Music reviews: Samantha Crain, Chemical Brothers, Veruca Salt, Ratatat
From rootsy Americana to that familiar big-beat sound, an alt-rock band revival and a duo treading a fine line between dance and rock, there's a mixed bag for music fans
Often drawing favourable comparisons with influential American protest singer Woody Guthrie, 28-year-old Oklahoma-born songwriter Samantha Crain returns a mere two years after her critically acclaimed breakout album, Kid Face, with her fourth album of rootsy Americana.
Recorded in just 10 days at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone Studios and produced by esteemed indie knob twiddler John Vanderslice, (The Mountain Goats, Spoon), who also helmed the deeply personal Kid Face, this set is filled with fictional narratives informed by the lives, conversations and stories of other people. "My last three records have been so personal, I didn't have any more life to talk about," Crain says. "It seemed like the easiest thing to do, framing the songs from other people's points of view."
From the opening beats of Killer, Crain makes a bold statement, both lyrically and musically. With barely a guitar to be heard (which is quite something for a protest singer - just ask Morrissey), Crain sings charmingly off-kilter, seemingly channeling Annie "St Vincent" Clark, "Killer of land, killer you will fail/ Rake the ground with the fork on your tail". It's Crain's most adventurous track to date as warm synths and strings swell around the rousing chorus, "They say it's such a long road, keep marching".
Crain is a seasoned old soul well beyond her youthful years, her naturally breathless voice flitting effortlessly between vulnerability and defiance.
Mainly it's a frayed and melancholic affair, with Crain and her emotive six string accompanied by simple bright percussion, but on the gorgeous lead single Outside the Pale and the sparse, finger-picked You or the Mystery, the album's standout track, Crain sounds her most honest and hauntingly beautiful.
Samantha Crain Under Branch and Thorn and Tree (Ramseur Records)
(Virgin EMI Records) Familiarity can be comforting, so sometimes it's good to dance to the same old beat, especially when that beat is big. Since the release of their pioneering 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, Heavenly Sunday Social Club DJs Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have been kings of the big-beat genre. Their 1998 follow-up, Dig Your Own Hole, is hailed as a classic of that EDM era, and in a career now spanning two decades they have well and truly stuck to their guns. It's a proven formula of dark and pulsating beats along with guest vocal collaborations that has served the duo well, and continues to do so on this, their eighth album. Rapper Q-Tip puts in an appearance on lead single Go, while the robotic siren vocals on Under Neon Lights belong to St Vincent and Beck contributes to the fabulous closer Wide Open.
The breaks are still funky with a psychedelic twist and the beats continue to rouse. The brothers certainly worked it out long ago.
The Chemical Brothers Born in the Echoes (Virgin EMI Records)
When record sales wane and column centimetres dwindle, calling it a day before a much-publicised reunion a few years later is the rock band's weapon of choice to rekindle fan interest, and maybe one last healthy pay day.
It's been 18 years since the original line-up of American alternative rockers Veruca Salt released Eight Arms to Hold You, but now with the promise of "hatchets buried/ axes exhumed", vocalists/guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post are reunited with drummer Jim Shapiro and bassist Steve Lack on their snarling new album.
As the first sharp stab of guitar pierces the grungy bass line of opening track The Gospel According to Saint Me, we're thrown back to the energetic and infectiously poppy alt rock of the 1990s. Thankfully, however, this is no tired rehash of past glories. On the invigorating Black and Blonde the quartet sound as vital as they did on their anthemic hit Seether more than 20 years ago.
Gordon's vocals are bright and full of intent. When she sings "I'm the greatest f****** thing that ever happened to you", you almost believe her.
Veruca Salt Ghost Notes (Are You There God It's Me Music)
On their first album in five years, the Brooklyn-based instrumental duo of Mike Stroud and Evan Mast return to the stripped-down electronic pop soundscapes filled with wailing space-rock guitar and woozy beats first heard on their self-titled debut album of 2004. While Drift and the dream-like Supreme ebb and flow to a chilled vibe, influenced no doubt by the time the duo spent partly recording in Jamaica, the general tone of Magnifique, as with their previous four albums, is definitely French.
Seemingly arriving on the coat tails of cosmic electronica duo Air in 2004, Ratatat have continued to blend the sonic club funk of Daft Punk with the sweeping psychedelic melodies of the Godin/Dunckel project, straddling the fine line between dance and rock. Swaggering lead single Cream on Chrome snatches a bass line straight out of the '70s, while Rome, Abrasive and Pricks of Brightness have more guitar hooks than your average garage band from Williamsburg can shake their skinny jeans at.
Tighter and more focused, Ratatat have got their infectious groove back on. Bravo.
Ratatat Magnifique (XL Recordings)