Sunday, January 30, 2011

ALLO DARLIN' + THE LOVES @ NIGHT & DAY 29 January 2011

Just Handshakes We’re British were at pains to remind this Manchester crowd which side of the Pennines they were from: “we’re from Leeds, West Yorkshire” they told us repeatedly “and we prefer our roses white”. This sounds much more confrontational than it actually was. The four-piece in person are as likeable as their music if a touch more retiring.

Their cutesy female-fronted Casiotone indie-pop got more muscular and complex as the rhythm section became more prominent but they never fully threw off the tentativeness of an opening act. This was not helped by how shy singer Clara appeared – fixed stares at her keyboard or occasionally at the rafters gave the impression she thought any eye contact with the crowd would cause her to forget the words. Their banter might not be about winning fans but their music certainly is - they just need to loosen up a bit more. Maybe become less British?

This is my first time seeing The Loves at what sadly turns out to be their last ever Manchester gig – the band call it a day after ten years and multiple line-up changes at their Valentine's Day gig at the Lexington. The fact this Valentine's Day gig isn’t actually on the 14th February seems to sum up the so-close-but-so-far nature of the band. The seven-piece mix Carnaby Street couture, classic 60s pop and surreal humour: "This is our Christmas single. It didn’t do too well. It’s called ‘Motherfuckers’".

It was all delivered with an unpolished irreverence and a devil-may-care attitude of a band with only weeks left to live. They were joined by a former guitarist who hadn’t played with them for six years for one number, Jamie Holman from Tompaulin sang the voice of Jesus in 'It’s...The End of the World' and singer Simon Love threw the last remaining copies of their vinyl single ‘December Boy’ into the crowd with abandon. The fact they had forgotten to bring any copies of their latest album to sell just cements their loser status-cum-wayward genius. Great heartfelt-but-shambolic fun. Is it too soon to start the campaign to get The Loves to reform?

Allo Darlin’ are frequently described as a “fan’s band”. And tonight’s capacity show was certainly full of their own fans with most of the songs of last year’s wonderful debut album being sung back to them word-perfect. The set also included a few new songs included the one dedicated to Darren Hayman (“you’re so beautiful and you don't know”) that they played in front of said singer at last September’s End of the Road Festival.

Elizabeth said she felt ‘overwhelmed’ at one point during this gig but they never looked it - from the outset the band were determined and upbeat, continually bouncing about on their toes. The sound mix at the front was not the best but that didn’t take away from the hot, sweaty, bouncy fun: despite the heartbreak in some of their lyrics Allo Darlin’ just induce happiness. And then with first encore, the heart-stopping ‘Tallulah’ performed solo by Elizabeth, they show they can also induce tears. My only complaint was that 11 songs was just not enough.

This week Allo Darlin play Bristol, Cardiff and Cambridge, then London the week after before setting off for Europe. The self-titled debut album is available now from Fortuna Pop.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Earlier this month the BBC Poll declared The Sound of 2011 to be Jessie J, another photogenic white female BRIT School graduate. Just like the previous two years. It’s easy to disparage such polls as the media and mainstream music industry play safe, clone earlier successes or clutch at straws. Meanwhile the real sound of 2011, like in 2010 and 2009 and 2008, will be that found bedrooms and home studios, on micro-indies and from DIY releases: more authentic, less manufactured, from a myriad of genres and often built around a small community of fans.

Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo crowd-sourced the funds for their second album “Almanac” using Pledge Music. They exceeded target within five days. Pledgers received their albums and packages of extras last December ahead of the official release date of 7 February.

The eleven songs on "Almanac" are peppered with nautical references - billowing seas, coastal airs, fighting gulls and moored boats. But don’t be expecting coarse salt-encrusted shanties. The Red Clay Halo trio - Jo Silverston on cello, Anna Jenkins on violin and Gill Sandell on accordion, flute and piano - ground these songs with a chamber-music elegance, and occasional edge, that is luxurious but never ostentatious.

Songs move from the frail fluttering of ‘Dancers’ to the more muscular sway of ‘Openings’, from the eerie hum of ‘Pause’ to the elated jig of ‘Calendar’ but overall never diverge as hugely in tone and texture as this spectrum suggests. Despite Barker’s Western Australian upbringing, there is a breezy and English pastoral feel to the record but also a cool reserve. For all the calm external composure they project however, there are contrary emotions and tensions at play beneath the surface.

So ‘Billowing Sea’ sings of the pain of heart-break but also the liberty, even escape, it brings in. The quieter ‘Reckless’ considers how “we can love and mourn at the same time” in. Lyrics can be allusive rather than specific but given most songs, even the most obviously historical one ‘Witch of Pittenweem’, are sung in the first person there is an emotional directness to them that is captivating. The almanac of the title therefore is less about plotting tidal movements or the changing seasons but more about changing and changed human emotions.

This is a strong record of beautifully crafted song-writing that should build on the profile Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo garnered with first album "Despite The Snow" (and accompanying "Wallander" theme music tie-in) and reward the faith of those pledgers. But will it become the Sound of 2011? Sadly not. But I’d like to think this finely nuanced folk-pop will become one of the myriad Sounds of 2011. And if you’re looking for an authentic, thoughtful and engaging listen it knocks Jessie J and the like into a cocked hat.

Billowing Sea - Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo Alamanac [BUY]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The back-story to Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies releasing their first album as Smoke Fairies reads like a fairy tale: childhood friends leave Sussex for a North American odyssey and end up recording with Jack White. However selective this re-telling of their story may be, there’s no denying the power of the spectral music they create. Debut album “Through Low Light and Trees” blends very English folk voices with a dark strain of Americana to make something brooding and quite special. If it's a fairy tale, it's quite a spooky one.

Piccadilly Records agree making the release one their albums of the year: "A stunning and enchanting collection from this folk duo. Ethereal and haunting this is on the dark side of traditional folk, think Sandy Denny or Vashti Bunyan but with a left-of-centre twist. Folk album of 2010!"

And ahead of tonight’s gig at the recently refurbished Ruby Lounge, Smoke Fairies play a free 20 minute acoustic session at the shop on Oldham Street at 5pm.

Tickets for tonight’s show are £7 in advance and support is from Sea of Bees and Pablo’s Finest Hour.

Monday, January 24, 2011

RUE ROYALE "Halfway Blind"

Rue Royale are an Anglo-American duo named after a suburban Chicago road near their previous home. The couple now reside in Nottingham - a handy midpoint for the extensive European and US touring they seem to be hooked on. Out today is “Halfway Blind”, a digital download and 7” vinyl on Need No Water Records, the first single to precede second album “Guide To Escape”.

Brookln (sic) and Ruth Dekker claim “a shared love of Fleetwood Mac, John Martyn and the northern UK soul of Doves and Elbow”. I can see where they are coming from but on this track I’m reminded of another married musical partnership. The intense Americana recalls The Handsome Family with the murder ballads and gothic quirkiness taken out. Instead Rue Royale hone in on dense melodic swirl to this darkly ambiguous song of (I think) devotion “I will travel distances until indeed everything is alright”.

The B-side ‘Say Now Would You’ (not on the forthcoming album) is a lighter, more hopeful tune. Its catchy acoustic strum and contrasting dark/light male and female vocals makes me think of Win Butler and RĂ©gine Chassagne on the more subdued moments of “The Suburbs” (but without the sense of impending apocalypse).

I might be pushing the husband-wife analogies too much but there's no getting away from the fact this is a fine, fine single. I look forward to how Rue Royale sound over a whole album come March. The recording for said album is complete but Rue Royale are looking for help to finance the manufacture and distribution of the record. If you pre-order “Guide to an Escape” direct from the band you will get an early, handmade version signed by the duo, a digital live EP and your name in the liner notes. All this for just £10 – more details on the Rue Royale website.

Rue Royale Halfway Blind [BUY]

Thursday, January 20, 2011

TRWBADOR "It Snowed A Lot Last Year"

As we charge through the first month of January and into 2011, the deep snows of December fall further behind and become distant memories. So here’s a release to transport us all back to that pre-festive wonderland: “It Snowed A Lot This Year” by Trwbador. And it’s not just the wintry title that connects us to past times: the wide-eyed rapture and innocent wonder that greets snowflakes falling is not dissimilar to the spell this EP weaves.

Trwbador play a kind of gauzy faerie-folk-glitch-pop that mixes child-like cooing, chimes and acoustic guitar with electronic clicks and whirrs. Swn Festival no less has compared the Carmarthenshire duo to Broadcast, Tuung, Cornelius and Deerhoof. But these are comparisons Angharad Van Rijswijk and Owain Gwilym don’t agree with - and I can see why. None of those names convey the lightness of touch and texture in their music, how they balance the organic and electronic, keeping the songs wispy and airy and human.

So the coyly sweet loops and beats of wordless opener ‘Eira’ or the carefree sing-song of ‘Shapes(La La La)’ gently draw the listener in, not by stealth but by pure charm. Underpinned by the gentlest hint of bossa nova, ‘Off Beat’ plays the same trick even when it trips itself over into a glitchy rut.

But there’s more to Trwbador than just sweetness and light. ‘Hit The Walls’ sings of conspicuous consumption, debt, and pointless wars. The second half may switch to Welsh but there’s no mistaking the “fuck you” amidst the mother tongue. It’s a political protest song delivered by stylophone and soft-voiced naivety. ‘Daw’r Nos, Daw’r Haf’ follows with a much more steely directness. Being sung entirely in Welsh, I’m not sure who or what the song is addressed at - but that just makes it all the more intriguing as its grandfather clock beats speed up to a climactic and sudden finale. The final two songs take this trajectory even further - and as they surrender words to sampled sounds and jittery beats, the Cornelius reference makes more sense.

On these seven songs Trwbador have pulled off an impressive feat: making music that is gently playful and experimental, singing gossamer-light lullabies but with a glint of menace and edge in the corner of their young shiny eyes. A fine debut release for both the band and their label Owlet Music. I am confident we will be hearing plenty more from both.

Daw'r Nos, Daw'r Haf - Trwbador

Shapes (La La La) - Trwbador

Trwbador It Snowed A Lot This Year [BUY]

Monday, January 17, 2011

GOD'S LITTLE ESKIMO "Said The Owl To The Mouse"

“Said The Owl To The Mouse“ is the second album from God’s Little Eskimo, Manchester-based peddler of lo-fidelity freak-folkery. This solo performer is a true all-rounder: not only writing and playing all songs (plus arranging one traditional tune), but also recording and illustrating it too (as well as the cover art initial copies come with a 16 page booklet of drawings and lyrics).

“Said The Owl To The Mouse“ may not win plaudits for the top-end production values on first listen but once your ear has adjusted to the bedroom studio aesthetic there’s a beguiling beauty to this album. And God’s Little Eskimo achieves an impressive array of sounds and moods through the clever overlapping of guitars, autoharp, toy piano, bowed saw and percussive effects. It may have been borne of the bedsit but the songs and hand-drawn illustrations here celebrate both the wonder and the darker side of the natural world - it is populated with rustling leaves, groves and twilight’s remorseless creep. Several songs echo the rhythms of the nature and the seasons: ‘Rooks’ is a tinny, ragged but joyful skip at the return of Spring; ‘Limb By Limb’ is the slow, woozy unfurling of limbs coming out long winter’s hibernation; and ‘Beneath the Breaking Waves’ mimics the eddies and swirls of a submarine world.

On closer listen it appears some of these songs are sung from the perspective of animals: "moss beneath my paws", "as I swoop in aerial display". But this is less the anthropomorphic tweeness of Beatrix Potter and more the sinewy realism of Ted Hughes all convincingly delivered with a firm directness and a clear, rich vocal timbre. And some delicious use of language too - “liquideous" and “undulating" just two of the choice words in 'Breaking Waves At Night'.

Elsewhere there are very human emotions on display. ‘If I Were To Bury You’ is a sparse but haunting love song over distorted guitar notes. It is difficult to be sure that the cryptic ‘Kinski’ refers to the German actor but the claustrophobia and desire for freedeom (“He remembers when he was an astronaut but he can only go so far alone”) is deeply affecting. And just when you think you have the measure of this record, it goes on to cover myth in the choral voices and wind-chime swirls of ‘The Alder King’ and then history and ecology in ‘Good Bye Great Auk’, the latter relating the final recorded sightings of the extinct sea bird to the eerie strains of bowed saw.

The record finishes with that arrangement of a traditional tune ‘Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day’ – echoing vocals over harmonium-like drones with birdsong piping in the background that is both sombre and uplifting, a haunting but exquisite coda to an astonishing album. Forget what I said about production values – this is an inventive and mesmerising record from a singular talent - and one of the first of 2011 that has left me genuinely moved and excited.

Rooks - God's Little Eskimo

Breaking Waves At Night - God's Little Eskimo

God's Little Eskimo Said The Owl To The Mouse [BUY or BUY]

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Erstwhile keyboard player for The Hold Steady and proud owner of the finest moustache in rock and roll, Brooklyn-based Franz Nicolay hits Manchester tonight as part of a UK short tour.

This should be a cool thing. I'm doing a UK tour with old buddies Dave Hause (The Loved Ones/Fat Wreck Chords) and Jack Terricloth & Sandra Malak (World/Inferno Friendship Society). Four punk rockers in a small rental car, driving on the wrong side of the road in cold and rainy January, what could possibly go wrong?

Nicolay’s songs move from playful and poignant, from melodramatic gypsy-punk cabaret tunes to banjo-driven folk Americana – and are not without ambition. His last record, 2010’s “Luck and Courage” followed two characters Felix & Adelita (‘luck’ in Latin and ‘courage’ in Spanish): “She's a sometime bartender, he's been in the service, he's a little violent and she's a little distant”. The album tells of the “battle between the pull of domesticity and the habit of packing up and moving on. And their story, and the story of their nation of two, becomes the story of a plague-ridden, Cormac McCarthyian country as its society collapses”. But rest assured there will laughter as well as tears at tonight's gig.

No advance tickets for tonight's show at Tiger Lounge I can find and suggests doors at 7pm. And as Franz says: “Be sure to get there early if you're coming to these shows - we'll be rotating the running order every night, playing some songs together, making it up as we go along, so you don't want to miss it”. The tour continues to Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Brighton and Southampton.

This Is Not A Pipe - Franz Nicolay

Monday, January 10, 2011


I misread the tags written on the Bandcamp page for The Soft Collapse to be a single line description: "sweet Brooklyn bedroom pop" . The band themselves - Ryan Montgomery and Dave Teufel – prefer "mellow cello rock". And both give you a pretty accurate indication of what to expect on their debut album self-released on 1 January this year (a form of New Year’s Resolution?).

“Little Songs” is a collection of baroque folk-pop love songs delivered with a graceful simplicity and a patient eye for biographical detail. Another tag suggests ‘anti-folk’ but The Soft Collapse are a world away from the caustic screeching of fellow New Yorkers The Moldy Peaches. Instead there is a gentle grandeur in the sedate dance between voice, acoustic guitar and cello (remarkably all recorded live). Montgomery’s vocals fall somewhere between the confessionals of Elliott Smith (but not as pained or doomed) and the rich introspective baritone of The National’s Matt Berninger (but not as gravelly). Actually Matt Berninger’s contribution to the chamber classicism of the last Clogs album is another good pointer of what to expect here – just a touch more restrained and stripped down.

“Little Songs” is a quiet and intense listen that can be a bit samey and somnambulant over the 12 tracks if you don’t pay it full attention to pick out its subtle inflections and changes of pace. The jaunty ode to NY street wandering on ‘City Ramblin’’ or the wry optimism of ‘All I Can Hope To Create’ contrast with the sombre intensity of ‘Heart of Hearts’ or ‘Honey on Toast’. Elsewhere ‘Black on Black on Black on Black’ tilts towards country-noir whilst conforming to the rule that any song referencing Johnny Cash can only be good.

The Soft Collapse have recently added drummer Rob Galgano and a second vocalist, Jane Cramer to their line-up and are already working on album number two. Will be interesting to see where they take their 'mellow cello rock' next. “Little Songs” is available on iTunes, CD Baby or on a name-your-price basis on Bandcamp.

Friday, January 07, 2011


Chris Knox is a significant figure in New Zealand music history – as well as leading Tall Dwarfs in the 80s and 90s, it was his four-track machine that was used to record most of the early Flying Nun records. In June 2009, he suffered a stroke aged 56. In November 2009 “Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox” was released. This double CD is a 33 track tribute with a host of artists performing Knox's songs. Another do-good charity record you may say, with shrugged shoulders.

True all proceeds from the record and associated activities go to support Knox’s rehabilitation in his home town of Grey Lynn, New Zealand. But several things make this a remarkable and not just worthy record. First is the speed in which it was assembled and released. The second, which makes the first all the more impressive, is the list of contributors. A veritable roll-call of alt-rock royalty, both American (Yo La Tengo, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Bill Callahan, The Mountain Goats, Lou Barlow, The Magnetic Fields, Lambchop) and Antipodean (The Bats, The Chills, The Verlaines), alongside lesser known associates and acolytes, who have stepped up to give their time freely to this project. Given this diverse sprawl of bands, it is then also remarkable that the quality throughout is so consistently high – no filler here – and that Knox’s fractured lo-fi pop proves malleable enough to fit the disparate styles of the performers (you’d swear ‘Lapse’ was a Bill Callahan original). And even in the off-the-cuff performances - John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats performing straight to tape with intro addressed to Knox personally – what comes through is the reverence and respect felt for Knox.

And then there’s Knox’s songs themselves. The album presents the songs chronologically starting out with Knox’s early bands The Enemy and Toy Love and finishing up with his post-Tall Dwarfs solo material. I have a couple of Tall Dwarfs records but this collection made me realise how little of their material I know. And whether early or late in his song-writing career, they are consistently excellent, even the more wayward and experimental moments. And also heart-stopping; particularly ‘Becoming Something Other’- sung here by Jordan Luck – which documents the effects of Knox’s father’s degenerative brain disease. Powerful stuff.

And one more final remarkable element: the album features the JD Salinger of alt-rock Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, not only here on record to play ‘Sign The Dotted Line’ but also appearing at the May 2009 fund-raising concert in New York alongside Yo La Tengo, Sharon van Etten, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and many more. Cameras were banned but the Stroke website pulls together several pieces of crowd footage of the event.

A remarkable collection then and of great significance for Chris Knox personally and for his music too. I’m not sure this ever got a UK release but it can be ordered from Merge Records in the US or from Amplifier in NZ or via Amazon UK.

Final words from the Stroke website “Stay obscure long enough, and people might just cry when they finally hear you play

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


As December 2010 bucked the trend for a festive month scant of good gigs, so does January 2011 in Manchester. A month that normally takes a good couple of weeks to warm up for live music kicks off tomorrow with this excellent gig presented by Humble Soul, pairing the Welsh psyche-pop of Colorama with the komische country-rock of Walton Hesse. The week then continues with the first Manchester Scenewipe club night at Fuel on Friday and then two nights in the Northern Quarter to choose from: Underachievers Please Try Harder at Gullivers or the Carefully Planned All Dayer at The Castle.

That's an impressive few days of live music by anyone's standard let alone the chilly first week of a new year. As ever a mixtape [49 mins / 56 MB] of bands playing Manchester this month to help inform your gig-going decision-making - link in the post below this one.

Manchester Gigs in Music Mixtape: January 2011

Ghost Outfit I Was Good When I Was Young [2.39] (29 Jan Gullivers BUY TICKETS)
The Walkmen Blue As Your Blood [6.49] (20 Jan Methodist Central Hall BUY TICKETS)
Beat The Radar 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 [10.01] (7 Jan Fuel Cafe Bar BUY TICKETS)
Eagulls Terms and Conditions [14.32] (29 Jan Gullivers BUY TICKETS)
Sleigh Bells Tell ‘Em [17.27] (21 Jan Deaf Institute BUY TICKETS)
Tennis Marathon [20.07] (21 Jan Deaf Institute BUY TICKETS)
Spectrals It’s OK (Not To Be OK) [22.07] (29 Jan The Castle BUY TICKETS)
Patterns Broken Trains [25.47] (7 Jan Fuel Cafe Bar BUY TICKETS)
Twin Shadow Tyrant Destroyed [29.16] (26 Jan Deaf Institute BUY TICKETS)
Smoke Fairies Erie Lackawanna [33.41] (26 Jan Ruby Lounge BUY TICKETS)
Colorama Dere Mewn [36.13] (5 Jan The Castle BUY TICKETS)
The Burns Unit Trouble [39.38] (19 Jan Club Academy BUY TICKETS)
Allo Darlin’ If Loneliness Was Art [43.06] (29 Jan Night & Day BUY TICKETS)
Walton Hesse Under The Plough [46.43] (5 Jan The Castle BUY TICKETS)
Justin Townes Earle Harlem River Blues [49.33] (14 Jan Deaf Institute BUY TICKETS)

And not forgetting:
7 Jan Beat The Radar + With That Knife + Patterns Fuel / 8 Jan The ABC Club Gullivers / 8 Jan Carefully Planned All Dayer inc Onions & Ed Cottam The Castle / 13 Jan Franz Nicolay Tiger Lounge / 14 Jan Cheikh Lo Band on the Wall / 15 Jan Sam Carter Band on the Wall / 15 Jan Carefully Planned All Dayer inc Christopher Eatough The Castle / 15 Jan Oval Islington Mill / 17 Jan Empire Signal Deaf Institute / 17 Jan My Jerusalem Night & Day / 19 Jan Metronomy Deaf Institute / 20 Jan Samson & Delilah Sacred Trinity / 21 Jan The Bays Band on the Wall / 25 Jan Bracewar Star & Garter / 25 Jan Ani Difranco The Lowry / 27 Jan The Real McKenzies Night & Day / 28 Jan Goldblade Academy 3 / 28 Jan Get Cape Wear Cape Fly MoHo Live / 28 Jan Cam Deas The Castle / 31 Jan Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards The Castle


Mixtape: January 2011 [49 mins/56 MB] - download here.