Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Music to My Ears

I'm currently using a little 1GB music player while waiting for a refund (long story, which I'll save for another time) on my faulty 20GB Archos beast. This means that I'm listening to a smaller selection of tunes at any one time, and am consequently more particular about what goes onto it. It's almost like going back to the days of the tape walkman, when you'd have two or three mix tapes on rotation at any one time, and get heavily into whatever was on them, rather than being able to carry an entire music collection around with you, as technology now allows. So, I'm finding that there are certain albums that can stand up to, and indeed in some cases improve upon, repeated listenings - and these are the ones currently gracing my handy pocket-sized player. I know that I talk about music and individual bands a lot, and you need only hop over to my Last.FM page to find out what I've been listening to, but that won't tell you what is on my headphones wherever I go, so as of today, here is the contents of my personal stereo revealed...

If you've seen the wonderful film Little Miss Sunshine (pictured here), then you will have heard DeVotchKa, albeit perhaps unknowingly. They performed and co-wrote (with Michael Danna) most of the music for the grammy-nominated soundtrack for the film, which was rather elegantly described by Jonathan Jarry ( as " American polka for dysfunctional families and the malaise of life." It's one of those soundtracks that works well as an album in its own right, and seems to evoke the magic of the film even when heard out of context. DeVotchKa's last actual album, How It Ends, came out in 2004, and was then re-released after the success of Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, which is when I first discovered them. An intriguing mix of Eastern European folk and American punk rock, sometimes described as Gypsy Punk, this Denver four piece employ a rich variety of instruments, including theremin, guitar, bouzouki, piano, trumpet, violin, accordion, sousaphone, double bass and percussion. Currently on a world tour to promote their latest album, DeVotchKa play London on 9th April.

I discovered Italian/French model turned singer-songwriter Carla Bruni, now also First Lady of France, via eclectic French radio station Fip, which I regularly tune into via the internet at work. Her husky, sultry vocals beautifully complement the laid-back jazzy ballads, making perfect Sunday afternoon hangover listening. The latest album, No Promises, is sung in English, but Bruni has also recorded in French in the past - also the native language of roughly half the other singers on my music player at the moment. These esteemed chansonniers include Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (though she sings mostly in English, more's the pity), Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and current belle de jour of the French music scene, Camille. There's something extremely soothing about listening to music sung in another language, and although I can pick up the general gist of the lyrics with my rusty GCSE French, it's the downright unambiguous sexiness of the delivery, which all these artists have in common, that really floats my boat.

Having waited eagerly a whole month since I was blown away by his live gig at Bush Hall, Scott Matthew's (self-titled) debut solo album was finally released last week; although I had to order it from Germany, as Amazon don't seem to be stocking it (philistines!). When it arrived through the post on Saturday, I was home alone, still sat in my dressing gown and wallowing in the self-indulgent sedentary bliss that only weekends can bring (holidays don't count, as I always feel like I should be fitting as much in as possible, and not just wasting time sitting around). I'd strongly recommend cosseting oneself in such a comfort zone in order to listen to this album for the first time. Quietly unsettling and deeply affecting, this clearly very personal collection of songs reaches into the soul and tugs at that purposefully buried disquiet within. Matthew's distinctive voice defies comparison, although suggested similarities to Antony Hegarty are not entirely unjustified. Both share a tremulous quality that can be disarmingly evocative; and an ability to inject intense emotion into their lyrics. Although tending towards the pensive, the album is far from gloomy - a wry humour and occasional jaunty jazz moment balance out the melancholy to beautiful effect, like a much-needed hug in the middle of a big sob. Like the first time I heard Jeff Buckley's Grace, I can't imagine easily becoming tired of it, and am actually looking forward to repeated listenings in a variety of settings, thanks to the wonder of portable music. Next stop, I think, the sea.

Also on my player are several new albums I bought at the weekend (see above), which are too new to comment on, and a few old favourites including Boo Hewerdine, Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band and the White Queen of Soul herself, Dusty Springfield.
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