There are few sadder things in life than witnessing the decay of one’s idols, and in the case of someone once as original and challenging as Morrissey, it’s particularly hard to believe that the end is nigh. With the release of this sorry collection, it really does seem as though the rest may as well be silence.
Since Swords is a collection of B-sides, it’s unlikely that anyone other than a Morrissey obsessive will bother with its purchase. So why review it? Well, you see, Morrissey was always one of those rare recording artists whose castoffs were invariably as good as his prime cuts. From the Smith’s Hatful of Hollow right through to World of Morrissey, the man they loved to call miserable delivered hilarious audio parcels from ‘the arse of the world’. His name still conjoured up deadly deeds; oh, that it had such power now.
The trouble with Swords, a compilation assembled from releases over the last five years, is that the ingenuity is simply gone. In its place is an overly long collection of earnest tracks that rock too hard, grinding away the subtlety, bashing you over the head in a way that makes the phrase ‘Morrissey by numbers’ seem generous.
Of course there are exceptions. ‘Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice’ is a typically perverse piece that lurches but never labours, and ‘Friday Mourning’ will grab you by the ears and shake you to your senses, though there was a time when Mozz would do that twice before breakfast as a matter of course. Both are from the You Are the Quarry sessions, his last career peak. The remainder of the album – and as a passionate fan, this sincerely hurts to write – is genuinely boring, droning on in the background, demanding to be switched off.
Much has been said about Morrissey’s dependence on his long-term, workaday backing group and, while it’s true that they are now exploring new ways to re-recycle chords that have already been recycled, at some point the wordsmith himself has to take the blame. But the wit is gone, and the interviews he gives, berating the rest of the pop world for being crashingly dull, hint at a sorrowful level of delusion. While you might bet on someone of Morrissey’s inspirational talents making a late-stage Dylan-esque return to form, Swords suggests that the light we were promised would never go out just has.
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The sharply dressed Parisian duo has designed another platter of couture pop, moon-age daydreams and idylls. The new line from the house of Air sports funkier and fuzzier bass lines to spice up its immaculate brand of amuse-oreilles made of whistles, chimes, baby grands and Moog.
Recording live as a full band affords a fresh breeziness to the Technicolor TV cop themes and cinematic spy scores. These lush truffles centred on heaven and jungles carry a hard-to-place delectability, an auditory umami. In ‘So Light is her Footfall,’ with his adorably accented doll voice, Jean-Benoît Dunckel sighs either ‘she’s a ninja’ or ‘she’s an angel’. As testament to Air’s impish and empyreal ways, both work.
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Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City
Praise for Ghostface Killah most often centres on his vivid, stream-of-consciousness crime narratives. Yet his status as the Wu-Tang Clan’s most enduring alumnus is probably more attributable to his love songs, often equally rich in their attention to obscure detail. From his countless cameos on R&B remixes (Beyoncé’s ‘Summertime’, Mary J Blige’s ‘Your Child’) to his own occasional radio hits (2006’s Ne-Yo-aided ‘Back Like That’), Tony Starks has long been hip-hop’s most unlikely Prince Charming.
Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City squarely focuses on this aspect of the rapper’s oeuvre. Whereas a typical Ghostface album might include one or two songs as charming as ‘Baby’, an ode to a pregnant partner that co-stars crooner Raheem De Vaughn, Ghostdini revolves around such collaborations: John Legend, Lloyd and Estelle are among the supporting cast. But, while Ghostface might be rapping to the ladies on Wizard of Poetry, he’s not always rapping for them. ‘Stapleton Sex’ is a cartoonishly crass shopping list of carnal demands; ‘Guest House’ is a typical Ghostface whodunit, except it’s a woman, not money, that’s stolen (fellow rap lover-boy Fabolous plays the ‘cable guy’ she’s sneaking around with). These tracks aren’t off-message; they just represent different shades of Ghost’s risqué approach to what he has called his ‘R&B album’. Ultimately, Ghostdini is unique among efforts by rappers to reach into such territory: it’s in no way soft.
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Asleep in the Bread Aisle
On ‘As I Em’, the midpoint on Asher Roth’s debut album, he begs his listeners not to compare him to Eminem. Sure, they’re both blonde white guys, he says, but, beyond that, the similarities run out. True enough – while Marshall Mathers deftly danced between biography and fiction, Roth mines the small ironies of modern life for his lyrics. And while Eminem was the white-trash kid from Michigan, Roth’s public persona is a laidback suburbanite stoner, more likely to fall asleep watching ThunderCats reruns than chainsaw up his girlfriend.
But there’s a bigger difference between the two and that is, frankly, quality. Roth clocked in two relatively high-profile mixtapes prior to this release (hence the appearances by Cee-Lo and Busta Rhymes on what is technically his first album), which ought to have given him something of a head start. But while Eminem’s sophomore effort, The Slim Shady EP, was filled with verbal dexterity and sharp humour, Roth’s album raises little more than a light smile. There’s no spark here, no surprises waiting for the attentive listener. ‘Bad Day’ sounds like someone at work describing a sitcom that wasn’t funny in the first place, and ‘I Like College’ somehow turns the hedonism of US university culture into a bland paste.
His attempts at sincerity don’t come off much better; ‘Sour Patch Kids’ reaches the philosophical heights of ‘the poor get poorer, the rich just get richer,’ and ‘His Dream’, an ode to Roth’s father, just comes off as mawkish. Fingers crossed for the future but, right now, this boy’s wit is, well, blunt.
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Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk have named themselves aptly: not only does the group consist of larger-than-life ‘monsters’ of indie rock, but the collective that formed in 2004 has opted for a certain brand of poppy folk for its self-titled debut. The Monster who roars the loudest is Conor Oberst, the disc’s anchor. His gloomy, adolescent croon spearheads the finest songs – ‘Temazcal’, ‘Man Named Truth’ and ‘Ahead of the Curve’ – which rival his best twangy work with Bright Eyes.
So what of the other Monsters? My Morning Jacket’s Jim James – who, according to the liner notes, has extended his recent adoption of a new moniker, Yim Yames – is always a welcome supporting addition, if no revelation as a centrepiece (one song he fronts, ‘Magic Marker’, is so cheesy it hurts). Still, the man could sing the dictionary and his piercing, bellowing howl would amaze.
M Ward, on the other hand, continues to underwhelm here; the songs he helms are predictably dull. He’d nearly ruin Monsters of Folk if he weren’t so innocuous. (The fourth member, Mike Mogis, sticks mostly to instrumentation and production.) The result is a pop-folk mash, less too many cooks spoiling the broth and more a bluegrass festival-ending sing-along. Just please: everyone clear the way so Oberst can take another solo.
Colin St John
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Kitty, Daisy & Lewis
Kitty, Daisy & Lewis
Nearly half a century ago, art-school kids in turtlenecks rocked Elmore James ditties in dinky English clubs. More recently, Amy Winehouse, buried under a Supremes beehive and Maybelline, belted Detroit soul in the face of robotic R&B. We should be used to Brits stealing and reviving Americans by now. But there’s still something pleasantly surprising and audacious about three teenage siblings from London, children of a recording engineer and a former post-punk drummer, finger-snappin’ and hootin’ their way through a batch of pre-JFK rockabilly, hillbilly and luau tunes.
Not a drop of modernity can be heard in Kitty, Daisy and Lewis Durham; they gleefully play their bare-bones Memphis blues with a chemistry that can only come from years of a family huddling around the piano to jam on nickel-and-dime-store instruments. Banjo, harmonica, upright bass and ukulele bop and pluck as if Elvis shaking in a grass skirt somehow brought the space-time continuum to a standstill. Only the guitar uses electricity. With Yma Sumac eyes and a stuffed-sinuses howl, Kitty, not even out of high school, handles ‘Got My Mojo Working’ like a hard-drinking blues festival veteran. Lewis, the aesthete who collects antique microphones, ensures everything sounds as if it was recorded in a barn.
Most importantly, it’s an undeniable blast. People haven’t sounded this excited about Hawaii (‘Honolulu Rock-a Roll-a’, ‘Swinging Hawaii’) since the state joined the union. By the record’s end, we were ready to trade in our plasma TV and iPhone for a ukulele. Maybe the Americans should get their kids to start skiffle bands as thanks.
Available to buy online