CD reviews: Biting at success
Published 01/02/2008 | 00:00
Hot Chip and American Music Club return with four-star albums
Vampire Weekend (XL)
* * *
Getting the seal of approval from David Byrne is always a covetable accolade. The former Talking Head has enthused about everyone from Arcade Fire to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah in recent years. Funnily enough, he tends to rave about acts that have a distinct sonic resemblance to his old band -- usually nervy guitar music with shouty vocals and art-school lyrics.
Vampire Weekend -- a preppy foursome based in Brooklyn -- are the latest to get the Byrne bigged-up treatment. Their music is likely to remind many of later Talking Heads, when Byrne was flirting with what was once quaintly known as world music.
African beats abound in the bulk of these short, playful songs. Frontman Ezra Koenig says his primary inspiration came from listening to an album of Madagascan 1980s pop -- a genre you might struggle to find at your local friendly record store.
One can safely assume that a more obvious inspiration, Paul Simon's big-selling 1986 album Graceland, was also on heavy rotation chez Koenig.
Afro-indie won't be to everyone's taste and Vampire Weekend are by no means the only people doing it -- think Yeasayer, who play Dublin shortly -- but there's a real sense that they could make a mainstream breakthrough.
There's a commercial patina to at least half of the songs, and their kookiness is likely to appeal to the kids bored by the reams of post-punk inspired newbies that keep coming on the scene.
Opener Mansard Roof is a delight. Who would have thought that a tune referencing 19th century French architecture and married to the funkiest percussion this side of Tony Allen would work so beautifully? The band's Ivy League background is all over Oxford Comma -- a giddy, highly danceable riposte to aficionados of arcane English grammar.
Yes, this lot have to be applauded for finding new subjects to sing about.
The album is at its best when it marries a fascination with Congolese soukous with a classic US indie template -- and songs like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Upper West Side Soweto, as their titles suggest, offer music very aware of New York's rock lineage as well as African polyrhythms.
This album is certainly an arresting debut, and its first half justifies the considerable hype already afforded to Vampire Weekend.
It fades away quite badly towards the end, however, with a bunch of half-baked songs that struggle to realise their ambition.
Burn it: Mansard Roof
Made in the dark (EMI)
* * * *
Their second album, The Warning, moved Hot Chip towards the big league. This accomplished follow-up is likely to land them an even bigger audience. If electro-pop is your bag, you can't go wrong here as Alexis Taylor and friends deliver songs made for the feet and the heart.
One can sense their desire to concoct tunes that boom from speakers everywhere, not just those of the hip brigade. Ready For The Floor is one such track, a chugging dance-pop number so smart and sassy that even a radio programmer with the brain power of an amoeba would playlist it at once.
It was originally written for Kylie, but the diminutive Aussie rejected it. Foolish woman. Her threadbare recent album could also have done with something like Hold On, which already feels like one of the best disco songs released this decade.
Burn it: Ready For The Floor; Hold On
AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB
The Golden Age (Cooking Vinyl)
* * * *
It seems like an eternity since Michael Stipe suggested that American Music Club was the most under-appreciated band of their time. Fifteen years later, AMC are still going strong, but still very much in the margins.
Songwriter Mark Eitzel probably prefers it that way. After all, his thoughtful, bookish songs of loners and drifters in desperate or downbeat circumstances aren't exactly palatable for mass consumption.
The Golden Age continues in this tradition, and as ever there are some stunning compositions here. Decibels And Little Pills offers a searing look at at the sort of hedonistic party-loving, drug-adoring culture that claimed the life of Katy French.
And The Windows Of The World -- the name of the restaurant that used to sit atop the World Trade Centre -- finds Eitzel and his unmerry men offering an unusual and affecting take on 9/11.
Burn it: Decibels And Little Pills; The Windows Of The World
MARIA DOYLE KENNEDY
The former Black Velvet Band vocalist first released this album of covers in 2005. It's now getting a wider release after initially only being available on her website. The album was recorded in Schull, Co Cork -- hence the title. Geddit?
Cover albums are relatively lazy ways for musicians to release new albums, and they're also incredibly difficult to impress with. The vast bulk of covers are pointless affairs that do nothing to take established songs into new places. And a great deal of this album falls into that category.
ABBA's glorious SOS is a case in point. Set to a listless, largely acoustic backdrop, it takes away the heartache completely and replaces it with vocals that sound like Doyle Kennedy distractedly singing to herself while trying to remember where she'd parked her car.
Video Killed The Radio Star is similarly bankrupt. The Buggles tune originally worked because of the way it came to life in the studio. The song is all about production. Doyle Kennedy tries to imbue the lyrics with a gravitas they never had.
Ironically, the hardest song to nail, Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding, works best. Doyle Kennedy is at the top of her game, and with this song -- made famous by Robert Wyatt -- she has to be.
Burn it: Shipbuilding
Forts (One Little Indian)
* * *
The New Yorkers never quite lived up to the hype that first greeted them in 2001. There music was too messy and unfocused to propel them into the same stratosphere as their buddies, The Strokes.
This third album is better than its predecessors, and while they still have that irritating problem of being unable to pin a song down, there are glimpses of undoubted talent. The string-laden One Year On is a case in point: a fantastic tune, it sounds like something that could have emanated from the pen of Damon Albarn.
Melanie In A White Coat is typical of their cluttered worst however, a song crying out to be downpared.
Burn it: One Year On
Isn’t This Supposed to Be Fun? (Epitaph)
* * *
Synth power pop in roughly the same vein as The Killers is the order of the day for this southern US sextet. There's no shortage of big, bouncy melodies here and the fun quotient is up to the last. The quality varies from the excellent Stay Pretty to the throwaway piano-led War. n
Burn it: Stay Pretty