Album reviews: Ryan Adams - Prisoner, Animal Collective - The Painters, and Strand Of Oaks - Hard Love

Also Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Mind Over Mirrors, and Otis Taylor​

Ryan Adams, Prisoner

★★★☆☆

Download: Prisoner; Shiver & Shake; Anything I Say To You Now; Outbound Train

I suppose it’s impossible for creative people not to have their work influenced by the emotional bruises of their personal lives – especially in a medium like music, which traditionally focuses so tightly on matters of the heart. And when that creator is as naturally prolific as Ryan Adams, romantic catastrophe opens the floodgates, and the songs come pouring out.

Prisoner, a break-up album prompted by his divorce from US entertainer Mandy Moore, may be confined to just a dozen tracks, but you instinctively know that somewhere in his already bulging out-take archive there have to be demos of dozens more, each rerouting the same sentiment through his encyclopaedic knowledge of rock’s highways and byways.

For now, though, Prisoner sticks to the well-trodden highways, whether it’s the echoes of U2 in the grand guitar stabs and earnest vocal tone of opener “Do You Still Love Me”, or the spangly, flanged guitars and relaxed sense of space that lend “Anything I Say To You Now” the laidback stadium sound of The Police. These are big, bold influences to draw upon, as indicative of Adams’s own ambitions as his transformative 2015 cover version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. But the biggest touchstone, and the one Adams is most naturally equipped to handle, is Bruce Springsteen, whose introspective mode of brooding, weather-beaten self-flagellation is impressively evoked in songs like “Haunted House” and “Shiver & Shake”, where the raw, romantic torment hangs in the slow, smouldering stasis of an organ drone as Adams cuts himself to the quick: “Close my eyes, I can see you with some guy/Laughing like you never even knew I was alive”. How cold is that?

Elsewhere, some fairly quotidian metaphors are reshuffled in not always profitable ways: Ryan’s a prisoner for your love, his soul is black as coal, he’s up on a tightrope or riding an outbound train, and so on. But as with the apocalyptic tone of “Doomsday”, only rarely are the songs illuminated by an image of distinction, such as the title-track’s dismissive six-word self-portrait, “Same grey heart, same grey coat”. That sense of brusque concision is more evident in the arrangements than the lyrics, with Adams restricting himself to a small complement of restrained but telling guitar breaks, the best decorating “Outbound Train” (indeed, the sax break in “Tightrope” is probably longer than all his guitar breaks put together). Everything here is tailored to sustain a tone of desolate abjection, cauterised by the need to move on: it’s Adams’ own sad, solo trip into the Tunnel Of Love.

Animal Collective, The Painters

★★★★☆

Download: Kinda Bonkers; Peacemaker; Goalkeeper; Jimmy Mack

As the mixed reviews for last year’s Painting With album suggested, a little goes a long way with Animal Collective. Which makes The Painters, a four-track EP of outtakes from the same sessions, possibly the perfect Animal Collective release. The hyperactive E-numbers bounce of the synths in “Goalkeeper” is emulated by their vocal interplay – but of course, they try and squeeze in far too many words – while the Avalanches-like swirl of loops and drones and beats in “Peacemaker” and the outreach raga-rock of “Kinda Bonkers” (“Don’t you feel me feel your shine?/Unity of all kind”) is as dizzying as ever. But crucially, it’s perfectly bearable in such small doses. There’s a warm echo of De La Soul in some of their vocal interplay – though the alternating-syllable structure of “Peacemaker” rather sabotages its swaying, willowy grace – but the closing cover of “Jimmy Mack” is a delightful sundae of quacking synths, skittish beats, tootling flutes and alarm bells that’s worth the price of admission alone.

Strand Of Oaks, Hard Love

★★★☆☆

Download: Radio Kids; Rest Of It; Everything

“Goshen 97”, the standout track from Strand Of Oaks’ 2014 album Heal, was a fond flashback to teenage years gorging on grunge; and SOO’s Tim Showalter still hankers after those times, judging by “Radio Kids”, the standout track from this follow-up. This time, though, it’s a slightly more wistful glance back, albeit streaked with soaring guitar lines that make it resemble The War On Drugs. “I’m feeling sorry for myself,” sings Showalter, and it’s not entirely evident whether he means his former or current self, “…but at least I had that song on the radio”. Hard Love is full of unreconciled anxieties, relayed in various ways from the churning motorik of “Rest Of It”, which sounds like Primal Scream channelling Loaded-era Velvets, to the funereal piano ballad “Cry”. But it’s a solipsistic affair: and while his good intentions to smarten up his drug-sozzled, road-weary life may be commendable, they don’t necessarily make “Quit It” any more agreeable.

Son Volt, Notes Of Blue

★★★★☆

Download: Static; Cherokee St; Lost Souls; Cairo And Southern

Though Notes Of Blue opens in standard Son Volt country-rock style, with the lachrymose pedal steel whine and whiskery vocal of “Promise The World”, this turns out to be utterly misleading, a diversionary tactic behind which Jay Farrar executes a deft volte-face by transforming the group into a modern blues band. It’s impressively executed, too: rather than just boogieing down, he’s adapted the haunting fatalism and piquant tunings of country bluesmen like Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell to a brusque electric-band sound that variously recalls RL Burnside, Tom Waits, ZZ Top and even, in the huge fuzz-chords and razoring slide guitar of “Lost Souls”, Led Zeppelin – albeit minus Robert Plant’s dramatic vocals. Jay Farrar’s weedier delivery is more reminiscent of a JB Lenoir, its fragility menaced by the declamatory, crunching riffs that pin tracks like “Static” and “Cherokee St” in place, but finding weary solace in the acoustic country-blues of “The Storm” and “Cairo And Southern”. A brave, and welcome, transformation.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Mars

★★★☆☆

Download: Mars Theme; Mars; Science; Space Station

Director Everardo Gout has described his six-part mini-series about an exploratory mission to Mars as hopefully akin to “Das Boot in space”, with the emphasis more on humanity than technology; so it’s appropriate that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s soundtrack tempers the usual sci-fi sonic angularity with less strictly ordered tones and textures. In “Science”, for instance, the way that methodical keyboard figures are overlaid with Ellis’s airily wavering violin ingeniously evokes the blend of application and imagination involved in scientific endeavour; while in “Mars” itself, the initial unease conjured by synths at rhythmic cross-purposes is gently alleviated by a benign piano figure and hovering strings.

Cave provides the only vocal, describing in “Mars Theme” a perilous landing in which “heaven is just a trick of the light, cold as my love”; but not every scene is a harbinger of danger: the naive melody of “Space Station”, picked out in a gamelan twinkle of metallic tones, is sweetly comforting.

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Mind Over Mirrors, Undying Color

★★★★☆

Download: Restore & Slip; Gravity Wake; Gray Clearer; Glossolalia

In classic Bon Iver style, Jaime Fennelly recorded most of Undying Color alone in an isolated Wisconsin cabin, employing a blend of treadle harmonium and analogue synthesisers to make pulsing, cyclical grooves which ally grounded, folksy timbres to minimalist methods. It’s most successfully wrought on “Restore & Slip”, where his drones are augmented by furiously sawing fiddles and flutes to create a kind of Celtic minimalism, the urgent, hypnotic waves akin to a more focused, less playful Animal Collective. The calm, methodical “Gravity Wake” blends stately Moondog-like drums with undulating synths and relaxed solo horn lines that inescapably bring to mind Terry Riley. Elsewhere, the use of rhythmic, murmured vocables in “Glossolalia” recalls Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians; but the purest expression of Fennelly’s aesthetic may be “Gray Clearer”, where the solemn bass drum and droning harmonium have the oceanic desolation of a drowned shanty.

Otis Taylor, Fantasizing About Being Black

★★★★☆

Download: Twelve String Mile; Walk On Water; Banjo Bam Bam; Tripping On This

The irony being, of course, that there’s no denying bluesman Otis Taylor’s essential pigmentation. But always a keen student of black history, Taylor here tries to evoke the experiences of previous generations, from the turmoil of the shackled slave in “Banjo Bam Bam” to the Second World War black sailors risking their lives jumping between ships in “Jump Jelly Belly” and the civil rights marchers of “Jump Out Of Line”; along with several songs dealing with interracial relationships, culminating in “Tripping On This”, in which a man anticipates meeting his mixed-race son, given up for adoption five decades earlier. They’re not so much songs as invocations, repeated mantras set to Taylor’s trademark cyclical trance-blues banjo and guitar grooves, shared with fiddle drones, plaintive cornet lines and, on two tracks, lap slide licks from dobro maestro Jerry Douglas. In their mesmeric urgency, there’s more than an occasional hint of the late Richie Havens in full flow, a welcome memory in itself.

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