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Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman

Column: CD Reviews   |   Date Published: Tuesday, 13 March 12   |   Author: Chris Downton   |   2 years, 4 months ago

     World Wide Rebel Songs [New West]

Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello’s acoustic alter-ego The Nightwatchman has always come across as his personal love letter to the politically loaded folk of Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg, with the cover art of this third album World Wide Rebel Songs even paying homage to Phil Ochs’ Protest Songs. While the two preceding Nightwatchman albums have predominantly been acoustic affairs though, this latest effort sees him enlisting the aid of a full electric band, The Freedom Fighter Orchestra, for a collection of considerably more plugged in and rocking tracks.

While there’s the occasional nod towards the heavy funk rock licks employed by Morello during his RATM tenure on heavier tracks like It Begins Tonight, first single Save The Hammer For The Man gives a better indication of the overriding mood here, with Ben Harper adding guest vocals to Morello’s Seeger-esque protest folk lyrics, as vaguely Caribbean organ tones glow in the background. Perhaps the closest aesthetic touchstone for a lot of this album would be some of Bruce Springsteen’s early period, a comparison that particularly springs to mind given the number of pro-union songs here. I have to confess though that while many of my favourite politically-themed albums have deployed elements of subtlety and satire, World Wide Rebel Songs does neither, resulting in a collection that soon comes across as too earnest, po-faced and occasionally downright cheesy to be really convincing.

Alpen: Inside The Sky [Feral Media]

Seven years is a long time between albums, but Feral Media co-founder Danny Jumpertz has some good excuses for the extended wait for a follow up to Alpen’s 2005 debut Overdub. In the intervening years his work on this second album Inside The Sky has been delayed twice by more pressing matters; firstly the birth of his son, and secondly by his recent relocation (along with Feral Media) from Sydney to New York. Thankfully, this all instrumental collection proves to be more than worth the wait, with a brace of regular Alpen collaborators including Comatone, John Thjia and Splinter Orchestra’s Martin Kirkwood making appearances amongst the tracklisting. Throughout the majority of the 13 tracks collected here, it’s smooth, lazily flowing guitar textures that form the foreground, underpinned by subtly placed electronics and a post rock imbued sense of cinematic atmosphere. It’s a sweeping and occasionally melancholic aesthetic favoured by the likes of To See One’s Self From Above, which calls to mind Godspeed or Dirty Three’s wounded yet majestic crawl, while elsewhere Coconut Ants leans closer to Can-esque motorik grooves as circular strummed guitar figures cling tightly to a streamlined backing of bass runs and clicking drum machines. Atomiser meanwhile sees the brittle and spiky electronics rising more to the forefront with a brief side trip into IDM territory, before Am Nobody drops things down into ominous Mezzanine-esque trip-hop in what’s easily the most menacing moment here. Well worth seeking out.

Dirty Three: Towards The Low Sun [Anchor & Hope/Remote Control]

This record reminds me of a certain coastal town – everything a little rough round the edges, decaying old buildings made new by street art, and the ocean heaving behind it all. There’s an unpredictability to Dirty Three that mimics natural energy and the elevated moods being away from the big city can bring. It’s that sonic coalescence of hard, raw edges with the melancholy-smooth.

The band’s first release since Cinder (2005) has been criticised by some for lacking the direction and shape of their previous records. However, if you’re willing to listen through and let the music settle, the record is as instinctual as it is deliberate, as lush and conflicting as it is lucid.

Overdubbing and noise (Furnace) make for satisfying textures, settled by some chilled tunes and sorry laments (Ashen Snow). Listen for Jim White’s tormented beats and washes of percussion (Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone), while guitarist Mick Turner conjures gentle brooding (Moon on The Land), and intense post rock sounds (That Was Was) not unlike a Drones’ recording. As a violinist, I often meet string-infused musical endeavours with gritted teeth, but there’s something in Warren Ellis’ playing – the beauty, brutality and understated stylistic confidence – that gets me every time.

Towards The Low Sun is an interesting continuation for committed Dirty Three listeners, and a good one for newcomers to peruse and enjoy.

Album of the Issue: Cracked Actor, Solar Driftwood [Birds Love Fighting Records]

With each spin the debut EP from locals Cracked Actor pours out my speakers too quickly. It’s the brilliant creation of Sebastian Field, Grahame Thompson, Nick Delatovic and Jordan Rodgers, and was mixed and engineered by Canberra’s Midas, Sam King. Comparable to big names like Radiohead and Portishead, the band’s ambient post-rock is diffused with experimental elements also cultivated by local acts Mornings and Spartak. Cracked Actor exude musical confidence and unique sensibilities. Solar Driftwood spells success.

Long Road debuts Cracked Actor’s intricate rhythmic and melodic associations. You’re drawn in like a piece of solar driftwood; everything is swimming in light and shimmering inside and out. The chorus breaks like a bright, euphoric wave – a sonic high that forms an addictive motif on the record. In Silver Wheel, Thompson’s rhythmic attitude is intrinsic and ghostly cello manifests over progressions which evoke Radiohead circa 2003.

The poetics of I’m Never Sad hint at a curious back story while cello grates violently then soothes. This one is particularly powerful live. More nightmare than daydream, Paper Suit confronts the hypocrisies of social constructions with provocative lyricism. Here especially, Cracked Actor develop a rich post-rock sound without exhausting energy. Thompson makes masterful use of the kick and sticks, keeping his beats diverse across the EP. The prologue of distorted vocals/guitar with a smooth riff make an emotional finis – signed Cracked Actor.

Intimate vocals sound higher in the mix on Permission as stuttering electronics lead listeners to a place both comforting and unnerving. Check the instrumental prowess. Manics in Love is awash with eerie romanticism; a slow beat, lush cello and lustful guitar.

Field’s staggered vibrato is haunting, beautiful and ethereal, the cello is technically and texturally well-utilised and the drums come with a light touch and sharp energy. Interludes of instrumental/vocal overdubbing don’t lose pace or the sweet, cohesive tonality. With ominous lyricism and ‘pressure and release’ musicality, the aural experience of Solar Driftwood is shadowed, elusive and transformative in the best possible way. Ensconce yourself.

Deep Sea Arcade: Outlands [Ivy League]

Deep Sea Arcade have come a long way since they kicked off as a glint in the eye of teen mates Nic McKenzie and Nick Weaver. Outlands, the debut release from the Sydney five-piece, injects some sun into what has been a cool Aussie summer, with surf music for the 21st century. They don’t sing much about catching the breakers, but the vibe is unmistakably beachwear casual and suntan lotion smooth. Chirpy choruses, bright keys and happy riffs spell beach party in large letters. Granite City Girl may be set in Scotland, but the “ooh-ahh”s are straight from The Beach Boys. Apart from the usual boy-girl song fodder, the album has curious links to classic cinema, courtesy of Nic McKenzie’s studies of movies at art school. The lyrics in both the title track and The Devil Won’t Take You owe their origin to old flicks. Nic’s laidback vocal carries a sea shell echo with it that delivers a fuller, sweeter tang to the songs. Girls, the album highlight and the first single from the CD, is unstoppable with towering harmonies in the chorus, psychedelic guitars and a melody that cements itself in your mind. Lonely In Your Arms is a throwback to the ‘60s, scented with the guitar licks of classic surf music, and a super catchy sing-along chorus. The show ends with the reckless good cheer of vintage Brit pop in Airbulance.

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball [Columbia]

Springsteen's 17th is unnecessary: enjoyable maybe, but so is sleeping in, and the only drawback to the ultimate job is getting up early. Springsteen’s buggered his alarm clock: the riffs, though big and beautiful and feminine as expected, are repeated with boorish frequency, leading to terminally long songs. Some attempt a quasi-symphonic structure, ending up tiresome extended snippets; others are brief, ending up tiresome extended snippets. Much feels stolen – This Depression = When the Levee Breaks, Wrecking Ball = Wake Up. The sound is cluttered rather than expansive, leaving the listener little room to fit it. And Bruce isn’t helping his aesthetic by declaring himself the 99% – Google his income – and taking the Republican route by requesting the heartland to believe. In what? He never says; either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

Nasty this all is, also unimportant. The album is not bad because Springsteen is plagiarising – his greatness was rarely original – or due to whiffs of hypocrisy. This is a bad album because it is redundant. He’s never written a spiritless melody or a wallowing chorus, but do not pay for this record. Its ‘experiments’ – violins, drum machines, rapping, and wah-wah – don’t set the work apart from anything prior. It isn’t ‘angry’, as purported. It’s samey. Springsteen claimed recently that his work is about the gulf between dream and reality, and here, rather literally, he has let his subject dictate his style.

Leftfield: Tourism [Warner Music]

Along with The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, FSOL, Orbital and The Orb, Leftfield helped guide and pioneer electronic music through the ‘90s via erudite vocal collaborations and through the fusion of electronic with well worn genres. Taking the headnod of reggae and dub and melding it with warbling synths and punchy beats, the seminal Leftism adorned mainstream magazines and Top Ten lists - a first for the genre - making a wider audience aware that electronic music wasn’t all clang ‘n’ bang but capable of complexity, depth and structure. And so, 22 years on, we have Tourism - a 2CD + DVD live set captured at their Future Music Festival 2011 set.

This is a fitting testimony to the group. The roar of the crowd (never too obtrusive in the mix) and live vocalisation give the songs a renewed urgency, as does the extended mix of most of the tracks. There are beautiful moments of blissful, surging psychedelia that play out over ten minutes such as Black Flute and Space Shanty (starts blissful, ends maniacal) as well as a punchy hip-hop flavour in Check One and Africa Shox before closing with the ultimate rumbler Phat Planet. Great though they are, the complexities and mid-range sounds are strangely absent from some tracks, such as on Africa Shox (the cloudy vocals snippets and electric noises gone) and Afro-Left (no underlying synth line). Although this gives familiar tracks a new sound they seem oddly absent. Still, this doesn’t ruin a marvellous set, and it’s wonderful to hear the tracks with space to breathe and build. Now give us a new artist album already!

 

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