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Album Review: Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man [Parlophone]

The worst thing about the new Bat for Lashes record The Haunted Man is its cover art. That’s not to say the Ryan McGinley photo featuring a fully nude Natasha Khan wearing an equally nude man as a shawl that covers up her private parts is bad or even distasteful. It is the opposite in fact, a work of high-minded art that’s absolutely representative of the sort of music you will find within. Only the best cover art work will achieve such prominence. So what, in turn, makes it the worst thing about this album? Because the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it is, “ooh, provocative and sexy!” and that’s not what this music is. Meanwhile some 16-year-old boy with a parental locked internet connection is filing it away somewhere to fulfill his own dark desires. The point being, that while this is one of the smartest and most beautiful album covers to come along in a while, most won’t see it that way. In fact, the controversial nature of it sucks all the attention away from the actual music, which absolutely is smart and beautiful. It’s also hopelessly raw and sparse in spite of the multi-instrumental set pieces and full orchestration contained within. Khan’s bravura vocals handle most of the intense emotion, and the peeling back of echoes, reverb and other treatments that were thrown in on her last album Two Suns allows you to connect better with the true human underneath that window dressing.

Of course you listen to a track like the opener “Lilies” and the combination of synths and strings borders on overbearing until her voice cuts through the dissonance and soars when she sings the line, “Thank God I’m alive!” Where the true heart of The Haunted Man really lies is in the sobering piano and vocal pairing on “Laura.” At what might as well be called the center point of the record, the song sits on an island all its own as we’re told all about the amazing Laura, who’s “more than a superstar.” The better we come to know her through the lyrics and the way she’s described, the more we begin to believe in such a mythical creature. If you thought Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” was a perfect piano ballad single, “Laura” should satisfy in almost equal measure. And wouldn’t you know it, both songs were co-written by Justin Parker. For fans of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” there’s more familiarity to be found via the single “All Your Gold.” The two tracks feature the same basic rhythm pattern and structure, along with the inevitable malaise that comes with the ending of a relationship. The chorus to “All Your Gold” even features the line, “There was someone that I knew before,” which to some will seem just a little too on the nose. The Bat for Lashes track is arguably the better one though, removing any theatricality and cutting straight to the bone in its words and composition. Really any comparisons you draw from this record, to the points where some of the synth-baiting electronic textures come across as remarkably M83-ish or the very Kate Bush-ian nature contained in most everything Khan does, are great reference points.

But in the end that’s ALL they are: windows into a world of music we might otherwise not fully understand or grasp. See, Bat for Lashes is so much more than a collection of things that sound like other things. Khan is a true original, and the words she writes, along with the intense emotion that echoes in her voice through every note, set her apart from any similarly-minded music peers. “Oh Yeah” is a great example of this. Many a person has tried to fill a void in their life via sex, but few artists have accurately echoed that tumultuous period as well as Khan does here. “I’m looking for a lover to climb inside / Waiting like a flower to open wide / I’m in bloom” makes for one of the most overtly sexual choruses since the tUnE-yArDs song “Powa” from 2011. Like that song, there’s a newfound sense of freedom and excitement in the vocals that pushes the listener into believing this remedy will finally create a sense of wholeness, however temporary. The point being that while the solution to 99% of life’s problems isn’t sex, for the five minutes of that song Khan earnestly wants to believe it is, and so do we.

As with any sexual encounter, there’s a certain amount of baggage that each person brings to the table that stems from past relationships and past experiences. It points to the more overarching theme of The Haunted Man, which is that we’re all living with ghosts whether we like it or not. Of course those ghosts are metaphorical, but we still allow them to weigh on our spirits. They go beyond the flesh of our bodies and can’t be covered up no matter how many layers of clothes we wear. This record is filled with those ghosts, “Laura” and “Marilyn” among them, but what’s most important is how Khan deals with it. Instead of letting their fates and legacies align with hers, she gets acquainted with her demons and finds the path to managing them without losing sight of her own identity. It makes for a great life lesson, and an even better record.

Bat for Lashes – Laura

Bat For Lashes – All Your Gold

Buy The Haunted Man from Amazon

Album Review: Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow [Anti-/Fish People]

What do you know about Kate Bush? The answer to that question isn’t necessarily age-specific, but undoubtedly the older you are, the more likely you are to know who Kate Bush is and what she’s all about. Ask you average 17 year old kid about her, and 99% of the time you’ll be met with a blank stare. The same probably goes for most 20-somethings too. Play the song “Running Up That Hill” for them though, and you’ll get some familiar nods and maybe even a few, “I thought that was a Placebo song”. Similar things could be said in regards to “Hounds of Love”, which The Futureheads to deftly covered a few years ago to much acclaim. And like it or not, Kate Bush continues to have a pretty big impact on new artists today, and perhaps the best, closest example is Bat for Lashes. Natasha Khan’s voice and her moody compositions in many ways makes Bat for Lashes the new Kate Bush, though time and quality of material will act as the official judges of that.

While the 80s had Bush at the peak of her powers, like any number of classic singer-songwriters her star has faded with time and a lack of the spotlight. After 1993’s “The Red Shoes”, she took about 12 years off from music. While many felt she had become a recluse and no longer wanted anything to do with people, fame and fortune, the truth is she gave birth to a son and decided to put her career on hold to raise him. It would be 2005’s “Aerial” that would mark her big comeback, something that’d ultimately be met with mixed enthusiasm. As great as it was to have such a prolific and interesting storyteller making music again, her songs primarily about her life during those 12 years away from music were minimalist and sluggish compared to her back catalogue. Earlier this year Bush also tried to pull a Peter Gabriel and give her career a kick in the pants via a re-exploration of her old material. “Director’s Cut” featured re-recorded and drastically reworked versions of songs off 1989’s “The Sensual World” and 1993’s “The Red Shoes”, the main idea being to give them a more modern adaptation to reflect current trends and also play more to Bush’s voice, which has gotten deeper with age. The reaction was again widely mixed, as you might expect from an artist messing with material some might consider to be “classic”. Appropriately enough though, Bush has one more trick up her sleeve in 2011, and it’s only fitting she unleashed it as the weather turns cold and most prepare for a long and brutal winter. You can’t quite call “50 Words for Snow” a Christmas album, but its wintry theme certainly makes for a stellar soundtrack in the months ahead.

It’s not quite as simple as saying a unifying concept was all Kate Bush needed to earn back the critical acclaim and respect that was bestowed upon her in the mid-80s, but evidence suggests it likely played a small hand in it. The focus it takes to write 65 minutes worth of stories about snow really appears to have worked for her, the overriding theme connecting beautifully with the delicate and primarily piano-based arrangements. One of the biggest surprises about “50 WOrds for Snow” is how at a grand total of only 7 tracks, the shortest song clocks in at just under 7 minutes. The average length is closer to 8 minutes, while the longest moment comes courtesy of “Misty”, finishing at around 14 minutes. That song tells the story of building, falling in love with, and essentially having sex with a snowman, only to wind up disappointed when it melts. It’s the sort of WTF idea that you’d rather write off as a joke given how absurd it sounds, but Bush treats it with the utmost sincerity and passion. The result is more “Lars and the Real Girl” than it is “Weird Science”, supported by the thought that in the absence of a perfect man, you can build one out of snow. Elsewhere on the record, opener “Snowflake” chronicles the path of one little white piece of frozen water, unique in its own way, falling from the sky towards the ground. A search for a lost dog is the plot of “Lake Tahoe”, and the title track has actor/writer/poet/comedian/brilliant British guy Stephen Fry slowly reading off all the different ways to describe snow as a skittering electro landscape backs him up with occasional interruptions by Bush singing a chorus to break up the monotony. And speaking of guest vocals, Elton John duets with Bush on “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”, where they play starcrossed lovers that can never stay connected through many key events in world history.

Outside of the wintry theme, the main connecting tissue between these tracks is an underlying darkness and earnestness in how they’re delivered. Bush sells every track by holding firm to her aesthetic choices and drawing upon brooding atmospherics to add a sense of dread to even the most innocent of songs. It’s what works best for her, and where she also sounds most comfortable. Undoubtedly Bush is no longer the goth-pop chanteuse straight out of the 80s, but is able to show how she’s evolved with the times. This is an adult record with an adult temprament, even as it gets in your face and asks you to suspend all rational thought in the hopes of inspiring just a little flight of fancy. You’re only as old as you allow yourself to be, and though “50 Words for Snow” can get pretty heavy and mature, you don’t have to take such things as truth. They’re only stories, after all, and with this record Kate Bush proves yet again that she’s one hell of a storyteller.

Buy “50 Words for Snow” from Amazon

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