The following 2000s artists have their own dedicated page. I’m still catching up on this millennium – looking at this list so far, it feels like a random assortment of artists, and it needs fleshing out:
The Hold Steady
The New Pornographers
Radiohead (I have them filed under the 1990s in the menu, but their 2000s output is also very significant).
Sun Kil Moon (on the Mark Kozelek page)
The White Stripes
This page collects album reviews for artists who don’t quite qualify for their own page.
As Radiohead retreated from conventional songwriting into more experimental realms, a market niche opened for groups to pursue an accessible adaptation of melancholy semi-acoustic music patented on The Bends. Just as Creed were a poor-man’s version of Pearl Jam, and Limp Bizkit were an even worse version of Rage Against the Machine, Coldplay are a pale imitation of Radiohead. Where Coldplay fail is that they’re numbingly bland. While vocalist Chris Martin has a plaintive voice, with an impressive upper register, his lyrics might as well have been written by a computer. Musically, they’re a three piece without much identity, even though they pull some strong vocal melodies out on occasion. It is no coincidence that ‘Spies’, the only lyric that doesn’t vaguely skate around the boundaries of a mildly dysfunctional relationship, makes for the most entertaining track. Parachutes is pleasant if you find it cheap, but I can’t see any listener getting extended listening mileage out of it.
A Rush Of Blood To The Head
It’s difficult to imagine a less appropriate album title for Coldplay, the purveyors of pre-meditated, neatly-packaged, post-adolescent angst. A Rush Of Blood To The Head is more expansive and ambitious than its predecessor, opening with the aggressive Brit-pop of ‘Politik’ and taking on more ambitious material like ‘Warning Sign’ and ‘Amsterdam’. Meanwhile, ‘Clocks’ is the group’s best song yet, based on a Martin piano riff, proving that as mundane as he is, he’s still the most interesting member of Coldplay’s personnel. The other guys might help write the tunes or something, but they’re completely faceless behind their instruments, and are a subservient backdrop to Martin’s vision of sensitive and inoffensive adult pop/rock. It’s not like these Coldplay albums are particularly bad; it’s pretty difficult to find any bad songs on them. But there’s so much more interesting music out there than this faceless conglomerate of British musicians; they’re competent in every aspect, but excellent in none, neglecting what makes great music great in the first place.
Maybe I’m the only person in the world who thinks this, but to my ears X&Y is Coldplay’s most substantial album yet, with a better ratio of good songs to bad songs than their first two records. They’re still mining the space between Coldplay and U2; the riff in ‘White Shadows’ sounds like the guitarist wants to be The Edge, but I’m not too fussed if they can string together enough good songs like this. Although Chris Martin is still over emoting about the minutiae of his feelings, these songs seem more meaningful than before. “Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you” doesn’t make a whole lot of literal sense, but it’s nice. The verse melody of the title track is terrific – if they managed more moments like that, I’d consider owning one of their albums. First single ‘Speed of Sound’ is reminiscent of ‘Clocks’, but best of all is ‘Fix You’ – that softly dramatic chorus is very effective. The acoustic tracks ‘A Message’ and ‘Til Kingdom Come’ are also excellent, and break up the album nicely. I’m not ranking X&Y too highly still, as there are many other bands that I’d rather listen to, but it’s a definite step forward over the first two, so if you thought those ones were enjoyable, prepare to be blown over by X&Y.
Fat Freddy’s Drop
Based On A True Story
Polynesian dub act Fat Freddy’s Drop hit the mainstream in New Zealand in the early 21st century; their music becoming a favourite for live audiences who saw their spaced out jams as high culture. Based On A True Story is intricately textured, soulfully sung and beautifully produced, but the songs simply aren’t that exciting and too consistently slowly paced. If they’re interestingly structured, often breaking away from the restraints of verse and chorus, they still don’t have well developed melodies and the lyrics are the secondary focus at best (“I love it when you’re skanking with me”).
Based On A True Story has two great tracks; the softened down ‘Del Fuego’, breaks out of the monotonous groove for a warm ballad, while the groove is irresistible on the eight minutes of ‘Ray Ray’.
It’s a shame that a record that’s so accomplished in terms of performance and arrangements is left underdone by such routine songs, a talented band pursuing one signature sound too far and not stepping outside of their comfort zone.
Fly My Pretties
Live At Bats
Fly My Pretties have gained a major following in New Zealand for their live shows, which blend visual and musical elements. They’re the brainchild of Barnaby Weir from The Black Seeds, who recruits other popular New Zealand musicians for a quasi-super-group. While musicians I enjoy, like L.A. Mitchell and members of the Phoenix Foundation, have passed through the group’s rotating ranks, I’m bemused by their popularity which started with this debut album, recorded live.
Weir gets away with mediocre songs in The Black Seeds because of their arranging skills, but there’s nowhere to hide here. Fly My Pretties blend acoustic guitars and a rhythm section playing dub, with bland songs that sound like they took five minutes to write. “I’m not a christian man… But I believe in angels. Ever since I met you girl. I believe in angels” is a particularly poor verse from ‘Lucky’, and the lack of musical interest puts the formulaic lyrics in plain sight, as do mindless vamps like ‘All The Goodness’. The one well thought out song, ‘Singing In My Soul’, is rendered intolerable by the guest singer’s lisp. Even bringing out more musicians for the lengthy ‘Lets Roll’ doesn’t help, as the crunching guitar feels anti-climatic on an unmemorable composition.
Despite its formulaic songs Live At Bats launched Fly My Pretties’ career, and they’ve milked their audiences with five subsequent albums.
If music betrays its context, then listening to early records from The Kinks and The Beatles would allow the listener to visualise a swinging Carnaby Street full of mods with quirky dress sense. Listening to early seventies Genesis would give the impression of a pastoral England full of mythical creatures, all wanting to seduce Peter Gabriel. Judging from David Gray and Coldplay at the turn of the 21st century, and it sounds like England has lost its mystique and is now full of lovelorn young men moping through drab and miserable winters.
Musically, Gray’s a whiny guy with a nasal voice singing relatively predictable singer-songwriter fare, replete with attractive arrangements and cool synth noises. Some of the arrangements on this record are absolutely gorgeous, admirable when it’s considered that Gray made White Ladder in his London apartment with traffic noises filtering in – the theremin like keyboard effects in ‘We’re Not Right’ and the stately piano of ‘Babylon’. And despite the self-obsession running through the lyrics (“I got half a mind to scream out loud/I got half a mind to die/So I won’t lose you girl’) Gray does put together a strong batch of songs on White Ladder. It’s no injustice that this record became a sleeper hit for Gray after he spent a few years languishing on the fringes with obscure albums like A Century Ends, Sell, Sell, Sell and Flesh, not hitting the big time until his 30th year. Gray’s lack of humour and self-obsession wear thin quickly, but songs like ‘Please Forgive Me’, ‘Babylon’, and ‘My Oh My’ are catchy despite their low key nature.
TLDR? A singer-songwriter who annoys me somehow creates an album that’s mostly interesting.
The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy
*Disclosure – this is my friend’s album, so I might be a little biased…
Almost fifteen years after cutting his teeth with Hawera jam band Gypsys, Kerry Logan released his solo debut The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy. Inspired by the synchronisation between Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side Of The Moon and the movie The Wizard Of Oz, The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy was constructed to fit with cult children’s movie The Neverending Story, with the lyrics also inspired partially by the movie.
As befits a solo album, Logan handles most of the instruments himself, joined by his brother Bobby on drums. Because it’s self-produced, and recorded in a makeshift studio, the sound quality and mixing is sometimes lacking, and sometimes Logan’s vocals aren’t strong enough to handle some of the more demanding songs, but his guitar playing is world class.
The first side is weaker than the second, even if the bluesy guitar break before the second verse of ‘The Sadness’ is the most electrifying moment of the record. The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy finishes extremely strongly with the melodic and acoustic guitar driven groove of ‘The Princess’ and the aggressive ‘The End Comes’, while the closing instrumental ‘The Journey’ is downright triumphant.
Overall, The Wolf, The Warrior, The Boy was Logan’s strongest work work to date – while the conceptual framework gives it a more constant feel, especially in the second half, it also is a stronger set of songs than anything on any individual Shift or Cynosure studio album.
Live at the Matterhorn
Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, L.A. Mitchell works in an idiom where jazz, soul, and pop intersect. Live at the Matterhorn is her second release – it reprises songs from her first album, Debut, as well as some covers and unreleased tracks. I picked Live at the Matterhorn out of the dollar bin after reading a positive review, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since – with Mitchell’s Fender Rhodes and rich, smoky voice, Live at the Matterhorn has a classic soul feel.
On Live at the Matterhorn Mitchell is joined by a jazzy ensemble – and her backing band do a classy job, especially the rich harmony vocal arrangements from her backing singers. ‘Love Will Rain Down’ could have come straight from Carole King’s Tapestry, before it launches into a soul bridge, while the cover of Hall and Oates’ ‘Rich Girl’ adds some muscle to the original. Mitchell rides solid grooves from her rhythm section on songs like ‘Be Free’ and ‘We Could Be’, and showcases thoughtful, introspective lyrics on ‘Blessed Be’.
While Mitchell hasn’t produced much solo work since – she has kept busy with family and other musical projects – Live at the Matterhorn is a very good showcase for her considerable talents.
When you have a review blog, sometimes you receive requests from artists wanting you to review their albums – Sunflower Girl is the only unsolicited album I’ve received that I’ve genuinely enjoyed.
Sunflower Girl‘s songs were written in the year that followed Thornton’s wife passing away from cancer at the age of 29. As you’d expect, based on such circumstances, Sunflower Girl is utterly sincere. As much as Sunflower Girl is a lyrics focused album, it’s arguably more of a triumph musically; Thornton has a tendency to occasionally lapse into overused metaphors about ships and rainbows, not a surprise when the subject matter is so direct, while most of his melodies are genuinely memorable and his stripped down arrangements suit the material perfectly.
One frame of reference for Thornton is seventies folkie Roy Harper; Thornton’s voice has a similar lilt, his lyrics share the same yearning romanticism, and if he’s further from pure folk than Harper, his acoustic finger-picking still betrays a strong folk influence. Thornton handles most of the instrumentation himself, and recorded the songs in his home studio, and it sounds great; sometimes there’s little more than acoustic guitar.
Sunflower Girl’s strongest songs include ‘Under My Skin’, with a jazzy feel and some of Thornton’s most inventive lyrics (“She’s a poppy field/When you thought you’d see wheat”). The opening ‘Shake The Moon Down’ is agreeably memorable, while ‘Safely Home’ ends the album beautifully, with an uplifting resolution and gorgeous, subtle orchestration. There are plenty of pretty acoustic melodies like ‘That Girl’ and ‘He Does Not Deserve You’, and the pretty ‘Rosey (One More Time)’. The title track is overwrought, not surprising given the circumstances, and it’s a credit to Thornton as a writer that he’s able to capture a wider range of emotions than just the grief expressed on this song.
Sharing in someone else’s pain is sometimes the best way to soothe your own soul, and as an eloquent expression of difficult emotions Sunflower Girl is a success, where Thornton’s music legitimately serves as a conduit for his emotions and as a window to his soul.
If you’d like a copy of Sunflower Girl, visit https://andythornton.bandcamp.com/album/sunflower-girl.
Here Come The Miracles
While Steve Wynn’s former band The Dream Syndicate garnered critical acclaim with their 1982 debut The Days Of Wine And Roses, they petered out into cult status. When the band broke up, front-man Steve Wynn continued in a similar vein, with a respectable but low profile solo career. Almost twenty years after The Days Of Wine And Roses, with little fanfare, Wynn unleashed a sprawling nineteen song set that deserves to be mentioned alongside the great double albums. Set in L.A. and recorded quickly in Arizona, the geographic identity is key; not only does the record have a sun-baked atmosphere that’s simultaneously paranoid and lethargic, but it’s full of reference points in the titles (‘Topanga Canyon Freaks’, Southern California Line’, ‘Death Valley Rain’, ‘Sunset To The Sea’) and lyrics.
Here Comes The Miracles is constructed around classic rock textures; it’s all nice warm organic guitars, organs and Fender Rhodes. Neil Young’s a good reference point, while there’s a touch of Lou Reed in Wynn’s vocal delivery, as he uses spoken delivery on some of the more intense moments. Instrumentally it could have been made in the late 1960s, but it also has a grungy tang that dates it much later; it’s too gritty and nasty to have been made in the sixties. It’s attractively warm and organic, while it has enough edginess and attitude to give it identity and make it a major work in its own right. Mostly it’s rock oriented, ranging from moodiness in the epic ‘Good And Bad’ and ‘Sustain’ to nastier rockers like ‘Smash Myself To Bits’ and ‘Crawling Misanthropic Blues’. There’s also pop gorgeousness on the delicate ‘Morningside Heights’, which is a gentle piano pop song that still dovetails neatly into the rest of the record. Despite the relatively negative tone of the record it’s book-ended by two quasi-spiritual statements; the opening title track, and the closing ‘There Will Come A Day’, which closes the record on an uplifting note, tying the loose ends of the record together and following another great rock tradition of the ‘My Back Pages’ ripoff (see also ‘Born to Run’, or Neil Young’s ‘Country Home’).
I can’t think of another double album in the rock lexicon where there’s not one disposable track.