Tuesday, September 25, 2012
The chosen name for this Glasgow-based sextet could easily suggest a faceless, politically-steered apparatus for barking pronouncements and transmitting propaganda. But State Broadcasters are a much quieter, more human and more domestically focused collective. Opening song here ‘The Only Way Home’ is imbued with the spidery mournfulness of Sparklehorse as it sings of the drawn-out agony of awaiting telephone news – and it has that same quality that Mark Linkous mastered of being able to sing of deeply sad things but as though with a beaming yet cracked smile. Second track ‘Trespassers’ has a more jaunty Caledonian lilt to its velvety soft orch-folk meander that recalls a more frugal version of The Delgados with the orchestral grandeur turned down and replaced with a quiet sense of dislocation.
“The Ghosts We Carry” reminds me of the poignant nostalgia and keen sense of place that both Lanterns On The Lake and King Creosote and Jon Hopkins demonstrated on recent albums - but without the surging crescendos or electronic textures of "Gracious Tide Take Me Home" and without the rural seclusion and field recording ambience of "Diamond Mine". It is filled with tender, hushed moments of simplicity and reminiscence, of sharing warm pastries, weekend walks, flasks of tea and empty landscapes. In the sparse plucked harp strings of ‘Outside The Bakery’ or the waltz-like delicacy of ‘Takeshi’, in the soft folky elegance of the re-working of Billy Bragg’s ‘The Only One’ (sung by Gillian Fleetwood) or the antique group harmonies and accordion murmur of ‘This Old Table’, it sounds as though instruments are not mechanically strummed or played so much as lovingly and slowly stroked to life. Piano, trombone, banjo, cello and piano all gently serve the down-trodden romanticism of each song, never overpower it. There is a confident restraint to the album that many bands, especially with six players, would not be able to achieve. Lambchop strikes me as a comparison for achieving such quiet precision with so many hands.
‘The Writing’s On The Wall’ is a minor departure in its (slightly) more forceful loudness and glossiness but to these ears is not as strong or as convincing as the delicate despondency elsewhere on show. This, the band’s second album after 2009’s “The Ship And The Iceberg”, is not an icy plunge-pool of despair but a graceful slide into balmy spa waters that gently wash you with feelings of doubt and loneliness. “Don’t mistake the kittiwake for the common gull” plaintively sing State Broadcasters in the sea-bird titled song. There are familiar components and sounds on offer here but there is no mistaking this is an uncommon - and highly accomplished - achievement.
State Broadcasters Ghosts We Must Carry [BUY]
Friday, September 21, 2012
I spent a good part of this evening trying to work out where the name Thugs On Wolves comes from. Or even if it makes sense. Nope I just couldn’t figure it out. However cryptic or nonsensical their nomenclature may be the Manchester four-piece are a delight on stage – twin vocal harmonies, twin acoustic guitars, acoustic bass plus keyboards and floor tom all mix into a dreamy Local Natives/Grizzly Bear vibe meets The Travelling Band wistfulness. They finished with two songs “only written yesterday” – the solo ‘Esmeralda’ and then ‘Jackdaw’ involving stop/start sections and complex vocal interplay. I’d already concluded Thugs On Wolves were accomplished but
to deliver ambitious new songs with such assurance... definitely worth tracking down.
“Call Me Dan”. Withered Hand aka Dan Willson is looking fit and trim tonight as well as being personable. But alas he is full of cold and by the second song his unruly hair has taken on a life of its own. Coughs and apologies aside though this is a damn impressive and powerful show in the intimate setting of the upstairs room of the Kings Arms. Opening with three solo songs including the “not yet recorded” ‘Life Of Doubt’, he is then joined by his three-piece band (“I must thank them now because I never do in the van”) for the remainder of a set which intersperses heartfelt renditions of classics (yes they are classics) from 2010’s "Good News" with new songs – either unrecorded or from the forthcoming vinyl EP ‘Inbetweens’.
Introducing the title track of that new EP, Dan Willson drifts off into a tale about the boring bits of life but it just fizzles out. If he appears distracted or talks askance into the microphone between songs, the ugly beauty of Withered Hands is they are so direct, personal and intense. And when he occasionally stares out from sweat-soaked hair during songs, his wide-eyed gaze is fierce and unswerving. The fast-paced ‘bad gene’ song ‘New Dawn’ may have held back a little tonight and there was no ‘Heart Heart’ to allow for a suffering throat to recover (“good job it’s not the beginning of the tour...” It is) but this was a delicious masterclass from Edinburgh’s anti-folk maestro and torch-bearer of the maudlin and downtrodden. How, how has Withered Hand world domination not yet been achieved? The tour continues – voice and health allowing – to Cardiff, London, Sheffield, Newcastle and Glasgow. Do not miss.
The Set List
Life Of Doubt
Love In The Time Of Ecstasy
I Am Nothing
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Tonight’s gig – the 499th of Jens Lekman’s career, if he is to be believed – starts with the instrumental prelude of ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name’ and finishes with the full song, as does this year’s album "I Know What Love Isn’t". But tonight’s show is more than an album play-back. Although the first half of the ninety minute set draws heavily from the globe-trotting Swede’s current long-player, it never feels as maudlin or introspective as that record can. And increasingly the set played by the four-piece backing band – violin and keyboards stage left, bass stage right and drums centre behind Gothenburg’s most famous retired bingo hall employee - blends older material around the new songs to increase the familiarity but also soulful geniality and witty theatrics. The segue of ‘The Golden Key’ (“about my failed jewellery career”) into ‘The Opposite of Hallelujah’ complete with Chairman Of The Board samples, choreographed hand movements and playing invisible chimes is seamless, clever and draws a gasp – literally – from the crowd. Or for a lengthy spoken word preface to ‘A Postcard To Nina’, as well as raconteur Jens acts as band leader counting the band out instrument by instrument before they – again seamlessly – reunite for the opening of the song proper. During ‘Sipping On The Sweet Nectar’ he halts the song, staring at the ceiling for an achingly long silent pause, before it re-starts. Little moments of drama but they add so much to the songs. And like the way the band are dressed – you don’t at first notice that they are all dressed in black with matching white plimsolls – there is a clever, casual organisation to what is happening on stage that is never overtly controlling or regimented just subtly applied and allowed to take shape naturally.
And although there was something joyful on-stage dancing for the tropicalia of ‘An Argument With Myself’, well-cheered old classics (‘Black Cab’ and ‘Maples Leaves’) and even some arms-held-wide aeroplane moves from Mr Lekman, there was also hair-tingling quiet and poignancy – an acutely hushed ‘I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots’ played with the lights down and then the final encore. If new album ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ wears its heartbreak a little too heavily and continuously, here it felt as though Jens is putting it behind him and can dip in judiciously rather than wallow.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen Jens Lekman live. He never fails to impress. And no-one can segue two songs together live better than he can. Yes I’ve seen some of the tricks with samples and theatrics before so it lacked that element of surprise. Yes there was no secret set afterwards (or if there was I wasn’t invited). Yes I’ve heard that tale about stalking Kirsten Dunst in Gothenburg before, and not just once. But none of that mattered or took away from how engaging, charming, and witty the man and his lovelorn songs are. He described the making of the new record – a long five years – as a circle. Like tonight’s gig he said, as he introduced that final encore of the vocal version of ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name’: “starting as we began... another circle”. And what a perfect circle it was.
The Set List
Every Little Hair Knows Your Name
Becoming Someone Else’s
I Know What Love Isn't
The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love
Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder
The Golden Key
The Opposite Of Hallelujah
Waiting For Kirsten
I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots
The World Moves On
That's The Way Love Is
Sipping On The Sweet Nectar
An Argument With Myself
A Postcard To Nina
Every Little Hair Knows Your Name
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Sample-based music can often relish untidy splicing and ragged loops – look at the joins! – as though emphasising its synthetic creation. Roman Bezdyk (aka Sone Institute) on “A Model Life” delivers a seamless, richly organic sound-world where it’s difficult to spot the joins but also to see what is appropriation and what is invention, what is studio reproduction and what is real, live instrumentation. These fourteen songs also come across like a genre-hopping, carefully sequenced mixtape –dense, vocal-laden songs gliding into looser instrumentals and retro-lounge playfulness over the course of a 54 minute excursion from J Dilla beats (‘The World Is A Confusion’) to Ryuichi Sakamoto revery (‘Little Walsingham’) to Sergio Leone re-wiring Alan Hawkshaw (‘M’Ling’) and back again. There are occasional glitchy hiccups in the smooth flow just to catch you out but mainly an astonishing, shape-shifting variety.
The album lurches into life with hairy rock guitar work-out in ‘Witchcraft and Pornography’ and ends cryptically with slippery psychedelic guitar and distorted vocal samples in the sleep-deprived ‘Fear and Nappiness’. In between there’s 60s spy intrigue as soundtracked by Blue Note in ‘Frozen Leaves – Falling From Trees’, the silky strings library music of ‘Back At Yesterday’, the torch soul meets scrap-yard folk stirrings of ‘Struck By A Rock’, the poignant whistling of Sparklehorse instrumental out-take ‘A Model Life’ or the gauzy ambience of Boards Of Canada in ‘Cars And Rain’. And more.
Being released on Front And Follow, home of undefinable esoterica, and with plaudits from The Wire (who also stream a companion track to this album release on their website) could lead you to label Sone Institute’s second album as 'experimental', as iTunes Gracenote service does. But this does not mean obtuse or difficult. Far from it. Like the cover artwork – from a photographic series ‘The Car Park’ by Nick Cobb – your perspective changes frequently, it is difficult to divine what is real and what is a model in this hazy trompe l’oeil but "A Model Life" is a refreshing, revitalising listen that constantly draws you in, revealing more detail and surprise in its elegant, serpentine unwinding.
Sone Institute A Model Life [BUY]
Monday, September 17, 2012
Eat Lights Become Lights have changed labels for album number two – swapping Enraptured Records for Rocket Girl, with The Great Pop Supplement releasing the vinyl edition of “Heavy Electrics”. But rest assured there is no mechanical overhaul for Eat Lights Become Lights, instead a precision-tooled progression to their instrumental juggernaut krautrock sounds. If 2011’s “Autopia” was heavily themed around travel and often acted as a sound-track to a neon-lit, open-throttle dash along the long, empty concrete autobahn, “Heavy Electrics” is a dark sci-fi rocket-trip, sometimes firing on all thrusters, at others coasting in the spooky tranquillity of deep space. The intricate patterns of the album cover also seem to point sinisterly to HR Giger ‘Alien’ designs.
I suspect opening track ‘Bound For Magic Mountain’ is more likely a reference to the Los Angeles theme park than the alpine sanatorium novel by Thomas Mann, if at all. It is a fearsome and speedy roller-coaster of a ride, more of a plummet than undulating peaks and troughs, ushered in by bleeps and urgency, powered by sheet metal drum clatter and insistent stabbing synths before culminating in a mind-melting frenzied noise.
This hard-edged collision of rock and techno pulse is revisited in ‘La Kraut III’ and the roaring guitar squall of the title track. Overall the album is shot through with less of the motorik of Neu and more the freedom of Can – or maybe the propulsive drive of Holy Fuck. Easing off the accelerator pedal slightly is the low-budget 80s sci-fi soundtrack of ‘Syd Mead Cityscape’. ‘Sunrise At Marwar Junction’, is as mysterious, evocative and even as spiritual as the title suggests in its tinkling splendour and chimes. The ten minute ’Terminus IV’ demands more patience as simple loops of guitar and synthesizer coalesce over a slow five minute escalation into a dark, crunching tempest.
It is astonishing that Eat Lights Become Lights is mainly the studio product of one man Neil Rudd. Live the band is filled out by “the Eat Lights collective, a constantly shifting tableau of gifted musicians” but the sonic onslaught and depth of “Heavy Electrics” on record sounds as though it has taken an Olympian army to create. Heavy electrical storms predicted, delivered and very welcome to stay.
Eat Lights Become Lights Heavy Electrics [BUY]
Friday, September 14, 2012
‘Love Hz’. Is that as in hertz the SI unit of frequency? Or a down-with-the-kids plural of H? Or is it an abbreviation for haze? If it is meant to be the latter, there’s nothing hazy about the music of Manchester’s art-rockers New Hips. Formed from the ashes of Deaf To Van Gogh’s Ear, the four piece are releasing this double A-side vinyl single in partnership with Baptists And Bootleggers. As you will remember the label, launched with support from Umbro Industries, has a mission to not only champion and release new music but to distribute it free of charge. So if you turn up for tonight’s free gig at 2022HQ in Manchester’s Northern Quarter you will also receive a free copy of said vinyl release (packaged in a 12” re-sealable polythene record sleeve with hand screen printed 36” x12” poster, an A6 insert and A3 wrap around sleeve. Art work is by Zia Chan and with band photography from Martin Wilson). To negate the need to read any further: it would be worth your while doing so if in the vicinity.
I saw New Hips live supporting I’m From Barcelona last September and though impressively energetic there was also an all-over-the-map unruliness to their songs at this first live encounter. Here on record they retain the prog-leaning bounciness and a lots-happening-at-once busyness but with more focus and more fun.
‘Split Milk’ lurches forward on cascading and duelling guitars - sometimes African jit, sometimes squally freakout - with breathy/breathless full-pelt vocals, and even a jazzy synth break AND a xylophone interlude. It’s like Battles or even Islet contained in a 4 min pop template. ‘Love Hz’ bundles pneumatic vocals with cowbell and bass line bounce, offset with cooing female backing harmonies. It holds back from Battles electronic glitchiness or Deerhoof angular waywardness but has the restless punch and explosive vigour of both. A bite-size (and free) introduction to the world of New Hips, this double AA side single delivers some infectiously joyful, cerebral music aimed at the feet and the fidgety. Highly recommended. And if you miss out on the vinyl, there's also a limited CD release of both songs with remixes. Also free.
New Hips Love Hz/Split Milk [BUY]
Wednesday, September 05, 2012
Anja McCloskey has a distinctive and far-from-average background: a German-American accordion player raised in Northern Germany and based in Southampton for the last decade. She is also a well-seasoned musician – moving from childhood orchestral playing to two previous UK bands (“avant-garde performance orchestra The Irrepressibles and folk-rock trailblazers Haunted Stereo”). Despite her debut album "An Estimation" being released on alt-folk independent label Sotones, she was first introduced to me as "if you like Sharon van Etten...". And indeed she straddles both these reference points, from moody, thoughtful baroque-pop through to earthy folk polkas and more.
The twelve track album, released on CD and digitally, starts with a rousing, strident flourish: the thickly European, almost Balkan, instrumental stomp of 'Decision'. For the remaining tracks, McCloskey and her band - double bass, violin, electric and acoustic guitar alongside the accordion - keep these wild gypsy cabaret impulses more in check to provide a tense, compressed underscore. The energetic wheeze of the accordion, the dramatic twitching of the violin and the insistent percussive tap all contrast with McCloskey's sweeping, romantic tones – although I did get swept up in mood rather than lyrics for many songs.
The songs are a cohesive, balanced collection, a set of well-ordered folk-dances that appear alike on first encounter but slowly reveal the subtle differences in tempo, mood and pattern. Amongst the slower numbers are the eerie glide of ‘Tornado’, the sighing poignant drone of ‘And Her Head’ and the regal piano of ‘Tagetes’. Amongst the more continental, mid-tempo repertoire is the woozy cafe-bar chanson of tragic lover’s tale ‘Blinded By Blue’ and the jaunty ripples of ‘Italian Song’. Elsewhere the countrified, flightiness of ‘Instigate It’, the delicate mournfulness of ‘Quite Low’ or the alluring flutter of ‘Ivory’ could easily sit in a collection of femme freak-folk, antique or otherwise. Stand-out track for me and released as a single earlier this year is ‘A Kiss’ when the gypsy swirl, allure and danger previously held in check is spun out to dramatic effect.
“An Estimation” is a distinctive and highly accomplished record and one I'd recommend trying out. Anja McCloskey may not trouble Sharon van Etten in the Pitchfork hipper-than-thou sweetheart stakes but with moments like ‘A Kiss’, when you feel the passionate concentration of her disparate influences in full force, such a moment may yet come.
Anja McCloskey An Estimation [BUY]
Monday, September 03, 2012
"You don't get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully". The theme of the fourth album – or rather ‘collection’ - from globe-trotting Swede Jens Lekman is never in doubt. “I Know What Love Isn’t” is most definitely about heart-break: nine tracks plus an opening instrumental prelude that gently, lushly unpack reflections on, and feelings of, loss and the end of romance. I had heard before listening to this record that it was ‘stripped back’ but don’t expect harrowing Josh T Pearson style acoustic renditions. True there are less samples and less instrumentation than on its immediate predecessor “Night Falls Over Kortedala” but the full-blown orchestral swoon of ‘The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love’ could easily find a home on that record. Elsewhere wispy flute or glossy saxophone can be found plus elegant aching strings underscoring ‘The World Moves On’ and the title track. It’s also not stripped back as in simplified: the shifting time signatures and patterns of ‘Erica America’ with its ornate alternating arrangements of sax, piano and strings verge on cumbersome.
Rather this album is stripped back of some of the wry humour and debonair chic of earlier collections, displaced by a sense of palpable sadness. The lonely image on the cover is the most distant Jens Lekman has appeared on one of his records; ironically because musically it feels closer to the man behind the lovelorn, selectively loquacious troubadour. “I Know What Love Isn’t” re-kindles the emotional, quiet intimacy of early songs like ’The Cold Swedish Winter’ or 'Someone To Share My Life With' but here saddled with wearied experience and a heavier heart.
Although gently mournful this is not a depressing record. These sob stories and not-so-bitter reflections contain trademark witty story-telling and domestic detail a plenty and there’s an undeniably upbeat cheerfulness in the latter half of the album with ‘The World Moves On’ and ‘The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love’. The lines from the latter on charting dimensions are particularly sublime: “And it's bigger than an iceberg / Than the plume of a geyser / And it's bigger than the spider / Floating in your cider / And it's bigger than the stock market / Than the loose change in your pocket”. And the boast about push-ups in ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name’ is incongruously hilarious despite the hushed pathos.
We’ve heard similar songs from Jens before in his career but this time it feels more genuine, more personal; his arch, knowing smile is a little crumpled, somewhat downturned and with no let up from this mood over thirty nine minutes. Its delicate lushness is appealing but I’m not sure based on these tender, earlier listens that this is the record I’d introduce a non-listener to the world of Jens Lekman (unless they were a mildly masochistic depressant) but for converts it’s a fascinating and essential insight. And damn beautiful music. The highs - ‘The End Of The World..’, ‘Becoming Someone Else’s’ and ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name’ – easily stand alongside his best song-writing. Oh You’re So Heart-Broken Jens.
Jens Lekman I Know What Love Isn’t [BUY]