Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Manic Street Preachers/Fistful of Mercy reviews

Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From a Young Man (import)

“A great rock band from Wales, still virtually unknown in America”


Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From a Young Man

A popular and respected act around the world, especially in their native Britain, the Manic Street Preachers from Blackwood, Wales remain a cult band in the States. Their ambitions are too grand and their music too immodest for the tastemakers who set the boundaries of the American underground. Still, all but one of their nine previous albums has secured an American release (2004’s Lifeblood being an exception). The U.S. release of their tenth album Postcards From a Young Man isn’t imminent. Too bad, it’s among their best.

The central fact of the Manics’ career is the disappearance and presumed suicide of Richey Edwards after completing sessions for the band’s third album, The Holy Bible. Bible was a scabrous thing. The lyrics by Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire explored every manner of human folly, barbarism and degradation; they made Joy Division sound like Air Supply. The music was a curious mix of guilty (given the lyrics) pop pleasures and pulverizing rock, a sound that mixed punk and arena rock in a seamless, authoritative way.

Brutal thing it was, The Holy Bible was Edward’s last will and testament. After the album’s release and Edward’s disappearance the Manics soldiered on as a trio, becoming hit makers in the U.K with their fourth record Everything Must Go and its’ generational anthem “A Design for Life.” Everything Must Go combined rock with a grandiose pop sound. The latter has occasionally overwhelmed the Manics. On albums like This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours and especially Lifeblood the Manics’ forgot to rock and turned out schmaltz that even Wire’s situationist/Marxist lyrics couldn’t overcome.

The band’s eighth album Send Away the Tigers struck a fine balance between their classic rock and punk tendencies. Then came A Journal for Plague Lovers, an album of blistering pop brilliance that was more vital than anything one might have anticipated from an eighteen year old band, especially one set for early self-destruction (between Edward’s abuse issues and Wire’s statements about going out in a blaze of young glory). The songs for Journal were based on lyrics that Richey Edwards had left behind. Guitarist James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore (the band’s consistently powerful, musical drummer) came up with arresting tunes and arrangements and the band’s power was captured by Steve Albini’s verite production methods.

The Manic Street Preachers continue to ride the wave that Tigers began and Journal accelerated. Postcards from a Young Man is a big, swaggering record, full of strong melodies and some of Wire’s best lyrics. The band employs string arrangements on several tracks and a vocal chorus on four songs, but the performances on Postcards From a Young Man are never overwhelmed by such augmentation. The Manic Street Preachers are such a confident, cohesive unit by now that they rock with a punch that can withstand production that would be top-heavy for lesser bands.

Bradfield’s tenor is a remarkable instrument, capable of tremendous tenderness and venom alike, but ultimately too Freddie Mercury for Animal Collective fans. As a guitarist Bradfield is brilliant, but he’s an old school, flash guitar hero. His playing is a cross between Mick Jones, Mick Ronson, Slash, and Eric Clapton at his long gone, most rock incendiary. His solo on “The Descent (Pages 1 & 2) is beautifully composed. His Mick Ronson-esque licks drive “Auto-Intoxication.” He covers territory from Brian May to Thin Lizzy to Johnny Thunders, all in one song on “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun,” and melds Lou Reed with Bruce Springsteen (“Badlands, particularly) on “All We Make is Entertainment,” which also features Wire’s brilliantly self-castigating lyrics – words that the song’s passionate performance only subverts.

The Manics’ diverse sensibilities are represented by their choice of musical guests on Postcards, incorporating contributions from a British post-punk icon, a Godfather of the punk underground and a strutting American rock star. “Some Kind of Nothingness” features guest vocals from Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and interpolates bits of Echo’s “Never Stop.” “Auto-Intoxication” includes keyboard and “noise” performances from John Cale. Duff McKagan (Guns n’Roses/Velvet Revolver) plays bass on “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun.” Impressionable working class lads from a wee town in south Wales, the Manics embraced each of these disparate characters as heroes.

Wire still converses with Richey Edwards’ ghost on the title track and “The Descent.” The revolution he once believed in seems like a cruel joke on songs like “Auto-Intoxication,” “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun,” and “Don’t Be Evil,” as Wire stares into the present’s black holes of consumerism and alienation. Weary and disenchanted, Wire nonetheless continues to rage against the dying of the light, rather like another great Welshman Dylan Thomas. According to Wire and the band Postcards From a Young Man is a final Manics assault on the charts – a last ditch attempt to inoculate the world with disillusionment (thanks, Henry Miller). Wire is prone to wild pronouncements, though, so who knows. One senses, however, from the passion that drives Postcards that Wire and the Manics won’t be going gentle into that good night.

Reverberating: 9.2

Fistful of Mercy – As I Call You Down (Hot Records)

“Promising trio fails to deliver the goods”


Fistful of Mercy

Fistful of Mercy is a curious trio. Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur have considerable solo catalogs. Harper's a soulful singer and songwriter. I've never been a big fan, but certainly an admirer. Arthur's erratic, but his last release Temporary People was a peak, full of good songs and performances in a slacker-Stones mode. The third player in this threesome is Dhani Harrison. If you aren't familiar with his recorded history it's because it's limited to one release with the group thenewno2. Dhani is better known as the offspring of George Harrison.

Harrison’s performance here is as strong as anyone’s. It doesn’t salvage what’s basically an uninspired session. Fistful of Mercy’s debut, titled As I Call You Down, opens with “In Vain or True. “ It’s an intimate, acoustic performance that suggests the back porch informality of the early Band and the balladic grace of Badfinger. Since the sound is persuasive, it’s easy to embrace the simplicity of the lyrics. A few songs into As I Call You Down, though, that simplicity begins to sound merely banal.

The relaxed, largely acoustic performance idiom, which at first charmed, begins to sound enervated. The close, intimate harmonies never get robust. In fact, some of the trio’s attempts at soulful blues based moans sound like cats mewling; the democratic approach Fistful of Mercy pursue never really allowing a strong lead vocal performance to emerge.

The program’s a little skimpy too, featuring only nine tracks. Among them, only “Father’s Son” combusts - a spare, blues stomp with stronger lyrics and rotating lead vocals, “Father’s Son” has an energy and authority that most of these performances simply lack. There’s enough talent here to suggest a missed opportunity. Perhaps a sympathetic, but strong willed producer might have coaxed less puny performances and demanded sharper lyrics from Fistful of Mercy. Unfortunately, their comfort zone on As I Call You Down results only in largely desultory work.

Reverberating: 5.9

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