Album Review: The Little Willies, ‘For The Good Times’

(This is a review for BBM Magazine, also available here: http://www.bbmlive.com/music-news/the-little-willies-for-the-good-times-album-review.html)

This is the newest release from Norah Jones. No, hang on! Come back! It’s half decent. Honestly. The Little Willies, her collaborative country shtick, put out their second cover album following 2006’s The Little Willies (Milking Bull). Teaming up with the notable pair Jim Campilongo (guitar) and Richard Julian (vocals), Jones and The Little Willies strum up a fine, sweet homage to the country establishment of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson.

The gliding tones of the record come direct with Scotty Wiseman’s ‘Remember Me.’ Like a slow bowing of a violin, it swoons a little, tugs you a little. Its tenderness is beautifully immediate. ‘Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves’ (Cal Martin) is flirtatious with mariachi, akin to the Coens’ Fargo soundtrack. That North Dakota folksy charm; the Oklahoman small town drive. The duel vocal work of Jones and Julian is all but flawless. On Willie Nelson’s ‘Perfectly Lonely,’ Julian hits the melody around with a candied nonchalance. Here, Jones follows with her patented Nice, Soft Voice, but for the most part it works.

The album does sweat a little. For fans, this may be an exciting take on classical country music. For pretty much everyone else, it is the definition of unsexy. ‘Lovesick Blues’ (Mills and Friend), despite frankly stupendous vocal harmonies, hits you in the gut like accidentally catching a look at your mum’s bum. ‘Tommy Rockwood’ is stratospherically awful. Far too often, the album is unambitious. Despite some curious flourishes from Campilongo’s elastic Telecaster, in some places he is underused when he ought to be foregrounded (‘Foul Owl on the Prowl’, Jones, Bergman and Bergman) and saturatingly widespread when he should be moderated (‘Wide Open Road,’ Johnny Cash).

As for the big cheeses covered here, Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is gently loved by Jones. Nelson’s ‘Perfectly Lonely’ opens with cleverly inter-picking guitar and piano, and is well rendered, if a little like the music for a Pixar montage. Johnny Cash could have abused himself less from heroin and listened to the cover of ‘Wide Open Road’ to really rip himself open. Nonetheless, much of this record is redemptive, unapologetic in its love of a bit of hotel foyer schmaltz, and we should be grateful if all covers were handled and repackaged with this much devotion.

★★★

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Album Review: Class Actress, ‘Rapprocher’

(This is a review for BBM Magazine, also available here: http://www.bbmlive.com/music-news/class-actress-rapprocher-album-review.html)

Elizabeth Harper-fronted electronic pop outfit Class Actress release their first full-length record after the debut EP ‘Journal of Ardency.’ (Terrible, 2009) The Brooklyn band, with Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal, borrow heavily from Depeche Mode and The Human League, bashing together a melancholic throwback to the finest of 80s synth-pop with few surprises.

Richardson and Rosenthal are propagators of the prettily atonal. Tickling out with opening track, ‘Keep You,’ the record is injected and peppered with accidentals and chromatic twirls. There is a profound sense of melancholy, a broad painting of influences like the glum jarring of the Velvet Underground. ‘Keep You’ especially crunches along like deep 70s prog rock. ‘Weekend’ is, frankly, a massive song, smartly constructed and Hemingway-esque in its lean diet of melody.

Where the band tangibly struggles is with lyrics. In a genre of simplistic hooks, it is unsurprising that words don’t zip about like Coleridge’s. But against a thick tapestry of intelligent engineering, the lyrics sound flatly dumb: ‘I wanna keep you in my heart. I wanna keep you. Oooh, I wanna keep you.’ It’s not great. On top of this, Harper’s voice is enormously bland, offering too little in tone, a sad flaw that renders the sound merely meekly decent, never exciting nor ingenious.

And ultimately, this is where we end up. ‘Prove Me Wrong’ and ‘Need To Know’ are so indecipherably similar, one would struggle to separate them from crepe paper. There is not enough here to warm yourself with, let alone get animated about. ‘Limousine’ and ‘Missed’ graduate from this class too. ‘Bienvenue’ continues a ropey French theme, but is undoubtedly the highpoint – catchy, pacey, infused with drum and bass influences, this could be some of the best of High Contrast, with a cuddling aftertaste. But largely this is dolefully uninspiring stuff.

★★

Album Review: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’

(This is a review for BBM Magazine, also available here: http://www.bbmlive.com/music-news/trent-reznor-a-atticus-ross-the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-album-review.html)

Already nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross follow 2010’s Academy Award-winning soundtrack to 2010’s The Social Network with another ambient masterpiece aimed at maneuvering your insides. The score, the second at the behest of director David Fincher, underwrites The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with all the moody tones and tickling clicks of The Social Network besides new, post-industrial machinations in the disturbing. This 30-track score sits on you like clay.

So heavy is this soundtrack with the haunting noise of the production line and of meaty industry that the first track, ‘Immigrant Song’ (featuring Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs), sounds like Led Zeppelin on fire in a mine. How To Destroy Angels unsurprisingly pop up to cover Bryan Ferry’s ‘Is Your Love Strong Enough?’ and rattle it around a steelworks. ‘Pinned and Mounted’ sews and threads, ‘You’re Here’ is a racket of glass, hammers and drills. This is sumptuous stuff, deliciously laden, thickly spread and heavy set. Much of it sings like Mogwai or a dirty Sigur Ros. Tormenting and smart, it broods like The Social Network but skillfully balances shuttling keys with sombre shadow.

The tonal balance is not always nimble. Often, it sprays itself a little too much in synth-farts, like a Doom soundtrack, or some of the less fortunate middle eights of late-90s nu-metal. ‘With The Flies’, for example, feels like the accidental lisp of an old stereo that ought really to be thrown away. ‘Another Way of Caring’ comes and leaves like a reminder to put the washing on.

But some – nay, most – of it soars. Really soars. ‘A Thousand Details’ hums and snarls like the finest of The Prodigy. ‘Parallel Timeline With Alternate Outcome’ is sweetly atonal, imbued with a romantic cyber-seduction. ‘A Viable Construct’ is almost tangibly disgusting – it pulls you into the final act like a nauseous sprint to the kitchen sink. And if there is a better piece of work released this year than ‘What If We Could?,’ 2012 is an unfathomable barrel of roses. This is not just a dark and ominous score – Reznor and Ross set out, it seems, to singe with white noise and static, to fill your maw with the dull ache of muddy drums. It is pure kinesis.

★★★★