Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: Neil Young, "Fork in the Road"

It’s always interesting to see what’s making Neil Young tick at the present and right now it’s a 1959 Lincoln Continental that had been retooled to run entirely on alternative energy. However there’s a point on the title track where the grizzled Young sneers, “there’s a bailout comin’ but its not for you”, it’s here that you may begin to muse, maybe there’s something else at play here other than energy efficient cars.

With the automotive references coming thick and fast, subtle it is not, but raw and exciting it is. The basslines go for a long stroll while the guttural drums thud away like howitzers, the old boy’s still got some groove rattling round in his body. Not in a tight, funky groove way, but with a ramshackle, scurvy rhythm. This is bonehead, neanderthal rock, the kind of thing Crazy Horse did for years.

The record is as filthy as engine oil, where the guitars thrash out formless blues riffs, blues with the distinct odour of grease and gasoline. It’s a typical Young production, amp volume boosted into the stratosphere, wild lead guitar fills with audible static, cymbals battered and decaying, in other words it’s vibrant and alive.

It seems unfair to pick out one track for examination above another when they mesh together so well, Some are underpinned with the intoxicating country swagger of Ben Keith’s pedal steel, others are topped-off with Young’s clipped guitar chops mimicking the rusty cogs of an engine turning over. One track rolls into another, ‘Johnny Magic’ references Jonathan Goodwin his partner in the Lincvolt project, the tender ‘Light a Candle’ sounds like an updated version of Gene Clark’s ‘Silver Raven’. Elsewhere ‘Cough up the Bucks’ and ‘Get Behind the Wheel’ take deconstructionist rock to extreme, almost ludicrous levels.

The world weary lyrics of ‘Just Singing a Song Won’t Change the World’ remind us that Young’s been through it all before, the recessions, wars and social upheavals and remind us also of his grim determination to grind away mercilessly. Just like the ’59 Continental, an archaic gas-guzzler converted into a beacon of environmental hope, Young the rambling troubadour is born again.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Review Time: 'Sounds Of The Universe', Depeche Mode

Sometime in the late seventies when Depeche Mode were just an electronic glint in Vince Clarke’s eye, the Rolling Stones began to pack it in as a genuine creative force and fall into the comfort of a repetitive album-tour-break schedule that has been repeated ad nauseam in the intervening years. The album release morphed into a promotional advert for the tour, not to exist as a new artistic statement. The Stones have revelled in the lucrative field of self-parody since then, and it became apparent on 'Playing the Angel' in 2005 (or was it 'Exciter' 2001) that Depeche Mode felt they had been around long enough to rest on the laurels of their admittedly outstanding discography and rake in the touring revenue.

So, coming from that position, its hard to get completely overjoyed at the prospect of new material. ‘Playing the Angel’ was an important step for inter-band relations in that there was a healthy working relationship for the first time in ages. It proved to be an enjoyable album, with a couple of gems, but I was never able to buy into the 'return to form' hype that surrounded the release.

That album also established something else, Dave Gahan secured three songwriting credits on the album before he agreed to walk through the studio door, a formula repeated here. Also returning is producer Ben Hillier who seems to be the master diplomat needed to get things done, even if his production lacks the essential bite to take the songs onto a higher plateau.

There’s been a lot of talk in interviews that Martin Gore had become ‘obsessed’ with buying old synthesisers and drum machines during recording and that these old toys have somehow shaped the album with retro sounds heralding a return to their exclusively electronic past. The raft of analogue equipment overlayed with the washes of Gore’s guitar and Kraftwerk-esque arpeggios is a refreshing blend, but the final mix is so amateurish (sadly a hallmark of post-Alan Wilder Mode) that the effects are rendered void. This could be forgiven if the melodies materialised in sufficient quantity, but the songwriting never takes flight.

The opener ‘In Chains’ is an anthemic Gore-blues in the style of 'Higher Love' that threatens to blow the roof off with an opening blast of industrial synths followed by a deliberate sub-sonic bassline, a wonderful beginning, but things get bogged down quickly with the mediocrity of the tracks that follow.

Tracks like ‘In Sympathy’, ‘Perfect’ and 'Little Soul' are sleek, glossy additions to the Mode songbook, but the hollow nature of the bouncy pop soon becomes tiresome. Elsewhere ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Corrupt’ are archetypal tales of power and grime that Gore could write in his sleep, even though the second of these tracks comes within a whisker of true greatness, you're left wishing for that belting chorus that never arrives. 'Fragile Tension' almost apologises for its very existence with an insipid drum pattern and inoffensive chord sequence. Even Gahan's luxurious baritone, can't make up for the paucity of genuine hooks.

Things momentarily rise above the run of the mill with the double-punch ‘Peace’ and ‘Come Back’. The former is a straight duet between Gahan and Gore with a Beatles channelled melody, a major highlight that strangely captures the zest of their sometimes fractious relationship, while the latter is an outstanding Gahan penned, slowburning epic. The first single 'Wrong' is a real return to the eighties, the kind of minor key, doom infused stomper that the band do so well, full marks go to Martin for his best lyrics in donkeys years.

This time next year ‘Sounds of the Universe’ will be a footnote in the DM history, never daring to be anything more than advertised. While the seeds of a solid Depeche Mode album are present, the distinct lack of ambition prevents it from achieving true classic status. As a way of apology, the 'Tour of the Universe' is coming soon to a town near you, which will allow you to catch their spellbinding live show, and may even give life to some of the more jaded moments on this album.

6/ 10