Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Darlings of this year's SXSW festival and lauded by Mojo as 'America's next great band', this Seattle five-piece describe their music as 'baroque harmonic pop jams'. All the above seems accurate except that it's hard to imagine pop music as perfectly formed as this emerging from a jam session. Lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold creates melodies that are – like all great pop – simultaneously familiar and unique, sounding like they've just fallen from the sky, and utterly unashamed of beauty. How can this be a new band? They sound like they've been playing this music forever and they're fantastic. And no, they owe nothing to their hometown's grunge
legacy.

Even though American church music, Brian Wilson and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are obvious local influences, Fleet Foxes' music is also shot through with a distinctly Anglophile melancholia. The spooky, ruminative Tiger Mountain Peasant Song most obviously echoes Fairport Convention's Fothergay, as well as the traditional ballad Scarborough Fair. The production sometimes hints at a 'Spectoresque' wall-of-sound, with almost orchestral arrangements in places, but the sound is never pompous or over-filled, and there are several more pastoral, stripped-down guitar-and-voice interludes such as Meadowlarks and the plaintive closer Oliver James.

Pecknold's colleagues often cloak his extraordinary soaring tenor (Tim Buckley springs to mind) in gorgeous vocal harmonies, as on the chugging, country-flavoured Ragged Wood and the jangly Quiet Houses. Pecknold would sound great singing any lyrics but his combine dream-like nature imagery with an archaically poetic turn of phrase, refreshingly free of predictable, corny rhyme schemes. White Winter Hymnal is an especially evocative example: ''was following the pack/All swallowed in their coats/With scarves of red tied 'round their throats/To keep their little heads/From fallin' in the snow…''

You may not spot the more exotic instruments they use (including Chinese Guzheng and autoharp) but it's the simplest that makes the most effective impression – a tambourine that flickers away through about half the tracks, like a cypher for Fleet Foxes' lovely, folky, optimistic music, which conjures up an imaginary lost sound world. This is a strong contender for album of the year.

The most special thing about the vinyl release is teh fact that the second disc is a previously released EP with an extra 5 songs. Vinyl pressing is quite decent although the music itself sounds digital and perhaps less organic than it should. Although a gatefold sleeve the inner sleeves are cheap paper and flimsy. There's an extra insert of musings and they do seem an interesting band!!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/release/cbrg/

Last shadow puppets – The age of Understatement

Following a support slot by Miles Kane of the Rascal's previous band – The Little Flames – on the Arctic Monkeys' tour of 2005, his friendship with Alex Turner has now borne fruit. Likely to be tarred with the inane brush of 'side project', what the duo may well have done here is provide an escape route for everyone who worried that we're all stuck in an indie ghetto. The Age Of The Understatement is a bold and brave step forward.

Of course the title's ironic. The most obvious comparisons (by their own admission) are with classic Scott Walker. The existential MOR singer's grand, orchestrated statements are the starting point. Ok, perhaps My Mistakes Were Made For You is a little TOO like Walker's The Plague, but always Owen Pallett's arrangements for the London Metropolitan Orchestra are swooningly lush and inventive. Besides, for every Walker fan, there are ten younger Monkeys fans who'll be forever thankful for having their ears opened to this marvellous stuff. Until recently the idea of 'loungecore' or 'easy'had 'ironic' or cheesy/jokey connotations, but Turner and Kane’s knowledge and affection lifts this way beyond parody. Besides, as we all saw at last year's Glastonbury – Turner can handle even a Shirley Bassey standard with ease (Diamonds Are Forever).

A couple of tracks vary the formula. I Don't Like You Anymore is a distorted nightmare of psycho guitar twang and vertiginous rush. The pair also claims that they share a love of the early, Deram-era work of David Bowie. For too long this stuff has been underappreciated. The arrangements (i.e. the parping tuba at the end of Black Plant) show the influence, but lyrically it's still Turner’s domain. You’ll find no Laughing Gnome or Rubber Band here. Turner deals in the knotty, metaphorical fare that concerns itself with the war zone of the heart. As such the torrid mariachi/spaghetti western ambience of the album (especially the title track and Calm Like You) suits the songs down to the ground. It’s a potent cross breed of Ennio Morricone and Wally Stott (Walker's arranger of choice). Tangos, rhumbas, military two-steps – all handled with aplomb. And Turner's words will provide mental fodder for a long time to come, especially as the album comes with classy line such as: ''Can’t you see I’m the ghost in the wrong coat, biting butter and crumbs?'' (Separate And Deadly).

With The Age Of Understatement, Turner and Kane shake off all those blatant copyists and stay at least three steps ahead of any competition. Wonderful…

Horribly horribly compressed and nearly ruins teh listening experience. You'd actually be better off rooting out some second hand vinyl from teh 60s and listening to that instead. Pity. Music's great. Needs an audiophile remaster. Good vinyl pressing as usual from Domino though, and in a  nice protective sleeve. Not a gatefold record but does have a double 12" lyrics and pictures sheet.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/release/p6gb/

Duffy – Rockferry

And so, after Amy here they come.

Duffy is one of the latest young things to come along, singing her heart out. Just as if the 70’s 80’s and 90’s never happened. This is apparently due to her paren’t record collection. The fact that it is released is probably more due to the success of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album.

While that album was heralded, and made famous by, the (annoying)single Rehab, Duffy’s calling card is Fever. A virtual homage to Aretha Franklin. A gutsy belter, funky enough to shake both your head and booty to. You’ll be singing along to this one and I can’t see it being quite as annoying as the aforementioned Rehab. Probably who I find it most similar to is a 60’s band called The Cake who sang some songs by┬áJack Nitzsche.

All the right names are on board here. Bernard Butler helps out on guitars, production and songwriting. He also helps with the string arrangements but luckily seems to stop short of singing. fot that he (or err she, Duffy) gets in his old partner the magnificent David McAlmont on backing vocals.

The above names will give you some idea of what this record is about. There is an appealing melodrama throughout much of the record with crescendos of sweeping strings and Duffy’s effective vocals. Other tracks are straightforward soulful and lightly funky. No dirty grit here but enough to appeal to the mainstream public.

Production is pretty much Motown wall of sound. You have this great impressive wave of music coming at you. You’re not so much expected to concentrate on the intricate details as get carried away in the waves of emotion and music.

Voicewise and musically this record has often been compared to Dusty Springfield. This is an obvious comparison, and err an apt one. Tunes are all solid and memorable.

I love the closer, Distant Dreamer, an emotional gripper that builds and builds for a fitting finale.

The NME don’t like it because its not cool enough, or modern enough. Or something.

Most enjoyable.

Standard packaging in general. Simple inner sleever with credit in a thick enough outer picture sleeve. Pressing not bad and heavy enough. Sound quality is deliberately retro.

ELLIOT SMITH – FROM A BASEMENT ON THE HILL

It's easy sometimes to dismiss music without really examining it, some years back fellow Lugs reviewer Gordon Russell gave me a tape of Elliot Smith's XO album, his first major label release. I played it twice if I'm lucky and dismissed it offhand, a bit tuneless as I remember. My attention was grabbed by From A Basement On A Hill featuring in many of the 2004's best of the year lists. As it turns out maybe I need to go back and check Smith's back catalogue because this is a rather excellent record.

This release is posthumous, the troubled Smith took his own life in 2003.The fifteen tracks are cobbled from the album he was working on, the final outcome has led to some debate about versions and mixes, the end result was overseen by Elliot Smith's father.

As has been stated elsewhere despite this background the record is not disjointed and there is a uniformity of feel and sound throughout.

The Smith I remember was a mostly acoustic performer albeit with a loose punky unpolished feel , of course this didn't stop an Oscar nomination for Miss Misery on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. This album has a garage band sound reminiscent in places of Big Star and The Lemonheads although there are more acoustic based songs with a hint of a Beatles fixation.The fourteen songs (there is also a short sound effect track) take up 58 minutes but there is an awful lot happening on each track and I mean that in a good sense.

The album is particularly strong in melody which makes for a nice counterbalance to the loose and sometimes grungy arrangements. Lyrically you can't escape that a lot of the material is based on Smith's drug culture lifestyle but it is a not an exercise in nihilism as most of the songs seem observational. Ultimately it is the music that lifts this record away from the downbeat; a comparison might be an enjoyable and entertaining film with darker subject matter. The quality of songwriting is consistent and Smith's voice whilst fragile is comfortable within the energetic musical backing and remains the focal point with lyrics that are exceptionally well crafted.

The majority of the material has a strong band presence, guitar breaks and refrains compliment many of the songs and a strong keyboard/ piano sound is offset with economic but powerful drumming. The highlights are tracks such as Pretty (Ugly Before), a real moment of slacker beauty, the complex Kings Crossing where a ghostly piano emerges from a sonic fog before segueing into intense sonics. Similarly the closing A Distorted Reality which features a wider lyrical vision and several dynamic musical changes without ever sacrificing melody.

Even the more acoustic based material feature nice touches. Twilight has a great swirling keyboard break, Little One's Beatles influenced melody has effective backwards taping and A Fond Farewell's great tune is driven by an electric riff as Smith strums the main parts.

Only the Vaudeville balladry of Memory Lane stands alone and a bit out of place.

The remaining tracks condense both of these styles; Strung Out Again with its junkie nightmare take on The Beatles starts acoustic and breaks into band mode as a George Harrison style lead line dominates the song. Don't Go Down has a more metallic, edgier groove.

Opening track Coast To Coast takes a rawer stance and Shooting Star the album's longest track are two of the more ordinary moments.

The production works well, it retains detail whilst conveying the loose live feel that is obviously intended and Smith's vocals never got lost in the sometimes complex mix, the quieter moments also work in this fashion, the elements of grain and dirt fit the context of the music. It all sounds just a bit out of focus and yet it works.

The tragic demise of Elliot Smith has been shrouded in mystery (unusually he stabbed himself) and listening to this record despite its sometimes bleak observations reveals no suicidal intent. The quality and vitality of this music sounds like a man either detaching himself from self-destruction or learning to live with his demons.

This album has become one of my very favourite releases of 2004; its appeal grows on repeated listens. It is full of contradictions; structured arrangements with a loose vibe, a view from the darker side that has an upbeat feel and not least an underground release that reveals itself as a very tuneful and enjoyable record.

© Ben campbell