|Scaling Peaks and Incantations|
Norfolk And Western's 'The Unsung Colony' LP (on Hush Records) opens with the sound of a cine-projector whirring into life, some chonked piano chords and the glorious opening lyric of "Quiet… is how you like it…" nestling alongside you and your open fire. Yeah, you'll need an open fire for this one. The relative selling point of 'The Unsung Colony' could well be that Norfolk And Western shares a drummer with everyone's favourite big-word-using indie dreamboats The Decemberists, but it only takes one listen to realise that no-one cares about drummers and literary references here. It's literally all about aura, and every fibre of this record seems utterly zeroed on delicately tweaking that atmosphere to drag the listener across its swampy, pretty plains. The sheer delight in the performance of 'The New Rise Of Labor' and the bounce of the charango within its verse are pure wonky Americana, but injected with the most beautifully dissonant guitar lick this side of a Pavement live show. Here, we see that prevailing atmosphere of gentle contemplation spazzed up slightly, turned into something simultaneously buoyant and ultimately resigned to its own inevitable come-down. Such is the load of having an aura on your record.
Further to their own mood shifts and their ability to transcend musical colours like Jeff Mangum with an orchestra in his bedroom, Norfolk And Western trudge through their own multi-facedness with the kind of redeeming happiness and well-worn ease of bands far their senior. This makes for entirely lovable listening, rewarding afternoons and evenings spent in the company of your Granddad's photo albums and some port.
Herman Düne are on Virgin records now. That's a bit weird, isn't it? After around seven hundred Peel Sessions and a rich heritage with the Track And Field Organisation it seems that people are finally taking notice. Not quite as weird, though, is the fact that their new record, 'Giant', is a lounge-laden joy. Immediately, before you even listen to it, you are struck by the structure of the record. It sounds simplistic, maybe even restrictive, but having the album divided into two halves separated by instrumentals and then having the two principal songwriters take it in turns to show us their credentials really does lend the kind of invisible cohesion that a straight-forward pop album such as 'Giant' doesn't usually have.
Opener and lead single 'I Wish That I Could See You Soon' is a gem of poise and simplicity, all swinging shuffles, lovelorn requests and mariachi trumpets. The hidden desires under its surface are just as entertaining as the Bacharach-meets-Super-Furry-Animals aesthetic, delicately sitting on top of the whole thing like an emotional lookout. The sweetness doesn't let up throughout the record, with a great portion of that coming from The Woo Woos, a load of luvverly lasses who supply backing vocals on most of the tracks here. Most effective is the swaggering 'Take Him Back To New York City', its conversational interludes providing a humour rather absent from most pop records. The most satisfying thing about 'Giant' is its consistency, no matter how stupid and obvious that might sound. Every song is a winner with something to love buried in amongst the flurrisome flashes of whimsy and magic afterthought.
The most striking find of recent weeks, though, came in St Giles in the Field Church, just behind Tottenham Court Road. Sodastream charmed a packed congregation with their soft, warm and considered tales of varying emotional contexts, at times winsome and cheerfully at ease, at times brutally stark with their imagery. It was one of the finest shows I've seen in years, beautifully staged and paced with songs sweet enough to lick. It was, in all seriousness, akin to what an early Simon and Garfunkel show must have been like. So naturally one needs a souvenir, and it came in the shape of a non-released EP sweetly entitled 'Take Me With You When You Go'. It seems somewhat pointless to write words about it seeing as it's only available at gigs, but if by any miracle it convinces you to go to one of their stellar shows then that's the best thing I've ever achieved through writing words. Actually, if anyone wants a copy, e-mail me and post me a Mars bar as payment. I'll send you one. I'll write out the track listing and buy a CD pen and everything. Anyway, this is becoming tangential.
The EP itself is in the same vein as anything Sodastream have recorded at other times in their career, but y'know… rare. It's just as bruising and intimate as their last record, 'Reservations' (on Fortuna Pop! of course) but with a little more bounce. While the inviting darkness of opener 'Cane and Rice' is utterly enveloping in its chopping chords and intelligent textural shifts, the most loveable moments here are the cod-gospel skiffle sing-along of 'Cotton Fields' and the ghostly death-folk of 'Let It All Turn Black'. There are traces of Low's collaborations with Dirty Three running through this EP, but without the impending darkness. Instead, Sodastream create their darkness with a view to casting light and redemption over it, creating a surprisingly positive milieu for an act so reliant on human awkwardness and inadequacy. This comes from the sweetness of the arrangements, the sound of melancholic resignation in Karl and Pete's voices, and particularly the twanging of the double bass that seems to pervade every track with its slithering lines. But you'll need to see them to buy it. So see them.
On a similarly small and intimate level is the new EP from ex-Galaxie 500 and ex-Luna duo Dean & Britta, 'Words You Used To Say' (Zoe Records). Charmingly, they have elected to include only one original composition in the title track (from their forthcoming LP), leaving us with four cover versions to get stuck into. The most intriguing is their version of Donovan's 'Colours', which is given more space to breathe outside of the original's tinny confinement. Dean's clean and pure vocal tones add massive depth (he should prepare himself for lazy Nick Drake comparisons), but the real joy comes when Dean & Britta sing together, imbuing their version of Adam Green's 'We're Not Supposed To Be Lovers' with considerable and nagging ambiguity. This is, as well as being deft and sweet, a constant challenge for the head to navigate. Their album should be ace.
Before everyone else gets in there and proclaims The Noisettes to be some kind of saviours for punk and pop and rock and electro and a load of other vaguely related genres, it seems apt to take a step back from the hype that will follow them around like U2 following the wishes of the elderly. Step back and realise that if anyone deserves some hype, it's these three people and their album 'What's The Time Mr Wolf?' (Mercury Records). Everyone seems to focus on bassist and front-woman Shingai Shoniwa, whose stage antics often include (and I can say this because I saw it in a tiny seafront club in Bognor Regis) rather entertainingly sordid gyrations up and down speaker stacks and genuine attempts to climb the walls with only her fingers. So there's good reason to focus on her. On record, too, there is a definite emphasis on her vocal acrobatics, which are frequently astonishing. The ricocheting insanity of the Miles Davis-esque incantations in 'Mind The Gap' is a thousand times more virtuosic and entertaining as anything thrown up by anyone else on NME's 'tips for 2007' lists, and indicative of an attention to nuance and detail sadly absent from most records released under the banner of 'indie rock'.
But focus shouldn't necessarily remain on Shoniwa. Guitarist Dan Smith's shamelessly cock-rocking axe fireworks are as engagingly incongruent with any of the band's contemporaries in the modern indie pantheon as vaudevillian opera, but so fantastically vibrant that Slash could well join The Kooks is he hears this record. The drums intertwine and connect hermetically with the bass in a tight embrace forming a springboard from which Shoniwa's explosive personality can flow forth entirely. The Noisettes sound utterly effortless, as violent and joyfully physical as all great three-pieces should be and beautifully together and unified as any much larger ensemble should hope to be. They have done well to keep their quirks from being lost in the fudged edges of expensive album production, and all things point unfalteringly toward greatness. They'll do it.
© 2007 Daniel Ross