[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]
TEN YEARS AGO, when the British rock template was a cut-out-and-keep Oasis stencil, and Coldplay were just a glimmer in Radiohead's lachrymose eye, Embrace looked likely lads indeed. They took the obligatory bombast of the time and replaced laddish bravura with introspection and vulnerability - as much Leonard Cohen as Liam Gallagher.
They rose, they fell, they rose again; and having tasted failure, they sound on their fifth album, This New Day (Independiente *), as if they're taking no chances whatsoever this time. The bombast stays, the shading is long gone. The result is an album so relentlessly, dogmatically anthemic that hearing it makes you feel you should be in uniform. It didn't make me feel much else.
You can't accuse Calexico, the dusty impressionists of America's south-west, of risk avoidance. Having made, in Feast Of Wire, one of the decade's outstanding albums, they intrepidly return with a record less immediate, more low-key, and even more varied. Garden Ruin (City Slang ****), with touches of Serge Gainsbourg, Surf's Up-era Beach Boys and The Replacements tinting Calexico's desert-and-canyon vistas, is both rich in detail and surprisingly cohesive. It's an album allowing the band to stretch their imaginations, rather than one designed to consolidate or expand a fanbase. Which would make it all the more pleasing if Garden Ruin's combination of boldness and delicacy did exactly that.
Texan trio Secret Machines evoke a very different sense of open space. They've picked up on an unfashionable thread of pulsating, expansive pomp-rock which ran through many of America's Seventies stadium fillers, along with cosmic bikers Hawkwind, through to underrated Seattle-scene offshoots Satchel, and tied it in to New York's new wave rebirth. Their first album, Now Here Is Nowhere, rattled around rather aimlessly in so much room. Their second, Ten Silver Drops, (Reprise/679 ***) is tighter and far better - a grand and gripping piece of work, worthy of its immense scale, in which their unashamedly dramatic sound builds to a series of fearsome climaxes.
One of the few acts currently occupying nearby territory is Quasi; although where Secret Machines move with the juddering efficiency of a well maintained tank, Quasi (north-western contemporaries of the aforementioned Satchel) barge about like the angry rhino mentioned in one of their song titles. When The Going Gets Dark (Domino ***) is a heavy-duty item with a certain barrelhouse quality, its engaging tunes and sardonic lyrics confrontationally fortified with noise that varies from the prickly to the chaotic. It hasn't the slightest intention of being easy to like; and nobody who likes things easy will be able to stand it for more than a minute. But it's all the stronger for its wilful disarray.
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