Flipsides & Otherwise: FAO #14

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The bleak midwinter is a funny time for music critics. With end-of-year polls to devise, the last trickle of one annum’s releases and the advance sniff of the next one’s new wares all colliding with Christmas shopping and seasonal sloth, there’s plenty to be lost around the turn of another twelve months on the planet. Hence, the need to round-up a clutch of creative outbursts that might otherwise slip through the DOA net in the rush to reach the shoreline of the next decade.

 

Neil YoungSugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise, CD+DVD-audio/download)

neil-youngWhether the repeatedly-delayed first volume of Neil Young’s gargantuan Archives boxset series will finally enter retail realms in 2009 is something that no-one – except perhaps the great contrarian Canadian himself – can predict confidently. But in the interim, possibly as a sweetener to forever-frustrated fans, comes another vault-clearing live album. Compiled from two nights at the University of Michigan forty years ago, in staggeringly crisp two-track fidelity, Sugar Mountain is Young waving goodbye to his short-lived stint in Buffalo Springfield and saying hello to subsequent solo journeyman status. Featuring just voice and unplugged guitar throughout, this is one of the most naked-sounding official Young live LPs to date, with cuts from the Buffalo Springfield canon and his eponymous 1968 debut making-up the bulk of the set-list. Certainly pieces from the latter – notably “If I Could See Her Tonight” and “I’ve Been Waiting For You” – benefit from being heard in stripped-down renditions, given that their studio-counterparts are infamously over-elaborated. That said, “The Old Laughing Lady” meanders into seven or so rambling minutes that actually makes the fancier shorter incarnation a smidge more appealing. Young-sung Springfield standards like “Mr. Soul” and “Broken Arrow” translate surprisingly well into sparsity. Other key Springfield pieces – “On The Way Home” and “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” – penned by Young but bellowed-out by Richie Furay on record sound rightfully reclaimed through their author’s more tender tones. Besides the then previously-and-just-about-to-be-available material, Young also lovingly previewed “Birds” (to appear on 1970’s After The Goldrush) and future 1970 b-side “Sugar Mountain” at the low-key gigs spliced on to this disc. As enchanting as many individual moments are however, taken together in one sitting the rather generic acoustic arrangements do become a bit too dry to digest whole, even with the lubrication of in-between song banter from a surprisingly jovial young Neil. Thus Sugar Mountain is perhaps marked-out as one for devotees ahead of the newly-converted, which is ultimately what historical tape-closet raiding is and should be all about.

Visit: www.neilyoung.com


The Flaming LipsChristmas On Mars (Warner Brothers, CD-soundtrack + DVD-film/Vinyl + DVD-film + bonus 7”)

flaming-lipsIn the works since 2001, The Flaming Lips’ self-made feature film, Christmas On Mars, has built a semi-mythological status in the background of the band’s late-blossoming commercial achievements since 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, with some people expecting it to disappear quietly like many of Wayne Coyne and co.’s more out-there exploitations of a major label’s uncommonly liberal bankrolling. But now that it’s finally released on DVD bundled with its full accompanying instrumental soundtrack, the results of the group’s DIY labouring are available to all for corporeal critiquing. Shot primarily in grainy 16mm monochrome – with sporadic retina-savaging splashes of lurid Technicolor – Christmas On Mars is somewhere between a ‘50s sci-fi B-movie and a Stanley Kubrick-directed dystopian futurama. The plot is confusingly coiled-up in Coyne’s cosmic-imagination and the dialogue stiltedly-delivered through a mixture of band members, family and friends assuming the bulk of the acting roles. Yet despite these potentially debilitating constraints, the brooding ambience and weirdly evocative visual-landscapes make the film curiously compelling, especially if you’ve previously been mesmerised by the retro-futuristic stage projections used in Lips live shows. Undoubtedly, the self-cut score – with its somewhat relentless synthscapes, discordance and wordless ululations – aides the atmospheric intensity of the film itself, even if it feels a tad too desolate to listen repeatedly in isolation. Whilst cynics might suggest that this doubled-up dose of The Flaming Lips is a deliberate method of sustaining interim interest between ‘proper’ albums, it does generously satisfy the curiosity of those that have always championed the group’s exotically-insane extremes.

Visit: www.flaminglips.com


VariousJust Like Heaven: A Tribute To The Cure (American Laundromat, CD/download)

cure-tributeTribute compilations undoubtedly have their work cut in the age of digital track-by-track dissection. After all, why pay for the full package when you can easily hack-out the artists and/or the interpretations you like via various download means? It’s a question that raises itself during this latest artist-specific covers compendium from the well-meaning folks at American Laundromat but which doesn’t entirely damn its existence. In some ways, tackling extracts from The Cure’s catalogue is certainly a relatively straightforward challenge, given how many gold melody nuggets that Robert Smith has ploughed-up in the indie-pop fields over the years whilst sustaining his more morose parallel produce. Yet such easy-pickings have set traps for the lazier contributors to this collection. Hence, Kitty Karlyle’s Hold Steady-like barroom-punk stab at “In Between Days” is way too obvious and faux-wacky; the ‘80s retro-electro applied to “Let’s Go To Bed” by Cassettes Won’t Listen is painfully-indebted to Hot Chip’s geek-chic; Elk City’s “Close To Me” is just too tasteful; and The Submarines’ run through “Boys Don’t Cry” is over-earnestly enacted. The success-stories come from those who both celebrate the core of the original song as well as injecting it with their own essence. So, Joy Zipper’s My Bloody Valentine-meets-The Breeders shimmer ‘n’ strum stamp upon “Just Like Heaven” provides a lucid opener; Tanya Donelly & Dylan In The Movies twist “The Lovecats” into a playfully purring pop girl/boy duet; and The Wedding Present’s chugging-careening through “High” delivers a grittily emphatic curtain-closer. Heavenly-pitched top-marks must though go to well-practiced covers pros Dean & Britta, whose divinely flowing “Friday I’m In Love” is the truly essential makeover at the heart of this flawed yet endearing celebration of The Cure songbook.

Visit: www.alr-music.com


MountainsChoral (Thrill Jockey, CD/download)

mountainsSometimes describing and evaluating music of an ambient-instrumental bent can really make you doubt your own abilities as a writer; it’s like dancing to architecture, nailing jelly to a wall, getting a straight answer from a political interviewee and other clichéd comparisons. Such music can just exist in its own astral bubble and doesn’t necessarily stand-up to any simple analysis. It merely exists for you to tune into or not. There’s little middle-ground between dislike and like. It provides an intuitive connection that either works or it doesn’t. It’s an environmental mood thing too; with ears in a tranquil domestic-setting likely to be far more receptive than in a crowded stream of commuters. This is very much the case with the third full-length from the Mountains duo of Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp (not to be released until February but destined to be overlooked when the music industry soon crawls out of yuletide hibernation). Choral is easily dismissible as yet another homage to the Brian Eno-Labradford-Bowery Electric-Stars Of The Lid lineage; which it is but not in a bad way. Given the right listening disposition, Choral makes imperfectly perfect sense by warmly embracing the slowness and solitude fashioned by its likeminded forbearers. Fluidly blurring through burbling dronescapes (the opening title-track), flickering acoustics (“Map Table”), washes of electronic manipulation (“Telescope”), iridescent space-folk (“Add Infinity”), ‘80s 4AD spookiness (“Melodica”) and elemental rippling (“Sheets Two), the six strung-out tracks sustain an aura that seems lightweight on paper but has taken true restraint and ingenuity to pull off convincingly. In short then, Choral is far from being a truly original ambient statement yet it could the best one put out this year – but it may only make sense if your personal sonic planets are in alignment with its exclusive micro-universe.

Visit: www.thrilljockey.com