All posts by Tim Lee

Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat

Fiery FurnacesBlueberry Boat (Rough Trade)

The Fiery Furnaces, loved by critics and the fashionista, are well placed to slot into cult-band status. And for sheer effort alone, they deserve the credit. Songs start, stop, advance, retreat, rise up, sink down and it’s like having the contents of an orchestra thrown at you in a variety of time signatures. Blueberry Boat opener “Quay Cur” is a case in point: it’s like Squarepusher-meets-Joan Baez-meets-Long John Silver-meets-Dr Seuss; it has a duration of ten minutes and to call it meandering would be offensive to long and winding roads everywhere. It also lacks the most important aspect of any long and winding road, a destination. “Blueberry Boat” is a drunken sea-shanty channeled through hurdy-gurdy’s, honky-tonk and Rick Wakeman’s cape, sung by your primary school teacher, there may be a good song in “Chris Michaels” (mp3) but it never escapes (actually there might be several good songs in “Chris Michaels” but none of them get out) and the equally confused “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” starts with Matthew Friedberger muttering over one of those pre-programmed demos you get on electronic keyboards and then becomes not unlike the episode of “Friends” where Ross discovers his “sound.” Of course it doesn’t stay that way for long, but despite the fact it’s relatively pleasant when Eleanor Friedberger takes over vocally, you’re still laughing at the intro.

When they play it straighter things improve: the impassioned “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found” is strangely touching. About ¾ of “Mason City” with its patty cake beat and sing-song vocal is interestingly folksy, but then it just launches into squelchy electronic noises and nonsensical spoken word interludes. And therein lies the rub. The Furnace’s tiny attention span means any time you are actually start to like a given song, they yank the carpet out from under your feet, careering off in some other direction.

I can’t see the point of this album. More importantly, I can’t see when or where you’d want to play Blueberry Boat. If you want to impress a music journalist, namedrop The Fiery Furnaces. If you need an example of a genre-busting, modern day “rock-opera” for use in a dissertation lamenting the lack of creativity in current music, use Blueberry Boat. If you want a good Fiery Furnaces album that doesn’t feel so much like hard work, get Gallowsbird’s Bark.

Mr. David Viner – This Boy Don’t Care

Mr. David VinerThis Boy Don’t Care (Polydor)

There is a theory in social psychology that suggests that first impressions aren’t as important as you might think; the deepest and most long-lasting friendships are often formed between people who initially don’t get along. The supposition is that if you have to work at it, if you have to dig a little deeper to find something likeable about a person, then the friendship becomes less superficial, less disposable and more concrete. Now, I don’t know if the same is true for music but for Mr. David Viner’s sake I sincerely hope so. Because my first impressions of this album weren’t good. In fact my first instinct was to find Mr. Viner, nail him to his guitar, place him in a sack and drown him in a river.

So no, I didn’t like This Boy Don’t Care. Initially I found it twee, boring and a bit of a mongrel, unsure what it wanted to be and falling uncomfortably between stools. But slowly my homicidal urges began to pass. Because I started hearing something distinctive, something pleasingly eccentric and, as the sleeve notes suggest, something with soul; a mutt for sure, but one with big mournful eyes, a waggy tail and enough character that you want to take it home from the pound.

Fostered by the Detroit community with a backing band consisting of several Soledad Brothers and production by friend to the White Stripes Liam Watson, you may expect This Boy Don’t Care to be another addition to the garage-rock ranks, another foot soldier in the new-rock revolution, but it isn’t. Viner is a throwback to an age of singer-storytellers, a troubled troubadour telling the world of his problems. All hail the leader of the new-minstrel revolution, as absolutely no one will be calling it.

Mr. David Viner has got several points in his favour: he’s an accomplished guitarist, a roguish vocalist and a skilful lyricist. And when the combination of my-woman-dun-me-wrong blues and a typically British dry-wit and cynicism works, it really works: “Seven Years” and “Please Think Of Me” are lovely, simple melancholy laments and “This Boy Don’t Care” is a great vitriolic, post break-up track. It’s only the songs bearing a more honky-tonk, countrified feel that don’t really capture the imagination.

So it took a little while, but this album has really grown on me. The cyclic nature of music would hint that it was only a matter of time before someone started pretending to be a delta bluesman from the 1920s, but I don’t think anyone thought the artist leading that charge would be a 24-year-old from London. Even so, don’t let that put you off; This Boy Don’t Care is a bizarrely endearing album…eventually.

MP3s of “Corrina, Corrina” and “Trouble in Mind” courtesy of DIM-MAK Records.

P.J. Harvey – Uh Huh Her

P.J. HarveyUh Huh Her (Island)

Lock up your children, P.J’s back, and whatever ray of sunshine illuminated her life during the recording of last album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea has definitely clouded over. Where Stories… teetered on the brink of the mainstream, recorded by an artist on the verge of emotional stability, Uh Huh Her is a little less balanced and more like her earlier work. But far from being a regression to past glories it makes perfect sense in the progression of her career. If Stories… was the post-coital glow, Uh Huh Her is the slap of regret the morning after.

And what a morning after. Shorn of anything approaching the gloss of the last album, with minimal instrumentation and production, Uh Huh Her is stripped down and red-raw, a reminder that Ms. Harvey was doing this garage-rock-goddess thing way before most of the current crop of wannabes had even bummed their first Marlboro. Uh Huh Her is still an intensely, at times uncomfortably, personal affair.

So while it feels like an album made out of the wreckage of a relationship, you’re never quite sure whether Polly Jean is the shunned or the shunner. Is the anger bilious or contemptuous? Early on it’s the former, “The Life And Times Of Mr Badmouth” is all hissed blame (“Your lips taste like poison / You’ll be the unhappy one”), and “Who The Fuck” is an apoplectic scream of disdain with P.J. asking disbelievingly, “Who the fuck / Do you think you are?” But “Pocket Knife” is delivered in such a witheringly mocking tone, presumably at the poor sap caught in her web trying to get her to commit, that it’s clearly Polly in charge. By the end she’s back playing the part of the injured party. Playing it well too. And when, reeking of bitter experience, Polly defiantly claims “Promises, Promises / I’m feeling burned / You taught me a lesson I didn’t want to learn” on the album closer “The Darker Days Of Me & Him,” you believe this whole escapade has a well understood moral. Like P.J. Harvey herself, Uh Huh Her is dark, complex, sexy and more than a little scary.

You can download a DRM-crippled wma file of “The Letter” here.

The Delays – Faded Seaside Glamour

The DelaysFaded Seaside Glamour (Rough Trade/Sanctuary)

The Delays arrived on the British pop scene to almost unanimously positive press coverage claiming that despite sounding like a throwback to an earlier generation, the Delays succeed due to their quality. But I just don’t get it. It would be fantastic to hail them as a great, old-fashioned pop group combining style and craft in equal measures, but to these ears, they just aren’t. There are hints, suggestions, occasions when they escape from the constraints of their influences and craft something memorable; “Nearer Than Heaven” is a lovely, blissful daydream of a song and “Long Time Coming” is both melancholic and anthemic, but the rest of the album just gets bogged down, becoming at best forgettable and at worst offensively bland, MOR indie dirge.

It’s a shame because the flashes of greatness come early enough and are good enough to make you believe the Delays could be something special. Maybe they still can be, but sadly Faded Seaside Glamour isn’t the album to do it. To end with a bastardized quote, some bands are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. At the moment the Delays fall broadly into the last category.

N.E.R.D – Fly or Die

N.E.R.DFly or Die (Virgin)

Despite the music world seemingly being divided into people the Neptunes will work with and people the Neptunes haven’t yet worked with, the producers supreme have managed to do the impossible and retain an almost unrivalled level of creative credibility, all the while developing a sound that, regardless of whether it’s backing up pop-muppets or hardcore rappers, sounds distinctly their own.

So in between polishing up that Britney record, giving Kelis her “Milkshake” and playing no small part in turning Justin into THE pop-star of our times, Pharrell, Chad and Shay have found the odd moment or two to record their second album as N.E.R.D, Fly or Die. The new album starts rooted in dirty 70s funk with “Don’t Worry About It,” and over the next eleven tracks proceeds through musical genres as if ticking them off a list. We get complex, jazzy musical progressions, honky-tonk piano, funk, falsetto, rawk guitars, sleazy soul, synths, Santana riffs, shuddering beats, straight up hip-hop, tribal drums and the sumblimely paranoia-hazed, psychedelic sunshine pop of “Drill Sergeant,” the oddest, and best, track on the album.

From that description, it sounds like a mess. It should be the almighty folly that sees N.E.R.D, and consequently the Neptunes, toppled from their perch as the uber-kings of cool. But you know what? It doesn’t. Of course there are a few missteps; “Jump” is a magnificent example of how not to do guest appearances, and what exactly N.E.R.D hoped to get from the two members of Good Charlotte is a mystery. Perhaps it was just another on the “to do” list of genres for this record (half-assed, skater-boy punk-lite?). “Maybe” is a rather dull reworking of Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over,” complete with guitar cameo from Lenny himself, and “Backseat Love” is lascivious enough to make you feel uncomfortable. However, despite these moments where the album teeters worryingly close to plummeting to a horrible death, it never quite falls.

But Fly or Die leaves you asking, “Is this the album N.E.R.D really wanted to make, or is it the work of a bunch of musicians who just wanted to see how far they could go while still being taken seriously?” Pushing the boundaries of music is all well and good, but done purely as an intellectual exercise, attempting to make an album so self-consciously different seems slightly cynical, as if this is purely a vanity project; N.E.R.D saying “look at us, aren’t we so clever and, well, so damn talented? We can do a song in any style and make it cool.” Thing is, they are mostly as good as they think, which makes it an undeniably good album. But there remains a nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe somewhere in a studio in Virginia someone is laughing at our expense.