Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig – Mute B000ZN258W

At the end of the day, I suppose it all depends on whether you think lines like “prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix” are a playful use of language showing a certain self-awareness and even irony, or are just pretentious twaddle written by, in the words of one of his fellow-countrymen, a “snake-oil salesman.”

In support of the latter, you could point to Cave’s repeated use of the repeated line, particularly when the line is “we call upon the author to explain”. Well, yes we do, when we can’t make head or tail of what’s going on. Tom Waits is another gleeful wordsmith, packing images and characters into his songs, but Waits manages to cram them into a story; Cave just leaves them hanging in thin air, colourful, sinister but mystifying and without a context.

I’d really like to know more about the incident with ammonia in Albert Goes West, for instance, but the quality of the music sweeps you on to the next enigma with little opportunity for reflection or regret. While not reaching the manic heights of Grinderman, there’s enough energy coming from Cave and The Bad Seeds to leave you exhilarated, if baffled, at the end of the last track, More News From Nowhere. And yes, the line is often repeated and, yes, I call upon the author to explain. Or has he already?


Castro Destroyer - Toffee - Frimprince

Highlife began in the 1920s, a fusion of not quite traditional music styles, such as Gombe, Osibisaba and Ashiko, with foxtrots, jazz and military band music. Subsequently, it has  borrowed from the Swing of the big bands, from Bebop, the R&B of the forties, Soul, Funk, Hard Bop and from Rock. Through eighty years of incessant borrowings, Highlife has remained itself – a music for relaxation, satire (gentle or biting) and polemics – never becoming a cosmopolitan mush, as might have been the case.

The latest edition of Highlife is called, inGhana, Hiplife. Yes, it’s borrowed from Hip Hop. Ghanaian DJs are sampling Hip Hop beats now and singing and rapping over the beats, but still incorporating them into the basic Highlife rhythms and melodic themes. I’ve just started to get into this music. This is the first album I’ve bought, but I like it so much I’ve ordered three more, by another guy (Tic Tac).

Castro Destroyer (how can you resist a name like that?) is pretty inventive – or his DJ is, which comes to the same thing. He has made another CD, which I can’t find out how to get, and is working on a Gospel follow-up. He also works under the name of Under Fire, but I haven’t found any CDs under that name yet. It is great dance music. Could it be anything else with eighty years of tradition behind it? And amusing. And inventive. And, in a sense, it’s more accessible than much earlier Highlife, because there is a wealth of videos out there on Youtube (and Ghanaian TV). These are essential in aiding one’s understanding – and not just foreigners like us; most Ghanaians don’t speak any of the languages of the country but their own. So bits of English and a helpful video focus people’s attention.

You can get this stuff in Britain from Ghana UK. CDs cost £9.99, including postage, and are well worth it. They take a little while to turn up because Ghana.UK doesn’t hold stock – the CDs are sent from Ghana. But the service is pretty good: 8 days from posting (three weeks for stuff I just got from South Africa - AM.

And here's the video for the title track Toffee:


The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride – 4AD

The Goats finally seem to be getting the recognition they deserve, if the number of interviews about this album with lead Goat, John Darnielle, is anything to go by. The last two albums, The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely, were dominated by themes – Darnielle’s relationship with his stepfather and the loss of a lover respectively – but Heretic Pride is theme-free. This has loosened things up somewhat and the songs are more varied in tone, pace and content, ranging from out-and-out rockers to the wistful.

There’s a wider range of instrumentation too, either because they’ve got more resources these days or they’re more comfortable in studio, though Darnielle apparently remains of the “less is more” school. You still get his image-laden lyrics though, particularly in Tianchi Lake, his tenderness in San Bernardino, and who else would write a song full of savage delight about a heretic being killed for his beliefs, thereby living his life to the full? Not everyone’s cup of tea but, if you like The Goats, they’re getting better.


Bettye Lavette – The Scene of The Crime – Anti- 86873

With all the buzz around Duffy and Amy Winehouse, it’s high time for a listen to a soul singer who’s been around for decades but only just received the recognition she deserves.

Bettye Lavette’s career was always full of promise but blighted by bad luck and perverse decisions by record companies. Thanks to a French enthusiast, one of her early recordings finally saw the light of day and that eventually led to the current collaboration with The Drive-By Truckers which is a story in itself.

So what about the music? Bettye’s vocals are raw and emotional and she achieves an incredible intensity on every track. All the songs except for The Battle of Bettye Lavette are covers as she sees herself as an interpreter, rather than a writer, of songs. Just as well, perhaps, because The Battleis the weakest track on the album. You may be surprised to see Elton John’s Talking Old Soldiers on the track listing but it’s one of the highlights and the backing by The Truckers and some Muscle Shoals notables doesn’t miss a beat. Available on vinyl with a free album down-load from Diverse Vinyl.


Magic System - Ki Dit Me - Capital 509995040202

Very interesting album in many ways. As the group has become more popular, many of the tracks have had a pounding bass or bass drum playing on the beat, as if to make it clear to all the white people where the beat is. And there is a bit more Zouk in this than before. So these are the bad points about this.

On the other hand, the vocals are even denser, and more anthemic, than ever, with an exultant joy conveyed by the way the group voices - and their multiple tracking until they are often a huge choir - are arranged; not quite harmoniously, because I doubt that they're using our scales.

And there are a couple of very experimental tracks in which there are attempts to incorporate the broken beat ideas being worked on by some London DJs into Zouglou mid-paced 6/8 rhythms. Unfortunately, these experiments have involved the beat, particularly its broken elements, being adhered to rigidly, thus losing the flow and inspiration that their music has had in the past. This is very disappointing for me, because I can almost imagine how this idea could work and be glorious. But in popular music these days, even a failed experiment is worth a hell of a lot. And perhaps they'll get it right, next time.

So this is an album on the edge - and pulled into the past as well as into the future. Sure is interesting to listen to! - AM


Signs of Life?

Just when I think this blog has finally died, someone breathes air into its collapsed lungs.  Strangely, Allan Moss has also sent me another of his erudite offerings, so that'll be along shortly.  We stagger on, apparently.


Lupe Fiasco – The Cool - B000WPNL8Q

The manner in which I came across Lupe’s work did not hold enormous promise – his track ‘The Instrumental’ stood out among many on Madden’s 2007 soundtrack - that’s an American Football computer game before you ask... Furthermore, 2007 was not a vintage year for urban music releases.

So it was with trepidation that I purchased his second LP, 2008’s ‘The Cool’. Any thoughts that this would be a posturing, all about the bling hip-hop album were quickly dispersed in the first minute. The intro, ‘Baby Says Cool For Thought ’ contains mentions to Katrina (9 seconds in), Virginia Tech (15 seconds), and Police violence (34 seconds). Turns out ‘The Cool’ is actually all about the substance.

Standout tracks such as ‘Superstar’ is reminiscent of Kanye West’s best outings, Gold Watch contains beats worthy of DJ Format, and the chorus of ‘Streets on Fire’ is familiar to anyone who familiar to Ian Brown’s work with UNKLE. ‘Little Weapon’ has such a raucous beat you can’t help put nod your head.

I was excited to see this album even featured an UNKLE collaboration, and its testament to how good this album this is that that track (Hello/Goodbye) can disappoint and I’m still writing this review. Plus any album featuring un-intentional references to Inspector Gadget (Go Go Gadget Flow) are always a listen.

Armin Van Buuren – A State of Trance Yearmix 2007 - B000XBYUCK

It is with great hesitancy that I decided to write this with Real Reviews in mind – after all, anything music that lifts me on a long run is not normally found on this page. That’s certainly not a criticism of this page, more a recognition that the words ‘dance’, let alone ‘trance’ are particularly absent. In the end, I narrowed it down to writing about this or ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles David – and came to the conclusion the majority of readers on this page are already pretty familiar with the latter’s work.

Armin Van Buuren, for the trance novices out there, is a DJ whose weekly mixes grace the airwaves during the ‘A State of Trance’ podcast. The Yearmix is a two-hour long continuous mix of 2007’s best trance releases (all 85 of them). Rather than just merging the end of one track into the beginning of the next, acapellas, beats and rhythms are expertly re-jigged.
This is an album I’ve found myself listening to in a variety of situations, and I’ve found it uplifting on every occasion - stuck on the tube or the train (having moved to London this is often the case), on my daily runs up and down the side of the Thames, or through one headphone while at work.

Furthermore, like all good yearmixes should, it reminds me of the 365 days I’ve been lucky enough to experience - flying to and travelling around three continents, my daily runs up and down one of the most beautiful beaches you can imagine, or through one headphone while I’ve shared my iPod with countless friends.


John Vanderslice - Emerald City - BARK66

John Vanderslice is a one-time producer of, and a collaborator with, The Mountain Goats but he has a string of solo albums to his name as well. He's a good story-teller, with a distinctive voice, and original arrangements. The reviews, and there aren't many, of this album all focus on the fact that it was written after his French girlfriend was refused a US visa. In fact, it seem much more about 9/11 and the reaction to it, which he seems to blame for the rejection. The album isn't preachy, or political, and he uses some wonderful images of the twin towers and minarets before turning to his loneliness and despair about the visa in the last two songs, Numbered Lithograph and Central Booking.

I should say that I nearly didn't get past the first track. It's amazing how one line in a song can put you on edge and I always brace myself when listening to Dylan's Street Legal for "can you cook and sew, make flowers grow." It's just so corny. Well, Vanderslice comes up with something about kookaburras and frangepani trees which is equally bad but, once that's out of the way, you're in safe hands.


Linda Kekama – I am an African – Gallo Jazz CDGURB035

This album turned up today from the Sterns sale. It's a wonderful album. I've never heard of any of the musicians, so it seems to me that there is a younger generation of SA jazz musicians, well imbued with the spirit of Abdullah Ibrahim, knocking around SA now. It was recorded in 2002.

I'm most impressed by Dhlamini and, particularly, by Sello Manyaka, who doen't seem to me to have anything more to do to be a great jazz saxophonist, in the Kippie Moeketsi tradition.

Most of the songs are originals, the words by Linda, the music by her husband, Ephraim Kekana, who doesn't appear on the record. The exceptions are the title track, which is a speech by Thabo Mbeki, recited and sung over an old Abdullah Ibrahim tune, the title of which eludes me for the moment; and "Senanapo" which has original music set to a traditional story.

Linda seems to me to occupy a similar kind of space to Ursula Rucker, the Philadelphia rap artist whose work is a lesson to everyone about Hip Hop and the world. Indeed, a couple of the tracks on this album are every bit as painful to listen to as some of Ursula's raps; the world CAN be a beautiful place, but often it is almost too terrible to believe. But, of course, the music is different; what you get here is the same kind of Mbaqanga influence turned into jazz via Abdulah Ibrahim, but carried into a different area. The way Linda uses her voice reminds me a bit of Abbey Lincoln; but I don't like Abbey much - I do like Linda, so it ain't the same.

This is on sale cheap at Sterns UK. You can listen to samples of all the tracks here. But I wouldn't advise listening to either Loss Of a Childor Newsflash as samples. And U Could Be Happy Too is untypical of the album, as it's a slow Salsa number. If you're interested in SA Jazz, make a grab for this. If you're interested in unusual and meaningful music, grab this - AM


Lambchop - Damaged - SLANG1041092

It's taken me a while to get the hang of Lambchop. I first tried Awcom and was baffled, mainly by the corny instrumentals, but then I was introduced to Is A Woman, which made more sense. Now Damaged has got me hooked.

Kurt Wagner's fractured vocals blend particularly well with the smooth, almost orchestral backing and, although most of the songs are as calm and quiet as those on Is A Woman, the album holds your attention. The opening song, Paperback Bible, celebrates the small things - an old birdbath, a recliner and a prom pageant dress - being offered for sale on an American radio programme, presumably a forerunner of eBay. There is a real pathos in all these old possessions being cast out into the world to find a life with a new owner. I Would Have Waited Here All Day is the voice of a disappointed wife, dragging out her day, waiting for her husband to come home. It's not clear things will get any better when he does. The final track, The Decline of Country and Western Civilisation, raises the temperature with its reference to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and its refrain of "damn you're looking ugly to me."

I'm a convert now.