Album reviews: Alejandro Escovedo, Menace Beach, Foxygen​, and more

Also Vitalic, Mick Harvey, Marconi Union and Michael Chapman

Andy Gill
Wednesday 18 January 2017 16:46
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Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful

★★★★

Download this: Horizontal; Suit Of Lights; Shave The Cat; Johnny Volume; Beauty And The Buzz

Long-serving scion of the same thoroughbred Mexican-American musical family that includes his brother, Santana percussionist Coke Escovedo, as well as his niece Sheila E, indie songwriter Alejandro Escovedo has reached his mid-sixties garlanded with more critical and peer acclaim than actual commercial success, and it’s this disparity which serves as the mainspring driving Burn Something Beautiful.

Co-written with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, who also served as producers, it’s an album which muses upon the dangerous lure of the rock’n’roll life, its sweet attractions and deceptive treacheries, and the dedication that drives so many in feverish pursuit of their dreams, with a “bucket of blood in every note I play”, as Escovedo puts it in ”Suit Of Lights”, a perfect metaphor for the dangerous glamour of showbiz: for some performers, the bull has the better of the matador most nights.

But there’s an addictive aspect to the quest that keeps musicians coming back, and it’s that celebratory quality that seethes through Burn Something Beautiful, in the clangour of ringing guitars and fizzing fuzztone riffs that drives opener “Horizontal”, in the Velvets-style chug’n’grind street tableau of “Beauty Of Your Smile”, and in the descending churn of sound that imparts a resolute fatalism to “Johnny Volume” as he girds his loins with guitar for the fight ahead. Yet the richness of the rewards has no relation to either remuneration or sophistication, as confirmed by the sheer raggedy-ass joy embodied in the low-slung glam-rock riff and squalling baritone sax of “Shave The Cat”, with its nonsensical invitation to “a rock’n’roll party on a wrestling mat”.

Of course, it’s not all about fun and liberation, especially in your sixties, and songs such as “Redemption Blues”, “Farewell To The Good Times” and “I Don’t Want To Play Guitar Anymore” find Escovedo confronting the disillusion creeping in to sour his life’s devotion. “When there’s no stories left to sing, that’s the end of everything,” he reflects in the latter. But thankfully, Burn Something Beautiful confirms his own fund of creativity is far from drained, the collaboration with Buck and McCaughey resulting in all three’s best work in years – Buck especially invigorated, animating these songs with his characteristically diverse armoury of guitar riffs, arpeggios and flourishes. Ultimately, it’s clear that music is an addiction none of them could ever kick, or want to: as Escovedo sings in “Beauty And The Buzz”, “Play the guitar, son, you’ll always have a friend/You’ll never be alone, the romance never ends....”

Menace Beach, Lemon Memory

★★★

Download this: Give Blood; Maybe We’ll Drown; Lemon Memory; Suck It Out

For their second album, Ryan Needham and Liza Violet, core duo of Leeds indie band, decamped to Formentera to re-think their approach. The effect was transformative, the fuzz-drenched mode of 2015 debut Ratworld supplanted by more thoughtful, diverse creations in which floating organ and mellotron lend a wavering melancholy to songs like “Maybe We’ll Drown” and “Lemon Memory”, pierced by contrasting guitar rages of keening angularity. It’s an intriguing, infectious musical dialectic lent further appeal by the way the duo’s voices – singularly screaming or soothing – blend with almost joyous harmonic unison for the songs’ hooks. For all that, the most dynamic piece here is the opener “Give Blood”, a raggedy raunch-rocker answering the query, “Why’s you always sing about death?” with a resolute “I don’t want to sing about life!”.

Michael Chapman, 50

★★★★

Download this: Spanish Incident; Sometimes You Just Drive; The Mallard; Memphis In Winter; That Time Of Night

Extraordinarily, over a nearly 50-year recording career featuring guitar work infused with all manner of American jazz, blues and ragtime influences, Michael Chapman had never before recorded an American album – a situation rectified here with a combo of younger devotees attracted by his burgeoning reputation as a surviving master guitarist to rival John Fahey. Where his recent albums have leant more towards long-form improvisation, 50 focuses on songs, with the warm drizzle of Chapman’s gnarled Yorkshire burr lending a bluff, worldly-wise character to American tableaux such as the poverty portrait “Memphis In Winter”, featuring his jaunty but dark ragtime bounce pierced by subtle electric guitar, and “Spanish Incident”, an account of stasis in the southwest which expertly blends his guitar with perky banjo. That sense of stasis pervades much of 50, an album wreathed in “memory and distance, like some long-lost railway line”, as Chapman puts it in “That Time Of Night”.

Foxygen, Hang

★★

Download this: Avalon; Follow The Leader

Sometimes, sheer ambition can render music too top-heavy to succeed. Hang, by Los Angeles duo Foxygen, is a case in point: there’s no doubting the range and quality of their (mostly 1970s) influences, nor their diligent application of them, involving full orchestral arrangements by Trey Pollard and Matthew E White; but at no point do any of these eight songs break free from the bonds of pastiche. “Avalon”, for instance, opens with jaunty piano and strings in Van Dyke Parks’ cornier mode, transforming into Abba for the title hook, and “On Lankershim” is a thin attempt at early Springsteen street-opera. Elsewhere, the frisky woodwind of “Mrs. Adams” suggests Frank Zappa re-constructing “MacArthur Park” but, as with the album centrepiece “America”, it’s a needlessly over-egged pudding, all arrangement and no song. “Everyone has their own drama, just like me,” they sing in “Upon A Hill” – but these dramas are too schematic to spring to life.

Marconi Union, Tokyo+

★★★

Download this: Ginza District+; Temperature Drop+; Akihabara (Electric Town)+

Originally restricted to a limited 2009 release on a small German label, Marconi Union’s Tokyo comprised minimal electronic sketches of a city they’d never visited – mostly muted synth washes evocative of deserted streets at dusk, lent gentle propulsion on “Ginza District” and “Temperature Drop” by itchy but relaxed electronic shuffles. All pleasant enough, if tending to the bleakly downcast. This reissue, however, includes an additional disc of revised versions of four tracks by the band’s expanded line-up, lending fresh depth and texture that shifts the music in new directions. The addition of real drums to “Temperature Drop+” and “Akihabara (Electric Town)+”, for instance, casts human shadows down their previously empty alleyways, while the dubwise bassline appended to “Ginza District+” is a masterstroke of cross-cultural inspiration: it’s as if Kraftwerk’s “Spacelab” had landed in Kingston, Jamaica.

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Mick Harvey, Intoxicated Women

★★★

Download this: Ich Liebe Dich…; The Eyes To Cry; Prevert’s Song; Cargo Cult

This fourth volume of Mick Harvey’s interpretations of Serge Gainsbourg songs draws mainly on the composer’s ‘60s work for singers such as Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot. These boundary-pushing explorations of pop sexuality are most eagerly inhabited here by Andrea Schroeder, who trowels on the breathy eroticism for a German-language duet of “Je T’Aime”, before giving a cold-eyed expression of confrontational alienation on “Striptease”. Thankfully, the creepier explorations of infantile eroticism – the lollipop metaphor of “All Day Suckers”, the fairytale allusion of “Baby Teeth, Wolfy Teeth” - are voiced by Harvey himself, allowing guest singers like Jess Ribeiro and Sophia Brous to indulge the sweeter romanticism of songs such as “The Eyes To Cry” and “Prevert’s Song”, where Gainsbourg’s musing on the poet’s work prompts a moving reflection on transitory love.

Vitalic, Voyager

★★

Download this: Hans Is Driving; Eternity

French synthesist Pascal Arbez-Nicolas, aka Vitalic, describes Voyager as “a cosmic odyssey”, which in reality translates into a wry retro-futurism rooted in the early synth tones and textures used by Jean-Michel Jarre and Giorgio Moroder. Originally envisaged as an entirely beat-free work, he ultimately opted to add the thumping drum sequences driving tracks like “Eternity” and “Levitation”, where crude vocoder proclamations lead into a crunching electro-motorik splashed with equally crude synthetic crowd whoops: the evocation of enjoyment seems desperate, rather than delightful. Likewise, the duet between Miss Kittin’s android vocal and a machine voice on the engagingly dystopian “Hans Is Driving” seems devoid of contact, a sad lament from a world bereft of humans. But it’s Arbez-Nicolas’s magpie ways that leaves a bad taste, whether he’s re-imagining “Fade To Grey” for “Waiting For The Stars”, or borrowing The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” for a deracinated ode to nicotine, “Sweet Cigarette”.

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