Jeff Tweedy – Together At Last

So much of what makes an album merely good rather than great is how well it captures the presence of the musicians and the energy of the room. This record feels like it could have elevated to great with a more vibrant setting.

A big part of Wilco and Tweedy’s charm is the rapport he builds with a crowd, especially in the more intimate settings. This record feels like only part of the story is being told. Recorded with just Tweedy, his acoustic guitar, harmonica, and the occasional smattering of electric guitar, it doesn’t have the same immediacy of the solo Jeff Tweedy I have heard in the past.

This record feels like it has been recorded to be played in the background. It eschews all the details and nuance that make the songs work as acoustic numbers. I’ve heard many different bootlegs and “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”  with just his voice, an acoustic guitar and the energy of the audience is every bit as compelling as the studio version. He paints with fewer strokes on these recordings, which makes me think it’d be a good one to hear in a room rather than through headphones.

Together At Last is good, don’t get me wrong. Tweedy has that ability to be utterly captivating with just an acoustic guitar. The electric guitar at the end of “In A Future Age” is a  nice touch, as are the country-esque guitar bends on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” But by removing the room full of people, the record lacks the electric atmosphere his sparse solo arrangements need to sparkle.

 

 

 

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

Dan Mangan – Club Meds

Dan Mangan is a Canadian singer-songwriter, primarily known for earthy, honest songs and gritty vocals. His latest release, Club Meds, is a departure, featuring a heavier band backing with more dense sonic landscapes.

I really wanted to like this album, and I do, in parts. At its best, it is a record that transports the listener, while at its most mediocre it sounds like Peter Gabriel.

Simple songs over complex backing arrangements isn’t a new concept, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, all created music in this way, but with less studio capabilities and subsequently less polishing. This is where I think the record doesn’t quite come together, rather than sounding brave or unique, it is disjointed and the studio gloss makes the record sound somewhat muddy.

Taken separately, the instrumentation is dense and claustrophobic, intricate and accomplished, while Dan Mangan’s voice is heartfelt and earnest. However, the two infrequently complement each other or feel like they are working for the good of the song. Rather, Mangan’s voice gets caught between the foreground and the background, without commanding either, which is hard to understand given its resonant qualities displayed on his previous records.

The two parts rarely come together to make a unified sound and at its best, in the closing track New Skies, the vocals fall away to allow the music to take centre stage, and vice versa, creating a quiet loud dynamic that works coherently to great effect. The other standout track is the second single Mouthpiece, which again allows more space for his vocals to breathe, while in others like Offred, the vocal track sounds lost.

The songs battle to strike the correct balance, and at times within individual tracks it all comes together, but it lacks consistency as a whole to be truly essential listening.

Recommendation: Worthwhile but patchy