Friday, November 10, 2006

A Handsome Poet's Finest Hour

That Man Fantastic (Art-Pop)
LP: Pop Songs for Art Films (2006)

A select few have been aware of Stephen Duffy's presence in San Francisco music circles since the early 90s, notably with modern rock geniuses Handsome Poets.

His latest project, Pop Songs for Art Films, a meditation on maturity, contentment, isolation and faded dreams, continues his tradition of crafting moody evocative pop influenced by - among others - Beth Gibbons, Brian Eno, David Bowie, U2, Nick Drake, and Rinse Dream. Well, if you're going to have influences you couldn't do much better than that, and on this record That Man Fantastic more than live up to them.

Second Skin
, a standout track, is distinguished by Duffy's yearning vocals and trademark circular acoustic guitar patterns. Many of the songs are haunted by liberal applications of reverb and a shimmering moodiness courtesy of Brother Jack Elder's guitar work, notably on She Who is Always in My Thoughts, a touching tribute to a constant companion.

In fact there are lovely guitar touches all over this beautifully produced album; check the spooky musings of Electricity. Instrumentally there is much else to admire, including stirring melodic bass courtesy of David Brooks, and some lovely piano work, for instance on Layer upon Layer. Stephen, have you been taking lessons on the old joanna? Nice one.

There are other surprises on this album, too. Listening to The Prayer, TMF seem to have created a new genre, "ambient rock!" If that sounds weird, give it a spin - I have feeling you'll be impressed. Fans will enjoy spotting influences here, but then there are some songs, like Or all 6, (say it fast, you'll get the pun) and Whenever I See the Sun (quite often in California, I'd have thought!), which are pure Stephen Duffy. I can't explain what that means, you'll have to hear for yourself.

After listening to Pop Songs for Art Films, I rather pretentiously reminded myself of T.S. Eliot's poem Little Gidding, where Eliot writes: "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time". It really feels like Duffy and his cohorts have effected a kind of homecoming on this record. The cover photo shows band members relaxing on a couch in the middle of the sidewalk, a comfortable if somewhat exposed location which sums up the feeling of much of this album - cozy and welcoming, yet spacious and occasionally edgy.

Celebrating the mystery of creation and a love reborn, Pop Songs for Art Films is Stephen Duffy's finest hour.

Artist web site:

Familiar Ghosts

The Clientele (Art-Pop)
LP: Strange Geometry (2006)

As a small but devoted following continues to champion their music, I know I’m not alone in feeling there’s hardly a band to touch The Clientele. The transcendent,
deceptively effortless Strange Geometry is proof positive they are one of Britain's top groups.

It's true The Clientele have in the past been criticized for hardly deviating from their signature sound. Like their previous CD The Violet Hour, Strange Geometry resolutely sustains its emotional mood. But what a mood. Like familiar ghosts, lyrical motifs appear and reappear as songs unfold. However, rather than creating a feeling of repetition, the emotional tone is heightened, the unity of feeling maintained.

A common Clientele theme - the bittersweet tension between sadness and heightened emotional awareness - is addressed on the delicate I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine, an ode to frustrated passion distinguished by a typically gorgeous guitar pattern tremoloing its way to heaven. On E.M.P.T.Y., jangly guitar lines interweave with a barely audible violin as the protagonist sighs for the dreams of beautiful losers.

But few pop songs have described the disembodied agony of a marooned heart like the exquisite Since K Got Over Me. Instrumentally, every element is perfectly restrained and delicately placed, while Alasdair MacLean’s breathy vocals are resigned and wisely sad:

All my senses shot
My hands are fists

I’m really tired of making lists

It’s just this emptiness I can’t chase away

And when the evening paints the streets

It’s like walking on a trampoline

A profound meditation on echoes of lost love and transfixing urban ennui, Strange Geometry is a superb album.

Evil Thoughts

Graeme Todd (Alt.Country Pop)
Track: Old Photographs (2006)

Country succeeds like no other music in evoking the ups and downs of family strife and bittersweet loss. On a bed of honky-tonk guitar and banjo, Todd rifles through his family album, announces "Here come the evil thoughts/From evil men/You thought had gone", and with a flash we are back in 1969, wistfully keening for days of fathers, cloudless skies, lawns and frozen smiles.

Todd is a Brit, now transplanted in Japan. Perhaps that's why, even amid its alt-country surroundings, Old Photographs recalls British kitchen-sink TV dramas of the early 1960s. Redolent, earthy and wistful, Todd delivers a charming paean to a time that's dead and gone.

MP3 Old Photographs: Listen

Return of The Four Headed Monster

The Beatles (Pop/Mash-up)LP: Love (2006)

On The White Album’s Revolution No. 9, The Beatles - unconsciously channeling 60s avant-gardists Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono - experimented with cut-up techniques pioneered by 1950s Beat Generation enfant terrible William S. Burroughs. Intent on challenging the linearity of popular culture, Burroughs - himself later tributed on the cover of Sgt Pepper - had famously asserted that “When you cut word lines the future leaks out”, a point not to be lost on hip-hoppers and samplers some 40 years later.

A touch of Burroughsian iconoclasm would have made a world of difference on Love, soundtrack to Cirque de Soleil's Las Vegas extravaganza. In fact, we might have had a minor masterpiece on our hands had this project been approached in the manner of CCC’s Revolved or Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, both of which famously mashed up The Beatles to intriguing effect.

As it is, Love was overseen by Beatles' producer George Martin and son Giles, both perhaps inhibited by excessive reverence for their source material and the constraints of producing what is, after all, the soundtrack to a Las Vegas circus show. As a result, there’s little evidence of future shock, rather another engaging exercise in Beatles nostalgia which is sure to fly off store shelves by the boxload.

That’s not to say that Love isn’t a good listen, or its recontextualization a complete failure. After all, this IS The Beatles. Part gimmickry and part a jaw-dropping reshuffle of pop's mightiest back-catalog, Love is a giddy joyride through moptop history. Beatlemaniacs will thrill to its juxtaposition of familiar favorites, and advances in studio technology ensure that a splendid time is guaranteed for most, if not all.

The acerbic anti-establishment rant I am the Walrus has never sounded this good on CD. The results here are breathtaking, in particular George Martin's celebrated cello arrangement, which benefits from dramatic, crystal clear definition. Similarly, the distorted guitars on Revolution ROCK…BIG TIME, while The Beatles' harmony vocals have to be heard on this recording to be believed.

Other inspired touches, such as McCartney’s blistering Taxman guitar solo grafted onto Drive My Car, are great fun, and the group's two greatest songs, A Day in the Life and Hey Jude, acquire a new-found sonic majesty here, courtesy, again, of superb remastering. John Ono Lennon - a huge fan of studio wizardry - would surely have approved of the backwards-rendered ‘Gnik Nus (Sun King), a divinely gorgeous sound which shows what could have been achieved here with a tad more imagination.

Case in point is the juxtaposition of Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows with George Harrison's Within You Without You. While eerily effective, the combination is an obvious one, both tracks long since immortalized as cornerstones of eastern-influenced mid-period Beatles psychedelia. The mix of Strawberry Fields Forever, combining Lennon's early demo with the gradual studio evolution of the song, is essentially no different from what was presented on the Anthology version, and ends with an aimless smorgasbord of fab snippets which contributes to a general feeling of hollowness.

To be sure, it all sounds marvellous, but rather like a souped up version of those 1970s Beatles Stars on 45 singles. Ringo fans may get a kick hearing his droll rendering of Octopus’ Garden pasted over the syrupy strings from The White Album's Goodnight, but really what's the point? And while Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sounds amazing, the increased brightness still doesn’t hide the fact that it was one of Sgt Pepper’s most under-realized tracks.

Most of Love will I'm sure make more sense when heard in the context of the Las Vegas show. One can easily imagine being blown away hearing this stuff through a multi-million dollar sound system. Though purists may bemoan the cranked up rhythm track, Macca's bass lines are now afforded a punch and prominence they couldn't always enjoy on Beatles analog recordings, while Ringo's drums hit home with impressive new force and clarity throughout.

Nevertheless, as a home listening experience there are moments where the whole exercise seems - if impressive - rather pointless. Once the novelty has worn off it's unlikely that listeners will often return to this album since, rather than suggest new levels of meaning or interpretation, Love fails to push the envelope far enough. DE- rather than RE-contextualized, much is lost, little gained. We are simply reminded of why we loved The Beatles so much in the first place.

So those anticipating a "new" Beatles album will be disappointed. The project mainly serves as a tribute to the excellent original recordings and, if nothing else, shows that - in light of advances in digital technology - The Beatles’ main back catalog would benefit from some serious remastering.

Fab Four anoraks will enjoy hours of pleasure spotting each cut and paste, but there will be those for whom Love is merely the latest irritation in an endless nostalgia fest. Whatever your view, it’s clear that what Mick Jagger described as "the four-headed monster" shows no sign of fading away. Once again The Beatles get back, and Love is an entertaining if at times exhausting trip through their era-defining masterworks.

Gromit's Grandad

iPod Choice: Muttley's Laugh (Spoken Word)
Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines (1969)

In 1969 Hanna-Barbara debuted a new cartoon – a spin-off of The Wacky Races show - entitled Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines. Much to the delight of young fans, there were negligible changes in the weekly plot: anti-hero Dick Dastardly devised nefarious schemes, with accomplice Muttley's help, to interdict a World War I carrier pigeon from delivering his message to the enemy. Needless to say, all attempts to stop the pigeon failed, and as a result of their Sisyphusian endeavors (parallels here with Wile. E. Coyote’s doomed attempts to catch Roadrunner), Dastardly and Muttley became one of the most celebrated double acts in cartoon history.

A forerunner of contemporary claymation star Wallace’s longsuffering canine sidekick Gromit, Muttley
(voiced by the multi-talented Don Messick) was the butt of Dastardly 's frustrations and the true hero of Dastardly and Muttley. The highlight of each show, Muttley’s trademark laugh - a wheezing snicker usually rendered at Dastardly’s expense and eagerly anticipated by viewers each week - has become iconic.

Muttley’s laugh: