Friday, 27 June 2014

Record Review - Ned Collette

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, June 27.

Ned Collette & Wirewalker
Networking In Purgatory
Dot Dash / Remote Control

Australian troubadour Ned Collette, back from Berlin where he’s based these days, brings with him his fifth release, a warm, lush record bursting (quietly) with a clutch of songs that dip and dive like springtime swallows, as intricate as they are robust

His third record with a band, Networking In Purgatory sees Collette in career best form. Beginning with the Beatles-esque ‘At The Piano’, it slowly builds as an album (for that’s what it is, not merely a bunch of songs) – the bouncy, bass-heavy ‘Bird’; the minimal and slightly electronic ‘Vanitas Quack’; the initially jazz styled ‘Helios’, which grows into a high-stepping, beatsy folk jaunt.

It’s a very considered album, one for headphones with time on one’s hands, and it rewards handsomely. Recorded between Berlin and Melbourne, its relatively lo-fi sounds, with Collette’s understated vocal riding shotgun, stand as a high-water mark for anyone looking to use folk as a base from which to really explore.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Record Review - Jack White

Published in The Big Issue, June 2014.

Jack White
Third Man Records / Columbia

It’s been interesting to watch Jack White’s evolution as an artist over the past couple of decades, from a greasy-haired blues punk to the suave and sonically sophisticated gent he is today.

As he’s evolved, so too has his reputation grown; an in-demand producer, label head and collaborator, White has become a part of modern music’s fabric. His work with the seminal White Stripes, The Raconteurs and Dead Weather (along with stints with all from Alicia Keys to Neil Young), have served to heighten his standing to a level not many achieve over an entire career, let alone a mere twenty years. The success of his rather belated solo debut, Blunderbuss (2012), is simply icing on the cake.

Which is why it’s all the more interesting to listen to Lazaretto, his second foray into the ‘solo’ world, a world where there aren’t too many places to hide – this is where White is properly on display, where one can truly evaluate and, hopefully, appreciate his continuing evolution.

Lazaretto is an interesting beast however, in that it’s not quite sure what it is. Is it an impossibly crunchy, staccato-riffed semi-rap like the title track? Is it a lethargic blues/rock stretch out, complete with junky piano as ‘High Ball Stepper’ suggests? Or is it a fiddle and pedal steel-led country lament, with a slight pop bent, a la ‘Temporary Ground’ (with superb, lilting backing vocals from Lillie Mae Rische)?

It’s not a comfortable listen by any stretch, it’s more an adventure, a blindfolded wander through a clutch of jumbled rooms, each more mystifying and cluttered than the last. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s increasingly been White’s MO to stretch boundaries, to challenge people’s perceptions of existing genres, and to that end, with Lazaretto he’s succeeded.

And maybe that’s all he needs to do – present new ideas with which people can do what they will. For someone of White’s standing, this is indeed acceptable, although perhaps not without delusions of grandeur – many may yearn for the simplicity of those early years when it was all about the up and down fuzz and grind.

Overall, Lazaretto is much more a collection of 11 songs than it is an album, which at first seems odd for a nu-traditionalist like White. But then again, these 11 songs wouldn’t fit on any other album, even if surrounded by similarly styled tunes. Confusing, no? Well, that’s just how Jack White likes it, as his continued evolution suggests.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Record Review - Jeff Lang

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday June 13.

Jeff Lang
I Live In My Head A Lot These Days
ABC Music / Universal

Jeff Lang’s latest record in a still flourishing career that’s spanned almost thirty years begins a capella, a few bars before that instantly recognisable slide guitar comes in, ‘Watch Me Go’, not so much a song as a story set to music.

This is the MO for most of I Live In My Head A Lot These Days – it’s certainly not Lang’s loudest or fastest record to date; one gets the impression, despite his guitar prowess, that this one is mainly about the songs, the stories, the tales he weaves about promise, fear, sadness and life. Indeed, he has a knack for making seemingly mundane observations appear mystical, ethereal.

Still set very much in the rootsy vein for which he’s known, and backed once more by crack rhythm section Grant Cummerford and Danny McKenna (with Greg Sheehan on board on percussion), this set stretches out gently but forcefully, a slow burner that affirms Lang’s place as not only a stellar player, but as one of Australia’s finest songwriters.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 13 June 2014

Feature - Jeff Lang

Published in the June issue of Rhythms Magazine. Excerpt below.

Jeff’s Head
Jeff Lang ponders whether it's all a cosmic joke at his expense.

“If you’ve got nothing to, essentially, prove, does that mean that you think you’ve got it all sussed?” muses Jeff Lang, rhetorically. “Far from it. I’m always on the cusp of thinking that it’s all been a cosmic joke at my expense, and I’ve been kidding myself this whole time, and it’s actually a bunch of fucking guff, you know?”

Lang laughs. I laugh too. We’re talking about the fact he’s been ‘on the scene’, so to speak, for almost thirty years. I’d asked him a question I ask a lot of musicians who have been plying their trade for a reasonable amount of time – where does this album see you as an artist? I’d mentioned he now had nothing to prove, and had wondered if this made any sort of difference when it came to creating.

“It’s one of those things, everyone grapples with it – am I wasting my time, will people even give a shit about this? I mean, should they?” he says. I tell him he could drive himself mad asking himself those kinds of questions. “Exactly, so you just have to let it go. It’s better to not really think about the big picture of it too much. That’s where you get into thinking, ‘It’s gotta be my magnum opus’… Christ, where do you start with that? There are too many phantoms peeking over your shoulder when you start thinking those types of thoughts.”

Lang’s new album, the latest in a long line of releases spanning the past three decades from studio cuts to live albums to collaborations with artists as diverse as Bob Brozman, Chris Whitley, Mamadou Diabate and Maru Tarang, in entitled I Live In My Head A Lot These Days. It’s a title which makes me think Lang has indeed been asking himself the aforementioned hard questions, but it’s not the case.

“I always have [lived in my head], everyone does,” Lang reasons. “I spent a lot of time touring on my own… I just looked for a title which hangs over the batch of songs, and that’s where I ended up.”

I Live In My Head… is, to put it simply, another Jeff Lang album. He’s not been looking at the ‘big picture’, he’s looking at the smaller pictures, one at a time, as he’s always done, and as a result the album is a snapshot, a moment in time, 11 songs which encapsulate what’s going on in Lang’s head now; add it to his canon, it’s another chapter in the saga that is this incredible musician’s life and times.

I tell Lang that whenever I hear there’s soon to be a new album, I get excited. I ask him how he feels when he finds out there’ll soon be a new Jeff Lang album. “Ha, well I kind of hear it first,” he laughs. “After a while, I just start to feel expectant… songs accumulate over time and I just get antsy for it.”

“I enjoy recording, so I can itch that part of myself a bit more by helping other people make their records, but it’s not the same thing as making your own recording,” he says. “But then, if you did it all the time, you might get sick of it. I’ve always worked on a fresh-is-best policy with recording.”

“It’s a funny process,” he goes on, warming to the subject of making studio albums, something he’s done under his own name around seventeen times, 18 if you include his new record (and to be honest, he’s done so much, there may well be more). “You feel like you’ve been doing something, it doesn’t feel like a polaroid project too much, but it’s funny, you can spend three days recording and then listen back to something you did on the first of the three days, and it feels like it’s weeks and weeks ago.

“You’re just so focused on things, you tend to focus on each song as it comes up, you’re not thinking about the next one, it’s really quite different to a gig.”

It’s this method, this ethos, that Lang has indeed brought to other artist’s records. He’s recently produced Hat Fitz and Cara’s new album (to be released soon), he’s currently working on Jed Rowe’s new release, and recently worked the desk for The Stillson’s frontman Justin Bernasconi’s solo record, Winter Pick.

“I needed a producer who could push me out of my comfort zone, both as a player and as a songwriter,” Bernasconi tells me via email. “A producer needs to wear many hats, and Jeff has a hat shop! Knowing how coax out a performance, when to push someone, when to back off, etc. There are obliviously the technical aspects: how to use mics, how to mix, when to tell a dirty joke to relieve the tension.

“Jeff is pretty cruisey, and works quickly and efficiently. This is great, because you quickly forget what a great muso he is, and concentrate on your own stuff. [He’s] done a lot of albums, and from my experience, still loves the whole aspect of putting together an album. Listening to rough demos, reading through and talking about lyrics, questioning this and that. Jeff’s acutely sensitive, and rarely puts even a toe wrong when it comes to advice. Now, he says he’s not too precious about his own stuff – I’m sure he knows what he’s doing!”

That he does. I Live In My Head A Lot These Days is a standing testament.

Samuel J. Fell

For the full feature, check out the June issue of Rhythms.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Record Review - Mia Dyson

Published in the June 2014 issue of Rhythms Magazine.

Mia Dyson
Black Door Records / MGM

A couple of months ago, when informed Mia Dyson was about to release another record, her fifth, I thought to myself, ‘That was quick’, and so was quite surprised to go back and see that her stellar fourth release, The Moment, actually dropped in August 2012. Time flies when you’re enjoying a record, no doubt.

“[Time] really has flown by,” concurs Dyson, via email from Chicago where she’s on tour at time of writing. “I feel like I’ve barely come up for air. But it’s been an exciting time and the inspiration that was there to write and record was shorter than usual, so I took it.”

“I actually spent a month last year with the phone and email off and just dove into writing, something I’ve never done before, and low and behold, I wrote some songs,” she goes on, regarding the initial process of what’s turned out as record number five, Idyllwild. “I’m not a particularly prolific songwriter, so it was a real surprise to me to find at the end of that month I had enough songs to begin thinking about making another record. Just to be clear, not all were written in that month.”

Idyllwild is a very important album for Dyson, perhaps her most important. As she says, she was caught off guard at the reception The Moment got (“It felt like The Moment really touched people in a way that was so fulfilling me for, but not something I expected,” she says), and so there’d have been added pressure to really capitalise with this new one. On the flipside though, there’d also have been an abundance of inspiration, as Dyson mentioned.

“Yeah, I was inspired by the way The Moment seemed to have a life of its own, finding its listeners in new and different places and I took that inspiration into the writing of the next record,” she concurs again. “As you mentioned, I think The Moment achieved something I’d been trying to find in all my previous records and hence, I was able to move on from that and look at a new album with a totally open slate.

“The way I write, it’s more like being open to what comes through rather than setting a goal of writing a particular kind of song, so in many ways, I’m not in control of what kind of record I write. This one emerged with some new influences I think – my childhood growing up in the ‘80s with bands like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, and a new interest to explore sounds and depart a little from the traditional guitar and drum sounds I’d been working with on previous records.”

It’s interesting Dyson talks about departing from the guitar and drum sounds of records past, as Idyllwild is, to my mind, much more of a guitar record than anything she’s released since 2005’s ARIA-winning Parking Lots. The title track, which opens the record, begins with a quick up-and-down riff which exudes a clearer, sharper version of punk; ‘When We’re Older’ utilises crunchy rock riffage; ‘Any 3 Chords’ is simpler but no less effective, mainly her voice and a single strum, that very distinctive Dyson guitar tone, soon joined by Barney Tower, who lays down a tasty solo. So while I think Dyson has indeed stepped away from the simpler format she used on early records, Idyllwild is definitely very guitar-centric.

“I would say so, yes,” she muses. “My producers, Erin Sidney and Pat Cupples, have encouraged me so much over the past three years to push myself on guitar, especially in the studio. I have trouble playing in front of people unless I know exactly what I’m doing and they’ve helped me to let that go and explore and make plenty of mistakes and find the gold in there somewhere.”

There’s plenty of gold in there, make no mistake. The obvious place to start is Dyson’s voice – ever since her 2003 debut, Cold Water, that voice has drawn comparison to the likes of Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, you name it, soak it in whisky and enjoy – on Idyllwild, it soars. On ‘Made For The Same Clay’, it’s aching; ‘Mama Was’ has it sultry and graveled; closer, ‘Based On Your Eyes’, it shimmers, sounds like it’s about to crack, but then comes out stronger than ever, over some simple piano (and eventually some sweet guitar noodling), it’s magic.

Another golden aspect is the evolution exhibited in only a couple of years. Dyson says it’s “death to creativity to stay in the same world”, and so she’s set her course for other worlds, and it works fantastically. “This record explores ideas and sounds that I’ve never been willing to try before. And as small as that may seem, it was a big step for me,” she explains.

“I’ve been using the same amp and guitar for the first four records, and on this record I played a different guitar and amp combo on every song. And it was really fun and exciting to play with those sounds in the studio. Same with drum sounds and keys sounds, there was nothing that was out of bounds to try and we all contributed in the studio.”
Along with producers Sidney and Cupples, who also contribute drums (the former) and additional guitar and backing vocals (both), Dyson also enlisted Lee Pardini on bass, piano and glockenspiel, as well as Tower for ‘Any 3 Chords’. All bring a solid backing to these songs, all of which fall together with an easy cohesion on an album which isn’t blues, it’s not country, it’s not rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a Mia Dyson album.
“Ha! That’s really nice to hear,” she smiles. “I love all those genres, and I want to make records that just have great songs, regardless of what genre they fall into. I feel like I’m still a beginner and I hope I have a long life continuing to grow as a songwriter.”

I have no doubt she will, and while Idyllwild is a grower – it doesn’t hit first up with the intensity that The Moment did – it grows into something powerful and beautiful, jagged and raw, soft and sweet, all at the same time, which is no mean feat. I don’t think I’ve ever written a bad word about Mia Dyson, and she’s certainly not given me cause to begin now.

Samuel J. Fell