Album reviews: Graham Coxon – The End of the F***ing World, Field Music – Open Here, Simple Minds – Walk Between Worlds, and more

Also: Joan As Police Woman, Steve Reich, The James Hunter Six and Lily Hiatt

Andy Gill
Thursday 01 February 2018 12:16
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Graham Coxon, The End Of The F***ing World

★★★★☆

Download: Angry Me; In My Room; The Snare; Lucifer’s Behind Me; There’s Something In The Way You Cry

Graham Coxon has always seemed the least comfortable of star guitarists, less concerned with image, bravado and pose than with matters of pure sound and skill. It’s this paradoxical position – clearly an introvert stuck in an extrovert job – that lends a particular piquancy to his solo work, and never more so than on The End Of The F***ing World, the soundtrack to a Netflix series about a pair of teenage outsider runaways. It’s more sympathetic territory than that covered in 2012’s A+E, which was loosely themed around drunken British lairiness; but whether it’s due to affinities with the characters’ alienated attitudes, or to the freedom afforded by working to commission, there’s a certain irony in the way that this album, ostensibly built around a fiction, seems to reflect Coxon’s own character more intimately than his previous solo albums.

Indeed, the first time I heard The End Of The F***ing World, I didn’t know it was a soundtrack, and felt that songs like the quiet domestic tableaux “Saturday Night” and “In My Room” – a gentle strum’n’drum depicting him “endlessly thinking and working” while the world outside goes on its merry way – were personal accounts of Coxon’s Camden hideaway life. Likewise, the self-lacerating concern with moods and appearances in “Angry Me” seemed like the guitarist exposing his own frailties, in the disconcerting manner of Syd Barrett or Daniel Johnston. Built around what sounds like an acoustic variant of the Blur “Song 2” riff, it’s indicative of the tentative balance of soft and hard, acoustic and electric, folk and rock that characterises the album.

The opener “Walking All Day” is typical, a rolling blend of finger-style guitar and acoustic slide whose protagonist struggles “with my mouth on fire, trying to get talking to you”: that reference to fire lurks beneath the song’s gentle, self-deprecatory tone like a predatory impulse waiting to break out. So too with “Bus Stop”, its notional communality darkly shattered by Coxon’s warning “Walk a fine line, don’t follow me, don’t talk to me”, as flanged guitar arpeggios tighten around the song. “On The Prowl” is much more direct, though its garage psych-rock riff doesn’t so much prowl as run down the street howling. By contrast, the calm intimacy of “She Left The Light On” is confirmed by Coxon’s unexpected burst of carefree whistling, a glimmer of light in the prevailing gloom.

The album seems to expand musically as it progresses, with modest instrumental interludes like “The Beach” – a brief snatch of acoustic slide guitar and gulls – punctuating more ambitious arrangements such as “The Snare”, a David Lynch-ian exercise in whammy-bar atmospherics and percussive drama that finds Coxon channelling his inner Duane Eddy. And there’s a touch of The Day Of The Dead about “Lucifer’s Behind Me”, whose satanic theme is underscored with an oddly chipper norteño twang.

Overall, it’s a diversely engaging journey that reaches a quietly ambivalent conclusion in “There’s Something In The Way You Cry”, an achingly melancholy paternal reaction to a child’s unhappiness which, he realises, nevertheless propels its development. “I see the grown-up form, the child disappear,” he notes sadly, a cusp for which he clearly has enormous empathy.

Field Music, Open Here

★★★☆☆

Download: Time In Joy; Open Here; No King, No Princess

Sustained throughout by the brittlest of crisp backbeats, the Brewis brothers’ latest pop-funk offering may be their most baroque yet. At its best, it’s like the oddball offspring of Prince and The Left Banke, its elliptical melodies wreathed in strings and woodwind; but as ever, they sometimes can’t resist adding one more waffer-thin-mint to an already overstuffed musical pudding. “Time In Joy” signals the general tone, its plea for some relief from the “deep and dark” stippled with playful staccato flutes, guitar and percussion.

Thereafter, the songs offer oblique responses to changing times: the morning-after shock of unexpected electoral results; the plight of refugees; and several parental observations – most notably, in “No King, No Princess”, about the meagreness of childhood ambition. Elsewhere, “Count It Up” is a sly call to count one’s blessings, however slight, while chugging strings and harpsichord provide a quirky backdrop to the title-track’s reflection on what happens when the viveur stops being quite so bon.

Joan As Police Woman, Damned Devotion

★★★★☆

Download: What Was It Like; Talk About It Later; Warning Bell; Steed; Wonderful

Joan Wasser may have shifted her musical approach again – swapping the Motown-ish pop-soul stylings of The Classic for a more neo-soul sound built around sparse keyboard textures supplied by herself and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett – but her subject matter remains essentially the same on Damned Devotion, dealing mostly with the entrancing, maddening complexities of love. It’s an area where her naivete, she freely admits, too often leads to disappointment. “Why did I trust this guy?”, she reproaches herself in “Silly Me”, and elsewhere she regrets the lack of some “Warning Bell” to ward her from ill-judged liaisons, the airy string-synth ambience evoking a cloud of misplaced idealism.

But she can’t help herself: “Valid Jagger” and the Genet-referencing “Steed” are suffused with sensuous carnal urgency, while the turmoil of “Talk About It Later” is perfectly captured in the eerie, keening mellotronic strings riding its lumpy bump’n’grind. A more innocent love, however, resides in the swaying charm of “What Was It Like”, a lovely tribute to her late father.

Simple Minds, Walk Between Worlds

★★☆☆☆

Download: Walk Between Worlds; Barrowland Star; Magic

Sadly, Simple Minds have here abandoned the engaging Celtic folk-rock style they employed on last year’s acoustic makeover of their back catalogue, reverting to the wheezing attempt to summon former glories of 2014’s Big Music. The big, epic approach, all spangly guitars, rumbling drums and amorphous keyboard textures, has a suitably oceanic manner, especially on the string-drenched title-track and “Barrowland Star”, a reminiscence of a time when the band “sacrificed ourselves for something better”. But the vaunting, hopeful tone is frittered away on evanescent anthems for vague, fantasy abstractions in songs such as “Magic”, “In Dreams” and “Utopia”, shiny blurs of sound with their gaze seemingly set on unconvincing mirages of emotional intensity. The deep, surging bass pulse that opens “Summer” suggests a more focused approach, but before long Jim Kerr’s descending again into his dreams, anticipating “all those energies” amidst yet another miasmic, swirling sea of sound, and the song just evaporates into a mist of queasy bombast.

Steve Reich, Pulse/Quartet

★★★★☆

Download: Pulse; Quartet

This latest pair of pieces from Steve Reich by turns reflect and contrast with his earlier works. Performed by the Colin Currie Group, “Quartet” is scored for two pianos and two vibes, reflecting Reich’s most familiar quartet voicings. Opening with jerky, clambering piano figures either punctuated or doubled by vibes, the opening movement gives way to a slower second section whose unusual (for Reich) harmonies impose melancholic shadings, eventually resolved in an energetic final movement with vibes riding staccato morse-code piano parts. Constantly regenerating through numerous key changes, it has the familiar satisfying logic we’ve come to expect from Reich, whilst “Pulse”, played by the International Contemporary Ensemble, breaks new ground for the composer in its harmonic stasis: winds and strings inscribe a cyclical melodic line that seems to rise constantly over a steady 4/4 pulse, weightlessly spiralling like thermal currents. The palette is tender, and the changes subtle: it’s like climbing a mountain, the same view altering by slight increments over the course of the ascent.

The James Hunter Six, Whatever It Takes

★★★★☆

Download: I Should’ve Spoke Up; I Don’t Wanna Be Without You; Whatever It Takes; Blisters

James Hunter’s latest outing with Daptone producer Bosco Mann extends the idiosyncratic retro stylings of last year’s Hold On!, setting his scorched soul vocals to a blend of R&B, Latin and Caribbean grooves, a sound rarely heard since Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames played The Flamingo. It’s infectious stuff, right from the opening bars of “I Don’t Wanna Be Without You”, a languid shuffle of organ and saxes, with occasional castanet flourishes accenting the rumba groove. Hunter’s plea “to have some faith in me” rides the slinky Latin twitch and smooth chocolate horns of the title track with measured elan, before the more urgent entreaties of “I Got Eyes” chase hurtling horns, organ and vibes. His blues and gospel influences show through more directly on “Blisters”, a terse guitar boogie instrumental in Freddie King manner, and “How Long”, a slouchy acoustic blues with jubilee-style backing vocals. But once again, it’s the figure of Sam Cooke that looms largest over the scudding groove of the album’s best track, “I Should’ve Spoke Up”.

Lilly Hiatt, Trinity Lane

★★★★☆

Download: The Night David Bowie Died; Trinity Lane; Imposter; Records

This apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree: like her dad John, Lilly Hiatt has a gift for unpicking knotty lyrical themes in a personalised blend of countrified rock music – in her case, an alt-rock upbringing most clearly revealed in the backwards guitars and oblique harmonies of “The Night David Bowie Died”, which recall The Breeders. It heralds the album’s general theme of recognising one’s failings, and trying to change direction – a resolution most vibrantly expressed in the monochord piano rocker “Trinity Lane” itself. And there’s a lingering affection for the tree which bore her: “Imposter” may ache with regret for childhood years not spent with her father when he was off touring – though despite it all, he’s no imposter, but “a guiding light when I hear you sing”. It’s an attitude informed by personal experience, as she acknowledges in “Rotterdam” how performing is an addiction it’s hard to quit. And fostered by music (“that record waited up for me”), she clearly values her self-reliance: “I’ll take lonely if it means free”.

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