladi 6 on the stand-out track “Nothing To Lose”), The Adults album is a memorable romp through a wide variety of musical material. There are no songs that are unmistakably Shihadesque or Fur Patrol influenced. Instead, given a blank canvas, they have generated a set of songs which have a distinct DNA of their own. In fact, given their quite disparate musical backgrounds, the ease with which they subsume into ‘The Adults’ persona is to be commended highly. In particular their remarkable melodies and their high level of musicianship are clearly in evidence. It would be a shame if this is their only record as the chemistry of the three is unmistakable.

Best track : Nothing To Lose




9. The Black Keys : El Camino

Coming in at number 9 is the seventh album from Messers Auerbach Carney aka The Black Keys. They return to the Nevstar Top Ten for the first time since their 2003 effort Rubber Factory. The Black Keys have a simple recipe of blues infused guitar rock complemented by some maniacal drumming. They have barely deviated from this approach over the course of their seven albums demonstrating an assured consistency befitting their musical talent. In 2011, they teamed up with the legendary producer Danger Mouse and produced the rocking and rollicking El Camino which stands well alongside the rest of their work. It differs from their historical back catalog primarily through being a little more accessible to non-blues aficionados. The songs are more open and singable infused with a youthful spirit and verve. Rather than gazing inwards, The Black Keys seemingly decided to invite the world over to their place for a party. From the cracking opener “Lonely Boy” through until the eleventh and final track “Mind Eraser”, the pace, energy and songsmanship rarely, if ever, lets up. In contrast to earlier recording efforts, for El Camino they turned up without any new material and simply wrote and recorded tracks on the spot. As such, there is a real immediacy permeating through the material. Amidst a lot of recorded music these days which is over-dubbed, over-laid and over-produced (Lady Gaga springs to mind), The Black Keys offer a seductive alternative of stripped down, earnest, simple rock music.

Best track : Dead and Gone





8. Black Joe Lewis : Scandalous

The one man soul revival force named Black Joe Lewis returned in 2011 with the follow-up to his highly acclaimed and much loved debut album Tell Em What Your Name Is. Scandalous continues where the first album left off as Black Joe Lewis continues to wreak mayhem and havoc with an abundance of charm, humour and a whole lot of sass. Scandalous is packed full of tracks showcasing the best of soul, blues, and rhythm n’ blues. It is not, however, the slightest bit subtle and is rather more ribald than his first effort. Tracks like Booty City, She’s So Scandalous and Mustang Ranch are not remotely subtle but exactly who wants a rock star to merely allude towards the pursuit of carnal pleasures? Indeed, the latter track involves multiple trips to a rather famous brothel they pass on band road trips. Scandalous indeed, but terrific fun. The Nevstar was lucky enough to see Black Joe Lewis and his travelling band The Honeybears live at the Powerstation in the latter part of 2011 and it was a hellishly good time. It was absolutely terrific to see a brass section in a band again giving the entire sound a richness and fullness that drums and guitar can never offer. If you missed them live, then make sure you at least sample what you missed by buying/downloading Scandalous.

Best Track : Mustang Ranch




7. British Sea Power : Valhalla Dance

One of the most consistently under-rated yet interesting bands of the last decade return to the Top Ten for the first time since their sophomore effort Open Season. British Sea Power are an indie alternative guitar band with equal measures intelligence and wit. Here they return to the form of their debut album combining interesting musical arrangements with soaring anthemic choruses. At their finest, BSP soar the heavens amidst orchestral accompaniment belonging on the stairways to enlightened worlds. Georgie Ray is a particularly fine example and one of their best tracks of the year. It seems that they are destined never to break into the big league, but I’m sure they will always treasure being included on the Nevstar Top Ten list three times in seven years!

Best Track : Georgie Ray





6. The Vaccines : What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

I respected quite a few other albums a lot more this year, but there were very few that I enjoyed as much as this trashy debut effort from The Vaccines. I wrote at length about them in an earlier Nevstar Music Guide but simply put, this record is the most fun you will have standing up this year. Chock full of instantly catchy hooks, this in indie guitar music at its most carefree and effervescent. It is clearly reminiscent of the first Strokes album (right down to sarcastic questioning title), but you get the impression that The Vaccines don’t take themselves nearly so seriously. Reportedly, the unexpected hit of the recent Big Day Out with a blistering set. . If you haven’t come across them yet, do yourself a favour and check out “Post Break-Up Sex” below.

Best Track : Post Break Up Sex




5. The Nightwatchmen : Worldwide Rebel Songs

The Nightwatchmen is the side project of Rage Against The Machine bassist Tom Morello and he has produced one of the albums of the year in Worldwide Rebel Songs. In keeping with the freedom that a side project allows, Morello ditches the rage harder modus operandi of RATM and adopts a freewheeling, party time soundtrack reminiscent of early Springsteen crossed with the energy of George Thorogood. We find Morello in rare voice alternating between imitating a throaty Nick Caveish growl and a Berlin era Lou Reed. Lyrically, he is the long lost love child of Dylan and Joan Baez speaking out as the modern day poet on a range of political issues. Stray Bullets is a remarkable song about serving in the US Army when none of the generals seems to understand what they are doing on the ground in Iraq while Union Town was a single written to help fund raise for the union protests in Wisconsin recently. All in all, the whole album could be a disaster if it wasn’t infused with so much passion, and damned fine songs. You don’t have to agree with the politics to enjoy this extraordinary collection of music.

Best Track : Stray Bullets




Now, before we continue, it is perhaps important to note at that point that I changed the order of the Top 4 albums about ten times before posting this. They really, quite easily, could’ve been 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D as all are fantastic albums and worthy of being Number 1. I had immense difficulty separating them but with that in mind, here is the latest rankings which will last roughly until I hear albums 2, 3 or 4 again and anoint them as my 2011 favourite.


4. My Morning Jacket : Circuital

Have you ever had that experience of buying an album by one of your favourite bands but being a little disappointed the first time through? Often we buy albums from an artist wanting or perhaps sub-consciously expecting to hear the same material we already know. As a result, the latest album is often initially a bit of a disappointment. Until you decide to give it another go and realise that the band are, in fact, smarter than you. Indeed, it is not the same as their previous material, the new album is better. A lot better. This was my experience with Circuital from My Morning Jacket. I have been a fan of My Morning Jacket for a long time and Circuital is now my favourite of their entire collection. It is quite simply an amazing album. The two part opener of “Victory Dance” and “Circuital” are freakishly good. MMJ make a living out of making “Everest” tracks. This is my particular moniker for songs which start awfully slowly, rise gently, then steeply to a soaring, thrilling cathartic peak, before descending again leaving you short of oxygen but looking at the world in a whole new way. MMJ are extremely talented and equally adept at taking you higher and lower, often in the same song. Highly recommended.

Best Track : Victory Dance




3. Feist: Metals


Feist
leapt into the consciousness of most music fans due to the ubiquitous use by Apple of the gorgeous track “1234” in its marketing of the iPod. She returned in 2011 after an eighteen month hiatus with her fourth album Metals. In contrast to the commercial popularity of her previous effort The Reminder, Feist has seemingly made a concerted effort to ensure the recorded material was not suitable as a commercial jingle. This seems like creative suicide given that the success of most music stems from people inherently liking the tunes. On Metals, the entire tracklist contains very little pop and very few catchy hooks. But, as with a lot of great art, true character and depth is revealed on multiple listenings. Metals passes you by the first time and you barely notice it. But the second, third, fourth and thirtieth listens (and yes, I would’ve listened to it thirty times already) reveal the immaculate songwriting talents of Leslie Feist. There are indolent melodies, whimsical woodwinds, cherished choruses and revealing rhapsodies. It effortlessly and simultaneously soothes your anger while shining a light on your soul. Metals is a treasure. It suffices equally as background music operating as a slow ebbing tide subtly washing over you or as an intense listening experience reminiscent of riding a big wave carrying you to a different place. It might be too late for New Year’s resolutions, but one of your goals for the year should be to own this album. I cannot imagine how anyone could not like it.

Best Track : Graveyard




2. Elbow : Build A Rocket Boys

Another band who have featured on the Nevstar Top Ten before, Elbow returned with this astonishing effort maintaining the ridiculously high standard they set for themselves in Cast of Thousands (2003), Leaders of the Free World (2005) and Seldom Seen Kid (2008). They have carved out a very select and special niche as purveyors of the finest shoe-gazing, melancholy pop/art music while their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Build A Rocket Boys, like Circuital above, is a bit of a slow-burner. There are no songs which are inherently catchy. What you do find though is a set list which meanders from the sublime to the extraordinary. Opener “The Birds” is so good that they partially reprise it later in the setlist. Lippy Kids is an achingly beautiful song, starting with a beyond simple organ coda and slowly building throughout to include the album title. The album perhaps peaks mid set with the brilliant "The Night Will Always Win” with a barely audible soundtrack just giving sufficient support to the ghostly vocals. And make sure you stay to the end as the final track “Dear Friends” feels like an offering to the gods before they depart from these mere earthly bonds. I have been a fan of Elbow for a while, but none of their albums touches the sheer unadulterated beauty and class of Build A Rocket Boys.

Best Track : The Night Will Always Win







And the Nevstar's Number One album of 2011 is (drum roll please):








1. Girls : Father, Son, Holy Ghost

As a badged member of the Y chromosome community, the Nevstar is the first to admit that he doesn’t really understand girls. It seems that sometimes they are all joyous and joviality, sweetness and light, only to change, for seemingly no reason, to dark, moody, morose creatures. Perhaps this sentiment is not uncommon and may explain the rather strange choice of band name by Christopher Owens for his band known simply as Girls. Because, quite simply, the band are impossible to live with and impossible to live without! One moment they are singing sunny, gay irresistibly catchy pop songs and the next, they have switched into singing about tormented souls, demented minds and dark visions of fomenting rebellions against the whole tyranny of love. It is like listening to an album alternatively combining tracks from the Beach Boys and Joy Division. Oh, and just like the other girls in my life, it is impossible to walk away from liking them. The contrast in the nature of the songs is clearly demonstrated by listening to the first two that YouTube offers you on searching for the album. The first is the rather ill-fittingingly titled ‘Vomit’ which is a slow burning delight and reminds this listener of the impeccable Radiohead track Street Spirit (last track on The Bends). The next listed is the album opener “Honey Bunny” where the title probably tells you everything you need to know about what sort of song it is (annoyingly sweet, happy, G-rated and a dead certainty to have you singing along to it). And thats how the whole album plays out. One moment sunshine; the next a hailstorm. Am pretty sure the album won’t aid your understanding of the fairer sex, but it will certainly enlighten your days (and nights). A worthy selection for the number one album (alongside Circuital, Metals and Build A Rocket Boys!).

Best Track : Vomit







Thats it for this post. Agree or disagree with any of the sentiments? Leave a comment or send me an email.

Back soon with a Laneways review.





Nevstar

Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2011

This month saw the first announcement of bands playing at the Big Day Out in 2012. The Nevstar was seriously underwhelmed with the list. Setting aside my complete disinterest in a second rate grunge band (Soundgarden) and a marketing extraordinaire (Kayne West), it was probably more disappointing to see a number of bands playing the gig yet again. The inclusion of Kasabian (third time in last five years), My Chemical Romance (second time in three years) and Living End (for what seems like the 950th time in last twenty years!) suggests that the organisers are finding it harder and harder to entice quality names downunder.
Further down the list however were some interesting bands albeit less well-known. I've profiled Best Coast before so if you head along make sure you catch her brand of sunshine tinged pop. And then an album by another band that was announced had already been selected as my album of the month which was extremely propitous. So if you want to know a bit more about Foster The People, read on.

Album Of The Month

Foster The People : Torches


Pop music, at its finest, has a charming effervescence; a ethereal lightness existing only for our instant entertainment and enjoyment. It is not to be slowly savoured, but instantly devoured and delighted in. It is as energizing as it is inspirational. Pop music, at its finest, plugs directly into the neuron receptors which trigger spontaneous outbursts of joy and happiness. Unfortunately, so few bands have the ability to write such genius pop music.
Foster The People have that ability.

Torches is their debut album released on the back of the killer single “Pumped Up Kicks” which filled dance floors all over Europe during the summer of 2010. It was a YouTube sensation as well registering millions of hits and so an album was soon demanded by the musical powers that be. As with any band of this ilk, the true test is whether they can sustain the energy and pop hooks throughout an entire album’s worth of material. As the Nevstar can happily testify; yes they can.

Their debut album Torches is a collection of inspired and electro-disco pop music by this Los Angeles trio who have a deft touch to accompany their delicate dulcet tones. For just under an hour, we are taking for a ride by a relentlessly energetic tag team of vocals set to irresistibly catchy hooks. It is the sort of album you find yourself singing along to BEFORE you know the words. The songs are cheery and playful; odes to sing along to while swinging on your jungle gym or jumping on your trampoline.

Inevitably, the ability to write an album’s worth of pop masterpieces is pretty tough. The album is front-loaded with the first half stronger than second half. As most of us know, it is hard to maintain a high level of energy no matter what the activity! But, just as we sense they are flagging, the final two tracks bring the album to a magnificent close. Penultimate track “Miss You” is a wistful love song introduced by some funky early 80s drum synthesiser and channelling their inner Kraftwerk. Then closing track “Warrant” is definitely worth waiting around as it is probably the second best track after "Pumped Up Kids".

So, given the prevailing mood of doom and despondency currently pervading the economic landscape, perhaps having some cheery pop music instantly accessible as an easily reachable antidote makes a lot of sense. Go out and get yourself a copy now. Why hold your head in your hands when you could be tapping your feet?

If you like this try:

CSS : Cansei De Ser Sexy
Passion Pit : Manners
MGMT : Oracular Spectacular


Essential Classic Album

Nirvana : Nevermind


2011 marks the 20 year anniversary of the release of one of the most important albums of the 20th century. How important was Nirvana’s Nevermind? Well, the best answer is that in 2004 it was selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. How’s that for making your mark on history!

Grunge was arguably the last true innovation in rock music and the template for that distinct sound is Nirvana’s second album entitled Nevermind. A lot of grunge bands followed in their footsteps but none were as good as Nirvana. A lot of grunge albums were released after 1991 but none were as good as Nevermind. The template for the grunge sound was effectively established forever more by Nevermind. "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which kicks off the album, starts off with a quiet guitar riff before the song launches into the furious angst filled anthem of teenage rebellion. And then, it is quiet again before slowly building to another climax. Quiet, loud, quiet. Twenty years on and it is still intensely thrilling.

Listening to Nevermind in writing this review and another aspect I noted was the rhythm. A pet peeve of mine is that too many bands try to rock hard whereas great rock music needs both to rock AND roll. There should be rhythm to accompany the beats. A lot of the songs on Nevermind rock really hard, but they all have very strong driving rhythms as well.

The other notable aspect of the album is the strength of the lesser songs. As the Nevstar endlessly opines, the true test of a talented band is not the quality of the singles, but the quality of the ‘filler’. Nevermind is extremely front-loaded as an album with the four Top 100 singles featuring in the first five tracks. But side 2 (in the old vernacular) is still worth listening to and has a number of quite brilliant tracks. I really like the relentless urgings of "Territorial Pissings" which is perhaps the punkiest track on the album. Similarly "Stay Away" would’ve been a great single had they needed another.

Nirvana’s lasting legacy is perhaps tarnished or at least overshadowed by Kurt’s depression and ultimate suicide. But Nevermind should not be considered in light of what came after. It should be viewed through the prism of what came before as they forged a distinctive Seattle rock persona. Nevermind is the sound of a supremely confident and talented trio of musicians forging a new consensus on the way rock and roll should henceforth be played and listened to. Its impact today is, if anything, even stronger than 1991. Bands today need to be confident of their identity and sound. Success in the music industry today is rooted in being original not derivative. Find your own voice, play music you love, practice until your fingers bleed and then play and play and play. Your audience will find you. Nirvana’s certainly did and after releasing Nevermind, history beckoned.

If you like this try:

Pearl Jam : Ten
Soundgarden : Superunknown
Alice In Chains : Dirt







Top Ten List

Setting aside how fabulous the music is, Nirvana’s Nevermind has also got one of the all time great album covers. This got me thinking; what are the best album covers of all time? It is, again, an immensely difficult question. Ultimately, great albums cover art becomes iconic and so it can become a circular argument. Is the cover famous because of being great art or because the album is famous? However, while it is incredibly subjective, here are what I consider to be The Top Ten Album Covers of All Time.


10. Sex Pistols : Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols

An album cover that really needs no explaining. Art for arts sake and a template for the punk imagery that evolved thereafter. In a stunning indictment of the nanny state that was in existence at the time, Richard Branson and a record store owner were prosecuted under the Indecent Displays (Control) Act for displaying the album cover. Apparently the album cover is 'indecent' for its prominent use of the extremly rude and offensive word 'bollocks'.






9. The Libertines : The Libertines


A great album cover should exist as art in its own right. To my mind, great photo art is a picture that instantly intrigues yet can sustain multiple subsequent viewings. The Libertines second album cover certainly qualifies. An astonishing photo. That you could probably predict the future history of the band from the one photos also exemplifies its qualities.





8. Roxy Music – Country Life

Roxy Music wrote music that always titillated. Their album covers were similarly sexy. Country Life was their fourth album and probably their most consistent. However it may be best remembered for the quite striking and unforgettable album cover. Reportedly, Bryan Ferry encountered the two models in Portugal and convinced them to pose for the cover in this sexy yet forbidding shot. I have always liked the ambiguity about whether they are standing up or lying down.







7. Nirvana : Nevermind

The undeniably brilliant album cover operates on a number of levels and still quite mesmerising to this day. The shot was conceived after Dave Grohl watched a documentary on underwater births with the ironic dollar bill added in post-production. The baby on the cover is Spencer Elden whose parents volunteered him for the shoot and received a lump sum of $200 for the privilege. Elden reportedly has a stellar opening line when meeting girls these days. Apparently he opens with - “Want to see my penis…. Again”.

And in a side note bound to depress everyone, Elden was born on February 7, 1991 making him now 20 years old. Does anyone else feel old?

6. The Beatles : Abbey Road

Choosing one Beatles cover for the list proved inordinately difficult. Sgt Peppers is widely regarded as one of the greatest album covers of all time. Revolver is a stunning piece of pencil drawn art featuring multiple images of the four lads and even With The Beatles with its half lit faces is a worthy candidate. But ultimately I decided that Abbey Road was their best album cover. It is an iconic shot parodied and imitated to this day but was itself strikingly original. The most original background story about the image emanated from various media reports speculating that Paul was dead and the Beatles were covering up the news. Hence, the Abbey Road cover can be viewed as a mock funeral procession. John appears at the front as the pastor, Ringo next all suited up in black is the mourner (or perhaps undertaker), Paul the corpse in bare feet and George following at the rear as the denim clad grave-digger. Who knows if it is true or not; it makes a great story. Also note that while everyone looks to be in step, Paul is the only with his right foot forward. He was a leftie you know!

If you want to check out the spot, it is Abbey Road, NW 8 London. There is even a web cam of the spot if you are interested. http://www.abbeyroad.com/visit/


5. King Crimson : In The Court of The Crimson King

A quite scary piece of original art adorns the cover of the King. Amazingly, it was the only painting ever completed by Barry Godber who was a computer programmer by trade. Like many of the best album covers, it rewards multiple viewings with searing emotions jumping off the cover each time you look at it. For example, try covering the painting up to the eyes and you will be rewarded with a completely different emotion on display. For those of you not familiar with the work of progressive rock act King Crimson; let me put it this way. The album cover accurately represents the contents within.

Note that many album sleeves in the 70s were designed for the art on the front to wrap around the sleeve and be continued on the backside. So the full image is rectangular landscape rather than a square. The iconic images that we know were often merely half the full image. Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run is one example with the image of Bruce leaning on a shoulder. The back side shows that he is leaning on saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The full cover for this King Crimson album is a good example as can been seen below where the image reveals yet another interpretation.


Yet another reason (if one were needed) to love vinyl records over CD's and iTunes!



4. Strokes : Is This It?


Sometimes art is best when it is simple. The album cover of the Strokes debut album provides the perfect example. An absolutely stunning photo featuring a gloved hand on a bare bottom. Sexy, stimulating, tense and terrific; just like the album contained within.






3. The Clash : London Calling

One of the most iconic shots in rock and roll history graces the cover of London Calling, the Clash’s finest album. Photographed by Pennie Smith at New York’s Palladium in September 1979, it captures bassist Paul Simonon smashing his axe into the floor. Apparently he was disappointed with the tepid audience response to the songs being played so he decided to try and rile them up a bit. Whether he did or not is lost in time, but the resulting image forever captured the primeval passion of rock and roll at its most furious.




Note is also captures rock and roll at its most derivative as this album cover from an early Elvis Presley album will attest.
















2. Pink Floyd : Dark Side of The Moon



Similarly to the Beatles, the Floyd had a number of terrific album covers. There was the iconic cover of Animals which somehow managed to immortalise a power station. Then you had the intriguing image from the cover of Wish You Were Here with a man on fire shaking hands with another. But in the end, it is my humble view that the cover of Dark Side of The Moon was their best. An absolutely iconic and unforgettable album cover which contains in a refracting prism perhaps the most memorable rock image of all time. The album artwork was designed by George Hardie of design company Hipgnosis and was one of several this firm designed for Pink Floyd. It is also said to pay homage to the conglomeration of sound and light that was a feature of their monumental live shows.

And the number one Album Cover of All Time is…..




1. Led Zeppelin : Houses of the Holy

Nosing out the efforts of Floyd is this quite astonishing and surreal cover from Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin. Also designed by the team from Hipgnosis (see above), it was inspired by an Arthur Clarke short story called Childhood’s End which ends with semi-formed human children gathering at the top of a rock pile awaiting transportation to another world/dimension. It is pure rock and roll excess hinting at fantasy mixed with science fiction, childhood innocence and its impending loss.

The shoot (and yes it is a photo, not a painting) took an incredible ten days to complete as they could only shoot at dawn and dusk to capture the specific lighting mix the shot required. According to sources on the shoot, two children, brother and sister Samantha and Stefan Gates, had to be ready to work at 4am and were painted gold and silver to give the image the requisite science fiction qualities.
To properly appreciate the image, perhaps check out the full image when the front and back covers are matched together.















So there you go, that is my attempt at nominating the best album covers of all time. Send me your thoughts on ones which should be considered.

I also note with interest that four of the top six covers do not have the name of the band or the album on the cover. Surely not a coincidence that the best art is not sullied with band or album names!

Reader Feedback

Had a couple of people email me regarding my Top 10 of 2010. One comment was both welcome and unwelcome as I realised that I had inadvertently omitted an absolute cracker of an album. Doh! Teenage Dream by Beach House would definitely be in my Top 10 for last year and would probably reside somewhere in the Top 3. A quite brilliant album of shimmering pop music. Hat tip to Paul for bringing this egregious omission to my attention.

That's all for this month. See you in November.

Nevstar

Friday, September 2, 2011

Best of 2010

Welcome back Music Lovers.

As alluded to last month, I had been working on a longer than usual Top Ten list and it is time to publish it now. My period of writers block last year coincided with my annual list of the best albums each year and so have posted/published no such list for 2010 as yet. While its absence at the time may not have been noted, it does offer a great excuse to revisit a lot of the great music that was released in 2010.

In retrospect, a delay to anointing the best albums in any particular year is not necessarily a bad idea. Most album releases from UK/US bands are still frustratingly released in New Zealand several weeks, if not months, after coming out in their home markets. As such, albums released late in the year often have no chance of making the Top Ten list. By the time they have reached my CD stacker, I have already published my Top Ten and moved onto the new year. I can think of several releases from previous years which I ended up loving but were not considered for the annual list. As we will see, 2010 turned out to be a pretty good year for music helped in part by the inclusion for consideration of several quality releases which I have only come to love in 2011.
So now, with the full candidate list published and available to all, it is time to find out what were the Nevstar's....


Top Ten Albums From 2010

10. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

It was in the mid 1970s that Bruce Springsteen finally produced the classic album his undeniable talent suggested he was capable of producing. Born To Run ranks up there amongst the finest rock albums of all time. His road to stadium filling super-stardom was assured. However, while there was a lot of touring in support of Born to Run, a follow-up album did not quickly eventuate. There was indeed a four year interlude between the multi-platinum smash released in 1975 and Darkness At The Edge of Town which followed in 1979. The reasons for the delay are not known but it certainly wasn't due to writer's block as this release testifies. Springsteen wrote and recorded over 40 songs during this period and a number of them found their way onto Darkness At The Edge of Town. But many did not and a great number were left on the cutting room floor seemingly never to be released.

But now, in 2010, they have been released for the first time as the double sided album, aptly entitled The Promise. And what an absolute treat it is. Hearing it for the first time is a revelation as you immediately realise you are listening to NEW material from an artist during his most creative song writing period. The tracks are undeniably 1970s Springsteen, not 2010 Springsteen. It is a lost album in the truest sense. It demonstrates all the traits of his earliest albums; cracking stories full of equal measures of wit and remorse sung to a soundtrack of unadorned musical simplicity. A few of the tracks are recognisable from those familiar with his live albums, but overall this is a great lost album which we have finally found. Essential for any Springsteen fan (and aren't we all?).

The only dilemma - for recordophiles like myself - is whether to place it in our collections under 1977 or 2010. Maybe best solution is to simply buy two copies and place one in each slot for completeness!

Best Track : Because Of The Night


9. Best Coast – Crazy For You

Best Coast
is effectively Bethany Consentino, a child actor turned musical prodigy. She released a number of near perfect pop-tunes in her teens which soon garnered quite a following on MySpace. The major labels soon came knocking and more professionally produced efforts soon followed. Combining with instrumentalist Bobb Bruno under the moniker Best Coast, this is her first full length release.

The album is beguiling in many respects. It is full of sugary sweet pop music with gorgeous vocals lathered over perfect melodies and inoffensive background instrumentation. But dig further and you find the songs have dirty and dark undertones as she sings about not only whimsical love, but revenge and heartbreak following on from the passion. It is an album about falling in love but forewarning the angst from a break-up which may follow. As such, the album flies past in a blur of boyfriends and bitches all sung in such innocuous dulcet tones that you would swear it is a girl band from the 50s singing not a child of the 90s. It is the perfect album for the soon to come summer and then you can also delve deeper into it during the long dark winter months. Remarkably, you will find it matches both seasons. Highly recommended.

Best Track : I Want To

8. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Music companies are not our friends. They are the enemy; content to try and deliver to us the same music that we have already bought before. There is no room for originality or even a slightly different approach. Mumford & Sons are thus the quintessential band of the new century. A record company would never green light an album such as Sigh No More because it is not like other acts that have succeeded before. But Mumford & Sons quickly found a following online mainly because they are genuine, have great songs and can really really play.

Their sound, if it can be categorised, is an conglomeration of indie/alternative/country/folk. Being described as 'folk' music is near instant death in the music business these days, but Mumford & Sons make it cool by simply being who they are. You can easily chose not to listen. But it would be a mistake. The entire album is replete with irresistibly catchy folk tunes sung by a band clearly enjoying themselves. It possibly has a few too many slow songs, but the heights which are reached on tracks like Winter Winds makes up for such lapses. It is an album that bears a lot of repeat listens mainly because it is so damn interesting.

Best Track : Winter Winds


7. The National – High Violet


Regular readers of the Nevstar Music Guide will already know of my undoubted affection for The National. They are one of my favourite bands and their concert at the Powerstation towards the end of 2010 was perhaps the best of the year for this scribe.

I have written about this album previously. Check out my full review here.
Suffice to say that it is very close to the stratospheric standards set by their immediately prior albums, Alligator and Boxer. As noted earlier, their songs are "quietish, moody poems set to instrumentation dominated by intricate percussion or subtle basslines. The songs are smouldering classics, working their way into your subconsciousness and residing there long after the speakers have gone silent."

Best Track: Afraid of Everyone





6. Julia Deans – Modern Fables

New Zealand, it seems, is blessed with song-writing talent the equal of anywhere on the planet. Although undoubtedly we are biased in the assessment of it, every year there is an album released from a New Zealand artist which just floors me for the quality of song-writing on display. This year, that album was Modern Fables by former Fur Patrol lead vocalist Julia Deans. This is her first solo album, and judging by the quality, it wont be her last.

Modern Fables is chock full of highly original, catchy, tuneful compositions which sound instantly familiar. Overall, it is less rockier than her Fur Patrol output, but is probably a little more intelligent. The tunes are more thoughtful, but they are all quite distinct as well. Upon purchasing it, I listened to it solidly for about a month and never tired of it. Putting it on again six months later for this review and was instantly reminded of how good it is. Not just one song but the whole album. It is one reason I like albums over singles as it is a bigger sample of the artist's talent. Julia Deans certainly has talent. Seek this album out the first chance you get.
And if you do, make sure you listen to the very end. The best two tracks might just be the two that close the album, Run and Ice Cream. The latter is a Pink Floyd influenced mind-addled space flight!

Best Track : Run


5. Underworld – Barking

As regular readers know, I'm not a huge fan of electronica/dance music with my core music taste leaning in the rock/blues direction. However I tend to purchase a couple of electronica albums a year on the recommendations of those who follow the area closely. It is a rewarding way to find music (in the same way that hopefully the Nevstar Music Guide is for you dear reader!) in that you don't have to trudge through mountains of releases to find the quality albums that will endure.

This year's top electronica album, in this reviewers ever so humble opinion, is the latest effort by Underworld entitled Barking. Underworld are almost elder statesmen of the dance music scene now having been around since 1988. But, along with Chemical Brothers, that doesn't mean they aren't worth listening to. This is mainly due to their songwriting prowess which continues to experiment with dance music rhythms without forgetting the appeal of simple pop pleasures. Barking is an absolute treat with an entire album of high quality tracks each deserving of its own adulation and recommendation. Rarely do you come across albums where you like every single track but I can, unhesistantly, say that in this case here. I even randomized the track list on occasion just to check that my high opinions of some tracks weren't unduly influencing my adoration of the others. If anything, it only highlighted my appreciation of the entire album. Simply put, this is a great piece of dance music and would highly recommend to any music follower whether you like dance music or not.

Best Track: Grace


4. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Next come two bands who I only started following once the artist list for Laneways was announced and I have come to love them both. Deerhunter is up first and they can probably best be described as an experimental indie rock band. The songs are epic quests charting previously unknown waters in the vast 'Sargasso Sea' of the noise spectrum. The songs are challenging and rewarding yet satisfying and comforting. While each track is quite distinct the link between them all is a complex wall-of-sound accompaniment supported by sparse yet sharp lyrical content.

Listening to the album is a bit like climbing a mountain; it starts slowly before ascending more rapidly and climaxes at the peak with the absolutely epic track Desire Lines sitting right in the middle of the album. Then, as the euphoria from attaining the summit wears off, the climb down is rewarding as the adrenalin drops away. A great album from some seriously talented musicians.

If you like this, be sure to check out their 2008 release Microcastle / Weird Era. This is an astonishing double album. As I understand, they were all set to release Microcastle when a copy of it was accidentally leaked online. Rather than short-change those who actually paid money for the CD, they promptly recorded a second album (Weird Era) and included it on the same release. Incredibly, the second release, written and recorded in less than a month, is possibly better than the first release. A seriously talented band.

Best Track : Desire Lines

3. Holy Fuck – Latin


Next up come the band Holy Fuck who operate in a similar spectrum to Deerhunter except they do it without any lyrics at all. I first noticed the band in a record store. Whatever you think about the name, it is inarguably eye-catching. Then, when they were also named to play Laneways, I had to check them out and so I purchased Latin before hearing a note.

Latin has one of the slowest starts of any album I can recall. I found myself checking to see if I had actually pressed "Play" or not. But, one minute in, the sounds start emanating from the stereo. And what enchanting sounds they are. HF operate primarily by building tension through the agglomeration of various sounds, chords and loops. It is electronic rock music in some respects featuring intensely catchy loops surrounded by sharp pincer movements of staccato drums and guitar. It is like listening to a soundtrack of rumbling thunder whilst lightning periodically lights up the sky. The overall sound is incredibly menacing and ominous featuring energetic playing and tenacious song-writing.

I'm struggling here. The music is awfully hard to describe. Do yourself a favour and purchase it to see for yourself. Would be very surprised if you didn't find something you like.

Best Track : 1MD


2. Broken Bells – Broken Bells

I've already talked about The National and a similar band who I also enjoy are The Shins. However they did not release an album in 2010. Fortunately lead singer James Mercer teamed up with legendary producer Danger Mouse and released an album under the moniker Broken Bells. I almost missed it actually only being alerted to its presence by a record store employee (and in a side note, what are we going to do without this valuable source of musical knowledge in the digital future?)

Upon playing it for the first time, I was intrigued. Replaying again instantly, I was captivated. Playing it immediately a third time, I was stunned. It is exceptionally good and rivals anything that the Shins have produced. The songs resemble delicate pieces of silk, spun with care and precision, touching and titillating with a softly-spoken charm. There is an innate confidence in the quality of their work. The best comedians are funny because they know they are funny and thus don't appear to be trying hard to be funny. Broken Bells are the same. They are so confident and assured that the output is relaxed and immediately accessible. The songs are mainly low-fi indie pop with the vocal registers never stretched. It is the perfect album to play on a Sunday morning as you let the waves of dreamy pop wash over your tired soul.

Best Track : The Ghost Inside


1. Robert Plant – Band of Joy


Listening to Broken Bells early in the year, I thought it would take a stunning album to top it for Album of the Year. So it proved. Robert Plant's latest solo release is one of my favourite albums of the last five years. On purchasing it, I played it virtually non-stop for about two months and am still yet to tire of it.

Plant has had a bit of a career resurrection of late in part because he has not allowed himself to be typecast. Much as we all love his Zeppelin catalog of work, it would ultimately be a little dull if he simply tried to re-produce this sort of material each time. Instead, he has experimented with a number of genres making full use of his formidable musical knowledge. We had the album Mighty Rearranger in 2005 which was terrific and closed with a (gasp) dance funk effort. Then he combined with Alison Krauss in 2007 on the highly acclaimed Raising Sand which was more of a country effort. Now, in 2010, he returned with Band of Joy which is the name of his original band back in the 1960s before joining up with the New Yardbirds and becoming Led Zep.

Band of Joy is simply amazing. It is a roots album in a number of respects, paying homage to his own musical roots, but also to the music that inspired and shaped his musical pedigree. Thus we have a rather obscure collection of reworked songs, some old, some new; some traditional, some contemporary but all interesting. They were written by a diverse and eclectic number of artists ranging from 60s folk hero Richard Thompson to the indomitable Low. The latter is a fabulous cover of their track Monkey off their terrific album The Great Destroyer. In Plant's hands it acquires a seriously disturbing disguise equal measures delightful and terrifying. Other tracks contain re-interpretations of traditional songs for a new century.

It sounds like a mess, but Plant's genius is to make it sound like a unified whole. His voice is in fine form and it is put to good use across an incredibly wide variety of material. Each song is a story in itself and the joy in listening to the album is digging deeper into both the history of each track and Plant's interpretation of it.

Anyway, enough of me rambling about it, go out and acquire it now. Without hesitation, I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who has even the remotest interest in music. It is that good and as such a worthy winner of the Nevstar's vote for Best Album of 2010.

Best Tracks (way too hard to pick one!) : Monkey, Silver Rider, The Only Sound That Matters





So there you go, there are my top ten albums for 2010. The quality of the candidates meant a lot of very good albums didn't quite make the final cut. Here then is a list of the next best.

Best of the Rest (in alphabetical order)

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) : Strange Weather Isn't It?
Arcade Fire : Suburbs
Black Keys : Brothers
The Drums : The Drums
Gaslight Anthem : American Slang
Gorillaz : Plastic Beach
Grinderman : Grinderman 2
Passion Pit : Manners
Paul Weller : Wake Up The Nation
We Have Band : WHB


What do we think of that? Any absolutely egregious omissions? What were your Top Ten of Twenty Ten? Send me a list and be happy to publish it in the next guide. And if I have missed your favourite release of last year, send me an impassioned dissertation on why it should have been considered.



Until next month.



The Nevstar




Monday, July 25, 2011

August 2011

In the July issue, in order to make up for the sporadic updates of late, the Nevstar profiled six new albums which had impressed me recently. As I settled in to draft the latest update, I soon realised that I had already covered all albums which had recently impressed me. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson; Doh! My first attempt to rectify this led to the rapid acquisition of some new albums. But offerings from bands such as The Cults, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and The Horrors haven't really impressed me sufficiently to justify anointing them as the Album of the Month. Fortunately an album I purchased way back in April is definitely worthy and still getting spins on my CD. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new(ish) album from The Vaccines!


Album of the Month

The Vaccines : What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

Rock may not be dead, but it is certainly in a coma. Rock music, once cast as the end of civilisation, barely registers on music charts anymore. Rolling Stone magazine reported in its 2010 review that of the 30 top selling albums in 2010, only one could truly be considered a "rock" album (the rather tepid and uninspiring Kings of Leon effort Come Around Sundown). Instead the charts are replete with soporific pop princesses, tuneless former teen idols and the occasional intellectually interesting indie effort.

So, as an unashamed rock music fan, it was fantastic to come across The Vaccines and their debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines. The Vaccines are not the saviours of rock and roll, but they quickly remind us what we love about it. They have a simple, unadorned attitude to music, choosing to entertain all-comers with short sharp songs, ridiculously catchy guitar riffs, and bountiful energy and enthusiasm. Playing the album the first time, my head was soon nodding along vigorously to the toe-tapping beat. And then, after 11 tracks totalling just over 36 min, I was pressing play to start it all again.

The album kicks off with the terrific opener Wreckin' Bar (Ra Ra Ra) with the title an accurate depiction of what follows. It's a shamelessly shambolic statement of intent which sets the scene in a rapid 1 min 24 seconds. Say something well once and move on seems to be the mantra. It's also the band's first single so they like to start with their best foot forward. Next comes If You Wanna which has the best rock song hook this side of the Kaiser Chiefs. Then mid-album tracks form a sample of the delights that the whole album provides. Norgaard rips into it with some jangly Strokes'ish guitars and a relentless beat before the cheeky Post Break-Up Sex cheerfully confirms that rock and roll never veers far from the subject of horizontal tummy trampolining.

As such, its not the most intelligent album in the world and, truth be known, the lyrics are pretty weak in some respects. But who cares? Keith Richards famously said that rock and roll is music for head downwards. You don't always want to think about "what it all means?". Sometimes you just want to kick off you shoes, dance with your friends and scream "Yeah Yeah Yeah." That's the essence of rock music and if more bands remembered this, they might have a lot more success.

Listen to or purchase here.

Listen to this if you like:

The Strokes : Is This It?
Kaiser Chiefs : Employment



While I was compiling this month's Nevstar Music Guide, word came over the wires that the prodigiously talented Amy Winehouse had died of unknown causes at the tender age of 27. It's an inauspicious age as Amy joined musical legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain in perishing before their 28th birthday. There is however, one other important and notable musician who died aged 27 but is never mentioned in press dispatches at such times. And it just so happens that 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. As such I thought it would a great opportunity to highlight the immense musical contribution of a certain Mr Robert Leroy Johnson. Don't know him? Read on, dear reader.


Classic Album of the Month


The Complete Recordings : Robert Johnson

Rock and roll was the primary and dominant musical genre of the 20th century. But as Muddy Waters once sang, the Blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. If you want to understand rock music, it is nigh on essential that you have a passing understanding of the structure and history of blues. Rock and roll is really nothing but speeded up blues.

Perhaps the foremost artisan who established the template that many would follow was an itinerant musician by the name of Robert Johnson. He died at the age of 27 after being poisoned reportedly for chasing the wrong woman. But fortunately, he was able to get on record 29 songs which we are absolutely blessed to be able to access to this day.

Johnson was the foremost practitioner of a style which became known as Delta Blues. Originating out of the Mississippi delta, this new style of music prominently showcases rhythmical tunes accompanied by instrumentation. Or what became rock and roll plus guitar solos. You can essentially trace a straight line from Mississippi Delta Blues to the electric Chicago Blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf) to the early bands of the British Invasion (Beatles, Stones and Animals) to the rock innovators in the late 60s (Stones again, Yardbirds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin). As such, it is pretty damn important in the whole scheme of things!

You may not have heard of Robert Johnson but I guarantee that you've come across his songs. In keeping with his immense influence, his limited repertoire has been covered by some of the greatest acts in rock history. Love in Vain (Rolling Stones), Cross Road Blues (Cream), Travelling Riverside Blues (Led Zeppelin) and the hugely enjoyable Sweet Home Chicago (a number of bands most notably the Blues Brothers) are all Robert Johnson songs.

The essence of blues is one man and his guitar facing the world and the miseries it heaps upon him. On the double album we have Robert Johnson playing 29 songs totalling 41 tracks (a number have alternate takes including a couple where you would swear it was a different song). The first thing we notice from the recordings is his incredible voice; a wailing, plaintive voice with poverty and deprivation anchored into every tortured note. As such, the music itself is not an easy listen but it shouldn't be. Blues is a collective suffering; an anguish bared from the depths of your soul retold only in song because words wouldn't do it justice.

The next revelation is the guitar playing which is absolutely astonishing. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Robert Johnson was an average guitar player but then sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads late one night. He returned as an outstanding guitar player to the bewilderment of those who knew him. True or not, there is certainly abundant evidence of his prodigious talent. The guitar playing in the songs is wondrous. Just like Jimi Hendrix who followed 30 years later, Robert played both lead and rhythm on the one guitar. Listening to the album today, you would swear that their are two guitars being played.

Robert Johnson lived the rock and roll lifestyle before there was a name for such a thing. He was a noted womaniser and spent most of his life on the road playing in juke joints for beer money and the chance to impress the local ladies. His death is somewhat mysterious but the most likely explanation is that he died after drinking some poisoned whiskey most likely by the hand of a cuckolded husband. So at 27, we lost one of the world's great guitarists. Fortunately his legacy survives on record to this day. If you are even the remotest fan of blues or simply want to understand the entire history of rock and roll, you must own this record.

Listen to tracks here.

Try this if you like: Any rock music recorded in the second half of 20th century!






No top ten list this month sorry. I'm working on an idea which needs bit more work to flesh out properly so will hopefully get it out at the start of September. Does anyone have any ideas for a Top Ten list that they would like to see the Nevstar write about?

See you next month.

Nevstar