British singer-songwriter Bill Fay’s first studio album in nearly 40 years is a grand, melancholy, deeply contemplative collection that gives credence to this less-than-prolific artist’s cult following. Fay released two albums of poetic psych-tinged folk in the early 1970s, Bill Fay and Time of the Last Persecution, both of which were highly coveted by collectors and esoteric folkies such as Jim O’Rourke and Current 93’s Dave Tibet. After a lengthy fallow period, Fay re-emerged from near total obscurity in 2010 with the odds-and-sods set, Still Some Light. With this year’s Life Is People, Fay not only answers the question of where he’s been for the past four decades, but likewise what’s been on his mind during that time. Tackling big questions regarding family, faith, the afterlife, and humility in the face of a creator, Fay offers the sort of wise, introspective look back that Bob Dylan delivered on Time Out of Mind. And not unlike Dylan’s work at various points in his career, Life Is People is imbued with an unavoidable religiosity. Fay uses a Christian framework here to explore his questions concerning existence, yet he’s never dogmatic or sanctimonious, instead handling some fairly heavy subject matter with grace and wit.
Built on Fay’s spare piano and vocal compositions, the tracks are augmented with stark string arrangements, atmospheric guitars, gospel-inflected organ, and on the Leonard Cohen–inspired “Empires,” an actual gospel choir. The mood can be somber at times, but it’s a musical atmosphere born out of reflection and is never morose. For one of the album’s seemingly lighter moments, “This World,” Fay is joined by longtime champion Jeff Tweedy, and the two trade stories of personal shortcomings and failures over a chiming, hummable folk-pop melody. Fay returns the favor later with a haunting, ethereal take on Wilco’s “Jesus, Inc.”
Fay fits the classic template of a reclusive cult musician, the kind of artist one discovers either by chance or exhaustive exploration. But regardless of when or how one comes upon Fay, Life Is People deserves to be part of the experience. As much as this album at times feels like an ending, it’s probably as good a place to begin as any.
Produced, like the band’s sophomore effort, 2007’s Our Earthly Pleasures by Gil Norton, The National Health could be called a return to form after Quicken the Heart, Maxïmo Park’s disappointing third album from 2009. But that would be too easy. Instead, I’d like to think that the band has eclipsed its past work entirely, going to a plane of spirited pop that’s far too rare these days.
Indeed, The National Heath shows that Britpop hasn’t completely died, it’s just been buried under the weight of Coldplay’s melodrama and Muse’s balderdash. While not a sonic throwback, the album bears the kind of charm that’s been exhibited in the past by luminaries like The Smiths, The Jam, and Orange Juice. The combination of singer Paul Smith’s crimson voice, the melodic instincts of guitarist Duncan Lloyd and keyboardist Lukas Wooller, and the band’s nervous energy makes for songs naturally full of vim and which take hold with seemingly very little effort. Reminiscent of Gene’s best work, “Reluctant Love” is among the standouts, easily falling in line with the Brits’ long lineage of wonderfully bittersweet pop songs. “Until the Earth Would Open” works with another juxtaposition, Smith delivering lines like, “I won’t survive, nobody does” over his cohorts’ bouncy backing. The album’s dynamic is in constant flux as the album progresses, but the band never loosens the tether between Smith’s impressive croon and each song’s plotted course. Maxïmo Park always hinted that they had a great album in them, and The National Health is that album.
From the first note of “Waswasa,” Six Organs of Admittance assert that Ascent will be a seriously shredding record. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the tagline I’d read: “Six Organs of Admittance + Comets on Fire in the orchestra pit = Ascent.” Sure the two bands have shared one or more members at a time, but the folk-influenced potions and wizardry of Six Organs are a step or two away genre-wise from the cold smoke and cosmic flare rock of Comets on Fire. They’re calling this Six Organs as a classic rock band, but even if they tried their hardest to rip off Vanilla Fudge, there’s no way they would end up sounding derivative or rehash-ish. The only riff that even comes close to sounding like anything else is at the beginning of “Close to the Sky,” wherein the bass line from Pulp’s “Seductive Barry” slowly morphs into a guitar-laden, psyched-out, formaldehyde-dipped slowburner. Short of that coincidence, the only thing Ascent has in common with classic rock revival records is that it features guitar, bass, and drums.
The part I’m currently sick of hearing is the silence when Ascent is over. “Your Ghost” is the most reminiscent of other Six Organs stuff, just Ben Chasny’s vocals over a guitar that drifts into Nick Drake territory and then rockets out to Beelzebub. The last song, “Visions (from Io),” is the standout, with a lazy lilting chord progression over dusty drums, a sentimental lead guitar, and a fragment of a narrative from the point of view of a government issue space traveler looking back from the innermost moon of Jupiter. Purportedly, Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance have been building the rockets for this starship since 2002, only to file it away and opt for a redesign before the Earth blips out of existence at the end of 2012. Take this in iPod form if you must, as we might not have room for vinyl in the escape pod, but it’s clear that this album was meant for the ritual of the turntable.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
While Adrian Sherwood is anything but a household name, those who spend time pouring over liner notes know that the British producer is a titan. If nothing else, he deserves props for being able to navigate between artists as varied as Simply Red, Skinny Puppy and Lee “Scratch” Perry with the greatest of ease. Either as a producer or remixer, he’s touched down in a variety of places in his 30-year career, but he’s shown a consistent love for reggae, specifically the dub end of the spectrum. It’s that sonic sensibility that’s been the cornerstone of his audio foundation. Finally, after so many years in the background and a staggering collection of credits, Sherwood has decided to step to the forefront and release albums as an artist, with his latest salvo, Survival & Resistance, being his third record in nine years.
Survival & Resistance has everything a Sherwood fan would want from a record. Sherwood’s strength is taking his well-used toolbox and being able to find interesting places to push it. Of course, dub plays a huge part, but the record rarely plays it straight. There are always juxtapositions of different music ideas that should feel wedged in but instead feel like the most logical idea for that moment. Survival & Resistance also benefits from the economy and space dub provides. The album also manages to be very political while being primarily an instrumental affair. While the sprinkling of vocal tracks make Sherwood’s points directly, just the sheer strength of song titles and track construction get his thoughts across as clearly as if he was writing a manifesto. For someone who spends most his time in the background, Survival & Resistance shows Sherwood should step out front more often.
Dorian S. Ham
Strobosphere, Bailterspace’s first studio album since 1999, wastes no time in assuring us of its formidability. Whipfast, the first breach from silence to song in “Things That We Found” is merciless in its arrest. It is primarily the guitar melody that baits, hooks, and demands a replay, a replay that is permitted by the song’s fadeout, and with which the vocals, low and along for the ride, aren’t at odds. All of this has been standard critical issue for Bailterspace in the past, but here it’s on its head, servicing the song impressively.
A band since 1987, Bailterspace is often cited as the Sonic Youth of New Zealand, if only for their seeming ability to pick up cues from nearly any alternative rock trope and make it their own. Their first two records on Flying Nun had them veering away from the aggressive sludge of their first band, The Gordons, to negotiate dissonance and tonality in that New Zealand way that somehow results in pop. With this as their background, they were able to define some much needed edges for shoegaze as they moved to the United States and signed to Matador in the early ’90s. Robot World and Vortura culled memorable melodic structures from the gauze of the genre and provided darker tones of nostalgia.
This past is apparent in Strobosphere, but not as you may think. The influences have been sliced so many times sideways as to be their own industry. Time has served this band well (naturally) and the times have served them well, with the current splintering of genres leaving them with nothing specific to pick up but themselves.
MP3: “No Sense”