Album reviews: The Flaming Lips - Oczy Mlody, David Bowie - No Plan, Sohn - Rennen, and more

Also Flo Morrissey & Matthew E White – Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, Rick Wakeman – Piano Portraits, and Aaron Lee Tasjan​ – Silver Tears

Andy Gill
Wednesday 11 January 2017 17:43
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The Flaming Lips, Oczy Mlody

★★★★☆

Download: Oczy Mlody; How??; One Night While Hunting...; Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes; The Castle

The Flaming Lips have always played around with sly dichotomies of sound and meaning, seeking out things like the chilly implications of sunshine, the anxieties underpinning love, or the dangerous delights of the imagination, and embodying these emotional dialectics in music just as sweetly ominous.

On The Terror, their last album, that balance was slightly out of kilter, resulting in a more harrowing journey than usual; but with Oczy Mlody, they’ve relocated a space closer to the happy place of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, with fear and sadness couched within a fantastical menagerie of unicorns and edible butterflies and frogs with demon eyes, while heavily medicated music simultaneously soothes and soars. It’s a lovely, silly, serious work that draws one in despite the bursts of utopian cosmo-babble.

The instrumental title track encapsulates the album’s duality in musical form, with errantly puttering bass and wetly trembling beat behind a typically wistful keyboard figure: the combination of poignant melody and abrasive experimentalism that recalls The Residents, a comparison that crops up time and gain throughout Oczy Mlody. In “How??”, Wayne Coyne’s fragile voice desolately sketches a dystopian tableau of isolation – “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how” – interrupted by vocal effects and darting instrumental tangents: dark sentiments draped in a sweet melody, seething with musical extremism.

In “Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes”, Coyne’s vocal recalls Neil Young at his most meander-thal, as he offers a hazy, fragile musing upon nature and space in heavily lysergic terms, with the drifting synths, strings and guitars providing music to match. Elsewhere, juddering vibrato organ and muscular psych-funk bass underpin the sighing wordless vocal of “Nigdy Nie (Never No)”, before a big string arrangement arrives in “Galaxy I Sink” to bathe Coyne’s misgivings and anxieties in balm. And typically, the most satisfying, fulfilled piece here comes with one of the silliest titles, “One Night While Hunting For Faeries And Witches And Wizards To Kill”.

But buried amongst the cosmic fairytale whimsy and unbridled psychedelia lurk sombre moments whose impact is thus placed in sharper relief – most effectively in “The Castle”, a plaintive response to a friend’s suicide, her mind characterised as a castle which “can never be rebuilt, no way”. It’s a touching monument built from the rubble of an emotional ground zero.

Flo Morrissey & Matthew E White, Gentlewoman, Ruby Man

★★★☆☆

Download: Sunday Morning; Look At What The Light Did Now; Thinking Bout You

The covers album is always a double-edged sword, rendered all the more complicated here by being the debut collaboration of apparently incongruous stylists – folksy Anglo chanteuse Flo Morrissey recording with blue-eyed soul sophisticate Matthew E White at his Spacebomb Studio in Virginia.

His light, understated tenor blends well with her piquant tone on the blithe, buttoned-down yacht-rock grooves he creates for Little Wings’ “Look At What The Light Did Now” and Frank Ocean’s “Thinking Bout You”; but an affectless version of Barry Gibb’s “Grease” is less successful, while White’s lollopy take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” extinguishes its luminous charm. But by far the best interpretation applies a Spector/Wilson groove of chugging keyboards and backing vocals to “Sunday Morning”. Like the smartest covers, it makes you think that perhaps this was what the Velvets were really aiming for all along.

David Bowie, No Plan

★★★★☆

Download: Lazarus; No Plan; Killing A Little Time; When I Met You

For possibly the final issue of studio material by David Bowie, this EP draws together his performances from the Lazarus soundtrack, in effect adding a neat postscript to Blackstar, with “Lazarus” itself forming the bridge.

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Blackstar’s moods and musical modes are continued through these tracks, in which Thomas Jerome Newton’s decline eerily reflects Bowie’s own. “Killing A Little Time” finds him entropic in the pouring rain – “I’m falling, man, I’m choking, man, I’m fading, man” – though the urgent art-metal riffing suggests otherwise; the louche garage-rock groove of “When I Met You” perfectly embodies the pre-punk memories he’s struggling to recall; and “No Plan” itself is the end of the line, Bowie wearily abandoning “my moves, my beliefs, my desires – me alone, nothing to regret” whilst Donny McCaslin’s sax arrives late on, like a febrile, world-wearied ghost of the thin, triumphantly youthful sound David Sanborn brought to Young Americans.

Rick Wakeman, Piano Portraits

★★★☆☆

Download: Life On Mars; Space Oddity; Eleanor Rigby

For so many years, Rick Wakeman hid his talent in plain sight, splurging on over-egged puddings of overdubbed synthesisers, whose performance usually involved ridiculous costumes in ludicrous locations. But Piano Portraits finds him quite naked, reduced to 88 ivories and his imagination, as applied to standards from the pop/classical interface. Some tracks – “Life On Mars”, “Morning Has Broken”, “Space Oddity” – involve expansion of the parts he played on the original hits, to accommodate the vocal melody; others suffer an excess of florid trilling that obscures their simple beauty.

But the most challenging pieces are the Beatles tunes that bookend the album, with a delicate “Help” more of a plaintive cry than heartfelt shout (and spoilt by a needless closing quote from “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”), while a bustling, oddly aloof arrangement transforms “Eleanor Rigby” into something akin to a polka or mazurka.

Aaron Lee Tasjan​, Silver Tears

★★★★☆

Download: Hard Life; Little Movies; Memphis Rain; Refugee Blues; Success

Less rhinestone cowboy than maverick journeyman, alt.country songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan’s CV covers everything from glam-punk to Southern rock, with all musical stations in between leading to Silver Tears, a gloriously diverse collection of wittily-wrought, emotionally acute songs tracking contemporary sensibilities.

There are mesmeric, cyclical country-blues about “howling in the darkness”; twangsome country-rockers about love and loss; and swamp-funk cakewalks musing on how success is “about being better than yourself”, rather than everyone else. The latter slice of hard-earned wisdom is echoed elsewhere in ruminations upon the peripatetic life of a musician (“Going nowhere is adventure you dare not refuse”) and songwriters’ addiction to recycling pain and hardship as song-fodder, an admission quirkily set, in “Hard Life”, to a ragtime shuffle akin to Nilsson’s “Coconut”. Endlessly entertaining.

Sohn, Rennen

★★★☆☆

Download: Hard Liquor; Signal; Rennen

“Noir&B” may be the best term to describe the widespread crossover indie/R&B sound that’s everywhere these days, a sombre, often darkly amoral strain of (mostly) boudoir confessional soundtracked by glitchy beats and smudges of strings and synths. It links North Americans like Drake, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver with Brits such as James Blake, FKA twigs and Sohn (Christopher Taylor), whose second album Rennen was created, in typically introvert manner, alone in a house in northern California.

Taylor’s warm, angelic tenor brings a sense of calm fortitude to his musings, in tracks such as “Signal” and “Rennen”, on things like faith, love and ambition, while his music stays as much out of the way as possible – usually just a skeletal, stuttering electro beat stained by sparse keyboards or strings, perhaps building via late-blossoming braids of snakelike synth lines. It’s a wise move: oddly, the busier things get, the less engaging they seem.

Dennis Coffey​, Hot Coffey In The D

★★★☆☆

Download: The Look Of Love; Maiden Voyage; The Big D

A Motown and Invictus session stalwart of the Sixties, Detroit guitarist Dennis Coffey carved out a subsequent career as solo funkateer of itchily engaging instrumentals. But this recently discovered live recording from 1968 captures him at an earlier stage, just before his reputation soared through contributions to classics like “Cloud 9”, “War” and "Band Of Gold”.

Performing as a trio with organist Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis, Coffey first cruises, then combusts, through extended instrumental covers of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “The Look Of Love”, the latter providing particularly fertile terrain for his nimble fretwork: you can sense a shift in the club ambience during his dizzying solo runs, as punters pay closer attention. It prepares the ground for a tilt at Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” that hints at the trio’s deeper jazz intentions in their own compositions like “Fuzz” and “The Big D”.

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