Album Reviews: October 2003


Jetplane Landing – Once Like a Spark (Smalltown America)

Well, what can I say? Jetplane Landing have come one hell of a long way since they supported my band, Duffmonkeys, to a packed house at Leicester’s famous venue The Shed. Well, ok, it wasn’t quite packed – there were three people there, the barmaid, the cleaner and our lead guitarist’s missus. I remember thinking, as I watched from the viewing hoardes, “this band’s pretty good” and being impressed that they’d even bothered to go on at all with such lacklustre support. So I bought their demo CD from them – a double a-side of “This Is Not Revolution Rock” and “Atoms Dream In Technicolour” single they were flogging at the gig.
Sadly, I lost that CD before I got home and thought nothing more of it. Then, three weeks later, when I was going through my “once-every-two-years” car clearout, I found said disc down the side of the passenger seat and was suitably impressed when I actually bothered to play iy. However, at this stage I was still under the misguided impression that JPL were just a very good band. I bought their debut album “Zero For Conduct” more as a helping hand really, as they were all nice guys and I thought they deserved it. To say my jaw dropped on my first listen would be an understatement. They mixed hard, angsty rants (“What the Argument Has Changed”) with tender but not twee love songs (“The Last Thing I Should Do”) and what’s more they seemed to have taken a large slice of influence from two of my favourite bands, The Pixies and Pavement. Now, this became a CD I could not put down, and eventually, I started to believe it was the greatest album ever made by anyone. And I still believe that! So following it up was always going to be a tough chore, but I’ve got to say this:- they’ve passed the test with flying colours.

First of all, let me just point out that “Once Like a Spark” is not even remotely like “Zero For Conduct” in any shape or form. Sure, there is the odd moment that could possibly have been slotted onto its predecessor without too many eyebrows being raised, namely “Brave Gravity” and maybe “Tethered By All That We Know”, but aside from those two, this is a far harder affair from our future Rock Gods.

As a result of this, the album is perhaps not quite as immediate in its appeal, but give this a few spins and the melodies flow thick and fast, becoming every bit as infectious as those on ZFC, despite Andrew sounding uncannily like Fozzie Bear on the first couple of verses to “Effect a Change”! That track is a prime example of the diversity of this group, starting off as a particularly angry punk record and culminating in one of the most hauntingly beautiful endings to a song I’ve heard in a long time.

Then of course, there are Mr. Ferris’ wonderfully poetic lyrics. After all it’s so refreshing to have artists who have something to say put so much time and effort into the way they conveythese things.

As far as musical references go, it’s difficult to pinpoint this time around. This is going to sound strange, but artists I was put in mind of during the album were The Police, Joe Jackson (“Writing the Ways Down”), Rage Against the Machine (“There Is No Real Courage Unless There Is Real Danger”), the Spencer Davis Group (“Do It…Now!) and a multitude of other unexpected comparisons I could make, albeit on a much heavier, grittier level. No doubt you may hear “Once Like a Spark” and wonder what the heck I’m going on about, but the one thing I think we’ll agree on is this: Jetplane Landing have once again created a spectacular MASTERPIECE. 10/10

Tone E



Liz Phair – Liz Phair (Capitol)

I wasn't unfamiliar with Liz Phair, or so I thought until I encountered her latest release and forth on the 'Phair-o-meter'. Not that I thought she was in anyway bad, more that this reminded me just how tallented she was in the first place. Remember '94's 'Whip-smart' and the ensuing release that was lifted from it, 'Supernava'? Although she seems to have run out of ideas as far as album titiles go, or possibiliy this is perhaps a little self promotion mores to the point, 'Liz Phair' is a wonderfully crafted slice of pop-rock, with the added bonus of lyrics that are so intelligently crafted that jaws will drop and mouths water so deliciously palatable are they. Nothing has changed as far as her twisted look at the world around her goes, although perhaps not quite as overly blatent as her first offering nearly 10 years ago - you will find this hits the nail on the head as far as word-smith that demands closer inspection.

I'd almost be inclined to say, phoar, get a load of that cover! But being familiar with Liz's previous work I think this is exactly what she'd want her audience to say, thereafter belittling them for having done so. So instead...9/10

Nick James



Orbital – Octane (Soundtrack) (EMI)

To my mind soundtrack's come in two differnt forms, those that you'd 'take home to your mother' - filled with 'hits' and the obigatory Bonnie Tyler tune, and those you know damn well she wouldn't approve of - together with spikey hair and body peircings. Well this is the later, in musical form at least, an entire soundtrack presentation written by Brighton group 'Orbital' they of 'Snivilisation' and 'Insides' to name a few - fine moments in electronica it has to be said, but the 'soundtrack' is an entirly different beast and although 'Orbital' might have seemed the obvious choice when looking for an artist to score a film, in practice is not as straight forward as you first assumed it may be.

To use the term 'eclectic' isn't the half of it, 14 tracks that go to make up moments for the film in question - Marcus Adam's, 'Octane'. These I have to say may be better put with that film, as I found this album a rather desolate experience, but for a horror film I can understand this would fit extemely well. In fact put further, Italian director Dario Argento might find these guy's extremely useful if he were to re-score the likes of 'Susperia'. The textures they have used in the production of the musical landscaping here are quite amazing, hard and spikey, cold and erie form perfectly on their palette. Film aside and describing this as an album in its own right, it might be best to understand that as an atmosphere for an alternative dinner party, this fits fine, but otherwise, outside the film I can't see an application. 4/10 (as an album) 8/10 (when applied to the movie).

Nick James

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Relaxed Muscle – A Heavy Night With... (Rough Trade)

Let's cut to the chase 'cos this is common knowledge, the group fronted by Richard Hawley (formerly Longpigs and sometime member of Pulp) and Darren Spooner, Jarvis Cocker's alter ego, but if you're expecting Pulp you're going to be disapointed - or maybe not. Pulp were kitsch, but these guy's - well Jarvis, is further honing the term and has created music with all the seedy undercurrents of a Soho night spot circa 'Budgie' and the eltro-pop finesse of a youth traniee cooking an omelette. That's not to say that this isn't good, because 'genius' would not be putting too finer term on affairs, we're driving a JCB though the Dorset countryside, using a sledge hammer to crack a nut at christmas, this will certainly not suffer the term 'dainty'. There are a number of moments that illustrate this point, none more so perhaps than the bands name, but also songs such as 'Muscle Music' were Cocker and Hawley have 'borrowed' with little to hide the fact from Adam's 'Ant Music', or the insinuation used on 'The Heavy' and 'Let It Ride'.

There are some groups who have attempted this style of 'tongue-in-check' presentation, but in spandex pants and have not fully pulled off the fact that they were in fact only joking. Relaxed Muscle have gone all the way in making clear their jovial intent and if you hadn't got the joke early on in the album, then proceed to pull the wool over your eyes as the album becomes almost, well serious. At times it may be considered taking the joke a little too far, but if you rememeber at all times that this is an album of two mates having a laugh, then you'll enjoy this all the more. 8/10

Nick James



The Fiery Furnaces – Gallowsbirds Bark (Rough Trade)

Hailing from the second city - Chicago - 'The Fiery Furnaces' have been described "like someone playing Rough Trade's entire back catalogue at once" and this is perhaps the best place to start when understanding their music. You will find this album not exactly the easiest to warm to upon your first encounter, but will I'm sure find it strangley compelling as you find yourself unable to 'switch off' and discover passsages-a-plenty in the wealth of music on offer here - 16 tracks!

The brother/sister outfit would appear to fit most comfortably into the 'garage' genre, but mix a definite blusey vibe, that incorporates a piano obviously stolen from an East-end pub and a guitar lifted from a sleeping busker
! But whatever the origin of the tools of their trade, they have written a quite superb debut that will honestly have the listener transfixed and like a junkie, desparate for their next fix.

Odd, but quite fantastically so. 7/10

Nick James



Various Artists – Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before (Rough Trade)

I am not, to be brutally honest, a big fan of compilation albums, and even less keen on “cover albums”. However, there are some exceptions, though these are few and far between. One of those exceptions was the NME’s “Ruby Traz” which featured over 30 artists of the day performing their own versions of number one hits. Similarly, this gathering of today’s Rough Trade acts giving their interpretations of songs by their former and present day stablemates has a great deal more charisma than many other albums of an analogous ilk. I was a little concerned that one of the artists here had covered “Walk Out To Winter”, a track from Aztec Camera’s superb “High Land Hard Rain” album, but I can thankfully say that not only have they made a good job of it, they’ve also made it sound more “alternative”, loathe as I am to use that turn of phrase, and the allure is all the greater for it.

Other whimsical wonders include Royal City’s insanely countrified version of The Strokes’ “Is This It?”, Elizabeth Fraser’s subtle take on Robert Wyatt’s already marvellous “At Last I Am Free” and the Fiery Furnaces’ account of Rough Trade stalwarts The Fall’s “Winter”. I ought to mention that this compilation was brought about to celebrate 25 years of the label’s existence, and given the several hundred magical moments and colourful artists brought to our attention over that time, I will be the first in line for the party! 8/10

Tone E



Machine Gun Fellatio – Paging Mr. Strike (Mushroom)

I don’t think there’s much doubt that MGF are purely in it for the sex. After all, what more would we expect from a band with a host of funky, sleazy tunes, filthy titles like “Pussytown”, “Smooth Sexy Monkey”, “(et Me Be Your) Dirty F#!@ing Whore” and the ridiculous opener “Butter My Ass With a Pigeon”, not to mention a moniker sure to raise a dirty smile in everyone from Bognor Regis to Adelaide.

Comprising of five guys and two girls, this Sydney outfit will shortly be undertaking the biggest tour of their career, playing support to Robbie Williams and Duran Duran in their homeland during December. It certainly has it’s moments, granted. It’s not all fun and games though – some of the tracks are rather overbearing and difficult to listen to. I found “Drugsex” a dash irritating and “Pussy Town” just seemed intent on using its shock value ahead of concentrating on the music itself.

These are minor quibbles though; the majority of the album features some sublimely infectious glittering prizes in the shape of the insanely catchy singles “Roller Coaster” and “Mutha Fukka On a Motorcycle” as well as the jaunty “The Girl Of My Dreams Is Giving Me Nightmares”. This is Australia’s answer to the Electric Six, but with perhaps a modicum more subtlety”! 7/10

Tone E



Brand New – Deja Entendu (Triple Crown)

Those who are looking from the outside in at Brand New will be under the misguided illusion that they are purely an emo band. Well, ok, I confess, that is essentially what they are. But there is more to them than that. You can easily pick out Idlewild, Funeral For a Friend, Green Day, Weezer, The Wonder Stuff, Adorable, REM, Papa Roach, Linkin Park and even Blur amongst the many mellifluent nuggets here.

One strange habit these guys seem to have though, is to never have titles that are actually mentioned in the songs, and I like that. For example “Me Vs Maradona Vs Elvis” is a wonderfully tender track and is probably the pick of the bunch for me, you’ll already know the brimming with enthusiasm recent single “The Quiet Things That No-one Ever Knows”, and surely one of the most heartfelt, poignant songs you will hear this year is “Good To Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Have To Do Is Die” with its downbeat verses and bristly chorus.

Other pearlers include “Tautou” – no doubt named after the nubile young French actress Audrey – the rousing acoustic finale “Play Crack the Sky” and the darkly sanguine “Okay I Believe You But My Tommy Gun Don’t”. There’s no doubt that Brand New’s Brand New album is well worth checking out. 8/10

Tone E



Chicks On Speed – 99c (Labels)

What to make of these three three chicks from 3 corners of the western world - Munich, New York and Sydney? Their third full length release and a group who have already attracted their fair share of media attention, mix in my mind anything from the attack of 'Babes In Toyland', through to the machanism of 'Kraftwerk', but this rarely lets up and has become very tiresome already.

It does have its moments, but these are few and early on in the album, so by the time I reached the 3rd or 4th track it was doing nothing but annoying the hell out of me! Perhaps I've missed ther point, but Oakey, Marsh and Ware did a better and more original job in the late seventies, now rather than kitsch it's just misplaced. 2/10

Nick James



Asian Dub Foundation – Keep Bangin’ On The Walls – Live (Rinse It Out)

I hate having to say things like this, but I’ve never really been able to grasp the fascination with Asian Dub Foundation. I’ve seen them live on several occasions at festivals and so forth, and each and every time they have proceeded to bore the pants off me for the best part of an hour. Coupled with this, I don’t really go for live albums either. Oh dear, looks like the ed picked the wrong reviewer for this write up then!

To be fair though, this is not the long, hellish slog that I was expecting it to be and there ARE junctures at which I actually found myself enjoying it – generally those that echoed Neville Staples and Lynval Golding. The fact still remains though, that too much of the output here was reminiscent of the frightening cackmeister Apache Indian, albeit in a tougher stylee. Well anyway, they’ve improved their status in my reckoning with this release, but they still have some way to go! 6/10

Tone E



Funeral For a Friend – Casually Dressed and Deep In Conversation (Infectious)

Well, from all my previous comments about this band, you will be left in no doubt that I am going to hate this enormously. Well, think again, because this album has usurped me somewhat and caught me very much off my guard. I can honestly now say this: I take back everything I ever said about this band in the past. I was so wrong. Beginning the album with the majestic “Rookie of the Year” – something of a cross between My Vitriol and the Foo Fighters – could have been just a fluke – but I’d like to go on record now as going from despising the band to loving them. I feel a little silly even, having previously bemoaned frontman Matt Davies’ tendency to yell incoherently at select moments of each track, before I discovered that these little snapshots are actually brought to us by the band’s frenzied sticksman Ryan Richards.

Still, those singles I formerly blasted work much better within the context of the album – to such an extent that I even enjoyed “Juneau” enormously, and by the time I reached the record’s finale I was wondering why I ever disliked the band in the first place!
It’s not often this happens, but in the past, when I’ve eventually grown to like a group that I had previously dismissed as futile, they have gone on to become one of my favourites. If Funeral For a Friend carry on the way they’re going, I’ll be wearing their t-shirts with pride on a regular basis.

An excellent album – “Storytelling” being the standout track in my opinion – full of emotion and energetic zest, and the perfect antidote who currently suffer from acute perceptional disorder like I once did! 9/10

Tone E

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The Strokes – Room On Fire (Rough Trade)

Two years ago 'This Is It' hit the UK music scene with not so much of a 'bang', more the rush of 'napalm', a wake-up call - "this is it" and it wasn't as if this was terribly different to what had already been done before, it was just that we hadn't seen its like for a while and put together in such a way, it screamed 'fresh'! Well the crash subsided, all to quickly from the release of this debut, a lasting memory maybe, but no more as we find New York's finest offer up the eagerly anticipated follow-up.

'Room On Fire' is this successor and a fine sibling at that. The formula is still the same, (well what do you expect in two years?) and certainly an album with driving pace behind its making. No longer able to be among the contestants for the 'best new comer', believe me this album will certainly be able to hold its own among the more tried and tested artists. Take your pick of emphatic descriptions - "brilliant", "fantastic", "superb", none of them maybe enough to describe just how much of a wake-up call this band have offered.

A short album, eleven tracks that clock in at just over 30 minutes (not that different to their former long player), the band seem to have hit on the winning ingredient of "never get bored", but with an album that seems to posses a content far greater than just minutes. Jangley guitar and rock solid rhythm, playing a supporting role to Julian Casablancas' vocal, should make this justification enough. I've heard albums this year, but my one recommendation would be that if you only buy one album, make this it. 10/10

Nick James



Belle And Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)

Together since 1996, originally signed to London's 'Jeepster Records', this eight piece from Glasgow have found a new home in the arms of the indie label who needs no introduction - 'Rough Trade'. The group are well known as being somewhat of an enigma, with the band having refused to release photographs or background information on their eight members, a quite admirable stance that does not seem to have had any ill-effect on the bands success to date.

They lay claim to an international patronage, amassed through a steadfast indie following that is more than deserved and will assure this latest offering a modicum of success before it's even heard I'm sure. But believe me, when this is heard, I'm certain this situation can only be strengthened by the release of this quite simply fantastic Trevor Horn produced album.

A group who have been described as having somewhat folk-pop tenancies, fans will be confident to hear that this recipe has not been changed in the writing an album that I'm sure will be rated if not their best, certainly among their best. The album's high points come thick and fast and from the outset - "Step Into My Office, Baby", is a cheeky little number that will raise a smile, through the album's title track and onto the next, a 'B&S' classic in the making "If She Wants Me" with its smooth guitar riff and somber vocal. "Piazza, New York Catcher", a tune that is heavy on the folk I spoke of earlier is perhaps isolated in its placing with many that follow being heavier on the indie-pop side of music. As always exceptions being served up as we welcome the album's penultimate song "Roy Walker" (a tune I can see shades of Julian Cope and maybe even Johnny Cash), but rock'n'roll a' la seventies certainly kicks you up the proverbial back-side. To close off proceedings "Stay Loose" is another 'B&S' classic, huge guitar riffs and a ham-organ that is given ample space.

So finally we come to the marking of this, it has to be said is a hugely enjoyable album, but what to give it? I've ranged in my listening from 8 through to 10, my only reservation, the folkey tendencies displayed on track 4, "Piazza, New York Catcher", but having listened to this a number of times I feel it would be unfair to hit the album with a large proverbial hammer just because I have issues with this genre of music and have instead justified this by stating that the album displays a range that really will become comfortable with listeners. Whether played as background music or that deserving the full attention of the listener, great albums are great albums and this is one such case. 10/10

Nick James

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The Autumn Defense – Circles (Cooking Vinyl)

I hope John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, the two multi-instrumentalists who make up The Autumn Defense, have a good lawyer. I mean, it may not be immediately evident upon first listen, but there are an awful lot of tracks on this album whose melodies seem to have been pilfered from elsewhere. Now, this is a very refreshingly understated album and is extremely easy on the ear, but you will soon become aware of some artistically “borrowed” tunes from the likes of The Byrds, the Beach Boys and the Beatles (play “Some Kind of Fool” and follow that with “Across the Universe” and you’ll see what I mean). Nevertheless, this is a very warm and uplifting record at various junctures that is very satisfying if you’ve had your fill of all the angst ridden acts doing the rounds right now. 7/10

Tone E



Brian Setzer – Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy (Surfdog Inc.)

When I was about eleven, I remember being very fond of “Stray Cat Strut” by the Stray Cats, and now, 22 years later, frontman Brian Setzer returns. Well, actually, according to the press release he’s been around the whole time and, not only that, but he’s been awarded numerous platinum records and grammys along the way. I didn’t even know he was still alive! But alive he is, and by the sound of things he’s fully enjoying his existence. “We only get sixty years on the planet” Setzer laments on the album’s opening track and the overall effect is that of his erstwhile quiffed rockabilly band taking some harder drugs this time around and joining forces with The The on the first couple of tracks. Other moments sound like Bob Luman, Frank Ifield and Englebert Humperdinck. Old timers may well love this blend of doo wop, country and rockabilly. Personally I thought “Sixty Years” was excelent, and then each track got progressively worse as the album went on. And it started so well… 5/10

Tone E



Rodrigo Sanchez & Gabriela Quintero – Re-foc (Ruby Works)

Sanchez and Quintero, whilst hailing from Mexico, have made quite a name for themselves on the Irish music scene and regularly leave their audiences in raptures with their virtuoso guitar playing. It’s a very latin sounding album that is somewhere between the “Duelling Banjos” scene in “Deliverance” and the theme tune to one of those middle aged “Holiday” programmes. In fact, so much does this remind you of those fantasy vacation series that you half expect Judith Chalmers to leap out in front of you waxing lyrical about how pig excrement is a Chinese delicacy or how for an extra fifty quid you can have a large sweaty bearded man beating the hell out of you in what passes for a massage in various parts of Europe. But back to the music, like I said, it’s full of dreamy latin rhythms that I still wouldn’t be able to play despite 20 odd years attempting to teach myself guitar. 8/10

Tone E



Shelby Lynne – Identity Crisis (Capitol)

She’s released her fair share of albums already and is a well known name in the world of country music, but many will be unfamiliar with her work as she never really cracked the mainstream until her more recent work, the rather sickeningly sugarsweet “Love, Shelby”. Anyway, for what it’s worth, this comes across alomost as though she is playing an impromptu set in your lounge. There are some good tunes here, but some are heavily reminiscent of older works. For example “Evil Man” bears an uncanny resemblance to Bonnie Raitt and “Lonesome” is a little too close for comfort to an old Patsy Cline track whose name escapes me at the moment. Still, if you’re a fan of country, this may be for you. Sadly, I’m not. 5/10

Tone E



John Cale – Hobosapiens (EMI)

A rather surprising release from the legendary Velvet Underground man, and this time he’s got Nick Franglen from current flavour of the month band Lemon Jelly to assist in production. It’s astonishing to think that Cale is now in his sixties, as when you listen to this, that same rawness and passion is still evident and some of these tracks really are belters of the highest order. Much has been made of Cale’s attempts at dabbling in advanced technology on this album but the overall results – ones of sublime poetry and alarming cyberpunk – are immensely effective. Granted, it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, clocking in as it does at a whopping sixty minutes long, and there ARE moments (albeit only occasionally) when you find yourself wondering “Is this ever going to end?”, but this a self assured record that is worthy of a “welcome back” banner. Try for example the odd Eno soundalike “Caravan” and trust me, you’ll be impressed. 7/10

Tone E



Duran Duran - Greatest: DVD (EMI)

Time to replace that ropey VHS copy of the Duranies Greatest Hits and move into the digital age, as we find this repackaged collection featuring 21 of the bands greatest offered for you, the viewer on DVD. A wonderfully packaged double disc set comes presented in a clean and simple gatefold sleeve with the word 'Greatest' embosed on the front.

We know the tunes, so I think the most important consideration here is how this product is going to 'hit' the buyer, and certainly the marketing and design depatment of the band's record company have done a fine job on the outside, but maybe not so as we encounter the menu used to navigate the titles content - "could be better is my comment given here", although I'd have to admidt to the 'look' being more interesting than the conventional menu format.

Content is outstanding, with not just the standard videos found here, but also a host of versions/featurettes and extras, with interview footage as well as DVD-ROM inclusions. The fact that the artwork and titles for the full releases are found here, as well as lyrics, accessible via ROM was most worthwhile, coming as I do as a former fan of the group, so I'm sure will find appeal to the'commited' and casual viewers alike. 8/10

Nick James

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Billy Bragg - The Essential... (Cooking Vinyl)

It maybe terrible to say but the overidding memory of Mr Bragg I have was the 'pay no more than...' labels that adorned his early albums, oh and the overtly political nature of his songs. As a youth growing up in Britain being shaped by Thatcher's government at the time, this was fine, as well as making the 'pocket money' go further. The copy I am reviewing here is the limited 3-CD set, comprising a massive 50 tunes from an artist who has been rocking for 20 years and more.

I have to admidt to a personal preference for the first of the 3 discs featured here - 'New England', the song covered and made most famous by the late Kirsty MacColl, featuring Billy's trademark reverb guitar and unclipped vocal heads proceedings, followed by further greats, 'Man In The Iron Mask', 'Milkman Of Human Kindness' and 'To Have And Have Not' - tunes all of a sub 3 minute fascination and lyrical wonder. Continuing in the same vien upto 'Levi Stubbs Tears', a distinct change in fashion can be heard from here-on with greater range being added to fill out the sound.

This is added to as disc two kicks off with the Bragg/Marr penned 'Sexuality', continuing with a further 4 solo written tunes till we reach 'You Woke Up My Neighhood', co-written with Peter Buck, a somewhat awkward inclusion that features an outwardwardly country tinge. But back on track by the single 'Accident Waiting To Happen' - with rock sensibilities restored.

What is most apparent from listening to this is that Billy Bragg Esq. is one of this countries finest songwriters, even if this compilation can be a little full-on, but Billy does feature one of his loves here (as I recall) in 4 tunes from the great Woody Guthrie, as well as, on disc 3, featuring tracks recorded with Wilko and his live band, The Blokes.

There are sure to be your favouries here, as well as those you may not particularly favour, but as a collection to tidy up those albums you may have kicking around your collection, this is great. 7/10

Nick James

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