Luka Bloom, Saint Etienne, Lir, Keane and Lambchop in this week's reviews.
The constant creative core of Lambchop, Kurt Wagner, is an infuriating musician. At times he seems to have been drenched in the same magic dust as Brian Wilson or Neil Young; other times he just comes across as stubborn, bolshy and deliberately obtuse.
Oh (Ohio)is another chapter in the unfolding story of Wagner and his merry, travelling band of sometime eccentric musicians. On tracks such as Slipped Dissolved and Loosed, Wagner channels the spirt of Cat Stevens in his Tea for the Tillermanglory days, and on the sombre I Believe in Youhe sounds like a hillbilly Nick Cave.
This is still, very loosely, off-centre alt.country, but too often Wagner seems to take his finger off the quality control button. Popeyeis a pointless excursion into noise manipulation, while other songs never really find where they want to go. Most annoying of all, Wagner's muted vocals means that a lot of the lyrics just pass you by. Some beautiful stuff here; just not enough of it.
Download tracks: Slipped Dissolved and Loosed, I Believe in You
London Conversations - The Best of Saint Etienne
They may have a collective French name, but Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley are the laureates of London's cocktail scene, soundtracking the city's hi-life and bringing a scent of sophistication into Britpop.
They're still delivering regular doses of club cool to the capital's hipsters, and the release of this double-CD set should get the pre-club crowd swooning over their Mojitos.
It's a beat-tastic set from the start, beginning with their cover of Neil Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and keeping the cocktail party going with such classics as Nothing Can Stop Us, You're in a Bad Way, Pale Movie, Like a Motorway, He's on the Phoneand Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi).
There's also a new-ish single, a remixed version of their withdrawn 1995 single Burnt Out Car, completing a collection that shows the trio's city-spanning range.
Download tracks: He's on the Phone, Like a Motorway, Burnt Out Car
Big Sky Records
Luka Bloom's on his 12th album, and he's sizzling like a neophyte who's just discovered the magic in a newly minted song. Languid and unhurried, Eleven Songscontinues on 2004's meditative Before Sleep Comes. Sure, there are traces of Bloom's trademark percussive guitar style and his political instinct on Fire, but the rest is a highly personal journey: fingering stillness and, most of all, what it means to live comfortably in one's own skin.
Acoustically, Bloom has created a space that serves his meditations well. With Trevor Hutchinson's bass, Liam Ó Maonlaoí's piano and Joe Csibi's string arrangements, this is a collection that doesn't so much assault the senses as infiltrate them, lingering long after the final note has sounded. A quietly triumphant return to his roots.
Download tracks: I Love the World I'm In, Eastbound Train
As far as Sawhney is concerned, London has changed irrevocably since the terrorist attacks in July 2005, and is now a city where fear and paranoia are the dominant tones. Such moods colour the anger and loss at the heart of his eighth album.
No stranger to collaborations or, indeed strongly political themes, Sawhney allows others to pull most of the strings on this occasion. Rising reggae star Natty was caught up in both the bus bombing on 7/7 and the shooting of innocent tube passenger Jean Charles de Menezes a few weeks later, and his melancholic Days of Firecarries a strong sense of both a personal and collective metamorphosis.
Elsewhere, some collaborations fare better than others; Paul McCartney's My Soulis a touch too saccharine, but Imogen Heap's Bring It Homepossesses the right dramatic pitch.
Download tracks: Days of Fire, Bring It Home
Irish gig-goers fondly recall when these fresh-faced Dubliners lit up the live circuit with their blend of prog-rock and psychedelia. Years of touring and management wrangles wore down Lir's hippie optimism, but their youthful verve still brims up on this live album, the bulk of it recorded at a Vicar Street gig in January 2006.
Lir are now older and wiser, and the members all pursue their own projects, but they still
reconvene regularly to whip up some of their old magic. Although the earlier songs are unashamedly
retro ( Halcyon Dayssounds positively naive), some of the later tunes have a tougher, post-grunge
edge. The band still sound tight, but this set is looser, less obsessed with the skill and more honed in on
having a good time.
Download tracks: Traveller, Wickerman, There Are More Things
Breaking away from the pianodriven balladry of Keane's debut and their pensive follow-up, Perfect
Symmetry opens with a 1980s bang as Spiralling sets the tone of proceedings. The album is aptly
titled - Keane's newfound love for synths builds a wall of sonic Tetris shapes, angular edges slotting
together with the infamous Keane piano.
Think Keane meets New Order rhythm, Bowie's Ashes to Ashes(the intro to Better Than Thishas light fingers), and a dose of U2.
There are lush piano riffs and robust harmonies a-plenty here, and Tom Chaplin's voice has gained
maturity and confidence. However, in transforming lovelorn indie-pop kids into leaders of the lighterbrandishing brigade by setting production levels to Stadium, emotional immediacy is sacrificed.
Still, expect Symmetryand radio to get along famously.
Download tracks: Spiralling, You Haven't Told Me Anything, Again and Again