Sunday, November 19, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 2

This has been a bang-up fall for new music from my favorites. In Part 1, I looked at the latest from American veterans Hiss Golden Messenger, Beck, and Iron & Wine. This edition features two surprising returns to form and two strong albums from artists still early in their careers.

The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles While there have been a few songs released since their last album, the infinitely autumnal Bonfires On The Heath from 2009, it seemed that circumstances were conspiring against us ever having a new full-length collection from The Clientele. I counted myself beyond lucky to have seen them twice in 2014, when they were celebrating the reissue of Suburban Light, their debut, but thought that might indeed be it. 

Then, a chance meeting between singer/songwriter/guitarist Alasdair MacLean and an old friend, Anthony Harmer, catalyzed the (yes) miraculous album now under discussion. Harmer plays the saz and the santur, a Middle Eastern lute and dulcimer respectively, and is also dab hand at pop arranging. He wound up producing the album, sprinkling his sparkling instruments here and there and helping to develop jewel-like settings for each song. There are are trumpets, strings, keyboards, and detailed vocal arrangements, all in service of some of MacLean’s best songs yet. Providing the perfect foundation, as always, are bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen, whose telepathic engagement with every contour of the songs is more remarkable than ever. 

Take Lunar Days, for example, where Keen’s drums tick along almost in a bossa nova style until the chorus, when subtle taps on the snare underscore each word and gently perturb the tempo, helping to emphasize the way the words “Holloways, lunar days,” seem to spill out of the preceding verse. Constellations Echo Lanes also goes through subtle changes that seem to arise organically from the flow of the words rather than just following verse/chorus/verse. There are many such detailed moments throughout Miracles and finding them is like following Ariadne’s golden thread to the heart of The Clientele’s genius. 

When I was first falling for The Clientele, around the time of their third album, I would often find myself ticking off their influences. But now I just hear The Clientele, as no one really sounds like them. That doesn’t mean they don’t push their own envelope a little, as on Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself, which features electronic beats programmed by Harmer, amidst Keen’s drums. Keen is also responsible for three charming instrumentals, which provide space for contemplation amidst the rainswept suburbia that is MacLean’s lyrical bailiwick. That’s not a dig, by the way, as a more literate and intelligent guide would be hard to imagine. For example, the Museum of Fog is a spoken word piece (like their classic Losing Haringey) that reads perfectly as a short story and for Falling Asleep he adapts verse from World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, making lines about hounds and herons sound positively contemporary. 

As elaborate as the settings are on Miracles, a recent concert at the Bell House proved, yet again, that MacLean, Hornsey, and Keen are the heart of the band. All they need to create a whole world out of thin air is electric guitar arpeggios, gently meandering bass, precisely pulsing drums - and the comforting burr of MacLean’s vocals. It’s a remarkable conjuring to witness, and having new songs to play this time only injected more wonder into the night. From the smile on MacLean’s face as they brought album standout Everyone You Meet to a close that Sunday night, he agreed completely. Their U.S. tour has ended, but keep track of their activities - you never know when you might get a chance to see them.

Historian - Expanse I don’t want to be a jerk, but often when people DM me their music, it’s just not very good. So, when Chris Karman, (who records as Historian) sent me his debut album Shelf Life in 2013, it was a more than pleasant surprise. While somewhat unformed, especially in the vocal department, there was a spark of originality and craft to his melancholy songs that kept me listening. Somehow I missed his second album, Currents, which showed steady improvements on the way towards the excellence we find on Expanse. 

Led by Karmen’s stately keyboards and windswept guitar, the core of the band is tight and the strings of Quartetto Fantastico (which includes the brilliant Miguel Atwood-Ferguson) has elevated Historian’s sound into the realm of exquisite chamber pop. Karman’s singing, which reminds me a little of Mike Doughty, is more confident and compelling by several orders of magnitude. Each song creates its own atmospheric cloud of mood, matching the lyrics, which probe themes of existential import in enough detail that I wonder if the project should have been called Philosopher. But it’s more heartfelt than that would imply, and quite affecting. 

Although I could highlight songs like Here And Then, which is very catchy and nearly breezy, or Stars, which seems to create more mystery with each finely incised guitar riff, Expanse is a very consistent album and one which firmly plants Karman’s flag on today’s indie landscape as a talent with which to reckon. P.S. Currents is very nearly as good so you might as well save on shipping and order them both at once!

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Adios Señor Pussycat I’m not going to recount Head’s storied past with bands like Pale Fountains, Shack, and The Strands (this article does a good job of that), but suffice to say that one of his albums is called The Magical World Of The Strands and more than lives up to its title. There’s also plenty of that magic on this new release, which is perhaps the most rapturously received album in Britain this year if my Twitter feed is to be believed. 

And why not? All the Brit-folk-rock touchstones are here, as is the spirit of The Byrds - far more strongly than on that snoozefest Tom Petty produced for ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. The sound of the album, all 12-string shimmer, swaying rhythms, perfect touches of strings and sax, and Head’s warm tenor, is nothing more than the sonic expression of a person seizing a second (or maybe a third) chance at life, fully in command of their talents and grateful for the opportunity. That means songs that flow with perfect inevitability and dole out hard-won wisdom and joyous sing-alongs in equal measure. On What's The Difference we even get a dose of Love steeped in the grandeur of Ennio Morricone - grandiose, yes, but it's great to see Head still taking chances. 

If Michael Head is a completely unfamiliar name to you, there is a 30-year wealth of great songwriting to imbibe. Start with Adios Señor Pussycat and work backwards - and sign up here so you don't miss the next 30 years. 

Warhaus - Warhaus Maarten Devoldere's first brilliant album as Warhaus was called We Fucked A Flame Into Being, after a DH Lawrence quote, and I guess he knew he couldn’t top it, hence going for the self-titled option. Or maybe he was just seeking more name recognition after the first album, which I included on my Top 20 for 2016, failed to set the world on fire.

That was the world’s loss, however, and one which will now be doubled if this second slab of louche Euro-cabaret-rock escapes the notice it deserves. Devoldere has perfected his gravelly, insouciant slur of a voice while bringing more clarity to his musical conception, which is spacious and dimensional, with plenty of air around each well-chosen instrument. Tuned drums or a brushed snare define the rhythm with upright bass as a dance partner, strings may hover above, or his trademark barking trombones might intrude with apt rudeness, as piano and guitar sketch out melodies. The last point should be emphasized as Devoldere's most surprising trait may be his uncanny ability to come up with great tunes and sweeping choruses. 

Many of the songs have familiar titles - Mad World, Dangerous, Bang Bang, Fall In Love With Me - but sound brand new, which may be his sly acknowledgment of the vast territory he wishes to occupy in the zeitgeist, or (more likely) a reflection of his warmer, more direct approach this time around. But while the music may go down with less spikiness than the first album, there are still plenty of barbs to be found in the lyrics. "You have a god to forgive you it's a privilege you have/You have a book that starts with a Bret Easton Ellis autograph/Bottles to empty and prescriptions to fill/And if no god will forgive you, baby, you know I will," he sings in Mad World with a combination of contempt and compassion. And there's probably no one else alive who could get away with this line from Well Well: "And if you want to get laid/In a fashionable way/I'll try to look like I understand/What you want from a man." Thank god for unreconstructed Europeans - never change, Maarten!

With these two Warhaus albums, Devoldere is carving out a unique spot in rock, but one with enough broad appeal to be less niche than it appears. If you're looking for something with the unfiltered edge of a Gauloise and the sensibility of a true devotee to the craft of songwriting, do not hesitate. And you can bet that if he ever ventures outside of Europe for a concert, I'll be first in line. I hope you'll be ready to join me.

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

Next time I'll return to the Record Roundup format to report on some eclectic electronica that's come out over the course of the year.

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