CAMERA OBSCURA – DESIRE LINES (BEST OF 2013)

camera-obscura-desire-lines-300x300

Camera Obscura have built a career on writing love songs. Songs about blossoming relationships; romantic breakdowns; indecent affairs; heartbreaks; rejection; resignation; love of the wild, ecstatic, unbridled variety; love of the cruel, unrequited variety; even love of the mundane, everyday variety – the Glaswegian indie-pop veterans have been mining this singular subject for the past 20 years and in doing so have forged one of the most consistently brilliant discographies in indie music today.

Desire Lines predictably picks up where 2009’s My Maudlin Career left off, circling the same musical threads of Motown-era soul, country balladeering, lush stringed arrangements and the indie sensibilities of their forebears Belle and Sebastian that the band perfected on 2006’s still-essential Let’s Get Out Of The Country. That Desire Lines is content to retread familiar terrain without ever truly reaching for something new is the only real criticism that could be levied against the album in good conscience. But when the melodies are this crisp, and the harmonies this sweet, it’s hard to view any perceived dearth of musical progression as a true drawback.

Delayed by band illnesses and indefinite hiatuses, the recording of Desire Lines moved Camera Obscura out of the country, all the way to Portland, Oregon, to work with producer Tucker Martin (R.E.M, Sufjan Stevens). Despite this change in personnel and scenery, the band’s autumnal aesthetic remains very much intact. And after a perfunctory swell of Jeremy Kittel’s introductory strings, the album starts proper with “This is Love (Feels Alright)”, a cautionary tale of teenage romance told with jaunty guitars, melancholy horns, and subtle percussion that will sound comfortingly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the band’s work.

As with all Camera Obscura albums, it’s Tracyanne Campbell’s plainly beautiful voice that quickly takes centre stage. Like sunlight flooding through the cracks, Campbell’s voice has the enviable quality of filling even the coldest and darkest of spaces with a warmth and brightness that just feels endlessly welcoming. It’s on the up-tempo “Troublemaker” though, that Campbell’s trademark dry sense of humour amidst lyrical presentiments of romantic doom gets its first airing. “Three years in and I call to crush what remains of this love / It’s going to be one hell of a year” she sings between swathes of melodic guitar lines and a faint synth pulse. Just as the protagonists in early Bruce Springsteen songs openly fantasised of escaping their surroundings only to remain trapped without the courage to first escape themselves; Campbell more often than not seems stuck in the wrong relationship at the wrong time, with one foot in the tryst and one foot out the door, always lacking the courage to take the next step. “I fall down like a tonne of bricks / What makes me sick won’t make me quit”.

Album highlight “William’s Heart” sees Campbell’s infectious vocal harmonies weave in and out of Kenny McKeeve’s shimmering guitar, swirling around the lyrical coda, “To die in the arms of a twenty year old“; and the title track is full of country swagger and downbeat balladry, with organs, piano, acoustic guitar and lightly brushed drums contributing to yet another tale of heartbreak. It’s not all doom and gloom though, with the upbeat nostalgia of “Do It Again” recalling My Maudlin Career’s sublime “French Navy” in spirit if not tone; and the chipper muted guitar that underscores “Cri Du Couer” is neatly backed by Jeremy Kittel’s stirring strings. Elsewhere, “I Missed Your Party” is a breezy, Motown-esque deep cut that paints sitting at home watching Flashdance as an exercise imbued with heartbreaking implications; “Every Weekday” is musically upbeat with jangly guitars that call to mind Johnny Marr and the Smiths, while lyrically unfurling further romantic strife; and “Fifth In Line To The Throne” is a tragic waltz.

Desire Lines may not throw up any surprises or take Camera Obscura into territory that hasn’t been explored by them on numerous albums already, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When a band is this self-assured and attuned to the quirks that make their music so celebrated by those who are familiar with it, there’s little need to rock the apple cart.

Bob Russell

VALERIE JUNE – PUSHIN’ AGAINST A STONE (BEST OF 2013)

ImageValerie June describes her debut full-length album, Pushin’ Against a Stone as “organic moonshine roots music”. And that’s a fair assessment. Filtered through Dan Auerbach’s pristine modern production, June’s songs form a potent cocktail of Appalachian folk, gutbucket blues, country, bluegrass, soul, Afro-beat and Americana. Pushin’ Against a Stone is the culmination of a decade-long trial of touring and recording for the Tennessean singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (the album is preceded by three low-key EPs) and announces its author as an artist worthy of any and all hype thrust upon her in the coming year.

The album opens with “Workin’ Woman Blues”, June’s stab at blues-tinged West African pop. A hurriedly picked and strummed acoustic guitar figure provides the song with its centre, around which an impossibly funky bassline, a skittering drumbeat, excitable trumpet, and June’s insistent vocal gradually gather. June’s voice is one of esteemed lineage, falling somewhere between Erykah Badu and Nina Simone, at times recalling Billie Holliday, and on more than one occasion, Dolly Parton. World-weary and full-bodied, it’s a voice that sends shivers down your spine the first time you hear it, instantly grabbing the spotlight and pushing everything around it into the periphery. While the album is steeped in the varied musical traditions June has immersed herself in for the past decade, and likely long before that — blues, gospel, soul, folk, country — it’s that voice that pulls everything together, providing Pushin’ Against a Stone with a much-needed through line.

The gorgeous “Somebody To Love” is sparse and enchanting, with ukulele and fiddle forming the backdrop for June’s vocal, while the distant warmth of organ swells (recorded by none other than Booker T. Jones himself) and added vocal harmonies fill out the soundscape. Jones’ unmistakeable Hammond B-3 crops up again on the ‘60s girl-group soul-pop of “The Hour”, and on the title track, which also features a trippy, psychadelic guitar solo from Jimbo Mathis. Nowhere on the album is co-producer Dan Auerbach’s influence more apparent than on the Black Keys-esque “You Can’t Be Told”, with its swampy blues groove and infectious hand-clap percussion. Auerbach also duets with June on the bare, acoustic guitar-and-vocal cover of Estil C. Balls’ “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations”.

Elsewhere, “Shotgun” is a haunting, austere murder ballad, with June’s slide guitar and tempered, bitter vocal conspiring to chilling effect; “Twined and Twisted” is Southern folk; “Wanna Be On Your Mind” is a jazz-blues earworm, replete with funk guitar, atmospheric strings, glockenspiel ripped straight from the pages of the Phil Spector playbook, and an irresistible call-and-response vocal; and “Tennessee Time” is a nuanced country waltz.

Pushin’ Against a Stone is the stunning amalgamation of June’s influences – from Memphis and the Deep South to the plains of West Africa – impeccably showcased on an album fused with the young artist’s natural musical instincts and her unique voice pushing to the forefront. On Pushin’ Against a Stone, Valerie June emerges as a major talent with unlimited potential.

Bob Russell

KURT VILE – WAKIN ON A PRETTY DAZE

wakin on a pretty daze

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is the fifth full-length album from Philadelphia singer/songwriter, Kurt Vile, and might just be his finest yet. The album is full of warm, spacious soundscapes, occupied by songs that take their sweet time to unwind and explore the space afforded them. In Vile’s world, there’s no need for things to be hurried along or cut short; patience is a mantra . As he puts it on “Too Hard”: “Take your time, so they say / And that’s probably the best way to be”.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is book-ended by a brace of songs that comfortably scrape the ten-minute mark. Beginning with the almost-but-not-quite title track, “Wakin On A Pretty Day”, the album quickly takes the mantle from its predecessor (2011’s excellent Smoke Rings For My Halo) as serene, wistful guitars labouredly intertwine with one another, and Vile’s laconic, half-sung-half-mumbled vocals exude his stoner-Yoda wisdom. The album concludes with “Goldtone”, a blissed-out dream of a song with billowing guitar figures, celestial finger-picking, and hushed melodies. It’s not just a strong album cut; it’s also a career highlight.

Sandwiched between those two songs are the bar room stomp of “KV Crimes”, the breezy, synth-streaked “Was All Talk”, and the “woo”-filled “Shame Chamber”. “Girl Called Alex” trundles along slowly, gathering organs, synths, and anguished guitar solos in its wake; while “Pure Pain” layers acoustic guitars that hang in the air as Vile muses on windows and highways.

With the spaced-out jams of Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile captures the dark wistfulness of Where You Been-era Dinosaur Jr, the guitar histrionics of Crazy Horse-fueled Neil Young, and the blue-collar rock sentiments of Bruce Springsteen; and does so without ever sounding like anyone other than himself. Pretty Daze is Vile’s most accessible album to date, and the strongest so far in a succession of records that hint at even better things to come.

Bob Russell

TORRES – TORRES

torres album cover

Torres is the self-titled debut of 22-year old Nashville native, Mackenzie Scott. Recording as Torres, Scott’s most immediately striking asset is her voice. It conveys an urgency and world-weariness that belies the relative youth of its owner, at once evincing marked rawness and grizzled beauty. Torres’ songs, musically, are odes to austerity, with sparse instrumentation and economic chord structures. Much of their power derives from often ambiguous lyrics and Scott’s earnest, often heartbreaking delivery. Each word is delivered as if Scott’s life depended on it, the end result of which is a collection of songs that carry with them an emotional heft that’s made achingly apparent mere moments into the album.

Torres’ songs range from folk-strained indie and Americana to indie-rock and gorgeous, tempered, insular anthems, placing her in the company of such talents as PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Feist. Torres was recorded mostly in single live-band takes, with its songs afforded the time and space to breathe and unfurl. The ten songs present typically clock in at around four minutes with a few in excess of six, though seldom does a song ever feel as if it’s been stretched too thin or too far. The longest of these songs is “November Baby”, on which Scott makes use of the kind of gorgeous, tragic imagery that soon becomes a hallmark of the album. “This skin hangs on me like a lampshade/ Keeping all my light at bay”, she sings atop a melancholy guitar phrase that, if not for the intermittent groans of a distant bass line, would mark the song’s only instrumentation. The effect is devastating.

“Honey” is propelled forward in fits and starts by a pre-occupied drum beat and dog-eared guitar arpeggio, with Scott’s vocal degrading as the song progresses until it‘s no more than a distorted wail by the song‘s end. It’s one of many subtle post-production effects put to good use throughout the album, the most effective of which comes at the conclusion of “Chains”. As the song creeps towards catharsis, carried by the dull thud of a heartbeat and scraped guitar strings, an abrupt snip of the tape violently stops it dead in its tracks before it can reach wherever it was headed. It’s a moment that continues to startle even when you know it’s coming.

“Moon & Back” showcases Torres’ considerable talents as a songwriter as she assumes the role of a mother addressing the baby she was forced to give up – “I’m writing to you from 1991/ The year I gave you to a mama with a girl and son”. Scott is not old enough to be the mother (she is however, the right age to be the daughter) but it’s incredibly easy to forget that, given the sincerity with which she sings those words, bursting with regret and defensiveness, not knowing which emotion should win out. The song paints a picture of a woman in quiet turmoil and does so with seemingly little effort.

“Don’t Run Away, Emilie” is a song that feels designed to break your heart and move on before you could ever hope to know why. It features pretty piano keys, lush strings, xylophone and gorgeous guitar, but more than anything, it’s Scott’s fractured, pensive vocal that makes the song what it is. “Come To Terms” employs several layers of acoustic guitar and tackles a doomed relationship (“I’m gonna come to terms/ Before I have to”); “Jealousy & I” is ethereal and sparse, with its guitar treated by an echo effect that sounds as if it’s been touched by the hand of Eno; and “When Winter’s Over” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Broken Social Scene album.

Torres comes to an end with “Waterfall”. “The rocks beneath, they bare their teeth/ They conspire to set me free” sings Scott, as guitars shimmer and the echoes of an angelic choir humming can just about be made out somewhere in the periphery. The album ends before we can know if she jumps or not.

Bob Russell

IGGY & THE STOOGES – READY TO DIE

ready to die album cover

Ready To Die is the unlikely follow-up to the Stooges’ much maligned 2007 album, The Weirdness, and the first recorded under the Stooges banner since the untimely death of guitarist Ron Asheton in 2009. The album takes on a more playful and care-free tone than The Weirdness and the palpable lack of menace here feels more like the result of stylistic choices than non-consensual neutering. But while it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to hear Iggy Pop mellowed out and nonchalant – his last few solo projects have seen him play lounge singer, recording low-key covers albums and jazz paeans – it’s hard to ignore the pang of disappointment that comes with finding him toning things down in the Stooges as well.

The Stooges were perhaps the most volatile, dangerous band of the late 60s and early 70s, their shows punctuated by bloodletting violence and psychotic stage-diving as the group tore through some of the most incendiary proto-punk songs of their generation with wild-eyed, reckless abandon. The Stooges were the band in which Iggy Pop carved out his identity as a punk-rock live-wire and a legend in his own time. The aptly titled Ready To Die feels like the 66-year old James Osterberg calling time on the most abrasive carnation of the Iggy Pop persona and making preparations to ease into old age without being bound by the expectations which are by now inextricably linked with being a Stooge.

Ready To Die features not one, but three acoustic numbers (a first for a Stooges album), with the second of which (“Beat That Guy”) actually not being terrible. The song finds Iggy crooning over Tom Petty-esque acoustic strumming as it builds in scope to accommodate an electric guitar solo and a smattering of female backing singers. Album closer “The Departed” meanwhile, employs martial drums, slide guitar and Tom Waits-styled vocal; and “Unfriendly World” features washboard percussion and lyrical misanthropy. These acoustic songs ultimately feel misplaced and disrupt the flow of an album largely consisting of garage rock, but might have been better suited to another low-key Iggy Pop solo album.

Album opener “Burn” fares much better, showcasing James Williamson’s fiery fretwork and raucous guitar tone, laced with Iggy Pop’s caustic vocal. The song is the closest Ready To Die comes to recreating the alchemy of the band’s unpredictable live shows. Album highlight “Sex and Money” snakes around an energetic rhythm, infused with jovial blasts of Steve Mackaye’s sax. “I Got a Job” is notable only for its lyrics, which are apropos of the album’s overarching theme (intended or not): “I got a job/ but it don’t pay shit/ I got a job/ and I’m sick of it”. “Gun” half-heartedly attempts to illicit shock with its lyrical subject (“If I had a fucking gun/ I could shoot at everyone”) but comes off as more of an idle threat than shocking declaration. The bass line from “DD’s” is reminiscent of the Blues Brothers, while title track, “Ready To Die” is pleasingly reminiscent of Funhouse-era Stooges with its sneering vocals, death-trip fantasies, sleazy rhythm and unhinged, free-falling guitar.

Ready To Die is ultimately the sound of a band fully aware of its advancing age and the limitations imposed on them by no longer being twenty-two. It’s an album that sounds like it could well be the Stooges’ last and an album that – despite housing a few quality songs – never comes close to the quality of the bands’ initial 1967-1973 run. It’s the sound of a band that, after over fourty years of successes and failures and deaths and the cultivation of an undying legacy, is finally ready to move on.

Bob Russell