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Kevin Tomkins, "Perfectly Flawed"

cover imageKevin Tomkins is probably always going to be known for his tenure in the early (and some would say best) incarnation of Whitehouse, closely followed by his power electronics project Sutcliffe Jugend and the rock-oriented Bodychoke.  This first solo outing from him completely defies expectations, being based only on sounds generated by an autoharp.

 

Between Silences

For such a simple concept, the tracks rarely resemble each other and are based less on the "playing" of the instrument and much more on using every facet of it as a means of generating sound and textures.  Only on "Fifth Flaw" and the closing "Twelfth Flaw" is traditional playing the focus, and even within those there is a fair share of abstract clatters and vibrations, the latter being front-loaded with a dense set of sounds, but closing into pure and beautiful tones.  "Eighth Flaw" takes the strums and instead messes with the tunings, allowing the loosened strings to rattle and create their own sense of percussion.

The percussive applications of the autoharp are spread throughout the album, sometimes being untreated, but consisting of what must be items bounced on the strings, such as the opening "First Flaw," which adds in extremely quiet swelling tones to balance out.  "Ninth Flaw" marries the percussive treatment of the instrument with some Eastern-like string plucks. It is a continuous, collage-like piece that is almost too abstract for its own good, never really locking in to a specific sense of structure or cohesion.  The too short "Fourth Flaw" is perhaps the only track where editing and sequencing seems to be a dominant theme, cutting the sounds of plucks and vibrations into a tightly mixed piece that resembles what would be labeled electronica if it was coming out of a laptop or sampler.

The longer "Sixth Flaw" is perhaps the best piece here, and is nicely sequenced right in the center of the album.  The layers of autoharp are shaped into insect chatters, tribal percussion elements, and an array of disorienting tones that would make the perfect soundtrack to going up a river into a dark jungle.  The following "Seventh Flaw" continues the jungle motif, autoharp being used as a gamelan, and occasionally l ike a fiddle, possibly moving the river metaphor from before out of Africa or Asia and into some of the less settled parts of the American South.

For an album that is focused solely on the use of one instrument, Tomkins has used what sounds more like old fashion experimentation more than technological processing, yet for the most part channels the creaks, groans, and vibrations of an autoharp into diverse and varied compositions.  While it lacks the brutality and aggression of his other projects, it retains the structure and composition that set Sutcliffe Jugend apart from many similar noise bands.

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Review of the Day

DEVENDRA BANHART, "REJOICING IN THE HANDS"
Young God
He possesses the unkempt street-hustler looks of Vincent Gallo, the psychotic vulnerability of Syd Barrett, the spooked lonesomeness of Skip Spence, the instrumental dexterity of Robin Williamson, the naïve sincerity of Tiny Tim, and a voice that sounds like a cross between Marc Bolan's early T. Rex warble and the evocative wail of Karen Dalton. After his superlative debut Oh Me Oh My..., many were quick to heap praise on Devendra Banhart, hailing the 23-year old singer-songwriter as a peerlessly original voice. With such obvious musical precedents for Banhart's intimate, acoustic songcraft, this adulation seems a bit overstated. Despite what has been said, Devendra Banhart hasn't reinvented the wheel. He has, however, used his considerable lyrical and melodic gifts to create a handful of idiosyncratic recordings that speak volumes for his songwriting talent. Oh Me Oh My... was immediately distinctive not only because of Banhart's quavering vocal delivery and incredible fingerstyle, but also because of its willfully low-budget recording aesthetic; the songs were self-recorded live-to-tape on sub-par cassette recorders, Dictaphones and answering machines. Two years on, Devendra Banhart has achieved a modicum of success, championed by Michael Gira, with a home on his Young God label. Although Banhart and Gira could easily have opted for an artificially studied recreation of the low-fidelity distortion and tape hiss of the demo reel, the right choice was made on Rejoicing in the Hands to present the performer in a simple, clean studio recording. The tracks on this new album sound every bit as live and spontaneous as the Oh Me Oh My... sessions, but the technical advantages of the studio recording highlight every velvety pluck of the guitar strings and every nuanced vibration of Devendra's labored vocals. Because these songs are refreshingly free of extraneous debris and contain only minimal, unobtrusive backing, Rejoicing is a marvelous showcase for Banhart's songs and performances. Each track is a miniature masterpiece; few exceed the three-minute mark, but each has the immediacy and resonance of déjà vu, as if Banhart was pulling from some vast collective-subconscious archive of archetypal sing-along folk melodies. His lyrical themes are fascinating as always, strange re-combinations of dime-store mysticism, humorous reverie and the odd fanciful passage of surreal wordplay. On the title track, he is joined by the legendary Vashti Bunyan, the elusive songstress who recorded the acid-folk classic Just Another Diamond Day and promptly disappeared from view. Their lovely duet is an affectionate homage to the placid simplicity of the 60's British folk revival. - 

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