Pet Shop Boys: Yes

I made the mistake of downloading the 2 disc special edition, and I’m struggling to get all the way through it. First track from the album, and indeed first single, is “Love etc”. It sounds rather like the background music to a game on the Commodore Amiga. But remember the Amiga did have a very impressive sound chip (I think she was called Paula). I guess I’m just not a Pet Shop Boys fan, that’s probably why I’m wittering on about the hardware architecture of early 90’s home computers rather than making an attempt to review the album.

Anyway, to get back on topic, I guess it sounds rather similar to their usual offerings, so I see no reason why it won’t appeal to their well established fan base. In order to say something positive I must congratulate them on learning to use all the special features on their obviously top of the range synthesisers. Still, despite the fact they’ve been around for almost a quarter of a century, I still prefer to distinguish programmers from musicians.

Yes I know it’s harsh, but having my own blog rather than being a professional reviewer, that’s my prerogative. If Mojo magazine want to employ me as a professional reviewer, I might put in a bit more effort for electronic tonk like this.

PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman A Man Walked By

Working with habitual collaborator John Parish, Polly Jean abandons the edgy piano focused vibe of her last solo album “White Chalk” (incidentally produced by John Parish), in favour of a return to 90’s grunge and guttural folk rock.

Anyone bought up on an insipid sugary musical diet of Take That and James Blunt will most probably find this album a little harsh, with its pointed musical edges and unforgiving lyrics. Those with more encompassing musical tastes will recognise sparks of genius.

Album opener “Black Hearted Love” is a powerful and brutal song with a dominant rhythm guitar over gnashing and scraping electric guitars lurking in the background. A beautiful elegance lies beneath this perfect piece of Nirvana-esque grunge pop.

“Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” has a more folky rhythm with distinct PJ vocals producing a track reminiscent of 2000’s seminal “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea”.

"Leaving California" is delivered in a pitch that is likely to shatter any unrestrained wine glasses in the vicinity of your tweeters. Meanwhile, John tinkers away with guitars and gizmo’s to provide a weird Radiohead style backdrop.

The title track sounds like a feminine Grinderman that starts with gentle acoustic strumming and ranting lyrics before descending into a Beavis and Butthead snigger, more intense guitars and a chorus enabling her to repeatedly growl “I want his fuckin ass”. There is no parental advisory sticker adorning the album cover, but I guess that’s just because her natural audience are more mature anyway.

“Pig Will Not” is a raw sounding sonic attack featuring an angry Polly barking “woof, woof” at us.

The wife thinks it’s all just a terrible din, I think it’s an engrossing joyous noise.

Incidentally Amazon delivered the album on Saturday, 2 days prior to the official release date (30th March 2009). Hence I got the weekend to review it and was able to post this review on the release date. You lucky people.

Coming Soon on Crispian’s Album reviews …..

I hope to be acquiring, listening to and reviewing the following new albums due for release before the end of April 2009:

Gomez: A New Tide

Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones

Leonard Cohen: Live In London

PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman and a Man Walked By

Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

Doves: Kingdom Of Rust

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s: It’s Blitz

Bat For Lashes: Two Suns

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life

Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe

Official Secrets Act: Understanding Electricity

Neil Young: Fork In The Road

All the above reviews are now complete, please clink the links to read the detailed reviews. There are some really great albums in this months batch. I especially recommend PJ Harvey, The Decemberists, Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen.

Starsailor: All The Plans

Being inspired by Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” album and the energy and originality of that early 90’s Brit Pop sound is a good starting point for a bunch of young musician from Wigan. Their debut album of 2001 came out to much acclaim, but the enthusiasm of the music press seemed to wane somewhat for the second and third albums. Many suggest that this 4th album puts them back on track.

Three of the key tracks for me on this album are “The Thames”, “Stars and Stripes” and “Neon Sky”. “The Thames” in particular allows lead singer, James Walsh to live up to his moniker of “The Wigan Wailer”. While “Stars and Stripes” is another slower guitar led track with lyrics worthy of a little contemplation. “Neon Sky” is a grander affair with hints of the Verve.

Although it’s a perfectly decent album, this particular genre seems to be heavily saturated with numerous decent acts at the moment still riding Coldplay’s coat tails. Something a bit more special is required to make any band stand out from the vast pack of guitar and piano indie rock bands available, This album certainly makes Starsailor one of the front runners, but is it enough?

As much as I’m currently enjoying the album I suspect there’s not enough here to keep me coming back after the next batch of new releases arrive through the door.

Spinal Tap: Shark Sandwich

Shit Sandwich

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

I know you shouldn’t judge a book (or an album come to that), by its cover, but I was immediately drawn by the Tarrantino style imagery on the front cover of “Middle Cyclone”. If the sword wielding Neko Case atop the bonnet of a rather nice muscle car was sufficient to draw me in, it’s musical content was enough to keep me coming back for more.

Although Miss Case is probably normally catalogued under alternative country, she defies the restrictions of that particular genre. Her tenor vocals are commanding and although there’s evidence of the good old-fashioned country and western in here, this album is vastly more sophisticated and contemporary than that label implies.

The album also features a few cameo appearances by the likes of: M. Ward from Calexico, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos and Garth Hudson from the Band, all of which must add to the mixing pot.

Steve Wilson: Insurgents

I got heavily into Porcupine Tree in the mid 90’s after a good friend of mine at work lent me a copy of “The Sky Moves Sideways”. Thanks Phil. Anyway, we followed them around to a number of gigs around the South of England, as they were also a great live act. I recall on one occasion, I think it was at Reading, that we arrived early and met the band playing pool in the bar prior to the gig. Well, I say the band, it was in fact the band minus Steven Wilson, and I recall thinking at the time that he was perhaps being a bit more aloof than his band mates. So I guess it’s not too much of a surprise that he has now released his first official solo album.

The sound of “Insurgents” confirms what I suspected all along, while Wilson is the guitar, voice and song-smith for Porcupine Tree he’s also obviously the principal architect of their unique sound, as it is fully carries through to this solo project.

“Insurgents” is undoubtedly a must have album for all Porcupine Tree fan’s, but I think it deserves an even wider audience. The songs vary from the ambient aural landscapes to suddenly blistering and powerful full on rock. The early floydish psychedelic sound of those first Porcupine Tree albums is still in evidence. “No Twilight Within The Courts of the Sun” for example has solemn trippy sound punctuated at times by a jazzy piano or with intense thrashing.

A think Steven's misspent youth listening to “Dark side of the Moon” has paid its dividends. I’m thoroughly enjoying this album and highly recommend it.

Howling Bells: Radio Wars

A modern crisp rock band with distinctive and attractive female vocals was a winning formula in the late 70’s for Blondie. Can a similar formula work again in the late noughties for Australian rockers Howling Bells? Howling Bells are betting that it will. But I’m not so sure, while this is a pleasant enough album, there’s something missing. Perhaps Dr Evil has stolen their Mojo.

Hang on a minute, just got to track 7, “Golden Web” and I though I got a bit of a spark, could their Mojo just be resonating at a different frequency that I was unable to tune in to at first? Either that or the second half of the album is better than the first.

Just has a second listen to the whole album, and I’m happy to report that, as with all things, no supernatural explanation is required, the second half is a little better.

I might have equally applied the same criticism of uninspiring fairly bland Indie Rock to the recent albums from the likes of the Killers or Snow Patrol, both of whom Howling Bells have supported on their recent tours, and they both seem to be doing very nicely thank you very much. So maybe a Mojo is not mandatory.

Antony and the Johnsons: The Crying Light

“The Crying Light” is Antony and the Johnsons third studio release and follows up 2005’s Mercury Prize winning “I am a Bird Now”. Like the previous award winning album, this new piece of work is so haunting it could quite easily cause Yvette Fielding to shit her pants.

Following the worldwide critical success of “I Am A Bird Now” is no trivial task as they have now lost the key element of surprise. “I Am A Bird Now” sounded like nothing else I had every heard before, and it’s macabre beauty and originality drew blanks when attempting to offer musical comparisons to describe it. The originality is now lost, and “The Crying Light” can be easily described as sounding like its predecessor.

I suspect that “The Crying Light” may not be able to repeat the success of “I Am A Bird Now” and win the 2009 Mercury Album of the year. However, in many ways I think this new album is superior, perhaps if this album had been released first in 2005 it could just of easily cleaned up. Maybe it still will.

Album opener “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground” apes the first track of its predecessor “Hope There’s Someone”. It has the same high lingering vocals over relaxed piano and delicate cello.

“One Dove” is another album highlight with minimal guitar and piano and a dreamy violin. The ending is a little more irregular with the strings straying into a more avant-garde ending.

On my first listen to “Kiss My Name” I hadn’t read the track listing so was unaware of the song titles. I have to confess being a little disappointed after slowly hearing the start of the song “Kiss. My.” was followed by “Name”. I know this album is a beautiful delicate piece of well crafted art, but they could have shoved in one “Arse” at some point.

“Another World” continues the chilling vocals with slight piano accompaniment and adds howling woodwind like whale song distantly screaming in the background.

“Dust and Water” has an African tribal harmonic resonance and a vocal performance that seems to deviate from English at times.

This is an exquisite, delicate, emotional, solemn and contemplative album, so don’t bother taking it to a rave.

U2: No Line On The Horizon

U2 are not a band that like to perceive themselves as treading water, and after the release of “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”, Bono expressed the intent to move in a different musical direction. As to which direction that would be, most of us have just had to wait and see. Well now that the new album has finally been released, I don’t even see a slight sonic tangent let alone a major musical diversion. It sounds to me more like a revisit of what previously worked on their most successful albums, but that’s not a criticism.

Assisted by the experienced and familiar old stage hands of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, it’s perhaps not too surprising that they seem to revisit a lot of the more successful elements of their back catalogue.

Bono’s fraternising with religious and world leaders is a sure fire way to wind most people up, and he seems to be at his most irritating when he’s preaching how to save the world, and at his most eloquent when just being a common or garden rock star. Thankfully some kind soul has successfully hidden his soap box for the majority of this album hence it’s lyrically pretty good.

Within the music industry the release of a new U2 album is a fairly major event. Many record labels now have a huge reliance on their stable heavyweights, and I’m sure U2 must be a major factor in keeping Island afloat. So with this increased gravitas I shall make a bit more effort than usual and attempt to cover all 12 tracks, in running order:

1. No Line On The Horizon 4:12 *****
The pounding U2 express train emerges from the smoky engine shed with its high tempo rhythm section, distinctive chord changes and great warbling vocals. The song title initially seems to be a clumsy fit to the music with Bono improvising a few extra syllables to make it fit.

2. Magnificent 5:24 *****
A growling simplistic riff and bass drum start the song off sounding like a White Stripes number before a swirling keyboard is overtaken by a drumming crescendo that calls a halt to the false start and takes us into more familiar U2 territory. Trademark vibrating guitar and rolling drum and bass take us back to a U2 reworking their “War” era material. If you happen to be listening to this song whilst waiting at the traffic lights, I defy you not to turn you steering wheel into an impromptu drum-kit.

3. Moment Of Surrender 7:24 *****
“Moment Of Surrender” has as low gentle build up and a softer spacious feel harping back to their mid 80’s collaborations with Daniel Lanois. The guitar work towards then end sounds like The Edge has been temporarily replaced by David Gilmour.

4. Unknown Caller 6:02 *****
A late Beatles Psychedelic vibe bleeds into a cautious “Where The Streets Have No Name” high noted guitar riff. 1987 nostalgia is further enhanced by Bono’s vocal delivery which instructs us to “restart and reboot yourself” which draws me to the inevitable conclusion that U2 run on a Microsoft rather than a UNIX platform. The Edge finishes off with a fine guitar solo before the song runs into its final resonating church organ chord.

5. I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight 4:14 *****
This song has an opening note sequence that sounds like it was composed by Bjorn and Benny. Things quickly return to a “Joshua Tree” era sound with more echo than a marching band lost in a large cave, but the Swedish sounding refrain keeps poking its head back at various points in the song. Bono’s calls of “Baby, Baby, Baby” sound as if they should be followed by “You’re Out Of Time” but he resists the temptation and the Lawyers can stand down.

6. Get Your Boots On 3:25 *****
A drum roll like the start “When Love comes to Town” initiates proceedings and takes us into the first verse of quick listed lyrics. The chorus provides the catchy “let me hear the sound” and grinding guitar that obviously made this song the top choice for the first single from the album. Bono stated prior to the album release that they tried to steer away from war related songs, a notion that is expressed clearly in this song with the line “I don’t want to talk about war between nations”. Although not an ambition that he quite managed to realise on the entire album.

7. Stand Up Comedy 3:49 *****
Clayton’s strong bass line sits behind Bono’s high wailing vocals and a Zeppelin styled Edge in full flow. My early album favourite also contains my favourite lyric from the album: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady” Superb. And rather good advice to boot.

8. Fez – Being Born 5:17 *****
As the recording of the album was completed in Fez, Morocco, I had expected a few more North African flavours to permeate into the music, but there doesn’t seem to have been much local culture absorbed in the album. This particular track has a few relevant sound bytes at the outset followed by a bit of dicking around before settling down into “Unforgettable Fire” era number.

9. White As Snow 4:41 *****
A slow arty piano and strings intro gives way to a classical acoustic guitar and melodious clear vocals. A quite, pleasant enough song that is slowly growing on me.

10. Breathe 5:00 *****
Bono seems to have a quantity of lyrics to cram into the most non-descript song of the album.

11. Cedars Of Lebanon 4:16 *****
“Cedars of Lebanon” is approached from the perspective of war correspondent and concludes the album with some poignancy. Bono delivers a bit of a monologue over a deep bass and slow rolling drum beat and not too much else leaving plenty of space to appreciate the great subtle guitar work.

The album was conceived and recorded over a fairly lengthy period with a proliferation of writing that Bono hinted could materialise in another release towards the end of the year.

Finally in an attempt to answer the question: “Is it any bloody good?” I’ve listed all of the U2 studio albums in order of my personal preference, to see where this new album fits in the pecking order. Of course I’ve only had it for a few days, so my initial position is likely to change, and it is just my own biased and subjective opinion. I’ve listed them in reverse order and recommend reading them using an Alan “Fluff” Freeman voice as you progress down to my Number 1 U2 album. OK Pop Pickers here we go….

12. Zooropa (1993)
11. Pop (1997)
10. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
9. Boy (1980)
8. October (1981)
7. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
6. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)
5. No Line On The Horizon (2009)
4. War (1983)
3. Rattle and Hum (1988)
2. The Joshua Tree (1987)
1. Achtung Baby (1991)

I know a lot of people would have placed “The Joshua Tree” at the number one spot in front of “Achtung Baby”. But “Achtung Baby” has a special place in my heart as it contains “The Fly”. My favourite U2 single not least because it was the single that finally displaced Brian Adams’ “Everything I Do” from its endless summer at the top of the charts and saved us from the weekly torment of watching Kevin bloody Costner with his bow and arrow at then end of “Top of the Pop’s” week after week.