Album reviews: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Wrong Creatures, The Go! Team – Semicircle, Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread

Also Johnny Dowd – Twinkle, Twinkle, Bob Dylan – The Music Which Inspired Girl From The North Country, and Brona McVittie – We Are The Wildlife

Andy Gill
Thursday 11 January 2018 17:13
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Producer Nick Launay has taken the BRMC’s core sound, with its fuzz-drenched Goth-rock timbres and sunglasses-after-dark attitude, and highlighted the details previously trapped within
Producer Nick Launay has taken the BRMC’s core sound, with its fuzz-drenched Goth-rock timbres and sunglasses-after-dark attitude, and highlighted the details previously trapped within

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Wrong Creatures

★★★★☆

Download this: Spook; Haunt; Echo; Question Of Faith; Calling Them All Away

Like many rock classicists, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club seemed hidebound by their influences, prevented from realising a truly authentic rock’n’roll experience by their mannered appropriation of retro sounds and especially antique attitudes. For so many years, it appeared as if they were trying to live out the futile more-wasted-than-thou rivalry between The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre documented in the tragically comic Dig!, while their music accordingly emulated those bands’ plummeting trajectories.

I’m not sure if it’s them that’s changed or me, but right now I’m enjoying Wrong Creatures far more than any previous BRMC album. It’s their most accomplished clawing-back so far of the basic dark rock’n’roll street-smarts that were lost as they cast fruitlessly around for new directions with projects like the acoustic album Howl and the awful noise-scape effort The Effects Of 333 (their very own Metal Machine Music).

A large part of the success must be down to new producer Nick Launay, best known for his work with Arcade Fire and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Launay has taken the BRMC’s core sound, with its fuzz-drenched Goth-rock timbres and sunglasses-after-dark attitude, and highlighted the details previously trapped within. It’s like peering closely at a Malevich or Mondrian canvas and noticing the brushwork rather than the flatness: all of a sudden, what had seemed inert and static comes shockingly alive. We’re set up for it by “Off”, which opens the album with a rumbling tom-tom tattoo, breathy humming and the faintest of occasional guitar stabs: it forces one to listen more closely, before paying off with the low-slung raunch-rock prowl of “Spook” – the muted howl of “a dead-end soul with a dead-end heart” – and the pulsing “King Of Bones”, which manages the unusual musical paradox of swaggering torpor.

But it’s the languid love plaint “Haunt” on which BRMC really start blossoming anew. With shivering strings behind a desolate guitar twang, it has a David Lynch-ian ambience that recalls the spookier efforts of Calexico, setting up the mood for the ensuing “Echo”, a miasmic, swirling ballad in which singer Peter Hayes reaches more genuinely emotional depths than previously mined, as he realises “you can drown in your own desire”. It’s deliciously dark, like Chris Isaak covering The Jesus And Mary Chain.

Elsewhere, “Question Of Faith” is a slow, predatory creep of juddering, reverb-swathed guitars, and “Little Things Gone Wild” a chuntering rock pulse, while the lengthier “Ninth Configuration” and “Calling Them All Away” explore more complex, textured arrangements. The latter is magnificent, Hayes’ haunted vocal adrift in a psychedelic swirl of cello drones, sitar and harpsichord, all slowly subsumed within a vast fuzz-guitar tsunami. It’s the standout track on an album which surprised me by restoring my belief in certain dog-eared rock cliches, and it speaks volumes for BRMC’s enduring faith, too.

The Go! Team – Semicircle

★★★☆☆

Download this: Mayday; Semicircle Song; Plans Are Like A Dream U Organise

For this latest incarnation of The Go! Team, bandleader Ian Parton has doubled down on the street-beat cheerleader mash-up mode of earlier albums like Proof Of Youth by searching out an actual youth choir from Detroit to accompany the marching-band-style brass that drives Semicircle. This works brilliantly on “Mayday”, an anthemic lament for love signals ignored, with the ebullient brass and chanted vocals evoking street parades, and “Semicircle Song”, in which the staccato brass lines interlace like a proper New Orleans marching band, while the singers introduce themselves with astrological signs, Seventies-style. Parton’s even cannily emulated the sound characteristics of a school gymnasium, as if we’re at a basketball match, blending horns and drums with sleigh bells, glockenspiel, flute, sitar guitar and steel pans to create a splashy, low-budget Wall Of Sound that suits the choir’s “vigorous spirits”, but rather shows up the disaffected, nonchalant tone of the female soloists fronting most of the tracks. Too cool for school, perhaps?

Johnny Dowd – Twinkle, Twinkle

★★★★☆

Download this: The Cuckoo; St James Infirmary Blues; Rock Of Ages; Tom Dooley; Job 17:11-17

Always keen on testing musical heritage with a perverse, exploratory attitude, on Twinkle Twinkle Johnny Dowd goes the full Resident on us, treating cornerstones of Americana to sometimes terrifyingly atonal avant-rock and electronic makeovers that expose the soft white underbellies of songs such as “John The Revelator” and “Tom Dooley”. Folk standard “The Cuckoo”, for instance, becomes a menacing electronic shuffle, while grim dubstep and waspish organ bring a truly despairing tone to “Trouble In Mind” and “St James Infirmary Blues”. Dowd strikes even further out on “Rock Of Ages”, shouting “I said Rock!” over a drunken, stumbling electro beat and darting guitar stabs, as if exhorting a crowd to riot rather than to church. Elsewhere, Anna Coogan’s harmonies lend an authentic mountain-music edge to the murder ballad “Tom Dooley”; while Dowd’s abject narration, stalked by spindly, primitive beat and nightmarish swirl of noise, restores real desolation to the oft-prettified “House Of The Rising Sun”. A dirty job, but somebody had to do it.

Bob Dylan – The Music Which Inspired Girl From The North Country

★★★☆☆

Download this: Like A Rolling Stone; Blind Willie McTell; I Want You; Lay, Lady, Lay

As Dylan anthologies go, this has to be the weirdest. Compiled to convey the various threads of Conor McPherson’s acclaimed play, the lack of that anchoring narrative here means that the music gusts randomly hither and thither. In the stage production, the use of a staple Depression Era style smoothes out the progress, but here the stylistic switches in Dylan’s delivery and arrangements just exacerbate the chaos. And while there are enough classics to admire, the overall song choices are quixotic, to put it mildly: three tracks apiece from Infidels and Street-Legal, but only one each from Freewheelin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks, and none at all from Bringing It All Back Home? Does not compute. Meanwhile, the baffling absence (save for the title track) of the earlier material which might seem closer to the show’s folksy style is underlined by the appearance, right at the end, of “My Back Pages”, Dylan’s revisionist dismissal of his past. A rum do, all told.

Various Artists – The Transports

★★★★☆

Download this: Us Poor Fellows; The Leaves In The Woodland; Dark Water; The Green Fields Of England

Originally created in 1977 by the most distinctive voice of Sixties folk music, Peter Bellamy, the ballad opera The Transports told the true story of a hapless 18th-century couple separated by penal transportation before being reunited. This splendid 40th anniversary re-recording by young luminaries of today’s folk scene substantially revises the work, with new instrumental settings and more collective vocal arrangements backing up the individual characters’ stories, which are further explicated through the addition of a spoken narrative. There’s an empathetic warmth to the drones and tones of fiddle, cello and melodeon, but it’s the diverse qualities of the voices that bring the tragedy vividly to life, especially Nancy Kerr’s bitterly emotive blast at judicial brutality in “The Leaves In The Woodland”. The most striking change, though, is the appearance midway through the album of Sean Cooney’s “Dark Water”, about Syrian refugee Hesham Modamani’s desperate swim to sanctuary. Underlining the parallels with present-day forced migrations, it’s a pertinent addition which bridges the historical distance, bringing the original story closer to home.

Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread

★★★☆☆

Download this: The Hem; Boletus Felleus; Phantom Thread III; House Of Woodcock

For his latest Paul Thomas Anderson soundtrack, Jonny Greenwood seeks to evoke the demi-monde glamour of the post-war London fashion scene surrounding its dress-designer protagonist. Accordingly, the more experimental leanings of previous scores have been replaced by a lush romanticism reminiscent of Nelson Riddle and Miklos Rozsa, most engagingly in the limpid serenity of “House Of Woodcock”, and most arrestingly in the grand, sweeping drama of “Phantom Thread III”. In between these great orchestral set-pieces, Greenwood embroiders more intimate, smaller-scale details which presumably equate to close-ups, illuminating individual characters or moments: the prickly pizzicato indicative of “Barbara Rose”, for instance, and the way that the elegant waltz of piano and cello depicting “The Hem” is stitched together by intermittent bursts of sawing strings. Elsewhere, his familiar sonic tropes are afforded subtle intrusions that bring a distinctive, not-quite-modernist edge to the score, most impressively in the sustained high tones – Glass harmonica? Ondes Martenot? – which tingle among the strings of “Boletus Felleus”.

Brona McVittie – We Are The Wildlife

★★★★☆​

Download this: When The Angels Wake You; And The Glamour Fell On Her; Under The Pines; Broken Like The Morning

Irish harpist Brona McVittie’s debut release as a solo artist was largely inspired by her return, after years in London, to the rural environs of her native County Down. Which must be a place of surpassing beauty, judging by the gorgeous We Are The Wildlife. On songs old and new, her silken vocals and twinkling harp are deftly augmented by subtle instrumental tints and washes, like the glistening brass tones pulsing softly through the title track, and the glints of steel guitar and wafts of cello carrying her resonant harmonies in “And The Glamour Fell On Her”. The tone is set by “When The Angels Wake You”, a twittering duet of harp and birdsong cushioned in a gentle ambient drone as McVittie’s spirit soars aloft with sun, sky and stars. Elsewhere, breathy flute casts pastoral spells over several tracks, and quietly puttering percussion drives others, while the most subtly daring moment comes when her jaunt “Under The Pines” is bookended by quietly bubbling synth tones. A rare, and rarefied, beauty.

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