Monday, 28 July 2008

ALICE COOPER: Along Came A Spider

Nothing says 'hazy summer afternoon' like a born-again Christian pro-golfer's take on the exploits of a wannabe anti-Spiderman serial killer.

Yes, Alice Cooper's released album 6, 666 (probably), 'Along Came a Spider'. A piece of musical theatre, the album revolves around a spider-like serial killer busy collecting the limbs of his eight female victims to build his own - presumably female - spidery play-zombie. It’s an open invitation to throw any semblance you ever had of taking shock-rock seriously out the window – more appropriately, to banish it to the deepest pits of rock-snob hell. Once you've done that, you're free to enjoy Cooper's latest work for the unabashed, horns-in-the-air nod to the age of Hammer Horror and pedestrian zombies that it is.

The band, Alice’s touring band, sounds tighter and more together than they have in years, but the guest slots alone make the album worth a listen: Slash contributes a magnificent old-school guitar solo to anthemic second track 'Vengence Is Mine' and, in a move of sheer crazed genius, the harmonica solo on 'Wake The Dead' is provided by none other than Ozzy Osbourne.
There's less of an industrial flavour to this album - this time around it's all Rocky Horror meets Twisted Sister - which is peculiarly relevant given that the Nine Inch Nails latest album, 'The Slip', is released on CD this week, and that Trent 'NIN' Reznor discovered, produced, fell out with and then reconciled with Cooper’s closest rival, Marilyn Manson. Unlike Manson, however, Alice Cooper has always been an act – in interviews, Alice refers to him in the third person - and his skill as a performer is an attribute that makes this album. It's why a born-again Christian can get away with singing 'I've got some chloroform and some handcuffs/Just for you' only tracks before the well-intended - but as lyrically subtle as being slammed around the head with a copy of the King James - penultimate track 'Salvation'.

That 'Salvation' is overturned by 70s-budget-horror epic 'I am the spider/epilogue' is perhaps a glimpse of the seething underbelly that lies beneath the shimmering Alice Cooper trademark, the discomfort that must come from making a reputation bating the religious right before, oh, becoming one of them. As Cooper sings on 'Wrapped in Silk': 'Where did you get that skin/It covers up all your sin/I wonder what’s underneath’. Does knowing that Cooper is an evangelical Republican de-fang the spider? Not really. Alice is as believable in the role of sneering-leering stalker as he is playing love-struck and in need of redemption. If you're a long standing Cooper fan, this is a fascinating album, a veiled glimpse at the demons of the Prince-of-Darkness made good. If you're not a long standing fan, you can still shred air guitar to Slash's trademark and solo and headbang along to the epic choruses. A solid all-rounder, then - and to so conclude a review of a shock-rock concept album is a fitting tribute to Alice Cooper’s 60 years of contradiction defying, melodramatic, tongue-in-cheek music-hall rock .

(7/10)

Liz Dodd

Friday, 25 July 2008

LAURA MARLING - Alas, I Cannot Swim

It's unfair, but I harbour an intrinsic mistrust of singer-songwriters. I think it's something of a Pavlov's dog situation: every time you throw on an easy listening-folk album these days you're assaulted either with the irritatingly sentimentalised dronage of James Blunt/Paulo Nutini/etc. or the faux-blues strains of Adele/The Winehouse.

Years of abuse at the hands of the music industry meant, then, that I shifted Laura Marling's new album around my desk for about a week before bracing myself for the potted-lounge-jazz assault that, ultimately, never came. Instead Regina Spektor-esque fragility tumbles out of album opener, Ghost, sparse acoustic guitar racing away from a drumkit that sounds like it's in a different postcode to the microphone. Alas, I Cannot Swim is a breath of fresh air. Marling resists the current avant-garde for expressing emotion through the jagged erosion of vocal-instrumentals. There is emotion in this album, but it's living in the gaps, in the pauses between child-like clipped sentences and down-tuned strings.

Marling (18) doesn't let her age get in the way of punchy truisms. "Well I sold my soul to Jesus and since then I've had no fun," from The Captain And The Hourglass is straight Delta blues without assumed Americana. Night Terror is the darkest few minutes on the album and indicative of where Marling can go from here - confident leaps from the lowest to the highest notes in her range, insistent, nautical drums and Patrick Wolf-esque ghost strings. Marling may not be able to swim, but she has released a debut powerful enough to blast your Duffys and your Adeles out of the water, setting a new standard for British singer-songwriters. About time.

(8/10)

Liz Dodd

ATHLETE - Interview & Gig Review

Sprinting (ok, walking briskly) the five minutes from the office to The Cambridge Corn Exchange, we indulge in a grumble. Never, we reflect, have we actually managed to conduct an interview on time. Artists - or at least, their PR - seem to have come to the conclusion that student press have nothing better to do than huddle among amps and keyboards in some drafty backstage cave while soundcheck runs half an hour late because the band decided, fifty-nine nights into a sixty-night tour, to hold an extended jam with whoever happens to be in the building.

Athlete, mild, predominantly religious soft-rockers that they are, were no different, hustling us (plus Dictaphone) back out into the rain because we had the audacity to turn up on time. A half hour (of grumbling) later, we are finally ushered into a dressing room/canteen, littered with such rock'n'roll accoutrements as hummous, olives and celery sticks. "We found ourselves doing the major cities, and that's what a lot of bands do," Athlete's Steve Roberts points out when we try to find out why the band are gracing our small town. "We wanted to do some slightly smaller places... I think around the 2000 capacity is kind of ideal. It's enough people for it to feel like an event, but not to many so that you feel that you're not as close to everyone."

Stadium rock - a title that has, like it or not, followed Athlete for their entire career - might be taken to imply, well, a stadium, but Athlete's latest release Beyond The Neighbourhood is a conscious move away from Coldplay-esque pop. "We really wanted to make more live sounding album," Steve explains. "I guess we wanted to make something that sounded quite electronic, but at the same time something that that captured the performance. We've been quite fortunate at our record company. We've always just gone with what we want and that's what the record company is given. They've been quite hands off."

Athlete's record company is EMI, a label slowly imploding under the weight of Radiohead's headline-worthy exit and the slightly bizarre news that Robbie Williams has decided to go on strike. "In the next month most of the people we know might be gone," Steve points out when we bring up industry woes. "The EMI thing has really affected us because the whole company is at a standstill. We're just keeping our heads down and not try to worry about the industry side of things. That's the worst thing for a musician to do. At the end of the day people will still want music - we'll just carry on. The Radiohead thing is great. They're in a position where they can do that, and they made an absolute fortune. They've sold records they manufactured themselves for £40. That's a huge amount of money, and people are talking about it. It kind of forces the record companies to go 'oh, we actually do have to take this seriously now...' "

With an EP on the way - featuring, Steve informs us, acoustic versions of earlier tracks brought out for a Radio 1 event as well as a track from the new album - and an American tour in the works, Athlete don't show any signs of slowing down. Nor should they - the Cambridge gig has sold out, and the crowd are as receptive to new tracks as they are to the greatest hits. "That hasn't happened before,' front man Joel Pott tells the crowd after a prolonged, venue-wide singalong to hit Wires. "Thanks." Athlete's feel-good pop rock might not be your thing, but it's both a laudible response to an industry crisis and a relief to their legions of fans to discover that when the going gets tough, the tough intend to retreat to their studio and do what they do best.

Liz Dodd

LOS CAMPESINOS! - Hold On Now, Youngster (2008)

Sonically located somewhere between tripping in a Hong Kong arcade and a house-party in Pac-Man's bachelor pad, the debut album from Welsh septet Los Campesinos! is not an album to listen to after ingesting a large amount of caffeine. Hold On Now, Youngster... is probably best listened to while on some kind of multicoloured treadmill.

Far from trying to drag all seven members into any musical concord, Los Campesinos! have settled for a discordant free-for-all that, against all musical odds, really works. Tempting as it is to recoil with jealousy - all seven are still university students, and they've titled the track I most wanted to refer to This Is How You Spell 'HAHAHA, We Destroyed The Hopes And Dreams Of Faux-Romantics' - their special brand of hyper-pop fills a void between Mike Skinner and I'm From Barcelona that I wasn't even aware needed filling. Tracks like Drop It Doe Eyes establish a "female vocals-over-syncopation versus punk-male vocals-over-driving-4/4" pattern that counters the crazy in cacophonic tracks like Don't Tell Me To Do The Math(s), while the whole album emerges layered in challenging tempo, samples, and a veritable who's who of indie namechecks - spot 'Meanwhile Back In Communist Russia' on Don't Tell Me...

Vocals range from screech to whisper, stripping back to reveal bizarre couplets in understated raps. It's impossible to get a grasp of where this group are going, and quite how they squeeze such a vivid emotional vocabulary out of an amalgamation of synths, xylophone etc. played quickly and at the same time. Hold On Now, Youngster... is a flamboyant mix of style and substance, hyperactive and complex.

Los Campesinos! have earned the right to take themselves seriously, but long may they waive that right in favour of long track titles and glockenspiel solos.

(8/10)

Liz Dodd