This week was a busy one for new music coming from Sheffield, with two excellent local singer/songwriters releasing new albums.
For fans of Nick Drake, Elvis Perkins, Ryan Adams, Damien Rice, Doug Burr, Neil Young
Neil McSweeney’s been kicking around the music scene here in Sheffield for a while, releasing his debut album, Remember to Smile, in 2006. I was a fan of that album and his laid-back but affecting folk tunes. He’s stepped it up a notch on his new album, Shoreline, released this week in the UK. He’s recruited a new band and better production, both of which help to fill out his sound and move him from being just another guy with a guitar into a more fully-fledged song writing entity. I was lucky enough to attend the album launch at the Plug, and he and the band put on a hell of a show, playing mostly songs off the new album.
The album starts off pleasantly enough with Glencoe, but it picks up steam with the second track, Standing Still, a bittersweet ode to relationships and the end, visited even more poignantly (and painfully) on Rope to Hang, which reveals the pain of complacency in staying with somebody when you shouldn’t. Side to the Sun sounds a bit like an early Neil Young and Crazy Horse number, its graveyard cello and macabre handclaps recalling Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets). Time drops any pretence of the ‘folk’ part of ‘folk’ rock, opting for a stomping, fuzzed out beat reminiscent of T. Rex or Led Zeppelin. After a few downer tracks, The Break takes the major upbeat chord progression of Sweet Jane and makes it into a happy sing along number celebrating the need, sometimes, to just keep going. I also like that he actually works ‘delirium tremens’ into the lyrics without making it sound laboured. The end of the album starts to plod a bit, with the last three songs doing little to stand out, except for the grand swelling strings of album closer Everybody Tells Me I’m Wrong (don’t worry, they tell me that too, Neil).
All in all, it’s an album worth the price of admission. McSweeney has a simple, straightforward but evocative way with lyrics about standard topics, speaking in a personal manner that’s universal enough for those who’ve loved/lived/lost. Instrumentally, it sounds good, using mostly straightforward arrangements, with piano, cello and accordion adding colour on some tracks. It’s the simple melodies and lyrics that stand out though, and the instrumentation fits the needs of the song, ranging from full band numbers to just himself and an acoustic when it fits the nature of the song. The album is a bit on the short side, but the first seven tracks make it worth the purchase.
For fans of Monkey Swallows the Universe (naturally), Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Belle and Sebastian, Jolie Holland
Nat Johnson was the lead singer/songwriter of popular local act Monkey Swallows the Universe. The band has broken up, and Johnson has formed her own band, the Figureheads (including former Monkey Swallows guitarist Kevin Gori) and they released their debut album, Roman Radio, this week.
The album, unsurprisingly, sounds a lot like Monkey Swallows the Universe, which is not a bad thing. It makes for a whimsical slice of stripped-down pop folk that goes down easily, but I guess I was hoping she’d take a few more risks on her solo(ish) debut. Johnson’s voice sounds sweetly innocent and charming, vulnerably breathless but powerful when she wants to be. The album itself is nice and breezy, and easy to listen to, but it lacks some of the immediacy and melody of some of Johnson’s earlier work with MStU. A few songs make themselves heard above the general pleasantness. Dirty Rotten Soul (released as a single last year) is a clear highlight, catchy as hell with a bit of a country noirish guitar lick underpinning its bounciness. Wasted also sticks out, building from a spare, quiet ballad into a busy, swirling conclusion. The production puts Johnson’s voice front and centre, as it should. She’s got talent, and I hope that she uses it to stretch out a bit more once she finds her feet in her current band iteration. Still, if you liked Monkey Swallows the Universe, or even need an entry into her work, this is as good a place to start as any.
New Music News
Most exciting for me is this week’s news that Eels have a new album set to come out less than 8 months after this year’s decent Hombre Lobo. Details on the new album are sketchy (will it be rocky Eels or folky Eels?), but it will be called End Times, and comes out 19 January 2010. See you next week!