Apeing the golden age of early hip-hop but retaining the vitality of now, Alistair Houghton cherishes a duo very much living up to their name.
The Cool Kids: The Bake Sale – Album of the Week
C.A.K.E. Recordings/Chocolate Industries/XL Recordings
If that name brings up thoughts of yet more bragging rappers bigging themselves up for the bling, cast out your preconceptions with your 50 Cent.
Chicago duo Cool Kids are certainly full of themselves, but then shrinking violets don’t generally pick up the mic. It’s life on the street, but it’s not all guns and gold but groceries, BMX’s and parties for all.
They start on opener What Up Man with a failed trip to the grocery store, before telling the world they’re so great they could “go catfish fishing and come up with a whale“.
Maybe they are the “new black version of the Beastie Boys“, as Mikey drily help the critics by observing on One Two.
There’s the squelchy bass of Mikey Rocks, the trebly hi-hat driven ‘old school’ sound of single 88 and What It Is (chorus: “yeah, yup“, repeated), and the BMX tribute in Black Mags.
Still avoiding those gangsta clichÃÂ©s, there’s call and response of A Little Bit Cooler “what you ridin’ on that bike for…does that belt say Star Wars? …the jeans ain’t saggin‘) As for Gold and a Pager: “If my phone’s off, you can page my ass.” Quite.
The Bake Sale is only 30 minutes or so long but it’s a breath of fresh air, namechecking 1988 while sounding somehow so 2008.
No doubt all you switched-on cool kids will have latched on to them online last year, but for the rest of us it’s time to get cool by association.
For fans of: The Beastie Boys, increasingly antiquated mobile telecommunications devices.
Albert Hammond Jr: ÃÂ¿CÃÂ³mo Te Llama?
Ah, The Strokes, so much hype, a handful of great tunes, and then a seeming slide into saminess and a wilful determination not to stray too far from their own sonic blueprint (Ask Me Anything on First Impressions of Earth notwithstanding).
But majestically curly-haired guitarist Albert Hammond Jr seems to want to push at those boundaries, hence this, his second solo effort.
Essentially it’s The Strokes without the bellow of Casablancas and more willing to stretch beyond that tinny trademark sound – though still not enough to frighten the horses.
Hammond Jr offers up the reggaefied Borrowed Time, the processed beats and Lennon-y feel of Lisa, the smooth-yet-still-spiky Victory at Monterey and the power chords of The Boss Americana, which could almost be The Raspberries minus Eric Carmen‘s preening and posturing.
If it’s the pure Strokes sound you want – and if you pick this up, then it probably is – Hammond Jr drawls his Casablancas-esque extended vowels through jerky In My Room, upbeat GFC and You Won’t Be Fooled By This – though even that features the string quartet that pops up on several songs.
Lengthy staccato instrumental Spooky Couch, featuring Sean Lennon and string quartet, offers a breather. There’s even a proper big ending in the excellently-titled Feed Me Jack Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Peter Sellers, replete with Beatles inflected piano and strings and feedback solo.
The question is will Hammond Jr simply have to re-adopt the studied vacant cool of his songwriting-free day job, or will the Strokes take his influences on board? Answer coming to an NME near you soon.
For fans of: The Strokes, The Raspberries, Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral, curly-haired rockers.
Joan As Police Woman: To Survive
If you’ve heard the single To Be Loved, you’d be forgiven for thinking Joan Wassser had become another music-lite Norah Jones copyist. But go beyond that and Joan’s unwieldy pseudonym and there’s plenty of arresting listening here.
It opens with a great one-two, the slow ponderous PJ Harveyisms of Honor Wishes sliding into the gently fizzing and popping jazzy folk rhythms of Holiday.
Then downhill into To Be Loved – inoffensive, jazzy country-tinged, aiming for the Michael Parkinson audience with a bland bullet.
But elsewhere Joan stretches her vocals from smoky growl to lovelorn wail to falsetto on tracks like folksy rocker Hard White Wall or the electric piano and handclap-led Furious.
The overall tone is low-key, with piano-led slowies like To Be Lonely, a welcome cold water bath after the smothering blandness of To Be Loved, and To Survive.
There’s even a hint of Karen Carpener, sans cheese, in Start Of My Heart.
It doesn’t all hit the spot – Magpies is so brassy and upbeat it sparks thoughts of the ghosts of acid jazz.
But by the time Rufus Wainwright lends his tones to closer To America, there’s much to have won you over.
For fans of: Martha Wainwright, PJ at her more audience-friendly.
The Hold Steady: Stay Positive
It’s hard not to mention Bruce Springsteen here, but what’s wrong with that? Craig Finn and The Hold Steady trade in similar fare – it’s US bar-room rock, tales of the underdog, the blue-collar, the Mid-West, the land of those whose fate is to “work at the mill until you die”.
Finn’s no subtle singer, but he’s a great storyteller with an eye for the lonely, mixed-up and just plain hopeless. “Our songs are singalong songs“, Finn belts on typically piano-pounding opener Constructive Summer.
The single Sequestered In Memphis – Finn’s PR people proudly proclaim is the first song to feature the word sequestered and the author had to have a conference call with a lawyer to check he used the word correctly- is the catchiest of the bunch. “In bar-light she looked all right,” drawls Finn, “in daylight she looked desperate.”
The album’s centrepiece is the downtempo Lord I’m Discouraged, where Finn dolefully recounts the tale of his unrequited love for the girl who can’t escape bad company but who’ll never love him, and over “excuses and half-truths and fortified wine” keeps insisting “the sutures and bruises are none of my business.” It even boasts a big, old-fashioned epic guitar solo.
More big soloing like The Darkness never happened abounds on the more typically piano-pounding Led Zep-referencing Joke About Jamaica, where “the boys in the band know they’ll never be stars“.
But other than waltzy crime drama One for the Cutters and the country-tinged religious allusions on Both Crosses, it’s big chords and pounding piano most of the way including the stomping late-70s woah-oahs of the title track and the inevitable big ending on Slapped Actress.
Musically it won’t start a revolution, but Finn and the gang keep churning out songs that lodge in your head and just won’t go away.
Nothing wrong with, as Paul Simon once said, singing an American Tune.
For fans of: Mid-period Replacements.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums: Heartcore
And now for something completely different – Swedish vocal and drums duo Wildbirds and Peacedrums deliver an odd, echoey, warbly, folksy-jazzy offering.
Singer Mariam Wallentin can warble, ululate, holler or whisper plaintively at will, swooping up and down her vocal range with no Mariah-ese or Whitney-itis. She’s sparsely backed by hubby Andreas Werliin, largely with drums, but with wisps of other instrumentation from glockenspiels to zithers.
Sometimes it misses the mark – Birds is freeform warbling over freefrom drums with an opening line “I am a bird now” that’s a bit Papa Lazarou – but other times, like the almost-pop of The Way Things Go, the sparse lament of A Story From A Chair or the handclap-driven Doubt/Hope, the weirdness makes sense.
Somehow reminiscent, if not in its sound, of Mark Hollis‘s first and only solo album – not something you listen to all the time, but sometimes it’s the only thing you want to hear.
For fans of: Joanna Newsom, sewing, late night picnics.