Review: SteelBirds, Oh the Light

Oh The Light
Image Courtesy of Steelbirds

In the time I’ve had to consider it, I’ve been astonished by how little buzz I’ve heard around SteelBirds’ debut. Oh the Light has been, so far, a hidden musical treasure. No, I’m not talking about another aggressively anti-social cult classic. I’m talking about a comfort food you don’t know you’re missing. This is, undeniably, a delicious record, lovingly recorded, carefully arranged and beautifully played.

Don’t take our word for it. The album is streaming on SteelBirds’ Bandcamp. Go listen to it. Right now.You can read the rest of this review if you want. I may have more to say. But meanwhile, let the music answer the important questions. It’s ok. It can’t hurt you. Just Press Play.

If I had to explain why Oh the Light hasn’t got the recognition it deserves, I’d say it was down to its unusual blend of flavours. At times, it’s reminiscent of the country rock and rich harmonies of the Eagles or America. But carefully as he wields it, Luke O’Connor’s blue-eyed soul singing cuts starkly against that. It’s too loud and glitzy to be soft rock, mixed wide and full, like Jeff Lynne’s version of the wall of sound. The songs have strong momentum, and are sometimes catchy like the best pop music. But they’re also quite long, and, perhaps, too self-consciously verbose for that label.

Genre mixing is commonplace in modern alternative music. And listening to SteelBirds is no harder than listening to a dozen other bands with disparate influences. But the sound they make is, as far as I can tell, unique. And uniquely hard to write about. If I have to name a contemporary,, it would be Caitlin Rose, whose new album The Stand In received a lot of acclaim from the country music press earlier this year.

What SteelBirds really need is a song on the radio. “Above the Sky” was well-chosen as the first single, drawing me in easily with its striking dips and swells, strong imagery and excellent electric guitar work from Shannon Trottman. But “This is your Life” would be equally good – short, fast and loud, the closest they get to straight rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe even “Worthy Man”, with mariachi horns, powerful marching drum beat and O’connor taking the chance to show off just a little. “Take the Lead” as a balls out country ballad, complete with fiddle, would prove their authenticity. But closing track “Falling Fire”, with its perfect piano hook, and the twists and turns it takes to get to its huge chorus would be an even more compelling slow-burner. Damn. That’s half the album.

All of this does beg the question of where on the radio all these songs would fit. But that’s not your problem. You’re already in on the secret. My point Is that this music speaks for itself much better than I can speak for it. If you’re good at multi-tasking, you’re already making up your own mind. If you’ve not started listening yet, here’s one more chance.

I’m not saying, by the way, that this album is perfect. The lyrics are sometimes too wordy, and sometimes prone to excessive cliché. Ekamai seems like a joke I don’t get, which I wouldn’t mind if the chorus weren’t a giant logical fallacy. But that sort of thing will only worry you after the fact. Comfort food, after all, is all about excess, all about living in a moment.

Whatever their genre, SteelBirds are a remarkable band, and Oh the Light reflects the quality of their musicianship as much as the variety of their inspiration. I believe they deserve much more critical attention than they’ve received so far. But more importantly, I think they deserve to comfort you, in your car, at a barbecue, on your ipod. They won’t disappoint you. Just press play.

Review: Various, Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake

Nick Drake

“Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound.
It can never flourish
‘til its stock is in the ground
So men of fame
Can never find a way
‘til time has flown
Far from their dying day.”
– Nick Drake, 1969

In 1974, Nick Drake died of an overdose, leaving three largely unnoticed albums, and his tragedy. He was 26.

In 1999, his song “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial. His cult following was reinvigorated by a new generation of the curious and enchanted. His work, at last, began to receive the attention it deserved.

In 2010 and 2011, Drake’s producer and friend, Joe Boyd, curated a series of concerts in his honor, featuring some of the original arrangements by the late Robert Kirby, and fronted by vocalists Boyd hand-picked to perform his songs.

This album is a chronicle of their tribute to him, the first of its kind, I think, and I was eager to see what these covers would uncover in Drake’s music. This kind of celebration is a traditional mark of respect for great songwriters, and Drake was certainly one of those. But he hated live performance. His place was in the studio, and accordingly, his recordings have a unique and timeless quality that could never be replicated. In that knowledge, could Boyd, who had been so close to those recordings, find a new approach to the songs themselves?

Superficially, the songs that seem most changed are those from “Pink Moon”. The original record has often been called Drake’s best, because it shows him at his most bare and honest, armed with only his guitar. Here, we see how the songs might have sounded with his band behind them. A lush string arrangement opens up “Things Behind the Sun”, letting it grow from the width of a small room to the whole English countryside. Nick Drake’s original bass player, Danny Thompson, imbues “Place to be” with a momentum which subtly but completely brightens its mood. And “Parasite” is underscored by shivers and trills and drones of threatening psychedelia.

Of course, the musicianship is not the selling point of most tributes. This is a shame, because Danny Thompson and pianist Zoe Rahman’s jazz duet of “One of These Things First” is one of the best things on the album. But what people really want to hear about are the vocalists. And Boyd has brought together an interesting set of voices. The likes of Teddy Thompson and Drake’s contemporary Vashti Bunyan are probably familiar to folk fans world-wide, but for the most part, Boyd has avoided the big names. It seems, in a way, that this is as much a showcase of Drake’s best students as it is of the man himself.

This is most apparent in Australia’s Luluc, whose beautiful 2008 album “Dear Hamlin” wore its influences on its sleeve. It would be easy to say that Teddy Thompson’s reverently faithful “River Man” or Scott Matthews’ tender rendition of “When the Day is done” sound vocally most like Drake. But his hushed, desperately unaffected singing style comes so naturally to Zoe Randell that I involuntarily imagine her as a distant relative.

The most important message of this compilation, however, comes from performances such as Shane Nicholson’s “Poor Boy”, which lends a gruff, country drawl to the deconstructed gospel styling of the original. Or “Black-Eyed Dog” by Lisa Hannigan, whose quivering fragility amps up the quiet anger of the original, until it becomes a vicious, frantic Irish dance-off with the devil.

Drake, even at his most raw, never had the confidence to reveal his emotions. He was too meticulous, too afraid. But these recordings are full of confidence. All these artists have loved and cherished his songs in a way that he never could. And they perform all the emotion he articulated for them. He wouldn’t have performed “Which Will” with Vashti Bunyan’s soft, knowing smile, nor could he have imagined Luluc and Lisa Hannigan’s campfire harmonies in “Saturday Sun”. He could never have overcome his humility for long enough to perform “Time Has told Me” as a full-blown gospel song. But Krystle Warren could, and the result is breath-taking. If her version had been made in the 70s, it would have taken every wedding in the world by storm.

The album ends, as I had hoped, with a rousing version of “Pink Moon”. Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren let their voices weave together in joyful abandon. The band is lively, playful, giving the song a steady, triumphant gait. And when that piano break comes, it’s not so much a moment of quiet revelation as peaceful communion and understanding.

In this tribute, Joe Boyd, his band, and all the performers he chose proved their love and appreciation of Nick Drake’s music. Sometimes it was amplified, or simplified, but always for the sake of drawing out its heart. And that’s what makes this a worthy and welcome celebration of his songwriting.

Would the man himself have approved? I couldn’t say. I certainly couldn’t imagine even a sixty-year-old Nick Drake performing so comfortably, if at all. But maybe, I could see him in the audience, quietly enjoying the fruits of his fame.

Review: Sleepy Dreamers, Creatures

Sleepy Dreamers
Image Courtesy of Sleepy Dreamers

Sleepy Dreamers describe themselves as an indie-folk quartet from Melbourne. They have been honing their craft since 2010, but only this month have released their debut EP. Listening to “Creatures”, I get the feeling that they were experimenting in the studio with some of the many songs they had to hand, trying to see which style fits them best.

Opening track and lead single “Winter Make Way” is, as experiments go, an immediate success. Utilizing the song structure popularized by Mumford and Sons and Of Monsters and Men, it sets the scene with a slow build of soft guitars under hushed vocals. When the crowd-friendly chorus arrives, it doesn’t disappoint, but it’s Matt Salisbury’s innovative drums which take the song to the next level. They gallop easily through a stadium’s worth of reverb, carrying it to the ears of an eagerly waiting audience. That could be you, by the way.

Elsewhere, “Charley” waltzes cheerfully through its three-chord pattern, despite some quite dark imagery. “In my concrete cell is an unknowing hell / and I’m starting to find / I’m stuck for good in my concrete bind”. It’s probably a metaphor, but it’s striking, and catchy, like a folksier version of Powderfinger.

The best lyric comes from “Misbehaving”, an interesting approach to the old carpe diem trope. “Time’s worth saving as long as I can spend it on you / because while we’re aging we’re starting something new”. With that though comes the band’s least confident delivery. The harmonies in the chorus seem under-performed, and a long guitar solo, while technically interesting, feels oddly out of place.

But in seven minute closer “Long Way Down”, they know what they’re doing. There’s hardly any verse, just glorious chorus. The details don’t matter. Only the experience, the elongated “I” which they sing in unison becomes a lonely, wordless cry, ready to be taken up by a thousand other voices. It is this anthemic style which Sleepy Dreamers seem most comfortable with, and that’s what you should expect from them in the future. If you want to sing along, “Creatures” is a promising debut from a band which, with your help, could soon be enjoying great success.

Creatures is available on Bandcamp now.

Review: Brighter Later, The Wolves

The Wolves
Image Courtesy of Brighter Later

When I first heard “The Woods”, the debut single from Melbourne’s Brighter Later, I was very excited about the album that was to follow. Much has already been said about their influences, from the psych-folk of Grizzly Bear, to the dream pop of Beach House, the slow swoon of Mazzy Star, and of course the Nick Drake album from which we all presume the group took its name.

These are useful reference points, habitual conversational shorthand. But listening to The Wolves for the first time, I found these comparisons somewhat arbitrary. It didn’t take me long to realise that Jaye Kranz and Virginia Bott have created something more than trendy.

Opening track “All the World” is a promise, the crystalline chime of a Rhodes piano like a cool breeze, the shimmering of electric guitar and auto-harp like running water in the distance. The sheer depth of sound belies the DIY recording process the press release describes. Lo-fi recording often presents a realism that is fastidiously scrubbed away by commercial production and I can hear that realism. The acoustics of the church they recorded in, the creeks and cracks and small sonic accidents are all proudly preserved.

But there is a precision in the way these sounds are arranged which could only have been crafted. All the elements are carefully mixed to create a unique and fascinating texture, which surprises at every listen. It’s the kind of sound you’d expect from a dozen musicians in a world-class studio.

Even in its sparser moments, The Wolves tries to offer something new. In “Magnolia”, a tremulous vibraphone hovers over Kranz’s acoustic guitar, like a relic from an old record, warped by time. It’s simple, but eerie, somehow alien, and the whole song twists itself around it.

Many reviews have spoken about how The Wolves acts as an experience, a journey into another world. This is what I expected to take from it. On first listen, I eagerly immersed myself in its layers of sound, imagining a review which raved about how the album isn’t dead yet, the kind of thing people often say about slow, cerebral song cycles. I could have written all that, and it would have been true.

But away from my headphones, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t the sound, or even the experience that stayed with me. When I thought about it, what immediately sprung to mind was the dry humour in “All the Great Lakes”. “I took every road, just to see what it takes. I think I see now”. Or the way “Slow Roller” is classic Australian country music in drag. Or the ethereal whimsy of “Another Day”. “I won’t calculate the latitude, if you won’t calculate the magnitude”. Or even the breath-taking coda to second single “Come and Go”, true musical perfection if I ever heard it.

In a recent interview, Kranz professed that in her opinion, the best songs are the simplest. “The bones are the bones,” she said, “and in no time, they’ll be what remains – what the song leaves behind”. She is true to her word. Under the skin, what is left is honest folk balladry; songs which would be just as affecting with only a voice and guitar to perform them.

I’m glad these songs have been so impeccably dressed. The beauty of their arrangement is a credit to Kranz’s and Bott’s inventiveness and musicianship. And I can’t lie. If the singles had been less well-produced, I might not have been as quickly won over. But when people remember this album, and they will remember it, I promise, they’ll think about the bones. And that’s how it should be. Each of these songs is good enough to last, as Kranz put it, “like any good bone. Strong and bear”.

Tash Parker Announces Dual State June Residency

Tash Parker
Image Courtesy of Tash Parker

Tash Parker has been very busy since we introduced you to her, and her beautiful debut album “Waking Up” earlier this year. Along with support slots for Missy Higgins, Clare Bowditch and of course, Gotye, and a trip through the Kimberly and the Northern Territory last month, she was also recently part of the Three’s Company tour, whose Brisbane show we gave a rave review.

We are very happy to inform you that, if you still haven’t gotten to know her, this month will give you plenty more opportunities. Tash recently announced that she’ll be playing three shows per week over the next couple of weeks in three towns – Thursdays at the Treehouse in Byron Bay, Friday’s in Melbourne at the Wesley Anne, and Sunday’s in Rye, at Baha’s Mexican Restaurant.

Tash will also be introducing you to some of the musicians she has discovered over the last year, including Byron Bay’s M. Jack Bee, Brisbane’s Cowper and Sydney’s Edward Deer. These guys are already gathering accolades of their own; Deer for example was selected by Vivid Live curator Robert Hirst as one of his top ten up-and-coming Sydney artists. I already have tremendous respect for her taste, and am sure that these are performers we all should be watching.

All of these shows are absolutely free, and are bound to be special. As always, we heartily recommend them. For more details about the shows and their venues, check Tash’s gigs page.

Review: Three’s Company Feat. The Rescue Ships, Tash Parker and Scott Spark

The Rescue Ships
Image Courtesy of The Rescue Ships

Three’s Company Feat. The Rescue Ships, Tash Parker and Scott Spark
7 May 2011, The Globe
Brisbane

“This is a very strange gig isn’t it,” remarked Brian Campeau wryly to the globe’s half-empty band room.

“They’re all strange these days,” replied partner Elana Stone. And there was something unique about that show. It gathered some of Australia’s finest musicians in one night, but there was no extravagance to the occasion, barely any formality at all. Nonetheless, with the chiming guitar harmonics that began the Rescue Ships set, the room was transformed, transfixed. We all knew we were lucky to be there. This was something special.

I had expected the technical excellence both musicians are renowned for, and my expectations were entirely fulfilled. First song “Mountains” was more epic than any Youtube clip could hope to illustrate, the power in their remarkable voices and the blend of their guitar and accordion evoking the depth of full-bodied ensembles. In Haast, named after the New Zealand town, they sang the first half of each verse in alternating syllables. In other hands a comedy routine, here it’s so natural that you’re hardly conscious of it even when it’s drawing you in.

The same goes for the complex time signatures they navigate so easily that they seem entirely accessible to the most casual listener. Triple J’s Dom Allessio said it best when, referring to their Sydney show the next night, he tweeted: “Watching The Rescue Ships play music is like watching Stephen Hawking do maths. ON ANOTHER LEVEL!”

What I didn’t expect was the visible intimacy, both between the couple as they played and between them and us. There is a tradition of distance in such complex music, but their honesty and humility overcame that. Rarely have I seen precision and emotion better bound.

And still within their sincerity there was room to play. In the middle of Campeau’s song “fallen” which closed their set, Elana, not a drummer, decided to attempt a “spare” solo on the kit waiting at the back of the stage. “This should be interesting,” Brian chuckled, and it was. He wound up the solo by affectionately sliding his guitar into “Twinkle twinkle”, then, after our appreciative cheer, they effortlessly resumed the song, bringing the set to a close with the same vast and unique beauty that began it.

***

Since hearing her astounding debut album “Waking Up” last November, my attempts to see Tash Parker live have been thwarted several times by life and other accidents. The rich layers of sound she created in studio were a large part of what drew me to her, and I may have worried that their absence would outweigh her performance.

Of course, I’d have been wrong to do so. Her set only served to show a new side to both her music and her character. Each song was preceded by an anecdote, or a clue – “When it Rains”, an atypical love song about that person who can stop you drinking too much scotch, and “Summers”, her awakening to the alienness of her new town and the distant sounds of mating koalas.

These little images drew me further into her lyrics, allowing me to see them as pieces of her own story as well as my own. Her songs are universal, but only she could have written them. New song “Point of View” sees her reflecting, over her gentle, crystalline guitar, on that moment when you realise that there are two sides to an argument and you’re on the wrong one. It could have been bitter, but she gives it as much tenderness as melancholy. If this is what her second album holds in store, we should all be pre-ordering it now.

If there was anything missing from Parker’s set, it was album highlight “Taking Back Her Name”, though given its subject matter and her mother in the audience, I can understand that. It was more than made up for by “Not Unprepared”, itself a song about absence. This was the song that made me buy “Waking Up”, and with her voice and guitar, and my own long distance relationship in mind, every word had all the weight it needed.

She closed with country vignette “Baby All the time”, noting that she’d like to make an album full of these. I’d buy that too. In studio, it was a playful digression, but here it was the perfect epilogue, enhanced by a hardness in her voice the recording couldn’t capture.

Then she was joined by her tour mates for an obligatory group effort. Scott Spark’s piano did a lot to hold together their cover of Babybird’s “You’re Gorgeous”, and I could see that it should have been gospel, but it was too hurried and uneven for the meaning to come through. Given their study methods (a bottle of wine and bossa nova in the wrong key), it was bound to be more party than punch, but I was a little disappointed nonetheless.

***

Scott Spark came out with an unusual but inspired choice of openers, the final track from last year’s debut album. “Eat Your Heart Out” introduced his rhythm section gently, letting Tim Fairless’ bass and Hik Sugimoto’s drums role under his Fender Rhodes. This was a tight unit, with all the grace of a jazz piano trio, and all hands deferring to Spark’s thin melody.

Melody is his forte – he is a little Burt Bacharach, a little Rufus Wainwright, and inevitably a little Brian Wilson. His voice suggests none of these things, but its lack of stylistic embellishment feels like a statement of intent. His delivery is colloquial and determinedly individual, something to set against his carefully considered arrangements. And it conveyed the frustration and bitterness in crooked rock song “Elvis” perfectly, his band falling easily into the angry groove.

The limits of the live setting gave his songs an immediacy that served them well. The dramatic imagery in “Kathleen” struck much harder with a full drum kit behind it, replacing the studio’s flimsy backbeat. “Fail Like You Mean” it was just as delightfully crunchy as on record, but came with a lot more gusto. And my personal favourite, “Delusions of the Heart”, was as aggressive as I’d hoped it would be, proving that piano can be driven just as dangerously as its trendier string’d foe, in the right hands.

There was new stuff too, namely “Barry for President”, a song about not being Peter Allen, and how badly our national identity is broken. Spark’s style of offbeat social commentary somehow became overbearing idealism in “What is in a World”, but here it was a lot more compelling and focused, suggesting that there’s some great satire ahead of him.

Strangely, he decided to end with a new song too, perhaps saving his best for an encore that never came. The awkward end to the show says nothing about him, and everything about the scattered crowd. We were one of the most respectful audiences I’ve seen, but too conscious of the space around us to feel united.

That’s a shame, because all of these artists deserve better. “Say Something Funny” featured some of Spark’s most challenging lyrics yet, and yet sounded like it had survived decades, like a much-loved hit from a veteran songwriter. And that was the most exciting thing about that strange little gig. We all knew who we’d come to see. We all recognized their talent. But that night we learnt that the world is yet to see the best of them. We were not only lucky to be there, we were honoured.

Spotlight on: The Rescue Ships

The Rescue Ships
Image Courtesy of The Rescue Ships

If you’ve read our autobiography (happy birthday us, again, by the way), you will know that Timber and Steel arose out of our realization that we had discovered “the next big thing” before anyone else, and our burning desire to do it again. They haven’t even released a single single yet, but if there’s any justice left in the Australian music scene, I’m certain that this band will be it.

The Rescue Ships are Brian Campeau and Elana Stone, two of Australia’s most accomplished, exciting, and yet somehow underrated musicians. Each has multiple solo albums under their belt, plus almost a decade’s worth of experience. They are currently working on their debut as a duet, hopefully due out later this year.

Elana Stone gained early notoriety as a jazz singer, winning awards and acclaim for a style the Sydney Morning Herald called “sensational – imaginative, deft, accurate, tonally beautiful”. She has only improved since then, while effortlessly rolling new sounds and styles into her repertoire. Her most recent album, 2009’s Your Anniversary, sounds like a more dangerous version of Washington’s 2010 debut. You might also know her as a long-time vocalist for Harry Angus’s other band, Jackson Jackson, or from her roll in Tripod’s gripping tale of love and twenty sided dice, Tripod VS the Dragon.

Brian Campeau, playing since five, is a formidably good guitarist, probably the best classical player I’ve seen in Australia. He is viciously precise, and as percussive as he is melodic. But on record he is something entirely different, refusing to let his virtuosity define him. 2006’s Two Faces was a double album featuring two entirely different versions of every song, carefully constructed from samples that pop and clatter beneath his soaring falsetto. And in 2009 he pushed himself even further with Mostly Winter, Sometimes Spring, featuring a different instrument on every song. Both albums, despite having fallen somewhat under the radar, received universal critical acclaim from those who heard them.

Now these two have come together to make what will, by all indications, be a modern folk record like no other. Lead by the blend of their two voices, with the melodic sensibilities of the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Glenn Hansard, the slow-burning sincerity of The National, and musical depth to rival anything Britain’s best can offer, Stone and Campeau have a recipe that deserves to take Australia by storm.

If you don’t believe me, watch this live recording of “Mountains”, one of the few samples the Internet can offer. With a guitar, accordion and two voices, they build something unfamiliar, epic, transcendent. The sound sweeps over you like a wave, overwhelms you, leaves you with nothing but sky. Tell me I’m wrong.

The Rescue Ships are playing in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney over the next three days, as part of the Three’s Company tour we announced last month. Timber and Steel will be attending at least one of these gigs, and we’ll be sure to tell you all about it. You should definitely come and check them out for yourself, especially in Sydney, where they’ll be headlining their first gig, with a full band. Right now, it will cost you $10. Catch them before they’re the next big thing.

Country of Origin: Australia
Sounds Like: Rufus Wainwright crossed with the Swell Season with monstrous guitar
File Under: Look out.
Myspace:myspace.com/therescueships

Review: Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”

So beautiful So What
Image Courtesy of Paul Simon

The voice of Paul Simon is one of the few in modern music that I entirely trust. His long career has been all about restless reinvention, but even those of his projects which the press condemned or dismissed slowly drew out my unconditional respect. Above and beyond all his sonic exploration, his identity as a songwriter has remained constant, and he has never yet betrayed me.

This, his twelfth solo album, is his first since 1986’s Graceland not beholden to any musical theme. It began with Simon’s desire to return to his roots, to write songs using only his voice and guitar. And these songs could only have been written that way. But the bodies he gives them in the studio are pieced together from all of his previous experiments, along with some modern tricks he learned from hip Indi bands.

This change of approach is by no means a crutch for Simon; in fact it only makes his desperate creativity more apparent. The dichotomy in “Dazzling Blue”, throwing slide guitar, fiddles and a gospel group on top of Indian percussion, deserves to be a genre in itself. “The Afterlife” could have come from Graceland but for the electronically altered acoustic guitar that thrums threateningly beneath the cheery Afrobeat. The title track might be straight-up country rock, if not for Jim Oblon’s percussion twisting it into strange shapes, and the yelps and cries of middle-eastern instruments that hide behind it. This is Simon playing fast and loose with all the sounds he has collected, trying to fit in as much as he can in the time he has left.

So what is it, you might well ask, that holds this album together? Simon has on many occasions expressed concerns about whether the album is still an appropriate medium for music in the 21st century. “My biggest question as an artist is, is the art form that I’m working in still a relevant art form?”

So Beautiful or So What is an attempt to answer that question, to prove, whether it needs proving or not, that an album can still have something to say. As sonically diverse as it is, it does have a central premise, but atypically for Simon, that premise is lyrical.

As the track listing suggests, this is an album about God, as a story being told, as an ideology, and as a character. It’s also about the people God effects, from the cynical old man waiting in line for heaven, to lovers settling into destiny, to a pilgrim on a pilgrimage, pulled from his reverie by Jay-Z on a billboard.

In this way, beneath all the artifice, this is quintessentially a folk record, occupied as much by existential concerns as by small, human struggles against much bigger things. Such earnest naval-gazing is not in fashion among our cynical generation, and God and concept albums are equally derided by “the in crowd”. But Paul Simon, a proud agnostic, does not preach. In fact, the genius of So Beautiful or So What is its ambiguity.

Each of the songs Simon presents here is a piece of a puzzle, yet, as a good song should be, each is self-contained. Each is a scene in someone’s story, but it’s hard to say which of them, if any, is his own. He isn’t the “working man” in “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”, or the embittered veteran in “Rewrite”, or even the ragged pilgrim in “Questions for the Angels”.

And what does he think of these people? In “Rewrite”, the narrator finds God and confesses to his sins, whistling merrily at the prospect of his new beginning. But Simon’s choice of framing metaphor is telling. Is redemption really as easy as a second draft? Do words on paper really have that much power, or are they merely an escape? Might that escape make a difference?

In “Love and Hard Times”, the album’s central, and most moving piece, Simon softly sings out a rambling, slow-burning melody, as piano and strings swell and dip beneath him, around the story of God’s “courtesy call on Earth”. This God is almost ruthlessly pragmatic, the consummate politician. “If we stay,” he says to Jesus, “it’s bound to be a mob scene. But disappear, and it’s love and hard times”.

The song then slips into a smaller story, a tender monologue, which I believe is one of the only points on the album where Simon shows his hand, and speaks from his heart. “Loved you the first time I saw you. Can’t describe it any other way”. He has told us time and time again that love is man’s greatest and most redeeming virtue, and he puts all his faith behind the final line: “thank god I found you in time”. His voice quavers over the words as he repeats them, wonderstruck. “Thank God I found you”.

Are those words an acknowledgment of our insignificance, of the casual moment of attention that made us? Or are they an accusation, laced with an angry irony, dismissing God as he dismissed us? Is this subtle satire of our tendency to give God the credit for our own achievements? Or is it an affirmation of his power, simple, joyful gratitude for the opportunity to be better?

This is the question Simon refuses to answer, the choice from which this whole album grew. Its title is his challenge to the listener. He has told us a collection of stories, but left it to us to decide what they mean.

So Beautiful or So What is Paul Simon at his best, a surprising, unique and entirely modern work of art. It isn’t any kind of creative recovery, because all his work is of equal value. But its careless, effortless transcendence of genre and time make it special – the convergence, for the first time, of all his influences in one place. And the stories he tells, similarly, transcend his own concerns. They are, like the best folk music, universal, and ours to interpret and inhabit. Ultimately, for me, it’s proof that Simon remains one of the best song-writers of an era; still a voice I can trust.

Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” Streaming

Fleet Foxes
Image Courtesy of Fleet Foxes

As part of their “First Listen” series, NPR is streaming the entire new album from Fleet Foxes for free until its US release date on the 3rd May.

Music journalism’s favourite compound buzz words (long-awaited, much-anticipated, etc) don’t nearly cover our feelings about this record. I doubt anyone reading this blog could have missed the bands self-titled debut, which even Pitchfork called album of the year.

Helplessness Blues sees Fleet Foxes living up to our expectations by doing it the same, but better. “After the first record came out,” said frontman Robin Pecknold, “I had to really come to terms with what it is that we actually do. It sounds so pretentious, but in deciding to play folk music there is this almost curatorial aspect to the music you make. You are working within a tradition. Everybody who makes music is making a choice — you see the unlimited options out there and pick the one that feels right for you. In making this record, I think I finally became totally comfortable with our choice, which is being a folk band”.

Don’t get us wrong. “Helplessness blues” is not just Fleet Foxes retracing their steps. Thematically and musically it is richer and more direct than anything we have heard from them before. It is self-assured enough to inhabit its genre more ably than many of its contemporaries, but that confidence only encourages it to push the boundaries further.

The result is a record that begs to be heard holistically as much as its components clamor for attention. It is as adventurous as it is sympathetic, and we at Timber and Steel predict that it will soon be weaving its way into your lives even more firmly than its predecessor. This is folk music at its very best, and folk are going to love it.

Click here to listen to Helplessness Blues for free, and make up your own mind.

In support of the album, the band have just returned to the stage for what is bound to be a huge tour, hopefully taking in Australia late this year or early next. In case your thirst is not yet sated, watch them performing two of their new songs on Later with Jools Holland last week.

Bedouin Dress

Sim Sala Bim

New Paul Simon Album Streaming

Paul Simon
Image Courtesy of Paul Simon

NPR has made Paul Simon’s long-awaited new album, So Beautiful or So What, available to play at your leisure until its US release on 12th April.

The consensus among early reviews is that this is Simon’s best work since 1986’s Graceland. NPR’s Ken Tucker, while offering the album its most critical appraisal yet, nonetheless admits that it blends “the two best strands of his solo career: the articulate navel-gazing of his 1972 solo debut and Graceland‘s 25-year-old rhymin’ Simon in rhythm”.

Timber and Steel will be posting our own in depth review early next week, but our first listen tells us that it is certainly the most playful and experimental Simon has been in quite a while. It is as contemplative as any of his albums, but its unexpected changes in timbre and tempo offer us more space to consider and interpret his words. One has the sense that none of the stories he tells are his own, and that even the narrators in the songs don’t represent him. The album, like its title, is a question, even a challenge to the listener. It is what we make of it.

Click here to stream Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What and decide for yourself. It’s released in Australia on Friday, and if you preorder it on iTunes, you receive as bonuses a free “making of video” and a recent live rendition of “Peace Like a River” from his first solo album.

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