New Album – “Welcome Home” by Hannah Cohen

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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.

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Newish LP – “Dizzy Spells” by Patience

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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.

Old LP: “Do The Collapse” by Guided by Voices

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Guided By Voice, circa “Do The Collapse”

As something of a part time fan of Guided By Voices, I haven’t really thought about them much for a while, but a few coincidences brought them to mind recently and, having dragged this CD out of mothballs, I’ve been playing it ever since. Often written off (especially at the time) as a kind of “sell-out” aberration, 1999’s “Do The Collapse” marks the point where Robert Pollard tried to move GBV’s brand of twisted alt-rock towards the mainstream. Ric Ocasek’s production adds some flash and polish, beefing up the band’s defiantly lo-fi sound, but it rarely feels overcooked. Instead, it provides a solid framework for an excellently written LP, a set of (for once) fully fleshed out songs that manages to look outwards without losing the band’s sense of themselves. As such, it’s well worth revisiting.

“Teenage FBI” is a fine opener: initially powered by a semi-industrial synth sound, it soon breaks out into more traditional guitar rock on a record stacked with chunky, powerful riffs. The lyric veers between a familiar tale of dysfunctional romance and some more nonsensical, sing-song material which, while making little obvious sense, is still naggingly infectious, with lines like “when you clean out the hive, does it make you wanna cry?” (reportedly about nose picking) making for earworms which are more or less impossible to dislodge. Elsewhere, heavier tracks like “Zoo Pie” and the anthemic “Picture Me Big Time”, featuring some great strutting guitar work and a fine, hollering vocal from Pollard, rock out in style, making it clear that, despite suggestions that they were bowing down to the corporate behemoth, there had in fact been no great softening of the band’s musical palette. This is worth pointing out, as other tracks, particularly lead single “Hold On Hope”, were seen as a horribly schmaltzy cop out. In reality, this was twaddle: with its elegant string arrangement and mid-paced acoustic riff,  “Hope’ is certainly sweeter than what fans were used to, but in fact the song’s message is anything but sugarywith lines like “still it grows on, as time still goes on, through each life of misery” clearly referring to the point where hope is all but gone. For all its detractors, it remains as wonderfully moving now as it felt to me 20 years ago. 

The song is also notable for some brilliantly baffling sentences (“one another, animal mother, she opens up for free”), again showing off Pollard’s habit of writing a lyric that fits the moment, without necessarily making a jot of sense. Taking this theme to it logical conclusion, my favourite song on the record, “Things I Will Keep”, is almost complete gibberish, filled with lines like “coded ancient, the crease ” and “to those in countless numbers, no longer cold or hot like things that I will keep”, words which retain a glorious, unfathomable beauty. As a song, it’s a power pop masterpiece, with the synths more subtly low key than elsewhere, the guitars chiming and melodic, and a beautiful, J Mascis-like solo which ties it all together. For me, this more tuneful material is the best part of “Do The Collapse“, with the driving college rock of “Surgical Focus” and the brief but dazzling “Mushroom Art” also creating similarly dizzying levels of joy.

Despite all the mithering about its direction, “Do The Collapse” never really loses touch with GBV’s essential weirdness, it’s just more refined, channelled into especially productive directions. The song structures are, as ever, subtly unusual, with many tracks tending to meander along odd paths, or stopping abruptly after an unexpectedly brief stay: the 70 second attack of sparkling closer “An Unmarketed Product”, and the striking, modular twists and turns of  “Liquid Indian”, culminating with its ecstatic, show-stopping chorus, are both stand outs here. In short, it doesn’t feel like a standard play for the charts, which was reflected when it sank without trace, having both failed to crossover while also pissing off the regulars. Instead, it feels more like a bold attempt to break new ground, combining a fresh, commercial sound with some of the stranger aspects that still make GBV such a compelling and imaginative band. And despite that inability to break through, they’re still going strong now, with two new LPs out already this year and another on the way in the summer. Maybe no one pictures them big time anymore, but I can’t say it did them any harm to dream.

Kinda new album – “Titanic Rising” by Weyes Blood

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Weyes Blood’s last LP, “Front Row Seat To Earth”, has been a long time favourite here in the Only Memories furnished nuclear bunker, becoming one of my most listened-to records of the past couple of years.  Natalie Merring’s remarkable voice is the perfect hook for the album, imperious yet subtle in its emotional range, and the Laurel Canyon-style elegance of the music also has huge appeal. But repeated plays reveal a sophistication of songwriting that carries her way beyond the usual territory of early seventies nostalgia, with its odd, unexpected turns and dramatic flourishes making the album a fascinating, and at times unsettling, listen. It remains a fantastic record, and the period since its release has only burnished its reputation: its follow up has some pretty hefty expectations to live up to.

Which is something it does with ease. Titanic Rising” is a brilliant LP, moving further in the direction already established by “Front Row Seat”, but with enough unexpected elements to mark out a distinct identity of its own. It’s a sweeter record overall, with the grandiose 70s pop of opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” setting the tone, full of orchestral splendour and dominated by Natalie’s swelling, soaring vocal. Though its style takes a lead from the previous album, it turns up the melodrama to a much greater pitch, and this approach is mirrored across the record lyrically, where things are frequently breaking apart, and happiness, if present, can never be counted upon. That discomfort can be heard clearly on storming single “Everyday”: propelled by a thumping, Fiona Apple-styled piano and wheezing organ, it’s full of doubt and desperation, with Natalie uncertain in love and “always trying to make my keeper mine“. It’s also a wonderful, emotionally charged pop song, its singalong, Abba-esque chorus (“I need a love everyday!”) and upbeat tone contrasting with the struggle at its heart. Aside from failing romance, fear and confusion about the modern world is the other key theme on “Titanic Rising”, addressed most significantly on the epic “Wild Time”. Here, Natalie searches for meaning around her and often comes up empty (“Everyone’s broken now and no one knows just how / We could have all gotten so far from truth“), in the end only able to console herself that “it’s a wild time to be alive”. The music is more vulnerable here, built initially on a simple strummed guitar and embellished with strings and occasional dramatic piano, before moving finally towards a gorgeous, winding coda both weighted and lifted by melancholy.

Merring also finds space to go down some more unusual paths. Sometimes this blends subtly into the background, as with the woozy drones which provide atmosphere on “Wild Time” and lead single “Andromeda”, but when the pace changes for the centrepiece of the album, the results are bold and breathtaking. “Movies” is a two parter: starting off underpinned by a watery, synthetic arpeggio, Natalie’s moody vocal blurs the line between life and screen, suggesting a greater reality created inside the story (“Put me in a movie and everyone will know me / You’ll be the star you know you are“), before the song suddenly shifts, as powerfully rhythmic percussion and strings come to the fore in a warmer second section, building to a hypnotic, stunning climax. Easily the least commercial of the main tracks here (both sides end with a brief, conceptual instrumentals), “Movies” feels like the grand statement of the record, musically adventurous and generally yearning for a more vast and involving experience of life than the one that we’re usually stuck with. It’s amongst Weyes Blood’s very best songs.

Towards the close, the heartbreaking “Picture Me Better” gives an almost fairytale image of love, trust and friendship, but with the sad sense that these are things which are gone and aren’t coming back. Despite being notably Disney-esque in it’s sense of drama, it’s a calmer musical moment set against the swirl of emotions that precede it: on an LP where romance is to be welcomed with open arms but perpetually fretted over, it feels like Natalie is finally free to love someone without worrying, knowing that it’s already too late. Along with the final swoop of strings on “Nearer To Thee”, which takes us back to a musical theme from the very beginning of the record, it gives the album a sense of closure and finality. It’s a mixed blessing in a sense: the pain and turmoil is over, but the experience is so delicious that you can’t wait to go back to the start and go through it all again. All of which is to say that “Titanic Rising” is Natalie Merring’s second masterpiece in a row, and the yardstick by which I’ll be judging everything else this year. A truly magnificent record.

 

New(ish) LP – “Why Hasn’t Everybody Already Disappeared?” by Deerhunter

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It starts with a familiar voice, reassuring and full of the characteristic swagger that I know from much time spent with his previous records: “Come on down from that cloud and cast your fears aside…” It’s a voice that feels calmly authoritative, a quality more welcome than ever in these dark times, as it opens Deerhunter’s eighth LPHaving missed out on them for a long time, last year I finally connected with their album before last, ‘Monomania‘, a fractious, chaotic and brilliant record. That LP was full of messy garage showpieces mixed with elegant lounge-pop; 6 years down the line, it’s clear that the latter has won out in terms of the current Deerhunter sound. “Disappeared” is a far more measured record, profiting from an easy melodic charm, but it’s also able to move into unusual places without really breaking its stride: you often don’t really notice the difference until you stop to think about where you’ve ended up. Lyrically it eschews the personal, instead feeling like a guide through the horrors of the modern age; Bradford Cox’s discomforting vignettes are like parables, oblique sketches of a world that’s rapidly spinning beyond the control of its inhabitants. But little of this seems to faze the band: however unnerving these depictions are, they never lose their composure in the face of it all.

It begins on extremely solid ground. “Death In Midsummer” opens with a metronomic harpsichord riff and Cox’s assured vocal, before the song kicks in, feeding off of the slippery processed drums to produce a sickly momentum of its own. Cox is singing about the end of an age, likely our own, a time of unclear value where the only thing that’s certain is that it’s “fading“. Further doom is offered throughout the first side, including political violence (“No One’s Sleeping”) and environmental breakdown (“Element’), but the album never gets too despondent; Cox generally positions himself on the sidelines as an impartial observer and his commentary tends to be detached and interested, rather than angry. Musically, “Disappear” sounds lush and dramatic, with the recurring harpsichord also adding a baroque flourish here and there. It’s occasionally nervous too, especially on the gorgeous “What Happens To People?” (“they quit holding on” comes the laconic answer), with its jittery piano riff and expansive, windswept chorus. Elsewhere,”Plains” offers clipped, summery guitars tempered by blasting choruses, producing one of the most obviously accessible songs Deerhunter have ever recorded (to my knowledge). For a band watching the world go down in flames, it sometimes seems a lot more cheerful in here than you’d imagine was very likely.

Most of the genuinely odd material comes through the second half. “Détournement” sees Cox electronically modulate his vocals to create an unnerving, alien-like effect as he greets various nations with a mock friendly, half menacing patter (“Good morning to Japan and the eastern sunrise over these majestic cliffs, and the vultures circling”); all the while a disjointed, piano-based track grinds on in the background, sometimes interrupted by slightly nauseous waves of guitar. Lockett Pundt, usually a reliably tuneful foil for Cox, instead weighs in here with the distinctly creepy “Tarnung”, where his voice drifts in a ghostly fashion across a plain of marimbas and sax, with the whole thing coming off like Steve Reich straying onto the second side of “Heroes”. CloserNocturne” is more familiar but still unsettles, with Cox’s voice cutting out randomly throughout, straining to be understood at times as it fights against the silences. By the end, the song has evolved into a lengthy coda, all sparkling synths cascading over the gloomy, chiming piano, which is eventually left alone to come to a stuttering halt. It’s perhaps the album at its most characteristic, distinctly moody but with a grandeur that’s intoxicating.

It’s an appropriate end for a record that sounds both restrained and opulent, with a vision at its core grounded in pessimism, but which somehow rarely feels overtly depressing. As such, it’s very much an album for our times, where the need to step back from the horror is often difficult to act upon, but also all too necessary. Importantly though, it would be a great record whenever it had been released. While many seem to be of the opinion that “‘Halcyon Digest” was the band’s highpoint, for a latecomer like me, “Why Haven’t We Already Disappeared?” offers further evidence that Deerhunter were only just getting into their stride back then. They remain a band who are still both refining and redefining their sound, hitting on new angles and mining further glories. This record reflects that continuing evolution, which is very much a part of what makes it amongst their best.

 

Stuff I’m always listening to: “This Is Happening” by LCD Soundsystem

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I’ve kinda given up on writing about new music at the moment: it seems to me like the more new records I buy, the harder it is for me to get into them. It takes weeks for something to click with me at the best of times, and recently I’ve been throwing money at records and CDs with increasing frequency and decreasing enjoyment. This is a by-product of personal anxiety (buying records gives me a shot of good cheer for a moment or two, before the reality sinks in that I haven’t really changed anything), but ironically not one conducive to actually enjoying the bloody things. But there are bands that I cling to like comfort blankets, their sound and worldview reassuringly familiar, and LCD Soundsystem is one of them.

James Murphy has always been a master of tying real and heartfelt emotions up with an self-conscious wink, and ‘This Is Happening” is perhaps the high water mark of his schtick. It’s the moment where the state of his disordered world is revealed most clearly, and yet also with an endearing and surprising sense of fun amidst the despair. Musically, it isn’t a quantum leap forward from previous releases, but it does move things on from their celebrated second LP, ‘Sound Of Silver“, sidelining some of the band’s post punk leanings and pulling “Remain In Light” era Talking Heads further into the mix, alongside Murphy’s longstanding disco and David Bowie obsessions. It’s a record that shimmers like the glitterball it could so easily play out under, but it still rewards close listening, with plenty of smart answers to difficult questions.

It’s opening is deceptively modest. “Dance Yourself Clean” initially finds Murphy calmly mumbling a lyric about the difficulties of friendship over a minimal one note synth accompaniment, before a slo-mo explosion of synth colour runs into the established LCD disco shuffle. Murphy’s vocal, ecstatic by this point, combines the joy of the dancefloor with fears that hedonism doesn’t actually solve very much (Wait until the weekend / And we can make our bad dreams come true”). It’s ambitious, ambiguous, intelligent and also just plain dumb fun, and the album gets better and better from there.

David Bowie is, as ever, a touchstone: “Drunk Girls” recasts ‘White Light/White Heat’ through the prism of the ‘Berlin’ era, while ‘All I Want’ feels like a disconcerting rewrite of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, detailing what happens later on when the fun stops, and featuring some wailing guitar frippery and Enoesque harmonies. Lyrically, Murphy deals with relationships in a more earnest way than on previous records: “I Can Change” initially seems to celebrate love, but then takes a dark, desperate turn, emphasised by its claustrophobic early 80s sound. But while many old styles are re-engineered in forceful new combinations, most often it’s the jittery, forcefully ironic worldview of the lyrics that clearly make this an LCD Soundsystem record, and a great one at that. “Pow Pow” in particular, sees Murphy spit out a lengthy scenester meditation that could easily have sounded pompous in less skilful hands, but the distracted, matter of fact delivery and hilarious call and response sections mean that it comes off as something much more self effacing and entertaining. The twinkling synths which dominate much of the album meet Talking Heads style percussion and harmonies here, and indeed there’s a whiff of David Byrne about much of the proceedings. But LCD still retain their individual charm: they pass this stuff off as their own quite easily and, though I may be able to spot the joins, I can’t argue with the results.

“You Wanted A Hit” is perhaps the most commercial track, a gorgeous mid-eighties groove underpinning Murphy’s relentless mockery of record company executives, with each successive objection from on high airily dismissed, each attempt to impose a formula met with the band’s intuition as to what makes a record great: “But honestly you must hush / No, honestly, you know too much, So leave us, leave us on our own”. The irony is that, in the end, whilst they never did make genuine “hits” (even back when it was a realistic prospect), Murphy did manage to have the last laugh, as “This Is Happening” became their first top 10 LP on both sides of the Atlantic, something he responded to by promptly breaking up the band to stop them from getting too big (they were later to return with the jagged, US chart topping, “American Dream” LP in 2017). In the end, “Happening” feels like it’s all hits and all artistry at once: the tunes never stop flowing, the beats are always infectious, the one liners both witty and relatable. But nothing is forced, it plays into no one else’s agenda and it always feels like the record they wanted to make. Back in the early 2000s, LCD Soundsystem imagined a melting pot of different genres and lyrical styles; post punk and disco; earnest and ironic; joyous and broken. Managing to sound at once complex and effortless, “This Is Happening” is the pinnacle of that approach, a remarkable achievement that still blazes a trail almost a decade on.

New Single – “She’s in a State” by H. Grimace

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The first time I heard “She’s in a State” was one of those rare moments where you absent-mindedly put on a song by an unknown band, not really expecting much, only to find yourself pulled to attention, breathlessly asking yourself, “what is that?!?” A little investigation reveals them to be an Anglo-Australian post-punk quartet with an excellent LP, “Self Architect” already under their belts, but this is a step up from anything on there. It sounds timeless, one of those songs that feels like it’s part of your DNA, even though you know for certain that you’ve never heard it before. I can’t stop listening to the damn thing.

The pounding rhythm and ringing, ominous guitars of the verse are most obviously reminiscent of “Sister” era Sonic Youth, though contemporaries Drahla also spring to mind. Hannah Gledhill’s semi-spoken word vocals are sometimes hard to understand, but the lyrics that do emerge give a sense of questing and frustration, the repeated refrain, ‘she’s in a state of permanent bliss’ contradicted by a sombre wail in the background.

But the chorus is where it really takes off, as the gorgeous, jangling hook adds an unexpected shot of melody, hinting at something a little more hopeful but just barbed enough to carry the underlying menace of the song. There’s melancholy here, but something resembling happiness as well, as Gledhill’s vocal sets this blissful state within the need to take something good from a difficult world, conceding that ‘you don’t get long for this life”. Her instruction to “close your eyes‘ feels like an invitation to give yourself up to the overwhelming, nervous beauty of the thing, but that’s already a given by this point.

The third verse dissolves into a focused rage of shouting and clatter before the song regains its composure for one last chorus, more clearly showing off the twin poles of anger and hope that power it. Every time it reaches the end, the temptation to press the button and bring it back to the start again is impossible to resist; I just can’t stop listening to it. “She’s in a State’ is my favourite single in an age and, judging by a quick look through their back catalogue, I think I’m going to be listening to H.Grimace for a good while yet. But the rest can wait for now, I need to listen to this again. And again.