After four albums of heavenly din and otherworldly atmospherics, Icelandic troupe Sigur Rós has returned to Earth for its fifth and latest release, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (roughly translated as “with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly” in English). Not that the album is any less brilliant than the band’s previous work, but they have taken a more “natural” approach for the new record. If this wasn’t evident from the bare bums of the album’s cover then it certainly is on opener “Gobbledigook,” which begins with some acoustic strums and a chorus of “la-la’s” before a stomping drumbeat comes in to take charge. The song, perhaps the highlight of Med Sud, is a near perfect melding of pastoral tones, honeyed vocals and primal rhythm that reveals that Sigur Rós can just as well make do with a minimum of implements.
“Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur,” the subsequent cut, takes a similar tact, with a simple piano and big beat juxtaposing with singer Jon Thor Birgisson’s relatively tempered vocals. But this time the band is unable to constrain itself, horns elevating the song for a skyrocketing crescendo. It becomes quickly apparent that despite the lack of bowed electric guitars and and other artificial sonics, Sigur Rós can’t be tied down. “Festival,” an epic nine-minute track, begins as an Icelandic aria, with Birgission showing the full majesty of his voice when paired with just some simple organ tones, before soaring to new heights when bass, drums and horns bring the song to a thunderous, requiem-like end. But even such grandiosity can’t compare with “Ara Batur,” for which the band enlisted 90 musicians and singers from the London Sinfonietta and London Oratory Boy’s Choir to again take them heavenward.
Med Sud represents several firsts for the band. They recorded outside of Iceland (in Havana, New York and London) for the first time, and it contains their first song sung in English (“All Alright”). But while the organic approach may seem new too, it hasn’t impaired the band from creating a record touched with the divine, albeit made of earthly delights.
For artists who have a touch of “blue-eyed soul” it’s perhaps inevitable that they’ll release a cover album paying homage to their influences. This is the path Edwin McCain follows with the release of Nobody’s Fault But Mine.
McCain is probably best known for the wedding staple “I’ll Be.” While no one would mistake it for an R&B song, the style of McCain’s vocals definitely does lend to this type of endeavor. Everything about Nobody’s Fault seems designed to make sure that McCain will win big. The house band is stacked with crack players including Ivan Neville and Booker T. & the MG’s rhythm guitarist Steve Cropper. All the tracks were recorded live in one or two takes, which further showcases McCain strengths as a live performer. So why does the record fall kind of short?
Part of the problem lies in the song selection. McCain decided to tackle classic R&B and soul songs by a variety of legendary artists, among them Marvin Gaye, Wilson Picket and the Temptations. Naturally, when an artist covers a song, there’s no way to avoid being compared to the original. Even though McCain throws himself into the songs with gusto, on the more recognizable cuts he doesn’t do enough to make them his own. The performances work better on the relatively more obscure songs such as “T.C.B. or T.Y.A.” and the title track because the originals aren’t so omnipresent. Another problem is that with such an amazing band, the tracks sound relatively bloodless. The songs are played well and every solo and transition is perfectly placed, but there aren’t many wow moments. There are some, such as the guitar work on “Who’s Making Love,” which has a certain unhinged quality that the record should have had in larger amounts. And “(I Know) I’m Losing You” has an energy that matches McCain’s delivery of tense desperation.
There are places where Nobody’s Fault hits the mark. The duet of McCain and Joan Osborne on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” has a quiet yearning in the interplay of their voices. And many of the tracks feature at least one moment where McCain tears into the songs with such energy and conviction it’s almost shocking. Nobody’s Fault isn’t a bad record and will probably tear down the house when performed live, but it’s not quite as great as it could have been.
Dorian S. Ham
Revisiting James Murphy and Pat Mahoney’s Fabric mix from last year, it’s safe to project that the future of their band and the DFA label is propelled by the obscuro post-disco and rare groove that oozed from the pulsating NYC streets of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Disco is dead (at least the mainstreamed, coke-crusted, champagne ‘n’ cum variety has been for decades), but those transient years between Studio 54 and the dawn of Detroit house contained a fertile blend, with an ear towards pop and minimalism, experimentation and extravagance. Though the luxury pushers had left the scene, the decadence remained in the music, from the loose, awkward sides of Arthur Russell to the earnest queer-core vamp of Bronski Beat. DJ Andrew Butler, the whiz behind Hercules and Love Affair’s debut album, is aware of every lacquered inch, crafting a dancefloor-required set of high art that pulls from multiple scenes, kind of stitching it all together in order to push towards the new century.
He’s also well aware of the importance of a grand diva. Without the voice of Antony Hegarty (of Johnsons fame) on “Blind,” the urgency of the horn blasts and the drama in the bassline might be completely lost. Here (and on four other worthwhile tracks) Hegarty is Sylvester as possessed by Nina Simone; he’s quite confident in his heartache and empowerment, even if he’s out of his element. Elsewhere, Butler’s choice in singers, the transsexual Nomi and Kim Ann Foxman, provide soothing relief to the tragedy in Hegarty’s arias, particularly on the ethereal rattle and slither of “Iris” that’s reminiscent of Yaz in the chill-out tent. The track is pickled with soft-glow tones shining to pattern a crisp melody along, while scattered house rhythms congeal to form the velvet “You Belong.”
Despite Hegarty stealing the stage light, it’s Butler behind the curtain who’s constantly turning the disco on its head. Rarely sitting in the middle, his compositions tend to be either maximal or minimal. Building out of cowbell and conga, or lush and bountiful gardens of synth foliage, his love affair with the genre is the beating heart in the center. It may come to pass as fad, but this arresting record of homage serves a purpose.
Kevin J. Elliott
There was a time in the not so distant past when it was believed that Alex Empire and his digital hardcore universe was the new face of electronic music. Same thing was applied to “electroclash.” But the ease of creation and plasticity of the songwriting (or lack thereof) carved a giant void—for every Atari Teenage Riot and Mu, there was a line of unwashed poking at said trend.
Here we go again. HeartsRevolution closely follows the mold of a recent guilty pleasure, Crystal Castles, in that they are a male/female duo getting glitchy with 8-bit beats, gasping gothic vocals and various shades of grating noise. For the time being, without a full-length in tow and only the Switchblade EP to their credit, HeartsRevolution appear the imitator. This duo does some things differently, namely ditching most of the Atari artifice for deeper, richer synth-pop and splicing guitars tracks and live beats into delectable sonic skree. The title track itself is a hyper-active example of this Justice-sized pulverization.
The Crystal Castles’ advantage comes from songs, enough hummable choruses and creeds to maintain longevity (even if that just means the summer). Only on “Digital Suicide” does HeartsRevolution strive for pillow time, fluctuating between pristine Orbital oscillations and singer Lo cooing about Sonic Youth and Suicidal Tendencies. It’s all amusing to a certain degree, but trying to find something more than that is futile. File under “ephemeral energy booster.”
Kevin J. Elliott