I know absolutely nothing about His Name Is Alive, but I was attracted to it by the way it bore the name of High Priest of Sadcore Mark Kozelek prominently amongst its songwriting credits. Ive no idea what the Red House Painters frontman actually contributed, but he should feel darn proud of himself whatever it may have been, because "Stars On E.S.P." is one of the finest albums Ive heard all year. I suppose being on 4AD makes it a bit of a giveaway (altogether now, "Give us an E...T...H...E...R...E...A...L...whats that spell?!"), but His Name Is Alive do sound not a little like the mighty This Mortal Coil: theres the same sense of genre crash-collision and conceptual continuity throughout these fifteen tracks, and the usual sumptuous Vaughan Oliver packaging to cement the whole sensory experience together. Best bits include the triumphant triumvirate "This World Is Not My Home", "I Cant Live In This World Anymore" and "Last One", essentially the same fantastic song given different interpretative twists, with fuzz guitar here and a spinetingling gospel choir there, "Universal Frequencies", almost a note-perfect reconstruction of "Good Vibrations" that The High Llamas would willingly auction off their "Smile" bootlegs to be able to call their own, and the saccharine loveliness of "Bad Luck Girl". Maybe too insubstantial for most of us assembled here, but if the idea of an album that sounds a little as if Phil Spector were producing the Cocteau Twins appeals youll probably agree that not a second of its alleged three year gestation period was wasted.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE Nice Day (4AD)
Being the first utterances from Michigans His Name Is Alive since last years wonderful "Pet Sounds"-in-space "Stars On ESP" album, "Nice Day" is a six-track mini-album, tragically available only on CD. The usual His Name Is Alive confusion tactic of giving their songs many titles is still in evidence: apart from the eponymous opener the cover lists probable Prince rejects such as "Baby You Feel Me Up", "Hot Tonite", "Wet", "Come" and "Man", whilst on the CD those same tunes have the more familiarly wispy HNIA monikers "Drive Around The Clock", "Crashed Up On The Corner", Soul Resides In The Horse Barn", "Whale, You Ease My Mind" and "Oh Sinner Man".
Having tempered their traditional fluffiness with a modicum of rock n rawl attitude, His Name Is Alive now sound a little like a mash-up of the Cocteau Twins and Sleater-Kinney: all ambient textures wrapped not entirely convincingly around Phil Spector-goes-garage tunes. Its certainly more substantial than their previous output, but therein lay their charm. At least the breathy harmonies and twisted approach to melody survive amidst the strict-tempo drum machines and detuned guitar solos, although its unusual, to say the least, to hear His Name Is Alive trying their hand at old-testament fire-and-brimstonery in "Oh Sinner Man".
Despite its relatively low price at 50p a minute "Nice Day" is neither the best or best-value introduction to the singular world of His Name Is Alive - that remains the fabulous "Stars On ESP" (which flopped, so you might be able to pick up a copy from a cheapy bin, like I did), but as a signpost to wherever theyre headed next Id regard "Nice Day" as essential irrespective of what it sounded like.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE Ft. Lake (4AD)
This ethereal, wispy (insert your favourite 4AD cliché adjective here, His Name Is Alive probably live up to it!) bands latest release more than atones for last years disappointing "Nice Day" mini-album: heavenly female vocals, the odd surges of drum n bass and grunge, but substantially still the sound of "Pet Sounds" being reinterpreted on a Bontempi organ, a little like a fluffier High Llamas but without the slaving authenticism that groups music sometimes falls prey to. Their best yet, immaculately produced and recorded, and my copy came with a free 3-track 7" as well.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth (4AD)
Warn Defever's His Name Is Alive imprint has covered a deal of ground since its inception fourteen years ago. Early albums majored on Cocteau Twins-style fluffy, marbled goth, until a week spent listening to nothing but "Good Vibrations" spawned "Stars On ESP", an astonishing concoction of "Pet Sounds", gospel and electronica. His next long-player, "Ft. Lake", flitted from dub to drum 'n' bass, hooking the whole with a sweet electro-pop sensibility. The word is that this latest opus was written around the considerable vocal talents of collaborator Lovetta Pippen, which, judging by the result, was effort well expended.
"Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth" is a wonderful album, easily the equal of its illustrious-if-you've-heard-them predecessors. Recognisably His Name Is Alive only in that is sounds completely different from anything else His Name Is Alive have attempted, and if I'm decoding the sleevenotes correctly the product of two years of recording, this year's His Name Is Alive sound not unlike a Destiny's Child album spinning at 16 rpm. There are oodles of slow-moving but rhythmic electronica, over which Pippen emotes like woodsmoke, clouds and crackling. Maybe over the space of forty minutes the formula begins to pall a tad, but in places it can sound stunning - direct yourself to the spectral "Nothing Special" or the slyly funky "Write My Name In The Groove", for example. And when you think you've got a handle on what's going on here, the duo will throw in a scratchy cover of Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and the apple cart gets upset all over again.
In a year that has seen many major acts conspicuously resting on their lardy laurels, it's a pleasant shock and surprise to hear people eking out something new and occasionally breathtaking on the outer fringes of popular music's orbit. If you've detected a samey staleness creeping into what weve been force-fed recently, try this life-affirming, gorgeous album as an antidote.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE Last Night (4AD)
His Name Is Alive's last album, "Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth", was a luminous collection of torch songs and blues specially tailored by Warn Defever to take advantage of Lovetta Pippen's remarkable, smokey, sensuous voice. "Last Night" retains the stylistic vortex typical of His Name Is Alive albums, but this time around Defever, Pippen and cohorts have turned their attention to funk - in their hands a kind of lightly frosted, slithering, salacious, fragile funk that sounds unlike anything else I've ever heard. How about Colourbox playing proper instruments? Or The Cocteau Twins doing James Brown covers? Whichever and whatever, on the title track such apparently crazy experimentation pays handsome dividends, as Pippen incants the nagging hookline "What would it take to keep me off you?". When they attempt to perform the same trick again during "Someday My Prince Will Come" the effect isn't quite as spectacular, but still generates 11 minutes of intricate, squawking sax-driven funk.
Between and beyond these poles "Last Night" isn't so impressive, but its attractions only pall under the harsh light of microscopic evaluation - listened to with half an ear the stuttering, Neil Young-esque electric guitar playing on "I Have Special Powers" and the moody almost-reggae of "I Can See Myself In Her" are fantastic, whilst "Train"'s folk-jazz cadences could have easily nestled on any of the quieter Tim Buckley, John Martyn or Van Morrison albums. Their cover of Hendrix's "In From The Storm" is, naturally, full of staccato wah-wah guitar figures, although nowhere near as slavish a reconstruction as "Universal Frequencies", HNIA's heroic pastiche of "Good Vibrations", was. Nevertheless "Do You Want To Come To My Party" - just the title repeated over an acoustic guitar - is only marginally on the right side of twee, "Crawlin'" seems to encroach on trip-hop territory already tilled to exhaustion by bands like Alpha, and I can't listen to "Teardrops" without thinking of The Smiths' cover of Twinkle's "Golden Lights".
But unless you deliberately stopped to listen you wouldn't hear. Taken as a cumulative experience "Last Night" is another very fine His Name Is Alive album.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE Detrola (Reincarnate)
A humdrum His Name Is Alive album? Wait a minute, how did that happen? Over the last decade or so, Warren Defevers amorphous ensemble has charted a course through Pet Sounds pastiche, straightahead indie pop, frosted funk and glittery gospel, whilst all the time sounding like themselves. Detrola, though, (its title a contraction of the cover arts boilerplate etching detroit tokyo new york london toronto los angeles) appears to be the work of a His Name Is Alive tribute band. These arent songs of substance, theyre flimsy whimsies that evaporate long before they can hook themselves in the memory, a ragged patchwork of half-formed and recycled ideas.
I Thought I Saw sounds disturbingly like its escaped from one of those interminable reissues of Walter Becker and Donald Fagens pre-Steely Dan songwriting sketchpads, and You And Me crashes past like an 18-second snippet from Aphex Twins Come To Daddy. The burbling Enotronica of *C*A*T*S* sounds flat, forced and detached, and, as a theoretical exercise in 1974-flavoured pop, Get Your Curse is Wizzard covering Waterloo on downers. It gives me no pleasure to say it, but on this showing His Name Is Alive are barely.