Review: Engineers – Always Returning

Since beginning in 2003, London’s Engineers have done much to provide a crossover appeal for shoegaze/dream pop music. After the majestic mystery of their self-titled debut to the euphoric pop of 2009’s ‘Three Fact Fader’ and then the pleasant but somewhat underwhelming ‘In Praise Of More’ (from 2010), their new album is a welcome comeback.

Engineers Album Cover

At once, ‘Bless The Painter’ is indicative of a more strident approach. Incisive beats and synth washes are propelled to the front of the mix with breathy vocals forming an extra sumptuous layer. ‘Fight Or Flight’ is alive with bright busy melodies which seem to draw on Cocteau Twins’ ‘A Kissed Out Red Floatboat’ for inspiration and that cannot possibly be a bad move. A blissful experience and much the same can be said for ‘It Rings So True’ which sounds like aural wallpaper at first but this mesmerising track is populated by detailed unwinding hooks and ghostly vocals.

The original album was recorded alone by founder member Mark Peters but the ambient touches by Ulrich Schnauss add a sparkle and sheen and possibly the reason why Engineers are labelled as “nu gaze”. The second half is more diverse and less consistent but still punctuated by highlights. Even an instrumental ‘Innsbruck’ sounds confident and urgent; contrasting the gentler piano-led ‘Smoke And Mirrors’. Only on the overtly poppy ‘Searched For Answers’ and the straight-laced ‘Smiling Back’ do the band lose their way but the final title track is a brilliantly refined way to end the record.

Granted, ‘Always Returning’ works as background music; one can certainly imagine it unobtrusively soundtracking an art installation. However, the accompanying instrumental album only emphasises the fact there are layers of complexity here which prove that Engineers are always searching – and usually finding – intelligent and sumptuous ambient soundscapes.

Web Sites:
Engineers Artist Page at Kscope
Engineers – Always Returning

Further Listening:
Ulrich Schnauss, Delay Trees

Review: Andrew Espinola – Always Enough

After several years recording as A. Rex, in 2012, San Antonio’s Andrew Espinola released his most personal work to date under his own name; the reflective but never self-pitying ‘Into The Drink’. ‘Always Enough’ follows a similar path with the artist continuing his knack for writing memorable indie pop tunes.

Andrew Espinola EP Cover

‘No More Lonely Empire’ embraces a full, punchy production to follow on from ‘Into The Drink’. The drums and bass rattle along rapidly, providing a propulsive energy from which the songwriter assumes the role of protector for his “perfect ending for my beautiful Queen”. It’s a song that’s almost naively optimistic and upbeat and – on a purely musical level – second track ‘Taken By A Pro’ has a shiny outlook too but its lyrics are fuelled by being used in a relationship. Espinola reflects that “in her heart, the bags were always packed” and “she took parts of me, to make herself complete” but it’s the sunny tune and singalong chorus which turns what could have been a tale of self-pity into a cleverly-crafted nugget; comparing favourably to those fellow bittersweet graduates, Eels and Her Space Holiday.

‘Lazy Love’ balances the innocence of bird song samples and strings with further articulate tales of romantic regret; in this case not making enough effort to save a relationship. Yet just when Espinola is in danger of sounding bitter, ‘Love Is Always Enough’ provides an unexpected curveball. Based on what seems to be an enduring relationship in Texas, one must naturally assume this is a tale of a couple close to the singer’s heart so potentially schmaltzy lines (“She still loves how it feels when he says “You look beautiful”) become rather sweet and enduring.

Contrasting moods may be the order of the day on ‘Always Enough’ but this is an EP fuelled by the ultimate four letter word, love. Importantly, no matter how sumputous his melodies are, Espinola writes songs which make you pay attention to the words and that’s a rare quality these days.

Web Sites:
Andrew Espinola Official Site
Andrew Espinola Tumblr
Video for Andrew Espinola – ‘No More Lonely Empire’
CD Baby Page for Andrew Espinola – Always Enough

Further Listening:
Her Space Holiday, Eels

Review: Michael Flynn – Face In The Cloud

Michael Flynn will be known to a few as one half of Slow Runner, a pop rock outfit from South Carolina. Their bio boasts that their music has been employed to promote “useful products like cars and shampoo” as well as the oft-referenced Grey’s Anatomy (do they ever make room for dialogue in that show?). With his new solo album, though, Flynn has produced arguably this year’s guilty pleasure.

Michael Flynn Album Cover

An album which opens with a frenetic burst of military drums mixed with ambient music and ends with a trip-hop/film noir piece called ‘That Danny Glover Feeling’ surely has to be cherished. Unafraid of sounding brash when he needs to, ‘Winsome Lonesome’ begins with a burst of synths which wouldn’t sound out of place on the theme to Flashdance but the song then unfolds into soulful electronica; Flynn’s warm vocals urging “somebody take me home” to anyone who will listen. ‘Old Soul’ is Flynn in his most infectious mode from the catchy synth lines to Flynn’s unerringly melodic tones. It’s a glorious moment and ‘Face In The Cloud’ is full of these moments.

Exploring his darker side, ‘Holy Ghost’ moves into spooky circles both literally and musically, thanks to frosty beats and bleeps which chill to the bone. An appealing falsetto and further cheap but hooky synths distinguish ‘Pop Culture’. Further pleasures occur on the smooth ‘Bird In The House’ (“just let me run my fingers through your feathers”) and the “last song at the school disco” feel to ‘The Arrow At Your Feet’, whilst some forlorn digitised vocals on the piano-led ‘A Love That Bends’ imagines romance for robots.

No matter how cheesy and retro some of these songs may be in their approach, the constants are Flynn’s imagination and unfailing ear for melody. He also deserves great credit for creating a sense of intimacy with his emotive take on bedroom studio pop.

Web Sites:
Michael Flynn Official Site
Michael Flynn Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Postal Service, Scritti Politti, Christian McKee

Review: Creation Myth – Always

Having recently suffered from a migraine, some gentle, soothing balm-type music was called for so it seemed entirely appropriate to revisit Creation Myth’s EP. Modestly publicised, modestly produced and modestly sung, ‘Always’ is a long way from perfection and yet there are plenty of indications this Brooklyn trio could be a special band.

Creation Myth Album Cover

Floating along like a gentle version of Cocteau Twins (think ‘Victorialand’ with a drum machine), ‘Savor’ is a subtle and elegant way to start this EP. Granted the singer is no Liz Fraser and the production is nowhere near as polished (to be honest, whose production is?) but there’s a definite mystery and ethereal quality on this track which runs right through the whole EP. ‘It’s You’ is simply lovely and the best offering here. A glacial, lilting guitar melody floats along the languid rhythms whilst the vocals caress the listener into a state of euphoria.

‘Hold Me’ provides the most distortion-heavy moment and initially comes across as rather abrasive but at its core is an unwinding, chiming motif which holds the key to a fine if somewhat messily produced song. The title track is distinguished by a steady electronic pulse pushed to the foreground whilst a menagerie of effects provide the requisite atmospheric shimmer as the song heads into darker, murkier territory. ‘Lower’ returns to the ambient approach from the beginning of the EP and even though the song drifts into nowhere in particular, it maintains the appealing warmth of ‘Always’.

The final three tracks aren’t quite so captivating as the first two and yet they are still mesmerising and chilling in their own way. Given the lo-fi quality of this EP, it’s exciting to think how good this band could be even if they’re a long way from being the finished article.

Web Sites:
Creation Myth Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Cocteau Twins, The Plague Monkeys, Annie Barker, Cranes

Review: Cockatoo – Present

Cockatoo are a Canadian based-band led by the virtuoso talents of guitarist/singer Robyn Bright, who also performs as a solo act and one half of experimental duo Hamsas Xii. Cockatoo themselves are content to shimmer around the genres of post-punk and dream pop whilst casting longing glances at goth music.

Cockatoo Album Cover

‘Present’ begins with satisfying fleshy tribal drums and Bright’s forlorn yet powerful vocals. It’s a bewitching beginning continued by ‘Lost In My Own Sound’, which draws on Siouxsie And The Banshees’ ‘Juju’-era but brings forth its own intensity and melodrama. Both lyrically and musically it captures the essence of ‘Present’, with the band seemingly adrift in a gothic storm or perhaps the ‘Abyss’ that is name-checked in track number nine. Mood-wise the only way is down which can create a claustrophobic atmosphere, particularly on the less urgent material from the second half of the album where Cockatoo begin to sound like a spent force; seemingly exhausted from hammering away on guitars and percussion.

Cockatoo aren’t a band to go for obvious hooks, instead they play the long game with their songs building and building in tension, grinding the listener into submission. It’s a technique perfected on The Mission-like guitar walls for ‘Disguises’ and the similarly mesmeric, multi-layered likes of ‘Static’, ‘Barricades’ and ‘Pokerfaced’. In a rare case of immediacy, ‘Kashikikawa’ is one of only two songs to clock in under four minutes and a few more shorter songs would have been welcome to break up the prolonged angst.

By the time of the gruelling, driving finale ‘Hit & Run’, it’s hard not to feel a sense of fatigue due to the sheer relentlessness of the band’s performance. Certainly, given the lack of variation on the near hour-long ‘Present’, the album could have done with a little bit of pruning. However, the doom-laden conviction of the band can be captivating and for the first half of this album at least, their manifesto is gripping.

Web Sites:
Cockatoo Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Siouxsie And The Banshees, All About Eve, The Attic Ends

Review: Fractions – Fractions

Newcastle’s Fractions are possibly the archetypal modern indie pop band. Ideas were formulated by the band members sending their individual contributions back and forth from their own “secluded home studios”. Their first EP definitely shows their talents but at times their EP does sound like five musicians competing against each other.

Fractions EP Cover

The portentous ‘Into The Earth’ presents a doomy atmosphere made further unnerving by sharp stabs of electronica. An enticing beginning but slightly misleading given what is to follow. The exuberant ‘Burst’ is noteworthy for Lucy Gallagher’s strident vocals backed up by some equally strident bass guitar whilst synth washes weave attractively in between; comparisons will be made with New Order although New York’s Elika are possibly a closer match.

‘Breathe’ is the epitome of shiny, 21st Century pop; there’s a strong chorus but the mix buries the vocals somewhat under a collision of beats and synths, thereby diluting the impact. It’s the first occasion when the band sound like they’re trying to out-do each other rather than perform as a collective unit. To some extent, ‘Resist’ suffers from too many cooks as well but the underlying hooks are undoubtedly solid whilst the finale, ‘Fate’, begins subtly enough but then explodes into rather shapeless nugaze.

Fractions are not quite the sum of their parts yet but these issues could be ironed out quite easily, simply by making their songs less busy. Furthermore, a leaner, more collaborative approach would be advisable for any future releases to elevate them from promising talents to electronic/dream pop heroes.

Web Sites:
Fractions Bandcamp
Fractions SoundCloud

Further Listening:
Elika, The Other Two, Dubstar

Review: Lettie – Crossroads

It was back in 2008 when Suffolk songstress Lettie released a double whammy of albums; showcasing both her acoustic and quirky electronica talents. Interest was duly piqued for lovers of female-led idiosyncratic pop although – and through no fault of her own – it wasn’t until 2012 that her next album arrived, the more commercially-friendly ‘Good Fortune, Bad Weather’. In anticipation of album number four, Lettie now teases us with a short but most definitely sweet EP, recorded with legendary drummer Dave Barbarossa, of Adam And The Ants and Bow Wow Wow renown.

Lettie EP Cover

‘Crossroads’ gets events underway with smooth synths and Barbarossa lending surprisingly subtle support. It’s a hopeful, optimstic number, positively declaring “I’ve made a decision, I’ve got to change my ways” with Lettie’s breezy yet mature delivery and rich arrangement ensuring that the song is moving rather than throwaway. As the title implies, ‘Drowning’ is a darker affair, Lettie’s innocent vocals forlornly declaring “I never thought you were drowning, you seemed so happy to me” against Barbrossa’s slick, crisp support. The song itself is reminiscent of the groove-pop of Luscious Jackson but with an added sinister undercurrent. ‘Lake’ is the track where the drummer’s reputation for tribal percussion is most noticeable; his lively backing and some primal guitar riffing providing the perfect foundation for Lettie’s most exuberant, playful performance, even if the song follows on from the theme of finding the supposed victim of the second track.

The EP is all over in under ten minutes but this is bittersweet pop music of the highest order, which will leave Lettie’s fan salivating for the next installment. Let us hope we will not have to wait too long.

Web Sites:
Lettie Blog
Lettie Official Site
Lettie Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Black Box Recorder, Sarah Nixey, Adam And The Ants, Luscious Jackson


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