Monday, November 16, 2009

Will Stratton - No Wonder

The world is not in want of another singer-songwriter. It's with an odd bout of confidence, then, that I admit a certain tenderness toward these songs, some of which were written by the time Will Stratton was 18 and have since transformed beautifully, completely.

At 22, he is highly literate, as articulate as one ought to be when recently shaped by university discussions on literature and liberal politics, and sings with a sleepy delivery that never overpowers his proficient finger-picking. But his style was determined prior to those university courses – as demonstrated in 2007's What the Night Said, first recorded just after high school – and his vocal method is not at all bland, but soothing, and evocative of his naturally soft-spoken manner.

Where Stratton goes wrong – and really, such a term stretches his faults here – is when he attempts to go electric, on “Nineteen,” perhaps his attempt at emulating Big Star, and “If Only,” which is electric in the vein of Conor Oberst rocking out. His type isn't really meant to rock out. But “Robin and Marian,” a song he's been mulling over for some time, has a retro quality like that of the Pretty in Black-era Raveonettes, plugged in and high on treble, Phil Spector-lite, with a character spin that could only be written by a genuine dreamer.

One of the album's best, opener “Who Will,” like a fair portion of this record, falls somewhere between Mazzy Star and early Elliott Smith, and this comparison point is meant in the most complimentary way. The arrangement of brass, guitars electric and acoustic, and backing vocals comes together beautifully, and perhaps the only track more flawless is that rounding out the record, “New Jersey,” a piano ballad on which the tape can be heard rolling, and Stratton declares, with love of his home state, “after we all have left again, I'll walk and I'll walk and I'll come back, you'll see.” Consider me smitten.

Will Stratton - Who Will
Will Stratton - New Jersey
Purchase No Wonder

Friday, November 13, 2009

It's about time for another annual Greg Ashley gushfest.

Dear friends, the deal is this:

This past Wednesday evening, Greg Ashley took a seat onstage at Spaceland, in what was - I do believe - his first return to Los Angeles since F Yeah Fest 2007. He was there to support the Dutchess and the Duke, which was fine and all, and he even did a fine job acting as their token percussionist/stage wino, which was also fine. Fine. So, during his set, he picks up a nice nylon string and plays a few old songs. But "Song from Limestone County" isn't enough to shut up the noisy bastards all around the bar, so he picks up the Dutchess' electric and plays a couple of instrumentals from his new record, which is apparently due in early 2010 - they're like these elegantly played, solo classical compositions, except he's clearly angry that no one's listening to him play, so he's playing these nice classical compositions with a look of spite on his face and saying, in his own polite way, "Goddamn it, listen to me." He's a gentleman, see, and one who plays damn well at that. After a couple rounds of electric instrumentals, he plugs his nylon back in and plays versions of "Sailing with Bobby" and "Fisher King" that sound far nicer than they had on Painted Garden, among a few others, and then politely but perhaps passive-aggressively requests to unplug his guitar when the time comes to leave the stage. Greg Ashley is my hero.

All that said, he is continuing to tour with the Dutchess and the Duke through next month, and you should see him play, because he deserves better treatment than he's been given in L.A. Also, you should buy his records.

The Mirrors - The Trip
The Gris Gris - Ecks Em Eye
The Gris Gris - Everytime
Greg Ashley - I said, "These are lonely days"
Greg Ashley - Won't Be Long
Buy every single record with which he's affiliated here.
Go see him play with the Dutchess and the Duke (tour dates and more record purchase options here.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kings of Convenience - Declaration of Dependence

Five years after their last full release, the Norwegian folk duo that is Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambæk Bøe have this record that is so cleanly played, so crisply recorded – partially in an Italian studio and partially at Øye’s home – and it is perhaps this trait that makes them stand out which also acts as their greatest fault, that they walk the line between dull and elegant, fallling onto either side from song to song.

On one hand, there is no lack of bossa nova with forgettable lyrics of a presumptuous former love, and until Øye passively attacks her cold façade, it seems almost unthinkable that Norwegians would use terms like “fronting,” which seems sort of displaced.

There’s also some decent Django Reinhardt influence (“Boat Behind”), and the collaboration of steel and nylon, each man taking his turn, is pure grace. But the vocal harmonization of Øye backing Bøe is a bit bland, and the pair is at their best when Bøe stands alone, particularly on “My Ship Isn’t Pretty,” where his use of nylon guitar is almost as understated as the bass that merely boosts it, his voice finally front and center in an otherwise empty room of a song. Perfect.

Kings of Convenience - My Ship Isn't Pretty
Purchase Declaration of Dependence

Sweet Jesus, Yessssss.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ray Davies and the Crouch End Festival Chorus - The Kinks Choral Collection

The trouble with this collection is that, as a recording, it hasn't got the impact that it ought in a live setting – perhaps this is why Ray Davies is touring in the company of various choirs this season.

The concept of decades-old Kinks songs being backed by the 65-piece Crouch End Festival Chorus doesn't seem so much an instance of 65-year old Davies milking his career highlights when you're watching the lot of them do a phenomenal job of “Shangri-La” on Electric Proms, as was the case in 2007. On record, though, the effect isn't mind-blowing, but watered-down, with “Celluloid Heroes” sounding more and more like a dated cliché about fame, and “Do You Remember Walter?” trotting along like a piece from a Henry Mancini record that could be caught in any vinyl clearance bin.

Davies pays special attention to The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, the real masterpiece here being “Village Green,” the only track on the album other than “See My Friends” to really showcase the choir, bringing Davies' nostalgic lyrics under a spotlight in a way that they hadn't been in 1968.

Nothing could screw up the beautiful “Waterloo Sunset,” though it would have been strengthened if given the same treatment as “Village Green,” all choir save for his acoustic guitar – the greater issue being that the backing band is what slows down and, ultimately, dates the songs in an unflattering way, attempting to modernize with drums and a dreadful guitar/piano combination at too high a volume in the studio.

At times, Davies sounds like a bored narrator (see: “Big Sky”), or rushes through as though he's as embarrassed to be revisiting as the listener ought to be in receiving (see: “All Day and All of the Night”). The biggest shame of all, though, is that this project could have seen a great reworking of “Phenomenal Cat” but omitted it in favor of excessive nostalgia, which seems somehow fitting. Or even "The Way Love Used to Be," which would have been stunning if arranged with the choir in place of strings. If this experiment isn't meant to be a sort of preparation for a Kinks reunion, perhaps there'll be room for a part two in the near future.

Ray Davies - Shangri-La
Ray Davies - Village Green
Purchase The Kinks Choral Collection

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meursault and Jesus H. Foxx...not coming to a town near you!

There's nothing more enjoyable than promoting a live show by a band that'll never come to your own part of town, so I'd like to take this moment to inform of this launch party business that's taking place this coming Saturday for those who happen to live somewhere in the vicinity of Edinburgh, Scotland.

See, this Matthew fellow, who's been maintaining Song, By Toad for what seems ages, has got a record label up and running, and it's actually got a decent little roster these days. And if you've yet to visit the Toad's site, he's been
championing Meursault since they released Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing with Tongues prior to joining his Song, by Toad label (and, in fact, before there was such a label – so dedicated a fan, he is).

Earlier this year, then, Meursault (now the apparent core of Song, by Toad Records) released the Nothing Broke EP, which I actually found to be even better than Pissing on Bonfires, as it's a simple, acoustic EP free of any electronic distractions, and every song reminds of the Waterboys' cover of Van Morrison's “Sweet Thing,” which is really about as divine as anything. So I suppose this makes Nothing Broke rather divine by association – similar to the live Toad sessions from Pissing on Bonfires that were made some time ago. Probably due to the un-ironic use of ukelele, I think.

Anyway, all that said, this launch party is for a cluster of new singles by Meursault, a couple of which can be found on last year's Pissing with Bonfires and a couple of which are alternate versions of songs found on Nothing Broke. Also playing are Jesus H. Foxx, who're also on the Song, by Toad label and – hey! – released an EP earlier this fall. Have a good listen to Matter, with its wayward vocals (I like to think of them as a lazy eye, but sung, and not uncomfortable), unconventional, doubled-up percussion and math-light guitars. Matthew describes them as “guitary” but this really isn't so. He does like all things soft, I guess. But his bands are awfully decent. So have a listen, support the records, and if you live near the Bowery at 2 Roxburgh Place, wherever that is, have a live go!
(Nov. 7 at 7:30pm)

Meursault - Nothing Broke
Jesus H. Foxx - Elegy For the Good Times
Buy every applicable record here.