CD/Digital releases

The tentative return of Dubstar

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Having documented my love of Dubstar‘s music in a fairly exhaustive retrospective of their music a couple of years back, i was excited to hear that—following some rather acrimonious goings-on last year—the group had decided to get together to record a song for the new Amnesty International fundraising compilation, PEACE. Overall, the project is an impressive one; a collection of 182 songs, which can be downloaded following a donation to Amnesty that starts at a paltry €5 (of course, you can pay more if you wish). You can read more about the project, stream songs and donate/download at their rather nicely-designed interactive website here. It became available earlier this week and, as yet, i haven’t even scratched the surface of such a vast compilation (which amounts to 12½ hours of music); but i had no hesitation in starting with Dubstar’s contribution, a cover of The Passions’ “I’m in Love with a German Film Star”.

In a rather fitting metaphor for the reality of the group’s members in recent times, the song emerges out of distortion and noise, settling into a restrained, rather minimal backdrop of bassline, guitar and soft drums. And then it happens: Sarah Blackwood opens her mouth, and immediately the tingles down the spine begin in earnest, and one is lost in a welter of feelings and sensations that propel me back a decade, to the last time my ears heard anything of the kind. Blackwood’s voice is unique and legendary, capable of astonishing purity of tone, without even the remotest whisp of vibrato; from lesser throats, the result would emerge dull and emotionless, whereas from Sarah Blackwood, i would argue, comes one of pop music’s most expressive voices, one that’s enhanced by the gentle edge lent by her delicious northern accent. Anyway, enough of the hero-worship.

It’s a wise choice of cover song; indeed, with its rather lovely poignant shifts of harmony it could almost have been written by Dubstar themselves. Read more

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Melodies from a quixotic ringmaster: Get Well Soon – Vexations

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If you were to combine the chamber pop trappings of Belle and Sebastian, the song-writing inventiveness (but not the sarcasm) of The Divine Comedy and top it off with the vocal stylings of Thom Yorke, the result might start to resemble Get Well Soon. The man behind this quixotic project is Konstantin Gropper, a classically-trained songwriter who’s been lurking in the wings from as far back as 2005, but in the last couple of years has begun to demonstrate in increasingly powerful fashion the weight and intensity of his musical imagination. 2008 brought two impressive releases, the kaleidoscopic album Rest Now, Weary Head! You Will Get Well Soon—which took three years to make, and threw together a courageously wide range of sources and manners, yet somehow found a way to make them all gel—and the outstanding Songs Against The Glaciation EP, an epic rollocking ode to life on the sea, picked out in songs that veer between soft, sublime delicacy and more hectic, rock-out gestures. Gropper’s vocals—treading a confident path between emphatic assertion and languid drawl—bring to these disparate sonic collisions a unifying force, like the ringmaster of a potentially unruly circus. But, surprisingly, that doesn’t mean he dominates the proceedings; in some songs, indeed, his contributions feel extremely succinct, stating their case briefly, allowing the instruments both to prefigure and extend his thoughts. Read more

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New CD: The Stuff of Memories

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My new CD, The Stuff of Memories, will be released at the end of this week; it comprises two electronic works made during the summer of 2009. Both address a related aspect to that explored on my previous CD, Triptych, May/July 2009; while that piece focussed on the (perforce flawed) act of remembrance, the present works are directly concerned with the fabric of the memories themselves.

Ostensibly simple pieces, they each take their starting point from existing musical material (other works of mine), which has then been worked on extensively, worn and worried into its final forms. The emphasis, though, is very much on what remains, a celebration of the joy and fragility of the surviving original material, its voice continuing to sing through layers of damage and erosion.

The first piece, Memories are made of this, is dedicated to the Somerset artist Pat Clayton. The piece was in part inspired by her beautifully elaborate artworks, purposely aged and dirtied objects (often books and boxes); simultaneously naturalistic and artificial, they resemble items of flotsam washed up on a beach, waterlogged and etched with sand.

The second piece, becauseshewas (veteris vestigia flammæ) is dedicated to Will Long, of the duo Celer, whose experimental ambient creations readers of 5:4 will know i greatly admire. The title is a reference both to the circumstances pertaining to the original underlying material, as well as to Will’s wife Dani, who passed away in July 2009. The Latin quotation is from the account of Dido and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid; it translates as “the traces of an old fire”, but i prefer John Dryden’s more poetic rendering: “the sparkles of my former flame”.

This release is a limited edition of 50 numbered copies. The price, including shipping, is:

UK – £10.50 | Europe – £11 | Worldwide – £12

For more information, to hear excerpts and to order a copy, go here.

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Kraftwerk: a remastered retrospective

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Of all words associated with the digital era, there’s one that is ubiquitous like no other: ‘remastered’. It has become tantamount to a religious dogma, that the works we have known and loved from our analogue heritage are holy treasures, deserving nothing less than to be preserved in æternum, and to that end dusted and polished into a shiny, technicolour, everlasting digital form. Like all religions, though, it is capable of havoc carried out in its name; most conspicuous in recent times is the egregious and shamefully unmusical use of—among other things—compression in the vain attempt at making the sound ‘stand out’ (the so-called ‘loudness war’). This kind of treatment, under the banner of ‘remastering’, is to music what George Lucas has become to his own Star Wars trilogy; something that obfuscates, even dirties, the original, under the illusion that in so doing, one is capturing with greater fidelity the ‘original vision’. Back in 2004, Kraftwerk began their own equivalent mission, returning to the ageing tapes of their earlier albums, cleaning them up and remastering them for posterity. Titled The Catalogue, an eight-disc box set comprising each of their albums in its new digitally remastered form, the release ultimately proved to be stillborn, and the few promotional copies that existed quickly found their way, depending on your preference, either to eBay for a ridiculous sum of money, or to torrent sites for a ridiculous number of leechers. It has taken a further five years for the definitive, further remastered versions of these albums to be released, finally seeing light of day last month.

In both its manifestations, i have approached The Catalogue with the utmost trepidation, as, i imagine, have many fans whose appreciation—and, let’s face it, love—of Kraftwerk’s output goes both very deep and back many years. But before one even gets to the music, certain things immediately start to become clear. Highly conspicuous by their absence are Kraftwerk’s first three albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian; there’s a clear view being expressed here that only these eight albums, from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks, form the official Kraftwerk oeuvre. It’s a significant disappointment for those, including myself, who descry in those first three albums (particularly Ralf and Florian) much that prefigures what would follow in the years ahead; the bootleg CDs of those albums will have to continue to suffice for the time being. As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming. Read more

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Paradise pop: Dragonette – Fixin To Thrill

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Lately it’s music from Canada that’s been interesting me; and most recently, taking their place alongside such disparate luminaries as Aaron Funk, Aidan Baker, Elsiane and Paul Dolden (about whom, in due course, much, much more), have been Dragonette, whose second album Fixin To Thrill came out earlier this month. Dragonette have been steadily forging their reputation over the last four years, beginning with one of the best debuts ever, the elusive but immaculate Dragonette EP, after which a clutch of singles and first album Galore have emerged, each revealing a group remarkably assertive and undeniably talented. To describe their music as ‘synthpop’ is to do them a disservice; eighties allusions come thick and fast, but their songs are firmly rooted in the noughties, and to this end they stand out as a truly contemporary act, rather more successful and engaging than, say, New Young Pony Club. Furthermore, there’s also a distinct rock sheen to their music, which in the best way prevents it from being too ‘clean’ a synth sound, akin more to the gutsy rocktronica of The Faint. Out in the limelight is Martina Sorbara, a singer whose voice is capable of a surprising range of characterisations and tone colours. Read more

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Celer – Brittle, Fountain Glider, Poulaine

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My admiration for the music of Celer has grown seemingly exponentially since my first encounter with their work last year, in the form of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann (subsequently highly-placed in my Best Albums of 2008). The retrospective/obituary that i wrote back in July was a first attempt to say something meaningful about their illustrious output, although i was and remain acutely aware that it barely scratched the surface. In the three months that have passed since that fateful time, as many full-length albums have been released, with yet more announced and coming soon.

All three assume Celer’s most demanding shape, lengthy solitary tracks, the first of which, Brittle, is the longest of all, its single span lasting over 74 minutes. Its title is complemented by the track’s title of ‘Eustress’, a word that embodies the opposite of ‘distress’, referring to forms of stress from which we obtain positive effects. A short essay accompanies the CD, explicating Celer’s intentions in bringing these two evocative words, ‘brittle’ and ‘eustress’ together. And it’s extremely tempting, reading the words that refer to their aim “to demonstrate a feeling of continuation through what sometimes seems like a fragile existence”, immediately to draw connections to Dani Baquet-Long’s sudden death; but this music was obviously made before her passing, and while at the moment it cannot fail to be heard in the wake of that tragedy, it would be a facile mistake to allow that to obfuscate the music contained in Brittle, still less to define it. Celer’s music has sufficient depth and substance to stand on its own two feet, without the need for imposed emotional crutches, despite how keen one may be to impose them; i prefer to allow the music to communicate on its own terms. Read more

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Roads less travelled: Benn Jordan – Louisiana Mourning

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Out this week is the latest release from Benn Jordan, better known as The Flashbulb. It’s high time Jordan’s music was featured on here, as he’s nothing short of a marvel, his music touching on a wide variety of styles, every one of which seems to turn to gold in his hands. In many ways, he has to draw comparisons with Hecq (another Ben, about whom i wrote here), flitting as he also does between the crystalline intricacies of IDM and the warm shroud of ambient.

But there’s a wealth of other inspirations at work in Jordan’s music, and this is palpably obvious in his new 21-minute EP, Louisiana Mourning. Prior to the release Jordan had hinted on his website that ambient and bluegrass would be the defining characteristics of this release, and to some extent that’s borne out in the music. “I” (the titles simply use Roman numerals) is an ambivalent opener, laden with rapid guitar picking early on, before giving way to dreamy tonal waves. “II” immediately returns to fast guitar figurations, whereupon violinist Greg Hirte joins in with a lovely folk-inspired melody, inflected with poignant minor chord shifts; midway, the piano takes over, leading to the music again dissipating into ambience. It’s not the first time Jordan has subdivided a single track into markedly different sections (another similarity to Hecq), and here it’s a highly effective device, creating soft, luscious codettas that contrast well with the sharp hectic twanging of the guitar. Read more

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