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Luke Haines, Luke Haines Is Dead (Hut) Rating: 8
Since the '90s, the Luke Haines story reads like one of the great lost careers in British pop music. Through the Auteurs and Baader Meinhof to his solo albums and soundtrack work, he has been solely responsible for some of the most gloriously twisted songs in British pop. His vision has remained essentially British, without really concerning itself with the windswept romanticism of Morrissey, or the twitching curtains melodrama of Jarvis Cocker. And it's all the better for it. Anti-nostalgic and often wilfully perverse, (witness the charming Christmas single "Unsolved Child Murder"), Luke Haines Is Dead brings together some of the high points and hidden gems from his somewhat daunting output. Highlights range from the Britpop-inventing early work with the Auteurs to the terrorist funk of the magnificent Baader Meinhof album. It takes in the devastatingly beautiful ("How to Hate the Working Classes") and the bitterly cynical ("Chinese Bakery") along the way. It would appear that Mr Haines's decision that writing songs about middle class German terrorists ("Baader Meinhof") and English far-right decadence ("The Mitford Sisters") would be more interesting than songs about 18-30 holidays and Manchester, has hindered his commercial potential. But really, when the results have been as fine as this, he should leave the worrying about sales figures to Oasis. This 3-CD box set is the perfect excuse to become acquainted with the most criminally ignored British songwriter of the last decade.
Mick McAuley and Winifred Horan,Serenade (Compass) Rating: 5
Serenade deserves to be better than it is. Mick McAuley and Winifred Horan are both accomplished musicians; they've been part of the successful Irish-American folk group Solas for at least a decade now so you know that they can handle their instruments and carry a tune. In the case of "To Make You Feel My Love" they should have carried it miles away and buried it underneath a rock. It's the last song on the album and it's awful. The awfulness lies in the bland lyrics, which, in their defence, they did not write. Mick McAuley is known best as an accordionist but on Serenade he gets a chance to show off his singing as well, and "To Make You Feel My Love" is graced with his lilting, pleasant voice. "Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy" gets the same treatment, and so does Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush". Winifred Horan's fiddle springs along cheerfully and they play together on jigs and reels. The problem with all of this is that Serenade is not an exciting album. It's amiable and unmemorable. If you enjoy soft Irish folk music then you'll like what you hear. If you don't, it won't convert you.
Tim Anthony, The Happy Door (Jealousy) Rating: 6
This former member of The Brambles returns with light but very polished pop that falls somewhere between The Gin Blossoms and the Rembrandts. Songs such as "Maryellen" and the Byrdsian or Petty-like "Baby I'm Back". Anthony sounds as if he has a suitcase or vault filled with pop hooks judging by the infectious and airtight "Up to You" with its summer feeling and handclaps. The fact that MTV, Emotional Pictures and Granada Television inked him to a five-year deal to use his songs on MTV's "Roomraiders" and other upcoming shows only reinforces the fact that his tunes are finally getting the due that they are well overdue in getting. "This Autumn" is more of a Bowie-esque sort of tune with the melody carrying the brunt of the number while "No Words" is good but seems almost too ordinary. Maybe that says more to Anthony's consistency to maintaining a high level of well-crafted nuggets. Listening to "It Was You" is a great example of this as it starts off sappy but then gives the listener a good swift kick. Other tracks are too string-heavy, notably the Harrison-like "Disappear" that would have been better suited on recent XTC efforts. Nothing theatrical or over the top, just quality pop!
So L'il, Dear Kathy, (Goodbye Better) Rating: 3
Usually, when I hear a synth-based band, there's a little bit of exuberance, a little bit of infectious energy behind the limited instrumentation that compensates for the barebones setup. If that's not there, at least a hint of catchy melody that pops in to catch my ear. So L'il has none of this. So L'il is the electronic equivalent of a second-rate Sonic Youth wannabe band, all disaffected vocals and "artsy" wank. The band's most recent album Dear Kathy, features songs with beats generated via second-hand '80s synths, various noises layered on top, and repeated mantras that mean not much of anything. And of course, like any good Sonic Youth knockoff, they close the album with a seventeen-minute "jam", which could be the most painful seventeen minutes I've heard all year. Occasionally the jam trips into more melodic territory, but it falls back into random beats and guitar noises just as quickly. Dear Kathy, is a perfect example of profound, ambitious intentions gone terribly awry -- anti-pop is fine, as long as a reason for being can be found. Regrettably, no such thing is anywhere in sight.
The Watery Graves Of Portland, Caracas (Marriage) Rating: 7
This instrumental album is an enjoyable romp that mixes jazz with other experimental acoustic touches. Featuring members Adrian Organ, Davis Lee Hooker and Curtis Knapp, the band manage to make themselves an heir apparent to the eclectic Dirty Three outfit, particularly on the challenging "The News" that crawls into a lean but alluring jazz/avant garde piece. A softer "Dead Body in the Water" features piano that you have to strain somewhat to hear, but it slowly grows on you, plodding along. There are no really beginnings or endings with these songs, just moments of creativity like "Sailing Takes Me Away (To Where I'm Going)" with its jazzy, lighter funk groove. Hooker plucks away on his upright bass during the unnerving "Sleeping Fox" with its sparingly used effects that leads straight into "The Bottle of Clouds". The best of the lot has to be the toe-tapping Latin hook poking out of the aptly titled "A Very Beautiful Composition", which it is. The title track puts a damper on the record briefly, but this album is one you could enjoy as background music. But you would be truly cheating yourself!
Whitelodge, + (Beta-lactam Ring) Rating: 5
Only 10 seconds short of 80 minutes, Whitelodge's + is nothing if not big. There's a reason for this: + is not a new album per se. Rather, it is a compilation of two already-existing releases in the Whitelodge discography, the entirety of their 2004 self-titled LP and most of 2003's Stream of Dreams 10" EP, of which only "White Butterflies" was omitted. There's a new track included to make up for this omission (and to get the true fans salivating, undoubtedly), the eight-minute "Illumination of the Sylph". Together, it's a thick soup of acoustic guitars, spooky keyboards, and whispered vocals, a little bit like Current 93 (though less atmospheric) fronted by the Legendary Pink Dots' Edward Ka-Spel (though with less of a lisp). Despite a couple of standout tracks like the xylophone and bass saxophone-augmented "The Unbroken Circle" and "The Last House", which morphs from a quiet lament into a spooky, sinister dirge, much of the album bleeds together. This is surely done intentionally for the sake of sonic continuity, but trudging through 80 minutes of artsy, slow majesty with hardly a mood change attached can get tedious for even the most patient listeners. Whitelodge has an interesting sound with a lot of potential -- now it's just a matter of figuring out what to do with it.
Altamont, The Monkees' Uncle (AntAcidAudio) Rating: 3
Some solo projects seem entirely unnecessary. Emerging out of ego or envy, they're only a diluted likeness of their origin. With Altamont, Dale Crover steps out from behind the thunderous drums he provides The Melvins to front just such an inconsequential excursion. While the band indulges in the same style of skewed and sludgy riff rock something is sorely lacking. Some of that is the absence of key counterpart Buzz Osborne but there's also an inexplicable lack of Crover's unmistakably heavy-hitting drum work. Focusing instead on guitar and vocals, he makes a case for keeping him at the kit. His voice is weak and his guitar prowess proves negligible. Sounding like a cloned and neutered Osborne, he offers little more than imitation and the irritation that the time and effort behind this album was wasted. Fans of The Melvins will find it frustratingly familiar and wish Crover has turned over a few tracks to the band and fermented them into something much more intoxicating.
Anomaly, "Chill" b/w "Dust" [7-inch] (Stuart Geerts Entertainment, LLC) Rating: 5
Anomaly's new seven-inch is a teaser for his upcoming album, his first solo instrumental project and second full-length release. The Chicago Producer's a-side, "Chill" stays smooth and mellow, its melody veering almost into ambient territory. The b-side "Dust" splits itself into several sections, the most memorable (and jarring) led by a synthesized horn. The portion gives way to a darker stretch with sampled, unintelligible human vocals. That final period sounds disconnected from both "Chill" and the first half of "Dust", yet it arrives naturally. Anomaly shows his ability to change moods smoothly, even within a small framework. He's not quite made a convincing argument that he can stay intriguing for a full album, but this 45 might prove to be a nice shift in your next trippy mix.