The Bubble Album Reviews No. 11

Kent – Röd

Kent are a rare and fascinating band. In Sweden, they have had more top ten singles and number one albums than chart-dominating melody-machine compatriots Abba, yet are virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia. This is most likely because all of their albums are written in their native Swedish. The four-piece, often given the epithet of ‘Sweden’s greatest rock band’ in the Scandinavian press, have managed to do that exceptional thing – in their homeland at least – of evolving and transforming their sound whilst maintaining commercial and critical success. Kent’s untrammeled musical path has taken them far from their eponymous debut album in 1995; an uncertain and volatile blend of panic and aggression, infused with fuzzy walls of distorted guitar and unpredictable changes of amplitude.

In contrast, the band’s most recent skin-shedding saw them emerge as a slick and dynamic electro-rock quartet, now balancing their characteristic gliding guitars with intricate synth loops. And this is where Röd comes in. The album, meaning “Red” in English and released in late 2009, is a masterful tour-de-force of powerful and elaborate electronica imbued with rock sentiment.

The album opens with a wry red herring; an unpolished choir of pensioners sing penetrating lyrics in a church (“And they shoot all the soldiers, to an old song about peace”) to the backing of a single organist. The pretense lasts just long enough, before the album transitions into a repetitious electronic beat as the last chord of the organ fades away. This signals the beginning of the album’s second song, Taxmannen (The Taxman), which in turn segues neatly to Krossa Allt (Crush Everything), a mid-tempo, pulsing stomp that releases a sleek riff that illustrates songwriter Jocke Berg’s instinct for delivering hooks when the listener needs them.

What follows is a trio of multi-part epics which culminates in the brooding Vals för Satan (Din Vän Pessimisten) (Waltz for Satan, Your Friend the Pessimist), in which a bubbling and hypnotic loop rolls on its throbbing bassline. The song, perhaps the highlight of the album, marches towards a controlled collapse, in which the drums break down while Berg’s distorted vocals wail eerily above. The second half of the album doesn’t give reprieve, with immaculately produced slices of poppy electronica, such as Idioter (Idiots) and Töntarna (Geeks) balancing the more complicatedly arranged and lengthy songs like Ensamheten (The Loneliness) with its unexpected turns and explosive dynamism. The album closes in what fans will recognize as typical Kent fashion, with the seven minute Det Finns Inga Ord (There Are No Words), where enchanting melodies crash in waves over thudding drums.

Listening to music in a different language may seem unnatural at first, but Berg’s lyrics are well worth looking up (relatively accurate translations from the Swedish can be easily found online); Röd is pervaded with imagery of war, belief, hope and melancholy. The intentionally bleak titles of the songs are an indication of the dark sardonicism that is sometimes glimpsed through his strange sense of poetry, and more than in any of the band’s albums yet, the songs feel as though they are more encompassing, with more shades of feelings captured in the cloaked lyricism.

Some may feel that the song lengths are off-putting (five of the album’s tracks are over five and a half minutes long), but the brilliance in the arrangements comes with repeat listening. The structure of each song goes hand in hand with twists of feeling in the lyrics, rather than abstruse arrangements being introduced for the sake of it. The apparent inaccessibility of the album may seem a fault, but in time the initially frustrating aspects become assets. Overall, Röd is a majestic album, and the pinnacle of Kent’s sixteen year career. The Swedish rockers trundle on, with a new album planned for release in April 2012, though how it will sound remains to be seen.

By Will Clothier

Silver Jews – Starlite Walker

This album marks a high point of collaboration: two university pals (David Berman and Stephen Malkmus) who would, in their own way, become legends of the ’90s. Right now, Berman has stopped writing music and is sticking to poetry and blogs, and Malkmus has spent more years on his solo career than his acclaimed band Pavement. Now, to make this album even more obscure, it is not the Silver Jews’ first album (that was The Arizona Records a collection of very lo-fi songs originally recorded into friends’ answering machines) nor is the album as celebrated as their other works such as American Water and Tanglewood Numbers. However, what Starlite Walker does have is that instantly recognisable tang of freshness in a band who are realizing their greatness.

The music resembles a fuzzy acoustic warmth of stumbled chords, whistling, semi-solos and single piano notes, i.e. where the musicians lack in technical brilliance they make up for with absolute conviction. But what holds the songs together is Berman’s excellent nasal songcraftmanship. He wittily slices through poetic traditions “There is a house in New Orleans, not the one you’ve heard about, I’m talking ‘bout another house” and constructs pithy philosophies: “Half hours on earth/ What are they worth? / I don’t know”. Malkmus often vocalises in throughout the songs to enforce a chorus, or enhance an emotion that Berman’s lyrics encapsulates, often to humorous effect, for example at the end of “New Orleans” he screams “We’re stuck inside this song!” over and over again.

A common topic in the album is transition. Berman often ponders over his university years (or at least years without adult responsibility), and the microcosm of warmth they establish. He recreates the atmosphere of a house party in the closing song “The Silver Pageant” and his experimental song “The Country Diary Of A Subway Conductor” sounds like something he’d have written in a creative writing class. However, he is also aware of the transience of these golden years as he immediately points out in the opener “I never want this minute to end/ And then it ends” and also the irrelevance of his “achievements” in the real world with the excellent line “In 27 years, I drunk 50,000 beers/ and they just wash against me, like the sea into the pier.” Indeed the fact that Berman released this album when he was 27, emphasises that he was fully in his adult years. Nevertheless the main feeling this album retains is its warmth, and reflects on the close friendships and incredible moments that are shared in the important post-teen years of one’s life. Moreover, the album helped pave the way for one of the greatest lyricists of the past 20 years.

By Josh Rogan

Paolo Conte – Concerti

Each of the concerts on the record must have been quite an experience. At that moment, Conte had conquered the Italian audience with poetical lyrics (notably with “Un gelato al limon”), international charts with the fine and sensual rhythm of “Via con me”, and a wide public sympathy with his gentle looks and big moustache. Presented this way, this record could be his consecration; one can hear some of his best compositions in a splendid performance.

The album opens on a movie-soundtrack-like orchestral arrangement, to merge into a rhythmic accompaniment typical of European jazz. After which is shouted : “Shoe-shiner ! shoe-shiner ! shoe-shiner ! Come back to my Chinatown !” I find it quite a good introduction to the world of Conte, without reflecting the whole of the album or his work. For his musical style is hard to define. He himself does not like his music to be categorised, saying “My style is the administration of my defects.” What can be safely said is that it is at a crossroads between black American music and the tradition of the old continent. His piano playing represents very much that idea, capable of the best jazzy improvisations in “Onda su onda“, a terrific swing on “Boogie” as well as Mediterranean traditional, popular songs, remarkable in “Azzurro” or “Bartali“. His horizons are yet broader than this, one can hear musical and textual references to France or Latin America for example. More personally, his ballads: slow, suave, expressive, are of great beauty. However each song has got relief, nuances, versatility, which sadly has not been always been supported by his musicians. Yet on this record, it is, formidably so. The saxophone has a round and warm sound that makes an interesting contrast with the lacunar structure of the ballads and of their text, sung in a misty, low voice. On the contrary, in “Diavolo Rosso” you can hear a dialogue between a boleric saxophone and a choleric piano, which, with the guitar and drums repetitive latin rhythm, could remind one of a spaghetti western soundtrack. The guitarist’s lightning fast solo (very continental) in “Lo Zio” simply transforms the song. Slower and emphasised on “Alle prese…”, it gives it the Latin American touch the lyrics transcribe.

Yet he perhaps owes his fame in Italy more to his lyrics. Rejecting the album for its prominent Italian lyrics would be quite a pity. For the sound of the singing itself is very interesting, very rhythmic and melodious; his rapid pace in the Italian verses accompany the groove of the music as graciously as the curls of smoke his moustache. Conte also does some excellent scat, jazzy linguistic improvisation : “Chips chips, da-di-doo-di-doo, chi-boom chi-boom-boom.” The few English lyrics seem to be rather illustrative than expressive, charmingly consisting of and in clichés, symbols, as the language of jazz, swing love songs, and l’America. If on the other hand you are interested in what Paolo is telling you, you shall not be disappointed; his writing is very refined. It often presents contrasts between vast ensembles, cities (Napoli, Parigi), the beach, free spaces and emptiness cleverly suggested with the physical presence of concepts or immaterial things (“a suitcase of perplexity”, “the plenty of music”), and rather simple but symbolic and colourful objects (Conte also paints): a luminous lemon ice-cream, a blue flower (fragility in romance languages), a zebra. Stages on which are introduced picturesque characters, women (of course), Hemingway (in a tragically ironic fantastic piece), our friend Angiolino and his blond spouse, the shoe-shiner… A euphonic world!

By Hippolyte Pier Astier

Codeine – Frigid Stars

Codeine was a short-lived band in the early 90’s that pioneered slowcore, a movement that was characterised with music that was very slow, simple and painfully injected with emotion. On a larger scale Codeine managed to bridge the naïveté that bands like Galaxie 500 and The Velvet Underground championed with the nihilistic distortion that Nirvana dragged into the 90’s: this would later have a huge influence on post-rock bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor! More importantly, they have reunited for All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival this summer.

Frigid Stars was Codeine’s debut album released in 1990, and is its most accessible. The most obvious reaction one gets on first listen is how depressing it is. You can feel the sadness dripping off the walls (slowcore was also unsurprisingly known as sadcore), and indeed this sense of claustrophobia pervades throughout. For example the song “New Year’s” describes a man’s abandonment as he sighs “Here in my castle, lines creep my face”. However, the kick that makes you want more are the songs’ release from very quiet to very loud. “Cave-In” is one of the album’s strongest songs because it represents the singer Stephen Immerwahr at his most unstable and most cathartic. He mumbles the album’s darkest lyrics “Last night I dreamt your face/ The skin was falling off/ The flesh was turning grey” before the crushing chorus of “This is a cave-in”, which enhances this claustrophobia to panic mode. And you realise that the euphoria comes not from a man who is moved to action, but from a man riding this wave that he knows eventually will crash.

It is useful to set Codeine against Nirvana, since slowcore is often associated with being a reaction to grunge. Both utilise the ominous quiet to complement the loud release. For example in Nirvana’s song “Lithium”, Kurt Cobain managed to find an anarchic playfulness in their lyrics and buoyant riffs, and thus forged a sense of empowerment. Yet with Codeine’s songs the singer could not find this escapism and so you discover these doomed speakers in banal scenes such as at a cigarette machine, or in dying relationships, and they are frustrated that they can’t leave this scene. Indeed we hear no hero in these songs. Immerwahr’s voice cannot replicate the growl of Cobain, and instead sounds like a perverted Woody Allen. Instead this feeling of entrapment lingers after listening, of a man who can only pull at his chains, relish the rush but also anticipate the inevitable decline.

And as depressing as this sounds, surely that is the aim of listening music? To translate a singer’s sound into a concrete feeling. And Frigid Stars finally achieves the sought after solace by making such unique bleakness into a universal feeling that can be shared, and thus consoled.

By Oliver White

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