Album reviews: Father John Misty - Pure Comedy, Jamiroquai​ - Automaton, Imelda May - Life Love Flesh Blood, and more

Also Ulver, The New Pornographers, and Timber Timbre

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The Independent Culture

Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

★★★★☆

Download: Pure Comedy; Total Entertainment Forever; Leaving LA; The Memo; In Twenty Years Or So

Last July, on the eve of the Republican Convention, Josh Tillman – aka Father John Misty – was due to perform at a festival in New Jersey, but instead took the opportunity to vent his anger at what he later described as the “demonic clown pageant coronation of our next potential Idiot King” with a lengthy harangue about the impotence of entertainment, before singing just one song of his own and abruptly closing with a rendition of “Bird On The Wire”. Mind you, the song in question, “Leaving LA”, is 13 minutes long, a weary denunciation of “LA phonies and their bullshit bands” who “sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant”, set to strummed acoustic guitar and woozy string drones. “You can hear it all over the airwaves,” he sings, “the manufactured gasp of the final days.”

“Leaving LA” is the centrepiece of Pure Comedy, a bleak and bitter survey of modern times whose closest comparison is probably Neil Young’s On The Beach. Tillman’s frustration with showbiz is revisited in “The Memo” and “Total Entertainment Forever”, which mockingly acclaim a new age of perpetual distraction and constant demands for online feedback, while elsewhere his attention shifts to a broader canvas of discontent, heralded by the opening title track.

“Pure Comedy” may be the most fulsome indulgence of Tillman’s youthful fantasies of becoming a preacher (he grew up an evangelical Christian), though ironically its chief target is religious obsession, and the danger posed by people whose “idea of being free is a prison of beliefs they never have to leave”. The tone of mordant contempt is underscored by the strings behind his piano, and punched home by an epiphanic burst of horns, before he ends with the slimmest thread of hope, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got”. God Himself, however, gets off more lightly than He perhaps deserves in “When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay”, a tour of the deity’s handiwork: “Try something this ambitious next time you get bored,” suggests Tillman. As throughout the album, the tempo is trudging and the tone sombre, while his vocals, here and on tracks like “Birdie” and “A Bigger Paper Bag”, sounds like Elton John, if Bernie Taupin had woken up one day with a dyspeptic grudge rather than a song in his heart.

As the album progresses, Tillman’s litany of complaints stacks up like a Frankie Boyle setlist – I particularly liked the subject of “Ballad Of A Dying Man”, whose final act is to check his newsfeed to see what he’ll miss out on – though the alternatives to imperfect modern life turn out to be no better. “It’s no big thing to give up the way of life we had,” he proposes at the start of “Things It Would Be Helpful To Know Before The Revolution”, but soon finds out that regression to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, with no TV, convenience, law nor order, proves harder than expected.

Ultimately, Tillman grasps at the consolations of love in the closing “In Twenty Years Or So”, where a glimpse of his beloved refutes the suggestion that “the human experiment” will reach a violent conclusion within two decades. “There’s nothing to fear,” he concludes; though this sudden turn away from the dark hardly outweighs the apocalyptic solemnity of the rest of an absorbing, intermittently amusing album.

 

Imelda May, Life Love Flesh Blood

★★★★☆

Download: Black Tears; Should’ve Been You; Bad Habit; When It’s My Time

For Life Love Flesh Blood, Imelda May has hooked up with T-Bone Burnett and his failsafe session crew of tasteful interpretive talent to effect a shift away from boisterous rockabilly towards more sensual torch songs like “Call Me” and “Black Tears”, on which Jeff Beck gently underscores the regretful tone with wisps of Santo & Johnny-style celestial slide guitar.

The mood of seductive intimacy is balanced elsewhere by Burnett’s own version of the Wall Of Sound – tubular bells and all – on urgent entreaties such as “Should’ve Been You”, where a melody reminiscent of “Sorrow” carries some of May’s best singing, slipping confidently between calm and concerned, of some of her best lyrics (“you don’t disguise it when I’m just white noise”).

Ironically, she gets more animated about online shopping addiction on “Bad Habit”, which features brilliant contributions from guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jay Bellerose; though her most impassioned vocal is reserved for the gospel waltz “When It’s My Time”, to which Jools Holland adds sensitive piano.

 

Ulver​, The Assassination Of Julius Caesar

★★★★☆

Download: Nemoralia; Rolling Stone; Southern Gothic; Angelus Novus

Ulver must be the most unpredictable act in rock music. A year ago they were awash in the psych-rock drones and eddies of ATGCLVLSSCAP; but on The Assassination Of Julius Caesar they are utterly unrecognisable as the same band. The lyrical concerns may be similar – fun stuff like nihilism, entropy and apocalypse – but the grinding drones have been supplanted by a morbid electropop in which dark matters are smuggled through via engaging melodies and vocals.

The jerky funk-pop of “Nemoralia”, for instance, carries references to Princess Diana’s death and the Romans’ use of Christians as human torches; and the 10-minute symphonic-rock motorik of “Rolling Stone” is an essay on death and suicidal nihilism. But whatever the subject, it’s always conveyed with unexpected charm: on “Angelus Novus”, Ulver sound like Depeche Mode in serious socio-political mode; while the scudding synth riff of “Southern Gothic” brings to mind Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan”, their concern for “the grace of faded things” perfectly matching his own sensibilities.

 

Various Artists, Running The Voodoo Down

★★★★★

Download: Time Has Come Today; Willie Nelson; Doriella Du Fontaine; Maggot Brain; Brown Rice; Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa

Subtitled “Explorations in Psychrockfunksouljazz 1967-80”, this double album is stuffed with diverse black music whose metaphorical unifying factor is how proudly it flies its freak-flag afro. Positing a quartet of cornerstone artists (Hendrix, Clinton, Sly and Miles) building on the funk foundation of James Brown, it depicts a fascinating landscape of musical invention reflecting the revolutionary urgency of the era, its eclectic crossover sensibility indicated by the way Eddie Hazel’s “California Dreamin’” and Buddy Miles’ “Down By The River” reroute Laurel Canyon folk-rock through the ghetto.

Alongside classics like Sly’s “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” and Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” are less familiar tangents – some from unexpected sources, such as Miles’s “Willie Nelson”, a Jack Johnson outtake accreting from staccato stabs of trumpet, guitar and synth around a pulsing bass figure; and Hendrix’s collaboration with Last Poet Jalal Nuriddin on “Doriella Du Fontaine”. Despite a few obvious omissions (Sun Ra, Marvin, Curtis and others), it’s an endless source of sonically challenging, mind-freeing ambition.

 

Jamiroquai​, Automaton

★★★☆☆

Download: We Can Do It; Vitamin; Something About You

Seven years on from the underperforming, slightly dated Rock Dust Light Star, Jay Kay and his compadres play catch-up with Automaton, on which the scuttling electro-funk grooves of tracks like “Superfresh” and “Automaton” itself possess a welcome chirpy modernity (although the stressing of the latter’s third syllable to rhyme with “ate” is deeply irritating).

Ironically, though, it’s the more old-school tracks that furnish the highlights, from the Chic-style funk-pop of “Something About You”, with its slippery rhythm guitar, to the slick, jazzy “Vitamin”, which with its female backing singers and buttoned-down sax and piano solos, recalls Gaucho-era Steely Dan. “We Can Do It”, meanwhile, is like a bizarre cross between “Hotel California” and an infectious soul samba, and surprisingly effective at that. But as ever, Jay Kay’s lyrics bring the cringe whenever he strays from the quotidian, most notably with his modest claim that “only a fool could walk away from me this time”. So watch me play the fool.

 

The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions

★★★★☆

Download: Whiteout Conditions; High Ticket Attractions; Colosseums; Clock Wise

As with The Shins, there’s a pleasing combination of exploratory ambition and genial melodic charm to The New Pornographers’ output, and rarely more so than on Whiteout Conditions. In places, the exploration may lure one into fairly impenetrable lyrical undergrowth: try too hard to pin things down, and the refrain to “We’ve Been Here Before” – “We couldn’t find our way out when we were here the first time” – becomes ironically apt; but the general meaning of songs like “Second Sleep” (dreams), “Play Money” (music industry rip-offs) and “High Ticket Attractions” (casting one’s pearls before swine) can be roughly discerned.

Musically, however, there’s a drive and urgency about Whiteout Conditions that whisks one along regardless, their usual indie-pop mode here strengthened by layers of fast, bubbly synths and pulsing Eurocentric beats, so that “Clock Wise” sounds like the chunky Krautrock of Neu! or Can fronted by Sixties-style girl-group singers. What a great idea…

 

Timber Timbre, Sincerely, Future Pollution

★★★★☆

Download: Grifting; Skin Tone; Western Questions; Sewer Blues

The looming unease over socio-political trends casts an apocalyptic shadow over several of this week’s releases, with Timber Timbre’s Taylor Kirk clearly troubled here on tracks like the grim “Sewer Blues” and “Western Questions”, which reprises the sewer motif to confront scare-stories over immigration raised in “desperate elections, campaign halloween”.

As the gentle organ drone is razored by a climactic astringent guitar break, it’s hard to tell which side of the Atlantic he’s singing about. Likewise, in “Grifting” it’s not hard to find candidates “building trust through kindness to exploit the finest… pitching, pinching, grifting”. Not that the delivery matches the sentiment: with a lilting vocal and gurgling clavinet funk groove, it’s itchily engaging – as is “Skin Tone”, where the clavinet combines with vibes and congas in an exotica vibe. Balancing the political disquiet is a vein of romantic yearning, with Kirk’s plea in “Moment” for “desire deserving of something more” offers a fitting summary of the album as a whole.

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