Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sky's the limit

Only half in jest, we suspect, Sky Larkin's co-manager (hello, Anna) was recently heard complaining that several reviewers had attempted to draw comparisons between Sky Larkin's newly minted debut album The Golden Spike and Sleeper. Especially the NME review, which spent pretty much its entire length going "they're not like Sleeper!" until, Derren Brown-like, the two band names became interchangeable in the reader's mind. You can kind of see why - power indie-pop, female vocals that aren't especially ballsy nor girly-girl - but it doesn't behove any of us to think that's anywhere near what there is here.

It's been a long time in coming, The Golden Spike, honing their sound and approach while members went through further education. In fact, we first wrote about them just gone three years ago - we were still trying to find our writing metier then, clearly - when they were nothing more than a few demos and a couple of blog supporters to the good. Indeed, by the end of 2006 they were being voted the best band in the whole of the land. It's promise this album fulfils, as while you'll hear connections - there's a definite hands across the ocean to the female-fronted spiky confidence of a Throwing Muses, Sleater-Kinney or Breeders - it's rare that Britain comes out with a band who tread as far from the stock arrogance setting of the last fifteen years yet retain the tunnel vision to know that this is the right way of doing things, short, sharp electric shocks of sugar rush power trio alt-rock with quirks, twists and no small amount of charm. Witness how opener Fossil, I constantly builds, peaks and rushes, Katie Harkin's voice engaging in its own forthright but warm way. Octopus 08 alternately chimes and forces its way forward, Nestor Matthews' flailingly precise drumming to the fore, while Matador...

...prefers to work by stealth through force of habit and Geography discusses nature versus science over power chords and a particularly insistent rhythm section. Beeline, not a bad thing on its own as a single, sounds all the more pointed in this company.

And yes, some of these songs have been around as demos for as long as we've known them, but they just go to show up the band's own compositional skills. There's a widespread assumption that John Goodmanson's production has roughed up some sort of identikit smoothness, and his influence certainly betrays a high tension wiriness, but with the likes of the insistently emotional Molten, Korg rollercoaster Keepsakes and the skyscraping Somersault it was there all along, just now with more defined guitar tones. Summit, another songs that's been around for a little while, gains wind tunnel guitars to add to its renewed sense of purpose. (In fact, most of the poor reviews we've seen seem to suggest it's because the record betrays no ambition towards radio friendly arena ticket shifters. You know, like guitar bands used to be. When this became such a bad thing to be would require more resources than we have at our disposal) What The Golden Spike achieves is taking the root blocks of some slightly out of fashion influences and sharpening them up for something that stands out in its own realm.

Which, unfortunately, is not the case, gleefully skipping genres, for M Ward's sixth album Hold Time, released next Monday. Ward's last album Post-War was an eclectic joy, sticking to its John Martyn/John Fahey/gospel soul foundations but extending into an intimate, complex reflection that neither belittled nor settled for the easy way out. Then he ran off with Zooey Deschanel and made the She & Him album of last year, more commercial than anything he's ever done, Deschanel's voice fine for purpose in a mini-Loretta Lynn sense and served for equal purpose by Ward's tasteful US radio playlist arrangements, a passing attraction but not one made for exerting the best out of either party.

A lot of Hold Time sounds like Ward hasn't quite got over the crossover possibilities of She & Him either. Never Had Nobody Like You has been chosen as the first single, which is fair comment given it sounds committee targeted for FM country-rock (Deschanel on noticeable backing vocals) that doesn't go anywhere despite Ward's warm, lived in vocals. At times, as with Jailbird and Shangri-La, you get the feeling that this is nothing others aren't doing, and given the way Post-War stood out with its incisive meditations and near constant desire to escape from acoustic normality that's a real letdown. Johnny Cash echoes? Grand Old Opry? Gram Parsons? They're all here and all ticked off like an alt-country for beginners bingo card.

And why is it really such a letdown? Because he proves elsewhere, frustratingly so it has to be said, that he still has the foresightedness to show he's not resigned to being "the bloke off that album with that actress". For Beginners sounds like classic Ward updated with its homely, lived-in, consensual vocals and smart hooky fingerpicked guitar work over bed of synthesised handclaps and keyboards. Jason Lytle guests on To Save Me and it sounds like an insistent blues Grandaddy - Just Like The Fambly Cat Grandaddy rather than Sophtware Slump Grandaddy, but it's a start - and Stars Of Leo takes off halfway through into Wilco territory with symphonic bells and folk-rock transcending shapes. Epistemology is the track that most improves with listening, Ward's folk-soul croon against a wall of uneventful strings briefly suggesting positivism becomes him. The title track shifts regally across an unearthly string bed and then if anything ends just as it's about to burst into technicolour life, evidently in the belief that what we really need now is an unbecoming trad arrangement of Buddy Holly's Rave On. Ward has never been averse to a reconstituting cover version, but Don Gibson's Oh Lonesome Me, a duet with Lucinda Williams, just drags for six potentially endless minutes. Outro is a really interesting instrumental piece of Calexico recalling dusty scene-setting, full of twanging Morricone guitars and atmospheric strings, but it's the last track and by then it's a bit too late for working out the roadmap to some place else.

Don't get us wrong, M Ward has always sounded out of time, whether on four track lo-fi or with the high expectations placed upon Hold Time. Often writing about someone making music that seems out of time and place, including in Ward's previous case, is a recommendation, taking well worn styles and reinvigorating them to say something for us here. On Hold Time it feels like mere regression.

Ah well. Here's that title track in visual form:

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