Tag Archives: Tori Amos

I Lost #1 Words like lemon drops – Tori and Leonard

Leonard CohenSometimes words have the power to stop your life and everything within it. To not just halt you in your tracks but to make you consider that just like a record flipped over onto a new side, your being has just two parts: before those immortal words, and the faint coming-to-terms with life afterwords.

Like waking from a vivid dream to the realisation of reality the bitter cruelty is trying to keep hold of that feeling – the nanosecond wonder of that new experience – even though it is forever disappearing with time’s cruel blow. It’s futile but I love those moments when you’re scraping at memory, desperate to keep that pure feeling. Just for once.

Leonard Cohen has a voice that delivers sermons and words to calm beasts. Starting out as a writer it was a full decade before he first put his words to music. ‘I Heard a Voice’ is from his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, published in 1956 when he was just 22. Every time I read these words they cut me dead. Hearing Cohen recite them decades later is like tasting lemon drops.
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I Found #1 Windmill – Puddle City Racing Lights (Friendly Fire)




Summary: Windmill’s attraction is knowing when to let the melody loose, allowing the track to sweep off on its grandeur mission, and when to rein it in, affording the listener an eerie experience of never quite knowing whether the next taste will be happiness or tears.

Much is made of the UK and America’s political ‘special-relationship’ but ever since the Beatles set foot on the tarmac of the newly-renamed JFK Airport in early 1964, it’s the incestuous special-relationship of Britain and America’s pop economies that has really interested us all. And it has very strict rules.

These rules ensure only Northern English towns scarred by unemployment and Thatcher, and not Los Angeles, can produce Jarvis Cocker; rules that equally dictate Marilyn Manson could never be aloud to surface in Blackpool, playing early gigs in penny arcades and working men’s clubs. It’s a balance of power that lets the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys equally sell trillions of records without upsetting the ying verses yang of these two pop nations.

Of course sometimes the heavens are turned upside down and Bush are formed. But generally things run smoothly – even the Killers dropped the Britpop hooks in favour of epic American stadium rock.

Rules, of course, are meant to be broken. And it’s a special kind of joy when they’re broken with such a splendid disregard as the heart-breaking Americana which comes from Windmill’s English suburbia.

Known to many in the UK as just another over-priced service station stop on the M1 as you head North from London, Newport Pagnell was at least recognised by James Bond devotees as being the home of the Aston Martin. Until 2 years ago anyway, when production was moved away by owners Ford. Now, bar lower-league footballers and soap actresses, even Wikipedia struggles to find noteworthy commentary on this small middle-England town.

Yet it’s in these streets that Matthew Thomas Dillon has been toiling away perfecting a craft that bears little influence of a British music industry obsessed with asymmetrical haircuts and skinny jeans. Dillon’s ears have instead been long tuned in to the same channels that feed the contemporary, seminal voices of America: Newsom, Stevens, Coyne, Barnhart, Donahue, Marshall, Tweedy and Smith.

Choosing a name like Windmill to represent his work is quite a metaphor from Dillon. Windmill’s sails move with the same guidance that have informed many of his contemporaries on the opposite side of the pond.  Echoes of Talking Heads, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are beautifully littered throughout Puddle City Racing Lights while Dillon’s own voice stirs with the resonance and strained observation of an early Neil Young.

Windmill - Puddle City Racing Lights

Windmill - Puddle City Racing Lights

The result is a record soaked equally with comforting lo-fi as it is with grand, sweeping statements. Piano and strings constantly linger over Dillon’s words, the minimal composition lending an ever-present melancholy to match his heartfelt voice . But Dillon’s genius is knowing when to let the melody loose, allowing the track to sweep off on its grandeur mission, and when to rein it in, affording the listener an eerie experience of never quite knowing whether the next taste will be happiness or tears.

“Asthmatic” is a perfect example of this. If the tingling piano and cello at its start suggests a bold statement akin to Springsteen’s bombastic faith of the Rising, the song’s epic potential is only strengthened by the Flaming Lips-style wall of crashing drums that follow. But just when you expect the melody to soar away Dillon pulls the song back to the ground, only allowing the fragile piano to remain and giving us the words “Always breathing in / Never breathing out”. Arcade Fire would have followed the formula to its logical, spectral, conclusion, but Dillon seems inspired by the possibility of the crescendo, the light and dark of the song, the space that is sometimes covered over and forgotten. For a song he names “Asthmatic”, he actually lets it breathe.

Dillon is also a strong observer or, at least, a strong thinker. Locking himself in his bedroom for hours on end so he can perfect the vision in his head, many of the fourteen songs here have emerged over twelve years through Dillon’s careful consideration and a £300 four track. For the recording of Puddle City Racing Lights, he received assistance from members of the Earlies’ live band, former Alfie guitarist Ian Smith and co-producer Tom Knott, but before it came countless homemade albums, originally only intended for himself and a few friends’ enjoyment, which must have provided the training ground for these tracks.

The observer/thinker is redolent throughout Dillon’s lyrics. He writes evocatively about everyday things – “the detritus of modern life” as the press release puts it” – airport lounges, trains, fluorescent lights, escalators, the feel of an airport’s plastic chair before taking a flight. Just as dEUS sang about the inevitable loneliness of hotel receptions, so “Boarding Lounges” describes beautifully the awkward, perpetual, melancholy of being forced to linger in these human holding pens. Although, as Dillon repeats the line “Gates close / Escalators climb” over the raw piano and slightest of strings, it’s unclear if he is actually advocating the experience.

Dillon finds himself continually compared to Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips by lazy critics and “Tokyo Moon”, “Plastic Pre-Flight Seats” and “Plasticine Plugs” are obvious starting points for these references. Yet while there is certainly a lot of common ground between Wayne Coyne, Jonathan Donahue and Windmill’s pained, graceful, beauty, they fail to appreciate Dillon’s favoured instrument of expression; his piano. Even more than his stark, emotive voice, Dillon relies on the piano to convey the misery, the happiness, the wonder and the dismay. In this way, he has more in common with Tom Waits and Tori Amos, both of whom grew as artists through their deep relationship and exploration of the piano’s emotional and expressional possibilities. The naked piano of “Boarding Lounges” and Tilting Trains” is as stirring as on Amos’ Little Earthquakes, while “Replace Me” and “Fashion House” could easily sneak into Blue Valentine without much suspicion.

Oscar Wilde once commented “We are all in the gutter, but some of are looking at the stars”. Listening to Windmill sounds like Wilde is whispering those words in your ear.

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Camille – ‘Music Hole’ (EMI)

Camille - Music Hole

Camille - Music Hole

May 2008, Pop Matters 7/10

With music ever splintering into a thousand new genres a minute, all advocating their unique and challenging innovation, maybe the most challenging and experimental is a genre older than music itself, that of the simple human voice. For if you can lay structure, texture and melody down through our own natural voice and rhythms, without relying on made-for-purpose instruments, what’s more experimental than that? But of course, that’s not something we like to talk about these days. And you can lay the blame square at the bouncy, happy feet of just one man, Mr. Bobby “Don’t Worry” McFerrin.

Ever since McFerrin released “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and turned the wonder and magical ability of the human voice into a cartoon pastiche, a capella has been in a bad way. In any record store where you are fortunate to find an a capella section you’ll see the same scene. Prospective buyer wanders over noticing interesting section; vision of a giddily-happy McFerrin clouds judgement; buyer winces and moves on. Case in point: The Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) (yes, such an organisation exists), has reviewed 788 a capella records since 1994. Tell me, how many of those did you run out and buy?

Thankfully it looks like the genre has found its saviour in French artist Camille. Le Fil, Camille’s impressive previous record has already sold well in excess of 500,000 copies. Not bad for an avant-garde concept, where the entire album was hung on the thread of a single unobtrusive note, sustained throughout the album. On Music Hole, Camille continues her exploration of the human voice, or as she puts it in her publicity, a mix of “the storytelling, chansons-feel from musicals with something more tribal: body percussions, minimalist trance, sub bass and throat singing.”

Music Hole shows Camille not just as an intriguing singer but also as a masterful arranger. At times her vocal arrangements are double-tracked, so she deliciously becomes her own rhythm section, while beat-boxing and crooning over the top. The result is mesmerising and with the sparse use of piano whispering in and out, Camille’s vocal dexterity wins you over before any curious doubts really sink in.

“Gospel With No Lord” is a wise opener. Infectious, irreverent and playful, Camille layers the beat-boxing, providing the cool bass underscore. With a delicious “Allez Camille Allez” intro making her sound like a softly spoken M.I.A., Camille is soon away on an addictive rap, cooing “I Didn’t get it from the Lord / But I know I got it / I know I got it / I didn’t get it from the Lord / I got it from my brother / I got it from my sister / I got if from my mother and father / I got it from myself.”

When Camille sings “from my father in-law / from my sister in-law”, the way she uses the croak at the back of her throat to stretch out the “awwwww” is captivating. You soon realise that we’re being cheated and all along she’s had a secret companion, her wry sense of humour. Half way through this cool little wordy rapping hood she throws you off guard, bringing in a heart-wrenching piano, a la Tori Amos circa Little Earthquakes, and you’re left there, a little crushed, before she giggles and carries back on with the fun. It’s modern day cabaret, with all the style of the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer, but without some of the cynicism.

The wry humour continues throughout the record. On “Cats and Dogs” Camille comes across all gorgeous Ute Lemper -like, swaying a chanson melody back and fore, while warning of the true intentions of our domestic pets. “Cats and dogs are not our friends / Scratch their ears / They’ll wave their tails / And if it rains again next weekend / It’s all because of them.” It’s mischievous and fun, but when the farmyard noises appear you start to wonder if Camille hasn’t put on make-up and lights for The Muppet Show. You half expect a penguin to turn up.

As quirk and irony, the “Money Note” fares much better. Above an amazing self-made beat, which sounds spookily like the bass for Happy Mondays’ “24 Hour Party People”, Camille hilariously takes the Mariah and Whitney warblers to task. ‘‘If Dolly Parton wrote it / And Whitney Houston stole it / If Celine Dion could reach it / I’ll hit the money note.” However as much as the comedy is titillating and mischievous at times, it’s curious why Camille wishes to litter the album with such trivial fun, when her true talent—her voice and the exploration of it—is so tantalising. Thankfully the vocal genius and body kinetics are left to breathe on the majority of the songs. “Kfir” runs along on a chilled R&B groove, “Home Is Where it Hurts” is a pouncing and textural ballad, while “Waves”, appropriately so, is a swirling ambient delight.

The Online Etymology Dictionary lists the origins of a capella as from the Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”. Music Hole’s absolute treasure is “The Monk”, a layered and drifting solo piece of classical a capella that would sound rapturous if it were floating up into the high recess of a cathedral. It sounds eerily like Dawn Upshaw, the arrangement is sublime, and it suggests that hopefully in the future if Camille wishes to move beyond the swelling beat-box of her voice it won’t be into comedy, but graceful magic like this.

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