Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playlist: July

  • Jesca Hoop—The House that Jack Built (2012) 
  • Marillion—Best. Live. (2012)
  • Dirty Projectors—Swing Lo Magellan (2012)
  • Portico Quartet—Portico Quartet (2012) 
  • Sweet Billy Pilgrim—Crown and Treaty (2012)
  • Shawn Colvin—All Fall Down (2012) 
  • Clark—Iradelphic (2012)
  • Rush—Clockwork Angels (2012)
  • The Invisible—Rispah (2012)
  • Little Feat—Rooster Rag (2012)
  • Errors—Have Some Faith in Magic (2012)
  • Stone Roses—Very Best Of (2003) 
  • Clare and the Reasons—KR-51 (2012)
  • Sonny Landreth—Elemental Journey (2012)
  • XTC—Oranges & Lemons (1989)
  • King Crimson—Starless and Bible Black, 40th Anniversary Edition (1974)
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band—Everybody's Talkin' (Live) (2012)
  • Opeth—Blackwater Park (2001)
  • The Civil Wars—Live at Amoeba Records (2012)
  • Wye Oak—"Spiral" (2012)
  • Blur—"Under the Westway"/"Puritan" (2012) 
  • The Pineapple Thief—"Last Man Standing" (2012) 
  • Calexico—"Para" (2012) 
  • Tame Impala—"Apocalypse Dreams" (2012)
  • Marillion—"Power" (2012, see video, above)  
I've been super busy of late as I near the end of the second draft of my novel, The Lobster Thief. I've also been busy, as always, with the music journalism day job and have seen a couple of cracking gigs.


I recently wrote a feature about Marillion's upcoming album, Sounds that Can't Be Made, which you can read over at Rock Square (if you've never come across Marillion or if you only know them as the band that once had a hit with "Kayleigh," then the article will give you an introduction to a band that has showed me a better way of life). During the same interview with keyboard player Mark Kelly, he told a ribald story about a Marillion groupie, which you can read here. (Fun fact: The aforementioned incident inspired the line "the girl in the passing car" on the band's 1991 single, "Cover My Eyes.")

When Marillion played two concerts in Los Angeles late last month, they premiered two new songs from the album, "Power" and "Lucky Man." I enjoyed both of them, but I was was really taken with "Power." I'm smitten with the studio version, which the band just released to the Interwebs. (The video is at the very top of this blog.) Steve Hogarth packs more emotion into those few bars in the middle eight than most vocalists manage over the course of an entire album. Guitarist Steve Rothery told me that "Power" and "Lucky Man" aren't even close to the best songs on the album!

Marillion's two shows were stunning. Steve Hogarth's voice was perfect—he cleared the highest of notes without any difficulty at all! The first night concentrated on moodier tracks and the second night was more upbeat and more of a party. The second show opened with "Splintering Heart." Everyone stared at the stage, perplexed, because they could hear Hogarth singing the intro but he wasn't on stage. Then we spotted him up on the balcony of the venue singing next to the concertgoers up there before heading back down to the stage for the rest of the song. Very cool way to start a show!

Here's the setlist for night #1:

Here's the setlist for night #2:

I got to hang out with guitarist Steve Rothery for a couple of days and we visited the rock photography exhibition Who Shot Rock & Roll (more on that, below). I got to chat to all the band members at various times during that week, Steve Hogarth (here's my recent in-depth interview with him for PopMatters). Hogarth and I chatted about our shared love of Shearwater (also Steven Wilson's fave band of recent years after I introduced him to them).

If you've still not heard Shearwater's Animal Joy, the very best album of 2012 so far, here's a Soundcloud stream of the album:

Indeed, I got to see Shearwater play Los Angeles a few days ago. It was a very different kind of Shearwater experience to previous outings. Earlier tours featured trumpet, hammered dulcimer, glockenspiel, double bass, acoustic guitars whereas Jonathan's new lineup of the band is a full-on rock band intent on pinning your ears back with their power. So, not as subtle as previous tours - and I miss some of those additional colors - but as a kick-ass rock show I loved it. An incredibly tight band and Meiburg's voice was, yet again, astonishing in its range, power, and expressiveness. Still America's best band.


I recently covered the red-carpet premiere of Who Shot Rock & Roll, a tremendous exhibition of rock photography at the Annenburg Space for Photography here in Los Angeles. (Fun fact: the courtyard of the Annenburg is directly beneath the two skyscrapers pictured on cover of the YES album Going for the One.) You can read my report about the exhibition, and the special acoustic set by Heart to open the gala, over at Rock Square.


My wife and I recently caught a show by Shawn Colvin who is touring to promote her long-awaited new album, All Fall Down. I'm a longtime fan of this wonderfully talented singer-songwriter.

Her band featured Viktor Krauss (brother of Alison) on double bass and Buddy Miller on guitar. The hatted one added great textures and amplification to Shawn's songs with his black Gretsch and Dan Electro guitars. Colvin said that she's known Buddy since 1976 when they met in Austin.

I've been listening to Shawn's new album, All Fall Down, a lot these past days and it's good, though not on par with her best records. It's a very sparse and stripped down production and I miss the studio craft that John Leventhal brought to her previous records. There are a couple of killer songs on it, including the title track and lead single, which they performed. Another favorite is "The Neon Light of the Saints" (check it out on Spotify), which they didn't play. The trio played several other new songs, including "Anne of the Thousand Days" and "Seven Times the Charm," both of which are growers that reveal their manifold charms after a couple of listens.

Early highlights of the evening were "Trouble" and "The Facts About Jimmy" from A Small Repairs, both songs making a strong case for why Colvin can be an arresting talent when she's on top of her game. Great tunes and layered storytelling. One disappointment for me was that she didn't play any songs off her previous two records, These Four Walls and Whole New You. I would've loved to have heard the title tracks from both albums, and highlights such as "Tuff Enuff" and "Cinnamon Road" from These Four Walls and "Matter of Minutes" and "Another Plane Went Down" from Whole New You. Indeed, though there were up-tempo songs during the gig, especially the great "Sunny Came Home" (though "Get Out of This House" was sorely missed) Shawn played a hair too many sedate songs.

But there was ample compensation from many of the best songs from early in her career: "Steady On," "Polaroids," "Tennessee," "Diamond in the Rough," and "Shotgun Down the Avalanche." Shawn has an easy charm to her in chatting to the audience. The El Ray, with its red walls and beautiful red curtains, is a lovely venue. Probably 500 people in the audience (including Jackson Browne) which was surprising to me. Around 1996 she probably would have double the attendance. But Kim and I enjoyed the show and Kim was struck by how good her voice was live. Check out the single "All Fall Down" below and, on Spotify, seek out Viktor Krauss's cover version of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" featuring Shawn on vocals. Utterly spectacular. Viktor's a terrific guitarist.

I'm currently enjoying Shawn's just released memoir, Diamond in the Rough. She lived a life, and then some. The book chronicles her many relationship disasters and addictions. A friend of mine recalls a show she did a decade ago when she broke down midway through, crying buckets of tears while her daughter crawled around the stage. Thankfully, Shawn seems to be in a better place now and her good humor and wit made for an enjoyable show.


If you're not a fan of Rush, I won't try persuade you otherwise. They're a band people either adore or loathe. But, as a fan, I declare that Rush's Clockwork Angels is the trio's best album since Roll the Bones or Presto. This album has a cohesive feel and "sum of its parts" strength that that surpasses that of recent efforts and I enjoy every single song on it, even the lesser songs. To my ears, the album has at least four all-time great Rush songs: The title track, "Seven Cities of Gold," "Headlong Flight" and "The Garden." Incredible!

 If Clockwork Angels doesn't break new musical ground for the trio and doesn't quite surpass their best work of the mid '70s to early '80s, it nonetheless retreads older tropes with a dynamism and fire that puts the musicians' younger selves to shame. Indeed, it puts most youngsters to shame. Rush's scorched earth performances on this album makes the Foo Fighters sound like Barry Manilow. If I tried to play air drums to Neil on this record, I'd get carpel tunnel syndrome within a day. Astonishing performance. Geddy's bass is also the business. Alex's guitarwork is incendiary throughout and plays a classic Lifeson solo on the closing track.


I first heard about Jesca Hoop from David Baerwald (one of America's great unknown songwriters who produces infrequent solo albums and, in 1985, was one half of the duo David & David who only produced one album, the classic Boomtown). I was smitten by Jesca's debut record, Kismet, in 2007 and wrote this review:

 Tom Waits likens Jesca Hoop's music to "swimming in a lake at night." To see what he's getting at, dim the lights and fully immerse yourself in "Kismet," one of the year's most invigorating albums. Like Kate Bush and Björk, two primary influences here, Hoop orbits pop's fringes with an individualistic oeuvre that's simultaneously adventurous and accessible. On Hoop's debut, a surprise lurks around every verse. A melody will be floating serenely downstream and then suddenly plunge into a swirling eddy of choral harmonies and counterpoints, as on "Seed of Wonder" and "Dreams of the Hollow." Just as unpredictable: Hoop's lyrics, which range from straightforward ("Love Is All We Have," a lament about hurricane Katrina's devastation) to maddeningly abstract ("Intelligentactile 101," a supremely catchy tune that might make sense in "Alice in Wonderland"). From start to finish, a dazzling accomplishment. 

Not long after I'd discovered this Californian songwriter, Guy Garvey of Elbow (a band that I love) began to evangelize her talents. In fact, Garvey saved her career. Though Jesca can pen great hooky songs, they're unusual and she is a genuinely unusual and quirky person and her record label, Columbia, didn't know what to do with the record and so they barely promoted it and dropped her. Garvey encouraged her to relocate from her native California to Manchester where she could relaunch her career. Her second album, Hunting My Dress, included a duet with Garvey and was a deserved splash with the UK music press. Last year's EP, Snowglobe, was another triumph. (Listen to the spectral title track here.)  

Jesca is a big fan of Kate Bush and her fave album is The Dreaming, so that'll give you an idea where she's coming from. Yet she sounds nothing like Kate Bush as her sound is more avant-garde folk and pop and punk yet she shares Kate's leftfield imagination and willingness to dive into unusual and quirky areas. Here's a link to my feature length interview with her for Filter magazine circa the release of Hunting My Dress.

I haven't fully absorbed Jesca Hoop's new album, The House That Jack Built. My initial impression is that the album is very good. Take a listen to the lead single, "Born To," above. The song seems to have taken up a permanent residence in the space where my frontal lobe used to be. Another highlight, "Peacemaker," borrows from raga and shimmies and sways over its programmed groove. The indelible "Hospital" is the most poppy thing she's ever released. Alas, a few of the quieter tracks aren't quite as memorable as the acoustic-based tracks on last year's Snowglobe EP and I almost wish she'd held those tracks for the new album. The House That Jack Built has a strong finish. "Deeper Devastation" features a sparse guitar by Blake Mills and the very distinctive sound of Bulgarian background singers (see also, Kate Bush's The Sensual World for her use of Bulgarian folk singers). The closer, "When I'm Asleep," simply tickles the ears with its amazing chorus.


In 2009, the Mercury Prize for music in Britain drew my attention to two promising new bands, The Invisible and Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Both bands have just released their follow-up albums and, in both instances, they've more than delivered on their early promise. The Invisible is British band and they sound like a fusion of Radiohead and TV on the Radio. The new album, Rispah, is a great showcase for the deep, booming and soulful singer Dave Okumu. Rispah is all about the death of his mom, so hardly cheerful but very powerful. Check out the first single, "Protection," below, or download it free here.


Sweet Billy Pilgrim may not be for everyone. The band's singer and leader, Tim Elsenburg, sounds like an 80-year-old David Bowie at times. Personally, I think they're tremendous. Their new album Crown and Treaty (which received a 5 star review in Mojo magazine and has received great plaudits in Prog magazine) sounds like a collision between XTC and King Crimson. Take a listen to "Brugada"(above) and "Joyful Reunion" (below).

Next month is quiet for music releases, so I'll be telling you more about some of the new music I've just been sent by my pal Simon in the UK.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Spirit of Talk Talk

I was recently invited to contribute to a short piece to a new book about the seminal British art-rock band Talk Talk, which features contributions from band members of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Weezer, Pink Floyd, Shearwater, Blur, Elbow, and many others.

Spirit of Talk Talk, a labor of love by longtime fan Toby Benjamin, collects James Marsh's distinctive artwork for the band ( and also features written contributions from an impressive array of musicians (here's a list: The book is anchored by extensive essay written by Chris Roberts, a great music journalist who first made his mark at Melody Maker and who is a musician in his own right. Here's more information about the book, which is released in September and is sure to sell out in pre-orders before then:

Toby Benjamin has also put together a companion piece to the book: A tribute album. Overseen by Benjamin and musical director Alan Wilder (Depeche Mode/Recoil), the double album is released in September on Fierce Panda and includes the following artists: King Creosote, Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Zero 7, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Joan As Police Woman, Alan Wilder (Recoil), White Lies, Sean Carey (Bon Iver) and Turin Brakes. Also contributing to the album are ex-Talk Talk collaborators Ian Curnow, David Rhodes, Gaynor Sadler and Martin Ditcham. (More details at:

 I contributed a piece about Talk Talk's influence on North American musicians to the book and also helped rope in contributions by Steve Hogarth of Marillion, Tim Bowness of No-Man, Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree/Japan, David Torn, and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket/Mutual Appreciation Society. Until now, I've been making the assumption that you, dear reader, are aware of Talk Talk and its unique legacy. To this day, many people—especially in North America—only know Talk Talk for its early New Wave-style hits and have never come across the band's late-era musical transformation into a timeless art rock band. It's no exaggeration to say that Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock are profound works of art.

Quick history: In the early '80s, this British group started out seemingly in the same league as new wave synth bands like Spandau Ballet and Flock of Seagulls. Ok, not quite. Singer songwriter Mark Hollis always had a depth that distinguished the band even then. Their early albums sound very much of their time, but the title track of the group's third record, It's My Life (1984), was a hit and hinted at hidden depths. The turning point was 1986’s breakthrough, The Colour of Spring, a great album featuring stellar guitar work by Peter Gabriel's axeman, David Rhodes, and Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders. Steve Winwood guested on organ. The album even yielded a minor hit, “Life's What You Make It,” a classic pop song that pivots on an impossibly hooky recurring piano motif. (See video up top.) On that album, Talk Talk had begun to strip away the synths in favor of a more organic sound.

Two years later, Spirit of Eden completed the band’s transformation. All the synths have been replaced by instruments such as guitar, piano, drums, clarinets, harmonium, bassoon, oboe, trumpet, and violins. The beautifully recorded album is at once atmospheric and textured without seeming cluttered and Baroque. It’s experimental, too.

You cannot tell that Spirit of Eden was recorded in the 1980s because it sounds so timeless. If Erik Satie had been a rock musician, this is the record he'd have made. It's a very dark album. Hollis, with his singularly unique and emotional voice, sounds like he'd be better off on a psychiatrist's couch than in a recording studio.

 As Alan McGee (who signed Oasis and Primal Scream) recently described it in The Guardian:

Spirit of Eden has not dated; it's remarkable how contemporary it sounds, anticipating post-rock, the Verve and Radiohead. It's the sound of an artist being given the keys to the kingdom and returning with art. Yet upon completion it was seen as utter commercial suicide, as if Duran Duran had released a krautrock, free jazz, gospel album after Notorious

In reappraising the album recently, Simon Harper of The Birmingham Post wrote:

Spirit of Eden is best described as a collection of compositions, sparse and spacious, than an album of conventional pop songs. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Even the concept of the traditional rock line-up is subverted on a record of such hushed beauty. Built upon layers of piano, organ, bass and guitar, it nevertheless takes in bassoon, oboe and clarinet, while “I Believe in You” features the Chelmsford Cathedral choir. Listening to its six tracks now, Spirit of Eden is still markedly alien-sounding; a feat which Radiohead have clearly tried to emulate, while coming nowhere near the spectral grace imagined by Mark Hollis. While the Cocteau Twins and various other 4AD bands have been roundly praised for their dream-pop collages, Talk Talk's contribution to the British rock canon has long been ignored. 

Tragically, this album is an example of an artistic success that was a commercial failure. Spirit of Eden was ahead of its time. The record company EMI didn't understand the record and they didn't hear a hit single. Hollis and co. had a messy divorce from EMI amid several lawsuits when the label released an album of dance remixes of the band’s songs.

Yet few records have been as influential. To this day, Talk Talk continues to be a band that finds fresh converts through word of mouth. For instance, Jonathan Meiburg, leader of the Texan art rock band Shearwater, recalls how he first heard Talk Talk when he stayed the night on a friend’s floor and awoke to the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of a record-player needle touching down on the timeless grooves of Spirit of Eden. To Meiburg, the sound of Mark Feltham’s overdriven harmonica cutting through the sonic fog of “The Rainbow” was a revelation. When he heard the forlorn lament of Hollis’s voice moments later, he was forever changed as a musician. Similarly, the likes of Elbow, Robert Plant, Doves, Radiohead, Sarah McLachlan, Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Sigur Rós and Bon Iver cite Talk Talk as a key influence.

Talk Talk made one more album after Spirit of Eden, a fine farewell titled Laughing Stock. To many, the album is the band’s very greatest and it further refined the sound of Spirit of Eden. Pitchfork awarded an exceptionally rare grade of 10/10 to the recent reissue and also named it the 11th best record of the 1990s. By the release of Laughing Stock, however, bassist Paul Webb had been marginalized. The record was largely the word of Hollis and producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Greene with contributions by drummer Lee Harris. It was inevitable, then, that Talk Talk would disband. The rhythm section of Lee Harris and Paul Webb formed the band O.rang. Producer Tim Friese-Greene, the unofficial fourth member of the group who co-wrote songs with Hollis from The Colour of Spring onward, started recording under the name Heligoland. Bass player Webb also hooked up with Beth Gibbons of Portishead and made a good album under the band name Rustin' Man.

Mark Hollis released one eponymously titled solo album in the mid '90s. It distilled Talk Talk’s sound to a purely acoustic, chamber-music sound record live in a studio with no overdubs. While that album lacks the melodic strengths of earlier Hollis work, it's an exquisite recording—you can hear the scrape of fingers on frets— and "A Life (1895 - 1915)" is one of his finest compositions. Not long after the release of his solo record, Hollis followed in the footsteps of the likes of J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Bill Watterson by retiring early and leading an entirely private life, shunning all interview requests. But, like those other creative geniuses, he has left an astonishing legacy.

Seek out Talk Talk’s last three albums. Listen to them loud and with the lights off….

UPDATE: I had a brain fart and initially wrote James Marsh's name as Richard - apologies for that and I have made that correction!