Album reviews: Conor Oberst - Salutations, Spoon - Hot Thoughts, Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales - Room 29 and more

Also: Jeb Loy Nichols, Those Who Walk Away, Tamikrest

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Conor Oberst, Salutations

★★★★★

Download this: Too Late To Fixate; Afterthought; Next Of Kin; Napalm; Counting Sheep; A Little Uncanny

Whilst putting together a band to record some new songs, Conor Oberst was so encouraged by the response to his demos that last October, he released them as Ruminations. The spartan solo settings suited some songs, their musings upon bleak matters like illness, bereavement and adultery left painfully exposed.

In the meantime, a band – based around The Felice Brothers, with contributions from the likes of Jim James, Gillian Welch, M. Ward, Blake Mills and Jonathan Wilson – was assembled and the songs re-recorded with full arrangements. However, it’s the presence of Oberst’s co-producer, drum legend Jim Keltner, that proves most decisive in transforming those raw demos into these more rounded interpretations: his instincts are so finely honed that the songs are allowed to blossom without losing the demos’ visceral quality. With an additional seven songs added to the original ten – Oberst is nothing if not prolific – the result is probably the best work of the singer’s career, a wide-ranging survey of contemporary shortcomings in which the frequent bursts of offhand spite and bitterness are perfectly balanced by the warmth of the folk-rock arrangements.

On the lilting opener “Too Late To Fixate” and rollicking “Afterthought”, rumbustious Pogues-style waltzes of accordion, fiddle and harmonica make the perfect accompaniment for the self-reproach of lines like “I thought about breakfast, but settled on wine/Always choose hunger over despair, and what’s possible over what’s there”. You could almost hear Shane MacGowan slurring through its nonchalant nihilism – as too with the drinking song “Till St Dymphna Kicks Us Out”, a warmer, more wistful celebration of companionship. But he’d struggle with “Next Of Kin”, possibly the best song about bereavement since Randy Newman’s “Losing You”, picked out in devastating lines like “Her bathrobe hangs on the bedroom door/But she’s been dead for a year or more” and “It broke his heart, and it made him old/Tries to rebuild, but it just erodes”. The pathos is simply overwhelming, and skilfully wielded to evince Oberst’s own underlying anger and loss of innocence.

Similar shadows, this time of anomie and disillusion, are cast by the new songs “Anytime Soon” and “Napalm”, the latter quixotically couching its critique of “this dying land of plenty” in a surging, Dylanesque folk-rocker driven by pulsing organ; while a more personal notion of mortality is tackled on ”Counting Sheep”, a heartbreaking evocation of the guilt and apologetic self-reproach (“I don’t want to seem needy”) that swells the burden of the seriously ill. Death also looms over “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)”, which features Gillian Welch harmonising on a reflective song about Frank Lloyd Wright’s murdered partner. But the most moving, and clearly sincere, reaction to death comes in “A Little Uncanny”, where Oberst’s sudden admission, late on, that “I miss Christopher Hitchens, I miss Oliver Sacks, I miss poor Robin Williams” offers an emotive counterbalance to a critique of celebrity manipulation, from Jane Fonda – who “became a symbol for a pain she never knew” - to Ronald Reagan. And, one can’t help thinking, a more recent, media-manipulating American president.

Spoon, Hot Thoughts

★★★☆☆

 

Download this: Pink Up; Shotgun; WhisperI’lllistentohearit

Lauded in America, all but ignored in Britain, Spoon are one of those acts that illuminates the subtle shades of difference in transatlantic tastes. Supported at home by a college radio and alt.rock infrastructure, their smart, riff-tastic indie-rock, with its modest quotient of invention, clearly sates a certain appetite; over here, it all sounds a bit dated and beside the point. The jerky riff of “Can I Sit Next To You” and the nimbly interlocked parts of “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” recall early Talking Heads, minus any psycho-killer threat, while the prancing eagerness of “First Caress” and galloping reproach of “Shotgun” bring to mind XTC – likewise, lacking the lunatic spark that fired their muse. Here, the songs are mostly variations on well-worn themes like desire, dismay and alienation, with only the occasional line - “You’re a lost letter needs delivery”; “When you say the wrong thing, I know I hear the right thing” - bringing a tart, umami edge to the subject. Not bad, but not brilliant.

Jeb Loy Nichols. Country Hustle

★★★★☆

Download this: Come See Me; That’s How We’re Living; Regret; Never Too Much

On Country Hustle, Jeb Loy Nichols’ characteristic strain of expat-Americana leans away from folk and country, towards soul and funk of various forms, from his slinky treatment of Razzy Bailey’s “I Hate Hate”, a Northern Soul number from 40 years ago, to his own funky “Regret”, which hangs, James Brown style, on the “one” as Nichols frets about how “melancholia got me on the ropes”. Elsewhere, “That’s How We’re Living” has the understated but persuasive socio-political pulse perfected by Curtis Mayfield, but with Nichols’ smoky baritone croon replacing Mayfield’s pleading falsetto. Best of all, though, is “Come See Me”, where hand percussion and minimal stitches of guitar create a low-key, spooky warmth akin to Dr John. Nichols’ explanation of its development – starting out in the mould of country legends The Stanley Brothers, but metamorphosing through exposure to Malian desert-blues master Ali Farka Toure – reveals the blend of influences his music subtly weaves together.

Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales, Room 29

★★☆☆☆

 

 

Download this: Room 29; Tearjerker; Bombshell

Europhiles with a shared interest in art both low and high, Jarvis Cocker and pianist/composer Chilly Gonzales were inspired by the grand piano in a room at LA’s Chateau Marmont to write a song-cycle about it, darting from scene to scene and star to star in a manner reflecting the transitory occupation of the room. So pieces about Clara Bow and Jean Harlow (“eyebrows plucked to nothing, skin as pale as porcelain”) are interspersed with broader reflections on the impersonality of hotel rooms, and their lure to secret trysts and transgressions, along with a dubious, distractive sidebar about television. Set to Gonzalez’s ruminative piano, augmented with occasional dabs of strings, it’s not without charm and the occasional stab of insight - “You don’t need a girlfriend, you need a social worker,” the libidinous jerk of “Tearjerker” is told – but one can’t help thinking the ghosts and echoes of previous scandalous indulgences are rather betrayed by the project’s neat, sentimental manner.

Those Who Walk Away, The Infected Mass

★★★★☆

Download this: The Infected Mass

This piece by Canadian composer Matthew Patton opens with a sussurus of wind noise and the kind of low drone heard in aeroplanes, to which are gradually added “ghost strings” and a “ghost choir” of sibilant tones, creating an eerie but oddly warm enveloping ambience. Then he folds in cockpit voice recordings from planes in distress, an initially shocking development – these people are about to die, for heaven’s sake – which he himself admits “feels so wrong”. But it works: as we hear these people calmly trying to solve predicaments which prompt panic even in the listener, their nobility is affirmed on a deeply emotional level. Patton, whose brother died in a plane crash, claims the music is “filled with ghosts and artefacts I couldn’t erase”, and The Infected Mass, a shifting palimpsest of strings, voices, drones and noises, bears out that belief. It’s a minimalist, musique concrete elegy whose drifting character allows reflection without undue emotional prompting, and is all the more powerfully moving for it.

Various Artists, Rock And Roll Music!: The Songs Of Chuck Berry

★★★★☆

Download this: Down Bound Train; Maybellene; Memphis; Brown Eyed Handsome Man; Too Much Monkey Business; The Promised Land

As this compilation demonstrates, Chuck Berry swept through pop songwriting like a cool breeze. To begin with, there’s the approbation of his peers, with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly all fired up by Chuck’s tricksy wordplay on the likes of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Too Much Monkey Business”. Then there’s his influence on a subsequent generation of British invaders, represented by The Hollies, Swinging Blue Jeans and Pretty Things; and the later diversification into country, Latin and other territories, courtesy of such as Dwight Yoakam, Carlos Santana, and Don Covay’s surprisingly effective reggae interpretation of “Memphis Tennessee”. But perhaps the most intriguing tracks here are the very earliest covers of Chuck Berry songs, with Marty Robbins’ 1955 rockabilly “Maybellene” followed in 1956 by Ken Colyer’s Skiffle Group’s unusual strum’n’washboard deconstruction of “Down Bound Train”, a fascinating glimpse of skiffle’s homemade, lo-fi distillation of rock’n’roll into its trace elements of folk, blues and jugband music.

Tamikrest, Kidal

★★★★☆

Download this: Wainan Adobat; War Toyed; Atwitas; War Tila Eridaran; Ehad Wad Nadorhan

Though named after their Malian hometown depicted with such grim accuracy on the sleeve, Kidal represents Tamikrest’s most outgoing album so far. Ousmane Ag Mossa’s songs may focus as tightly as ever on the problems faced by the Tuareg, but there’s now a powerful backbeat adding a sturdy rock undercarriage to tracks like “War Tila Eridaran” and “Adoutat Salilagh”. Opener “Mawarniha Tartit” starts the album in traditional manner, creeping like a snake slithering through desert scrubland; but “Wainan Adobat” takes things in a different direction, its cyclical, desert-blues guitar figures driven by urgent jazz-rock drumming which imposes a more propulsive character: Tuareg reflection with Western muscle. Keyboard or bowed-string drones add ambient backdrops to some tracks, but it’s the guitars that matter, their serpentine tendrils entwining around tracks such as “War Toyed”, “Atwitas” and “Ehad Wad Nadorhan”, a shimmering blend of keening background tones, vibrato lead guitar, and oud-like acoustic.

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