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Eighties’ corner – Something So Strong – Crowded House

Something So Strong was the first song written by Neil Finn for Crowded House way back in 1987. Flowing  pop melodicism along with that unique 80s carnival atmosphere also found in songs such as Loveshack by the B-52’s. Predictably the video is a bit cheesy though not without it’s own pastoral, quasi-homoerotic charm. It’s a great song!

It seems the lumbering landmass down under has it’s share of contributions to great pop music. Ever heard of The Church?

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My Trysts with the Fannies

My first taste of Scottish power-pop band Teenage Fanclub was the sparkling tune of Sparky’s Dream on late night MTV, about the time when I was around 15. It was a very pretty song, but to say that I was not ambivalent about my brother’s obvious adoration for the song, along with What You do to me, would be lying. Around the same time I heard an interesting song by the Manic Street Preachers the name of which slips me at the moment, and to me they all sounded rather similar. So I clumped them together as derivative power – pop bands trying a bit too hard to sound pretty.

Eventually I gave a spin to Bandwagonesque, which was their breakthrough as well as their most unanimously acclaimed album( although I found out later how wrong that consensus was, as most consensuses are). I still wasn’t mightily impressed, still getting the feeling that though they were sincere in trying to create great beatlesque melodies, they simply weren’t turning out that good. The track that stood out for me was the relatively unknown instrumental and last track on the album, Is this music?. Let’s be honest, that’s  the only track that sounds fresh and original, as well as featuring the best melody on the record.

Nevertheless I liked Bandwagonesque, and upon reading about the band was especially intrigued by the unusual distribution of songwriting responsibilities, roughly equally between three members. But if they were ” three extremely bright songwriting talents” as the general opinion of critics was, I had yet to experience it. So, which album came next? Grand Prix , they said, was the fannies at their peak. They were right in that it is certainly tons better than Bandwagonesque. What I had read told me that Norman Blake was generally the most prominent of the songwriters, but I fell in love with Gerard Love and Raymond Mcginley’s compositions, especially the former. To me Norman Blake makes the most typical pop songs of the three, with the other two being more eccentric in their approach. And this has led some people to believe that Blake is the best of the lot, which couldn’t be more wrong. I loved Mcginley’s feisty opener About You, Love’s perfect Don’t Look Back and Blake’s pensive and brilliant Mellow Doubt.

Alas, on repeated listenings a major part of Grand Prix , instead of growing on you, becomes tiresome. It is luscious, well – crafted pop that always sounds good, but is lacking in pure emotion, coming off a lot of the time as all craft and no gut-level inspiration. But I knew that theirs was a craft that gets better with time, absorbing the emotion of their collective experiences as they matured as songwriters, musicians and human beings.The songs were already classy, and I hoped, as I pondered the choice of my third Fannies’ album, that time would have added the much-needed edge.

And so Howdy! it was, released in 2000. And ah, it is so good, I think to myself as I write this while it is playing merrily on Windows Media Player. The traces of sappiness and sugar-coating is completely gone, the hooks are triumphantly better than before, and instead of being all happy-happy, the fine music here is imbued with genuine wistfulness and poignancy. Here, finally is some modern power-pop that may prove timeless. It seems that the Fannies got better as they matured after all. My faith was redeemed.

And as I look ahead to the prospect of listening to more pristine latter-part albums by these consummate masters of melody, life seems good. Cheers to music!

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Review : Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Idyllic country. Cabin in the woods. Solitude. Joy. Solace. Sanctuary.

Acoustic guitar. Harmonies. Pining for someone. Clutching at memories as they whiz by your mind’s eye.

A sepia forest. A gnarled tree. Moonlight. Significant and insignificant.

Mixed emotions. Aren’t they always? The time of perfect happiness is past,  perhaps. Isn’t that why childhood is special? And isn’t that why adulthood is more interesting, perhaps? More painful, but richer?

For Emma. For Angie. For Judie. For Peggy Sue. For Maggie Mae. For Jessica. For Layla.

Mourning. Loss. Love. Burial. Dirge. Ethereal. Floating.

Loneliness. Alone-ness. All-oneness. Asocial. Not a commune. No.

Catharsis. Light at the end of the tunnel. Finding your way. The road not taken. The road taken.

Five stars.

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Review : Lungs – Florence & the Machine

Lungs album coverThis, FATM’s debut album, released in 2009. I bought it after they had released their 2nd album Ceremonials and boy am I glad I bought this one first. Having heard both I can say for sure this one is so much better in terms of melodies as well as diversity of moods and styles.

It’s simply a brilliant debut. Their sound is fully developed and very self-assured. The album is full of luscious hooks brought to fruition by Florence’s delicious voice. And if we talk about genres it’s all over the place, and the only term vague enough to encompass everything is Art-pop.Production is excellent. Arrangements are creative and all the songs sound fully realized. I could not count any track as filler except perhaps My boy builds Coffins.

Who writes the songs? Most of them are collaborations of Florence with an assortment of other names. I should write a bit about the songs. As I said the general style is heavily arranged art-pop, but there are excursions into Gothic-rock and pop-punk. Come to think of it, a not insignificant number of tracks have Gothic leanings. All sorts of instruments – piano, guitars, violins, cello and more. And sweet, emotional melodies.

And what a great voice. Equally at ease with different styles & genres , be it a soft, introspective ditty or shouting over a veritable orchestra of backing voices and instruments. To be honest, I haven’t listened to female artists that much. I guess it’s unbelievably fuckin’ great that I placed my bets on this. Reviews I’ve read invariably mention Kate Bush, Amy Winehouse, and even Adele. Sorry, I cannot claim to have more than surface knowledge about these girls.

Now since this is a proper music review I have to find some faults with the album,  right? I’ll tell you what, I cannot. There’ s nothing wrong with this record, as there’s nothing that could be improved upon here. This is a great album. It deserves to be more well-known. Florence deserves to be appreciated the same as Adele.

Psst – My favourite track here is Between Two Lungs. What a fascinating track.

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Review : Ceremonials – Florence and the Machine

7/10 starsCeremonials

I’ll lay down at the beginning what I like about these guys. Florence Welch has a super-powerful voice, but of course voice can’t do shit till there are good songs. I bought their first album Lungs about 6 months back and loved it for it’s strong songwriting, musical diversity and perhaps most importantly, for it sounding like a group, instead of a pop diva along with her backing band. Also, Florence has a voice that can blast through doors but there she kept it in check, holding it back till the decisive moment. What I mean is, it didn’t feel like she was exploiting her vocal power for show and superficial thrills.

On Ceremonials, alas, they are going in the wrong direction. It feels like she’s been advised by producers and music-industry gurus that her voice is only suited for big-band epics and anything less bombastic is simply a waste of her voice. This is really too bad. It’s produced an album that, after the first few songs which are really good, rapidly sinks into overblown monotonousness that gave me a pounding headache, to be honest. It doesn’t help that the album is four songs overlong.

Only if for a night is a great big opener evidencing her wide vocal range, though I have a bone to pick with some of the lyrics (“It was all so strange, /And so surreal, /That a ghost should be so practical. ” ) which sound hilariously awkward. Shake it out is the track which introduced me to Miss Welch, and it is a fantastic one. What the water gave me was a hit single,and is all dark and stuff, but the melody is tired and uninspired,  at least in my opinion( Who else’s opinion would I be giving?). Never let me go is silly schmaltz.

Breaking Down is lennonesque, and I love it. In fact you should check it out on Youtube right now. Prettiness. Next follow some attempts at diversity which do not work very well. Mediocre at best. Sure, her voice is incredible. So the songs are listenable.

Simply too many bombastic epics which take themselves too seriously. Big drums. Big arrangements. Lack of freshness. Lack of fun. Not enough standout melodies. Oh hell, maybe I just don’t like the epic treatment. But I stand my ground that Florence and the Machine‘s second album is less creative and a step in the wrong direction. I read that Lady Gaga’s producer made an offer to Florence to come and record their songs. In other words, become a pop diva singing their songs and selling gazillion records by cultivating an image. She refused. But this here’s got me worried. Florence, be in a band, please. Wikipedia says you’re an indie band. How so? Because you don’t sell as many albums as Adele? Nevermind. I like you.

Football anthems. Fuck that shit.

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“Kinks in the Beatles”

The personalities of the Beatles and their songs, and their style (beatlesque) have been studied and discussed to the point that when you hear a song by them, you can assuredly feel the effortless genius but at times, the personality of the song, the playing or the singing or the lyrics, does not stimulate, as it is not really new – quite the contrary. If ever the famous Beatles charm gets a trifle stale on you, I would recommend listening to the Kinks’ best albums. Ray Davies does not owe anything to Lennon/McCartney – He was an original and a more-than-worthy contemporary. The best of Ray Davies’ songwriting often equals and sometimes surpasses that of the four Liverpudlians. More importantly, I mentioned personality. Charm. Character. A guy baring his true thoughts. Sometimes I feel the Beatles were too balanced because of the songwriting being a partnership between two polarising personalities. The Kinks on the other hand were almost always a one-man show. Post 1966, Ray Davies had an agenda, an opinion, a message, something he obviously felt deeply, to express or convey at large, through his songs. As a result his songs are infused with his distinctly English persona – a sometimes rowdy and always quirky charm, a keen and sometimes scathing wit and perhaps most importantly a concrete, sincere message which was really simple at heart. If you know about the Kinks you must have heard said about them that they were the most English of all the English bands.

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Feel like a Monster, Anyone? : Book Review

I thought it’d be nice to do a book review for a change. So, here we are. It’s horror, this time – The Mammoth Book of Monsters(Constable & Robinson), an anthology of monster tales selected by well-known horror anthologist Stephen Jones. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on the genre, but I have come to read a fair amount of horror over the years, mostly bought on a whim rather than by plan. This would include a number of classic tales by Edgar Allan Poe(of course), some by Stephen King( But of course!) including a novel, Cujo , unfortunately not one of his best, some absolutely marvellous stories by Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and finally two Stephen King-edited anthologies. This title here caught my eye while I was browsing at the 2011 Patrika Book Fair here in Jaipur, mid-November.

It seems the focus here was to keep the definition of a monster as flexible as possible, going beyond the usual vampires, werewolves and ghouls to even weirder creations of the human imagination. Worry not, fans of the good old monsters; Vampires and werewolves and even Godzilla himself are here, just not in the form you would expect.

The quality of stories here is usually first-rate, and you can be sure some of the newer monsters are going to stick with you for a long time. We start with Visitation by David J Schow. Incidentally, the author wrote the sceenplay for cult film The Crow. Visitation is a fantastically vivid story based on the idea that as long as we truly don’t believe in ghosts, monsters or demons, we are safe, but if we are tricked by our imagination into planting the smallest seed of doubt in our minds, our fears might manifest themselves in the worst way possible. The monster outside is the same as the monster within.

From the charmingly rustic setting of Visitation we come to the familiar claustrophobia of tight cubicles in cramped office-spaces of big-city high rises. Down There by Ramsey Campbell exploits that fear that niggles amid the sickly white lighting of deserted corridors and elevators. A high point is the  charmingly funny but realistic descriptions of the mundane reflections of the female protagonist as she bides her time together with the one other colleague still in the office at that late hour. Surely it is no small task to paint a convincing character sketch in the space of 8 pages.

Possibly my favourite story here is The Shadmock by R Chetwynd-Hayes. If you have chanced to watch the 1981 film The Monster Club, featuring Vincent Price, you might recall the episode loosely based on this story. It is really a remarkable piece, an alchemy of fear, baleful and disturbing, provocative  imagery, black humour, melancholy and mournfulness, as wildly imaginative as could be. And what a novel idea!

The Spider Kiss is marred by plainly bad writing. The idea is somewhat original but the exposition of it here is so inane it completely ruins it for me. Cafe Endless – Spring Rain is one weird story, set in Tokyo, Japan, in which nothing really interesting happens. Did not work for me. The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti has an academic researching the Medusa myth. It creates a delicious atmosphere and is extremely well-written, though the conclusion could have been better. It is that kind of horror which concentrates more on the fear itself and the sense of foreboding  rather than on a concrete embodiment/realization of the fear.

The Thin People by Brian Lumley is another highlight, an ingenious yarn about a kind of people that-, well, let’s just say that if you read this you’ll never look at a street lamp-post the same way again. Horror at it’s best .Joe R Lansdale’s Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program is a hilarious story which proves that you can inject poignancy into something so obviously absurd. The Hill and .220 Swift are novellas – The former makes an interesting point about supernatural beliefs while telling a story about the dead come back to life, or so it appears.

One of my favourite SF authors Robert Silverberg contributes with Our Lady of the Sauropods, that asks the tantalizing question-Can we really be so sure about our knowledge of dinosaurs, seeing as it is based on fossils alone? Could it be that dinosaurs were…different from what we imagine?

Someone Else’s Problem by Michael Marshall Smith is one of the more offbeat and creative stories here. Brilliantly funny and absurdist in tone, it hits you like a nail on the head. I’m willing to bet it came to the author’s mind as he sat in a sparsely populated train carriage, trying to read a book but eyes inevitable rising above the pages, ears attuned to the rhythmic hum of the locomotive. At some point in time haven’t we all felt like we are unjustly stuck in someone else’s problem, when we should just walk away

Other writers of note featured here include Basil Copper, Clive Barker and Robert E.Howard. Overall a fine-to-middling collection to spook and stimulate, brought down a notch by a few unremarkable stories which just don’t match up to the standard of the rest. But these are just a few bad apples, and then, I could be wrong.

Rating – 3.5 out of 5 stars

Buy it at Amazon-
http://www.amazon.com/Mammoth-Book-Monsters-Stephen-Jones/dp/0786719761

India? Buy it here
http://www.flipkart.com/books/1845295943?

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