Sunday, 18 October 2009

Starless & Bible Black - Shape of the Shape

Starless and Bible Black - Shape of the Shape
album review for drowned in sound

There's a King Crimson album called Starless and Bible Black, but this Manchester-based group say that's not their inspiration: it's in fact a 1965 track by jazz pianist Stan Tracey with the same name. That's not easy to believe judging by this record: second full-length Shape of the Shape involves no piano, lots of prog signifiers, and jazz in only the broad sense that includes lounge music (so, not very jazzy jazz). Lounge acts frequently hire vaguely exotic European singers, so Starless and Bible Black have a French lady who we could luxuriously refer to as a chanteuse - Hélène Gautier. But French female singers aren't always as gorgeous-sounding as the word used to describe them, and Gautier's unremarkable voice can do little to save a record mired in impeccable mediocrity.

To briefly give it some due, Shape of the Shape is lovingly produced, every pluck of a guitar string resonating in full, every gap between sounds given time to breathe. If your dad is like my dad -- caring more about the precision and clarity of the sound reproduced through his high-end speakers than about the melodies or rhythms or whatevers of the actual composition - well, Christmas is just around the corner and Shape of the Shape has a real warmth of sound. And there are a few lovely moments, such as when an angelic chorus revitalises fourth song 'Radio Blues' as it drifts towards its close by entering really high, in contrast with the low descending bassline.

But those moments get very lonely. Everything on Shape of the Shape is mid-tempo. Mid-tempo's fine, it's necessary, but like a referee, when you notice it it's a problem. Every song features at least one instance of the UFO synth effect, landing or taking-off or swooshing across the sky, like they do. Fine, sometimes. Nearly every song starts with the slow strum of an acoustic guitar, giving the whole record a grounding in folk. Of course, that's OK, in theory. Gautier's voice is high and weedy, she hits the notes, has little character. For the most part, trying to transcribe her lyrics is like trying to transcribe Liz Fraser, because she sometimes sings in French, and sometimes just poorly enunciates. The successes aren't encouraging: "Hold me down now my mind is open / tell me how many hearts are broken / how to see family tree, treasured, lost in history." Add meaningless mush to indecipherable yawning and the vocals are clearly not a strong point. But it's hard to know what might be a strength here, production apart. There are no hooks, no memorable tunes. There's no rollicking rhythmic excitement, no dynamic shifts, no climaxes, no purges. No one-liners, no discernible stories, no themes. No risks taken, no happy accidents occuring, no disasters, no distastefulness, no surprises. Shape of the Shape is bland and instantly forgettable.

One song breaks the mould a little, the nine-minute album centrepiece 'Les Furies', which achieves a kinetic energy we might be able to describe as 'upper mid-tempo'. After three whole minutes of stereo-weaving buzz effects - like having your head shaved with different-sized clippers mowing tangled patterns - 'Les Furies' gains a chugging guitarist and a drummer with a sense of urgency. His flailing fills and rolls towards the end are the only passages where Shape of the Shape rises out of its dreamy inertia.

Vocals aside, Shape of the Shape is a good articulation of how I imagined Emerson, Lake & Palmer might sound in their quieter moments, though I'd never actually listened to them. On Spotify, I found 'From The Beginning', which pretty much nails this album in four minutes. It's what prog became after its first flurries of invention - complacent, conservative, self-satisfied, cliched - not 'progressive' at all. It's sometimes hard to condemn an album as inoffensive as Shape of the Shape, but nobody is a music fan because they love competence.


Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Dirty Dozen - Singles Column, October 09

The Dirty Dozen
singles column for the skinny october 2009

Believe it or not, the Dirty Dozen isn't the dregs of the promo pile – some singles don't even earn a casual dismissal. Unfortunately, Stirling's Vegas Nights just squeeze in. They're apparently gaining support in the Far East, which is presumably why their warbling harmony vocalist seems to be trying to sing in a tonal language. Touch And Feel / It Came As No Surprise (*) suffers from more problems than I've got space to mention. It's difficult to find much right in Alley Cat (*) by overdrive-heavy power-poppers Monocle Rose either. Their boring singer requests a less-boring person to lead her astray, and its need is apparent. Meanwhile, Kid Harpoon's Back From Beyond (*) boasts all the edge and charm of a boiled potato. Despite his claim to be "still singing tunes about you", there's no discernible tune about anywhere.

Finally we hit a second star, and it's for – gulp – Airdrie screamo. Flood Of Red's Home Run (**) makes a ridiculous melodrama out of driech skies, but at least there's some energy and good drumming in it. The Xcerts' drummer is having a ball on Nightschool (**) too, but their epically earnest pop is hard to distinguish from a clutch of other tear duct-teasing bands. Irish quintet The Brothers Movement combine BRMC's sleazy swagger, the Verve's woozy swagger, and Oasis's boozy swagger, into one swaggeriffic package. Standing Still (**) has caused this band to miss the boat by a good 7 or 8 years.

Stirling returns in the form of Jack Butler's Surgery 1984 (***), which steps the competition up a level via the simple method of slowly building towards a climactic explosion. It's the first great moment of the D12 so far, and herky-jerky b-side This Soul Accelerates is pretty good too. The name Bonobo rings a bell – Wikipedia says they are also known as Pygmy Chimpanzees – disambiguation fail! Apparently, this ape-like Ninja Tune producer specialises in the kind of lounge grooves that got stuffed onto a billion chillout compilations around about the time The Brothers Movement are familiar with. An album's worth might be tiresome, but The Keeper (***) is pretty smooth on its own. Wild Beasts are doing rather well for themselves, despite their singer shrieking throughout All The King's Men (***). But he hits the notes, so like in Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, the agile vocal melody becomes a big part of the appeal.

Take It (****) by Auld Reekie's Action Group is a real low rider, built of rhythm upon rhythm upon riff upon rhythm. It's moody and dark, and almost danceable, and while it never fully takes flight there's a lot to appreciate in their approach to songcraft. The Nextmen's Round of Applause (****) is the only hip-hop track in this month's D12 – a laid-back party jam based on a couple of New Orleans funk samples. It's flippant, but fun. Same same but different is Virgil Howe's Someday (****), which uses soft hip-hop beats and a brief vocal sample with trippy guitar lines and atmospherics to construct an enchanting single of the month.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Nick Cave @ Picture House, 13 Oct

An Evening with Nick Cave (****)
HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, 13 October 2009

live review for the skinny

One of the first rules of writing, in any sector, is to write about what you know; so one great challenge all novelists face is to create characters and stories that don't betray too much of themselves. The title character of Nick Cave's new second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, is a violent, "sexually incontinent" degenerate, an alcoholic travelling salesman with scant regard for anyone but himself. And what is Nick Cave doing here? Travelling the country selling his book, of course. When he perches on a chair to bombastically roar an early passage from the book, in which Bunny gets obscenely horny whilst cruising through Brighton listening to Kylie Minogue's Spinning Around, you wonder just what other parts of Bunny's character or narrative are borrowed from the Brighton-dwelling, former Kylie-duetting author's own life. Just sayin'.

Tonight's performance is part book reading, part gig, part Q&A; though in reality, the brief Q&A sections dissolve quite quickly as no-ones got any decent questions. With only multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis and guitarist Martyn P. Casey for support, each song is played more carefully than usual, Cave's usual theatricality muted by the greater need for precise playing. The all-seated crowd don't care; everyone's an acolyte in here, laughing uproariously at every tossed-out quip; "but you're beautiful!" a man shouts when Cave asks for the stage lights to be dimmed slightly. Tonight's setlist features three songs from this writer's favourite Cave LP The Good Son, plus assorted career highlights like "Into My Arms", "Red Right Hand", "Babe, You Turn Me On", and "The Mercy Seat". And the book? Well, it seems a touch over-written, but I ordered it as soon as I got home anyway. He's a good salesman.