Wednesday, August 30, 2006

MARSHALL WATSON: Math And Other Word Problems (Highpoint Lowlife Records)

Math And Other Word Problems
Highpoint Lowlife Records 2006
09 Tracks. 47mins52secs

Marshall Watson | Highpoint Lowlife

Seattle-based Marshall Watson returns to the Highpoint Lowlife shore with a second collection of brushed electronic tones and chilled moods. Follow up to The Time Was Later Than He Expected, released almost two years ago, Math And Other Word Problems sees Watson dive deeper into warm melodic electronica to explore a much wider range of soundscapes and atmospheres. While he was at times showing a certain lack of maturity on his debut, this sophomore effort is much more cohesive and mature.

Wrapped in gentle dub, crisp minimal techno and lush electronica, Watson’s compositions become wonderfully fluid and evocative as he punctuates this album with cinematic moments and intricate sequences. All the way through, he alternates between expressive layered soundscapes and more intimate minimal structures to finely balance the general atmospheric tone of the record. From the ambitious setting of the opening track, Invariant, with its faux-airs of soulful pop song and its lethargic groove, to the vast expanses of Ungula, the faint glitch abrasions of The Rules Of False Positions or Pascal’s Triangle or the obsessive frenzy of Parallelagram, Watson constantly refines sounds and atmospheric elements, applying them with infinite precision. This results in Math And Other Word Problems being consistent and flowing well from start to finish.

All throughout though, it is on melodies that Watson focus is. Already a strong feature of his first album, it becomes here even more omnipresent here. But he doesn’t always go for the most obvious, developing instead interesting sidelines underneath layers of sound. This is very much the case on The Law Of Signs and, to a lesser extend, on Parallelagram, where, instead of building the overall sonic structure around the leading melody, he inserts subtle tonal nuances in the background and creates tunes out of very rudimentary components. Elsewhere though, he dares sweeping pastoral escapades (Ungula, Harmonic Analysis Of Periodic Function), acoustic whirlwinds (Imaginary Number) or heartfelt emotions (Pascal’s Triangle).

While Watson’s debut album was a rather promising offering, Math And Other Word Problems steps up the mark and delivers with every track. His focus is much clearer and concise, and the delivery much more polished and full of class.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

CLARK: Body Riddle (Warp Records)

Body Riddle
Warp Records 2006
11 Tracks. 42mins21secs

Buy now: CD
Throttle Clark | Warp Records

It’s been three years since Chris Clark unleashed his Empty The Bones Of You box of delights and promptly reaffirmed his position as one of Warp’s most promising talents. This sophomore effort wasn’t so much revisiting his early musical escapades, as heard on Clarence Park, as totally reinventing his sound, turning it upside down to strip it out of its puppy fat and refocus. Having since lost his first name so people wouldn’t ‘wasted oxygen on “Chris”’, Clark returns with Body Riddle and once again goes right back to the roots and settles new scores.

On first listen, Body Riddle shares more than a few similarities with its predecessor: fat synthetic sounds, rolling rhythmic patterns, heavy bass lines and acute melodic sense. Yet, as his limited Throttle Furniture EP, released earlier this year, pre-empted, everything here is more detailed, more fine-tuned, as if the man had spent the last three years locked up in a studio manually building every single bar of this record. This is fine craft. Here, Clark layers his sounds with incredible precision, at times blending strings, electronics and beats into one big conglomerate of textures, at others assembling infinitely small sonic details into magnificently light and airy compositions. Shimmering melodies appear from nowhere and infectious grooves rise from the most unlikely soundscape without disturbing a single moment the dense fabric of this record.

Right from the start, Clark hits hard and scores high. Her Barr is remarkably ambitious and complex. Built on countless tectonic layers, the mood persistently changes from dream-like sequences to dark and gritty industrial noises, incorporating the main melodic line in a variety of forms and tones. This constant shift sends shockwaves throughout Body Riddle, infecting even the more minute details and resulting in sound constellations unexpectedly erupting in convulsions, beats patterns morphing into complex organic formations and random noises melting into lush melodic plains. On Herzog, a whirlwind of electronics debris crashes down on an uplifting melodies to rise again and again, while a clunky beat and distorted keyboards drive Ted to the border of futuristic disco heaven. Elsewhere, Springtime Epigram and Dew On The Mouth offer more tempered timbres, surprisingly evoking Boards Of Canada in part. Night Knuckles is wonderfully frenetic and spasmodic while The Autumnal Crush charts vast spaces and draws the night in to reveal delicate iridescent noise formations.

All this infinite detailing could have well been the death of this record, but Clark is way too smart not to continuously inject playful touches throughout and retain the sheer entertainment value of his music. Sharp, incisive, accessible and thrillingly enjoyable, Body Riddle reveals Clark at his most confident and masterful yet.

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SUSANNA AND THE MAGICAL ORCHESTRA: Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon)

Melody Mountain
Rune Grammofon 2006
10 Tracks. 42mins35secs

Buy now: CD
Susanna And The Magical Orchestra | Rune Grammofon

Two years on from their wonderful debut, List Of Lights And Buoys, Susanna Wallumrød and Morten Qvenild return with this sophomore effort, once again produced by Deathprod. While their debut featured mostly tracks written by themselves, with the exception of the two opening tracks, Leonard Bernstein's Who Am I and Dolly Parton's Jolene, Melody Mountain sees the pair applying their delicately textured sound onto a variety of classic songs taken from the repertoires or artists as far apart as Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, Prince, AC/DC, Scott Walker or Fairport Convention to name but a few.

While the originals cover a wide musical range, Wallumrød and Qvenild apply the same gentle brushes and soft tones across all of their interpretations and offer rather radical reworkings of each song as they make them their own. If this worked beautifully on Who Am I, and even more so on Jolene, and works rather well on a number of songs here, this album nevertheless proves to be a rather hit-and-miss affair over its full length.

Melody Mountain opens with the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah, a song that seems pre-destined to be a masterpiece in the hands of Wallumrød and Qvenild. Yet, compared to Cohen’s soulful version and Jeff Buckley’s intense interpretation, this sounds rather colourless and somewhat lacklustre. Things pick up greatly with the rather clever adaptation of AC/DC’s It’s A Long Way To The Top. Stripped of its rock’n’roll outfit, the song becomes a resounding prayer which, surprisingly, suits the “a day in the life of a touring band” lyrics to the hilt. Matt Burt’s These Days is equally inspirational and delicate, and if Prince’s Condition Of The Heart looses most of its flamboyance here, Wallumrød and Qvenild give the song an altogether more poignant touch by highlighting its wonderfully crafted melody and pushing the lyrics at the forefront.

This approach works best on Love Will Tear Us Apart. Keeping the sombre mood of the original, Wallumrød and Qvenild give this intimate interpretation all the necessary soul and highlight shimmering melodic tones to make this the most compelling moment of Melody Mountain. Their rendition of Kiss’s Crazy, Crazy Nights and Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright are enjoyable, but Wallumrød and Qvenild don’t manage to inject any life in their version of Depeche Mode’s Enjoy The Silence. Thankfully, they do a far better job of Scott Walker’s It’s Raining Today, which becomes a rather haunting ballad in their hands, and Fairport Convention's Fotheringay.

If Melody Mountain offers quite a few moments of sheer beauty, one cannot help but feel slightly disappointed at Susanna Wallumrød's and Morten Qvenild's choice of recording a whole album of covers. The evidence of superb songwriting skills found on List Of Lights And Buoys, especially on songs such as Believer, Sweet Devil and Time is likely to leave anyone who has appreciated this album wanting for more.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006



Clark | Warp Records

The artist formerly known as Chris Clark has a new album, entitled Body Riddle out on Warp on 2 October, and, over coming weeks, he'll be offering three exclusive non-album tracks to download for free on this site, starting now with this serious revised version of Herr Bar, which was originally featured on the ultra-limited Throttle Furniture EP earlier this year, and also features on the album, with space-age Brummies Broadcast.

Body Riddle is Clark's third album, and it is also his best to date! Full review coming soon.

While you wait for it all, listen to Throttle Furniture!

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

BROADCAST: The Future Crayon (Warp Records)

The Future Crayon
Warp Records 2006
18 Tracks. 69mins31secs

Buy now: CD | LP
Broadcast | Warp Records

Transmitting from Birmingham, Broadcast have, in the ten years they have been around, progressively crafted a very unique place for themsleves on the British music scene. While their first EPs, originally released on Wurlitzer Jukebox and Duophonic and later collected on Work And Non Work for Warp, showed similar inspirations to those of long-term friends Stereolab, from the DIY avant-garde of the seminal BBC Radiophonic Workshop to the psychedelic of The United States Of America or the Silver Apples and the sweeping cinematic beauty of Ennio Morricone, Broadcast have progressively developed and refined their very own blend of experimental pop, which they have deployed over three albums and countless EPs.

Alongside their Microphonics releases, Broadcast have always favoured a more experimental approach on their EPs, using this shorter format to push their own boundaries and test new ideas. The Future Crayon collects eighteen tracks released between 1998 and 2003. If the band’s first album, The Noise Made By People (2000), took years to take shape, the accompanying four EPs released during the following year was the demonstration of a rather prolific period of bubbling creativity for the band, with tracks such as Illumination, Daves Dream, Hammer Without A Master, Test Area, Poem Of Dead Song or Locusts reinforcing the band’s vision as they were uncovering new sonic territories, while the revised versions of Unchanging Window (Chord Simple and Unchanging Window/Chord Simple) revealed the original’s multiple layers and gave it an entirely new dimension.

The Future Crayon is not just a collection of rare tracks for fans but a deeply honest and sincere document of the band’s evolution. These tracks bridge the gaps found in between each one of their albums and provide a more accurate vision of how the changes have happened. It is, for instance, possible to hear the premise of the barer, more abrasive sound of Tender Buttons in the songs taken from the 2003 Pendulum EP. Small Song IV in particular appeared to catalyze the transformation from cleverly ornate pop to minimalism, but Minus Two or Violent Playground equally introduced a wide section of new elements which would later take centre stage in the band’s work.

There is something truly organic in the way Broadcast have evolved over the years. Sometimes dictated by members leaving, at others the result of hour after hour spent refining exactly what defines them, this process is ultimately intricately linked to the band’s sound. It is therefore surprising to notice how well these apparently disparate tracks work well together, despite the fact that they are presented here in non-chronological order. Unlike Work And Non Work, which at times felt disjointed and lacking direction, The Future Crayon is extremely consistent all the way through and could actually pass for a piece of work in its own right. This is no mean feat, and is a strong testament of Broadcast’s ability to finely balance pop and experimentations.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

HUMCRUSH: Hornswoggle (Rune Grammofon)

Rune Grammofon 2006
08 Tracks. 42mins45secs

Buy this CD now
Rune Grammofon

When they recorded their debut album together, one time Food drummer Thomas Strønen and Supersilent keyboard player Stâle Storløkken still operated under their own name, but by the time the album came out, they had adopted its title, Humcrush, as their nom de guerre. This, at the time, caused some confusion to who was what, yet, the album was leaving no doubt to the two men's chosen direction. Humcrush (the album) confronted Strønen's and Storløkken's parallel sonic worlds in very playful fashion as the pair developed a series of improvised pieces. While the music challenged the mind, it proved impossible to resist the sheer energy and joy that exulted from this debut collaboration.

Cyborg II, which opens this second album, immediately sets the tone. A seemingly gentle hypnotic improvisation, it hides a rather frenetic rhythmic set up which manifests itself with repeated convulsions as it snakes it way to the exotic and syncopated title track that follows. Here, Strønen’s drumming becomes more prominent while Storløkken draws exotic arabesques in the foreground. Seersucker shows similar signs of adrenalin rush although the pace appears slightly more contained. In between, Anamorphic Images explores a much sparser and delicate series of soundscapes, which, at times, relates to Strønen’s solo effort of earlier this year. Echoes of gamelan collide with colourful experimental jazz to form rather sumptuous and grainy structures.

With Grok and Knucker, Humcrush veer into surgical micro grooves and expressive minimal melodic formations as the album reaches its experimental peak and the listener faces various rhythmic conflagrations and dense soundscapes. From thereon, the album returns to somewhat quieter territories as the two concluding tracks delve into more introvert soundscapes. Humcrush adopt on this last stretch a gentler pace and let melodies flourish over intricate percussive constructions and shapeless sonic expanses.

While Humcrush’s debut had the endless energy and friskiness of a young pup, this sophomore effort shows a strikingly more mature and contained approach, yet this is not to say that the pair have lost any of their original playful vision. It is simply more structured here and only contributes to Hornswoggle being thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Touch 25 (Touch)

Touch 25
Touch 2006
25 Tracks. 79mins43secs

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Touch 25 (Touch)

Buy this CD now

With a solid twenty-five years at the forefront of contemporary music, releasing music by artists as diverse as The Hafler Trio, Sweet Exorcist, Sandoz, Oren Ambarchi, Chris Watson, Scala, Philip Jeck, Mika Vainio, Biosphere, Christian Fennesz, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ryoji Ikeda or BJ Nilsen to name but a fraction, Touch have collected one of the most impressive and inspired catalogues around, encompassing a wide array of genres, from noise to post-modern classical, ambient and electronic.

To celebrate this massive slab of work, the label, founded in 1982 by Jon Wozencroft Mike Harding, Nevelle Brody and Andrew McKenzie, of Hafler Trio fame, have put together a collection of twenty-five exclusive tracks from the likes of Biosphere, Fennesz, Pan Sonic, Chris Watson, Mark Van Hoen, Rafael Toral, Mother Tongue, BJ Nilsen, Philip Jeck and many more. Touch 25 doesn't intend to document the label's history, and only seems to give a vague and short insight into the various musical grounds covered by these artists, yet it is true to the label's ethic in every way, from the instantly recognisable cover artwork, by Wozencroft to the depth and reach of each one of the tracks featured. Acting as inserts are seven short pieces, scattered all across the album, none of them attributed to a particular artist. Set against fully developed compositions, these short intervals regularly bring in some fresh air and occasionally provide some welcome light relief.

Right from the outset of Gotland, contributed by BJ Nilsen, which opens the album, the tone is set. In this short piece (1'47), the Swedish composer works found sounds into an ebbing and flowing structure which eventually morphs into a vague white noise blob before merging into the first interlude. The mood here is somewhat introvert, with Nilsen taking the ambient scope which he has been developing in one way or another since his Morthond days to its environmental noise extreme. Orem Ambarchi’s Moving Violation is a stern and mournful drone-based composition. Here, he processes electric guitar sounds into an ever-changing drone where traces of statics and feedback provide the clearest signs of life. Fennesz’s Tree is, in comparison, a far more approachable affair. Built on the sonic shards of an acoustic guitar, the man constructs a delicate and peaceful composition. While Chris Watson’s double contributions rely heavily on found sounds, the next couple of tracks steer this compilation towards a more urban tone, first with Mother Tongue’s tribal Rewording, a track recorded back in 1988, then with Peter Rehberg’s minimal TT1205. Yet, while Pan Sonic juggle for a moment between post-industrial and desolate ambiences, it is back to more introvert pieces with contributions from Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ryoji Ikeda, Philip Jeck and Bruce Gilbert. Only Mark Van Hoen’s dreamy Put My Trust In You appears somewhat connected to reality. The album concludes with the bucolic Spring Fever, from Biosphere, and Rosy Parlane’s haunting Atlantis.

While Touch 25 doesn’t represent a comprehensive review of the label’s outputs over it’s twenty-five year history and is only a fraction of what the Touch team have put together to celebrate this major milestone, it still represents an important release and proves to be a truly essential collection. Although there is an undeniable consistency all throughout, each track reveals one of the facets of this most stimulating of labels.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

GRIZZLY BEAR: Yellow House (Warp Records)

Yellow House
Warp Records 2006
10 Tracks. 49mins49secs

GRIZZLY BEAR: Yellow House (Warp Records, out 4/09/2006)

Buy this CD now

The urban Brooklyn continues to spill oddball folksters onto the world, one of the latest additions being the magnificent Grizzly Bear. Originally the solo project of singer songwriter Edward Droste, the project has since grown to a full band with the addition of multi-instrumentists Christopher Bear and Chris Taylor and singer Daniel Rossen.

Droste began shaping up Grizzly Bear at home, recording songs inspired by a then-recent break-up in his Brooklyn apartment. Christopher Bear came in late to add some more textures before the songs were collected into an album, Horn Of Plenty, originally released in 2004. Harking back to a bygone era when melodies and how they were interpreted were the most important things on a record, the fourteen songs hinted at delicate psychedelic folk structures and melancholy-drenched melodies.

Grizzly Bear

Having landed themselves a place amongst the Warp roster, Grizzly Bear, now in full formation, deliver a wonderful second opus, Yellow House. The shimmering multi-layered harmonies and psychedelic arrangements displayed here evoke the Beach Boys or the Incredible String Band with, at times, hints of early Pink Floyd, amongst other things. Delicate acoustic guitars and pianos, sporadic drums and wind instruments brush against discreet electronics and found sounds to form incredibly refined and dense structures. This tentatively places Grizzly Bear somewhere between the luxuriance of Animal Collective and the gentle restraint of Vetiver, yet the band’s nonchalant lo-fi approach and appetite for smouldering harmonies give their unruly pop songs a unique twist.

Yellow House opens with a cloud of wind instruments and a lonely piano leading to the airy guitar-led melody of Easier. With this brilliantly detailed piece, Grizzly Bear set the tone for the rest of the album. Lullabye, which follows, has a sharper appearance as electric guitars and voice layers progressively build up to an impressive coda to the tune of “Chin up! Cheer Up!”. Marla is said to have originally been written by Droste’s great aunt in the 1930s. Now rescued from obscurity and revitalised the Grizzly Bear way, this piano-led sombre piece takes Yellow House into a slightly mournful mood, but things lift up again with the deceptively simple melody and harmonies of On A Neck, On A Spit, which, despite a bout of seventies-infused twiddle in the middle, proves truly joyful and exhilarating. The album concludes with the epic and colourful Colorado, a piece that shows Grizzly Bear in all their glorious sweeping melodic might and brings this faultless collection of heartfelt glistening pop songs to the most fitting end.

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