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Ed Harcourt: Back into the Woods
There comes a time in everyone's life when it's time for reflection; time to escape the rat race and go back to basics. Usually, this time is spent at some desolate place, like a cabin in the woods or some far away beach on a desert island; somewhere one can fully recharge and shift their focus back to what's really important.
English singer-songwriter, Ed Harcourt, seems to have done just that on his new record Back into the Woods. But instead of a cabin in the woods or a tropical beach resort, Harcourt went back to basics at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. The nine songs were written in a month and recorded in just six hours.
The end result is melancholic, but utterly beautiful, in all its naked simplicity. There's a piano, an electric guitar and his wife on the violin, but that is all Harcourt has taken with him to create this record. The use of dubbed vocals on a handful of tracks, and an organ beefing up the bare framework of the song 'Brothers and Sisters', is as frivolous as this album gets.
It seems Harcourt returning to basics has paved the way for some lyrical introspection, as well. "You've got the good bits from your mother and the bad parts from me" and "pay no heed to good advice" he sings to his daughter on 'Hey Little Bruiser'. He serenades his wife on 'Wandering Eye' as he muses, "I remember when I first saw you/I couldn't move I was paralysed," and on 'The Pretty Girls' he states "I always feel like the monster in this fairy tale."
In 'The Cusp and the Wane' the singer-songwriter tells us that Mozart died a pauper and that William Blake was ridiculed. "Let's hear it for the underdog," he sings – he might as well be singing about himself.
It's always been a bit of a mystery how Jeff Buckley-esque singers and songwriters, such as Rufus Wainwright and Damien Rice, have managed to amass huge fan followings over the years, yet Harcourt still operates under the radar of the general music-loving audience.
It's not like he hasn't got the talent. Harcourt's oeuvre is littered with brilliant compositions, most notably on the Mercury Prize nominated' Here Be Monsters (2001), The Beautiful Lie (2006) and Lustre (2010). They can certainly compete with the musical accomplishments of the likes of Rice, Wainwright and even Buckley, yet somehow, until now, Harcourt has failed to get as much attention. And that's a real shame.
So here's a free tip if you're into singer-songwriters (especially the aforementioned ones): do yourself a favour and buy not only Back into the Woods, but Harcourt's entire seven album discography. You won't regret it.
It is next to impossible to define the sound of the Dirty Projectors. As soon as one tries to put their finger on any sort of genre or sound, it will have already transformed itself - either sonically or lyrically – into something else entirely.
For David Longstreth, the songwriting genius behind
the Dirty Projectors, combining filthy lyrical imagery, Mariah Carey vocals, a
classical brass section, indie rock ethics, minimal techno, Wizard of Oz duets,
and hip-hop beats, is a seemingly effortless task.
Over the past decade, Longstreth has released over ten LPs and EPs, all which prove that his band is everything that Dave Matthews Band and the Magnetic Fields try to be – witty, daring, intelligent, honest, weird; in other words, different. Swing Lo Magellan, maintains that tradition, though in a somewhat more welcomed and accessible way.
However, Swing Lo is still bizarrely weird.
While for the first time the majority of songs are built around verse/chorus
song structures - and it feels as if Longstreth has tried to keep his
experimentation bound to structure - every song still sounds like a musical
experiment in itself.
The Dirty Projectors are a band of six who are more or less based in Brooklyn, New York. However, in ten years the band has easily gone through twenty members, and a rotating cast – Longstreth aside – simply seems to be part of the essence of this band.
It’s difficult to define what each band member specifically does because there’s no formula, and so individual roles often change with each song. There is a huge variety of sounds – clapping, duets, guitar riffs, eastern and western beats, digital effects – captured and produced using both hi-fi and lo-fi means. Dirty Projectors have collaborated with both Icelandic singer Björk, and new wave hero David Byrne of the Talking Heads, which hints at the diversity of their styles and tastes.
The off kilter, catchy pop track ‘About to Die,’
evokes a weird, sort of dyslexic Maroon 5-type groove, whilst Longstreth
lyrically ponders: “How can I hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it?
Foolish, I know, but I’m about to die”, that is, unless he’s “already dead”.
The opening track ‘Offspring are Blank,’ plays with the idea of species propagation, of fertile parents giving birth to blank children. However, it’s delivered over hip-hop beats, r&b vocals and pop-punk rock choruses.
There are also beautiful, guitar pop songs, such as title track ‘Swing Lo Magellan,’ which combines acoustic guitar, beautiful playful imagery, and a sense of wonder and adventure. But even with this simple song, the production sneakily bombards the listener with two tracks simultaneously. If listened to with headphones, one finds that that the right speaker is delivering an acoustic, beat-less ballad, and the left speaker is a bluesy, drum and bass groove; when combined, the magic is delivered.
However, just when one begins to grasp what this
album is all about, the punkish, dark, Pink Floyd-ish track ‘Maybe that was It’
comes as an exploration of what it would lyrically and sonically sound like to
come off LSD – confused and disoriented.
It is almost futile picking tracks off of this
record, as they’re all beautiful and unique in their own way. The current
single is ‘Gun Has No Trigger,’ but whatever the listener’s taste, there is
definitely something, somewhere on this record for everybody.
The name Swing Lo Magellan is a likely reference to renowned explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s daring voyage under South America, where he ‘swang lo’, becoming the first person to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In a way, that is exactly what it sounds like Longstreth is doing with this album: creating groundbreaking connections where most believed they would and could never be made. Swing Lo Longstreth, Swing Lo.
Commercial music is in a sorry state. It isn’t that much of a stretch to say that the music industry is run by record labels and not musicians. While said industry continues to roll out marketable non-talents, there is hope that music fans are becoming a bit more educated – a small ripple of change that has pushed many artists to consciously differentiate themselves. Say what you will about Bruno Mars, but here is a singer that has taken the prerogative to stand out.
Doo-Wops & Hooligans, was released in 2010 to massive commercial
success, receiving platinum certification in the US and double platinum in
Europe. Two years on, Unorthodox Jukebox looks set to increase the
versatile singer’s stock
in Waikiki, Hawaii, Mars cites the likes of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and
Little Richard, as his greatest musical influences. With Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars has utilised this mishmash of musical
inclinations to produce what is actually quite an eclectic record.
Album opener, ‘Young Girls’, carries a 70s pop sound that doesn’t push Mars out of his comfort zone, while songs like ‘Gorilla’ portray that ever-so cheeky spirit that has characterised his most popular songs: “You and me baby/Making love like gorillas.”
But there’s more to Mars, as can be seen in ‘Natalie’, which reveals a darker angst to his happy-go-lucky nature. There’s no new sentiment here – just the same old torment of failed relationships and past lovers – but it at least makes for nice relief from the slightly nauseating summer-pop that he’s become associated with.
‘Money Make Her Smile’ and ‘Moonshine’ see Mars expand his repertoire further – with mixed results. The latter is co-written by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow, but Ronson’s magic touch hasn’t worked this time round, courtesy of some pretty uninspiring and hollow lyrics: “Moonshine, take us to the stars tonight/Take us to that special place/That place we went the last time.” A Mark Ronson-produced track more often than not means syths and big, bouncy beats, but it just doesn’t work here. There’s no edge; just some cheese.
other single on the album, ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ exposes a musical depth that
will surprise even the most cynical of listeners. Very obviously inspired by
the Police, Mars excels in his lyricism, musicality and that oh so important charisma.
Unorthodox Jukebox isn’t going to win Bruno Mars many new fans, but it’s an album that manages to please his fan base, while showing that underneath that fedora and almighty quiff, there are glimpses of a serious artist.