Monday, 26 June 2017

Richard Dawson – Peasant

I don't know where we're going. What does our future hold? I worry about the world my daughter will inherit in the coming decades. During my journey to and from work, I observe my fellow commuters and feel alternately repulsed by them and deeply affectionate towards them. At our core we're all the same, and wherever we're going, we're going together – but our experience of that future will diverge wildly depending on where in society we find ourselves.

These divergent experiences are explored in vivid and moving detail on Richard Dawson's new album, Peasant. Individual tracks tell the story of different characters: 'Soldier', 'Weaver', 'Prostitute', 'Scientist', etc. However, no matter where in society these roles are played out, Dawson gives equal weight to their trials and tribulations. Everyone suffers. Everyone struggles. Everyone has their own cross to bear.

Dawson's wildly expressive voice and guitar playing have been a constant throughout his discography, but on Peasant we also find a massed choir of voices and strings, foot stomping and clapping, a herald of brass dissolving into tragi-comic parps. It's long, it's dark and dirty, and it's the most moving album I've heard in a fair while. 

For such a harrowing journey, Dawson has wisely front-loaded the album with the more accessible songs: the rousing 'Ogre', the sweetly sad 'Soldier', the hurtling 'Weaver'. From then on, although things become more knotty and bleak – especially during the nightmarish 'Scientist' and the climax of finale 'Masseuse' – individual songs have plenty of light and shade, whether it's Dawson's voice reaching delicately into the higher registers, meandering passages of slack-tuned guitar, or thunderous riffing that has more in common with metal than folk. It's a deeply disorientating and immersive journey.

While Peasant depicts plenty of suffering, the overall tone is one of hope and deep empathy. Ultimately, I'm reminded of a line from W.H. Auden's poem 'September 1, 1939': "We must love one another or die." Thank you, Richard, for creating such a raw, evocative and poetic album. Whether it will help us as we cascade towards oblivion is another matter... 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Jonathan David Shaw – Waa

Here's a first for dots and loops: a guest review! A good job too, as I haven't written much lately, plus it's an album by Jonathan David Shaw, the lead singer and acoustic guitarist in my band, Summon the Birds. This review of Jon's new solo album Waa comes courtesy of C.J. Lahey...

Armed with an acoustic guitar, vocals and late-night candle-lit eiderdown reverb, Jonathan David Shaw (JDS) delivers what could be his most accessible album since 2005’s conceptual Boo.

What delineates this from JDS’s other works is a certainty that steers the album confidently through 13 lush tracks. The welcome mat track, 'Overture', is an appropriately sized and framed instrumental blueprint through which the album unveils.

JDS’s vocals, while not hardening in the sense of cement, are certainly more defined, stronger and more purposeful than in the past. In Waa, the way his vocals shape his lyrics is almost akin to a melodic actor, allowing the dense and earthy imagery of his words to form. Tracks like ‘Bird on a Branch’, ‘Run Like You're Never Still’ and ‘Bird Knows Where You Are’ are the best reflections of this, where along with his vocals and accents, JDS peppers his delivery with poignant and purposeful pauses.

Another aspect that gives Waa wings lies in the guitar work. While always working as the foundation upon which JDS and Marlene Samson sing, JDS's fingerpicking style adds a nuance and flair that elevates these songs. A special note to the engineer, who allows the album to develop a sonic signature within the tasteful reverb that the songs soak in.

A return to form for the Melbourne balladeer; we hope he finds time in his busy schedule to tour it.

– C.J. Lahey

Waa is available to download via Bandcamp, and to stream via Spotify.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fred Thomas – Changer

Fred Thomas's 2015 album All Are Saved hit me like a bolt out of the blue, and ended up #3 on my list of favourite albums from that year. (I still play standouts 'When They Built The Schools' and 'Bad Blood' on a regular basis.) When I heard that follow-up Changer was on the way, I was predictably excited. Late last year, Polyvinyl previewed the album with four great advance tracks, two of which – 'Voiceover' and 'Mallwalkers' – knocked me sideways. Now Changer has landed, it's enchanted me in a similar way to its predecessor.

Although All Are Saved is Changer's Polyvinyl predecessor, it's worth noting that Thomas also released an album of instrumental electronic sketches in the interim via Bandcamp. Minim comprises 30 one-minute vignettes that point in so many interesting directions, the mind boggles (an early version of Changer's '2008' has a home there, plus Changer's title track is basically Minim's 'A Park For People'). Thomas seems to thrive in the overlapping zone of a Venn diagram that has loose electronic jams as one circle and strummy indie-rock as the other. (Check out his band Hydropark if you like Krautrock-influenced instrumental rock.) And let's not forget Thomas's words, which spill over everything like an upturned cup of coffee.

The words are the first thing you notice on urgent opener 'Misremembered' – it's so crammed full of them you feel like you're walking in on songwriting in progress. "There was something I was trying to say," is repeated over insistent guitars, emphasising his tendency towards open-ended pronouncements; there's the feeling that a Fred Thomas album is just a snapshot of an ongoing flow of music and words that the listener has the privilege of sampling. (Indeed, Changer was originally submitted to Polyvinyl as an hour-long album before being edited down to these 34 minutes.)

Thomas crams a lot of great songs into Changer, interspersed with instrumental stretches that allow the album to breathe amid his tumble of words. 'Reactionary' is an early languid detour; 'August Rats, Young Sociopaths' is an absolute peach. The fact it all ends with 'Mallwalkers' is no coincidence – it's easily one of his finest songs to date, crammed full of hooks and lyrical gems; a culmination of a lot of the best aspects of the album. While not quite as magical as All Are Saved, Changer still comes highly recommended.

[Changer is released today on Polyvinyl.] 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Rudi Arapahoe – False Self

The concept behind Rudi Arapahoe's new album False Self is an interesting one, especially to anyone curious about the grey area between composition and improvisation. As detailed in the album's liner notes, Arapahoe used the SuperCollider programming language to create "an algorithmic musician designed to compose and play alongside my true self". The results were then used as a springboard for further improvisation, composition and performance of the musical information by human musicians on keyboard instruments, tuned percussion, bass flute and bass clarinet. The results are otherworldly and beautiful.

The six pieces, ranging from six to ten minutes in length, are decidedly eerie in atmosphere, hovering like phantoms unsure of their next life. The song titles 'Mechanical Mask', 'Petrification Phastasy' and 'Ice Carnival' offer a vivid glimpse of the soundworlds mapped out and available to explore. Sustained tones bleed out into '80s reverb. Struck metal shimmers and blooms. The spaces between the sounds are as important as the sounds themselves.

For some, this will probably fail to register as music, or will test the endurance like water torture. It's certainly firmly in the abstract ambient camp, yet I find there's just enough musical connectivity between these sounds to lead me, rapt, across this chilly chasm. 

False Self is available now to download on a pay-what-you-want basis via Music Glue.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Ian William Craig – Centres

It's cold and windy up in heaven. Noisy. The voices of angels rattle and rasp.

Damaged instruments are left there to die. They still vibrate with life; ascension sharpens their purpose.

This drifting, shimmering void is no place to rest.

Everything overflows. 

Monday, 23 May 2016

Gersey – What You Kill

For about a year, before Gersey vocalist/bassist Craig Jackson and his wife Camilla left Melbourne for L.A., I was lucky enough to play guitar in their band, The Sirens of Venice. Craig and Milli started writing songs together after Gersey guitarist Matt Davis moved to Paris, where he formed the instrumental band Bombazine Black, and things wound down for Gersey. Or so it seemed. Despite the friction of distance, the band reconvened for What You Kill, their fourth album since forming all the way back in 1997.

Before Craig left for L.A., Gersey (minus Matt) recorded 14 songs in Melbourne over the course of two weeks, with 12 making the final cut. The fact that the bulk of the album was completed quite quickly comes across in the easy, flowing nature of the performances, no doubt a product of the long-standing chemistry within the band. In Gersey’s soundworld, simplicity is a virtue, with chord changes and melodies unfolding naturally, unhurried. There's a sense of melancholic drift tempered by resilience, Craig's lyrics and vocal performances keeping things ambiguous, coloured equally with sadness and happiness. When they hit their straps, they're like the best bits of mid-tempo Mogwai with vocals which is a very good thing.
For me, the highpoints of the album come when the band stretch out across six or seven minutes, such as on 'When You Hollow Out', 'Endlessness', and ‘She Knows’, a swooningly gorgeous waltz. On the more concise end of the songwriting spectrum are 'See Lucienne', and ‘Summer Days’, which evokes that mid-afternoon music festival grogginess, where you realise you’re happy and drunk, but dead on your feet with hours of bands left to watch you can practically see the sun glinting off Jackson’s sunglasses.

The countless hours spent in rehearsal rooms and on stages across Australia, plus the new-found distance between members, could have resulted in an album that sounds tired and needless. Though the album stretches out across nearly an hour so perhaps losing a couple of the less engaging cuts may have enlivened the whole there's little here that doesn't sound vital and woozily ethereal. Like the gruesome monster on the cover, about to sink its teeth into a severed arm, Gersey still sound hungry.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Five years may be a long time to wait between albums, but for Radiohead to follow up their underrated eighth album The King of Limbs with A Moon Shaped Pool still feels miraculous. After the carefully planned teaser campaign the flyers sent via snail mail, the whiteout of their social media accounts, the superb videos for advance singles 'Burn the Witch' and 'Daydreaming' Radiohead's ninth album is deeply beguiling and occasionally overwhelming

The first surprise was the alphabetical tracklisting. A lucky accident or reverse engineering? Nothing with this band feels accidental, so I'd guess the latter. The second surprise was the generous running time of 53 minutes. Who the hell releases an album longer than 4o minutes at this time of fast-click attention deficit? Thankfully, A Moon Shaped Pool is more than worthy of focused, album-length listening; indeed, it feels neglectful to begin playing this album unless I can give it my full attention. 

My first impression was how well it works as a whole. The feeling it left me with was similar to my first listen of Portishead's cinematic Dummy I felt like I'd experienced a profound and painstakingly crafted work of art, undoubtedly beautiful but emotionally heavy. Comparing this album to Radiohead's previous work, what's most immediately apparent is how different it sounds to not only its predecessor, but also their most widely revered releases, OK Computer and Kid A. There's plenty of piano, strings and choral voices, and not much in the way of effected guitars or fretboard histrionics. Even Thom's vocal performances are, on the whole, pretty restrained. Its closest cousin in their discography is probably In Rainbows, my personal favourite.

In terms of structure, the album feels 'circular', echoing the cover art, with the music radiating out from the centre in concentric waves. 'Glass Eyes' is the gorgeous, glistening sphere around which the rest of the album orbits. Among heavily filtered piano and a subtle, aching string arrangement, the lyrics tell a simple tale of arriving at a destination via train only to feel alienated – so the protagonist takes a walk out into nature to regroup.

Either side of the centre are two of the album's most upbeat, electric numbers, both of which were performed live during the band's 2012 tour. 'Ful Stop' reins in some of the hurtling urgency of its live incarnation, especially in the first half, but still manages to seethe and throb with almost sickening malevolence before erupting into a head-nodding krautrock groove. 'Identikit' has evolved notably in the studio since being played live, and wasn't immediately convincing on early listens; the dubby treatments, choir and itchy guitar solo all felt a bit 'remixed'. Thankfully, repeat listens have revealed the song's dynamism and winning melodies

Step out from the centre again to find the pretty, open-tuned folk of 'Desert Island Disk' and 'The Numbers' (previously known as 'Silent Spring'), which Thom Yorke debuted in Paris last December. Then, either side of these songs are two of my favourites. 'Decks Dark' is reminiscent of 'Subterranean Homesick Alien', with some fantastic bass playing from Colin Greenwood and splashes of spring reverb on the rhythm guitars. 'Present Tense', which Thom has been playing solo since 2009, is backed by a shuffling samba rhythm and swaddled in eerie tape echo treatments. 

'Daydreaming' is utterly devastating, especially when accompanied by Paul Thomas Anderson's video, which has brought me to tears more than once. While plenty has already been written online about the fact Thom is saying "half my life" at the song's menacing conclusion, I feel it's more likely he's referring to his time within the band than his relationship with the mother of his two children, especially because the song also features the line, "We are just happy to serve you". Penultimate track 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief' has taken the longest to reveal its charms, but is now sinking in nicely.

Finally, at the album's extremities, where Radiohead often position their most startling songs, we have the two oldest cuts. Addictive single 'Burn the Witch', supposedly dating back to the sessions for Kid A, scythes through the upper registers with its col legno string arrangements and soaring chorus. A long-awaited studio version of 'True Love Waits', debuted live back in 1995 (!), closes out the album on an elegiac note, with a similarly waterlogged piano tone to 'Daydreaming'. 

While it's easy to read the personal backstory that will no doubt have coloured the creation of this album – whether Thom's separation or the death of producer Nigel Godrich's father Radiohead have never been a band to be taken so literally. If anything, some of Thom's lyrics suggest a potential environmental theme, which is also reflected in Stanley Donwood's recently posted artwork, with what looks like an aerial view of a planet flooded, engulfed in flames, swirling with pollution or smothered in vegetation.

Ultimately, like all enduring art, A Moon Shaped Pool is open to interpretation and richly rewards close attention. It's a dark, swirling vortex of glorious songcraft that reflects our hopes, our fears, our vulnerable, aching humanity.

[A Moon Shaped Pool is available digitally now, and on vinyl and CD on 17th June.]