Wednesday, 6 February 2013

reviews: universal sex arena, the soft hills, al lewis

Universal Sex Arena - Women Will Be Girls (***)

Look beyond the sleazy triumvirate of band name, album title and cover art (a kitsch bunga bunga fantasy in pen and watercolour), and the debut album from Italy’s Universal Sex Arena has plenty to recommend it. With archetypal psychedelia, garage rock and twanging surf guitar setting solid foundations, the sextet rattle out rambunctious, urgent variations on a vintage theme, without ever sounding antiquated or phony.

They do, however, sound like a band in need of an editor, with Women Will Be Girls’ 15-track, 53-minute bulk in definite want of a trim, its palette too narrow to warrant such sprawl. Admittedly, some of the album’s slighter offerings earn a place by injecting diversity (for instance, Kill You’s lo-fi acoustic interlude) but others, like Brain Ferry or Slow Down, just drag. Ignore the bloat, however, and Universal Sex Arena do themselves proud – let’s just hope they don’t last even longer on their second go.

Out 11th February

The Soft Hills - Chromatisms (***)

A year since last album The Bird is Coming Down to Earth, Seattle’s The Soft Hills return sounding slightly less pastoral and a tad more cosmic, successfully expanding their horizons without quite managing to consistently turn ‘good’ to ‘great.’ The echoing, fragile Payroll is one of the few tracks to emphatically earn the latter epithet, its sparse crawl and satellite bleeps constituting the album’s chilly peak.

The most recurrent reference point for The Soft Hills’ sprawling sound remains Midlake, partly due to some obvious shared influences; Garrett Hobba’s high, slightly reedy vocals, for example, owe a definite debt to Neil Young, particularly on tracks like closing country ballad Desert Rose. When the band’s touchstone inspirations are parlayed well, the results flirt with brilliance. But elsewhere, Chromatism’s unswervingly downbeat tone robs individual songs of impact, meaning that, for the time being at least, excellence is the exception rather than the rule.

Out 11th February

Al Lewis - Battles (***)

There’s little to discover on Welsh songwriter Al Lewis’s second English-language album, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy. Lewis’s acoustic balladry may constitute a particularly conservative take on the contemporary singer-songwriter genre, but despite its deeply ingrained predictability, the results are always pleasant.

The setup and execution of tracks like Treading Water is simple but effective: over a bed of acoustic guitar and harmonica, mellow vocals flutter and glide, with Lewis’s gentle croon accentuated by long-term collaborator Sarah Howells’ mellifluous harmonies. Deviations to the formula occasionally creep in; the Bread-tinged sway of Don’t Believe in Magic, for instance, is a gorgeous mid-album highlight, and its moments like this that ensure Battles offsets tedium despite its familiarity.
This is coffee shop music to its core – always nice, never surprising – yet within its narrow boundaries, Battles conveys enough personality to elevate Lewis a couple of notches above the median standard.

Out 18th February

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