August promised plenty with a good haul of releases to listen to, however a lot of acts delivered disappointing or average albums with the exception of Balam Acab hard to define debut and the latest offering from Steve Malkmus and The Jicks.

I’ve been genuinely struggling to come up with anything to say about “West” by Wooden Shjips, August’s biggest disappointment. Almost all the track bar the closer ‘Rising’ are practically identical only changing in tempo and intensity. The same elements are used throughout – fuzzed guitars, organ melodies, motorik drums and the only difference is from previously releases is that Ripley Johnson’s vocals are higher in the mix. The repetition on this album is boring and not hypnotic which is what the band was aiming for. My other big problem with the album is that there’s little to distinguish it from its influences Neu!, Spacemen 3 and the Velvet Underground, in fact you’d be better off buying an album each of those artists. There seems little point in repeating this music unless you can find some way of putting a personal stamp on it. Wooden Shjip’s have had a lot of of critical praise heaped on them and are supposedly the best of this type of music and the previous albums I’ve heard suggest they are good at what they do. However, even when on form I’m not convinced enough to buy one of their albums.

The new CSS album “La Liberacion” is a rather eclectic mix from the electro reggae of single ‘Hit Me Like A Rock’ featuring Bobby Gillespie to punk stylings of the title track and ‘Ruby Eyes’ via the breezy pop of ‘Partners in Crime’. Overall this is a very polished effort from the band that had thrilled us with the lo-fi feel of their debut album, in fact song like ‘Rhythm to the Rebels’ and the title track remind me of that album. Though the music itself successfully achieves a move into pop music territory the vocals of Lovefoxx leave a little to be desired. It’s not that I think she’s a terrible vocalist or that she needs to be a pitch perfect singer far from it, some of my favourite vocalists are often accused of not being able to hold a note. But against a more sophisticated backing she struggles to hold her own sometimes to the point of it being irritating. This album of exuberant pop that will delight many, however it’s often just a little too light weight for my tastes.

“Watch The Throne” is a hit and miss selection from Jay-Z and Kanye West that and doesn’t quite deliver to their usual high standards. Maybe if they’d stuck with the original mini-album format they’d have had a higher hit rate and tighter concept. Having said that it’s not all bad by any means and it’s interesting to hear Jay-Z able to adapt to the often up tempo and electronic beats and sounds that dominate the album. Highlights include the rolling bass line and cinematic strings ‘No Church in the Wild’ feat Frank Ocean, ‘Niggas In Paris’ which features a great section were Kanye slurs his first verse along to the lurching electro beat, the soul filled single ‘Otis’, the emotive piano stampede of ‘Murder to Excellence’ and the surprisingly successful ‘Made in America’ feat. Frank Ocean which manages to stay the right of mawkish. However, there’s a lot of throw away material that fails to make an impact and sounds like it was thrown together in five minutes. ‘Lift Off’ featuring Beyonce doesn’t quite make it as the big moment as it could have been but is an interesting combination of R&B/electro and hard(er) edge hip-hop beats, ‘That’s My Bitch’, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and ‘Why I Love You’ feat. Mr. Hudson are the worst the first two feel lightweight and the lead sounds are annoying and the later features liberal use of Auto Tune that would work fine if it wasn’t for the awful 80’s guitar work playing in the background. The remaining tracks are all pretty middling fare and unfortunately with the possible expectations of ‘No Church in the Wild’, ‘Niggas in Paris’ and ‘Murder to Excellence’ I can’t see these tracks being remembered long after this year.

Tinariwen’s “Tassili” was an album that felt like a disappointment from an act that has proved to be very consisent across previous releases. However, there return to their acoustic roots sounds flat and their collaborations on this album are hit-and-miss the contributions of TV on the Radio Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe are the main disappointment, being left adrift on the chorus of ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’ where I was hoping they’d combine their unique harmonies with those of Tinariwen, but this never happens. Nels Cline’s slide guitar is an improvement but sometimes dominates the music too much, the only real success is The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s deep and probing harmonics on ‘Ya Messinagh’. Elsewhere the band consolidate on previous triumphs or deliver inspid acoustic takes on them.

The new Sun Araw album ‘Ancient Romans’ is a bit of a mixed bag on first listen. The first three tracks (‘Lucretius’, ‘Crown Shell’ and ‘Crete’) and closer ‘Impluvium’ are big disappointments for different reasons, the first three mainly because they are too busy and seem to miss the whole point of Sun Araw’s repetitive and meditative music. ‘Impluvium’ lets itself down as it starts off seemingly to use modern production techniques such as chopped up vocals which is a first for Sun Araw however it ends up sound like antiquated rave music slowed down. The album isn’t a complete disaster and when it’s good, it’s very good. ‘At Delphi’ and ‘Fit for Caesar’ are cinematic and drone based triumphs that take what great about Sun Araw and times it by 100. ‘Lute and Lyre’ has its moments too starting off feeling a little weak it slowly draws the listener in and transfixes them, however this is spoilt by Stallones not being able to resist over complicating parts and flooding the mix.

Balam Acab’s ‘Wander/Wonder’ is one of the best albums I’ve heard this month, though it is disappointingly short at only 36 minutes and he does have a habit of repeating the same stylistic elements again and again. However, Acab’s grasp of music theory combined with his unique aesthetic are enough to ensure the quality of this release. At its best the album perfectly balances the digital and the organic, the tense and the relaxing, the watery and the bone dry, the artificially processed and real world sounds. Along with his label mates such as ooOoo and Clams Casino, Balam Acab is carving out his own sound world and it one that’s a great place to be.

I’ll admit that I haven’t paying much attention to what Steve Malkmus has been up to since he released his self titled debut solo album in 2001. At the time I was a huge Pavement fan and desperate for something to come out from Malkmus, the leader of a band I’d become obsessed with in my teens. However the following albums just seemed to bring more and more songs that sounded like pale imitations of Pavement songs and I drifted away from the alternative rock. After reading that there was a new Malkmus album due and it was being produced by Beck my interest was piqued. It turns out Malkmus is firing on all cylinders (I’ll have to revisit the previous four albums now as I feel I may missed out) and has delivered an eclectic album full to the brim with tunes. From the opening ‘Tigers’ (which reminds me of ‘Range Life’ by Pavement) to the closing ‘Gorgeous Georgie’ (the album most relaxed song) Malkmus delivers. The highlights include the folk inspired ‘No One Is (As Are I Be)’, the rambunctious single ‘Senator’, the funky and spare take on Alt. Rock of ‘Brain Gallop’ and ‘Stick Figures in Love’ which has a middle 8 that reminds me of ‘Third Uncle’ by Brian Eno and the bouncy ‘Forever 28’. The album’s second half features a selection of quieter, slower and more contemplative songs (‘Long Hard Book’, ‘Jumblegloss’, ‘All Over Gently’, ‘Fall Away’ and ‘Gorgeous Georgie’) which show that Malkmus is not a one trick pony . Another way forward is the increased usage and presence of The Jicks great rhythm section who on tracks like ‘All Over Gently’, ‘Forever 28’ and ‘Brain Gallop’ they suggest new rhythmic avenues for the band to explore in future. Even when “Mirror Traffic” sounds like Pavement I realise this no bad thing as Malkmus on top form equalling the legacy of his former band and not a creating pale imitations of his former glories. All power to the former Pavement man’s elbow!

Spotify playlist:

August 2011 playlist

Coming up in September on Sonic Fiction:

Classics Critiqued – “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” by the Happy Mondays – sorry that there was no Classics Critiqued in August I was unable to find any information when researching the piece on “Mr. Brubaker’s Strawberry Alarm Clock” BY Neotropic. This release come highly recommend to any fans of Ninja Tune artists!

Recommendations – September

Key * = albums that I’ve already heard, so I’m sharing my intial thoughts on them

^ = albums recommended by our electronic music columnist Vier

~ = this album release has been moved to the 3rd October

The Rapture – ‘In the Grace of Your Love’ (DFA, 5th September) *

The long awaited new album from The Rapture proves to be a mini triumph. Although time will tell us just how good this album is my first couple of spins left me impressed with the bands work. The only real missteps are ‘Rollar Coaster’ (pop era Talking Heads) and ‘Come Back to Me’ (an out-and-out dance tune that sounds like a dance production featuring Luke Jenner than a tune by The Rapture and suffers for it). The rest of album holds up a pretty high standard, the best examples being the rolling disco with post-punk guitars of ‘Children’, the funky title track and its near twin ‘Never Die Again’. Elsewhere the opener ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Miss You’ both combine dance music beats and backing and punchy rock dynamics that feels huge but not overbearing, ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ provides an epic house number and centre piece and closer ‘It Takes Time to be a Man’ is a surprising change with the band taking a soulful piece of with an almost hip-hop beat and feel. The glue that holds all of the album’s strands together is Luke Jenner’s stronger and more soulful vocal delivery, the band plays with a lot of black music influences and reference points but this is the first time Jenner has tried to sound ‘black’ and succeeds in this area most of the time. ‘In the Grace of Your Love’ develops further the sound the band adopted on their last album ‘Pieces of the People We Love’. Add to this the more explicit dance and disco influences that they now better incorporate into their sound and it seems this album will only get better with repeat listens.

Gui Boratto – “III” (Kompakt, 12th September) ^

The Brazillian techno artist returns with his third album for Kompakt. ‘The Drill’, an EP taken from the album, shows the emotive, harmonic approach  of his two previous albums imbued with a bold darkness.

Kid Koala – ‘Space Cadet’ (Ninja Tune, 19th September)

The Canadian turntablist and cartoonist returns with a “still picture score” for his new graphic novel. In addition to unique and amazing turntable skills their is room for new instruments including strings, horns and marimba. Can preview ‘Space Cadet’ at Ninja Tune’s website.

Megafaun – “Megafaun” (Crammed Discs, 19th September) *

The new self titled album from Megafaun certainly covers a lot of ground even introducing some new sounds, styles and instruments on this album. ‘Get Right’ combines the trademark Megafaun sound to Neu! style synth and motorik momentum. ‘Hope You Know’is an emotive and minimal piano ballad, another first for the band. ‘Resurrection’ is an upbeat electrified folk rock filled out by Rhodes piano and pedal/lap steel guitar. Strings pop up across the album on the warm ‘Second Friend’, the abstract interlude ‘Serene Return’ and album closer ‘Everything’. The band push things out from their usual song based style on the aforementioned ‘Serene Return’, ‘State Meant’ and ‘Post Script’ which work a treat where they could have gone seriously wrong. This is an album that could be a grower, however so was their previous album ‘Gather, Form and Fly’ and repeated listens really paid off with that. It’s too early to tell if this album will equal the previous’ ones highlights but I think it’s worth giving the time to show whether it can or not.

Apparat – ‘The Devil’s Walk’ (Mute, 26th September)

The German electronic music producer returns with the follow-up to his critically acclaimed album “Walls”. The two pre-release tracks ‘Ash/Black Veil’ and ‘Black Water’ show a new Gothic atmosphere pervading throughout. This seems like the perfect record to release on Mute Records who Apparat decided to release this new album through.

Roots Manuva – ’4everevolution’ (Big Dada, 26th September)

Roots Manuva returns with his fifth (official) studio album, which is reportedly an eclectic 17 track affair that covers everything Mr. Manuva has done thus far and much more. You can download first single “Watch Me Dance’ here.

Mark McGuire – ‘Get Lost’ (Editions Mego, 26th September)

McGuire’s third release on Edition Mego in under 2 years sees him recording all new material completely digitally (a lot of Emeralds and McGuire previous releases were recorded to tape) with a combination of electric and acoustic guitar, vocals (is this a first?) and guitar-synth. As a huge McGuire fan I (Liam editor/founder of Sonic Fiction) can’t wait!

DJ Shadow – ‘The Less You Know The Better’ (Island, 26th September 2011 ~)

DJ Shadow is back and the early signs are good after he released two tracks destined for this latest release. However, after being stung by ‘The Outsider’ some fans might be reticent about this new release. However, I’d say give it a shot as ‘The Private Press’ was a grower for me and it paid eventually.

Spank Rock – ‘Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar’ (Bad Blood, 26th September) – Its been along time coming but the follow-up to ‘YoYoYoYoYo’ is finally here!! Featuring all the usual members of Spank Rock plus Boys Noize has produced some tracks including the Can sampling ‘Energy’, which you can download here.

Walls – “Coracle” (Kompakt, 26th September) ^

The duo’s second album sees them once again capture a shimmering sound with swirling layers of guitars and synths and as first single ‘Sunporch’ displays they have now grounded their synth washes in authorative bass lines. ‘Coracle’ is an album to watch for Kompakt’s continuing evolution.

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