Monday, April 30, 2012
Raring-to-go albums throw back the covers energetically and leap out of bed with a full-throated holler to greet the day. Richard James’s third album ‘Pictures In The Morning’ softly starts a gentle, understated song of thanksgiving for lying in bed and hearing your loved ones’ heartbeat. However this intimate moment in ‘All Gone’ is a future, longed for event; the song is actually about the pangs of absence. In a similar way, most of the album conjures exquisite and fragile acoustic folk-blues to explore homecomings, pain, loss and hope. James’s tender vocals are placid, almost carefree but sing simply of deep, swirling emotions.
It’s an album with a fair old cast list – H Hawkline, Gareth Bonello and Euros Childs amongst the seven musicians contributing drums (one song only), electric guitar, bass, cello, viola and harmony vocals - yet so hushed and softly-spoken it feels like a solo album. The majority of these gracefully unfurling tracks are just voice and finger-picked guitar and when the other instruments appear they are subtly and unobtrusively woven in. If any one instrument stands out it is the viola - lonesome and mournful on 'Baby Blue', elegant and, well mournful again, on 'Do You Know The Way To My Heart'.
The two obvious deviations from this pattern divide the album into thirds. ‘Sun Ease Pain’ is a 10 minute, multi-part song appearing third out of nine tracks. Opening and closing sections retain the delicacy and sonic clarity of the quieter numbers but surge to a flurried psyche-folk intensity with livid, dense layers of cello and viola. These bookend a mid-section of reflective acoustic guitar and astral harmonies. It never becomes nightmarish but it is a marked contrast to the lullaby softness elsewhere. And then signalling the final third of the album, ‘Magical Day’, the full band song with drums, is a nifty swagger of a (folk-)rocker with squally guitar and coolly drawling vocals about bouncing back after heartbreak "Now when it's healed the heart is strong / we drink fine wine and get along / seek new love to heal the pain / we dive straight in."
With fewer fuzzy, sonic adventures than 2006’s ‘The Seven Sleepers Den’ and lacking the up-beat full band expansiveness of 2010’s ‘We Went Riding’, this new record could be seen as a retreat. But that is to underestimate its quiet, intimate powers. ‘Pictures In The Morning’ is not a dark-night-of-the-soul record but one where the melancholy is gorgeously bathed in bright Spring sunshine. Sheer class.
Hear songs from this record live this week when Richard James plays Chester and Manchester.
Richard James Pictures In The Morning [BUY]
Friday, April 27, 2012
The release date for Stephen Hudson’s second single is today, Fridays being the new Mondays. “Everything Electric” is “inspired by the low budget epics of Grandaddy and the Beta Band” but in these three songs I hear more kinship with bitter-sweet, hang-dog expression troubadours like Aidan Smith or Sweet Baboo, who counterpoint compassionate, warm melodies with wry lyrics of gentle despondency or domestic failing.
The title track claims “everything electric / blows up in my hand / it turns to fire and sparks and spits / and becomes dust and sand”. But this is more of a tut and a raised eyebrow than monumental self-flagellation, all sweetly sung and encased in sumptuous synth textures and Sunday church bell chiming guitars. This is not lo-fi but delightfully charming cosy-fi albeit with some deft lyricism and use of metaphor. The final coda strips the song back, demo-like, to just frail voice and acoustic guitar but losing none of its yearning melodic hook.
‘Brian Blessed’ contains a great heresy within its summery drum machine beat, looped guitar and radio static crackle: “I’ve come to tell you all I can / Brian Blessed’s just a man / although the earth moves when he speaks / his acting skills are actually rather weak.” Rather than velvet glove character assassination this is in fact a song of empathy: “I know how he feels / I was shy when I began.” Musically it splinters and distorts as it ends but what lingers in the mind is its easy-going, candy-floss lightness of touch and mood. The rough, first-take demo feel of final song ‘Stick One On You’ is sweetly whimsical but over before it’s started at an all-too brief 71 seconds. Maybe its threat of physical violence is a rare display of toughness that our Lancastrian singer-songwriter just couldn’t sustain? And of course that physical violence turns out to be no more than a peck on the cheek.
Despite the accomplishment and dexterity here - all instruments bar drums are played by Hudson – he seems to revel in mild-mannered domesticity: the single was recorded, it is proudly proclaimed, above the music shop where Hudson works on Saturdays, his live backing band are called The Fiat Pandas. But if his reference points and ambitions remain local and low-key, the music has a subtle, highly appealing universality. Full album “Sleep for Railway Dreamers” (“a collection of sad songs written whilst Stephen was pushing paper in the local prison”) follows later this summer but first there is a launch gig tonight in Lancaster. Joining Stephen Hudson and the Fiat Pandas are Beat The Radar , Ivan Campo and Harvey Lord plus “hooting and howling indie-disco after the bands”. Maybe the release day is a Friday to tie in with this late-night party? I suspect however Stephen Hudson will be clocking in on time at the music shop tomorrow. Delicate but also delightfully dependable.
Stephen Hudson Everything Electric [BUY]
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
“The worst thing a singer can do is tell you how hungover they are” said Huw Evans aka H. Hawkline before telling us how hungover he was. He later went on to tell us the next song was about a dream, apparently another unwritten cardinal sin for singers on stage. If H. Hawkline was breaking any rules – real or made-up – he’s allowed to in my book if turning in a support slot this strong, especially if worse for wear poor lad. Alone on stage he played seven songs on electric guitar - some written to be played with a band, some not - about toffee-apple cheeks, sex-cult druids, broken fingers, love and suffering that gently veered from fractured folk lament to terse garage-rock with a touch of lovelorn blues too. Even if never predictable which kind of H Hawkline live experience you will get – raucous or quiet, solo or full band – he continues to be a consistently excellent, engaging and witty rule-breaker.
If H Hawkline had been sunny of disposition and brightly lit, the headline set was of much darker and mysterious hue. Largely in darkness with surreal Casey Raymond videos playing in the background, Cate Le Bon and three-piece backing band – including H Hawkline on organ and Sweet Baboo on bass – played a set largely made up of faithful but loud and frazzled versions of songs from new album “Cyrk” plus a few extras. The murky darkness and the flickering films – from Victorian freakshow dancing dogs and conjoined twins to the pastoral simplicity of horses roaming in fields – could have been a distraction except the magnetic performance of Cate Le Bon.
I’ve already swooned over the new album so hearing these songs live was odds-on to be a joy but Cate’s compelling stage presence plus the tautness and power of the playing made this extra special. That cool, almost glacial intoning and middle distance stare whilst at the microphone I was expecting but less so her assured stance behind the guitar or a lost-in-the-moment swaying and singing through hair plastered across her face.
Cate Le Bon started the evening telling us how she had thrown up before going on stage in London the night before. Really? My first time seeing Cate Le Bon live was at the Far Out Stage at Green Man in 2009, just after "Me Oh My" came out, and yes she appeared a little nervous then. But with two years plus of gigs under her belt including recent US tour plus two acclaimed albums, not only should she have no reason for nerves, there was not a hint of it in tonight’s performance. A jaw-droppingly great gig that was as cleverly sequenced and as full of dark twists and enigmatic mystery as the new record – so good it was easy to block out the few drunken hecklers and assorted chatterers. “Manchester I love you but tonight your creeping me out”. Apologies for the creeps Ms Le Bon but please keep coming back with your own superior brand of musical creepiness.
The Set List
Fold The Cloth
Eyes So Bright
Cyrk / Seaside
The Man I Wanted
Puts Me To Work
Me Oh My
Ploughing Out Pts 1 + 2
Monday, April 23, 2012
‘The Welsh Nico’ was a short-hand description that sadly hung around Cate Le Bon upon the release of her debut full-length English language album “Me Oh My” in 2009. And for the release of follow-up “Cyrk”, out in the UK at the end of this month, it may still hang around. Listen to the vocals of ‘Greta’ or the opening of ‘Ploughing Out Part One’ with their thickly accented glacial intoning, rolling over words with chilly allure, and the German singer does indeed come to mind. But there is so much more to Cate Le Bon than monochromatic and heavily accented froideur. The Nico tag doesn’t convey the sheer vitality and richness of “Cyrk” – or indeed its enigmatic oddness.
Whereas half of “Me Oh My” tended to the quiet, stripped back and spectral – often just voice and guitar – “Cyrk” is more consistently expansive and heavily layered, and definitely a ‘band’ record. Opening with the taut straining-at-the-leash rock-chug of ‘Falcon-Eyed’ and ‘Puts Me To Work’ the album switches to playful and reflective for the wandering synths of the stately and joyous ‘Cyrk’. Sinewy guitar twirled around vintage synthesizers also feature on the later ‘Fold The Cloth’ and ‘The Man I Wanted’, haunting mid-tempo songs which both finish with frazzled drones and crackles. Earlier in the running order, the pair of songs named after women take the record to the astral plane, particularly the latter ‘Greta’, an out-of-this-world and downright odd lullaby addressed to the young keyboard player in the above video (her niece?) “you existed in moonlight before you were born / from the turn of each calendar inside and outside / observatories clocked you in the skies”. Weird yes but it certainly beats a book token from your aunty for your birthday. Towards the end both ‘Through The Mill’ and ‘Ploughing Out’ have quieter, melodic almost tame starts but both ramp up the psychedelia with loud, crashing finales and curious lyrics about trophy bones and birching on the beak.
“Cyrk” is an album inspired by the Isle of Eigg, recorded in Cardiff, named after the Polish word for ‘circus’ but sounding like none of those places. It is at once grounded and otherworldly, cryptic and cool but curiously compelling and warm-hearted. Each listen pulls you deeper in, revealing more but telling you less. At the beginning of the last decade ‘New Weird America’ was coined to describe outer limits folk music looking at the world askance but rooted in heritage, myth and elemental forces. Welsh psychedelic music has been on a parallel course for many decades and hasn’t needed a short-hand description. Whatever the Welsh version is called, with this record Cate Le Bon proves she is at the forefront of the contemporary wave of that movement, despite whatever reductive tags get hung around her neck. Highly, highly recommended.
Cate Le Bon Cyrk [BUY]
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Writing about the debut EP from Arthur Rigby and the Baskervylles earlier this month I made a passing reference to how foppish and Edwardian their name sounded. Throwaway comment maybe but I genuinely expected to see the band playing their ornate baroque pop tonight wearing frock coats. So it was a surprise to see the five-piece version of the ensemble wearing casual checked shirts (all except the bass player who clearly missed the memo). Dress code aside, the band made a fabulous fully rounded sound together, making excellent use of electric piano and trombone (two solos in one song!) to give that sumptuous orchestral-pop roundness despite no string section tonight. Three songs from the “Tales From Pegasus Woods” EP here plus lots of others new to me but equally impressive and dramatic. Bring on the frock coats I say but more importantly bring on the debut album please.
If tonight was a first date with Arthur Rigby this was return match with Brighton’s The Miserable Rich. It was only when singer James de Malplaquet made reference to their third visit to the Deaf Institute that I realised I had seen those previous two plus the same again at other venues. “Let’s make tonight the best” he said. And the six-piece certainly tried their utmost in their own effortlessly elegant fashion: bringing their own smoke machine to accompany ghost songs, encouraging the crowd to drink toasts during new song ‘The Lighthouse’, getting someone to buy singer James a large malt whisky when he was taken by an “artistic cough” and playing songs from last year’s album “Miss You In The Days” with confidence, style and aplomb.
It was the delicate, poised chamber-pop of The Miserable Rich’s first album “Twelve Ways To Count” that first and instantly endeared me the band. It has been a long process to wean myself on to their newer, heftier - with DRUMS?! - sound but tonight was when it made sense. And I didn’t even notice the absence of first album songs in the main set. Instead ghosts, sex, death, red wine, whisky, story-telling plus a new cheery song with whistling.
The band were up against a curfew to make way for a following club night but were fairly blasé about this. At the time of said curfew, they announced they would play four more songs - two played from the stage and then the full band decamped to the venue floor for the final two encircled by the crowd. Familiarity makes me forget what genial hosts and good value The Miserable Rich are live.A swell, engrossing evening all round.
The Set List
Laid Up In Lavender
On A Certain Night
Let Me Fade
“Cheery song with whistling”
Ghost Of A Dog/Tramps
Ringing The Changes
Friday, April 20, 2012
“I am a ghost and nobody's scared / they walk straight through me.” The opening lines of ‘Sodium Light’ might lead you to think Roy Gornall aka Boletes has some confidence issues. Elsewhere on this eight track mini-album of spare acoustic freak-folk, the Edinburgh musician takes this a stage further singing of poison, burial, weeds, impermanence and death. Songs are just acoustic guitar and voice with added atmospherics and layered electric guitar with occasional placid drums – like a softer-hued Espers or a quieter Sunburned Hand Of The Man without the drones. In ‘The Pigeon In The Murder’, Gornall sings of flaws and difference and not fitting in but in a child-like, hopeful lullaby. In the more malevolent, ‘Creature’ he imagines himself as a slithering subterranean dweller “slipping down the wishing well.” The mood Gornall creates is one of gently oppressive creepiness and claustrophobia – sounding like a less highly strung David Tibet - as he navigates these different characters and experiences.
Most songs are without a chorus or changing time signatures so there is a steadfast progression through the gloomy world of Boletes (I first listened to this late at night, alone, on headphones. Spooky). But some songs also off-set the eerieness with some quiet beautiful instrumental arrangements or touches: that hopeful chorus in ‘The Pigeon In The Murder’, the soothing strummed guitar of ‘Creature’, lonesome harmonica on opening prelude ‘When The Swelling’s Gone’ and the jaunty rhythms and brushed drums of ‘Eaten By Light’. ‘Khaki’ takes a different tack: a sleepy but sure of purpose instrumental with disembodied, heavily distorted even disguised voice over the top. It’s simultaneously distressing and calming.
There is a slightly theatricality to Gornall’s delivery – a over-eager relish for the words and phrases that signal the gloom - but there is also something deeply affecting (yes and downright creepy) to the mood it creates over a not-quite-an-album running time of 25 minutes. “Flaws” finishes with ‘Fruitless’: “It's all going to be [long pause] fine / It's all in my mind.” It’s a poignant but ambiguous and sinister finale – is the gloom imagined or is the relief? Dark tales for dark nights – or false dawns.Boletes - FLAWS - 02 Creature by boletes Boletes - FLAWS - 04 The Pigeon in the Murder by boletes
Boletes Flaws [BUY]
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
The Creakies are a duo from Seattle who meld C86 indie with lofi garage pop. Wait, come back. And stop rolling your eyes like that. I know there is a slew of this stuff out. And that even the most diehard cardigan-wearing Pastels fan could be becoming a tad jaded by it all but this name-your-price EP, The Creakies second release on Bandcamp, is worth making some hard disk space for.
Lily Kerson and Tori Wolffe in the first half of four track digital release “Redwood” mingle dreamy innocence and lofi ramshackle in equal and delightful measure. Like less well-drilled versions of Veronica Falls, the Dum Dum Girls or fellow Washington State residents Seapony. ‘Arnold’s Song’ mixes noisy fuzzy guitar with faraway cooing vocals about sunshine, white wine and freckles on the knee. Cock Sparrer cover ‘Because You’re Young’ turns first-generation Oi! punk, into a spry, rough-edged ditty with even cutesier vocals than the opening track.
But the latter part of this release takes a more macabre turn. ‘Precious’ may open with familiar, reassuring ‘Be My Baby’ drums but some intense, heavily distorted guitar riffs lead it into a dark, despairing place. Carefree innocence is replaced by anguished and repeated questioning (“how does it feel to wear that skin?”) and the distressed guitar morphs into the over-amped thumb pianos of Konono No. 1 ‘Harvest’ retains those over-driven guitars building them into a dense wall contrasting with floaty, even sugary-sweet vocals for a creepy, elliptical tale of “a blood-borne virus” coming home. Spooky.
All these songs are short – mainly hovering around two minute mark – but make a point, memorably, even when working in an over-familiar and crowded genre. Their name may suggest over-the-hill frailty but The Creakies sound in rude, raw-edged health to me.
The Creakies Redwood [BUY]
Monday, April 16, 2012
The Sun Electric Band were mixing two tracks from their first EP right up to 36 hours before last Saturday’s release day. Studio perfectionists or just a band enjoying a game of brinksmanship with themselves? Either way, the five tracks here are unshowy affairs without bells-and-whistles, big bucks production values. Instead on offer is a set of solidly crafted, homespun numbers in the vein of classic West Coast 60s and 70s rock. Lacking any tricksiness or à la mode trend-surfing allows the subtly catchy melodies and plush harmonies to be the calling card for this four (sometimes five)-piece band of camera-shy, Manchester-based thirty somethings.
Opening track ‘In The Clouds’ is surely lifted straight off an early Byrds album. Two and half minutes of Roger McGuinn jangle and soft-but-soaring soaring three-part harmonies. ‘Orange Grove’ combines acoustic and electric guitars in a happy-sad song of falling in love (and regretting it?) with a solitary, wistful lead vocal that feels quite exposed compared with the rich accompaniment elsewhere. The band’s gentle country-psyche-rock gets more chunky for ‘Want To Feel Like’: heavier guitars and a hefty rhythm section give a 90s indie-rock feel – think Teenage Fanclub or The Posies – with vocals kept to a minimum to allow some lovely chiming guitar interplay to take centre stage. ‘Looking For A Girl’ is summery, good-times country-rock about, no surprises, looking for a girl. It is so formulaic it could easily tip into cliché but the band turn the familiar into a toe-tappingly authentic and warm-hearted spin around the block. The slower, more reflective ‘Round The Bend’ rounds off the EP with the return of those rich harmonies and some gently climactic guitar frazzle.
Earlier songs, all released in sporadic, singular isolation and with minimal accompanying information, retained a greater sense of mystery than this heart-on-sleeve set of more recent songs all presented as a group. ‘Want To Feel Like’ also has a stronger connection to the past – as hinted by the title itself? But The Sun Electric Band are building on earlier foundations, not simply re-laying them, and in doing so are crafting some fine, fresh and slow-burning jangle-pop grooves.
The Sun Electric Band Want To Feel Like [BUY]
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Grandparents: for most people a fusty link to bygone times or an irregular visiting obligation? Not for Laurie Hulme of Golden Glow and Beat The Radar. Not only has he named solo project Songs For Walter as a tribute to his grandfather, all the tracks on this debut six track EP are about his grandparents: lead track ‘Meet Me At The Empire’ chronicles their first date, ‘Flowers On The Windowsill’ is simply about spending time with the eponymous relative. Rather than sepia-tinged nostalgia however, these songs are breezy slices of summery acoustic folk-pop. What Hulme brilliantly captures on that opening song is the fresh romance of first love not dusty, wistful memories.
Elsewhere it is the happy vivid experience of summer holidays (the ukulele-led ‘Tin Can’) or wedding day enchantment (the chiming love song ‘Purple Blue’). This is not a generation rejecting the elderly or visiting their past through a filter but someone in the present bringing their lives and feelings to life with fond affection. The only element that is pure nostalgia is the interchangeable photographic sleeve.
‘Joint World Record Holders’ (“for the most days out”) opens with sampled voice (his actual grandfather’s?) before a sweetly tender song that praises the couple’s obsessive predilection for day trips. The gentle triumph of this EP is not only fondly capturing such moments and habits but turning them into hugely likeable, memorable and modestly to-the-point tunes. Song-writing of brevity and benevolence that deserves visiting – and not out of duty. Out on Red Deer Club on 23 April preceded by an EP launch gig on 20 April at The Art Of Tea.
Songs For Walter Meet Me At The Empire [BUY]
Monday, April 09, 2012
Living and recording in the shadow of mutually assured destruction (Rosyth the now de-commissioned nuclear submarine base) and with the sad death of a band member last year, you could forgive Ambulances for being overly obsessed with life cruelly foreshortened. And this is before you get to their name, the fact there last album was called “The Future That Was” and that the cover of this double A-sided single features a propeller airplane coming out of a tail-spin.
‘Feelin’ Sick’, despite its title and this backdrop, actually feels quite alive, optimistic and on a steady course in its opening moments. Initial reassurance is replaced by a sinking feeling – oh no, dreaded white-boy indie-dub-skank. Fear not, the Fife group neatly avoid a early press of the ‘stop’ button by delivering a hypnotic, loping rhythm that is sturdy and solid, and paired with a dark, late 80s sobriety and some steely-soft, almost spoken vocals from Scott Lyon. The clever combination of taut and loose, catchy and sombre, works well and it builds with some squelchy synth pulses into a densely layered and intense finale. It reminds me of ex-Beta Band man Steve Mason in his King Biscuit Time guise.
The other song ‘Shine On My Shoes’ is a summery chug which balances out vocal duties with Sara Colston joining Lyon in some gorgeous boy-girl harmony interplay. Together with the other band members – guitarist Graham Jack, bassist Stephen Oswald – they plant a flag somewhere between Ladytron and The Dandy Warhols.
This is my first proper encounter with the Scottish band having not heard their 2009 Kramer-produced debut album. But these six and a half minutes are a promising curtain-raiser for full length album “Flying Simply Explained” that follows this summer.
Ambulances Feelin’ Sick / Shine On My Shoes [BUY]
Friday, April 06, 2012
If conforming to regional stereotypes, you would expect this West Yorkshire-based group to be down-to-earth and laconic plain speakers with no fancy trappings. But from their name (pure Edwardian flamboyance) to their size (eight members) to the music (sweeping orchestral pop), Arthur Rigby And The Baskervylles are more about opulence and feel-the-width quality. Comparisons would include 90s orchestral troupe Jack or early Divine Comedy before Neil Hanlon got too arch for his own good. But these five songs about abbeys, bluebells, mills, hay bales and church-yards also come across as romantic tales of Bronte country as sung by Scott Walker at his most theatrical.
There is no Arthur Rigby in the group. Instead the band leader is Merseyside-born Benjamin Hatfield who scores the sumptuous music for his colleagues on violin, piano, bass, trumpet, trombone, saxophone and flute. Two years into their career and out this week, their first EP opens with a pair of fulsomely arranged tunes – there’s no ‘stripped-back’ here, instead soaring strings, horn crescendos, mighty choruses and barrel-chested singing. ‘Dark Clouds’ is as stormily dramatic as the changing seasons over the dales, ‘Follow’ has the rhythm and feel of open country gallop. ‘Nine Silver Rings’ that follows tones things down a little - pattering drums and echoing piano, gentler vocals with flighty flute – and feels somewhat slighter next to its overly dramatic companions.
The final two songs ‘One Stormy Night’ and ‘Ode To Gog’ restore the booming drama, even from a sleepy start on the latter. There’s something quaintly old-fashioned about Arthur Rigby And The Baskervylles - in name and stylistically. But “Tales From Pegasus Woods” is an indulgently enjoyable and big-hearted musical romp with a little pinch of flamboyant camp for good measure. Reight gud sooarts, d’ye ken?
Dark Clouds by arthurrigby
Arthur Rigby And The Baskervylles Tales From Pegasus Woods [BUY]
Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Tonight’s gig is not running on time but no-one is too bothered. There are worse places to idle a few minutes than one of Salford’s finest real ale pubs (Citrus Temptation from Denton’s Hornbeam brewery since you ask). The Bell Peppers were recently heard cranking out Nirvana covers on the twisted and squawkingly loud B*each EP. Tonight the left-handed guitar duo – and new drummer Luke – were on more familiar ground. Opening with a cover of ‘Woolly Bully’, the trio then alternated reverb-heavy 60s surf-pop with slower numbers of romantic palm-tree waft given some raw, lo-fi guitar edge. A bit reticent between songs, musically The Bell Peppers became more energetic as the set progressed finishing with the raucous ‘Rattlesnake Coop’ a venomous slice of Hasil Adkins rockabilly.
Fresh from a session for BBC 6 Music, Y Niwl set up their equipment from scratch for this Cloud Sounds promoted night. All The Bell Peppers kit was cleared away and a new group of instruments were put on stage, but so swiftly it was like a time-lapse film. Despite the hectic turnaround, Y Niwl looked relaxed and fresh (especially the new – and very fresh-faced - drummer) but sounded sharp from the get-go. For all that The Bell Peppers demonstrate a solid grasp of the genre, Y Niwl continue to show just how masterful they are. Their taut, garage-rock take on surf is just magnificent. For a genre that could be a strait-jacket, Y Niwl show how inventive and elastic it can be.
Tonight’s sets included plenty of new songs – fast-paced or slowed-down, even grandioise but never flabby or indulgent - they came tumbling out mixed in with classics (not using that phrase lightly) from their debut album. For a small upstairs pub room, the Kings Arm has some fancy son-et-lumière effects (lasers! Live video projection! Smoke machine!). These added to the atmosphere but it was the songs and musicianship that made the night. This was taking surf-rock to the next level. Peerless.
The Set List: