Reviews 09-09-2008  

Music Reviews 

Don't Do Anything

by Sam Phillips

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Smokey, sassy, sultry, smart-as-a-whip and sat in a bath fully clothed, Sam Phillips adds producing to her many-feathered bow for her eighth album (or her 13th, if you factor in her 1980s Christian-accented incarnation as Leslie Phillips). 

Aiming for ''something lighter'', Don't Do Anything is packed to the gills with topsy-turvy lyrics that purport to say something but are intended to mean something altogether different. Cleverly, Philips shrouds everything in an almost palpably incorporeal atmosphere (yes, that's how topsy-turvy it really is!) conjured out of distorted, twanging guitars, thumping to the point of booming percussion, viscous piano lines and breathy, broken, vulnerable vocals that bypass your ears and inject themselves straight into your bloodstream. The result is an album to get deliriously lost within. 

The title track is a sublime exercise in playful sophistry, delivered with a beautifully understated lightness of touch that is deliciously corroborated by the melodious but coruscating conviction of Little Plastic Life and the pulsing, pouting early Elvis Costello-like riot of My Career In Chemistry. The fevervish, scrunched-up guitar, brittle banjo and stuttering staccato percussion on Shake it Down offers a caustic, clattering Tom Waits backdrop to perhaps the cleanest, most direct vocals on the album. 

Austerely covered by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss on last year's Raising Sand collaboration, Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, in its creator's hands, comes across more appropriately as a quixotic circus sideshow curio.  

Another Song is a perfect Phillips concoction – any number of styles (and a myriad number of emotions) corralled together in one compact, bleakly beautiful miniature – and Watching Out Of This World, with its splashy guitar pulse and lightly evaporating vocals provides a vivid punctuation mark to bring an album full of intrigue and dark-hued beauty to a memorable close.

by Michael Quinn  29 August 2008

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Ships in the Forest

by Karan Casey

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For one reason or another, the profile of this great Irish singer lurks slightly under the British folk radar. It's probably down to her busy US/European touring schedule plus a collaboration habit to rival the Chieftains: lately she's worked with artists including Lúnasa, Solas, Buille, Mícheál Ó’Súilleabháin, Peggy Seeger and Liam Clancy.

Karan Casey's fifth solo album might change all that, though how the first listen grabs you may depend on the mood you're in. Her stated intent to ''tackle the big songs within the traditional repertoire'' inevitably involves big themes of emigration, conflict, love and loss, and demands a certain amount of gravitas. Where 2005's Chasing The Sun included six originals and was light in tone, here stripped-down arrangements and a sense of melancholy prevail.

Much of the mood of understated spaciousness is generated by Caoimhín Vallely's luscious piano work, with help from the sonorous cello of Kate Ellis. Casey's intimate voice expressively unfolds each song, whether it's a delicate version of Robert Burns' Ae Fond Kiss or a heart-rending tale of Ireland's political history (Dunlavin Green, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye). An abstract, protracted Black Is The Colour is the killer track, its phrasing owing more to Billie Holliday than Cara Dillon, while Joni Mitchell's 1969 anti-war song, The Fiddle And The Drum (one of the CD’s two contemporary numbers), floats on the haunting, eerie wail of Cillian Vallely's pipes.

Not all is dark and sombre though: Kris Drever's upbeat, melodic guitar drives along Martin Furey's Town of Athlone, and other top musos judiciously fill out the sound here and there: more guitar from Robbie Overson, bodhran from Martin O'Neill, things with keys from album producer Donald Shaw and – you can't swing a cat without hitting a scion of the ferociously talented Vallely family – the left-field (though here restrained) concertina playing of Karan's spouse Niall.
The first of Casey's albums since the passing in 2005 of her mentor, singer/collector Frank Harte, Ships In The Forest shines with unsentimental emotion and moments of rare beauty. He'd be proud.

by Mel Ledgard 18 July 2008

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@#%&*! Smilers

by Aimee Mann

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Aimee Mann's seventh album sees her return to the (seemingly) simple format of finely-crafted songs. Produced by her bass player, Paul Bryan, the overall sound takes us fans back to the heyday of her work with Jon Brion on albums like Batchelor No.2. What makes Mann such a treasure is the fact that at the heart of her work is a darker, bleaker world view than you'd expect from the tastefully Beatlesque arrangements and melodies that cocoon it. Like Neil Finn, with whom she shares a certain, pop-for-grown-ups sound, there's little fancier here than piano acoustic and drums (with the occasional strings). Yet whereas Finn's songs concern themselves with temptation and loss, Mann's oeuvre revolves around the black heart of her native California.  

The characters that inhabit songs like 31 Today or first single, Freeway, are always marginal souls, struggling with isolation, obsession and addiction. Indeed, a theme that seems to recur is alcohol and its aftermath. There's the bar room 'jollity' of Ballantines where she's joined by ambient folk guru, Sean Hayes, while on It's Over she says: '' Everything's beautiful, every day's a holiday, the day you live without it''. Meanwhile on 31 Today she's drinking to alleviate the disappointment of her fourth decade (in reality she's actually in her fifth).  

The other typically 'Mannian' theme is the nature of relationships that border on abusive. On Phoenix her lover loves her like: "a dollar bill. You roll me up and trade me in," while on I Did The Right Thing she returns to the kind of righteous payback that she's always been so good at. In other words, Aimee Mann knows it's a deeply flawed universe we inhabit. Remember this is the woman whose work inspired Paul Thomas Anderson's film, Magnolia. And there are few less flattering representations of humanity.  

Still, despite the ornery cussedness of the album's title, what we come away with is something undeniably beautiful and subtle. Like all her best work it will continue to unfold and grow with repetition. And that's the sign of true artistry, and something to smile about.

by Chris Jones 20 June 2008

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