Album Review: A Camp “Colonia”

Recently, I was sent the newest album by Nina Persson-fronted band A Camp, mostly because I am a big fan of their initial album, and the single “I Can Buy You”, which I talked about in another post.  Thanks to Stunt Company, the band’s American promotion company for sending the disc.  And good news; this is a fantastic album.

A Camp lead singer Persson recently moved from her native Sweden to New York City, having married Shudder to Think’s Nathan Larson who also fills out the line up.  Perhaps it’s this that inspired the title of A Camp’s newest album Colonia, having shifted from what might be considered the Old World, to the New World, sometimes called ‘The Colonies” by some even today.  And where this is not a concept record about the contrasts between one world and another, there is certainly undercurrents to be found in a song like “My America”, which captures the idea that a new place can seem both fascinating and disorienting at the same time.

The overall sound here is more focused than the band’s eponymous debut, which is not to say it’s a better record, necessarily.  But, you get the sense that the group has finally landed on a musical neighbourhood patch, rather than the sonic road trip they’d been on while cutting their debut.  There are fewer country-rock textures here than there were on that debut. The textures here on this new disc are a bit more orchestral, with real strings and brass accentuating the guitars-bass-piano-drums, and electronics.

What they’ve created is a smart, grown-up strain of pop music, with singer Persson at the very centre of it all.  Her voice is some of the best singing I’ve heard from her, including her work with the Cardigans.  Her voice is perfectly positioned on every track, fitting in comfortably into each of the songs, maybe most strikingly on the single “Stronger Than Jesus”, which you can hear here. Other stand-out tracks are the Beatle-esque “Chinatown”, the string-laden and melancholic “It’s Not Easy To Be Human”, and the album opener, “The Crowning”.

There is something classicist about this album, with a strong emphasis on songwriting and strong melodies more so than a simple study in stylistic excursion.  And it belongs firmly to the writers as a result, with nods to the band’s influences (The Beatles, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, The Sundays), yet easily avoiding pastiche.  It helps that musical guests are heavyweights in their own right, including Joan Wasser (AKA Joan As Policewoman), Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, original A Camp-er Mark Linkous, and sought-after cellist Jane Scarpantoni, among others.

The only criticism that might be levelled at the band is that they gave fans quite a wait for this excellent disc. Yet, perhaps this gestation period is a part of why it is so focused, why the songs are so richly realized, and why they seem to belong together as an album.

For more information about A Camp, including tour dates (they’re coming my way in mid-June!), check out the band’s website,  ACamp.net.

And of course for more music, be sure to check out the A Camp MySpace page.

Enjoy!

CD Review: In Rainbows by Radiohead

Radiohead In RainbowsRadiohead’s revolution is about distribution, if not musical innovation on their latest disc, In Rainbows.

In 2000, Radiohead brought out their follow-up to what was considered to be a breakthrough album in 1997’s OK Computer. That album was Kid A, a controversial release which dared to put guitars second to the the use of sequencers and laptop technology. It’s popularity was most likely a surprise to their record company, EMI, just because it refused to follow the furrow which had been established by the smash of not only its predecessor, but also the album before that; universally lauded The Bends. Radiohead seemed to be on a course of their own determination, not bending to convention, and going forward with their own ideas about how their music should be made. Above all, they seemed to trust that they would have an audience which would be open-minded enough to see that the parameters of the group and their material wasn’t bound by the confines of traditional rock instruments. They were, of course, correct.

In 2007, Kid A and its sister album Amnesiac, along with the textures that carried over into 2004′ Hail to the Thief have been accepted as the true sound of the band; the icy electronics, the lyrical concerns about the political swing to the right in international politics, and the increased emphasis on the sound of the band, rather than the shape of individual songs. As such, it seems that the musical boldness of the first half of the decade are over. Radiohead have settled. Most of the time, this would be a damning indictment. But, the artistic currency the band has generated, along with the artistic momentum built up by the standards set by past releases, have allowed them to make their newest disc In Rainbows such an enjoyable and consistently interesting album.

Thom Yorke’s voice has taken the same role as Elisabeth Fraser’s in the Cocteau Twins – a means of providing a texture as opposed to conveying a story, set of thoughts, or a polemical social statement. This also may serve as a damning indictment, depending on listener expectations. But, what In Rainbows does as a whole is demonstrate what Radiohead does very well; provide a platform for sonic contrast. Yorke’s voice through out, the electronics, the beats on the opener “15 Step”, the Robert Kirby-like strings on “Faust Arp”, matched against Jonny Greenwood’s increasingly jazzier guitar lines make all the difference. Overall, the songs come off more as pieces of a whole aural landscape as opposed to individual entities or potential hit singles. The songs themselves don’t stand out as much as they have in the past. There is no “Drunken Punchup At A Wedding”, a “Knives Out”, or “No Surprises”. But, this record feels whole. Again, this is entirely due to what the band has built up for themselves in the past. As such, there are no disappointment musically here; it’s a rewarding listen. But, there isn’t much artistic movement either, no “next big thing”.

Thom Yorke of RadioheadThe real revolution of course has been in all the papers, both the rock press as well as in news and business journals like Business Weekly and Time. The band have challenged traditional channels by having allowed fans to download the album for whatever price they saw fit, even if that price was ‘free’. The upshot was not a total flop of download sales, but an average of about $6-$9, depending on your source; a respectable showing, considering all promotion and sales were done by the band themselves without the added mark-ups of record company costs. While the RIAA and its international equivalents witch-hunt their own customers, it seems that music fans in general are willing to pay for music after all – but not for twenty dollars a pop for a hit single or two with thirteen tracks of filler. For most, this isn’t really news at all. But the revelation here was that the band were really willing to give voice to the validity of downloading, as well as another gesture of trust to their audience. Again, they were correct.

I waited until the disc was released. Like a friend of mine once told me, there is a difference between an album and a bunch of files. I tend to agree. But, if Radiohead once led the charge in reminding fans, as well as other musicians, that the risk of changing artistic direction didn’t begin and end with Bob Dylan going electric, they now lead the charge , or at least begin the discussion, regarding the role of commercial channels in the music industry. For starters, one aspect of this is making sure that albums remain to be artistic statements, rather than mere souvenirs of concerts, or cobbled-together vehicles for hit singles. And In Rainbows is a good album. Yet what it represents is the real winner here. And hopefully the right people are taking notes.

Records I Have Known: Jewels For Sophia by Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock Jewels For SophiaSome records you love because they are immediate and instantly gratifying. They are the prettiest girl at the dance, the one who all of the boys want to dance with. Then, there are the other ones. They have a unique character which stops them from being conventional, yet are appealing just because of their unconventionality. They are the pretty girls at the dance that don’t seem obviously pretty – a crooked tooth here, a set of out-of-date glasses or a drastic haircut there. Yet it is these aspects which make them so attractive, and in many ways so much more interesting. Robyn Hitchcock’s Jewels For Sophia is one of those.

I can’t actually remember how I first discovered Robyn Hitchcock. It could have come through my involvement with a collective of music geekery in Black Cat Bone. There are a few Hitch-heads over there. I had heard a few things here and there. There were a few acclaimed albums which were recommended to me; I Often Dream of Trains being one, and Underwater Moonlight, which is arguably Hitchcock’s best album with The Soft Boys, being another. But, it was Jewels For Sophia that made me a fan. I saw it on sale at a Virgin Megastore (of all places) in Piccadilly Circus, and decided that I’d check it out. What kind of record I was in for, I wasn’t sure. But looking back, I had discovered one of my favourite albums.

It took some time to catch on, but once it did, it completely captured me. The first thing I noticed about it was a total lack of cliché. Hitchcock is known for his absurdist left-of-centre lyrics, of course. But the music itself seemed to stand outside of what was happening at the time too. I heard Bob Dylan in there, particularly on the tracks “You Got A Sweet Mouth On You Baby”, which sounds like a lost cut from Blood on the Tracks, and the sublime “I Feel Beautiful” (with the immortal lines “I water the tomatoes and I think of you/No one’s ever watered me the way you do”). I heard the jangly glory of what Hitchcock had helped to create with the Soft Boys, handed down to bands who admired them like REM and Grant Lee Buffalo, especially on the tracks “Elisabeth Jade” and “Sally Was a Legend”, on which Peter Buck of REM plays. And of course there are the obvious Syd Barrett meets John Lennon comparisons often made to describe Hitchcock in general to be considered. There is a certain validity in this – the melodicism with English eccentricity torch is still burning through out most of Hitchcock’s output, and is particularly strong here.

Robyn HitchcockThere aren’t many songwriters out there writing about cheese, antwomen, Buzz Aldren, and Seatac Airport all on one album. This is a record where rock clichés have no purchase. And Hitchcock’s voice – very English, deep, almost spoken – makes the odd imagery work. It’s like hearing an eccentric-but-cool uncle speaking. With that said, it’s easy to get sidetracked by all of the absurdity and fun, and miss the poignancy underneath. If “NASA Clapping” comes off as a punk-meets-Dylan-meets-the Surrealists barrage, then “I Don’t Remember Guildford” and “Dark Princess” stand as more sombre pieces, tracing the memories of a forgotten chapter in a life, and the idealised vision of love which takes on the characteristics of an act of worship respectively.

There is so much included here; top flight playing, quirkness, grit, beauty, and a seemingly willful approach to songwriting that attempts to cut any connection to rock conventions. It is charming, and a little bit unpredictable too. Because it diverges from the norm, it gives the impression that it could go in any direction. For some, this is off-putting. But in this, Jewels For Sophia does what the best albums in rock/pop music does; it provides the escape route from where songwriting often settles, with a set list of subject matter, language, and sound. With this, and with Hitchcock’s other work, anything goes. Anything can become a song. The pretty girl at the dance can be anyone.

Further listening:

Robyn Hitchcock

Watch an interview with Robyn Hitchcock

Records I have known: Night & Day by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson Night & DayJoe Jackson was a part of a new wave singer-songwriter triumvirate, with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. From 1978 to 1980, he would mold a trio of albums which would exemplify the best of that genre, along with a couple of hits in “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “It’s Diffferent For Girls”. But the new wave tag, like most tags of musical genres, was beginning to age. By 1982, it was practically antiquated. And Joe Jackson and his band had left it behind a year earlier, going from the drums-bass-guitar-voice conventions right to a jump blues album Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, in the traditions of Louis Prima, Big JoeTurner, and Louis Jordan. Of course he was about 15 years too early for that particular musical revivalism. But, that’s another story. The point is, Jackson was getting restless. He wanted to expand his palette in the traditions of some of the composers he most admired – George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in particular.

It was soon after a divorce that Jackson would re-locate from England to New York City, and the move itself would inspire his next record Night & Day. This was a record far removed from his first three albums in a number of ways. The most obvious was the addition of jazz and latin sounds that were added to the mix. A more subtle difference, but one which is significant, was the absence of a guitar. This is Jackson’s most cohesive artistic statement to date, and one into which he poured his heart and significant musical talent. Overall the album stands as a testament to an artist bucking a system he helped to create in the new wave sound of the late 70s, and succeeding both artistically and commercially.

Joe Jackson Night & Day bandThe musicianship on this album is exemplary. Stalwart Jackson bass player Graham Maby sits in, filling the gaps, while Jackson himself leads the way on piano, organ, and even on alto saxophone. Sue Hadjopoulas adds latin percussion to the mix, which changes the approach of the whole completely. Effectively, the aggression of the guitar is made redundant because of her textures, making this a prime record for showcasing how a percussionist can make a song shine, rather than just be a part of the background. LarryTolfree rounds out the quartet on drums.

The hits are high-profile – the immortal and optimistic “Steppin’ Out” being the biggest, an ode to leaving the worries of life behind for while and becoming child-like again, exploring the wonders of the world at night with a loved one. But that song was the lighter side of what Jackson was exploring here. The main themes are about alienation – being in places, and in times, where one feels out of step, and slightly fearful perhaps of what the future may hold.

New York City is virtually a character here, as illustrated in the album’s opener “Another World”, which has the stranger in a new town looking at the possibilities of what a new life in a new place may have in store. “Chinatown” is about the dangers of the city and being unaccustomed to the instincts required to survive living there. “Target” furthers this theme, with a barrage of percussion and jazz piano which seem to voice the frenetic energy of a city which is both dangerous and equally vital. It is clear that like Jackson’s compositional heroes like Cole Porter (who wrote a song called “Night & Day“, of course) he was greatly inspired by the city as a backdrop. But, the alienation and underlying unease of a new life alone in an unfamiliar location seems to shine through.

Joe Jackson and pianoAnother great theme is the alienation of being in the middle of changing times. Songs like “A Slow Song” and “Real Men” seem to touch on this most, with the changing face of sexual politics and gender roles becoming more and more blurry at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. Although many of these areas changed for the better, Jackson’s materials covers some of the lesser discussed issues that come with changing times – the fear of change, whether for the better or not. The song “Cancer” touches on the innate fear of our times that often stops us from living life to its fullest – and features some of Jackson’s superlative jazz piano chops. “Breaking Us In Two” is another hit, dealing with the real life complexities of love in a modern age – that the boy-meets-girl happily ever after paradigm of the past had passed into something more involved, more challenging, and less easy to grab a hold of.

Night & Day is one of my albums, one of those ones which feels like home. Despite some of the darker tones, I love the contrast it provides with some of the lighter touches too. “Steppin’ Out” to me is one of the best songs ever written – an ode to innocence in a sea of jaded experience. And perhaps this is the beauty of the record as a whole. It is smart enough to celebrate one, without discounting the other.

Epiphanies in Jazz – Miles Davis and ‘Kind of Blue’

Miles Davis Kind of BlueThe main thing written about this gathering of jazz giants was that it was the beginning of what was called “modal” jazz, which later became “the new thing” in the next decade. Talking about that aspect of things would require me to know something about the difference between improvising around scales and improvising around chord changes. I’m sure a musicologist would be able to write a book on why Kind of Blue is such a groundbreaking benchmark in the development of jazz. But, I’m not a musicologist. I’m just a fan. I am just a person who heard “So What” once on a cheap Columbia compilation album and was musically grabbed by my lapels and shaken to my shoes. I am a person who never knew that jazz could be this cool, in every sense of the word. It is music that is both cerebral because of its complexity, and visceral because of its ability to swing. It dances on the knife’s edge of intellectual pursuit and irrational, ineffable feeling.

The parties involved are legends in their own right; the equivalent of Elvis, The Killer, The Georgia Peach, Buddy, Chuck and Bo swinging by a studio and making a record together. But where the morass of egos may have short circuited any hope of such communal greatness from the rock world of the time, the jazz equivalents seem to be able to put the music to the forefront, while infusing it with something of their own personalities at the same time. You hear Miles’ trumpet and you can imagine it skimming on the surface of the next big movement, daring the others to join the chase. You can hear Trane’s darkness and spiritual turbulence. You can hear Cannonball’s affability and playfulness. You can hear Bill Evans academic and stolid anchor in musical theory playing in and out of the blues-devoted rhythm section of drummer Jimmy Cobb and session stalwart bassist Paul Chambers. Everything is in its place, no one element being more important and prominent than the other, despite the magnitude of the persons involved. It’s there in every note and pause and nothing is wasted.

The opener, “So What” builds from Evans’ impressionist piano lines, bolstered by Chambers almost menacing bass. When the horns enter the scene, they are not the frenetic voices of the be-bop days of old; they are lilting and minimalist, adding to the building tension that has been established in the intro, as elements and not as dominant lines. The urgency of bop and the bombast of the big band sound are subverted and turned on their heads in turn, answering dexterity with efficiency, grandiosity with musical subtext. Where a solo may have once been measured by its ability to reinforce a theme, it serves here to build on what has started from nothing. It would not supplant the need for melody, but it would open the possibilities for musicians to bring out many melodies, some heard on first listen and others heard after years of hearing the record.

It is in this respect that Kind of Blue is timeless. In the expression embedded in the solos, the moment is conveyed, the spark of creativiMiles Davisty of artists gathering together is communicated, and you’re there too within the conversation as you listen. The romanticism of Bill Evan’s “Blue in Green”, the mischievous waltz time of “All Blues” (which is nothing of the sort!), the exotic flavorings of Flamenco Sketches, and the easy-going “Freddy Freeloader” all come together as simple yet eloquent exchanges between musicians with considerable sonic vocabularies. They make it sound so easy, and as listeners we are drawn into it, not realizing that a revolution has just taken place until we think on it after the record is over. Then, we want to play it again, just to be sure we’ve heard everything there is to hear. Of course, we don’t. We can’t. There is lyricism, personality, emotion on various levels, and some can only be heard when a listener is paying attention, and some can only be absorbed when the listener is not. One might expect a record where melody and chord changes are secondary to be nothing but egotism on the part of the musicians, but the opposite is true. It involves you. It marks you and raises the bar in what you come to expect from the form. It comes as no surprise that the results would take jazz in directions that many within that world as well as outside it feared to go in the next decade – to freeform, to electric instruments, and back to Africa where it was born. It is no surprise, that these musical conversations between giants should start a revolution as all revolutions start this way – masters talking in a room with a unified vision, unafraid to embrace the future.

Further Listening

  • Something Else by Cannonball Adderley. A year previous to the Kind of Blue sessions, Miles played on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s classic album , which showed some of the more relaxed, lighter side of Davis’ playing. In many ways, it foreshadowed the tone of KoB – relaxed, cool, and playful. This is a great place to start for a jazz newbie.
  • Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans. This isn’t technically a jazz record, although it certainly incorporates jazz improvisation. Evans arranged Concerto De Aranjuez, and a selection of pieces similar in tone, for a small orchestra and invited Davis to add his own improvised lines. The result is a sensual, slightly menacing, and ultimately triumphant effort which stands as a career highpoint for everyone involved.
  • In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. By the end of the 1960s, Davis’ musical curiosity took him even further away from where he’d started in hard-bop and cool. IASW is a stand alone record in many ways – a rest stop between the jazz of the past, and the development of jazz fusion of which Davis was a prime architect. This record, like Kind of Blue, cherishes feel over structure, texture over shape. The approach results in a record that is a celebration of the use of space in music; an atmospheric, dreamy ride that comes off as the first hints of Ambient.

Hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane play ‘So What’.

Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!

Miles DAvis