Gaz Coombes – Matador

I was never a huge Supergrass fan. I appreciated their ability to write a catchy tune, but found their kookiness off-putting. Having revisited some of their earlier records while writing this review, that was probably an unfair criticism that I based solely on their first record I Should Coco. Matador changed my perception of Gaz Coombes from being simply a Britpop casualty, to something more legitimate.

On Matador, Coombes’ voice has a soulful quality I never heard in his Supergrass output. It floats effortlessly over the arrangements and veers from a Freddy Mercury croon, to David Bowie solemnity, without ever sounding forced or affected. The album opener, Buffalo, showcases the beauty of his voice, and is a sign of intent for how complex and solid the rest of the album will be. It establishes the optimistic but slyly dark tone of the record, and includes embellishments and shifts that prevent it from becoming a power ballad.

These ornate touches are found throughout all the songs, with little headphone tweaking details that give the record different textures to keep your ears interested.

The album is jammed with engaging songs, from 20/20 to The English Ruse, while the straight-ahead and hooky tracks like Detroit and The Girl Who Fell Earth make the record feel like a complete experience. The album gathers pace in the second half and from Needles’ Eye onwards it feels as compelling as a good film or book and keeps the listener invested in how it ends. Seven Walls is grand and epic and sounds huge, with vocals that soar, an eratic and persistent synth riff, crashing drums and a fuzz drenched guitar, all combined to create one of 2015’s most enjoyable cacophonies so far. Seven Walls is followed by the intricate and unsettlingly beautiful Oscillate, the slow-burning, aching To The Wire, and the abruptly ending, closing title track Matador, which left me wishing there was another song to come.

At 38 minutes, the record feels tight and succinct, and never allows the listener to drift off with superfluous tracks or over-long indulgences. I am of the opinion that 40 minutes is the sweet spot for a record – Harvest. Rust Never Sleeps. Marquee Moon. Born to Run. John Wesley Harding.  Some artists can get away with more,  but not many. Of course, as soon as I make such a declaration I immediately think of records that break this rule (Hail to the Thief, Blood on the Tracks, Blur, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers)) but it really takes something special to maintain a complete hold over a listener for an extended period of time.

Recommendation: Mandatory – possibly the best record of 2015 so far.

Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Belle and Sebastian occupy the ground between excessively twee and cloying, and melodious melancholy pop perfection. Actually, they don’t so much occupy it, as straddle it, with one foot at either extreme. The closest they’ve ever come to perfecting their formula was If You’re Feeling Sinister, with the earnest lyrics and over-wrought delivery combining perfectly with their deft ear for a gorgeous melody.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance doesn’t hit the same heights, with that same separation between essential and irritating that their weaker records always have. The album is over an hour long, with almost all of the 12 tracks hitting the five minute mark. This hefty running time means the record is at least 20 minutes too long and could have been pared back to a more reasonable eight or nine tracks.

The highlights of the album are the opening two tracks, Nobody’s Empire and Allie, with their infectious melodies and impeccable pacing, and The Everlasting Muse. This is Belle and Sebastian at their most precious and perfect, with a gently swinging drum line and Spanish-influenced trumpet bringing it all together into a high-water mark for the record. Something the excruciating Cat with the Cream doesn’t achieve, with the efforts at a delicately sung melody dying in a cluster of breathy vocals and cliched string parts.

The album doesn’t really hold together as a concept, the length is one factor preventing it from feeling coherent, along with the dancier beats on some of the songs. Tracks like Enter Sylvia Plath, The Party Line, and Play for Today don’t sit comfortably next to the other tracks with their pulsing dancefloor rhythms This makes it more a collection of songs on a Belle and Sebastian playlist and these songs seem perfunctory in the context of the album as a whole. Enter Sylvia Plath feels particularly grating for its title alone.

With some trimming this could have been a very good Belle and Sebastian record, with the high points really showing why they are so beloved.

Recommendation: Too long, but good with some judicious use of the skip button.

Further listening:

Their classics – If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap