Archive for December, 2007

Review: This Unique Museum – Chapter One: A Catalogue Of Madness & Melancholy

The work of This Unique Museum could be referred to as modern shoegazing, an opinion I first reached when reviewing his first album in 2006. It appears that the man behind the project, Ben Fitton, has now hit upon an original concept with his approach to record releases. He releases a new track on his web site every week and after each set of twelve tracks are published and considered by visitors to his web site, these are then put in to CD form. Such prolific activity must be difficult to maintain and as a reviewer I am already one release behind as Fitton has released an additional EP since the release of ‘Chapter One’.

This Unique Museum Album Cover

As with past releases, track titles are accompanied rather confusingly by an additional bracketed title. The music remains consistent too; usually based on an electronically-enhanced folk melody accompanied by Fitton’s aching, sensitive vocals. In fact, in all honesty, there’s not much to differ ‘Chapter One’ from ‘A Collection Of Short Stories’, which is probably indicative of the recording schedule but some gems do emerge. ‘The Optimist Of…’ make the best use of the keening, dreamy quality of Fitton’s vocals, piano keys and grinding guitars embellish the gorgeous ‘The Architect Of…’ whilst ‘Wise Beyond Her Years’ may be relentlessly downbeat but it is undeniably attractive. Granted, the slowly unravelling nature of the music and the sweetly melancholic mood can be a little samey but the overall effect is a well-crafted, hypnotic and seamless collection of songs.

Web Sites:
This Unique Museum Official Site
This Unique Museum MySpace

Further Listening:
The Notwist


Review: Moonshot – Uncertain Weather

Moonshot are a trio of London-based musicians/producers/mixers who are now on their third album. Despite being an active outfit for a decade now, it’s hard to know who Moonshot are marketed at. Although the overall sound is club-friendly, the general mood stretches between “uplifting” New Age and dark techno.

Moonshot Album Cover

It’s the initial mood which strikes first, some positive spoken words in the tone of a relaxation tape are read over a chill-out background. Then ‘Dirty Hands’ comes in with its heavy-handed drum sound. However, ‘Uncertain Weather’ improves as the album progresses even if the vocals remain largely rooted in anonymous, emotionless territory. Tracks three and four veer into darker yet still recognisably spiritual zones. On ‘First Snow’ they excel with a wintry trip-hop song where the vocals do finally capture something approaching choir-quality, the rumbling rhythms of ‘Crystal Mighty’  suggests Depeche Mode relocated to the dancefloor and finally the title track is blissfully and elegantly delivered. Overall, this is the acceptable face of club-friendly music.

Web Sites:
Moonshot Official Site
Moonshot MySpace

Further Listening:
Nick Hopkin, ReCoup

Review: Puressence – Don’t Forget To Remember

Despite their unexpected popularity in Greece, Puressence have been the perennial underdogs of the Manchester scene. It’s a real puzzle considering the obvious anthemic quality to their songs. It has been five years since the last Puressence album, 2002’s ‘Planet Helpless’, which was easily the most commercial record they produced but even then everywhere outside of Greece seemed unimpressed. After being told to sound more like Savage Garden, Puressence and label Island inevitably went their separate ways. Lesser bands would probably have given up but the group (save original guitarist Neil McDonald) have soldiered on and put out album number four on the small label Reaction Records.

Puressence Album Cover

Generally ‘Don’t Forget To Remember’ is a case of recapturing old glories. The fact that it was recorded at Revolution Studios is not a clue to a new direction, it concentrates simply on what the group have always been good at. The title track is typical and the obvious choice for this year’s potential anthem. It uses all of Puressence’s chief weapons: James Mudriczki’s Northern choirboy vocals and the loud, epic widescreen production. ‘Don’t Know Any Better’ and ‘Brainwaves’, both mid-paced numbers, are lifted by more melancholic warbling from Mudriczki, the melodies for ‘Bitter Pill’ ring out from speaker to speaker whilst later songs ‘Palisades’ and ‘Burns Inside’ are loud, crunching and triumphant. It seems unlikely now that Puressence will achieve the success they so deserved but – to those in the know – this is a dignified return.

Web Sites:
Official Puressence Site
Puressence MySpace
Townsend Records Link

Further Listening:
Geneva, The Open

Review: Amycanbe – Being A Grown-Up Sure Is Complicated

The portents for Amycanbe sound ominous. The sugary-sweet name for both band and album title suggests the most twee music ever heard. Thankfully Amycanbe are above those fears. Hailing from Ravenna in North-Eastern Italy, they merge folk and electronica all topped off by Francesca Amati’s child-like vocals. The sum effect is a cross between Stina Nordenstam and the cult Argentinian act Mus.

 Amycanbe Album Cover

Crucially, despite the frailities of Amati’s vocals, the band never come close to being too cute or saccharine, instead their rather unusual folk music makes them a very different proposition. Amongst the highlights, ‘Get Closer’ flies the flag for intricately-woven moody European indie pop, they incorporate grunge for the quietly menacing ‘All The Places’ and the driving chorus of ‘Burning’. Then right in the middle of the record is ‘Little Dog’, a dark, intense number where Amati’s “little girl lost” vocals battle against a whirlwind of bruising guitars. It would seem that Amycanbe are better the louder they get but the languid charms of ‘Too Much Work’ is a gentle delight. In conclusion, although the second half contains a few makeweights, this is a strong start and comes recommended for those who like their female-fronted indie bands with something a bit different to offer.

Web Sites:
Official Amycanbe Site
Dancing Turtle Records Site 

Further Listening:
Mus, Stina Nordenstam

Review: For Against – In The Marshes

Minneapolis’ Words On Music label may release only a few albums a year but they always lovingly package their CDs. ‘In The Marshes’, the third in a series of reissues for post-punk/pre-dreampop act For Against, is no exception. Although released originally in 1990, this EP was actually recorded before the first album and it shows a group experimenting with the tools at their disposal and hoping to make their mark. The record itself has aged rather level with the three-piece creating a haunting, primtive noise.

 For Against EP Cover

At times the sound is comparable to those other 1980s experimentalists Eyeless In Gaza, with frequent shards of noise breaking up a forest of mumbled vocals, rumbling bass and searing guitar. Jeffrey Runnings’ vocals are a world apart from the youthful clarity heard on 2002’s ‘Coalesced’; in wordless mourning for opener ‘Tibet’ and even his bandmates do their best impression of particularly troubled monks for the title track. On ‘The Purgatory Salesman’, For Against plunge towards their darkest moment before reaching their lightest moment for ‘Amen Yves’, where – even though the keyboards threaten to drift into Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ territory – Runnings’ ethereal vocals and Harry Dingman III’s chilling guitar shapes take the listener away to another place entirely. Otherwise it’s a doomy yet fascinating record which epitomises 4AD Records circa 1986.

Web Sites:
Words On Music Label Site
For Against MySpace

Further Listening:
Eyeless In Gaza, Breathless, Pale Saints, Modern English, The Opposition

Review: The Mill – Meno Forms E.P.

The Mill bring forth their bluesy rock from Belfast in Northern Ireland. Admiration of the band is likely to depend on how you perceive the performance of frontman Ciaran Cullen. Some delicious distorted guitars begin the psychedelic trip in fine style then Cullen casts his leery, almost-drunken sounding vocals over proceedings.

The Mill EP Cover 

In contrast, ‘As Stone’ is sleepy and gentle, drowsy but also alluring. It’s not all good though: ‘In Lime’ is an ugly mess, characterised by Cullen’s guttural tones. ‘Heard Her Call’, on the other hand, is old-school blues rock; its uncompromising tone only added to by howls of feedback. Finally, ‘Duty’s Dues’ is what The Happy Mondays might sound like if they ever covered Deep Purple. The Mill are an acquired taste, that’s for sure but there’s enough charm and warmth to make them likeable.

Web Sites:
The Mill’s MySpace

Further Listening:
The Doors, The Stone Roses

Review: The Changes – Today Is Tonight

When I first saw that a band had named themselves as The Changes, my immediate impression was that here was a group who chose their name as a desperate attempt to make people think they are different from anyone else. In fact this Chicago act really are different from most other bands and although they do have influences they’re not from the usual fashionable sources.

The Changes Album Cover

‘On A String’ employs the same clear, almost effeminate harmonies that China Crisis fans used to get beaten up for listening to, ‘Sisters’ takes that comparison still further but features a retro-styled drum loop and more clever hooks in one song than you’d be lucky to find in some artists’ complete albums. Meanwhile, ‘Twilight’ marries soul to Haircut One Hundred’s white funk and ‘House Of Style’ manages to repeat its simple refrain (“You don’t care. You’ll Tell anyone. It’s not fair. You don’t care etc”) countless times but is still as addictive as hell. At this stage it appears that The Changes make the kind of skinny white boy pop that was around in the 1980s but here they’ve allied it to the soft rock arrangements of fellow Chicago outfit The Sea And Cake.

Furthermore, towards the end of the record, they show admirable versatility. The vocals reach a rockier, gritty level for ‘Such A Scene’ and ‘Her, You And I’, the latter of which reminds me of The La’s and even survives a three-minute instrumental section without straying into self-indulgent territory. Then a couple of lovely romantic numbers (‘In The Dark’, ‘When I Sleep’) complete this almost flawless indie-pop album. All in all, The Changes are well worthy of their chosen name.

Web Sites:
The Changes’ Official Site
The Changes’ MySpace

Further Listening:
China Crisis, The Sea And Cake

Review: Bell Hollow – Foxgloves

Of all the independent acts in operation, few have mastered their post-punk influences quite as well as New York’s Bell Hollow. For starters, Nick Niles can really sing, Greg Fasolino knows how and when to make the best use of his chiming guitar melodies, whilst Christopher Bollman contributes suitably lurching bass and Todd Karasik’s subtle use of percussion is reminiscent of the great early years of The Comsat Angels. In fact it is this band which Bell Hollow emulate most closely. Like them, they are masters of killer hooks and inject their songs with an admirable amount of restraint.

 Bell Hollow Album Cover

Their first album features several songs available on earlier EPs and ‘Lowlights’ and ‘Getting On In Years’ are certainly amongst the best tracks here. Yet this is definitely a “proper” album. The title track’s tender verses tingle with romance before they lead to a chorus which promises imminent danger. Niles is such a skilled frontman that he is instrumental in delivering key changes for ‘Seven Sisters’, ‘Jamais Vu’ and ‘The Bottle Tree’ whilst ‘Storm’s End’ offers a supreme glum rock riff. Without doubt, Bell Hollow have delivered on their initial promise with a post-punk record which oozes class.

Web Sites:
Official Bell Hollow Site
Bell Hollow MySpace

Further Listening:
The Comsat Angels, The Chameleons, Por Nada, Sad Lovers And Giants

Review: The Opposite Sex – Violent Heartstrings

Whilst Bell Hollow can call on The Comsat Angels as their nearest soundalike, Bauhaus seem to be the primary influence for The Opposite Sex. Frontman Shawn Helton is the owner of a gothic howl, the guitars are as much punk as post-punk, the bass is steadfastly doomy whilst tribal drums complete the band’s statement. Their first EP was a decent effort but a little too hamstrung by the past. Much of the first album could have been made twenty-five years ago too but the energy levels are kept high enough for this record not to be dismissed.

The Opposite Sex Album Cover 

‘Knives’ certainly evokes the madness and intensity of Bauhaus whereas ‘Dusk’ has got them pretty much down to pastiche level. Yet elsewhere they prove ‘Violent Heartstrings’ is not a mere homage to Northampton’s finest miserbalists. A more controlled form of punk is displayed on ‘Turning Colours’ and ‘Everything’ but it’s ‘Walk On Water’ lying at the centre of the record which is the real find; an elegant keyboard wash is the basis for a subtle, emotive song that reminds me of Section 25. Granted, the lyrics veer towards goth cliché but the best songs of The Opposite Sex reveal they have a future as well as a past.

Web Sites:
Official Site For The Opposite Sex
The Opposite Sex MySpace

Futher listening:

Review: The National – Boxer

The National may look like an unlikely bunch but recently they have become firmly established as a critically lauded act and the respectable choice for music fans approaching middle age. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the fine songs they produce but another is the gritty lyricism which often relates to the trauma of advancing years. 

 The National Album Cover

‘Fake Empire’ is a typically moody start, Matt Berninger sounds not unlike a  drunk muttering to himself about today’s society. As we’ve come to expect, beneath all the moodiness there’s some well judged insight into the psyche of a man struggling to come to terms with passing through his 30s and moving on to 40. ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ is a darker more menacing beast; the guitars grind away whilst the rattling percussion ratchets up the air of tension. It’s a rare moment of excitement though, The National choosing to offer their outlook on life in a restrained manner; bruised and battered over the years but too tired to get irate about it. This formula worked brilliantly for 2005’s ‘Alligator’ but now they are beginning to sound tired on record too. However, since they are a class act, they can still produce great songs like ‘Guest Room’, the reflective ‘Racing Like A Pro’ describes a once “glowing young ruffian” but that was a “million years ago” whilst the delicate rolling piano underscoring ‘Ada’ is another fine moment. Strangely, they have saved some of their best work for the end of the record and suddenly an average album turns into a good one after all.

Web Sites:
Official Site for The National
The National MySpace

Also Recommended:
Tindersticks, The Walkmen, Nick Cave