Saturday, 25 August 2012

July 2012 - Popular Music

Tori Amos - Strange Little Girls
Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine
Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...
Joni Mitchell
  • Song to a Seagull
  • Blue
  • For the Roses
  • Hejira
  • Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
  • Wild Things Run Fast
  • Night Ride Home
  • Shine
Radiohead - OK Computer
Sixpence None the Richer - Sixpence None the Richer
Sting - The Soul Cages
Sting - Live In Berlin (DVD version)
Washington - I Believe You Liar
Rachael Yamagata - Happenstance

A tale of two albums... neither of them by Joni Mitchell despite the preponderance of her works in the list above.

Washington is, as far as I can tell, Megan Washington - and by that I mean that she appears to be operating as a solo artist, not as the lead person in a band like Bon Jovi or Van Halen.

Megan Washington has a beautiful, beautiful voice. My first encounter with it was, I think, also the first encounter for many people, when she appeared on the much beloved quiz show Spicks and Specks singing completely inappropriate lyrics in a little game called 'Substitute'. But singing them oh so well.

Part of the reason I think this helped her career is that her music shot up the iTunes charts the very next day.

I bought Washington's first full-length album, I Believe You Liar, a couple of months ago (at the same time as Gotye's Making Mirrors).  And I didn't really take much time to listen to it then.  I took a bit more time in July to sit down with the album properly.

And I'm disappointed. There's no other way to say it. It's not terrible by any means.  But THAT VOICE is most noticeable by its absence.

This is because much of the album aims for a 60s, Phil Spector Wall of Sound aesthetic. The production is thick, with Washington's voice multitracked. Even when the music is quieter, she's still multitracked more often than not. It's bright, it's fairly poppy, and it totally fails to show off her biggest musical asset.  Most of her singing comes across as merely pleasant, instead of utterly magnetic. The lyrics are nothing special, either, and fail to elevate the material.

Only the closing title track really allows me to hear the same thing I heard in that television show several years ago.

I haven't lost hope. I also bought the following Insomnia EP at the same time (which includes material that has been released on a revamped international version of I Believe You Liar) and, while I have yet to open it, it actually sounded like the better release from what I sampled before purchase.

Contrast my reaction to Liar with my reaction to, to give it the full title, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. The new album from Fiona Apple was something I picked up this month for a number of reasons, including excellent reviews and a very cheap price for a recent release.

And where Washington disappointed me, Apple thrilled me.  Here is an album that absolutely showcases a vocalist using her instrument - and it really is treated as an instrument.  The accompanying music is sometimes little more than punctuation while Apple coos, growls and everything in between. The most frequent combination of sounds is percussion, piano and voice, and this album demonstrates pretty effectively that you don't need any more than that to create powerful music.

And yes, even though I'm generally much more about the music than the words, Apple's songwriting is also more interesting lyrically.  Her wordplay may not be to everyone's taste, but there are all sorts of surprises thrown in, rather than picking the obvious way of saying something.  I can't think of a much better way of saying how a lover makes you feel than Apple's statement, in one of the happier songs, that "he makes my heart a cinemascope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise".

All of those reviews on Metacritic making this one of the best-reviewed albums of the year are, in my humble opinion, right.  Not that I hear many albums in the year they're released.  But this is certainly right up there in terms of albums I've heard any time recently.

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