I know, I know…I promised I’d try to make this an ongoing series of posts, but alas, it’s kind of hard to review albums when the first quarter is more often than not a barren wasteland.
Okay, maybe not exactly a wasteland. Just that the January-March season is often the slowest in the music world. I’ve heard many and varied reasons as to why, and each of them kinda sorta make sense, so I won’t bore you with that little distraction.
I won’t bore you with a distraction about my thoughts on the Global Release Day idea that’s been in the news day. To be honest, I don’t have many thoughts on that anyway…the old Tuesday release in the US was basically to keep sales fair, but the internet has pretty much changed that on multiple levels, what with rush/surprise releases, instant reveals, single track offerings, and so on. It’s a new zoo out there now.
Besides, over the last few weeks we’ve seen some pretty tasty platters drop!
I equate these two with my stay at Emerson College in Boston…the first one released as I was starting my sophomore year, the second when I was about to graduate. A phenomenal band with a sadly short lifespan, Jellyfish popped up in late summer 1990 with their first album and an excellent Beatles-meets-Nuggets track called “The King is Half-Undressed”. Bellybutton was a creative mix of equal parts XTC, Queen, 60s pop, and 90s Gen-X ennui. The band itself had a stellar line-up: lyricist/singer/drummer Andy Sturmer (who would later work with Puffy AmiYumi and many other alt-pop bands), Jason Falkner (just out of the last 80s version of the Three O’Clock and later a respected solo performer), and Manning brothers Chris and Roger Jr (the latter would be a session keyboardist for everyone from Beck to Angels and Airwaves). Jason and Chris would depart after the first album and tour and be replaced by two other session musicians. They released one further album then went their separate ways.
For those curious, Bellybutton is the easier of the two to get into, as many of the songs are bright and very melodic with a hint of 60s and 70s pop nostalgia. Spilt Milk is a different beast altogether…the alternapop sound is still there, but the sound is a lot darker and denser. The two albums were recently reissued with a ridiculous amount of extra tracks and fascinating liner notes from the band members. They’ve also been remastered for the first time since their initial releases, so the sound is crisp, clear and strong.
Black Rivers, Black Rivers
I first heard of Black Rivers late last year while listening to RadioBDC. I’d missed the introduction but thought…wow, that really sounds like Jez from Doves. Lo and behold, it was! Fellow Dove Jimi Goodwin had released a solo album last year, but I hadn’t known the other guys would start their own side project as well, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear this track. And you can definitely tell this is Jez and Andy Williams’ work…whereas Jimi’s is more pastoral and perhaps reminiscent of Elbow, Jez and Andy’s songs have more pop to them, more eccentricities.
Black Rivers is a much darker affair than the Doves’ canon, its lyrics (and videos) hinting at a more science fictional setting, perhaps a space opera of sorts. They’re songs about loneliness in travel and in distances. And in an unexpected but welcome twist, Andy and Jez perhaps hint at their pre-Doves past as part of electronic band Sub Sub–there are dark, swelling keyboards here that evoke early Thomas Dolby or the metronomic twitterings of Kraftwerk.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday
I’m not gonna lie, I’m still an Oasis fan. Some people can’t stand them, others think the only good thing they ever released was Definitely Maybe. I’ve been a fan since “Live Forever”, even despite the fact that neither Gallagher brother owns a great singing voice. Liam’s was always nasal and snarky, and Noel’s was kind of lifeless and just that tiny bit out of tune. Post-breakup, I gravitated more towards Liam’s Beady Eye project (read: late-era Oasis minus Noel) and felt Noel’s HFB project was promising, but hadn’t quite made it yet.
Three and a half years later, however, Chasing Yesterday ends up being a solid winner and an excellent album, even more memorable than either Beady Eye album. He’s returned to his biggest strength — his solid songwriting skills — and he’s written some phenomenal tracks such as the singles “In the Heat of the Moment” and “The Ballad of the Mighty I”. Musically he’s got a much stronger band here that hints at the more mature Heathen Chemistry era sound of Oasis (my favorite album of theirs), letting the music stretch its muscles and reach new points. There’s even a bit of Pink Floyd-y prog going on with a few tracks, which actually works to his advantage.
All told, one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase.
There are but a handful of bands and musicians where I will buy their album, regardless as to whether I’ve heard a track from it or not. Porcupine Tree is one of them, and PT’s singer Steven Wilson is another. A phenomenal guitarist and songwriter, he puts out beautifully crafted music just this side of prog rock (a label he himself dismisses, as his and PT’s sound does vary wildly from prog to metal to folk balladry).
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a song cycle inspired by a movie called Dreams of a Life, itself a documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a British woman who had died of natural causes in her apartment in 2003 and had not been found until three years later. Like the movie, the album focuses on a woman and her relationships with friends and family, personal and emotional distances, and how, despite how close one can be to family and friends, the connections are often more tenuous than people are willing to believe.
Wilson’s last few solo albums have all been excellent and strong, but often straying into different genres (his last few were more on the jazzy side), but HCE is almost a return to the forms he’s best known for. The widescreen sounds of earlier prog-oriented PT (such as on 1999’s Stupid Dream or 2000’s Lightbulb Sun) make a welcome return here, though there are also hints of tighter, harder-edged intensity (such as from 2002’s In Absentia) as well. Despite the dark theme, it’s filled with gorgeous sounds that you can get lost in.
I’m pretty sure this one’s going to end up on my writing session playlist this year.