January 22, 2006

Review: Richard Ashcroft's Keys To The World

Richard Ashcroft is not a man of his time. He was born to sing the kind of songs Glen Campbell sang in the 60's - the Jimmy Webb era of "Wichita Lineman." Richard's fans, however, have decided he is a Rock God of the Oasis mold (well, maybe a bit deeper than that) and they won't let The Verve go. But Richard seems to fight against that past. His new CD, Keys To The World, is a half'n'half: equal parts crap and class.

Words Just Get In The Way falls into the latter category. This is the track that convinced me he needs to eventually hook up with Webb the way he hooked up with Brian Wilson on his last CD, the generally torpid Human Conditions. It's a great mix of twang and strings, with a wonderful country melody which makes his dippy lyrics go down easily.

The title track is also a killer, built on an endlessly looping female backing vocalist's wail. The last minute reminds me a bit of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" - it might have been nice if Richard has just gone full tilt and read his karmic musings like she did at the end of that classic. Music Is Power is also a classic Ashcroft uptempo - like a sister to "C'mon People" - delivered with his usual new agey spaciness about "music like a flower in the deep sunshine." Right. Whatever. The chorus has nice stabbing strings that punctuate his Vogue-isms like "wild! wild!"

Still, like the last album, Keys is weighted down with somber, meaningful ballads that scream to me "I've done this before and I've done it better." A reviewer recently wrote that Coldplay's last CD not only stole from their previous album, but cannibalized itself by the end. This is true here, with Ashcroft replaying emotions over and over again. We get it Richard: You are passionate, emotional and heartily fucked up! Four years to make this point with these songs? To paraphrase Grace Jones, I've heard those words before, I've heard those strings before.

Ashcroft's reputation is probably more elevated than he deserves (see his reception at Live 8) but I think much of the love comes down to his voice, which is truly one of the most comforting and expressive in music today. Listen to way he does the "ooooooh ooooh" vocal on the chorus of Break The Night With Colour - my God! Fuck me gently, Dickie! This track is a single in England - how I yearn for an American radio station that would play this music. We'd all be better off.

Amusingly, World Keeps Turning is like a Fleetwood Mac backing track sung as a duet between Courtney Love and Bob Dylan. I like it, but it's a bit...wonky.

I almost didn't post this review once I had read The Guardian's bile-filled, two-star slam. But I have my own thesis: On the Ashcroft scale, this music could be much better, but when you place it next to most of the crap that's doled out by the record industry now, it seems warm, familiar and comforting... a trade-off of safe vs. inspiring..

Torr has samples here.

PS: Love the album cover! I will imitate it for you next time I go to London...

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