Album reviews: Sun Kil Moon, Tinariwen, Temples, Sunn O))), Katy B, Serge Gainsbourg

 

Sun Kil Moon "Benji" (Caldo Verde)

Sun Kil Moon songwriter Mark Kozelek has always drawn deeply from the autobiographical well, relishing the absurdity, embarrassment and bitter poignancy of real life. Benji’s 2012 predecessor, Among the Leaves, dealt candidly with life as a touring musician; but its extreme length made it too deep an immersion in his world.

Though shorter, Benji shares that album’s relentless nostalgia, and its stark but gentle sonic palette of mostly just acoustic guitar-picking, occasionally supported by the diffident drumming of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, who captures perfectly the tone of bewildered disillusion appropriate to the juvenile sexual encounters recalled in “Dogs”.

Elsewhere, Will Oldham adds subtle backing vocals to several tracks, gentle tints accentuating the songs’ desolate beauty. But this is mostly just Kozelek alone, reflecting on the pervasive melancholy that marks his life, and the randomness of death and life. If that sounds grim, it’s not: the end result is an entertaining, intelligent and profoundly moving album, which elevates the confessional approach to an existentially gripping intensity.

Death stalks the album. In “Carissa” and “Truck Driver”, a cousin and an uncle die in (separate) fires, prompting Kozelek to reflect on destiny. “Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids, take out the trash and die,” he frets, while elsewhere the death of a serial-killer in “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” brings further musing on the randomness of fate.

It’s like the bitter flip side of the American Dream, solace coming in songs proclaiming the singer’s love for his parents, and the closing “Ben’s My Friend”, possibly the best song ever written about inter-band friendship (with The Postal Service’s Ben Gibbard). Sad but sweet, it’s the perfect conclusion to one of the truest, wisest albums you’ll ever hear.

*****

Download: Carissa; Dogs; Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes; Ben’s My Friend; I Watched the Film the Song Remains The Same

Tinariwen "Emmaar" (PIAS/Co-op)

Recorded in the Joshua Tree area of the Mojave Desert because of the ravages afflicting their homeland, Emmaar is a typically impressive blend of the emotional and the political from Tinariwen. Focusing as ever on the beauty of the desert and the social demands of the Tuareg, the songs have that magical union of the poetic and the rhythmic that proves endlessly irresistible, from the skirling guitar of “Chaghaybou” to the elegant, swaying nobility of “Arhegh Danagh”, and the mysterious, insistent “Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim”,  a crawling king-snake slow blues driven by propulsive handclaps. The trademark cyclical, spidery guitar lines and tindé drum are augmented on some tracks by guest musicians, most effectively the steel guitar curling behind the murmurous chant of “Toumast Tincha”.

****

Download: Toumast Tincha; Chaghaybou; Arhegh Danagh; Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim

Temples Sun "Structures" (Heavenly)

Unsurprisingly championed by Noel Gallagher and Johnny Marr, the jangly guitars and youthful optimism of UK psych-rockers Temples reminds one of The Thrills, minus the overt Americanisms. So while the spangly 12-string arpeggios of “Shelter Song” recall The Byrds, there’s a skirling swirl to it that’s more reminiscent of Brit psychedelicists Traffic. Likewise, the title track stitches neat guitar arabesques over a deceptively simple Velvets/garage-rock drum track, and winds up sounding like an outtake from The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow. But while there’s appeal in the strident riffing of “Mesmerise”, the Arabic-tinged strings of “Sand Dance” and the cosmic boogie of “A Question Isn’t Answered”, it remains to be seen whether the band can transcend their influences and develop  a sound that’s solely theirs.

***

Download: Shelter Song; Sun Structures; Sand Dance

Sun O))) & Ulver "Terrestrials" (Southern Lord)

Recorded as live improvisations in the studio, the three long tracks that make up this collaboration between American “experimental metal” post-rockers Sunn O))) and Norwegian black-metallists-turned-drone-symphonists Ulver sound pretty much as you’d expect. “Let There Be Light” opens with a glow of high vibrato keyboard tones hovering slowly into view, with glints of burnished brass feathering the edges, before a tumble of drums arrives a few minutes from the end. It’s a music oriented towards the light, a sort of sonic phototropism, echoed in “Western Horn” as a shower of shimmering guitar noise like a cloud of insects amid helicopter blades, and in the drone miasma of “Eternal Return”, whose string players are aptly described  as making “ghost appearances”.  A trio of absorbing driftworks.

***

Download: Let There Be Light; Western Horn; Eternal Return

Katy B "Little Red" (Columbia)

“We’ll be on to the next thing, till the break of dawn,” claims Katy B on the opening track of Little Red – but the only new aspect of this follow-up to 2011’s On a Mission is her transatlantic phrasing; otherwise, it’s pretty much the same old thing, with pulsing dubstep synths relentlessly driving things to the lowest common denominator. Most tracks are produced by Geeneus, whose approach on “Aaliyah” basically involves transferring a standard Italian house piano-vamp to synth, and adding syncopated bleeps and dutiful drum programme. Worse still, the light, mischievous tone of her debut has been supplanted by clubland clichés so dull they barely merit airspace (“that beat’s so sick, that tune’s so ill”?), reaching a nadir with the laborious breakstep power-ballad “Crying for No Reason”.

*

Download: 5AM

Various Artists "Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg" (Ace)

Thanks to the shockingly erotic “Je T’Aime... Moi Non Plus”, Serge Gainsbourg is regarded in the UK primarily as a lucky Gallic lecher. But Gainsbourg was a genius of a different order, equally comfortable writing cute pop hits for chirpy  yé-yé girls like Michèle Torr and France Gall as he was setting Jacques Prévert’s poetry to music. Though undoubtedly at least as sexually provocative as , Gainsbourg was actually captive and servant to the fairer sex, as this entirely female 25-track compilation shows, whether it was France Gall establishing him with the Eurovision success of “Poupée de Cire, Poupée De Son”, Brigitte Bardot sprinkling glamour over “Harley Davidson”, or Juliette Gréco lending a sheen of aesthetic maturity to “La Javanaise”.

****

Download: Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son;  La Javanaise; Sous Le Soleil Exactement; Jane B

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