Mike Atkinson

The Rascals – Rascalize

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 4, 2008

Fresh from his recent chart-topping collaboration with Alex Turner (as the Last Shadow Puppets), Miles Kane has returned to his day job band, for what amounts to his second consecutive debut album. As you might expect from such close kindred spirits, Kane covers similar stylistic ground to Turner’s Arctic Monkeys. The lyrics are wryly observational, the vocals are sardonically Northern, and both bands specialise in the same kind of rattling, rumbling uptempo indie-rock.

That said, there’s more of a late 1950s/early 1960s retro feel to Kane’s outfit, with nods to Link Wray and The Shadows, and copious usage of the whammy bar. And while Alex tends towards hard-bitten cynicism, Miles plays the part of the wide-eyed innocent, “people watching” in cafés (Does Your Husband Know That You’re On The Run?) and chronicling the ramblings of a random nutter at an after-hours party (Freakbeat Phantom).

***

V/A – Ultimate Eurovision Party

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 16, 2008

Now that Eurovision season is upon us, what better way could there be to get revved up for next weekend’s finals, than by re-visiting 42 of the contest’s past glories on this handily timed double CD? Bearing in mind our natural patriotic bias, the compilers have done a commendably even-handed job, with over half the selections coming from that scary place known as “abroad”.

Kicking off with Abba’s immortal Waterloo, CD1 focuses mostly on the 1970s, with occasional forays into ancient history: Sandie Shaw, Lulu, and Cliff Richard’s newly controversial runner-up Congratulations. CD2 divides neatly between the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, including Finland’s monster-masked heavy metallers, Israel’s fierce transgendered diva, and Ukraine’s bacofoiled Christopher Biggins lookey-likey. The “party” only comes unstuck towards the end, with a sequence of drippy, buzz-killing ballads, but for the most part this is a rollicking good soundtrack for internationally themed finger buffets everywhere.

****

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V/A – Defected Presents Charles Webster

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 16, 2008

wlwebsteFor devotees of the deep house underground, local hero Charles Webster needs no introduction. For everyone else, this triple set forms an ideal starting point for anyone wishing to investigate the man and his music. Webster’s stock in trade is soulful, spiritual house music: light on banging beats and formulaic breakdowns, but suffused with a subtle, sinuous vibe that lends itself well to home listening.

The “Club” CD re-creates a typical Webster DJ set, mixing popular favourites from Kings Of Tomorrow and Rosie Gaines with long-standing cult heroes such as Blaze, Moodymann and Matthew Herbert. The “Studio” CD showcases his music-making career, and features several previously unreleased mixes.

Best of all, a truly superb “Lounge” CD makes connections between 1970s acoustic folk (Vashti Bunyan, John Martyn and even an unusually chilled out Black Sabbath), ambient electronica, soul, jazz and rock, offering a glimpse into Webster’s musical heritage, and his interests outside dance music.

**** (***** for the “Lounge” CD)

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Rufus Wainwright – Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on January 19, 2008

Following the recent DVD release of his London Palladium show, Wainwright fans can now enjoy a double CD version of his widely acclaimed song-by-song re-creation of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall, as recorded at that very venue in 2006. Given that this was his debut performance, the practised slickness of the London shows can’t quite be matched – but the sheer excitement in the air is tangible, and not lessened by the occasional fluff or re-start. As with the DVD, Rufus’s emotional rendition of Noel Coward’s If Love Were All is both the highlight and the evening’s turning point – although two songs later, his sister Martha threatens to blow him off stage with a truly incandescent Stormy Weather. Touching sleeve notes from Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle complete the package.

****

British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on January 19, 2008

wlbritisNever shy of making somewhat grandiose claims for their music, British Sea Power’s third album sees them addressing some fairly weighty themes, ranging from quantum theory (on Atom) to Eastern European migration (on the anthemic current single Waving Flags). Of course, by flagging your work as Big And Important and suchlike, you also run the risk of promising more than you can deliver. Although this risk has just about been avoided, prepare to be initially underwhelmed by the somewhat generic material on offer (Arcade Fire, anyone?), which sounds as if it has been made by pale and earnest young men in big overcoats, gazing out to sea from a suitably craggy cliff-top. Give it time though, and the undeniable power and majesty of the music will eventually win you over.

****

Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on October 26, 2007

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

For anyone who has become immunized to the false dawns of that most debased of critical terms, the “stunning return to form,” it is only right and proper to approach the comeback album from Kevin Ayers with a certain wary skepticism. After all, it has been over thirty years since the run of inventive, idiosyncratic albums which won him his reputation—a run which was brought to an end partly by botched attempts to turn the deeply reluctant Ayers into a mainstream star, and partly by his own loss of confidence following the critical backlash which ensued. (The paradigm shift of punk which followed close on its heels didn’t help much either.)

Routinely described, even during his heyday, as “self-effacing,” Ayers responded by exiling himself to Spain and releasing a series of patchy albums during the 1980s, which gave the impression of a somewhat lost and defeated figure. Although 1992’s creditable Still Life with Guitar showed signs of getting back in the game, the subsequent tragic death of guitarist Ollie Halsall, Ayers’ closest musical associate for nearly twenty years, sent him scuttling back into semi-obscurity, leaving his remaining supporters with little hope that he would ever record again.

For these long-suffering fans in particular, The Unfairground comes pre-loaded with perilously high expectations, as well as some clear warning signs. After fifteen years of studio silence, a playing time of 34 minutes sounds distinctly miserly, and the reworking of two songs from that troubled 1980s period (the opening “Only Heaven Knows” and the closing “Take It Easy,” now re-titled “Run Run Run”) suggests that the well of inspiration might be close to drying up. Such understandable misgivings only serve to make The Unfairground’s triumph all the more remarkable.

The album’s three years of gestation have yielded a warm, luxuriant richness of sound, balanced by a tightly crafted compression of ideas; consequently, not one second of those 34 minutes feels wasted. As with the best of Ayers’ 1970s work, there is a sense that the listener is entering a self-contained musical universe, which defines itself on its own terms. It is a world of brightness and color, as reflected in the cover art (a mildly surreal depiction of Coney Island), but the gaiety is tempered by a certain sense of the solitary and forlorn (the “unfairground” is a deserted one).

Although Ayers’ talent for penning crisp, wry, tuneful songs had never altogether deserted him, this is his first album in three decades that gives his songs the musical context which they properly deserve. In this respect, the difference between the bloated “Take It Easy” of the 1980s and the nimble “Run Run Run” of the 2000s is quite remarkable; the bare words and melody may be the same, but in all other respects, we are looking at two utterly different works. Perhaps the crucial difference is this: for once, Ayers is not prepared to let the hired hands walk all over him. Instead, he has surrounded himself with a set of collaborators who sound in tune with his ethos, and both willing and able to do these songs full justice. With Ayers firmly back in the driving seat, directing every last note, this sense of engaged, enthusiastic collaboration permeates the whole album.

Perhaps trickiest of all, a bridge has been formed between the old and the new—between the 63-year old founding father of British psychedelia, and younger admirers such as Ladybug Transistor and Architecture In Helsinki, members of whom accompany him throughout. Rather than strive for the self-consciously contemporary, the arrangements bring a fresh feel to a broadly classic template, as well as making subtle references to Ayers’ musical heritage. There’s a slight whiff of Pepper-era Beatles lurking within the Tuscon Philharmonia’s string accompaniments, and a brief but unmistakable nod towards “I Am the Walrus” at the start of “Friends and Strangers.” The tumbling guitar figure which runs through the brooding, ominous “Brainstorm” evokes memories of “Irreversible Neural Damage,” Ayers’ 1974 duet with Nico, and there’s even a heart-warming reunion with former singing partner Bridget St. John on the standout cut “Baby Come Home.”

Other old friends include Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine) on bass, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) making some fine guest contributions on guitar, and a sampled Robert Wyatt adding wordless vocals to the suitably plaintive “Cold Shoulder,” by means of a mysterious piece of software known as “The Wyattron.”

Lyrically speaking, the songs deal with lost or long-distance love, and with Ayers’ mixed emotions as he contemplates the passing of the years and the approach of old age. As ever, the language is simple and the sentiments deceptively oblique, with the occasional cynical aside. (“Some people really need attention, see just what they want to see; never more than their reflection in someone else’s fantasy.”) The sheer catchiness of the songwriting lends the material a straightforward initial appeal, which peels away over time to reveal something altogether more subtle and elusive at its core.

If The Unfairground doesn’t quite qualify as a “stunning” return to form—“stunning” never really being Ayers’ stock in trade—it certainly represents the delightful and unexpected renaissance of a perennially undervalued artist, whose quiet but significant influence is long overdue for re-assessment.

Rating: A-

Hard-Fi – Once Upon A Time In The West

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 2, 2007

From The Kinks to The Jam, from Suede to Hard-Fi, the suburbs of outer London have provided English rock music with one of its most enduring sources of inspiration. Nevertheless, having risen to prominence by documenting the world around them, and by expressing their desire for escape, most of these bands will traditionally seize the first available opportunity to re-locate to the big city.

Unusually, Hard-Fi have defied this tradition by electing to stay put in their native Staines in Middlesex, even going to the lengths of building their own recording studio there, in a former mini-cab office. Seeing nothing to be gained from being subjected to the pressures of London life, and opting instead to remain amongst their families and friends, their perspective remains firmly, almost defiantly suburban.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the lead single Suburban Knights, with its rallying call of “We’re the ones you’ve forgotten, but we will not be denied, coming out of the shadows, we rock the satellites.” In common with most of the tracks on this follow-up to the chart-topping Stars of CCTV, the mood is rousing and anthemic, blending the staccato swagger and strut of vintage Clash and Jam with pulsing electronics and instantly memorable pop-influenced choruses.

Although the band’s musical template remains broadly similar to their debut album, there are touches of musical progression to be found, most notably in the orchestral arrangements which accompany many of its twelve tracks. Set against this is a heavy reliance on the sort of wordless terrace chants that seem purpose-built for crowd participation at live shows. Indeed, these choruses are stuffed so full of hey-ey-eys, woh-oh-ohs and aah-ah-ahs that the overall effect becomes dangerously repetitive.

However, the band’s chief weakness remains a lyrical one. For all the earnestness of Richard Archer’s delivery, it is difficult to suppress a snigger at some of the more trite lines, particularly on the first couple of listens. After all, observations such as “Television, the new religion” and “Politicians don’t wanna listen” (both from the chorus of Television) are scarcely original ones.

Similarly, I Close My Eyes would be a much more effective depiction of an office worker’s soul-crushing daily grind, if it wasn’t weighed down by pedestrian clunkers such as “I’ve got to get to work, you know I’m always late, the boss is on my back, the boss is in my face.”

That said, just because something is a cliché, it doesn’t necessarily make it any less true – and there’s something about the palpable sincerity of the band’s performance which, particularly after repeated plays, inclines you to forgive the occasional banality of their lyrics.

Unsophisticated, obvious and suburban they may be, but in this age of so-called “ITV indie”, Hard-Fi’s gauche, heart-on-sleeve sincerity is infinitely preferable to the smug, calculated superficiality of the Kaiser Chiefs, the identikit conservatism of the Kooks or The Twang, or the tastefully wan miserablism of Newton Faulkner or Snow Patrol.

For that alone, they should be welcomed back with open arms.

****

Athlete – Beyond The Neighbourhood

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 2, 2007

cover-a-btnThere’s something both accurate and misleading about the title of Athlete’s third album, which will be slugging it out with Hard-Fi in next week’s race for Number One. In common with the Staines lads, Athlete have built their own studio in the area where they grew up, making this self-produced album very much a product of remainingwithin the neighbourhood. Conversely, its lyrical themes are firmly centred outwards, tackling hefty concerns such as global warming, environmental destruction and the futility of protest.

There are obvious dangers with this approach, which can easily slide into patronising preachiness. Thankfully, Athlete have avoided this trap. Rather than claiming a exalted rock star’s insight, the songs have an uncertain, questioning feel. As such, this marks a healthy progression from the inward-looking emotional concerns of its predecessor, Tourist.

Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed is the over-familiar, derivative sound of the music. Although efforts have been made to sidestep the “poor man’s Coldplay” accusations, the nagging feeling is that this is Athlete’s attempt at “doing an OK Computer”. Despite a promising opening run of spirited, uptempo numbers, the songs soon become bogged down in stodgy earnestness.

***

Marc Almond – Stardom Road

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 1, 2007

In October 2004, a serious motorcycle crash left Marc Almond in a coma for two weeks. Following a lengthy recovery process and a gradual return to music-making,Stardom Road is effectively his comeback album.

Having vowed to turn his back on future songwriting, Almond has recorded just one original composition, the disappointingly mawkish Redeem Me. The rest of the album is given over to a selection of covers, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, which trace a clearly autobiographical path.

The songs are given full orchestral arrangements, with no lingering traces of Almond’s electronic roots. Instead, he is reborn as an accomplished, almost conventional cabaret crooner, blending stately grandeur with high emotion.

Selections range from the familiar (Strangers In The Night, Dream Lover) to the obscure (London Boys, penned by a pre-fame Bowie, and a bizarre mash-up of Paul Ryan’s Kitsch with T.Rex’s Hot Love). Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell and Antony of The Johnsons make equally splendid guest appearances.

Although Almond’s intensely dramatic vocals will win few new converts, long-time fans will instantly warm to this intriguing and frequently affecting collection.

****

Erasure – Light At The End Of The World

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 25, 2007

Although long past their commercial peak, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell have settled into a comfortable niche which could sustain them indefinitely. It has been over twenty years since their last flop single; two years ago, Breathe even went Top Five. Like the Status Quo of electro-pop, they plough their particular furrow, oblivious to the changing musical landscape around them.

Following what Vince has called a “mid-tempo crisis”, the thirteenth Erasure album sees a return to short, snappy, mostly upbeat pop songs, with an overall mood of romantic optimism. The opening three tracks form a terrific opening salvo: lively, danceable, and stuffed with hooks, they suggest a confident return to form.

Thereafter, as the mood progressively mellows and softens, the essential conservatism of Erasure’s approach becomes increasingly problematic. Vince still has a winning way with a melody, and Andy’s voice is as fine as ever – and yet the material sounds formulaic, overly familiar, and curiously unaffecting.

This is pleasant, business-as-usual fodder, that will please fans but fail to make much of an impact elsewhere. Maybe that’s all we have a right to expect.

***

Bucks Fizz – The Very Best Of Bucks Fizz

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 25, 2007

bftvbobfrevPoor old Bucks Fizz. Although winning Eurovision established their careers, they have never managed to escape the dubious legacy of Making Your Mind Up. Forever associated in the public eye with cheesy chirpiness and strategic skirt-ripping, the remainder of their musical output has almost totally faded from view. Since they never recorded anything as excruciatingly lightweight again, this seems more than a little unfair.

Instead, guided by producer Andy Hill, Bucks Fizz went on to record a series of varied and increasingly sophisticated singles, eleven of which made the Top Twenty within five years. On material such as the intricate, sparkling My Camera Never Lies, their work approaches the greatness of Trevor Horn’s productions for Dollar. Now Those Days Are Gone features some lovely a cappella harmonising, while even the superficially sugary Land of Make Believe conceals a “virulent anti-Thatcher song”, as its composer described it.

Of the later material, the slinky, sinuous I Hear Talk is a forgotten gem, while New Beginning is a percussion-driven pop symphony of epic proportions.

17 of the 18 featured tracks are included in video form on the accompanying DVD.

***

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Rufus Wainwright – Release The Stars

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 11, 2007

Rufus Wainwright has one of those classic Marmite voices. By his own admission, there’s a nasal, whining quality to his singing that will irritate many. However, once that line is crossed, you will discover one of the richest, most expressive vocal talents that modern music has to offer.

As with all Wainwright’s albums, there’s an awful lot to digest here. This is complex, multi-layered stuff, which demands concentration and repeated playing. To avoid the onset of mental indigestion, it is probably best approached in two sittings, six songs at a time.

The first half works particularly well as a “song cycle”, with clear lyrical themes running between numbers. Do I Disappoint You is the big orchestral opener, performing a similar function to Oh What A World on 2003’s Want One. As the song progresses, layers of sound are piled on top of each other – a trick which will be repeated time and again.

Current single Going To A Town continues the theme of barbed disillusionment, as Rufus declares that he’s “so tired of America”, and prepares to make his escape. The song starts mournfully, but ends with purposeful defiance (“I got a life to lead, I got a soul to feed”) – again setting the tone for much of what lies ahead.

With Tiergarten, the Wainwright wanderings commence. The album was recorded variously in London, Paris and Berlin, and the sense of an exile’s displaced restlessness is strongly in evidence. The mood is light and pastoral, with a touch of the Brian Wilsons in its swooning harmonies.

From here on in, the same patterns are followed. Downbeat introductions repeatedly give way to climactic orchestral flourishes, displaying Wainwright’s astonishing arrangement skills. Between My Legs offers an unprecedented nod towards rock, featuring Richard Thompson on lead guitar and a bizarre dramatic monologue from Sian Phillips. The orchestra is only laid to rest once, on the comparatively stark ballad Leaving For Paris No. 2. Slideshow is the album’s biggest show-stopper, pitting Thompson’s country-rock guitar against thrilling brass stabs.

Unlike its predecessors, there is little playful light relief to be found – unless you count Sam Taylor Wood’s photographs, in which Rufus poses in monogrammed lederhosen, fingertips stuffed down the front. Executive producer Neil Tennant has done a sterling job, although you will search in vain for any electronic dance beats.

Like its creator, Release The Stars is ambitious, precocious and ever so slightly pretentious. It is also his ravishing, triumphant masterpiece.

Mr Hudson & The Library – A Tale Of Two Cities

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 23, 2007

Following an impressive support slot on Amy Winehouse’s recent UK tour, many curious eyes will be focussing on this debut from Oxford English literature graduate Mr Hudson and his band.

Those hoping for an accurate representation of the live shows might be in for a slight disappointment. This is a noticeably tamed version of their sound, with much of the liveliness and funkiness reined in. Instead, what we have is an amiable collection of melodic, accessible pop-rock, whose downright politeness sits easy on the ear.

Thanks to the relaxed, conversational, bloke-ish vocals and the light, sparse ska and trip-hop influences, comparisons with Lily Allen, Just Jack, Plan B and The Streets are inevitable. Other influences stretch further back: to Paul Weller, Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson – and, as a reworked version of On The Street Where You Live (from My Fair Lady) demonstrates, to the era of the classic Hollywood movie.

Some distinctive and gorgeous piano work brightens up the sound, but the album’s overall mood remains low key and easy-going, with an increasingly mellow and reflective quality in the second half.

***

LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 23, 2007

This time three years ago, largely thanks to the underground classic Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem’s pioneering “dance-punk” sound was perched at the very apex of cool. Following an uneven, over-hyped debut album, the bleeding-edge fashionistas may have moved on – but the band have stayed more or less in the same place musically, and sound all the better for sticking to their guns and refining their basic stylistic template.

Sound Of Silver might be less club-heavy, but it’s also more cohesive and purposeful. The straightforwardly chugging back-beats are augmented by skittering, understated details, and topped with James Murphy’s arch lyrics and clenched, moody chants. At times, the vocals seem to be deliberate pastiches of Murphy’s heroes: Davids Byrne and Bowie, and the Human League’s Phil Oakey. The early 1980s post-punk influences are still there, but the occasional nods to moody Chicago house add something fresh to the mix.

The sardonic North American Scum is an obvious standout. So is the compelling, addictive All My Friends, which repeats a single piano chord for over seven minutes. This is dance music for grown-ups, and it’s an absolute delight.

*****

Brett Anderson – Brett Anderson

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 23, 2007

bababaOf all the British guitar bands which came to prominence during the mid-1990s, Suede’s musical legacy remains the most underrated. Following the band’s disappointing final album in 2002, and a vain attempt to re-capture former glories by re-uniting with guitarist Bernard Butler as The Tears in 2005, former Suede front man Brett Anderson has finally decided to launch himself as a solo artist. At this stage in his career, this could be make or break time.

Perhaps for this reason, the album plays it very safe in musical terms. This is a clear move into “adult contemporary” territory, pitched at an audience who will have grown up with Anderson, jettisoning brash twenty-something hedonism in favour of tasteful thirty-something Angst Lite. The eleven songs are mostly mid-paced, vaguely wistful in tone, and augmented by politely swelling string arrangements.

The overall effect is reminiscent of Richard Ashcroft’s similarly problematic solo work, following the demise of The Verve. The overall sound is pleasant enough, and Anderson’s vocals have never sounded stronger – but the songs simply aren’t there. This is thin, forgettable stuff, which half-heartedly strives for profundity, but simply ends up sounding tired and forced.

**

V/A – Golden Afrique Vol.3

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on March 2, 2007

Following widely acclaimed historical round-ups of West African (Vol.1) and Congolese (Vol.2) musical styles, this exemplary series now turns its attentions southwards. Disc One traces the development of South African music from 1939 to 1998, covering all its best-known genres: Mbube, Kwela, Kwaito, and Mbaquanga, a.k.a. “township jive.” The emphasis is on dance grooves rather than song structures, and although over half the tracks rely on the exact same ascending three-chord sequence, the defiantly joyous spirit of the apartheid-era “shebeens” is equally all-pervading.

Disc Two, which splits equally between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is dominated by the sort of pealing, tumbling guitar lines which came to prominence in the mid ‘80s, via bands such as the Bhundu Boys. There’s less rawness and more fluidity, but the overall celebratory vibe is equally intoxicating.

(Samples from the album’s 34 tracks can be streamed here.)

Lady Sovereign – Public Warning

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 4, 2007

Hands up, who remembers “grime”, the critically acclaimed new wave of British hip-hop which spawned a generation of stars such as Dizzee Rascal and, er, Dizzee Rascal? Although Lady Sovereign originates from the same scene, 2006 saw her achieve a major commercial breakthrough in the USA, while remaining largely unappreciated over here.

Such Stateside success is all the more surprising when you consider the sheer Englishness of Lady Sov’s lyrics – which she spits out at breakneck speed, like a blend of Vicky Pollard and Betty Boo on helium. You have to wonder what American audiences make of references to Lambrini, Maccy D’s, the Vicar of Dibley, “Katie Price’s boobs” and “the ginge from Girls Aloud”. It must all seem very exotic.

Despite hanging out with Jay-Z and roping in Missy Elliott for a guest appearance, Sov remains the gobby, cheeky North London kid with the razor-sharp tongue and streetwise attitude, who’ll give you the finger if you call her a chav. This is light-hearted, knockabout stuff, with an almost cartoon-like humour and energy, which will irritate some and delight others.

****

Joan as Police Woman – Real Life

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on December 20, 2006

It starts with an unambiguous declaration of love (“we’re real life”), building up to an arresting “reveal”: the real life name of the lover himself. Thereafter, the experience of love is explored from varying angles: from the slow-burning exultance of “I Defy” (a duet with Antony Hegarty, whose multi-tracked entreaties bring the song to climax), to the mournful sorrow of “Save Me” and the almost post-coital stillness and resolve of “Flushed Chest” and “Anyone.” The dominant mood is one of resolved reflection, tenderly expressed, and only punctured by the remembered adolescent yearnings and Banshees/Cure goth-pop stylings of “Christobel,” the sole up-tempo interlude. Joan Wasser’s voice is soft and strong, velvety and honeyed, coaxing and caressing, uncommonly intimate and quietly compelling.

George Michael – Twenty Five

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 1, 2006

Hmm, is it really time for another “greatest hits” collection from George Michael? After all, he has only released one album of original material (2004’s under-performing Patience) since the last collection, 1998’s Ladies and Gentlemen. Come to think of it, there have only been two original albums in the past sixteen years – but presumably true art can’t be rushed.

The reason is simple. As George is touring for the first time in fifteen years, he needs new product to shift. So why not bundle up a representative sample of the man’s work over the past quarter century – both with Wham! and as a soloist – and bung it out in good time for Christmas?

This would have been fine, if Twenty Five really was a “greatest hits” package – but without the likes of I’m Your Man, I Want Your Sex and I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), we can’t really call it that. Or is it a “best of” collection? Hardly, if the awful “protest song” Shoot The Dog can make the grade, at the expense of classics such as I Can’t Make You Love Me – and do we really need to be burdened with Last Christmas all the way through the rest of the year? OK, so maybe it’s a concert souvenir, containing all the songs from the tour? Wrong again: large chunks of George’s current set list are absent from these two CDs.

Instead, what we have is a hastily conceived cash-in, seemingly compiled by people with scant knowledge of George’s music, and even less respect for his long-suffering fans. Why else would fifteen songs from Ladies and Gentlemen crop up again on Twenty Five? Once again, all the ballads are on one disc (For The Loving), with the livelier stuff on the second disc. (For The Living – clever, huh?). Someone has tried to arrange the tracks chronologically – but even this simple task is carelessly botched.

Worst of all, an attempt has been made to lure the fans with a limited edition bonus disc (For The Loyal), which will set you back another few quid. However, instead of the expected hard-to-find rarities for the connoisseur, there’s just one new song (a pleasant ballad calledUnderstand), and no less than seven selections from Patience. Add these to the six tracks from Patience on the other discs, and you have virtually a full reissue. It’s a strange way of rewarding the “loyal”, to put it mildly.

Still, there are always the other three “exclusives”: An Easier Affair (one of George’s weakest singles, Outside having already covered the “gay pride” angle so much better), a re-recorded Heal The Pain (featuring fellow tabloid target Paul McCartney), and a rather lovely collaboration with ex-Sugababe Mutya, This Is Not Real Love. All three can be legally downloaded from the usual places, at a fraction of the cost.

If you’ve never owned a George Michael album, then this is a passable introduction. For everyone else, Twenty Five is a sad reminder of wasted talents and diminishing returns.

**

Sean Lennon – Friendly Fire

Posted in album reviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 25, 2006

When you consider how much mileage could have been extracted from his family connections, it is to Sean Lennon’s credit that he has followed a more low-key, unassuming career path. Indeed, this is only the 31 year old’s second album, and his first in eight years.

Unlike its more stylistically adventurous predecessor, Friendly Fire sees a move towards more conventional song structures. The overall mood of these ten mid-tempo love songs is gently plaintive, as a resigned Lennon sighs over the loss of his girlfriend, and the betrayal of the friend who snatched her away.

Perhaps this would have been an angrier album, were it not for the real-life fate of the friend in question, who died in a motorcycle accident shortly after Lennon penned the vengeful opening track, Dead Meat. Consequently, most of the album is drenched with a regretful melancholy, which – despite some attractive arrangements from Jon Brion – becomes increasingly monotonous.

None of this is helped by Lennon’s puny, strained, curiously inexpressive vocals, which – like the album in general – are a pale shadow of his father’s grit and passion.

**