The Low Anthem, The Salt Doll Went to Measure the Depth of the Sea
Download: Bone Of Sailor, Bone Of Bird; Give My Body Back; Drowsy Dowsing Dolls; Toowee Toowee; Cy Twombly By Campfire
Over the course of a decade, The Low Anthem metamorphosed from the alt-folk harmonies of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin to the fantastical psychedelia of 2016’s Eyeland.
But just as that album was released, a tour van crash destroyed much of their gear and left co-founder Jeff Prystowsky concussed in hospital for several weeks. Unable to tour, the band’s other prime mover, Ben Knox Miller, was reading a John Cage biography and became struck by the fable that inspired this latest shift in direction.
A salt doll, seeking to know more about itself, is told that salt comes from the ocean, and heads for the sea. When it puts a toe in the water, it learns something, but loses the toe; and the more it immerses, the more it learns, but the less of it remains – until it finds self-knowledge in complete dissolution.
As Prystowsky recuperated, Knox Miller embarked on this concept album, imagining the salt doll’s subsequent submersive explorations, which then form the diving-off points for a dozen short, spare reflections on being and nothingness. It’s a satisfying response to Eyeland, shifting from that album’s lofty cosmic speculations to more earthly, though equally philosophical, musings: from sky to sea, from extrovert to introvert, from vast to tiny. And like the protagonist of The Incredible Shrinking Man, the journey results in a sort of epiphany of infinity which, despite the album’s short running-time, resonates long after it’s finished.
“Bone Of Sailor, Bone Of Bird” opens the album on the cusp of life and death, with Knox Miller’s musings about “dust, only flakes of skin” set to minimal piano notes and quietly puttering percussion – an example of the restricted options available following the loss of their equipment. Elsewhere, vinyl scratches, glitchy percussion beds and barely perceptible tints of keyboards, guitar, trumpet, woodwind and violin combine with Knox Miller’s breathy falsetto in an immersive, ambient manner that recalls James Blake – though here applied to matters of head rather than heart.
In “Give My Body Back”, the doll realises “there were deserts on the sea floor, mountains higher than any you’d see on land”; while “Gondwanaland” gazes even further back, musing on epochs spent dividing single land and water masses into separate seas and continents. There’s a misty, drifting mood about the album as a whole, though “Cy Twombly By Campfire” develops a gentle pop charm akin to The Beach Boys circa Friends; but old hippies everywhere will appreciate the central message of the salt doll’s journey: “He will become less me, make our way to we, to we”.
Download: Azzaman; Tamudre; Ehad Wa Dagh; Tumast
Hailing from southern Algeria, Imarhan are youthful standard-bearers for the Tuareg desert-blues pioneered by Tinariwen, whose Eyadou Ag Leche, producer of this second album, is cousin to Imarhan singer Sadam. Like their appearance, which blends the traditional head-swaddling cheche with goatee beards and designer shades, the group’s sound mixes old and new, east and west. Dramatic rock-style flourishes punctuate the rolling shuffle “Alwa”, and there are echoes of country picking in the brisk, stinging guitar fills of “Ehad Wa Dagh”. Most potently, there’s a Santana-esque flavour to the Afro-Latin funk of “Tamudre” and “Tumast”, the latter’s fiery, skirling guitar runs accelerating to a dervish frenzy. Elsewhere, “Tarka Nam” and the closing anthem “Ma S-Abok” offer a folksy acoustic balance, while the opener “Azzaman” is the most effective vehicle for the album’s theme of passing along the heritage baton, with Sadam’s soulful, wavering vocal and snaking guitar riff borne along by peppery polyrhythms of skin, wood and metal.
The Lovely Eggs, This Is Eggland
Download: Hello I Am Your Sun; Wiggy Giggy; Dickhead; Repeat It
With the Shane Meadows-punning This Is Eggland, Lancastrian freak-rock duo The Lovely Eggs take a giant leap forward. Producer Dave Fridmann has managed to effect the same kind of equilibrial magic he wielded with The Flaming Lips, bringing power and clarity to the Eggs’ churning psych-punk turmoil of guitars and synths, and balancing it with the plaintive anger of Holly Ross’s vocals. It’s a marvellous trick, executed perfectly on the sizzling psych-rock opener “Hello I Am Your Sun”, with Ross’s harmonies swathed in waspish guitar, and the fizzy stomp-rock chant “Wiggy Giggy”, which takes an engagingly wry tilt at astral ambitions. “Dickhead” is another winner, with a Glitter Band-style glam-fuzz stomp intro giving way to a fast punk thrash as Ross proudly owns the putdown: “I’m a twit, I’m a nit, I’m a s***”, etc. But their perennial position, poised on the cusp of psychedelia and punk, is perhaps best realised in the chugging whirlpool swirl of “Repeat It”, which evokes the surly, rolling momentum of “Silver Machine”.
Sarah Blasko, Depth of Field
Download: Phantom; A Shot; Never Let Me Go
The title echoes Joan As Policewoman’s The Deep Field, and with good reason: Depth Of Field is effectively an homage from Aussie singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko to her American counterpart, an album that frets gently and artfully at the wounds of human attraction and rejection. As with Joan Wasser’s recent work, her observations are suspended on subtle webs of modernist neo-soul electropop, underscored in places by dramatic string arrangements. “Phantom” opens proceedings with a tribute to the “phantom heartbeat” that armours her spirit, before “A Shot” confronts the trauma of abandonment (“You stole my memories from my family”). The contrast effectively sets the album’s emotional parameters, before Blasko embarks on a series of apologies that aren’t quite sorry, in songs such as “Never Let Me Go”, “Everybody Wants To Sin” and the unrepentant admission of infidelity “Making It Up”. It’s rigorously sincere, but not always entertaining – as she notes elsewhere, “I’ve got plans to make, to learn from old mistakes”.
Femi Kuti, One People One World
Download: Africa Will Be Great Again; One People One World; How Many; E Get As E Be
It’s always been hard to translate the irresistible propulsion of Femi Kuti’s live shows into a comparably effective studio realisation, but with One People One World he makes a decent stab. This apple, clearly, has not fallen far from the tree: the staccato keyboard, Afrobeat percussion, massed horns and choruses of tracks like “Africa Will Be Great Again”, “Dem Militarize Democracy” and “Dem Don Come Again” follow the approach pioneered by Femi’s father Fela Kuti, as do his pidgin diatribes against corruption and oppression – sadly, shadows still not cleared despite the passing of a generation. Femi’s broadsides may be blunt, unsubtle cudgels, but the real message lies in the music itself, a blend of lightness, power and majesty that’s truly uplifting, with nimble guitar vamps and cyclical soukous figures anchoring the ebullient horn fanfares and chanted vocal responses, a fitting example of collective power. And with Femi’s son Omorinmade Anikulapo-Kuti featured on piano and bass, the flame is clearly passing to another generation, undimmed and inextinguishable.
Download: Extralife; Eschaton; Orion; The Best Of The Best Of Times
With Extralife, baroque-folk combo Darlingside take a huge pendulum swing away from the childhood themes of their debut album Birds Say, envisioning instead a post-apocalyptic future of scorched-earth purity, in which “mushroom clouds [have] reset the sky”. It’s a weird conceit: there’s a marked disjunction between the images of cities levelled into ghost towns and the band’s glorious harmonies, which recall the uplifting hymnal polyphony of Fleet Foxes or American Beauty-era Dead. But there’s a warm indulgence about the arrangements, which augment the folksy guitars and banjos with ruminative horns, misty string drones and electronics, that speaks loudly of hope and possibility. It’s a mood best summarised in “Eschaton”, where past mistakes are jettisoned for the future: “No matter what they’ve been, we are the future now”. Though as they acknowledge over the final track’s whirring, miasmic bricolage of ticks, drones and distortion, “We’re a long way from the best of the best of times”.
Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, Big Time Operator
Download: Barefootin’; I’ll Go Crazy; Jump Back; Big Time Operator
When the Georgie Fame left the Flamingo Club for a solo career, it was Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band that replaced The Blue Flames as the club’s house band. Showcasing Money’s smoky vocals and Hammond organ, and future Police guitarist Andy Summers’ deft, jazzy licks, Zoot’s band specialised in boisterous R&B rave-ups generously upholstered with the burring horn riffs of a two-piece sax section. This 4CD set collates their entire output, featuring live albums recorded at the Flamingo and Klooks Kleek alongside copious appearances on the BBC’s Saturday Club, and the band’s one studio album, It Should’ve Been Me. Rendered live in a single day, the latter is hugely impressive, its ebullient panache speaking volumes about the benefits of that Flamingo residency. But entertaining as they were, the band was increasingly stranded with an old format in a culture shifting inexorably to smaller combos and more fanciful pretensions, and by 1968 had mutated into Dantalian’s Chariot – a shift singularly unsuited to their natural strengths.
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