New LP – “The World Is A Bell” by The Leaf Library

TLL 1 WEB - Emily Mary Barnett.jpg

To follow The Leaf Library over recent years is to have watched them gradually stretch the form within which they work. The Stereolab inspired motorik pop of their early releases was sharp and snappy, but on 2015’s Daylight Versions, the structures became less defined and the use of repetition more expansive, with songs sometimes feeling like they could drift on forever. There’s been something increasingly trancelike about the direction they’ve taken since then, and a kind of woozy, hypnotic feeling informs a good amount of their new LP, The World Is A Bell. There’s a sense about these ten, generally lengthy songs that they don’t really move forward so much as just hover in the air in front of you, drifting into ever more intricate shapes. It’s an unhurried record which invites you to absorb yourself in it, rather than offering easy pop thrills.

However, it would be wrong to say that there’s not a great deal happening here, with much of the album characterised by a restless, nervous energy. Opener “In Doors and Out Through Windows” is constantly shifting around a point, a beautiful tapestry of jazz based patterns that builds up over 7 minutes. Instruments and vocal lines move in and out of the track, with the whole thing feeling like an interlocking mechanism: everything balances perfectly, remove one piece and it could all fall apart. There’s something of Steve Reich about it, and his influence is also felt on the title track, a string based instrumental where a two note theme builds up into a lopsided, jagged but perfectly functioning structure. At times, the energy seems distinctly organic: “Larches Eat Moths” almost feels like a living creature itself, a semi-formless pulsing throb only given direction by Kate Gibson’s floating vocal line.

But while some of these songs move in new directions, others are simply widescreen versions of a more familiar sound. The downbeat melancholy pop of “An Endless”, powered by a tinny drum machine and low key organ, at first feels reminiscent of early tracks like “New Year”, before it heads off into a shimmering, Kraftwerk inspired coda. Elsewhere, the soothing, stately wash of “Patience” has a warmth that recalls the more pastoral moments from the Daylight Versions LP. Lyrically, the concerns are also quite similar: album highlight “Bright Seas” retains the band’s focus on the natural world, it’s gentle, rhythmic bustle mirroring Kate’s descriptions of the movement of the water, the gorgeous melody rising and tumbling with the patterns of the waves. Indeed, the lyrics engage with their environment throughoutoffering intoxicating glimpses into the connection between the subject and their surroundings. Impressions can be restricted to a single moment (“the afternoon shadows slip between my fingers, today’s on fire”) or drift off into ever more abstract ideas (“losing nothing, larches eat moths, each one a dream”). Little here seems to matter aside from how this world is experienced.

The album closes with the ambitious 20 minute suite, “Paper Boats On Black Ink Lake”, a downbeat journey through nightfall, which starts off as fairly standard Leaf Library before dissolving into a long ambient section, then closing out with a surprising doom rock finale. Initially, it felt about 10 minutes too long, but once I got used to its rhythms, I  developed the patience to enjoy it; the parts that at first seemed almost motionless eventually felt like a journey I wanted to take. Much of The World Is A Bell feels like that: I went into it hoping for a new “Rings Of Saturn” or “The Greater Good” and felt a little bit arsey when I didn’t find one. But after giving it some time, the uncompromising nature of the record begins to feel like a strength and, though a little daunting at first, it quickly becomes an album to get wrapped up in and float away with, an almost endless daydream of vivid imagination and beauty. It isn’t the most obvious of records, but if you’re prepared to adjust your perspective, it all comes into focus perfectly.

 

Old album – “To Pimp A Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar

kendrick

I know well enough that there’s nothing much left to say about Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s four years now since its release, an album which was a million seller and transatlantic chart topper, and one of the defining records of the past decade; it’s a subject about which millions of words have already been spewed onto the internet. So I ask myself, “Is it really worth the bother?” And indeed, is it ever worth the bother? If I’m truly honest? But anyway, I started listening to it the other week and I’m enjoying it a lot, so I thought that I may as well add my two cents. No doubt Kendrick could do with the exposure.

Firstly, it’s a record packed with wonderful music. Whereas much hip hop I hear these days feels harsh and electronic, Lamar goes back to jazz for inspiration, calling to mind 90s acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, and P-Funk pioneers Funkadelic. Opener ‘Wessely’s Theory”, sets the tone, with Thundercat’s bass driving a seedy, squelching blaxploitation groove, as Lamar spells out what happens when young rappers meet with a rapacious music industry. “For Free?” feels similarly panicked, a be-bop jazz assault topped by a remarkable vocal, which sets gold digger rap cliches against political critique in a lyric that’s both astute and hilarious. Elsewhere, things are more laid back but remain pretty creepy: “Institutionalized” crawls along like a nightwalk through a terrifying neighbourhood, with the wailing clarinets and Snoop Dogg’s sleazy guest spot doing little to lighten the mood.

That’s not to say it’s all so grim: TPAB is not short on bangers. The infectious strut of “King Kunta” casts Kendrick as top dog, with the image of slave turned triumphant symbolising how far he’s come, whilst retaining the tension of struggle at its core. That sense is also there on “Alright”; its rich Pharrell production and message of hope help to make it a feel good anthem, but it refuses to sugarcoat the fear of being black in America today, where the police “wanna kill us dead in the street for sure”. It’s not until the penultimate track, “i”, that we reach any undiluted positivity, with its Isley Brothers sampling, “I love myself!” chorus doing its best to balance out the discomfort that runs through the rest of the record.

The other thing that strikes me about TPAB is its breadth of ambition as an LP. Although the songs are generally strong enough to stand up by themselves, they also function together as a story, with characters, recurring lines and sequences, and a compelling narrative arc, following Lamar’s struggles with both the music industry and his changing place within his community. In an age where sales are diving and pop music is increasingly all about the Spotify streams, it makes a bold stand for the album, both as an art form and a deeply personal statement. That it was such a huge commercial success suggests that the appetite for this kind of thing is far from gone away.

The 12 minute closing suite “Mortal Man” finds Kendrick considering himself in the role of someone who people believe in, uncertain as to whether he’s equal to the task. It’s a typically thoughtful ending to an album where cheerful hip hop swagger is laced with doubts, fears and, at times, downright despair. The personal and political aren’t always comfortable bedfellows in pop music, but To Pimp A Butterfly manages to balance the two against each other to perfection; that Lamar does this with such deftness and confidence is testament to his being both a great artist and an uncommonly worthy superstar. But what makes To Pimp A Butterfly truly remarkable, is that it is so many things at once; a concept album, a political treatise, a portrait of an artist at the peak of his powers and, perhaps most importantly, a brilliant, haunting soundtrack of a record, as capable of invoking creeping dread as of soaring happiness, and always mindful that the one can’t exist without the other.

Old Album – “Abracadabra: The Asylum Years” 2CD by Judee Sill (2006)

Judee3

 

Up until fairly recently I had never even heard of Judee Sill, but after falling for one of her songs on the radio, it suddenly seemed that I saw her name everywhere. Radio documentaries I keep an eye out for had covered her in depth, my favourite bands name-checked her frequently; she was another one of those ‘greatest artists you’ve never heard of’ who, in fact, everyone has already heard of. Apart from me. So, despite being a slowpoke, I caught up quick: what else could I do?

 

 

For those who still don’t know, Judee Sill came out of an extraordinarily troubled youth (addiction, crime, prison, etc) to become one of the truly great singer/songwriters and, having been adopted by the fashionable Laurel Canyon set of the time, she went on to release two of the finest albums of the 1970s. Sill’s self titled debut from 1971 is deceptive: her stereotypical ‘girl with a guitar’ image leads to comparisons with more obviously folky ladies of the era, but there was always much more to her than that. The baroque string flourishes which zip in and out of “The Phantom Cowboy”, the extended harmonies and playful, bouncing synths on “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” and the joyous, bittersweet gospel pop of her best known song, “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” all highlight unexpected and at times contradictory elements of an album that still never forgets its folk and country roots. But in spite of its at times unconventional approach, it’s a record that feels perfectly at home with itself, flowing with an elegance and an elemental beauty that’s very much its own.

 

 

1973’s Heart Food may possibly be better, but it’s a tough call to make. It’s more adventurous still and draws at times on the influence of Bach, most clearly on the rapturous, delicate “The Kiss” and the LP’s stunning, multi voiced climax, “The Donor”, where Sill singlehandedly emulates a full choir over a doom-laden solo piano. As with the debut, many of the lyrics are drawn from religious imagery and it’s often difficult to separate the sacred from the secular: the Joni Mitchell-esque “When The Bridegroom Comes“ blurs the lines between romance and religion, while “The Vigilante” finds Sill returning once more to country, combining her twin obsessions, God and cowboys.

While you could fork out £20 each for the vinyl reissues, the Abracadabra set is much better value for money. It features both LPs in full, but also adds outtakes, a wonderful short live set and, best of all, the solo demos for the Heart Food LP. I don’t usually have much time for demos but, shorn of their studio setting, Sill’s songwriting is so evocative that stripping the songs back only seems to add to their impact. These gentle, intimate takes are very much the equal of the finished album and, for those who already have the original records, they are worth the price alone.

After Heart Food flopped, everything fell to pieces: she got into a self inflicted argument with label boss David Geffen that led to her being dropped, and then subsequently faded back into obscurity and addiction, dying from an overdose aged just 35. While she remained virtually unknown in her lifetime, the word finally seems to be getting around about her remarkable, singular talent. If you want to discover her music for yourself, Abracadabra is the perfect place to start.

Quite Old Now LP – “Time N Place’ by Kero Kero Bonito

kkb

 

I’m not sure about Kero Kero Bonito’s early records; while they’re undoubtably fun, their excitable J-Pop often felt a bit one dimensional to me. But since they took a curious left turn on 2018’s more downbeat TOTEP EP, I’ve found them a lot more interesting, and their third album, Time N Place, happily finds them going further down that route. Whilst previous efforts rarely ventured beyond their standard, wide-eyed electropop, TNP shifts styles frequently, taking in campfire singalongs, computer game synths and random bursts of noise along the way, while still retaining much of the childlike wonder and solid pop sensibilities that first brought them success. Lyrically, there’s a sense that the carefree days of youth have passed, but Sarah largely manages to stay positive in an often unsettling adult world. It’s gloomy but fun, which is the way I like things, so unsurprisingly I love Time N Place.

 

 

Much of the album feels like an indie rock record: “Only Acting”, first heard on TOTEP, makes a welcome reappearance, its crashing guitars feeling a world away from the clean, bouncing synths of previous LP Bonito Generation. The characteristically thoughtful lyrics explore the idea of being a performer, and throughout the album, there’s a depth to Sarah’s writing that early hits like “Flamingo” rarely suggested. The half spoken everygirl approach she often takes on TNP is a familiar KKB trope, but there’s a sombre note on songs like “Visiting Hours” and “Dear Future Self” that feels new and surprisingly raw. The latter in particular, where Sarah addresses herself in the future from a time capsule, is wonderfully moving, with lines like, “But I heard all the years’ll leave you hurt / Everyone you love disappears and nothing works / Please don’t say you hate the world”, finding her primed for disillusion. However, there’s still room for some joyously daft speculation, as she asks “Do cars ever fly? Have you travelled time?” with a naive curiosity which will be familiar to old fans.

Given that it’s produced by Stereolab’s Andy Ramsey, there’s an unsurprisingly playful approach to synth use, ranging from the wistful Bontempi swing of “Time Today” to the oddly dramatic “Dear Future Self”, which sounds something like a Brian Wilson offcut set to a video game march. It also goes down some unusual experimental paths; “Only Acting” constantly threatens to break down into a barrage of effect laden screams and crashes, before finally dissolving in a shimmering, glitchy racket. Closer “Rest Stop” goes one further, opening as a charming synth ballad before the second half of the song finds itself entirely smothered in noise, with the melody barely audible above the various rattles and scrapes. However, Time N Place is rarely a difficult listen: the lulling keys and gentle acoustic guitar of recent single “Swimming” is typically gorgeous, and this warm, melodic direction is much more characteristic of the album.

 

 

Time N Place feels like the work of a band on the move. Most groups with the kind of early success KKB have had would double down and try not to frighten the horses too much. Instead, it feels like they’re growing up alongside their audience, experimenting with style, tone and lyrics to create something that functions on a kind of emotional level that’s largely new to them. But the fun that made their name is in there too, and this is still very much an out-and-out pop record, full of nagging melodies and charming, youthful energy. Growing up doesn’t have to mean getting old and boring, and Time N Place is the clear proof.

 

New LP – “Relief” by Repulsive Woman

relief

Discerning fans of the New Zealand indie scene will know about Millie Lovelock, both as the sweet voiced singer in erstwhile janglers Trick Mammoth and, more steadily over the years, as frontperson in her own psych-pop duo Astro Children. Repulsive Woman started off as an identity she set up to cover songs by her beloved One Direction, but over time it’s evolved into an intriguing minimalist project in its own right and one which, with “Relief”, has finally come of age. Admirers have had a long wait for a new Astro Children record, but this is more than ample compensation. In fact, it’s Lovelock’s most consistent, coherent and quietly marvellous record to date.

Whilst the brittle, uncomfortable lyrical content will be familiar to Astro Children fans, the music is less layered and overpowering, stripping everything back to a strummed, almost troubadour-like guitar augmented with extremely low key arrangements. The opening title track marks out the boundaries of the LP; based around a repeated, hypnotic riff with occasional eerie effects, it has warmth to it, but more like blood than anything soothing. Lovelock’s voice is as vulnerable and touching as ever, but mournful here; lyrically oblique, the song revolves around intimacy and distance, with violence never far away, ideas that recur throughout the record. “Some Body” has a similarly woozy, disorienting feel, playing on separation within a dead relationship (You put a knife in me and it came out clean”) as the relentless two chord guitar patterns grind on. Often on “Relief” there’s a feeling that, however close she allows other people to get, something is always held back, either for her own emotional safety, or just from the fear of revealing too much. The most notable contrast is on “Overripe”, where Lovelock seems desperate to bridge the gap, and the song’s crushingly sad refrain, “I get so lonely, no one ever makes me laugh”, is delivered with an almost proud defiance as it breaks the dam of reserve.

Whilst the lyrics add emotional texture, it’s often the sombre tone of the music that does the heavy lifting. The clipped, melancholy sound of single “Rough Around The Edges” breaks from the spacier material that surrounds it, with the battle between detachment and emotion feeling more tangible here, the prim, stately violin of the instrumental break contrasting with the intoxicating wash of vocals that follows it. “When I Get Good” takes a similar line, with its strings sounding like a stiff, cleansing breeze after the intensity of the preceding track, “Soft Borders”. It also features a stunning chorus, as Lovelock’s voice soars pleadingly over the violin counterpoint, and in general the tough subject matter on “Relief” is often leavened by memorable tunes that lodge firmly in the brain

Aside from the wry vignette “Ulysses”, this is not a cheerful record, but for all that, it is uplifting in its own way. Lovelock records her personal battles with a fierce candour which makes the album feel, if not like a friend (this is far too spiky a record for that), then certainly a comforting presence in a cold, confusing world. The album has a unity to its sound which is key to its power; stark and elegant, it’s deeply expressive but within strict boundaries that seem only to add to its emotional range. It is also illuminated by moments of unnerving brilliance and delicate, desperate beauty. On the brooding closer, “Earn It Twice”, Lovelock sings “I don’t feel bright, but in the sun, on my own, I glow”. The trick that “Relief” pulls off is that it manages to shine, not despite its grim depths, but because of them.

New Album – “Welcome Home” by Hannah Cohen

hannah cohen

I’m not familiar with Hannah Cohen’s previous work, but I’ve fallen from a great height for her third LP, Welcome Home, which came out a couple of months ago. Inspired by a desire to leave her cramped and confined conditions in New York City for a new life upstate, that sense of escape comes through in the relaxed, expansive feel of the music, an adventurous combination of folk, light funk, 80s style pop and more. But lyrically there’s a different freedom at work, as Cohen’s soul-bearing lyrics feel truly fearless, contrasting the open vistas of the music with an almost claustrophobic vulnerability. It’s a record that feels extremely personal, but one that I can’t help finding parts of myself within too: when Cohen talks about her ‘old bruises‘ which have ‘faded away with time‘, my own seem to feel a little more sensitive to the touch. 

From the first chiming chords of opener “This Is Your Life’, Welcome Home feels comfortable in its own skin. A combination of folky classical guitar and an almost R&B style rhythm track, the two things never feel in conflict with each other, instead giving the track a relaxed, soothing feel. The adventurous lyrics – “The moment you see it, you want it, take the risk’ – seem a little out of place at first in such a calm setting, but they’re very much of a piece with the clarity and focus that emanates from the song. From there though, things get emotional very quickly. “All I Wanted” is the first of a number of relationship confessionals, as Cohen painfully dissects the end of an affair in almost masochistic terms – “I used to touch your body and your eyes would roll back” – unwilling to let love die when it’s clearly on the way out. All this is set to a gloriously washed out synth soundscape, her sweet, soaring voice initially dominating the arrangement before the languid rhythm track kicks in, all squelching bass and gently shuffling percussion. “Old Bruiser” plays on similar themes as Cohen works through a series of reminiscences, moving from sexual abandon to petty arguments with a rueful but seductive air, as the music pulsates in tropical bliss.

Elsewhere, the album moves towards more straightforward pop on the likes of “Get In Line”, with its pulsing funk guitar and disco shuffle, and these tracks largely come off just as well. “Holding On” is perhaps the best of them, again fuelled by the liquid sunshine sound that permeates the album, as Cohen chronicles falling head over heels in love in typically open fashion“What’s This All About” is the one place where she strips everything back, leaving just an unadorned piano and her stark vocal to express the confusion and fear of searching for meaning in a life gone stale. It’s a stand out moment, not only because it’s yet another heartbreakingly gorgeous song, but also because its simplicity adds one more layer to a record that frequently combines differing approaches with ease. 

Welcome Home is a bold and joyous album that wrings great beauty from the ecstasy and turmoil of life. Musically beguiling and lyrically frank, Hannah Cohen is an artist who gives everything of herself in a way that’s both unnerving in its honesty and touching in the connection that it makes. What marks this album’s perfection though is that, when everything else feels like too much, this record is still exactly what I want to hear. A gem of a summertime album.

Newish LP – “Dizzy Spells” by Patience

patience.jpg

Way back when I was casting about for a title for this blog, I absentmindedly picked out “Only memories” from the lyrics of Patience’s “White Of An Eye”, one of my favourite singles of 2017. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but having just made it through my first year, it seems appropriate to be returning to the same artist. For those not yet initiated, Patience is the solo project of Veronica Falls singer Roxanne Clifford who, rather than replicating her previous band’s mixture of cheerful jangle and pensive lyrics, has instead struck out on a surprising electro-pop odyssey. Dizzy Spells is filled with pulsating rhythms, wibbling oscillations, ticking synth drums, synthetic handclaps and lots and lots of analogue keyboards, with the whole thing clearly orchestrated from behind a mess of baffling machines and unruly cables. But Clifford has retained her knack for picking out a good tune, and this is a key part of what makes Dizzy Spells a truly compelling listen.  

 

 

The 80s dominates much of the sound here, with Clifford showing a lightness of touch that reminds me of New Order at their best. Much of the first side is made up of glistening synthetic tapestries bound together with warm, intelligent chord structures, recalling the likes of “Dream Attack” and “Bizarre Love Triangle”. “Living Things Don’t Last” and “Aerosol” tap into these influences in different ways; the former feels playful and charmingly naive, while the bold, striking synths of the latter make for a more dramatic impact. “White Of An Eye” also offers a tip of the hat to Peter Hook with its dancing, melodic guitar counterpoint, but there’s far more to Patience than a collection of reference points; the emotional punch of the music is always potent and never fails to land.

Lyrically, themes of transience dominate. “White Of An Eye”, with its haunting ‘only memories’ refrain, looks back from an unhappy present to a time where sensations seemed to add up to more, observing with resignation that ‘you’re still alive, but there’s something that you just can’t touch’. Relationships are only seen from the endpoint; “Living Things Don’t Last” offers an almost bullish view of closure, with Roxanne imploring herself to ‘tear it all apart’ , contrasting with the delicate melodies and gentle synthetic waves of the music. Elsewhere, new romantic ballad “Voices In The Sand” finds her for once overwrought, asking “are you tired of me?” with a desperation touching on melodrama. But this kind of emotion is rare; for the most part, Clifford’s vocals balance their vulnerability with a controlled, crystalline assuredness, in keeping with the mix of humanity and distance that runs through the album.

 

 

The material on the second side reflects a slightly harder edge, particularly the grey, Kraftwerkian slabs of synth on “Moral Damage”. Here, Clifford’s voice sounds icy, stating bluntly to a departing lover, “charisma has gone, you don’t have anything I want, but the time I gave you back”. But generally, there’s still a strong thread of melody lurking beneath even the tougher material; “The Church” opens with a menacing throb of synthesiser but soon reverts to a bouncy electronic soundscape and a bubblegum melody as catchy as anything Clifford has yet written. Despite the occasional moves into darker territory, “Dizzy Spells” generally remains a record of infectious pop songs, and marks a brave new beginning from a hugely talented artist. Sometimes wistful, often bold and always tuneful in execution, it delivers on the promise of her early singles in style. Roxanne Clifford is a pop heroine for our times and your capitulation is inevitable; you may as well get it over with now.