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Minirambles: September

28/09/2012

Holy hell there’s been a lot of new releases this month, and that’s even with a few albums suffering some delays and ending up in October instead. Autumn always seems to be the season when bank accounts go to die and this year it’s been especially hellish. September’s seen the release of four albums that rank high on my interests list (and would’ve had a few others had they not been pushed back) and rather than make an article about each and every release separately, I decided to combine all of them under this lazy umbrella – convenience!

But what a curious month. Old favourites who were surely on their way towards the top 10 of 2012 suddenly decided to surprise and not necessarily in a good way, whilst the underdogs came and stole all the thunder. In further detail beyond the cut, it’s mini-rambles about the new offers from Ben Folds Five, John Frusciante, Pet Shop Boys and Sea Wolf.

BEN FOLDS FIVE – THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND

So you know where I’m coming from: while I worship the ground below Ben Folds’ feet, until recently Ben Folds Five did relatively little for me and while these days I can safely say I enjoy them, they’re not a particularly important group for me or the reason why Folds is one of my favourite songwriters ever. Thus, the new BFF album was not something I thought was going to be of any particular importance in my schedule, even if it’s been a long long time since those early days and messiers Folds, Jessee and Sledge have all matured and evolved as songwriters. But my curiosity got the better of me and I’m glad it did. The Sound of the Life of the Mind has that free-spirited energy that fueled the BFF albums but it’s a more experienced and, I’m sorry, matured take on it. It’s still wild, playful and very youthful material but the songs themselves sound more refined and generally far better written: they still sound young and hungry but there’s none of that slightly slapdash, amateurish feel to the songwriting. The result: one of the big surprises and the most solid releases of the year. Irresistable melodies and harmonies, brilliant instrumental work, songs that stay in your head forever in the most pleasant way and, best of all, the audible feeling of how close friends the trio are and how that friendship and the joy of playing together is the source for their coming back together.

JOHN FRUSCIANTE – PBX FUNICULAR INTAGLIO ZONE

I… don’t know. I really can’t say. For his latest solo album the ex-RHCP guitar wizard has largely ditched his chosen instrument and moved towards electronic music and sampling. This isn’t bad at all in itself – in fact, experimenting with styles and genres is always wonderful. And while the nine songs within the album here are far more coherent and less ADHD-y in structure than the sort-of preview tracks released earlier this year in the form of Letur-Lefr EP and the album outtake “Walls and Doors”, it’s still an album as baffling as its title. A fair chunk of PBX Funicular sounds excellent, sometimes even beautiful and often like you can tell John’s genuinely been inspired by his chosen direction. And then equally often the album sounds like a complete mess, like someone getting their hands on FisherPrice My First Electronic Album and being way too trigger-happy with the “random drum sample” button. “Hear Say” genuinely reminds me of a period in my teenage years where I pretended I could be an electronic musician, and that’s never a good thing to hear from an album by a seasoned professional. I’ve been captivated by PBX Funicular and I can definitely find enjoyment in it, but ask me why and I wouldn’t be able to give a direct reason: so much of it sounds so clumsy and awkward in an almost endearing way that when it does catch you off-guard with something genuinely fantastic it actually feels a bit weird, and yet there’s enough of the good stuff around that it would be very wrong to call it a weak album. I have a feeling that out of all his albums PBX will be Frusciante’s greatest grower but regardless, I don’t think PBX will ever be a landmark album in his catalogue. It’s good but simultaneously a mess that doesn’t really shine any light on what makes Frusciante such a great artist in his own right (and I’m not talking about the guitar skills).

PET SHOP BOYS – ELYSIUM

Earlier this year Pet Shop Boys released their second b-sides compilation, Format. It’s a high-quality collection of songs that further places Pet Shop Boys as one of the best b-sides bands around: a handful of songs that could have been singles in their own right, a number of songs that could have comfortably fit on an album and a large number of material that whilst sound like b-sides were certainly not given that position because of any lack of quality. The strength of Format and it coming out so near Elysium doesn’t do the latter any favours – whilst “Leaving”-“Invisible” is one of the best opening moves in music this year, soon after Elysium spirals into the sort of wonkiness and lacklustreness that you would come to expect from the most stereotypical b-sides, if only the band in question weren’t such great b-sides artists. Elysium manages to keep itself afloat and away from being a complete disaster but avoiding such fate hasn’t been easy: when you’ve got a middle section as inane and tedious as the four-track run from “Breathing Space” to “Give It a Go” (the latter being the most vapid thing PSB have ever pulled out), it’s really hard to call the album a good one. There’s a few glimmers of light scattered throughout but they’re largely glimmers: parts of songs, good ideas and brief moments that soon give way to music that’s probably PSB’s least interesting since the latter half of Please. The previous album Yes had good songs but for most of the album it didn’t sound like a PSB album thanks to the heavy touch of guest producer Xenomania; on Elysium the material is fully PSB but uncharacteristically flawed, which is hardly better.

SEA WOLF – OLD WORLD ROMANCE

Sea Wolf’s third outing reveals that Alex James Church’s outfit is an incredibly formulaic one, in a completely neutral way. Once again there’s a slight gear change in sound, one that retains the core of Sea Wolf through and through but makes it sound a little bit different and new again. Once again there’s a couple of instantly affable standout tracks that will be the reason you’ll keep spinning the album, this time centered around the trio “Old Friend”/”In Nothing”/”Kasper”. And once again, the rest of the remainder of the ten-track album will be thoroughly enjoyable but nothing particularly exciting or brand new indie rock that works well enough to wheel out the albums every now and then but which isn’t so special that you’d actually develop any deeper passion for the songs.  Once again, Sea Wolf is good but nothing special. I enjoy Old World Romance. I might even recommend it. But it, or Sea Wolf, are doubtfully ever going to appear as anything truly important to any extent for me. A good slice of standard indie for those who don’t mind enjoying something that’s never going to set the world on fire with its innovativity.

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