Friday, 21 December 2012

REVIEW: Album Of The Year: Grimes - Visions

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (20/12/12) 

Certainly one to file in ‘other’, Grimes third and best album to date is a tricky old thing to define.

Critics have lazily described Claire Boucher’s music as having a ‘post-internet’ sound, but really she just has an incredible knack for marrying genres of the past with the present.

The result is a kind of ancient machine: established and contemporary. Boucher’s weightless, Cocteau Twins-like singing invariably meets with versatile synth patterns, an ambient sound that, unlike other modern electronic acts, doesn’t become repetitive.

Whether it’s the menacing pop of ‘Oblivion’, the video game glitches of ‘Genesis’, the classical-meets-digital brainwash of ‘Symphonia IX’ or the cataclysms of ‘Circumambient’, Visions is the kind of record that you will return to time and time again.

Friday, 14 December 2012

FEATURE: Dan Croll

*Originally published for The Generator's Tipping Point blog (13/12/12)

I’m honoured to at last reference a musician with (phonetically) the same strange surname as me, but only because the artist in question is breathtakingly good.

Dan Croll was first tipped by us in August when Toby Rogers praised his Flaws-era Bombay Bicycle Club balladry. A couple of months later, the Liverpool musician has come forward with a debut single sounding broader than all of his tracks put together (this is far from a discredit – check out the wonderful ‘Home’ and ‘Always Like This’) – so much so that the likes of Nick Grimshaw and Annie Mac have aired/interviewed him on their shows.

‘From Nowhere’ literally has arrived from another part of Croll’s mind, opening with a fairground organ that wouldn’t feel out of place on The English Riviera. It bursts forth with a statement bass-line, reggae rhythms and vacant jazz chords that, in all honesty, make you wiggle like a child in your desk chair. There’s a boyish, earnest tone to Croll’s singing, which nonchalantly glides over the track’s shimmering multicultural sound.

In essence, ‘From Nowhere’ does nothing less than hark to the kind of cool pop music that Santigold writes across the pond, but Dan Croll makes it in Britain. His debut album is out next year.

Friday, 7 December 2012

PREVIEW: Lewis Watson headlines BBC Introducing's Upstairs at the O2 Academy

*Originally published for BBC News Oxford (6/12/12)

Oxfordshire internet sensation Lewis Watson will be supported by four local singer-songwriters at December's Upstairs at the O2 Academy in association with BBC Introducing.

The gig on Saturday 8 December will see performances from Adam Barnes, Jasmine Hill, Gavroche and Alex Lanyon.

Lewis Watson, 20, was first played by BBC Introducing in 2010 and has received almost five million video views on YouTube.

He performed the lead single from new EP Another Four Sad Songs on Zane Lowe's BBC Radio 1 show after it charted on iTunes in November.

He said: "I've been to plenty of gigs at the O2 Academy, but now I'm headlining. It's great.

"Oxford is a great place to start out [as a musician]. I started doing open mics and it's fantastic for that."

Although not one to shrug off comparisons to artists like Ed Sheeran, Lewis likens himself to musicians a little further from the spotlight.

"It's a massive compliment to be compared to Ed Sheeran. I like to think that I draw more influence from Ed's workrate than his music though.

"I'd compare my music to City And Colour, or maybe Benjamin Francis Leftwich." 

The Oxford singer-songwriter is signed to Warner Bros and expanded much of his early fanbase through social media.

His success in the virtual world is now very much in the real, with the recent announcement that he is to support Birdy on her Australian tour in April 2013.

He added: "I'll be playing the Sydney Opera House before I'm 21. Mental."

Thriving scene

Adam Barnes will be playing a BBC Introducing gig for the second time Adam Barnes played an Upstairs gig in support of Glasgow's Admiral Fallow in May, but this month the event is completely bursting with local music.

Speaking of the "thriving" Oxford music scene, Adam said: "The best part is that there are always great bands to listen to who are currently doing well, not just in Oxford but across the UK."

He is also acutely aware of the important role that solo musicians play in the music industry.

"More have moved into the spotlight recently, but there are just as many as there ever were.

"You have to think that within every band there are one or two songwriters. The time period does change and different musical genres do steal the limelight, but songwriters have always been up there, from the Bob Dylans to the Springsteens to the Damien Rices."

Adam's music has taken more of a contemporary folk route of late, something that he is proud to exhibit at the Introducing gig.

"It's going to be a good show. It's always great to be involved with BBC Introducing in Oxford so I'm really looking forward to it.

"I'm also heading into the studio over Christmas and starting the recording of my debut album which is really exciting for me."

'Endlessly buzzing'

Jasmine Hill, 17, from Hook Norton, is another young act performing on the night.

She describes her music as "hook-based with pretty quirky productions... a mash up of Paloma Faith, Newton Faulkner, Adele, and Ed Sheeran".

While her covers of similar pop artists have garnered her attention on the internet, Jasmine is determined to share more of her original songs.

"I currently have a stash of originals in the bag and I'm now really focusing on adding to these as well as working and writing with top musicians and producers."

She has also found a way to get her music into a different medium.

"A song I wrote awhile back called 'Free' is being used in a film out early 2013 which is extremely exciting," she said.

Jasmine believes the support she has received from people in the local creative industries is down to their generally "open-minded" natures.

"The music scene [in Oxford] is endlessly buzzing with new talent and fresh music. The majority of people in Oxford are supportive of new artists and genres, so it's awesome for me to showcase my music."

The next couple of weeks are booked up with studio dates in London to record her material.

Also on the line up is Lucie Norton a.k.a. Gavroche who describes her music as "alternative angst folk with electronic tendencies". Singer-songwriter Alex Lanyon will open the night.

Every month a selection of local talent play the regular band nights at the O2 Academy, with highlights featured on BBC Introducing in Oxford.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

REVIEW: Bos Angeles - Taking Out The Trash


*Originally published for The 405 (27/11/12)

It's mid-summer, the car windows are wound down, your friends are drinking in the back seat and the air stinks of West Coast hubris. You're not in Los Angeles, however, you're in Bos Angeles, UK and it's pissing it down with rain.

According to a local travel website, Boscombe is lovingly referred to as 'Bos Vegas' or 'Bos Angeles' (though we'll leave the level of irony to the opinions of those who've visited). Three lads from the area have also decided to name their band after it, and they're here to brighten things up a bit.

'Beach Slalom' catapulted Bos Angeles into buzz band territory in November last year, catching them the attention of many a tastemaker. Such a response was inevitable with the band scoffing the liquid hooks of Beach Fossils, WAVVES and Girls, yet sounding distinctly rawer. Lazy, pubescent vocals groan over prickly guitars on 'Beach Slalom', with distorted bass and kitchen pot drums thrashing in the background. It's an addictive sound.

A year later, Bos Angeles have decided to compile all their unreleased EPs onto a retro, yet of-the-moment 21-song cassette tape, Taking Out The Trash as their final parting shot (they disbanded this year). 'Beach Slalom' opens the thick onslaught of lo-fi surfer-rock tunes, followed closely by 'Days Of Youth' with its assured oohs and ahs and happy-go-lucky guitars. It's a strong start and adheres to the 'bedroom pop grunge lo-fi post-punk surf' that the boys have previously (and a little humorously) marketed themselves on.

The next ten minutes do not allow you to lose sight of these genres, so much so that the tracks merge into one another. 'Making Waves' plods in 4/4 like a tired indie filler, lacklustre lyrics grate rather than satiate, and 'Endelss Summer' makes of a double-mockery of its title. Perhaps it's the juxtaposition with the ferocious 'Beach Slalom' and 'Days Of Youth', but either way, it feels like you're looking up from the foot of the mountain.

You can wipe away the beads of sweat once you've pass the halfway mark where, at last, a good cluster of songs breathes life back into the record. 'Stone Washes' is a wonderful early noughties pop-punk with its jangling bass and classic three-chord guitar progression and 'Shallom Goy' boasts of a fresh identity with its battered vocals and anthemic punk-rock chorus. There's something all the more different in 'I Hate It When You Look At Me', which shuffles its shoegaze feet and lets guitars gnaw beneath an impossibly slow beat.

You're just about getting somewhere until a couple of dreary numbers ('Friendzoned', 'All I Do Is Dream') take pole position once more. But the Boscombe boys are clever and draw the compilation to its close with some stellar tracks in 'You're The One That I Want' and 'Pretend With You.'

'You're The One That I Want', unfortunately, isn't a Grease cover, but it is fortunately two minutes of scorching post-punk. 'Pretend With You' is where you can't help but scream "more of this" into your speakers, with its stunning guitar stumbling over calypso drums and ghoulish vocals. Seriously, more of this please.

In all its giant, aggregated glory, Taking Out The Trash is more of a curse than a blessing. Chop it up into bits and it's perfect for easy listening, but swallow it whole and you'll choke before you reach the end. There are some great tracks hidden in its spools – you'll just have to play cassette roulette to find them.

6/10

Monday, 19 November 2012

FEATURE: SOAK


*Originally published for The Generator's Tipping Point blog (19/11/12)

Hello there again, girl + guitar. You’ve been defying the music industry of late with your Marlings, Roses and Daughters and you’ve been doing a fine job of it. Is it beginning to wear a bit thin, though? Aren’t we beginning to tire of all the cute acoustics and breathy vocals? No, not just yet, because 16 year old Bridie Monds-Watson a.k.a. SOAK is here to shake things up a bit.

Originally from Belfast but now based in Derry/Londonderry, the unsigned singer-songwriter has already released two EPs, supported bands like The Undertones and Villagers and even leapt onto the Radio 1 playlist. It’s not so much the complexity of her music that has stirred such attention, but its simplicity. Listen the components of her latest single, ‘Sea Creatures’ (taken from her recent EP of the same title) and you’ll see why. There are no interweaving guitars, just a gently plucked acoustic. There isn’t a full-sized drum kit pelting in the background, just a gently rumbling cajon drum. Dust those elements with the most untouched vocals imaginable, and you’ve got a perfect little nugget of acoustic pop.


Far beyond musical analysis of ‘Sea Creatures’ is the importance of SOAK’s lyrics: lyrics that tell of innocence and experience. “They don’t know what love is, throw it around like it’s worthless,” her precocious head cries, but we also hear her cursing the juvenile “Sea Creatures” that inhabit her world. She’s at once older than her years, yet too young to be ahead of them. That’s her charm.

The ‘Juno’-isms and the twee nature of her music might not suit everyone, but there’s no denying that SOAK has penned a contagious number in ‘Sea Creatures.’ It’s bound to stick in more heads to come.

*Tip comes courtesy of Damian Baetens

Thursday, 8 November 2012

FEATURE: KHUSHI


*Originally published for The Generator's Tipping Point blog (7/11/12)

Unsigned London songwriter and producer KHUSHI should be one self-assured fella. He’s received substantial attention on the blog circuit and repeated airplay on Huw Stephens' In Huw Music We Trust – yet just a handful of songs make up his back catalogue. Some stellar tracks must be at his disposal, then.

As stated on his Facebook page, KHUSHI is influenced by the likes of Bon Iver, The National and Alt-J. It would be superfluous and exhausting to pinpoint these sounds out however, for KHUSHI actually acts on his own territory. There may be the odd nod to Justin Vernon-like falsettos, but these are few and far between and there isn’t really one artist to attach him to (alright, I lied, there are a some stirring similarities to Colorado bedroom musician, Mesita).
 

On KHUSHI’s recent track, ‘Magpie’, an assured vocal tone and cutting lyrics tumble from lips, muted guitars mimic violins and careering drums drag root notes behind them. The entire song has a minimalist structure – starting small and ending big – and a brooding pulse that picks dirt up as it rolls. It does nothing less than entices you to explore more.

With an exciting career ahead of him, here’s to everyone doing the same.

Today's tip comes courtesy of Jeremy Lloyd from Laissez Faire Club.

Friday, 26 October 2012

REVIEW: Singles Round-Up - Pistols At Dawn, Grass House, MAIA, Pipers, Mt.Wolf


*Originally published for For Folk's Sake (26/10/12)


Pistols At Dawn – 'Man.Wolf.Man'

The centrepiece bass on this recording-project-turned-band’s latest single is so like the brooding bass line on ‘Come Together’ it’s uncanny, but its goes far beyond its bluesy sound. The track’s scuffling brush beats, jangling acoustics and warped, wheezy vocals are dangerously addictive and, as the grooves thicken and congeal, it becomes apparent that the band also owes much to the shuffle-pop of Dark Captain. You’re absolutely dying for it to reach the 5 minute mark, but it teases you with a commendable 4:52.



Grass House – 'The Boredom Rose'

The northern bred, southern-based four-piece are masters of theatre on this playful single; their guitars plot in the background, drums bounce with heart and character and the band harmonise with a densely-layered, chatty singing-style not unlike The Suburbs-era Arcade Fire. It’s catchy, pulsating and woozes with a twisted Americana.



MAIA – 'The Grandfather Plan'

It’s very tempting to do prior research on a band before reviewing them, but not doing so allows for a truly unprejudiced perspective. In MAIA’s case, with the Mediterranean acoustics and mischievous brass found on ‘The Grandfather Plan’, it was therefore a huge surprise to discover that they’re from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire (now who’s prejudiced?) Gorgeous, falsetto vocals hover over plucked strings and driving cajón drums – it’s immensely exciting.



Pipers – 'Ask Me For A Cigarette'

Pipers have clearly huddled themselves away in a lonely log cabin wearing woolly jumpers and sipping on organic cider while perusing a volume of ‘How To Write Sickly Indie-Pop.’ Of course, their primary-school piano, awkward vocals and twee acoustics might just be your cup of tea, but not mine.



Mt.Wolf - 'Life-Sized Ghosts'

'Dreamfolk'/'Folktronica' lot Mt.Wolf do exactly what it says on the tin. Ambient, dub-inflected soundscapes, breathy female vocals and alluring guitars enclose you in a euphoric dream, where the classically-trained singer Kate Sproule nurses you with her stunning chamber-choir harmonies. Like MAIA, this bunch are doing something quite different, so don’t lose sight.



Wednesday, 24 October 2012

LIVE: Oxjam Oxford Takeover

Richard Walters

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (24/10/12)

It’s a chilly Autumn night in the city of dreaming spires and something strange is happening. There are no university gowns in sight, nor any scantily-clad teenagers slumped on the side of the road. Tonight isn’t about the city’s students or tourists; tonight is a whirlwind celebration of Oxford’s famous musical heritage, its cosy contemporary music scene and the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, now known globally as Oxfam. Put simply, it’s an exciting music festival that raises awareness about poverty and injustice without shaking a jar at you.

The Cellar is a welcome respite from the crisp air outside and has already been warmed by cider-drinking punters awaiting ToLiesel’s set. The band play like they’re headlining; their feet set wide apart, guitars held aloft like godly relics and lead singer Jack Olchawski glowing with confidence. New single, ‘The Light’ is a charming song that bursts open with energy, healthy Americana and swashbuckling rhythms, but ‘Whispered Half Asleep’ sees ToLiesel at their most accomplished.  Aquatic guitars quiver and heavyweight three-part harmonies boom around The Cellar’s tiny underground space. “I’m flattered so many of you are missing We Aeronauts for us,” Olchawski says wide-eyed, “try and see some of their set.” And with that, a quick walk next door to The Purple Turtle allows gig-goers to catch the end of We Aeronauts’ set.

Sweat is dripping from PT’s cavernous walls and We Aeronauts are looking suitably bemused on stage. Technical difficulties have actually postponed their performance and the seven or so twenty-somethings are beginning to share perspiration with the walls. When all things are go, their first few minutes on stage are understandably a little flustered, but lead singer Anna is a force of nature and really pulls the band forward with her Feist-like vocals. A twee accordion and trumpet nicely pepper their grounded folk-guitar, piano and drum arrangements, but ongoing complications with the sound lets them down a bit tonight.

Sisterland

Thanks to the hard work of the festival organisers, all the Oxjam venues are in close proximity and the clubs themselves are fitting for each act. Take Sisterland for instance, a fuzzy garage-punk who have been wholeheartedly embraced by the local Blessing Force collective. They couldn’t be better suited and booted for Modern Art Oxford, A.K.A. Oxford’s hipster haven (it’s a visual art gallery-cum-performance space that sells seasonal food and soft grain leather rucksacks, for Christ’s sake). Musings aside, Sisterland play a remarkable set. The lead vocalist’s choir-boy vocals add a sugary sweetness atop the trio’s concoction of heavily distorted guitars and thrashing drums. Their set is criminally short, but Pet Moon are on next.

Sporting a rather unconventional short back and sides, Andrew Mears of Pet Moon immediately jumps into action, strutting around the stage and bouncing his RnB vocals off Modern Art’s whitewashed walls. They’re regulars on the local circuit and have been in some form for years (Mears was one of the original founding members of Foals and the since-dissolved Youthmovies). But it’s a rather odd affair watching them tonight. Mears intermittently hits the high notes and rarely engages with the audience, which is a surprise when considering the context of his established musicianship. Perhaps it is just his style. It could also be an extended metaphor for their somewhat disjointed and unpredictable music, where synths scurry like mice, trigger-sharp rhythms cut and splice and warm vocals wash with the beat. Their sound certainly lies somewhere between ambient producer How To Dress Well and a modern Prince, especially on the rousing ‘Superposition.’ Pet Moon have some fascinating experimental sounds at their disposal, but they just need to find a way to execute them live.

Pet Moon

Shortly afterwards at The Turl Street Kitchen, Empty White Circles take over the stage like there isn’t a moment to spare. Fronted by two American brothers but seemingly rooted in Oxford, the five piece play glorious Americana and rootsy folk ballads. Lead vocalist Kevin Duggan is a young incarnation of Marcus Mumford, who projects with a wholesome country hum and ‘woahs’ like he invented it. ‘Positives’ is an infectious shuffle-pop tune played with remarkable assuredness, but it’s ‘Adventures’ that really sells the band live. All five of them flank the edge of the stage and just as the Duggan brothers lull the crowd with their honeyed harmonies, the whole band stomps in unison like a strange, sedated hoedown. It’s powerful, engaging and damn-impressive from start to finish, just like their entire set.

Empty White Circles

Lamp shades add a rather domesticated feel to the venue, perfect for headlining solo acoustic hero Richard Walters' stripped-back sound. He’s just flown in from Ireland and looks bloody knackered, grinning and bearing the first few songs but eventually warming up to the attentive crowd. Walters is a captivating performer who never once opens his eyes but completely envelopes audiences in his stories of love, loss and life. New single, ‘The Escape Artist’, proves that he doesn’t need a full band behind him to stun everyone to silence. The recorded version – although in itself a beautifully undercooked composition – features yearning strings and tumbling drum patterns, but it couldn’t be better heard than live with just Walters and his solitary guitar.

The Turl Street Kitchen is enjoying a quiet crowd that takes comfort from Walters’ aching melodies and ecclesiastical vocals. Recognising this, Walters decides to dig out a couple more songs from his back catalogue, including the mesmerising, ‘Weather Song’, in which he compares his lover with natural elements over a trickling, plucked guitar.

The fact that Walters brings Oxjam Oxford to its close with this song is not only fitting for tonight’s breezy Autumnal weather, but it nods to the city’s love for performers of all kinds – from lo-fi garage bands to sensitive one-man band balladeers. After tonight, Oxford should be extremely proud of its charitable and musical heritage.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

FEATURE: Tessera Skies


*Originally published for The Generator's Tipping Point blog (17/10/12)

It’s a strange and somewhat lucky coincidence that Tessera Skies are playing their first gig in over four years at Oxjam Newcastle this Sunday. Their existentialist single, ‘Soliloquy of an Astronaut’, has undoubtedly been granted a place on their set-list, just a week after Felix Baumgartner leapt to earth from space. We all watched last Sunday, terribly nervous for Felix who was willing to sacrifice himself for science, no guarantee of falling to earth alive. “Green and blue look very strange from out here”, breathes Tessera Skies’ vocalist on ‘Soliloquy of an Astronaut’, “Look at me. I’m dying. I’m dying.” Thank god Felix made it.


Scientific references aside, Newcastle’s Tessera Skies have very recently sprung into action following the completion of their university studies. They’ve so far enjoyed airplay from Tom Robinson at BBC 6, the folks at Amazing Radio and Nick Roberts at BBC Newcastle, and that’s no mean feat.

It feels as if the three-piece have been waiting years for this moment, especially on ‘Soliloquy for an Astronaut’, a near-faultless piece of writing that is polished but also beautifully understated. Jazz-inspired drums trip over each other, ‘No Surprises’ electronics drip in the background and earnest strings grip at the root note. It’s wonderfully tranquil and perfectly embodies what one would imagine floating through space feels like, even if the lyrics carry a heavier metaphorical (than literal!) weight.

There are uncanny Guillemots intonations, as well as some Lanterns on the Lake musical stylings, but Tessera Skies impressively retain their own sound. A very promising, and culturally relevant, bunch.

Friday, 5 October 2012

FEATURE: CUBS


*Originally published for The Generator's 'Tipping Point' blog (3/10/12)

Well, well, well, what have we got here? Another bedroom musician using the great ploy of mystery to receive gratuitous attention? It’s not going to work, CUBS, I won’t let it. Those simmering synths and delicate wind chimes...they won’t get me...that organic lo-fi production...no, that won’t do... those stunning, frost-bitten vocals and those surprising tempo changes? That’s it, I can’t resist. CUBS, you’ve won me over to your charming minimalist synth-pop.

There really isn’t much to tell about CUBS except that Amber Bain is the creator of the lovely sounds found on ‘Anthra.’ Imagine Bon Iver’s Emma writing back to him from a lonely English bedroom and you’re kind of there. Her sound isn’t as refined as the American melancholic’s, but it’s certainly impressive for such early material.



CUBS’ crisp-cold vocal quality and multi-layered harmonising is similar to the Scandinavian synth goddesses that have graced the blogosphere over the last two years, but she has her own style that playfully jumps across heart-tugging bass notes and dreamy reverb. 

CUBS' chilling lo-fi sound on ‘Anthra’ is surely going to cause a stir on the internet, especially with the impending winter months. Hibernating will continue to do her well. 

*The Generator tip comes courtesy of Tom Cotton (Amazing Radio).

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

REVIEW: Jonathan Boulet - We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (1/10/12)

"Oh my god, you’re dead, oh my god, you’re not dead"/"It’s all real, you’re a fake.”
These are just a few of the paradoxical lyrics etched into multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Boulet’s sophomore effort, We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart, which paint pictures of a somewhat troubled 24-year-old. But the fickle nature of Boulet’s lyrics is unfalteringly swamped with vibrant tribal percussion and choral chants that actually work to juxtapose Boulet’s oft-melancholic stories. This to-ing and fro-ing between bright music and heavy wordplay immediately presents something a bit different and perhaps worth lending your ears to.
Opener ‘You’re A Animal’ (Boulet’s grammar) acts as a one-song montage for the entire album. Ferocious primal drums, dissonant brass and cock-sure power chords make a premature statement that this album is all about relentless ENERGY. 
Not one to hush for long, Boulet leads us straight from the plummeting, ‘You’re A Animal’, into the startling marimba-pop of ‘This Song Is Called Ragged.’ Excusing the incorrect musical ethnicity, but imagine an Indonesian gamelan on steroids and you’re there. Attention has clearly been paid to penning the vast, unyielding rhythm section; it seems Boulet has hardcore in his blood or a similar high-energy rock genre.
The first few songs on the record stage a tedious saga of pounding drums, but ‘Dread Is This Place’ and ‘Hallowed Hag’ offer much deeper, and different, textures. ‘Dread Is This Place’ goes all Animal Collective with soaring multi-layered harmonies and mashed-up psychedelic melodies, but ‘Hallowed Hag’ one-ups it with goose bump-inducing melodies, flamenco rhythms and spindly guitar chords that crawl over Boulet’s rasping vocals.
‘Mangle Trang’ and ‘FM AM CB TV’ are strong examples of Boulet overdoing it on the percussion front, with trigger-sharp drums spewing all over melodies that would have, at the very most, benefited from light rhythms. Chamber-pop melodies lie at the heart of ‘Piao Voca Slung’ and album-closer ‘Cent Voix’, which thankfully deviate from Boulet’s obsession with crashes, bangs and wallops. Unfortunately, the former doesn’t promise a complete recess from drilling percussion, but he clearly is a rhythms man and lets that remain at the centre of his songwriting.
We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart is sometimes wonderful and sometimes not. Wisps of ingenuity flutter about the songs’ surfaces, penetrating intermittently into deeper, emotional depths.  The clattering of drums, however, is always thumping at the back of your head, and regardless of the Boulet’s remarkable musical talent, you begin to get a bit of a headache.


Thursday, 27 September 2012

FEATURE: Richard Walters


*Originally published for The Generator's Tipping Point blog (19/9/12)

Oxford singer-songwriter Richard Walters is one of those musicians with the ‘that voice’ effect; it has warm familiarity, ecclesiastical clarity and a gravity of tone that you cannot help but completely resign to. This autumn sees the release of his second album, Regret Less, following widespread praise from The Guardian, The Fly and Uncut for his debut LP, The Animal (2009).

The lead single from Walter’s new fan-funded album, ‘The Escape Artist’, shows off the workings of a classic songwriter, blessed as he is with a vocal range as agile as fellow Oxfordian Thom Yorke’s. Walters may not favour the forthcoming comparison, but the crystal-clear quality of his voice is also not unlike Tom Chaplin’s of Keane.



It’s fairly unusual to hear such basic and raw instrumentation during an age of heavy synth/beats-driven music and excessively layered ‘nu-folk’ balladry. Clean guitar and hushed violins run alongside Walter’s metaphors about the pains of love, but he does not overindulge in superfluous crescendos like all the Mumfords and Sons of late. In fact, the track’s safe composition forces you to focus on the lyrics and the dexterity of Walter’s voice – at once fragile and powerful, discreet and arresting.

Keep your eyes peeled for him playing at some charming little venues around the country this month, as well as the expected release date of his new album Regret Less on 15 October.

*Today's Generator tip comes courtesy of Matt Marlow (KYEO.tv).

Thursday, 6 September 2012

FEATURE: Spring King

                                                                                                   

*Originally published for The Generator's 'Tipping Point' blog (6/9/12)

Working under the alias Spring King since March, it seems prolific producer of Tipping Point faves Jethro Fox and Dan Croll, Tarek Musa and friends have been spending a lot of time hanging out with Ty Segall and The Black Lips, or, the more probable situation, wishing they had. Their first penned track, ‘Let’s Ride’, boasts a similar garage-punk sound but is loaded with a faster energy that has already gained attention from the likes of The 405 and Amazing Tunes.

It’s hard to believe Spring King hail from the UK when dusty, Americanized vocals shout over lo-fi riffs and tinny west coast surf solos. Bass and drum breakdowns characterise the verses, while root-note piano adds depth to latter part of their organised car crash of sound. They even manage to squeeze in a couple of whirring synth melodies before the song ends at a measly two minutes and fourteen seconds, but they have made their point and impressively stun us to silence.

Spring King’s aggression and energy on ‘Let’s Ride’ is bound to prick ears up and get people excited about guitar music again – but this time on our home turf.

Today's Generator Tipping Point comes courtesy of Rob Platts at Alan James PR

REVIEW: By Toutatis - Hero and Leander/World's Worst


*Originally published for KYEO.tv (23/8/12)

Hot on the heels from their split EP with Dressed Like Wolves, Saltburn’s By Toutatis offer us a new double A-side single full of the swashbuckling shanties of their previous efforts, but with a lot more gusto. Tectonic-sized drum rolls, stoic root notes and quivering vocal vibrato work together to throw you into the midst of ‘Hero and Leander’s’ ferocious storm.

References come thick and fast to the myth of the same title, detailing Leander’s swim against the harsh tides of Hellespont sea to consummate his love with the priestess, Hero. Staggered harmonies echo Hero’s effort to guide Leander on his journey using a beaming torch, “There’s no better way to find her”, while fraught violins and thunder-clap drums accelerate the song to a dramatic conclusion.

‘World’s Worst’ eases you in more gently. Seething, archaic Celtic strings waft over bawdy vocals and guitars throng to the beat and pulse of the rhythm section. It’s quite difficult to discern the lyrics – perhaps due to unpolished sound levels – but the band’s superb song writing more than makes up for this with an infectious chorus and a lasting cacophony of dark, chamber pop sounds. 

If the journeys on this double A-side are what By Toutatis can muster at this stage, then let’s hope for an odyssey on the next.


Thursday, 9 August 2012

FEATURE: Noisestra


*Originally published for The Journal newspaper (7/8/12)



What do you get when you mix international exponents of avant garde music with 12 young turntablists in the North East? Well, quite a bit of noise. Charlotte Krol finds out what Mariam Rezaei's ambitious project Noisestra is all about.

"I feel very strongly about young people having a say in what they take part in. Music really is an identity for them and they can drive it forward in such a huge way.”

Twenty seven-year-old professional composer, improviser, performer and DJ Mariam Rezaei speaks with an old head on young shoulders.


“Turntablism is dying a death in this economy and I want to preserve it as an art form.


“The only way for it to survive is through collaboration and it is young people who are most willing to learn the skills.”


With the growing trend of DJs using laptops to create music by “simply pressing play on iTunes”, Mariam has been on a mission to keep vinyl turntablism alive by teaching DJ skills to young people based in the North East.


But rather than falling into a regressive trap of teaching DJing for the sake of tradition, Mariam has devised ways to be progressive when learning a skill that is becoming more and more outdated.


Since January, alongside weekly DJ workshops, the participants have been creating graphic scores to interpret music from.


The design work is in advance of the group’s collaborative performance with Anton Lukoszevieze’s award-winning experimental ensemble, Apartment House, at The Sage Gateshead on Friday.


“There has never been an ensemble of instrumentalists with an ensemble of turntablists before,” says Mariam. “This is groundbreaking. It will make history in music.”


The graphic scores were created from distorted photographs of Newcastle taken by the participants, including images of the Sage, the Quayside and Grey’s Monument.


“Noisestra has really allowed people to have their own voice and to develop themselves professionally.


“Some participants have used the project to not only learn a new skill, but to help them with their art work, for instance, or on their journalism by writing Noisestra blog posts for The Sage’s website.”




Local graphic and web design company, El Roboto, has guided Noisestra with the graphic scores, but it has also provided the group with vital work space in their studio.

Johan Berg, of El Roboto, says: “Even though we mainly work with multinational companies, whenever we have the opportunity to do something for someone who is really motivated, like Noisestra, it’s nice to help out.”


Mariam is more than grateful for the company’s help, saying that she doesn’t know what she would have done without them. “El Roboto has offered Noisestra unprecedented help. It’s something that I really appreciate.


“The same goes for The Sage Gateshead. Performing in such a fantastic venue adds to the professionalism of the project and it’s a brilliant example of the North East supporting its own artists.”


The project is part of NE-Generation and is funded by the Legacy Trust UK, an independent charity set up to promote a sporting and cultural legacy from the Olympic and Paralympic Games around the UK.


Mariam has performed as a DJ with ensembles in the past but felt she was a “gimmick”.


“This time, I wanted to see how the instruments in an ensemble would work with turntables – not the other way round.


“I’ve worked with Apartment House before and the experimental way in which they perform and think about music fits perfectly with Noisestra.”


“Experimental” certainly describes Noisestra’s sound. From pass-the- parcel noise compositions to minimalist pieces interpreted from graphics of trees, Mariam is very aware of the project’s unique identity.


“It’s something that people either love or hate because it’s very out there. But now there is a new group of trained turntablists in the North East. I think that’s really exciting.”


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

REVIEW: Micachu and the Shapes - Never



*Originally published for The 405 (23/7/12)

It's been three years since Micachu and the Shapes won critics over with their improbable pop debut, and a year since their high-brow live recordings with the London Sinfonietta, but their latest offering, Never, is where they have truly found themselves.
That said, there doesn't seem to be anything startlingly different with the music on Never. It just oozes more confidence. On 'Easy', the nasty, discordant post-punk sound of their debut, Jewellery, returns, with detuned guitars spasming over chop pop textures and homemade instruments dancing together. It's nice to hear they've still got a trusty vacuum cleaner to provide some of the drone effects, but what is really different is the assuredness that emits from every clash, bang or wallop, or how well 'Easy' and 'Never' flow into each another.
'Low Dogg', taken from their 2011 live album Chopped and Screwed, has received a new energy on Never. Menacing synths replace the original Sinfonietta's stringed instruments, which sound bizarrely similar to the twisted synth progressions on Grimes's, 'Oblivion.' It's not necessarily an improvement on the live recording, but the sound is sharper and really lifts the slightly dulled hip-hop rhythms. Lead singer Mica Levi is full of character here – her East London growl snuggled comfortably between beats.
Another track that has made its way over from Chopped and Screwed is the rather doomy and introspective, 'Fall'. It's a depressing little number with deformed jazz chords hopping between gloopy reverb and purring drum rolls. The lyrics are hard to discern, but the dark, cinematic sounds towards the end of the track seem to speak of an inconsolable situation. Whatever its meaning, 'Fall' is an immersive and enthralling listen.
Many albums are loaded with their strongest tracks at the beginning or end, but the best songs on Never are actually clustered in the middle. 'Holiday' is laced with rewound cassette tapes and light hearted chants: "I can't wait for my holiday, I've had my work cut out for me." It's catchy with ooh-and-ah harmonies and it really feels like the trio had boundless fun putting this track together.
A nostalgic, fairground tune whirls throughout 'Slick' as vocals gargle between snap-happy percussions, but the following track, 'OK', is even more attractive in sound. Keyboardist Raisa Khan and Levi sing, "Are you sure you're ok? Couldn't be better," in call-and-response over thick, industrial noise, yet the track offers an earthier, psychedelic sound with dreamy vocals and synths mimicking prog-rock guitars. Like 'Holiday', the song has conventional structures and accessible lyrics, propelling Micachu and the Shapes into their most poppy territory yet.
'You Know' and 'Glamour', sadly, fail to fit anywhere between the band's admirable experimentalism and organised chaos, falling quickly behind the overwhelming amount of solid tracks on the LP.
The definitive track of the album comes in the sonic-sized form of the oxymoron entitled, 'Nothing.' Lying somewhere between a sedated Ty Segall track and a warped 50s rock 'n' roll ballad, 'Nothing' sees gritty guitars and rich harmonies married together as handsome male vocals carry the verses. Smart lyrical arrangements ("We had everything to lose, so I stood on a cigarette, and decided we weren't finished yet") anticipate an explosion of quivering synths, choral singing and broken guitar solos, leaving your brain suitably fuzzy and warm at the close.
Micachu and the Shapes have retained their knack for producing an accomplished smorgasbord of sound on Never, but have done so without alienating listeners or sounding tired. Their new material is stronger than ever and, for better or worse, edges just that bit nearer to pop music. Who knows what they will come up with next.
8/10


Friday, 29 June 2012

REVIEW: Friends - Manifest!

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (29/6/12)

Brooklyn’s Friends are the new funk-punks of pop, the crème de la crème of cool and, quite literally, the kind of people you want to be friends with. Stick on their debut album, Manifest!, and you’ll feel that little bit closer to their world of street parties, hedonism and don’t-give-a-fuck mantras. With last year’s, ‘I’m His Girl’, going sonic on the blogosphere, have the five piece lived up to all the hype?



Coincidentally, opener ‘Friend Crush’ is all about vocalist Samantha Urbani’s unabashed desire for friendship: “I want to be your friend, I want to ask your advice on a weekday, I want to plan something nice for the weekend.” It’s this honesty that makes her just so damn cool – sassy vocals surfing over growling bass lines and drums burning with her desire to kick start a new relationship. ‘Sorry’ is very Vampire Weekend-esque, with fluttering synths, bouncing cow bells and alternating ‘ooh/ahs’ making it also instantly likeable and soft on the ears.

As expected with a band from Brooklyn, there are the token 80s moments. ‘A Thing Like This’ is a lethargic regurgitation of effects-laden New Order guitars, RnB-kissed vocals and disco synths. The lullaby-like ‘Stay Dreaming’ is just as retro in its sound, with its lush new wave textures beaming Cocteau Twins’ ethereal sound.

Buzz-song, ‘I’m His Girl’, effortlessly demands your attention with a thumbed bass circling Urbani’s half-rapped/half-sung vocals: “When you see me walking around with him, I’m not just another chick, I’m his girl.” Rhythm lies at the heart of the song, with more of Lesley Hann’s bossy bass lines thumping against the rest of the troupe’s jungle percussion.

Unfortunately, Friends’ authenticity crumbles at ‘Ruins’ (pun intended). Two minutes of painfully try-hard thrashy and trashy post-punk spoil the preceding chic of the earlier tracks and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, you’d be forgiven for thinking a 90s J-Lo song had gatecrashed the party in ‘Ideas of Ghosts’, with its Mediterranean guitars and pulsating bass. But at the same time there’s something quite captivating about Urbani’s unearthly wails.

Towards the end of the album, ‘Proud/Ashamed’ challenges the idea that Friends are all about rhythm. Close harmonies coo over oscillating synths and it doesn’t sound unlike Braids with its dream pop progressions and netted vocals.

But it’s ‘Van Fan Gor Du’ that really shows Friends at their best. Fresh funk pop seeps from every snare snap, hand clap or call-and-response shout. This, along with the muddy bass and bongo drums of ‘Mind Control’, sums up everything about the band. Fun.

Friends aren’t reinventing music on Manifest! or swallowing fifteen minutes of buzz-fame. They’re just hosting a party, and everyone’s invited.

8/10

Sunday, 24 June 2012

LIVE: Suzanne Vega @ The Sage, Gateshead


*Originally published for The Journal newspaper (21/6/12)

Suzanne Vega is quite the veteran performer, with 27 years' experience on and off the road.

But for all her wisdom, she took to the stage of Hall One with the playfulness of youth, top hat at a jaunty angle for 'Marlene On The Wall' and oak-smoked vocals resonating with warmth.

The first half hour of the set was littered with early hits, including delicate guitars and heavy metaphors in 'Small Blue Thing.'  The audience seemed gently lulled by these folky numbers, which lent themselves to Vega's conversational singing style.

But Vega's talents do not stop there. Slotting a fake cigarette between her fingers and losing her guitar, she suddenly transformed herself into Carson McCullers, the ambitious protagonist of her musical, Carson McCullers Talks About Love. She confidently presented a trio of Broadway-like tunes, but they seemed a little humdrum and out of place.

'Blood Makes Noise' is a strange number live. Vega danced trance-like, while her pal on guitar looped effects frantically for an industrial-rock sound. By experimental standards, the song was brave and sounded fresh 20 years on, but it jarred noticeably against her earlier acoustic work.

After the catchy chorus and rhythms of 'Tom's Diner', Vega once again brandished her mighty acoustic. 'Some Journey' and 'Luka' really charmed the audience at the set's close with full-bodied guitars and glorious, chiming vocals.

Clearly, it is her early work that still pleases audiences most.

FEATURE: Ninetails



*Originally published for The Generator's 'Tipping Point' blog (29/5/12)

Ninetails are certainly creating a buzz on the underground music scene, but that’s no thanks to their Pokémon-fuelled title. With extensive plays on BBC 6 Music, an EP sold out within two weeks, a record deal with Superstar Destroyer and support slots with Alt-J, Three Trapped Tigers, Errors, Dutch Uncles and Jonquil, it looks like the Liverpool bunch are set for great things.

Their latest single, ‘Blue Bottle Flu’ is tantamount to the hype, with an impulsive I-want-to-click-the-replay-button motion kicking in before the song has finished. At its opening, a slender delayed guitar kisses muted strings before math-rock percussion and angular bass rhythms splash at every direction. It’s very, very Antidotes-era Foals – as much as the band may squeal at such comparison – but that’s nothing to be disheartened about. In fact, to achieve a sound that projects as much musical precision as Foals but bears arguably richer melodies is something to be proud of.



Further still, when you think you have the jist of the song, the foursome takes you on another journey for the remaining thirty seconds. Balmy string slides and celestial harmonies seem a whole world away from the electrifying throbs, crashes and scurrying guitars of the preceding few minutes and the juxtaposition is an absolute joy to listen to.

Ninetails are surely set to get the recognition they deserve.

Monday, 28 May 2012

REVIEW: Emma Gatrill - Chapter 1


*Originally published for For Folk's Sake (22/5/12)

Musicians, like film stars and television broadcasters, are some of the most important cultural icons in history. Furthermore, instruments can carry as much, if not more, powerful symbolism than musicians themselves. Take the electric guitar, for example, and Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton spring to mind. Or the piano: Elton John and Stevie Wonder. Or even the wobble board and, you guessed it, Rolf Harris pops up. In folk music, one of the prime instruments is of course the acoustic guitar (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling are all a dab hand at it) but what about the harp?

It’s not so common, Joanna Newsom aside, for this instrument to be the centrepiece, yet it has as much merit. It’s also what really makes Emma Gatrill’s debut album, Chapter 1, stand out so much. Within moments of listening, it’s clear that Gatrill is substituting the traditional folk guitar for the harp and it’s to no detrimental effect. ‘Hold On’ allows the harp strings to flutter around Gatrill’s soft soprano vocals like a gently strum acoustic with a deeper mystique. It’s enjoyable to hear something different in a landscape where countless twee singer-songwriters have guitars glued to their fingertips.

Gatrill’s voice is as equally captivating as her instrument of choice. Her quivering vocal always feels as if it’s just about to break; thawing at the higher notes in ‘Twisted Threads’ or cooing unpredictably in ‘Black Dog’. Gatrill’s known association with Rachel Dadd is completely understandable here; both artists trick the listener into thinking their voices will give way at any second while knowing they have complete control.

Away from the harp and the vocals lies a host of other instruments. Acoustic guitars feature quite prominently in ‘Josephine’ and ‘Squiggles and Balloons’, with guitar and harp interlocking in the former as violins paint Gatrill’s fairy tale battles in the air. The guitar holds a real intimacy in ‘Squiggles and Balloons’ and it’s easy to conjure an image of Gatrill at a friend’s kitchen table, swaying to the strokes of the acoustic and singing her Alice In Wonderland-like lyrics: ‘monkeys climbing brambles, elephants on motorbikes, turtles twist with me and you.’

The free rhythms of the majority of the songs on Chapter 1 are counteracted in ‘Jobe’ where drum rim taps and finger-clicks create wonderfully syncopated rhythms. Minor notes flux between the harp and the guitar and harmonies echo sounds of the occult. The movement in this track also breaks the album up at a clever point; some of the earlier songs’ liberal rhythms can become, paradoxically, a bit repetitive and stale.

‘The Birds’ has a darker, archaic feel, where Gatrill talks of lust and unrequited love: ‘I’m in love with a man whose wild heart runs free, I’m in love with a man who doesn’t love me.’ The literary references again come thick and fast, bowing down to the album’s apt title, with a brooding Heathcliff character running between Gatrill’s harp strings.

Towards the end of the album lies ‘Soul Lovers’ with its sickly-sweet lyrics but charming musical texture and melody. Grave strings add depth to the airy, alternating harp rhythms and Gatrill litters the song with erratic notes that are strangely pleasant to listen to. She allows the music to run in a stream of consciousness like a poet’s mind to paper, and this musical freedom is inspiring and truly demonstrates Gatrill’s creative talent overall.

With the harp at its core, Chapter 1 will unquestionably get people thinking about the ways in which different instruments can be used in folk music. The harp will not suddenly become the genre’s iconic instrument, but it should put Gatrill on the map. And deservingly so, too, because Chapter 1 is a sterling debut effort.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

FEATURE: Idles


*Originally published for The Generator's 'Tipping Point' blog (8/5/12)

It’s not often that I come across a band who are as to the point as Idles are. The upcoming Bristol 5-piece aren’t huddled away in the crevasses of cyber-space, but are right out in force with a recent support slot for London psych-rockers S.C.U.M and a superb website that tells you everything from the band’s history to their influences and interests (hurrah for music journos)! But it’s their music that really shouts out loud; post-rock creations laden with rugged guitars, chunky basslines and raucous vocals.

New song, ‘Meidei’, taken from their forthcoming EP ‘Welcome’ (out August 6th), is completely wrapped up in these aforementioned sounds. High-hats chomp on chugging basslines, while vocalist Joe Talbot screams over needle-sharp guitars that splutter with distortion. You can definitely nit-pick out the obvious Walkmen, Buzzcocks and edgy Joy Division influences, but Idles swallow them whole and regurgitate a rather compelling sound that is full of their own gritty energy.



'Meidei' is also strange to listen to because it features just guitars, bass, drums and vocals – there are no glockenspiels, casio keys or kitchen utensils here to make the sound (used by many, but not exclusively to those uber-cool hipster types) - but this isn't a problem. It's modern rock ‘n’ roll at its best and the band are surely set for a bright future.

(Tip for The Generator comes courtesy of Sam Betts at Fear Of Fiction).

Thursday, 3 May 2012

PREVIEW: Bestival 2012




*Originaly published for The Courier (30/4/12)



Where? Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight

When? September 6-9

How much? £170 for students

Who'll enjoy it? The wary student who wants good value-for-money, or the all-encompassing hippy who wants to frolic in a pixie costume

This year sees another incredibly eclectic line-up, with headline performances from New Order, The XX, Sigur Rós and the one and only, Stevie Wonder.

Other acts include: Spiritualised, Friendly Fires, Bat For Lashes, Major Lazer, Annie Mac, Gary Numan, The Horrors, Azealia Banks, SBTRKT, Orbital, Earth Wind and Fire experience feat. Al Mckay, Django Django, Warpaint, Four Tet, B2B, Caribou, Gold Panda, Adam Ant & The Good, Little Dragon, De La Soul, Lucy Rose, John Talabot, Justice, Alabama Shakes, Lianne La Havas, 2ManyDJs, Daughter, Grimes, Friends, Clock Opera, Zulu Winter, Errors, First Aid Kit, Chairlift, Field Music, Porcelain Raft, Gallows and loads more!

This student, family or just about anyone-friendly independent music festival is curated by Josie and Rob da Bank, who are passionate about creating a unique festival atmosphere without having to sacrifice a solid line-up. Aside from the music performances, there are reams of other events going on and plenty of wacky places to explore, with a Bollywood Cocktail Bar, Roller Disco and the Wishing Tree Stage to name a few examples.

Traditionally, festival-goers don fancy dress and as the organisers put it, the festival is ‘a wondrous world of discovery and adventure that will inspire peace, love and dancing, not only in September but all year round…’


Thursday, 26 April 2012

REVIEW: James Yorkston And The Athletes - Moving Up Country [Reissue]


*Originally published for The 405 (25/4/12)

2002. The birth of reality TV talent contests such as Pop Idol, number one singles from Daniel Bedingfield and Girls Aloud and the untimely death of The Clash's Joe Strummer. Little did I know as an oblivious 12 year old that among these musical events there was a burgeoning micro-indie record label and group of musicians called the Fence Collective. Founded by Kenny Anderson of King Creosote in 1997, Fence Collective was to later have the likes of such great artists as Lone Pigeon, Françoise And The Atlas Mountains and a quietly confident singer-songwriter, James Yorkston, nestled in its arms.

In 2002, Yorkston (with musical backing from The Athletes) released his critically-acclaimed debut album, Moving Up Country under Domino Records and this year the label are marking its 10th anniversary with a reissue of the album; replete with bonus songs and Peel session recordings as part of a double CD/vinyl package.

Time and time again, Yorkston has been affiliated with folk music. This has been accelerated no less by releases of albums like Folk Songs (2009) but truth be told, he is a more general roots man; country, blues and folk can all be quite easily picked out on Moving Up Country (not to mention splices of gospel and even some jazz). It is the album's myriad of sound that won Yorkston his die-hard fans and has been pulling in new listeners ever since.

Album opener, 'In Your Hands', is a potent example of this. Deep accordion notes sit below Yorkston's imperfect but charming vocal, and a harmonica and a light blues guitar, among other instruments, caress the narrative about a day spent giving undivided attention to a lover. '6.30 Is Just Way Too Early' is similar in its domestic story-telling, "I find myself down the stairs/Lazy dog gives me the eye/And I drag our bones around the barns/And catch the morning light," but a stuttering and spluttering organ shifts the song from comfortable acoustics to sonic gospel terrains.

There is a timeless quality to the songs in Moving Up Country, like the rich acoustic that walks in hand with the soothing vocals and scratchy fiddles in 'St Patrick', or the fast-paced jazz piano, rippling snare and early rock 'n' roll jaunt of 'I Spy Dogs' – it feels like you have heard these songs before. The talent with which Yorkston and his Athletes revisit, explore and reinvent genres is astounding.

It is then barely excusable to downplay the albums' lead single, 'Moving Up Country' – the very song that caught the eye of John Peel and convinced John Martyn to take Yorkston on his full Winter tour in 2001 – but where songs like 'The Patient Song' worm their way into your ears with warped blues keys and bouncy reverb guitars, 'Moving Up Country's' obtrusive harmonica and repetitive melody just leaves you tired. Thankfully, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority of the songs on the double album and this is what makes it so rounded and impressive.

Disc two holds demos of some of Yorkston's finest songs on Moving Up Country, but it does suffer a little for the more basic production, as can often be expected with demos. The harmonies on 'The Patient Song' are less refined and the harmonica in '6.30 Is Just Way Too Early' is quite grating here, but it is strangely wonderful to hear how the kinetic energy of 'I Spy Dogs' used to be stored before it was unleashed later in its studio version.

Some of the bonus demo tracks like 'Worthy Souls' and 'My Distance Travelled' are truly enthralling; yawning slide guitars, grumbling double-bass and tinny, roll-snap drums dancing together in unrivalled freedom. Another strong contester from the bonus tracks is 'La Magnifica' with its burgeoning acoustics and plucked violin strings tiptoeing around the track's edges, but it is the 'Tender To The Blues' Peel recording that elevates itself above the rest. The descending string progression, melancholic harmonies and sinew-yanking minor notes sound just as, if not more, extraordinary live than on the original recording. The track's multifaceted texture is a true microcosm of James Yorkston and The Athletes' remarkable musical dexterity.

Moving Up Country is the kind of album that has and will continue to introduce people to styles of music that they thought they didn't like. Yorkston has an envious and somewhat confusing ability to pen songs that transcend genres, yet still beam his style from start to finish. The reissue is a treat for anyone who appreciates the difficulty of this; wants their hands on rarer Yorkston material; or is willing to open their mind to a variety of musical styles that sound as timeless and as a fresh as they did a decade ago.

9/10

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

REVIEW: Sea Of Bees - Orangefarben

*Origininally published for the Oxford Music Blog (24/4/12)

Two songs into Orangefarben, ‘Take’ hears the sleepy acoustics and lyrics of love, lust and heartbreak that dominate the rest of the album. ‘Gone’ follows a similar pattern, albeit for an attractive phaser guitar effect, but it is not vastly different in sound from its predecessor. This gentle folk rock is part and parcel of Sea Of Bees’ sound (evident in her previous album Songs For The Raven) and there is, of course, nothing wrong with this. What is perplexing, however, is that Ms Bee has astonishing vocal drive, ability and emotional give, yet a lot of her music in Orangefarben lacks such ambition.

Thankfully, there are moments on Orangefarben that do startle. ‘Broke’, for instance, has all the ingredients to rival Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Give Out’ with it close guitars and crumbling vocals, and ‘Teeth’ is a vivid lament for falling in love with the wrong person, tinged with slick country guitars and drums that punch regrets head-on, “And I know I shouldn’t think those thoughts and I’ve gone ahead and thought those thoughts.

Further still, Ms Bee and co’s cover of John Denver’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ (shortened to ‘Leaving’) is just as emotive and rhythmically animated as ‘Teeth.’ Sampled, shuffle-pop drums loop around biting acoustics and Bee’s layered harmonies are at their most dexterous and astounding here. Stand-out track, ‘Alien’, clocks in just before the album’s close; storming ahead with whizzing keys, defiant guitars, cracking wood blocks and distant vocals that scream a lover’s betrayal. It’s surely a crowd-pleaser live and adds much-needed variety and spice to the album at a pivotal point.

This assortment of sound is what can be heard initially on ‘Give’ (earlier in the album) and in ‘Grew’ at the album’s close. The former carries a jovial bass line with unpredictable beats and muted guitars, but before long the cuddly, star-twinkling melodies that saturate the album return and strip the song of its individuality. ‘Grew’ does emit a more experimental sound with grinding electronics, ethereal synths and mournful vocals, but, unfortunately, it fades into the background and is quickly forgotten.

Orangefarben is not without its share of solid songs, nor is it spared of its mediocre ones. It is a record lyrically charged with all the emotions of a shattered relationship and Julie Ann Bee couldn’t wear her heart more on her sleeve. But musically, it lacks the spark that no one can deny she can fuse. An ambitious sophomore effort perhaps wasn’t on the agenda, but it is exasperating that Bee has primarily dotted her artistic palette with shades that do not show off her full, vibrant colours.

5/10

Friday, 20 April 2012

FEATURE: Is streaming the new buying?

Spotify Logo
*Originally published for Fresh On The Net (20/4/12)


Yesterday BBC Radio 1 released figures from the BPI and Official Charts Company that show a 25% decrease in CD sales from 20.5 million in the first three months of 2011, to 15.3 million this year. Digital sales are instead increasing and account for almost a third of all albums sales.

Regardless of the rise in digital sales, Music Week has revealed that weekly album sales have plummeted to a record 21st century low: ‘Overall album sales are 27.62% down week-on-week at 1,446,218 – that is 23.19% below same week 2011 sales of 1,882,878, and lower than in any of the 640 previous weeks that have elapsed in the 21st century.’ While music is being shared and accessed more easily via streaming platforms such as Spotify, it is not being paid for as much by fans. Streaming is essentially the new buying.

Last month, my friend treated me to a month’s premium subscription to Spotify for £10. Until then, I had been using the Spotify free package to preview albums before buying them (habitually, in CD format). I have been more than satisfied with Spotify’s allocation of five listens maximum per song and the adverts haven’t bothered me too much.

What my companion couldn’t get his head round, however, is why I do not choose to spend just a tenner a month to avoid advertisements, enjoy unlimited listening, stream music on my smartphone and listen to songs in higher audio quality. Irritated by my stubbornness, he bought me a month’s subscription to see if I could be swayed.

Sure, the unlimited streaming was great and the smartphone service was pretty slick, but something that I had previously highlighted to my friend cropped up; in that month, I did not feel as inclined to buy a new album (CD format, mp3 format, whatever) because I felt like I already owned a bunch of new ones in quasi-tangible form.

It really frustrated me that the £10 subscription had not actually resulted in me owning any new music. Yes, I had access to thousands of songs streaming on my computer and phone, but I couldn’t burn song files onto a CD for my car, nor transfer the files for the purposes of my radio show. Buying music from Spotify at an additional price would have of course enable me to do this, but with the tenner already gone on the subscription, I was strapped of the money that I would have bought a new album with that month. So, I returned to Spotify free.

What I prefer about the free version is that it limits your listening to five plays. I think it’s a fair deal considering that you are using it on a free basis. If you have listened to an album 5 times then that’s a) probably because you like it and b) if so, it’s about time you actually owned the album. Spotify free encourages me to keep doing what I have always done; pay for the privilege of owning music and enables me to do something that I couldn’t do a few years ago; preview and explore more music. The listening cap on Spotify free means that I truly realise what’s worth buying and what’s not. While the free version, paradoxically, does not save me money, at least I am the owner of something real at the end of the month.
Whether you buy CDs, buy music off iTunes/Spotify, or stick to vinyl (the latter of which has seen a 20% increase in sales according to Nielsen SoundScan – good news for Record Store Day) what is undeniably true is that people are not putting as much money towards music. The £10-a-month subscription to Spotify is some payment, but it is merely a small token in exchange for unlimited listening.

I think streaming on a premium basis is deterring a lot of people from buying music at its true value and the aforementioned decrease in album sales are likely attributed to this. Sadly, I’m sure it won’t be long before BPI and the Official Charts Company reveal another record low in album sales.

stylus on vinyl