JENNY AND JOHNNY – I’m Having Fun Now

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Jenny Lewis began to gain semi-regular mentions in the UK press in 2005 when her band Rilo Kiley’s second album ‘More Adventurous’ gained a cult following. As good as parts of that album were, it was only with the release of the following year’s ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ – an album recorded by Lewis with The Watson Twins – she became a proper cult figure. That album’s lush songs, full of three-part harmonies steeped in old country and gospel traditions, captured her voice beautifully.

The third Rilo Kiley disc, 2007’s ‘Under The Blacklight’ was also loaded with great songs and it seemed like Jenny Lewis was on a roll. In 2008, Lewis’s first proper solo album ‘Acid Tongue’ had a similar rootsy feel to her previous outing with The Watson Twins, but stripped of the three part harmonies, the songs felt a little starker in places. Also, Lewis’s repetitive choruses meant the album wasn’t quite the masterpiece it could have been, although a suitably over the top performance from Elvis Costello comes recommended.

Many figured that Jenny would next be seen fronting Rilo Kiley once again, who by 2010 were certainly due a new release. It wasn’t to be. Instead, she teamed up with singer/songwriter Johnathan Rice, who’d previously produced her ‘Acid Tongue’ album. There was a strong possibility that Jenny and Johnny’s song writing style would be of a similar retro, heart-tugging style to that of M Ward and Zooey Deschanel – the kind featured on their She & Him albums – but instead, on this release, Jenny and Johnny offer a bunch of mostly sprightly rock-pop numbers, befitting of the album’s title, ‘I’m Having Fun Now’. Although this album has a slightly disposable nature, it’s great to hear Lewis tackling material that’s upbeat and not quite so self aware – a polar opposite to her mature side previously showcased with The Watson Twins.

‘Scissor Runner’ opens with Johnathan Rice taking lead vocal over jangly indie pop verses, which musically aren’t far removed from ‘Lovey’ era Lemonheads. This works well enough, but naturally, once Jenny Lewis adds her counter vocal and chorus harmonies, it becomes rather more special – even though the arrangement is fairly basic, with no real climax. It’s this style of 90s indie pop which Jenny and Johnny have made their forte for a good proportion of the songs featured. ‘My Pet Snakes’ has an old rock ‘n’ roll twang in places – albeit delivered in a late 90s style. While it’s music may not be as instantly enjoyable as the opening number, vocally it’s a winner. Jenny takes lead on the verse, stepping aside for Johnny for the chorus. Due to a few rather over the top ‘oohs’ placed in the backing vocal this sounds a little hit and miss, but Jenny delivers a great lead.

One of the stand out numbers ‘Big Wave’ features an upfront vocal from Lewis (with a brief harmony from Rice at the end of the chorus). With rhythm guitars crashing against a great bass line, this sounds a bit like a Rilo Kiley leftover, but more than that, it’s hard not to find more than slight influence from Juliana Hatfield and John Strohm’s work with Boston legends Blake Babies. Taking things at a slower pace, the acoustic based ‘Switchblade’ features some top harmonies. In terms of arrangement it’s very strong, with each element given more than enough space in the mix. Sounding great together, Jenny’s breathy vocals harmonize with Johnny’s plain yet enjoyable delivery.

Against a gentle, echoing guitar, ‘While Men Are Dreaming’ offers the album it’s only number which could be compared to the aforementioned She & Him. Jenny’s multi-tracked vocal lends itself well to the song’s naivety, while Johnny’s voice has been used to create a strong counter-vocal which features obvious a cappella stylings. It definitely would have worked as a true a cappella number, but the guitar adds some great textures. ‘While Men Are Dreaming’ is at odds with the rest of Jenny and Johnny’s material, but due to Jenny’s charm, it works well and lends the album a little variety.

‘Just Like Zeus’ is a sixties-inspired number where Jenny and Johnny’s harmonies are at their best. In fact, the whole band are tight – the simple drum part working particularly well – creating a number which would suit the twin harmonies of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. It’d be great to hear them sing it, but it’s extremely unlikely we ever will. Speaking of Matthew Sweet, an influence from his ‘In Reverse’ era work can be heard throughout ‘Animal’ and ‘New Yorker Cartoon’. Maybe it’s the chiming, sixties influenced guitars; maybe it’s Johnny’s vocal style; it could even be both – there’s a confident air and a greater depth during these Sweet influenced numbers than the album’s first few tracks would ever suggest. Whatever, it’s on these numbers where Johnny really comes into his own and proves himself a more than worthy companion to Jenny’s shining vocals.

At this point, things tail off… ‘Straight Edge of the Blade’ returns things to the jangly defaults of the album’s opening numbers, albeit with weaker results. There’s nothing wrong with Jenny’s vocals here, but there’s a sense you’ve already heard this done in a superior way. The country twang of the guitars in the left speaker add a nice flourish, but on the whole, it’s little more than an okay number. With a greater focus on keyboards to flesh out the sound and an over-reliance on handclaps, ‘Slavedriver’ is upbeat enough to hold its own, but the song writing isn’t too remarkable, and also a greater focus on keyboards plus an over reliance on handclaps means the song doesn’t quite work. The closing guitar driven number, ‘Committed’, is almost as throwaway. The tune itself sounds oddly familiar and certainly provides an upbeat end to the album (with both Jenny and Johnny sounding like they had a great time), but there’s a feeling that, once again, you’ll have heard better numbers on ‘I’m Having Fun Now’.

You won’t find much originality in Jenny and Johnny’s sound; but you’ll find plenty of enjoyment if you’re a Jenny Lewis fan. The end results are often solid, and the album’s relative brevity at under 40 minutes ensures a breezy, good time affair. It’s likely the presence of Jenny Lewis that’s attracted you to this album in the first place, and as such, if you’re a Jenny Lewis devotee, you’ll certainly want to have ‘I’m Having Fun Now’ in your collection.

November 2010

THE SILVER SEAS – Château Revenge!

silver seas

In 1996, Daniel Tashian (son of country-folk duo Barry and Holly Tashian) recorded a rootsy rock influenced album named ‘Sweetie’ with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett. Despite being created with Burnett and featuring a cast of top notch session musicians (including Larry Knetchtel, Jay Joyce and the legendary Booker T Jones), the album was not a commercial success.

In 1999, following a change of musical direction, Tashian teamed up with producer Jason Lehning to form the core of The Bees, a band with a retro pop fixation. Their debut release, 2004’s ‘Starry Gazey Pie’ features some good, hooky songs and a few wandering ones. Their sophomore album ‘High Society’ has a bigger focus on 60s and 70s style hooks and is instantly enjoyable. ‘High Society’ secured The Bees a record deal with Cheap Lullaby Records who reissued the album the following year. The reissue of ‘High Society’ was credited to The Silver Seas, a moniker chosen after a British band named The Bees had gained popularity and held the rights to that name. [‘Starry Gazey Pie’ was reissued as a Silver Seas album too, though only in MP3 format].

With some of the more lightweight sixties influences taking a back seat and even more seventies power pop and pomp influences coming to the fore, this third Silver Seas release ‘Château Revenge!’ takes those influences and bends them into something near retro pop perfection.

‘Another Bad Night’s Sleep’ is an incredibly busy number driven by wall of ringing guitars. Daniel Tashian’s vocal is confident and sounds superb against the many guitar parts and tight rhythm section. It’s a strong opener and one which captures many of the best aspects of The Silver Seas’ sound. ’Jane’ is slightly simpler, very much in a jangle pop vein. With more space for the song to breathe, against a gentle backbeat, there are great fills on the electric piano. Once again, it’s Tashian’s vocal backed by crystal clear guitar work which is most likely to pull in the listener. When that voice meets well arranged harmony vocals, it’s really hard not to be captivated by The Silver Seas’ brand of power pop. During ’The Best Things In Life’, Daniel Gherke (drums) and Lex Price (bass) prove themselves as a rhythm section, with a punchy approach which barely lets up throughout the song. Again, a full band sound is padded out with string sounds. Here, there are 10cc influences bought to the table and a slightly funky vibe.

Featuring a gentle vocal delivery, solid bass and multi layered sound, ‘What’s The Drawback?’ uncover an absolute love of Jeff Lynne. While they’ve not stooped to the squishy drum sound and vocals that sound like Sparky’s Magic Piano, there are definite influences from ‘Evil Woman’, ‘Sweet Talking Woman’ and other 70s classics. Bringing the point home with a nod and a wink, ELO even earn a namecheck in the song before a quick burst of strings recalls an old ELO tune. A beautifully played guitar solo shows a great amount of restraint and sounds like a cross between ‘That Lady’ by The Isley Brothers and classic Steely Dan, all in all making this one of the best songs on the album. Equally fantastic, ‘Somebody Said Your Name’, offers plenty of similarly busy 70s pop, as a slightly distorted bass and electric piano lead a confident feel-good number. Tashian is in great vocal form here, but it’s the music which makes it so captivating. There’s a musical tightness and perfection here worthy of Todd Rundgren’s 1973 masterpiece ‘Something/Anything’.

‘Home & Dry’ changes the mood, bringing things down from a level of 70s brilliance to more sedate singer-songwriter territory. At first Tashians voice and acoustic guitar dominate the arrangement. As the track progresses there’s backing from mandolin (obviously an influence from Tashian’s parents), and then with the band joins – the fuzz bass and drums adding a punch, string sounds adding colour. Also more subtle, ‘From My Windowsill’ provides the album’s melancholy AM radio moment, strings, organs, a twangy guitar solo and soft harmony vocals are all delivered with The Silver Seas’ magnificence – creating something big, but without bombast.

‘Candy’ is full of Todd Rundgren-esque grandiosity. The musical arrangement has everything thrown at it – including the ubiquitous strings and huge backing vocals, hovering somewhere between The Beach Boys and ELO. Buried within the kitchen sink approach, there are the sounds of sparingly used glockenspiels. Granted, it doesn’t feature the retro-pop sleigh bells which have a habit of creeping in with things like this, but frankly, there just isn’t room! ‘What If It Isn’t Out There’ showcases soul influences in its vocal stylings. While the huge harmony vocals provide a big hook, it’s Lex Price’s unshakable bass playing which grabs the attention. By turns both solid and warm, the bass sound here is fantastic. The slightly fuzzy, noisy guitar solo feels a little out of character for The Silver Seas, but this has been balanced out by the addition of string backing and the fact it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

‘Help Is On The Way’ makes decent use of a twangy guitar, an uneasy string break and a busy keyaboard loop. While parts of the arrangement are great (some nice backing vocals), this is one of the weaker numbers, due to the band not really cashing in on a potential hook. It’s weaker than most of the album for sure, but measured against most band’s standards it’s still better than filler material.

‘Those Streets’ has moments where the ringing guitars and electric pianos from other Silver Seas numbers are present, but its punchiness is more in keeping with 90s style indie-rock than 70s pop/rock. Daniel Gherke’s drumming takes the reigns for an upbeat number with a decent chorus. Tashian adopts his preferred ringing guitar tone again, and throughout this number it becomes rather insistent – almost relentless – despite only being present on the right channel, in an old fashioned stereo display. [In fact, this album would have sounded superb presented in a 5.1 mix, since it’s as multi-layered as any of the better known Flaming Lips recordings which were issued in that format].

The album closes on a rather more subtle note with ‘Kid’, an optimistic ballad, with Tashian leading things with his acoustic guitar. By the songs end, it’s transformed into a piece of sweeping beauty, with lavish strings. In a slightly tongue in cheek moment at the albums close, Tashian introduces the band members like a Vegas showman. As the album ends, as a listener, it feels like the end of a great journey into a world of cool retro pop.

It may sound like a big claim, but ‘Château Revenge!’ is one of the finest power pop albums ever. Each of its twelve songs offers the listener something great – and it really sounds like an album in the old-fashioned sense, as opposed to a collection of songs. Since the Jellyfish albums became the yardstick by which all power pop releases were measured in the 1990s and forever beyond, in a perfect world, ‘Château Revenge!’ would be the album to which all others aspire to in the 21st Century. An indispensible disc.

November 2010

ISSA – Sign Of Angels

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‘Sign of Angels’ is the debut release by Norwegian born singer Issabell Oversveen, otherwise known as Issa (not to be confused with Jane Siberry’s alter-ego of the same name). It would be more than fair to say Issa’s voice is strong, but it isn’t remarkable by any means – you’ll certainly have encountered better female rock vocalists in the past… Combine that with the choice of album artwork and the fact that the record company press release talks about how “beautiful and sexy” Issa is before it attempts to state how talented she may be, it would suggest Frontiers Records may have been swayed somewhat by the Scandinavian blonde’s looks. Let’s hear it for equality in the 21st Century. That aside, with input from a team of song writers (including members of Hammerfall and Candlemass), the album itself delivers some great moments, which should be enough to please long-time fans of melodic rock, even when the end results are often workmanlike workwomanlike and a little predictable.

Combining staccato guitar work against slightly pompy keyboards, the verses of ‘I’m Alive’ present the song with a strong base, but it’s the huge chorus which makes it a winner. Simple, predictable, but suitably feel-good, it lifts the track considerably. Multi-tracked vocals lend a classic sound for a number which would have suited many of the melodic rock greats had it been written a decade earlier. The chorus of ‘Give Me a Sign’ offers a sweeping majesty and the rest of the number offers decent performances from all concerned, though it’s odd that Peter Huss wouldn’t take the opportunity for a guitar solo – especially given that there’s an almost perfect opportunity for one at the 2:20 mark.

The big power ballad, ‘Unbelievable’, sounds like a soft-metal version of Amanda Marshall. Here, Issa utilises the softer side of her vocal style during the verses, which makes for good contrast against all of the Euro-rock power-fisting elsewhere. Not that this track lacks an element of that, of course; in fact, its chorus is the very epitome of the great fist-clenched 80s style power ballads. Adding a choir of backing vocals takes things up a notch, but not in a way which upstages the lead – and that lead is one of Issa’s finest. ‘What Can I Do’ takes one of the album’s heaviest riffs and does very little with it. Despite best intentions, the plodding nature – complete with stabbing keys representing the sound of strings – provides a textbook example of Euro-metal. With a better chorus, there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked, but as it stands, it’s rather leaden. Similarly, ‘How Will I Know’ tries its hardest to be a decent rocker, but Tim Larsson’s keyboard work approaches similar sting-influenced territory. Here it’s much worse – interfering with what could have been a relatively good hard rock number. Featuring a very strong pre-chorus, this track promised so much, only to be let down by a slightly clumsy arrangement.

There seems little point in going into any greater detail regarding the rest of the songs, since there’s not a great amount of variety within the album’s twelve numbers. Depending on your personal viewpoint, that’ll either be the album’s greatest strength or eventually work to its detriment. On the whole, though, what you’ll get here are a bunch of (largely) unobjectionable songs with a few really great choruses on hand to give things a boost. For the diehard melodic rock fans, this’ll find a deserved place as collection filler. For the rest of you: if you’re starting to look beyond Journey, Survivor and Foreigner for similar undemanding rock thrills, there are a whole world of second division artists who deserve your attention before you even consider Issa as a contender, no matter how good parts of her debut may be.

November 2010

GRINSPOON – Guide To Better Living

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In Europe and the US, Grinspoon have never achieved any more than cult status, and yet, in their native Australia, they’ve been hugely successful. Although Grinspoon’s debut full-length release was released in Australia in 1998, I first heard it when it received an international release the following year. I was instantly taken with their brand of post-hardcore music, especially the album’s opening number ‘Post Enebriated Anxiety’ [sic]. Although Grinspoon had enough talent of their own, I heard more than a trace of other great post-hardcore bands like Quicksand and Helmet within their music, even though the music press at that time had been quick to label them an Australian grunge band.

‘Post Enebriated Anxiety’, in many ways, is the track which best captures the early Grinspoon sound. The band throws down a pounding rhythm and angry riff, which could have easily been a Helmet number – and anyone who wants to be influenced by Page Hamilton should be given the thumbs up. If you’re looking for similar post-hardcore material, ‘Repeat’ offers plenty of slow grinding, but retains enough quirk to never sink into unnecessary sludge and ‘Sickfest’ works well coupling a simple punchy verse with a quirky riff during its intro, while it’s chorus stands out with its use of tuneful harmony vocals backing a shouty lead. It also features a guitar solo, which is almost entirely out of character, as ‘Better Guide…’ isn’t big on that kind of old-style musical showing off. ‘DCX3’ shows a slightly more fun side of the band. First off, its main riff resembles White Zombie’s ‘Super-Charger Heaven’, though I’m sure any resemblance is purely coincidental and lyrically it concerns a dead cat. It features another metal-style lead guitar solo, but it’s nowhere near as accomplished as the one featured in ‘Sickfest’. ‘Black Friday’ utilises Joe Hansen’s Helmet-influenced bass style and is another of the better examples of Grinspoon’s take on the post-hardcore movement. ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ is noticeably weaker than most of the album’s material; here, the sharp edges are a little too sharp and Phil Jamieson’s vocals wander into slightly uncomfortable territory. The second half of the song moves towards a more pleasing slow and heavy approach, but Jamieson’s vocals remain at their most extreme.

‘Bad Funk Stripe’ features the band in an uncharacteristically mellow mood, as the track winds things down to a lazy jangle, suitable for those summer days. It also features another lead guitar break, which also manages to be restrained, reaching no more than a bluesy noodle. ‘Champion’ pushes the band’s post-hardcore qualities into almost rap-metal territory without ever quite getting there, but even so, it’s a standout. ‘NBT’ and ‘More Than You Are’ have a sharpness which both bring more of a pogo element to the band’s sound, without resorting to being straight-up punk numbers and ‘Pedestrian’ also features the band at their spikiest, matching a riff-based verse with a sharp and angry chorus. The simple repetition during the chorus helps make it easily memorable, but it’s the return of the Helmet style bass work which is the track’s real draw.

It wasn’t until I’d had my international version of ‘Guide To Better Living’ for about a year, I discovered the original Aussie release not only presented the tracks in a different order, but also featured a few different songs. ‘Black Friday’ and ‘More Than You Are’ are not included on the (proper) domestic version, as they’d already been released in Australia as part of the ‘Grinspoon’ and ‘Pushing Buttons’ EPs respectively (both of which feature other non-album cuts, so they’re worth seeking out). In their place, the album features ‘Just Ace’, ‘Balding Matters’ and ‘Don’t Go Away’. Neither ‘Don’t Go Away’ or ‘Balding Matters’ are especially distinctive, but ‘Just Ace’ stands out as it doesn’t sound as mature as most of the other songs. It focuses largely on a lead bass part, joined occasionally by a fun sounding lead guitar part which instantly recalls a lot of mid-90s pop-punk stuff.

The only real downside with the Aussie version of the album is that ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ is the opening track! After being used to the international version of the album, ‘Post Enibriated Anxiety’ always felt like the perfect opening statement… For those unfamiliar with Grinspoon, ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ could be more than a little off-putting as an opening number.

If you’re thinking about buying ‘Guide to Better Living’, it’s likely the version you’ll find is the international release as (unless you’re native to Aus) it’s the most common pressing of the album. If you hear that and like it, then it’s worth looking for the original version to hear the album the way it was originally intended.

March 2010

“They say it’s your birthday…”

Well folks… Doesn’t time fly? It’s REAL GONE’s first anniversary this week (yesterday, in fact).

Over the past year, it’s been great bringing you all a mix of reviews, from new releases to cult classics; I’d like to think that REAL GONE has highlighted a few neglected gems out there. C’mon, you know you all want to hear the Jepp album!

Interest has slowly built up over the year and REAL GONE has had stuff published at M is For Music. Hopefully the next year will bring more visitors and even greater attention.

For those of you who visit regularly, thank you. I know there are a few of you out there who’ve followed from the very beginning.

There are still new reviews being written every week. In addition to those, there are already a truckload of reviews already written and waiting to go online over the next few months. Eventually, you’ll get to read them all. Watch this space… Hopefully, you’ll find lots more stuff to enjoy.

Until then, here are a few birthday related clips:

Watch Paul McCartney – Birthday (live at Knebworth 1990) here.
Watch The Birthday Party – Release The Bats (Live at The Hacienda) here.
Watch The Young Ones – Cricket/neil‘s birthday cake/Elephant Head here.

November 2010