Album reviews: Creep Show, Yo La Tengo, The Magic Gang and more
At the heart of Creep Show’s singular aesthetic is the contrast between John Grant’s upholstered croon and Stephen Mallinder’s more fragmentary vocals
Creep Show, Mr Dynamite
Download this: Mr Dynamite; Modern Parenting; Tokyo Metro; Fall; Safe And Sound
You’ve probably seen the TV advert for the BBC’s 6Music service, in which sundry lounging uber-cool hipsters in shades cite their own favourite listening tastes, most precariously poised between the populist and the outlandish. Early on, a luxuriantly-bearded John Grant mutters just “Cabaret Voltaire”, an influence clearly in evidence on his last two albums. And now, Mr Dynamite records what happens when that influence is pursued further still, the Creep Show pseudonym uniting Grant with former CV frontman Stephen Mallinder alongside Phil Winter and Benge, Mallinder’s current partners in electro trio Wrangler. The result is a full-blown, fun and fearless blast of analogue synthesis spawned, according to Mallinder, from “spores of Seventies sci-fi, post-punk electronic music, bad taste, broken synthesisers, luscious film soundtracks, and dubious band t-shirts.”
At the heart of Creep Show’s singular aesthetic is the contrast between Grant’s upholstered croon and Mallinder’s more fragmentary vocals, as heavily treated here as in Cabaret Voltaire. With both vocalists adopting several different personae, it’s a crowded and frequently confusing experience: one moment, Grant’s droll, hipster tones are sailing over the squelchy electrofunk groove and fizzing synth tendrils of “Modern Parenting”; the next, Mallinder’s answering the PA machine-voices of “Tokyo Metro” with soft, subtly-treated responses in Japanese.
Then Grant’s back for the bustling techno of “Endangered Species”, warning that it’s not other species that are endangered, but ultimately our own. On the title track itself, so heavily treated and pitch-shifted is the montaged greeting “Hullo! I’m Mr Dynamite” that it could be either, or both of them essaying its curiously catchy alienation over the few abject, wistful wisps of electronic tones.
Behind their voices, the album asserts the great variety and malleability of electronic music, from the electro breakbeat of “Lime Ricky” and the languid offbeat groove of “Pink Squirrel” to the synthesised collage of “K Mart Johnny”. The most satisfying piece may be the classic cosmic-electronica of “Fall”, a sumptuous space-scape rooted in The Man-Machine-era Kraftwerk, its simple, logical progressions pursued over seven minutes to a gently galactic conclusion. It offers a suitably calm, considered prelude to the album’s nine minute closer “Safe And Sound”, on which Grant proclaims his faith in his aesthetic direction, both singularly and as “part of something bigger”, over a warm, engaging squelchy synth groove coloured with background electronic tints.
“I’m exactly where I was meant to be,” he asserts, “safe and sound in the arms of my destiny.” And on the strength of Mr Dynamite, who could gainsay him?
The Decemberists, I’ll Be Your Girl
Download this: Cutting Stone; Severed; We All Die Young; Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes
It’s quite a week for surprising new directions, though few are quite as unexpected as The Decemberists’ on I’ll Be Your Girl, which finds the folk-rockers employing electropop riffs influenced by Roxy Music and New Order. Who saw that coming? Opener “Once In My Life” uses expansive synth textures to underpin the band’s familiar folk-rock sound, while at its most extreme, the mordant pessimism of “We All Die Young” is delivered as a glam stomp, further estranged by a children’s chorus. It makes for some intriguing collisions of ancient and modern: “Cutting Stone” is a murder ballad set to bustling synth arpeggios, while the menacing harbinger of “Severed” is borne on fizzing electronic riffs.
But there’s plenty of room for movement within songs, most notably in the shift which yokes together “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, where the first part’s suicidal riverside yearnings, set to solemn piano and funereal organ, segue disarmingly into the welcoming, wave-like strummings which eventually lure its narrator to a watery grave.
Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism
Download this: Sometimes It Snows In April; Waterfalls; Atomic Dog; Private Dancer
As her 2012 tribute to Nina Simone, Pour Une Ame Souveraine, demonstrated, Meshell Ndegeocello is a skilled interpreter whose cover versions seek out an unusual equilibrium between empathy and originality. Those featured on Ventriloquism relate specifically to her own development, forged in the white heat of 1980s nu-soul, particularly from Minneapolis: the album includes three tracks sourced from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and most impressively a riveting take on Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, pared back to bare emotions.
Her questing spirit leads Ndegeocello in some strange directions, such as the tricksy 5/4 reading of “Smooth Operator”, or “Private Dancer” done as a slow waltz; but it often pays huge dividends. A slow acoustic take on TLC’s “Waterfalls”, for instance, acquires a lush, folksy charm, whilst her sparkling 12-string guitar arrangement of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” develops a hypnotic, cyclical groove that echoes Malian desert-blues more than cosmic funk. The results are frequently transformative, and always enjoyable.
Yo La Tengo, There’s A Riot Going On
Download this: Shades Of Blue; For You Too
In 1971, the dark torpor of Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On uncannily evoked the uncertainty following the Sixties’ collapse into turmoil; sadly, it’s unlikely that this album will capture the current situation with equivalent potency. In part, that’s due to its different agenda: seemingly befuddled by the state of things, it seeks only to apply a cooling salve to the furrowed brow, through a succession of drifting ambient throbs and gentle, folksy strummings whose melodies persist in evading capture. Which doesn’t really seem much of an ambition.
“You Are Here” sets the tone, a nearly six-minute shuffle of sleighbells and amorphous keyboard textures, its diffidence echoed in the miasmic reeds and piano of “Above The Sound” and the paradisiacal piano, chimes and guitar of “Ashes”. The occasional cut slices through the general blandness – the lilting “Shades Of Blue” is a winsome folk-pop lollop, and the Neu! motorik groove gives “For You Too” a rare drive – but overall this seems more escapist than reactive, not much help at all.
The Residents, Duck Stab/Buster & Glen
Download this: Constantinople; Sinister Exaggerator; Laughing Song; Birthday Boy; Hello Skinny
The Residents’ reissues programme reaches its most welcoming stage with this expanded edition of 1978’s Duck Stab/Buster & Glen, which the new sleeve note astutely describes as the “gateway drug” into the band’s absurdist world. It’s certainly their most pop-conscious album, with the band’s cast of cartoonish voices applied to singalong nursery rhymes about characters called “Lizard Lady”, “Krafty Cheese” and “Birthday Boy”, their narratives driven less by logic than assonance and alliteration: “an oily old egg with a red peg-leg thought a porcupine was its daughter,” runs the opening line of “Laughing Song”, a jocular cousin to “The Laughing Policeman” seemingly escaped from Caligari’s Cabinet.
As nursery rhymes, they blend the sinister with the simple; and as cartoons, they’re the musical equivalent of Tex Avery, constantly playing with their medium and breaking the frame. Sonically too, it’s an enticing mix of oddball amusements, from brief musical jokes like “Bach Is Dead” and “The Booker Tease” to eerie, tingling masterworks such as “Sinister Exaggerator” and “Hello Skinny”: cautionary tales for a strange new world.
The Magic Gang, The Magic Gang
Download this: Oh Saki; Caroline
Brighton-based combo The Magic Gang have been so widely and enthusiastically tipped as the Next Big Thing that it’s hard not to feel let down by their underwhelming debut album.
The monotone fuzz-chord riff and plangent harmonies of “Oh Saki” sets out their stall as UK inheritors of the US slacker-pop sound of such as Weezer and The Lemonheads, which translates on the ardent strumming of “Getting Along” into something closer to McBusted-style lovelorn pop-rock. But it’s all a bit stiff: the methodical chording of “All This Way” lacks swing or swagger, as if too tightly corsetted, and “Take Care” displays similar restrictions applied to their keyboard-led material: the plonking piano and falsetto refrain suggest someone’s trying for Brian Wilson magic, but falling well short.
Even when they’re not singing directly about girls called “Jasmine” and “Caroline”, the sad-lad focus on romantic disrepair is ultimately wearying: just once, it’d be nice to hear them sing about blood, or toast, or buses, or anything other than being a hapless dweeb.
The Fratellis, In Your Own Sweet Time
Download this: Stand Up Tragedy; Laughing Gas; The Next Time We Wed; Advaita Shuffle
Though not as single-mindedly potent as The Fratellis’ earliest work, In Your Own Sweet Time is a huge improvement on 2015’s lacklustre Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied. The tart, brittle guitar riff to “Stand Up Tragedy” serves notice of their focus, as does Jon Fratelli’s typically wry reference to being “just another punchline in your stand-up tragedy”. But for a while, the general sense of bustling activity doesn’t go anywhere too interesting, and too many tracks seem overstuffed with words, as if trying to distract from their emptiness – a strategy that works best on the bubbling electropop of “The Next Time We Wed”.
Things pick up in the latter stages, starting with the ebullient “Laughing Gas”, which wouldn’t be out of place on any Tom Petty album. As they proceed, the band’s stays seem to loosen up, and they explore different avenues with commendable spirit, from the loping boogie of “I Guess, I Suppose” to the Harrison-esque Indian tinges that spice up “Advaita Shuffle”.