Pop Playground
From the Back of the Shelf


it’s a struggle to keep up with what lands on my doormat a lot of the time; between the stuff I download (sorry mister) and hassle PR people for I’ve more than enough music to review, and thus unsolicited promos often get a raw deal, pushed to the back of a shelf and left until winter when I can burn them for fuel. Half the time (probably more) this is the best way to deal with what comes in the mail; there’s only so much Scandinavian drone or Swedish trip hop I can stand to listen to. But occasionally there is some music worth lending time to in amongst the unasked for CDs that wing their way from LA or Norway or Brighton. And so, in an effort to clear my conscience (and my shelf) I present here a lightning-quick tour through the good, the bad and the average of the music that lands on my doormat.

Various Artists
Switches
Audiobulb
2004
7

The bizarrely terrifying and yet still quite cute cover art is a pretty good indication of the electronic oddness housed within the Switches compilation; there’s enough glitch, drone, pulse, beat, melody and digital disarray to send you delirious with weird, should you wish. The artists brought together here span the Atlantic from Portland to Sheffield via Toronto, LA and Wisconsin before stretching further afield to Europe and Rennes, but they all have one thing in common: a degree of cybernetic humanism that elevates Switches way above most of the ‘experimental’ electronic dross that tumbles through my letterbox. Absent, present, eerie and charming all, this is very, very good.

Jen Gloeckner
Miles Away
Spinning Head Records
2004
4

Jen looks like a more exotic Norah Jones as raised in the middle of a strange desert, and the opening title track of Miles Away (plus the accompanying press release) would suggest that she sounds not unlike Ravi’s daughter either. However, a little more time and attention to detail reveal a less palatably MOR faux-jazz melodicism than Miss Jones, and a slightly more foreboding and unsettling take on stripped-down country/pop/folk acoustics. Eerie and unstraightforward strings complement Gloeckner’s angled voice and easy guitar playing, and while it never really goes anywhere the place it starts off in is nice enough.

Calamateur
The Old Fox Of ‘45
Autoclave
2004
6

Calamateur is the reclusive (well, I guess I’ve never heard of him) Andrew Howie, a Scottish man with a guitar and a sampler and some other stuff to bang or program or press buttons on in order to make music. Clattering and layered, The Old Fox Of ‘45 presents a kind of emo-techno-folk-rock that occasionally wanders into almost-great noise-pop territory (“Automobile Noise”) but which generally meanders through harmless and forgetful pastures of emotional distortion. Howie’s weak voice and characterless melodies let down his accomplished production; when he eats his own songs in banks of ominous and cloudy electronics things are compelling, but the spacey acoustic balladry I could do without.

Various Artists
Eklectra
Elusive
2004
6

Despite the cringeworthy title (puns are never a good idea, people) this is a great little release from Elusive, nicely demonstrating the Irish label’s ethos and breadth across 20 tracks of varied and melodic electronic landscaping. Starting with hazy poptronica, the styles move over you in waves; the sweetly melancholic and tuneful ambience & beats give way after half-a-dozen tracks to more epic electronic explorations that happily play around with form and rhythm. Pipes, pads, synths and occasional distorted guitars and voices wash easily. The second half works through Prefuse-style abstract hip hop cut-ups and beats before ending with proper, blissful hippie IDM. I don’t know whether most of the artists here are using the same software or not, but there’s a definite sense of unity and cohesion. At 20 tracks and nearly 80 minutes long Eklectra is likely to push your concentration span should you try and engage with it all at once, but as the Artificial Intelligence compilations proved ten years ago, sometimes it’s OK to just leave the music pleasantly in the background and get on with whatever you have to do.

Hayes
Eleven
BMI
2003
2

Calling your record Eleven when that’s how many songs are on it smacks of both arrogance and lack of imagination; “these are our songs and we shall be judged on them alone”. If that’s the case then Hayes are in trouble, because this shiny plastic disc is the most banal of post-Coldplay/post-The Calling anthemic mild-misery rock that I’ve yet to come across. Vaguely epic guitar breaks (occasionally with some distortion, gee whiz) and desperately (un)emotive vocals hammer utterly unmemorable melodies and the kind of pointless-- oh, fuck it. This is rubbish.

Alphane Moon / Our Glassie Azoth
Experimenting With An Amen / The Magician’s Heavenly Chaos
Oggum
4

Despite several listens and a prolonged grapple with the sleeve notes and press release, I’m still not entirely sure what this abstract Welsh noise is or who it’s by. Veering from minimal, acoustic guitar based Welsh-language folk to Fennesz-like sheets of white noise, drone and oscillation, you could describe this as stoner music for the 21sy century or else as Wire-friendly experimental nonsense. Either way, it moves from piercing to plangent with unsettling ease, and this indecision (coupled with the fact that Fennesz invests his music with so much more emotional clout) is its downfall.

Yoshi
From A Western Box
Nefisa
2004
5

Yoshi comes from a world where Sergio Leone, the RZA, anti-establishment politics, Middle Eastern strife, ambient Hip Hop, Akira Kurosawa and potent skunk exist in harmony. Either that or Tel Aviv via Brighton, I forget. From A Western Box works best on the instrumental tracks, primarily because rapping with an English accent still sounds largely ridiculous unless you do it purposefully badly (Mike Skinner) or else as if you’re insane (Dizzee). Managing to sound both ominous and chilled at the same time, this is obviously a deeply personal record about skewed perspectives, about looking at the UK from it’s marginal areas and wondering whether you’re a part of it.

This Is A Process Of A Still Life
This Is A Process Of A Still Life
Firefly Sessions
2004
5

There’s no doubt as to what TIAPOASL do; if the length of the acronym wasn’t enough to give the game away then song titles such as “oh god, the lights are going dim” and “no memory of the airshow” will. TIAPOASL have heard Godspeed and Explosions In The Sky and they liked it enough to make music that sounds almost exactly like them, only more mellow. Thus there are many lovely passages of slowly meandering guitar and rhodes, plus occasional touches of viola and melodica, with nary a Mogwai-esque crescendo in sight. No alarms and no surprises.

Petri Kuljuntausta
Momentum
Aureobel
2004
6

Finnish ambient/soundart from a man whose most recent soundscape project was based on the sounds of the Aurora Borealis. Last night I watched in wonder as the International Space Station arced its way across the clear blue Devon sky and vanished just before the horizon; this would have been a perfect soundtrack. Maybe Aphex Twin perfected this type of drifting, unreal ambience ten years ago and perhaps there’s no need for people to still be making records composed entirely of absent sounds, but I suspect that for a lot of people who’ve sipped deeply from the well of ambient over the years that Kuljuntausta’s Momentum will be a much admired and enjoyed addition.

Loner
Road Songs EP
Just Music
2004
6

The singer/songwriter no longer needs to sound like pre-electric revolution Bob Dylan, strumming away and whining about running out of petrol, or whatever the fuck it was Dylan sang about. The music of Loner (AKA Geoff Smith, barman by day, 21st century troubadour by night) is reminiscent of the sadly deceased Matthew Jay, or a less AM radio friendly (read “more interesting”) David Gray; reflective piano melodies, strummed guitars and modernist arrangements guide songs that are to the likes of Keane what Francois Truffault is to James Cameron. That is to say; much less obvious, much more thoughtful, much more delicate, and occasionally just as boring.

K.I.A.
Susurrus / Sonorous
Neuphoria
2004
5

Double-disc concept electronica that takes in world music, dub, folk, pop, breakbeat techno, hip hop, blues, angels, ‘microdancehall’ and ‘acapellatronica’, all put together by a Canadian visual artist with ProTools and a “cut & paste brain”. The two discs are split into ‘downtempo’ (Susurrus) and ‘uptempo’ (Sonorous). Both have their plus points, but which one is best depends on how you feel. One thing’s for sure; the overarching need to be ostentatiously eclectic (each track plays conspicuously with a different genre) means that K.I.A. ends up coming across as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. If you like your dance music schizo…

Horchata
Basidia
Ad Noiseam
2004
5

Minimal, Autechre-esque techno abstraction from the German Ad Noiseam label who seem to specialise in this stuff. Vaguely scientific titles + snippets of melody + beats you most assuredly cannot dance to + drawn-out structures = well, I’m not sure whether it’s exactly correct to refer to this stuff as “experimental” anymore because electronica/IDM is now well over a decade old and most of it still sounds exactly the same as it ever did. This particular record is very pleasant, in a nothing-to-write-home-about sort of way. If you eat IDM for breakfast, lunch and dinner then you’ll lap it up, otherwise this isn’t memorable/melodic enough to stir the casual listener.

The Red Stripes
One Nation Army EP
Red Stripes
2004
1 / 10

The Red Stripes are, you guessed it, a “punky reggae tribute to The White Stripes”. This is either the best or worst idea in the world, depending on whether or not you’ve smoked enough skunk to give your cataracts cataracts. I love reggae but I hate Jack & Meg. I’ll leave you to make your own minds up. Suffice to say that the “Hotel Yorba” cover is only eclipsed by the “Rat In The Kitchen/No Fun” UB40/Stooges medley to finish. OH MY FUCKING GOD MY BRANE JUST MELTED. Catch them live on 29th May at London Oxford Street’s Metro.


By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2004-05-26
Comments (0)
 

 
Today on Stylus
Reviews
October 31st, 2007
Features
October 31st, 2007
Recently on Stylus
Reviews
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Features
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Recent Music Reviews
Recent Movie Reviews