Howling at the Moon: Matt Berry’s Kill the Wolf Reviewed

matt berry kill the wolf

There are few surprises here from Matt Berry on his latest solo outing. Kill the Wolf picks up precisely where Witchazel left off two years ago, plunging listeners right back into the dreamy and psychedelic world of ‘60s prog-folk where he last led us. However, far from regurgitating the songs and style of Witchazel, Berry offers new explorations into his finely honed and lovingly constructed retro-verse, deftly combining gentle folk-pop with more brooding, atmospheric prog-like meanderings. His intentions are crystal clear with opening song “Gather Up”, an archaic sounding chant using lute and a women’s choir to join him in imparting an almost eerie sense of displacement in time. That, and the lyrics listing a multitude of herbs and plants that wouldn’t be out of place in a witch’s arsenal, combine to set the stage for Berry’s mystical sonic journey into some very satisfying and unusual pop. “Devil Inside Me” offers an upbeat contrast from the prior track, with gently thumping percussion, subtle electronic flourishes, and another backing choir. Lyrically, he speaks literally about duality and the haunting asynchronicity between his inner and outer selves. The music reflects this, jumping from melancholy self-pity to major key smooth lightness, broken up with an electric violin solo that rocks in a way only a violin solo in the middle of prog-folk song can – that is, satisfyingly.

“Fallen Angel” continues gently through lilting and airy verses, moving into a madrigal-like refrain. “Medicine” is where we first really connect back to Witchazel’s easy pop charm: the guitars gleam and sparkle and there is a choir featured again, cavorting with Berry in metaphorical sunlit pastures. It’s a fully enveloping, warm autumn day in song form, completely surrendering to curiosity, new experiences, and unrestrained pleasure. All of a sudden, we are thrown right back into the rabbit hole of self-doubt and darkness with “Wolf Quartet”, a woodwind instrumental that suggests the come down after a psychedelic drug trip. The reference to polyphonic madrigals is revisited at the beginning of “Solstice”, the album’s centrepiece. Berry’s vocal line is interspersed with the opening bell figure, both repeating themselves as washes of sound gradually bury them and then stop altogether. The second part begins like a reprieve of sun breaking through clouds, but it too is quickly dispersed by that haunting line, this time augmented with unsettling ornamentation and played by woodwind and keyboard. Following some progressively driving instrumental sections, an electric guitar solo is unleashed on this moody scene, capped off by Berry’s lyrics about the shortening daylight. The song indeed has the same claustrophobic feeling as the rapidly shortening days of autumn and of yule: there is less time to accommodate the same daily tasks, but more importantly it’s a pagan pact between nature and humankind to renew light and agricultural abundance for the coming spring. This reference to pagan spirituality is depicted perfectly in Berry’s capable hands.

“October Sun” is light and pleasant on the surface, with some lovely finger-picked guitar, but its lyrics depict a darker scene. Biblical themes become apparent with lines such as “Michael, Peter, Mark, and John/Please forgive me for I have done you wrong/I sense evil, I fear it here today/Like a bad dream that never goes away”, likely also a reference to the Black Paternoster. “The Signs” delves into groovy ‘60s pop without a trace of the psych and folk influences so prevalent elsewhere on Kill the Wolf. It even has a short saxophone solo that I don’t hate and don’t mind calling groovy…again. “Knock Knock” has a languid, laid back strut to it that strangely complements the strings used for accent and atmosphere. Pagan rituals are again the subject in “Bonfire”, which instructs the villager to “clear the field, make a circle/a gift to those for watching over/marks the end of October”. Something’s going to happen, he admits it (albeit with tongue in cheek): “there’ll be smoke, and lots of magic”. That’s taken up with “Village Dance”, following closely on the heels of “Bonfire”. Reprising the musical figure from “October Sun”, Berry leads us into a kind of saturnalia festival, a beautiful and joyful time of hope and promise, led by strings, chiming bells, and warm voices. Finally “Farewell Summer Sun” brings the album’s disparate elements together: after some instrumental intervals, Berry’s sonorous voice returns, once more with choir, along with folky guitar and soft percussion. The lyrics tie up the pagan winter festival themes of looking to nature for social and material promise in a time of winter scarcity, comparing the wait for the next summer sun to waiting for a lover who will return from a journey. The tune is mellow and soothing, calming relying on nature to provide what is needed as well as accepting the inevitable change of the seasons and cyclical nature of life.

A very subtle, textured, multi-layered, and engaging album, Kill the Wolf effectively expresses its themes of pagan spirituality, reliance on nature, dualities of good and evil in everyone, and the joy of new experiences equally in both its music and words. Berry’s ever-impressive musicianship (and versatility!) mean that he can fully pull off such a specifically themed album as this one, full of references foreign to much of the mainstream pop climate. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable on a surface level, either: he’s an incredible pop songwriter as well as a canny stylist. Basically, you can get as much out of Kill the Wolf as you want, or as much as you’re willing to put in, perhaps. It’s more rewarding with more time and energy, but it’s a fantastic pop piece any way you devour it.

Matt Berry – Medicine

Matt Berry – Solstice

Matt Berry – Farewell Summer Sun

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I Might Die Without These Words Having Left My Mouth: Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny’s Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose Reviewed

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Beth Jeans Houghton says that her music is “not bloody folk.”  That’s cool with me; she can be a petulant artiste if she feels like it.  Even though her eagerly anticipated first proper LP with band The Hooves of Destiny, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, is sprinkled with the melodic sensibility of good indie pop and the glitter of glam rock, it is based primarily in the traditions of folk.  I certainly find the comparisons between her and singer-songwriters like Laura Marling to be a bit misguided and personally see her work as being more similar to that of Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, but again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tendencies and patterns to her sound.  Let’s put it like this: I am not usually very inclined to listen to or really appreciate much folk music, but Yours Truly grabbed me and held me from my first listen and I’m happy to say that I have yet to be released from Houghton’s musical and artistic grip.  That could be read as hyperbole to some, but such is the beauty and freshness of this record, I feel.

Still based in her native Newcastle, Houghton is a visual mishmash in her ever-changing wigs and bizarre, often circus-like wardrobe.  The songs on Yours Truly are reminiscent of being under the big top too, all swirling horns and pulsating piano.  Houghton originally surfaced in 2009 with the alternative folk Hot Toast EP and then quietly fell under the radar for a while, resurfacing now with an album that reflects the years of work evidently gone into it.  Even as she’s cavorted with the likes of American freak folksters Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom as well as London band Tunng, Houghton’s continually keen to shirk those pesky classifications that lump her in with the rest of this nu-folk scene.  I don’t blame her at all, actually; Yours Truly is the most transcendent album I’ve heard in, well… a long time.  It deserves its own moment.

Opener “Sweet Tooth Bird” hits all at once: the snare drum and horns in combination sound a bit like a marching band, but Houghton’s voice tempers that rigorous sensibility with its languorous huskiness.  The fast-paced clip established on this song doesn’t take a real break for the rest of the album, instead waning moderately on less frenetic tracks, but otherwise “Sweet Tooth Bird” is an energetic and accurate indicator of what’s to come.  Here Houghton sings about a bird she’s shot and killed.  That, along with a passage of soaring piano topped with dementedly warped vocals, lends a surreal sense of unease to the song.  The beautiful “Humble Digs” trundles along steadily with the aid of some well-placed banjo, but where the track really stands out as special is halfway through when the banjo subsides to make way for a stately procession of horns and choir.  It’s an unexpected touch that comes out of nowhere, but it is exactly moments like this where Houghton’s songcraft rises above that of her peers.  Her voice deftly lifts out of the phrase with a charming little bend, and the folk perfection of the verses continues, this time with added strings and vocal harmonies for emotional emphasis.  “Dodecahedron” opens with the surreal line “Last night I dreamt of dodecahedrons/My eyes were bleeding with crimson sight,” delivered liltingly atop a subdued, syncopated background of bells and horns.  The song becomes more powerful, however, when Houghton stops singing words and stuns with a baroque-pop vocal figure that fades away to sparse drum beats.  Again a chorus joins her for the second to last line, her voice harmonizing high above the earthy voices below.

“Atlas” picks up the pace again with a rousing drum figure and keeps up that pace, excepting a couple of places where Houghton sadly sings “Ride swift through the houses like blood rides through me, red wine and whiskey are no good for me/Dissecting the atlas for places we’ve been, your list is longer but you’ve got more years on me.”  “Nightswimmer” is accented by ethereal harmonies and skittering drums, meanwhile the lyrics are about how love is like drowning, exemplified with the words “You’re only my only love/And I can’t keep my head up above.”  There’s also an intermittent little fluttering flourish in the background that ends the song on a mystical note.  “Liliputt” begins deceptively softly with haunting voice and ukulele, but soon quickens and gallops away on an achingly beautiful string line.  The pause midway through for the refrain “These hooves have had their day/If I stay I won’t survive” is disarming in its intimacy, but it resurfaces at the end of song with a different lyric and wreaks emotional havoc all over again.  So far I haven’t been able to listen to it without tearing up.  I’ve also embedded the video below, partially to give a glimpse of Houghton’s visual aesthetic and partially to share another song from this incredible album.  I also love the idea that in it she’s apparently being haunted by figures from classic paintings.

“Veins” begins languidly with a warm soul groove that suits Houghton’s voice perfectly.  Suddenly it morphs into frantic indie pop powered by forceful piano stabs and multitracked harmonies.  The final line “nothing’s ever going to be the same” is carried out by a lively violin melody.  “Carousel” seems to be named for the revolving, circling quality of its music.  Indeed, it is the sound of a funhouse, complete with a maniacal, mechanical cackle that abruptly stops as if a door’s been shut and hollow metallic bells and chimes.  This is complemented with an ornate violin and piano interlude that soothes away the spookiness.

Going back on my previous assertion, I do think there is some validity to Houghton’s being compared to Laura Marling.  I prefer to think of Houghton’s sound, however, as being influenced by artists like Shara Worden and Alison Goldfrapp as much as by Marling.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, to be sure.  Anyway, reductive comparisons don’t do Houghton many favours – she’s an emerging artist in her own right and her particular combination of musical styles and distinctive presentation definitely make her one to watch.  All told, this is an album to burrow into, to discover and rediscover, to dance to and cry to.  I can all but guarantee that Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose will reappear at the end of the year on this blog, by then worn in and comfortable but no less magical.

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Humble Digs

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Dodecahedron

Buy Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose from Houghton’s website here.


I Can Get Through Anything: Imperial Teen’s Feel the Sound Reviewed

I will readily admit that I’m a latecomer to the power-pop wondrousness that is the music of Imperial Teen.  Like, really late.  Will Schwartz (Hey Willpower), Roddy Bottum (Faith No More), Lynn Truell (Sister Double Happiness, The Dicks), and Jone Stebbins (The Wrecks) have been releasing albums as Imperial Teen for over sixteen years now, and their latest LP, Feel the Sound, is the first one whose release I’ve actually anticipated as a fan.  Granted, their last release, 2007’s The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band, is from almost five years ago, and so I feel my ignorance can be forgiven slightly in the light that they are rather sporadic in their output.  But back to the music at hand: Feel the Sound is as joyful and exuberant a pop record as Imperial Teen have ever released, this time with a shinier, more produced sound that suits their buoyantly catchy anthems.  For me, a very near and dear band with a similar approach has to be the New Pornographers, also a supergroup made up of accomplished musicians in their own right, also soaring along on Carl Newman’s ridiculously catchy pop hooks, and also using boy/girl vocals as part of their distinctive sound.  Of course, it’s the differences that count, and while the New Pornographers sometimes delve into darker, murkier territory than their power pop classification accounts for, Imperial Teen have a subtle but distinctive queer sensibility that informs their music and makes it so inimitable.

Feel the Sound opens with “Runaway”, also released as the album’s first single, and a sunshine-y burst of harmonizing string lines flood the intro with retro good vibes before boy/girl harmonies and new wave keyboards join.  The climax hits when all of the multitracked vocals come in for the chorus, and it’s appropriate that this piece of sugary pop escapism is about, well…escape.  “Last to Know” is a mid-tempo number with steady, chugging guitars that collapse with fervent, echoed vocals during the chorus.  There’s a weary resignation about the delivery on the verses that’s suitable to the subject matter: an affair that ends a previous relationship.  “Over His Head” is darker still: musically a more restrained effort with keyboards fleshing out a minor-key, atmospheric sound along with the repetition of the refrain “he’s in over his head”, numerous mentions of darkness, and echoing, elongated sighs that punctuate instrumental passages, this song feels like Imperial Teen have resolutely grown up and are not completely happy about it.  Closing lyric “the best of days will come again” is evidence that despite being poppy, Imperial Teen are not always happy.

“Hanging About” is another atmospheric track, its lyrics obscured by reverb.  Things lighten from the dreary mood of the verses when that reverb falls away for the refrain and is replaced by bright harmonies.  In the intervals between vocal phrases is where they come closest to the Krautrockish, motorik-y sound that is touted in Merge Records’ promotional blurb for the album.  “Out From Inside” rides on a propulsive beat emanating from the bass and drums in combination, and the lyrics again find solace in being overwhelmed.  “The Hibernates” sticks out a bit on this collection, but not for bad reasons: on the surface it’s a sweetly simple pop song with charmingly hushed spoken/sung vocals, but the lyrics are more discomfiting than that, mentioning “blackbird screams” and growing mould.  There’s also a keyboard solo (backed by the sound of chirping birds) two-thirds of the way through that is creepily reminiscent of the song my grandma’s old jack-in-the-box used to sing while you turned its little metal handle and waited for the inevitable fright of Jack himself.  “Overtaken” nicely sums up the atmospheric direction that the band have explored on the preceding ten songs and ends Feel the Sound on an appropriately melancholy note.  Despite the almost aggressive cheer of “Runaway”, this album is more subdued and nuanced than previous Imperial Teen releases.  There’s a need to escape from something bad but the acknowledgement that this escape will yield something better.

I’ve also attached the video clip for “Runaway” as I think it’s a brilliant little video, even just taken on a surface level.  An interpretation of the lyric “I could be you and you’d be me”, in the video party-goers exchange masks with the band members’ likenesses on them, and, in some fun and jumpy editing, switch clothes and effectively do a bit of drag.  Reading a bit more into it, however, the “Runaway” clip, to me, distils what is so unique about this band: on an Imperial Teen record, gender and sexuality don’t really matter.  The band is half queer-identified and half straight, half men and half women, and their lyrics largely don’t touch on those topics at all.  Instead, the world of Imperial Teen is a world of equality, blissfully free from stereotypes and assumptions.  That doesn’t mean Imperial Teen’s world is always happy and carefree, of course – but it is a place where pop perfection is the best and quickest route to contentment.

Imperial Teen – Last to Know

Imperial Teen – Overtaken


Long Live Sheffield: Former Lover and Nature Set Split Maxi-Cassingle Reviewed

Former Lover Nature Set Cassingle

It was an unfortunate day in 2008 when The Long Blondes had to disband after only two albums due to guitarist/songwriter Dorian Cox’s stroke. While rumours continued to percolate around Long Blondes frontwoman Kate Jackson’s yet-to-be-released solo album, I hadn’t heard anything more about the rest of the band, especially about what had become of Cox. Then at the end of last October, I received an email out of the blue ether, announcing his return with a new band called Former Lover. And they were apparently releasing a limited edition maxi-cassingle with fellow indie Sheffield band Nature Set. This was fantastic news. For one thing, I really love the word cassingle. Luckily, I also discovered that I really enjoyed both bands’ work. Fronted by Myrtle with Cox on guitar/organ and Daniel Dylan Wray on bass, Former Lover is an exciting departure from the scratchy vintage pop we had grown used to hearing from Cox. Instead, we get some minimal, yet seductive post-punk that relies heavily on the bass guitar for melody lines. Nature Set, which includes another ex-Long Blondes member, Reenie Hollis, and Daf, Claire, and Marie of garage-punk band Navvy, is a high-octane contrast with buzzsaw guitar and wonky synths. The sunshine yellow cassette has no label, but comes in a cardboard slipcase that has a DIY stamped design reminiscent of The Orphan Arms’ aesthetic. The analog format definitely serves both bands’ styles of music, allowing for the constant creep of static on Former Lover’s songs and fleshing out the fuzztones of Nature Set.

The first side I’m cued to slip into the tape player is the Former Lover side. Myrtle’s detached yet sweet, Alison Stattonesque voice is a clinical complement to a musical background that makes me think of sodium-lit car parks and cheap, brown-wallpapered motels from the 70s (the retro aesthetic is also cultivated in their music videos). With the three songs’ knocked-up pauses and obvious drum machines, they evoke the seedy and the synthetic. “He Doesn’t Have to Know About You” begins with a psychotic, pared-down bass figure that recalls “Stand By Me,” but twists it into something unresolved, unhinged, and voyeuristic. The song even includes what sounds like a much harsher, sharper güiro, a mechanized güiro, in fact. To supplement the languid bass, there are fabulous scribbles of distorted guitar that sound like someone slowly losing his/her mind. In a singsong, matter-of-fact vocal, Myrtle provides the chorus of “He doesn’t have to know about you/And she doesn’t have to know about me/For the record.” She even sets a time limit on the relationship: “until we’re thirty-five at the most.” The second track, “Unlust,” carries the fullest guitar line, but still keeps gaps of tension and a metallic iciness in the random clangs of percussion. There are more lyrics of a fantastically straightforward nature, such as “I suppose my lust for you is wasted/So I suppose I should divert it somewhere else.” The final track is “Heartbreak Button,” an understated tango set to the weirdly flat whip of a drumbeat you would find on the opening of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Between stabs of organ, Myrtle pleads “Don’t press the heartbreak button…please,” damping her desperation by reverting to the mechanical stance on love and sex that is present in the previous tracks. At one point, the song becomes particularly chilling as the narrator asks “I was a good person/Wasn’t I?,” which sounds like the kind of unsettling, doubting question you hear from a person clinging to an unhealthy relationship.

With their snarky female backing vocals and pop sensibility, there’s a bit of Kenickie about Nature Set. Their opening track, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now,” taunts and seesaws back and forth to a punchy bassline and a counter melody on synths. The drums pound through the bridge as synths continue to build with alarm-like quality and the electric guitar crescendos to a roar. “Hands” begins with the proclamation that “this week has gone to hell” and the narrator has “done nothing worthwhile.” It blossoms into a punky version of a 60s girl group song complete with a Spectorish bassline on methamphetamine and wide-eyed Sarah Records vocals. There’s a brash honesty to the lyrics, including “I’m not wishing it could last,” and the chorus is a blast of blissful melody as it delivers more candid observations: “It’s all right here in my hands…I still want more than I’ve found.” Closing track, “I Am a Planet,” is a swift, spinning slap of crazy. The vocals build upon each other in rhyming recklessness while arcade synths buzz in the background and the drums crash. It’s the perfect, incendiary collapse for the end of the cassette.

I truly hope I’ll be hearing more from both bands in the near future. Long live the Sheffield indie scene. And long live the impractical, yet enchanting cassingle.

Purchase the cassingle for only £2.50 at Naked Under Spacesuit.

Heartbreak Button – Former Lover

I Am a Planet – Nature Set

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Prince Brings Welcome 2 Canada to Winnipeg

I would guess that most people think that Prince is an eccentric artist. Laura and I would lean more to seeing him on the batshit insane side of the spectrum, presented rather eloquently in a lengthy anecdote from Kevin Smith. I suspect being exceptional and living so insularly for decades can augment mental health issues. At the end of the day, with Prince you have to take the genius with the batshit. Having missed Prince when he performed in Winnipeg nine years ago because the tickets were too expensive for my then university student self, I vowed we were going to get some decent tickets to his December 8 Welcome 2 Canada show. We ended up with sixth row floor tickets on the south side of the stage. In preparation for the gig, Laura and I ate purple food while watching all three Prince films—Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge—ending up only mildly mad after attempting to follow Prince down a rabbit hole that ultimately winds up being his own ass. All of those films, and Prince’s value itself, comes down to some of the most charismatic live performances of all time. His incredible music and stage presence mesmerize you into forgetting just how insane he is. Or at least convince you that it’s not worth worrying about.

We staggered through the -26°C night on our platform shoes to get to the MTS Centre for about 8:00PM. A claw of massive screens hung directly above the centre of the stage, which as many will already know, was in the shape of Prince’s love symbol. The $400/person “purple circle” sections were set up like mini-cabaret clubs at each stage corner, and were illuminated by purple, naturally. At roughly 8:30PM, the lights came down and Prince’s singers and band walked by us on the floor, wheeling a Prince-sized box; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that it contained the tiny artist. It frankly wouldn’t be any weirder than the rest of the things he does.

Prince at piano

The only half-decent photo I could take before security got to me.

When Prince finally emerged from within the stage, His Royal Purpleness had gone monochromatic in a sartorial move that befit his 53 years. His black suit included an asymmetrical jacket, and pants that draped over his ever-present heels. He acknowledged all of the audience by strutting that strut that makes 5’2” look like 6’2” to every side of the stage and basking in the ensuing screams. Then he stood behind his LED-rippling piano and opened with “When Doves Cry,” getting the audience to sing half of the lyrics without him. He then did a bit of “Sign O’ the Times,” and apparently followed it up with parts of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and “Forever in My Life.” I don’t remember those last two all that clearly since that was the point at which I was warned by security that I would be kicked out if I tried to take any more photos. This was to be expected since I had already been lectured by the security guard checking my bag at the door and then had to sit in the venue staring at a scrolling red banner along the arena perimeter announcing the fact you will be removed if you try to take photos or video footage. This kind of practice from Prince had already warranted a rant from me in 2008—there’s no point rehashing it here. If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have waited to attempt a better shot when he actually walked around to our side while free of fog. If I ever get the chance to see him again, I’ll act more prudently. After this jarring interruption, Prince went on to play the rest of a megamix of sorts, which included just the tantalizing opening bars of “Darling Nikki,” “Hot Thing,” and “I Would Die 4 U,” before proclaiming we weren’t ready for that; apparently, we were ready for longer versions of “Raspberry Beret,” “Cream,” “Take Me With U,” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which were played throughout the set proper. However, I’ll always be ready and waiting for “I Would Die 4 U.”

Prince and Larry Graham

A photo I found online but for which I couldn't find the credit.

After some jumping about to “Housequake” (of course we know about the quake), a smooth rendition of “Joy of Repetition,” and his introduction of Maceo Parker, the legendary saxophonist who used to play with James Brown, and Larry Graham, the equally legendary bassist with Sly & the Family Stone, Prince picked up his telecaster and launched into a three-song funk jam session covering “Everyday People,” “Stand” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” sneaking in a snippet of his own “Alphabet Street.” Unlike the strange ADHD sampler set, this segment did feel like proper music played by passionate musicians. We were also treated to a cover of The Time’s “Cool,” which segued into a bit of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Throughout the show, he made the expected comments (if you had been following the reviews of previous Canadian tour stops) of “Call the babysitter, I’ve got so many hits we could be here ‘til tomorrow” and “Real music played by real musicians.” We saw a fair amount of the powerful backing singers since most of Prince’s attention faced the opposite direction. The times that he did make it around to our side, I marveled at his face; perhaps he wears a placenta mask to bed every night, or maybe he made a deal with that intimidating god featured on Around the World in a Day’s “Temptation.” Or it could have also been a fantastic make up job. Knowing Prince, it was probably all three.

Partway through the set, Prince gave a cheeky signal to our side of the floor, beckoning us to the stage. Like other pint-sized commanders before him, including Marc Bolan and Napoleon, he knew what he could do to an audience. After a split-second of uncertainty, people ran for it, and started grooving directly in front of the stage. It got quite farcical as one woman actually tripped and fell on the floor during the scramble forward. Of course, because it was a Prince show, security wasn’t having any of this harmless, impromptu dance party. And like all royalty, Prince had abandoned us in our moment of strife with authority. I felt a dizzying rush of mini-rebellion, a mini-revolution would perhaps be more apt in reference to Prince, as it took some time before the couple of security guards on that side of the stage forced all of us back to our seats.

The last song of the set proper was, of course, Purple Rain, which ended with Prince conducting the audience in the obligatory “woo hoo hoo hoos” and arm waving, and confetti cannons released a shower of purple and gold over each stage corner just in time for his epic guitar solo.

Prince returned for the first encore in a white suit, just as sharp as the black one, and performed the “Let’s Go Crazy”/“Delirious” medley, “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette.” He slowed down the verses to “Little Red Corvette” to a jazzier pace, keeping the chorus at its regular tempo. Near the end of the song, he led the audience in a call and answer session with males singing “Slow down” and females responding with “hoo-hoos” that emulated the guitar figure during the bridge of the original song. Though it was an interesting arrangement, I would have preferred a version closer to the original if only because “Little Red Corvette” was my favourite Prince song in high school. Then again, he did tell us earlier that he was the DJ and that he was controlling the music we would hear tonight. And as per Jonathan Richman, if you want to leave the party, just go.

Then the house lights came on, but knowing that he had done four encores on average during this tour, Laura and I were not to be moved, and neither were a large number of the audience who waited out the break. As predicted, Prince came back on for two more one-song encores, performing “Kiss” and “Controversy”; the former featured an extended spot of dance moves at its end. There were no frenetic movements or splits, but there was some more ass-waving. Somehow during these last couple of songs, Laura and I had attempted another coup of the stage along with other people in our section, but got pushed back to a row that was one further back than our initial seats. In my crazed concert brain (the condition I suffer when at exciting gigs), this was unacceptable, especially since so many people from the rows in front of us had made the mistake of heading home after the second encore. Despite the hindrance of my three-inch green platform shoes, I climbed over two rows of folding chairs to land in the fourth row. By the time Prince began his fourth encore with a sensuous performance of “The Beautiful Ones” at his piano, I had hurdled my way to the third row, and Laura had decided my plan might be worth pursuing and joined me. A cover of Sylvester’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” morphed into “Baby I’m a Star,” and the wrenching of my lower back from chair hurdling paid off. This time when Prince beckoned to our side of the stage, I wasn’t pausing for anything. Security gave up as those of us still left on that side of the floor ran full-tilt at the stage and ended up dancing a few feet under Prince for the next minute or so. At this point in the show he was sporting a more casual, long-sleeved shirt with black-and-white images on it, white pants, and a black fedora. I could see every detail of his smug, placenta-coddled face. And I was in love with him for that space in time. That’s the uncanny power of Prince: sometimes he makes you feel a bit like Unity Mitford. The song ended with backing singers and members of the band throwing drumsticks, tambourines, and raspberry berets into the crowd.

Despite saying that he had the day off tomorrow so he could go all night, the show did end here as he was lowered back into the bowels of the stage. And perhaps into his small box. The house lights and house music came on, and an army of stage crew came down the aisles to dismantle the spectacle. The fans were scraping up little mounds of the purple and gold confetti off the floor and taking it home as considerably less expensive souvenirs (and probably better value than a $40 tambourine or a $40 raspberry beret that makes you look like an overgrown girl scout).

Unsurprisingly, the YouTube videos of his Welcome 2 Canada performances appear to be in the process of being taken down, so watch them while you can to get a glimpse of why Prince will always draw enormous crowds to his live shows. I could have done with longer versions of his own songs and a few less covers, more movement from Prince to the south side of the stage, and less security nonsense, but I’m very happy that I finally got to see him live. He may not believe in the Internet. He may have some sketchy attitudes toward women. He may no longer grace the top of the charts. But he did put on a show. For two and a half hours, we were in the infinite dance party of Prince’s brain, and it was an unforgettable experience. And unlike Bono, at least he keeps his crazy preaching for offstage. And for heathens like Kevin Smith.

Little Red Corvette – Prince (Live in Dublin, July 30, 2011)

Controversy – Prince (Live in Dublin, July 30, 2011)

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I Will Be the Sun: My Brightest Diamond’s All Things Will Unwind Reviewed

My Brightest Diamond is the solo project of Shara Worden, whose voice has graced such albums as Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and The Age of Adz, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love (as the fairy queen), David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love (on the track “Seven Years”), and many other projects besides.  This, her third LP as My Brightest Diamond (following 2006’s Bring Me the Workhorse and 2008’s A Thousand Shark’s Teeth) finds Worden exploring her quirky singer-songwriter side instead of the more rock-leaning territory traversed on her first two albums.  Her music spans many genres and tones despite the general overarching patterns found on those albums, and All Things Will Unwind is no different.  These songs, led by string arrangements, unusual phrasing, and charming wordplay, often approach the level of experimentation that musicians such as Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom have become known for.  Worden, like Apple and Newsom, has a hugely expressive and distinctive instrument in her voice and uses it in conjunction with the instrumentation (here provided by chamber ensemble yMusic) to magical, mystical effect.

Opening track “We Added It Up” in particular reminds me of Fiona Apple’s more chamber pop moments, like the title track (and opener) of  2005’s Extraordinary Machine.  The two songs share a bouncy cabaret feel, accentuated with string flourishes, although “We Added It Up” remains firmly in a much folkier realm, using acoustic guitar in addition to yMusic’s strings.  Worden’s voice floats brightly on top, telling of contrasts in love (“If I was charge, then you were cash/ If I was toast, you were the match”) that end up cancelling each other out (“We added it up to zero”).  The instrumentation suddenly stops for the refrain of “love binds the world” and it becomes clear that Worden isn’t using the word zero to mean nothingness or worthlessness; rather ‘zero’ is used to convey a kind of functional neutrality, the way that two strong, opposing personalities in love can cancel out the potential for chaos by balancing each other.  Perhaps this sentiment becomes too clichéd in its deconstruction, but I think that’s the point of this song that initially seems rather inscrutable.  Complication – the actual complexity of the relationship – is present in the tune’s structure and delivery.

On “Escape Routes” Worden explores the idea of monogamy, and not in a sceptical, cautious way.  No, “Escape Routes” is concerned with the giddy excitement associated with the initial stages of lifelong commitment (“Oh to exercise the act of falling in love with you over and over and over/ Let’s close off all our escape routes/ Let’s not put it off tonight”).  At the same time, the verses of the song acknowledge that love and its expression is necessarily imperfect (“It takes a lifetime to learn how to love”), yet looks forward to the different phases this monogamous relationship will inevitably go through (“It starts with a flicker that bursts into flame/ Then it fades to an ember with fights/ And with fingers pointing out blame”).  This enthusiasm for commitment is accompanied by twisty, turn-y string lines that evoke the unrestrained head-over-heels quality of love… but with a hint of trepidation.  Lyrically no anxiety is present, but the repetitive falling figures in the music and the use of minor keys lend a sense of unease that works to complicate this paean to monogamous love, suggesting that maybe “closing off all our escape routes” is not the wisest decision.

Things get weird on “Ding Dang,” on which Worden is backed by a sparse, eccentric blend of percussion and dissonant violin, all working in a seemingly meandering, non-linear way.  The lyrics that go along with this music are, appropriately, about unexpected change and being thrown off an established trajectory.  Worden’s delivery on this song is particularly earthy and folk-y, due to the use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, and her emphasis on unusual words and phrasing.  She ends the song on an especially surreal, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-ish note with the lyric “All things are not as they appear/ That which was far has become near/ With a twist or two you’re grinning ear to ear.”

Worden’s words become a bit preachy on “There’s a Rat” and “High Low Middle.”  On the former, she addresses “Bankers, lawyers, thieves/ Guv’nors, mayors, police” and takes them to task for taking advantage of (presumably working-class) artists like Worden and other underprivileged communities.  She continues this lyrical theme on the latter song, tackling wealth disparity between the rich and poor (“Are you fat or are you eating up your hat”) and criticizing the self-conscious effort of some middle-class people not to appear too well-off (“Keep yourself low, but not too low”).  This is not to say that the stance she takes on both songs isn’t right on, but the lyrics are overly literal, rendered (surprisingly, considering the subtlety and nuance of the rest of the album) artlessly.

All Things Will Unwind is a challenging album, overflowing with lyrical and musical ideas and demanding close and careful listening.  It’s probably quite a polarizing album, precisely because it requires a bit of patience and reflection to understand and appreciate.  It’s definitely not as immediate as My Brightest Diamond’s previous work.  But like the best in challenging music and art, All Things Will Unwind is ultimately a very rewarding album as well.  Despite a couple missteps, Worden’s ambition and creativity continue to serve her well, as All Things Will Unwind is unlike anything else I’ve heard this year and unlike anything else she’s released: all the better for it.

My Brightest Diamond – We Added it Up

My Brightest Diamond – Escape Routes

My Brightest Diamond – Everything is in Line

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Dark Days: Veronica Falls Reviewed

All right, here we have another young rock band doing their darkly melodic, vaguely atmospheric, wholly derivative thing from Oakland’s Slumberland label.  That sentence was not meant to sound nearly as contemptuous and sarcastic as it did, as I have a lot of good things to say about this debut from London’s Veronica Falls.  As Larissa’s mused to me about the most recent Horrors release: is it okay that I really quite like this while at same time knowing how completely unoriginal it is?  While the primary influence on the Horrors’ Skying is a whole lot of Echo and the Bunnymen (we even saw them this summer, complete with frontman Faris Badwan sporting a leather trench coat à la Ian McCulloch), Veronica Falls are drawing on a slightly wider palette of influences, such as sixties girl groups, the jangle-pop of Bristol’s Sarah Records, and a big dose of the sweet-yet-roughly unpolished pop found on Olympia’s K Records in the early ‘90s.  Veronica Falls themselves have said the following about their influences and listening habits: “We love bands like Beat Happening, Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500, and Felt, but we also love over-emotionalism.  We all originally bonded over the sinister sides to love songs from the 50’s and 60’s.”  Sounds a bit like a recipe for sounding like, hmmm, lots of other bands on Slumberland Records, but Veronica Falls are charming and different enough to carve out a compelling space for themselves in a music market/scene largely dominated by a kind of fetishism for anything ‘60s or more generally anything retro, tempered with a ‘90s-reminiscent, sweet-sounding, easily-digestible pop sound, itself a kind of self-aware reformulation of ‘60s pop.

Oh, and speaking of an obsession for all things vintage, the promotional photos for both Skying and Veronica Falls utilize a very similar vintage aesthetic: multiple exposures and heavily overexposed shots of band members posing outside wearing jean jackets and cardigans are themes for the promo pictures and music videos for these bands’ respective albums.  Perhaps the comparison between the Horrors and Veronica Falls is even more apt than I initially thought.

For one thing, a major difference between Veronica Falls and contemporaries like Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and labelmates The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (all of whom have released albums this year) is VF’s Britishness.  The other three bands are American.  There is a particular sense of place that is relevant in Veronica Falls songs like “Beachy Head,” about the famous cliff and suicide location on the South coast of England.  VF perhaps sound American due to their influences and a current glut of like-sounding bands working out of the U.S., but their subject matter provides a welcome counterpoint to musical territory that has undoubtedly been well-trod by others.

Veronica Falls deal in distinctly darker and more surreal subject matter than the aforementioned groups.  Opening track “Found Love in a Graveyard” and much else on Veronica Falls reminds me of the sound of Chin-Chin, a Swiss group whose 1985 album, Sound of the Westway, was reissued last year by Slumberland.  There is also a definite parallel between Veronica Falls and Chin-Chin in regard to their song titles and content: VF’s “Misery” is a lovely, sweetly melodic, and upbeat song about the familiarity of depression.  Sound of the Westway is dominated by song titles such as “Dark Days,” “Jungle of Fear,” “Why Am I So Lonely,” and “Room of Sadness.”  While their sound is more rock-oriented than VF’s, the music is written in major keys and is upbeat, giving a feeling of positivity that undercuts the lyrics.

But for me, what it often boils down to with otherwise derivative albums like this is their catchiness.  There, I’ve said it.  The fact that they’re singing about falling in love with ghosts helps a lot too, but this is one of those cases where the pure pop rush of the songs makes up for their unoriginality.  In this case, as I’ve mentioned, ‘pure pop rush’ doesn’t mean that there aren’t more complex and complicating elements to their sound, but what ends up hitting home most are the melodies, enhanced by their execution and production.  I’ve now had single “Beachy Head” on repeat for the last two days and it continues to be straight-up addictive.  Boy/girl vocals help a lot too, and Veronica Falls offers plenty of those.  And of course, I’m able to forgive a lot, in music and in life more generally, if someone’s really self-aware of what they’re doing and the negative connotations it may have.  Veronica Falls project this aura of self-awareness; they don’t seem like they’re cashing in on a trend as much as they’ve found that their tastes happen to be trendy right now.  So while Veronica Falls might not be a challenging or boundary-pushing album, it is perfect pop for dark days; for when your shoes are damp from dragging feet through dirty puddles.  It’s wallowing and uplifting at the same time.

Veronica Falls – Misery

Veronica Falls – Beachy Head

Chin-Chin – Dark Days

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“It’s Not a Perfect Plan”: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy Reviewed

There is a lovely dichotomy between Annie Clark’s ladylike, demure image and the intensity of her music that has drawn me to her work as St. Vincent.  Clearly, however, it is the grey areas between these poles of interpretation/representation where Clark’s most interesting and subtle ideas are explored, such as her continued fascination with mental instability and the darkness that lurks just under the surface mundanity of everyday life.  Strange Mercy picks up where 2009’s Actor left off, continuing a trajectory started by her debut outing in 2007, Marry Me (named after Arrested Development character Maeby’s joking exclamation); an off-kilter sensibility that has grown with each successive album.  Where Marry Me was relatively innocent; primarily emotionally and musically upbeat with occasional peeks below a calm, collected surface (“Your Lips Are Red”, with its stabbing bursts of piano and guitar) and Actor was more invested in acknowledgement of an unknown, indefinable horror (the creepy verses of “Marrow” narrating a bizarre biology-as-emotion metaphor before giving way to an aggressively upbeat, verging on funk, electronic-enhanced refrain that has Clark begging for help), Strange Mercy brings Clark’s often aggressive, fuzz tone guitar to the fore, helping flesh out songs that are more baroque than rock in arrangement and whose lyrics are often concerned with subverting conventional femininity.

Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of Clark’s straightforwardly beautiful singing voice with her lyrics and guitar-playing that makes her art so compelling.  There are angry elements to her songs, but the songs themselves can’t be categorized as simply angry.  There are peaceful, content elements to her songs, but the songs definitely can’t be categorized as either of those things.  “Chloe in the Afternoon” (which shares its title with Éric Rohmer’s 1972 film) opens the album dramatically with images of a dominatrix and client having a tryst during the client’s break from work; whether Clark is singing from the perspective of dominatrix or client is unclear.  The barely-melodic verses are strung together with menacing guitar riffs that give way to the sexually satisfied (relative) calm of the repetitive refrain.  When she serenely sings “no kisses, no real names” the anonymity of the encounter is made clear, as is the fulfillment of pleasure through pain (signified by that satisfyingly raw riff).

Clark continues in this vein of (hyper-)sexualized femininity with the song “Cheerleader” and its verses narrating the reasons why a female character wants to give up her presumably small-town American life of pleasing boys and being everything for everyone (“I’ve had good times with some bad guys… I’ve played dumb when I knew better/Tried too hard just to be clever”).  Clearly this sexualized cheerleader of the title is a thinly-veiled metaphor for any woman who wants to live and experience outside of the internally- and externally-imposed limits of her life thus far.  A heavy-handed comparison, perhaps, but when this cheerleader’s confessions are so honestly and unapologetically expressed and are accompanied by that mercurial guitar work, particularly emphasizing Clark’s enunciation of the word ‘I’ in the chorus and lending that refrain a powerful sense of personal resolve without resorting to cheap sentimentality, the song succeeds beautifully and works to further evolve Clark’s exploration of femininity.

Elsewhere on Strange Mercy Clark moves from light ‘n’ groovy pop to an increasingly urgent and anxious guitar solo that screams above her muted voice and a deeply ominous synth line on “Surgeon.”  On “Northern Lights” she contemplates an otherwise dark winter and the depression that inevitably comes with it (“Yeah, your pendulum hasn’t swung back in/It’s a champagne year full of sober months/Through my maudlin days, through my dry moments”) and “Champagne Year” begins with a vocal figure reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s much celebrated, much covered, and pretty much ubiquitous “Hallelujah” while singing with a kind of shrugged-shoulders stoicism, realizing the inevitably of the mundanities of life and how we cope with them.  Strange Mercy really imparts the sense that Clark has reached adulthood as a songwriter and as a person; there’s a theme of resignation that runs concurrent with the idea of new beginnings through these songs.  She is squaring her shoulders, looking her future in the proverbial eye and accepting the unpleasantness that is sure to come, while at the same time looking back at what has brought her to this turning point.  Perhaps this is why I love the album so much: it reflects the complexity and sadness and strangeness of navigating my future while being very much still tied to my past.

I’d also like to briefly divert attention from the album to the video for the first single from it, “Cruel.”  The theme of conventional, traditional femininity subverted is continued in this clip, directed by Terri Timely.  In it, Clark plays a woman who is kidnapped by a wifeless and motherless family and made to fill those roles.  She (quite hilariously) fails at all of the domestic tasks that fall to her and is clearly not the wife and mother this family were looking and hoping for, so they dispose of her by burying her alive.  The surreal highlight of the clip is Clark performing a guitar solo while hooded and tied up in the trunk of her new family’s car, followed closely by images of her singing from a grave and being slowly immersed in shoveled dirt.  What’s interesting here is the uneasy humour imparted by the idea that a woman might actually be killed by an otherwise quite nice (although rather creepy, and definitely demanding) family for failing in this traditional female role.  She is not, however, made to continue this work until she improves, but is discarded quickly and easily.  Her suitability to the role is not assumed by her femaleness, but rather tested through a kind of audition (you get the feeling that the family is quite familiar with this kidnap-a-new-mom scenario).  This is underlined (to highly amusing effect) by the pitying looks the children in particular give her.  She should know better, but she doesn’t, and they don’t have time for this kind of ineptitude.

Also attached is a live clip of St. Vincent’s performance of Big Black’s “Kerosene” from the show last May in New York City celebrating 10 years since Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life was published.  The woman can shred.

St. Vincent – Chloe in the Afternoon

St. Vincent – Cheerleader

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