Archive for October, 2008

Review: Mackintosh Braun – The Sound

With their 2005 debut ‘Last Exit’, Junior Boys paved the way for bands to make electronic music that could be both cool and romantic. It’s quite possible that Portland, Oregon duo Mackintosh Braun can count on the Canadian outfit for showing them the way, for their short album wastes little time in delivering ten subtly crafted emotional songs.

Key components of the Mackintosh Braun “sound” are breathy vocal harmonies, pretty guitar textures and a production which finds a middle ground between ambient and synth-pop. This can be a problem  on a few of the songs such as ‘On And On’, which borders on the superficial due to the over-reliance on those harmonies and carefully processed beats. However, when the results are as lovelorn and melodic as ‘My Time’  and ‘Here’, the effect is to strike a fine balance between polished pop and haunted beauty.

Thanks to their carefully calculated songwriting and arrangement process, Mackintosh Braun may lack a little of the heart and soul of Junior Boys but their music has a universal appeal, which should appeal to electronica afficionados as well as casual listeners. So if this causes the duo to make further albums as addictive as ‘The Sound’ then we certainly have no reason to complain.

Web Sites:
Mackintosh Braun Official Site
Mackintosh Braun MySpace

Further Listening:
Junior Boys, Renfro


Review: Beatglider – Witches

Enraptured Records, a label renown for putting out music by artists with a psychedelic bent, have made another fine choice by releasing the new Beatglider album. Influenced as much by pagan imagery as much as the alternative American rock scene and British shoegaze, the results are experimental but frequently rewarding.

Two songs which will be familiar to those who heard their split EP with Shinri are featured again on ‘Witches’. ‘The Rattlesnake’ is like a suite made up of post-rock, shoegaze layers and built into a wonderfully, rolling intricate piece of music. ‘Lights On The Water’ is slightly less ambitious but – thanks to some breezy vocals and some driving guitars – it still pushes all the right melancholic buttons. Thankfully, the album boasts far more highlights too.

‘Wasteful Is Love’ is another brilliantly adventurous moment; here they mix beats and folk guitar like The Notwist but then deliver blissful dreampop choruses in between. The trio can really deliver a wonderful racket when they put their minds to it too. ‘Dark Dark Woods’ begins like a lullaby but ends in a terrific coda of full-on discordant riffing whilst the dense soundscapes on ‘Your Fingers Bright’ make a strong case for a glum rock revival, should we ever need it. Then there’s the storming title track which gives folk music a right good kicking and finally ‘Nature’s Arms’ which – apropos of nothing – resembles early OMD.

Due to their penchant for the mystical world and their alternative approaches to the song format, Beatglider may be the closest Britain gets to that equally contrary LA band Liars. Definitely, records like ‘Witches’ should be applauded for their willingness to subvert music, especially when the results are as edifying as this.

Web Sites:
Beatglider Official Site
Beatglider MySpace

Further Listening:
Junkboy, The Notwist, Liars, Pilots Of Japan

Review: The Milling Gowns – Diving Bell Shallows

With its gothic, watery cover art and a suitably vague and dreamy title, the main surprise about the Milling Gowns’ first album is that they’re not signed to 4AD Records yet. Certainly their music is a throwback to the times of This Mortal Coil records; with piano, viola and percussion providing the foundation for eleven laments.

Led by the lugubrious baritone of “M”, the opening track ‘The Bird In The Ice’ is quite beautiful; doleful and bruised like The National but given a classical elegance by the twin backing of Betty Widerski’s viola and Sharon Crumrine’s piano. ‘Cape The Pearls’ begins in sedate, stately fashion before building up in to a grand, almost euphoric, choral finale (well, as euphoric as one can get with M’s deeper than deep vocals for company). Although the rest of the album can’t quite match this brilliant opening salvo, further investigation reveals tear-jerking harmonies (‘Macaw’, ‘Airedales’), controlled tension (‘Violet Wrist’, ‘Bathing The Dead’) and poetic lyrics.

Judging by their press shots, I don’t think it’s too presumptious to say that The Milling Gowns are one of the more mature acts on the Massachusetts alternative scene but with this comes a lot of experience that has clearly been put to good use. Furthermore, ‘Diving Bell Shallows’ may cast a dark shadow but within this apparently sad chamber pop is an abundance of warmth allied to the twin gifts of songwriting and arrangement.

Web Sites:
The Milling Gowns Official Site
The Milling Gowns MySpace

Further Listening:
Tindersticks, This Mortal Coil, The Bathers

Review: Phasen – The Crisis Is Over

My initial impressions of 19 year-old Ryan Parmer is that he probably doesn’t get out much. That’s not an insult, merely an observation as this Anthropology student’s discography since the beginning of 2007 is prolific to say the least and I have to wonder how he finds free time between studies and music. Recorded in his tiny dormatory room, ‘The Crisis Is Over’ is an electronica album which befits the compact loneliness of its origins.

Parmer asserts that every track is an “intended representation of his current mood’. If that’s the case then he is a man who is inspired by sadness since virtually everything on this record is infused with a sense of melancholia. Most of the time it’s melodic and gentle techno like the self-explanatory ‘That Rainy Day Feeling I Get’ but occasionally it hints at darker depths and that’s when things get really interesting. ‘Another Weekend Trip’ is a fully formed number; made up of several layers of insistent beats and a wistful tune. Both this and the haunted sounds of stunning ten-minute centrepiece ‘Tropiconica’ are amongst the best tracks of the genre that I’ve had the pleasure to hear this year. In addition, the acoustic guitar loop featured on ‘Beau’ demonstrates Parmer is equally comfortable in the “folktronica” zone.

‘The Crisis Is Over’ may peak in the middle and tail off towards its denoument but clearly Parmer is a talent to watch amongst a mass of artists in this crowded field. If he performs consistently well, the Anthropology degree may not be required after all.

Web Sites:
Phasen Myspace
Distant Noise Records Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Aphex Twin, David Newlyn, Line Noise

Review: Sankt Otten – Eine Kleine Traurigkeit

Back in the mid-90’s, trip-hop provided the intelligent alternative to the tiresome Britpop brand. Like so many sub-genres though, it had a shelf life which seemed to expire around the turn of the Century but a few of the survivors from that era continue to bring out new material in sporadic form: Massive Attack and Portishead being the most famous examples. This brings us neatly on to the still active Sankt Otten whose debut arrived in 2000 and now gets a deserved reissue on Hidden Shoal Recordings. Blessed with a welcome sense of space and noirish atmosphere, it’s aged very well indeed.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Sankt Otten record their vocals in their native German tongue. Although, the thickly enunciated German language doesn’t lend itself to romantic notions, here the precise and cool delivery of Carsten Sandkaemper has just the right amount of gravitas; the singer only really baring his soul for the angst-ridden title track (its title meaning “a small sadness”). As with most trip-hop, the controlled percussion is a key element as are some choice brass and string samples.

Though it’s hard to pick out a real killer track, ‘Eine Kleine Traurigkeit’ is a proper album, whose moody, chilling demeanour runs consistently from beginning to end; where even instrumental interludes like ‘Das Juengste Geruecht’ are crucial in maintaining the atmosphere. However, the almost gentle single ‘Fernfahrer’ and classy piano ballad ‘Ende Gut’ deserve mentions for deviating from the rich, filmic formula.

Sankt Otten have been labelled as the “the German Portishead”. This only tells half the story since this band are far more subtle in their approach and they offer something like an antidote to the over-familiar sounds of Portishead’s ‘Dummy’.

Web Sites:
Sankt Otten Official Site
Sankt Otten MySpace
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Portishead, Bohren und Der Club Of Gore

Review: Daniel Halliday – First Signs

Daniel Halliday first came to prominence in 2005 with his wonderful Motodestra album. Its pretty, melancholic guitar melodies echoed the majesty of prime-period Durutti Column. Since then there has been just one good quality acoustic EP but his latest release is credited to his own name for the first time. Recorded in just a week, without overdubs and often improvised, ‘First Signs’ could be perceived as a risky move but Halliday makes a mockery of these constraints with a hugely atmospheric record.

‘First Signs’ is undeniably slower and more downbeat in its approach. ‘Suspend’ uses layers of guitar patterns and effects which blend hypnotically into each other; it speaks of lonely deserts and barren wastelands. ‘Abstracting A Void’ quickens the pace to a ramble across the American West whereas ‘For Sundays’ is perfect listening for looking out on to miserable, autumnal weather. Characterising the strong mid-section of the album, ‘An Absence’ is achingly gorgeous whilst ‘A Spark Reveals’ shows he hasn’t shed those Durutti Column comparisons just yet.

For ‘First Signs’, Halliday has expanded his oeuvre to encompass rich, soundtrack-worthy compositions. In turn he is becoming more like West Yorkshire’s Ry Cooder rather than the next Vini Reilly.

Web Sites:
Daniel Halliday’s Official Site
Daniel Halliday’s MySpace

Further Listening:
Durutti Column, Ry Cooder

Review: Tropical Australian Stinger Research Unit – An F In Health

Thomas O’Neill Grathwol is a 20 year-old Minnesota resident with some seriously warped ideas on music. Presumably recorded from his bedroom or some very basic recording studio, Grathwol is perfect if you like your music with a DIY ethic matched by bags of imagination.

Drums sound like saucepans, there are samples of obscure film dialogue whilst Grathwol regularly seems to be cracking up when he’s singing in that deranged freakfolk voice of his. Some moments of clarity do stand out though. ‘Giants Of ’93’ features that rarest of things, an addictive ukelele melody. The blissed-out folk for ‘The Father Of Foul Smells’ and dreamy synths for ‘Goodwill’ are further highlights. However, novelty ditties such as hip-hop with flu track ‘I Gotta Cold’ (key line: “I gotta blow my nose”) are only funny the first time.

‘An F In Health’ belongs in the same institution as early Baby Bird or Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti for sheer invention and lunacy. As you can imagine, the flow of the record is quite haphazard but there are rewards along the way and – since the EP is free to download anyway – there’s no risk involved.

Web Sites:
Rack & Ruin Records Tropical Australian Stinger Research Unit Artist and Download Page
Tropical Australian Stinger Research Unit MySpace

Further Listening:
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Baby Bird, Devendra Banhart

Review: School Of Language – Sea From Shore

Having posted a review of The Week That Was, it seems only fair to review the first School Of Language CD as well. Like brother and fellow Field Music member Peter, David Brewis is a pop maverick; determined to draw on unfashionable influences whilst sticking like glue to his talent of writing original and infectious pop music.

‘Sea From Shore’ is, if anything the more experimental of the two, exemplified by parts 1 to 4 of ‘Rockist’ which bookend the record. Within this “suite” are fragments of art-rock, progressive and new wave. They certainly constitute the most adventurous section of the album, yet I was more easily drawn to the less experimental songs.

‘Disappointment ’99’ is a trip back to nearer ’79 and more specifically the frantic early pop years of XTC. Like his brother, David Brewis apes the vocal stylings of 10cc for the otherwise late-70s indebted brilliance of ‘Poor Boy’ and ‘Marine Life’ (the latter possibly being my favourite moment). Both of these tracks show off the clever harmonies which Brewis mixes together using his own voice at various pitches. Elsewhere, the refined ‘Keep Your Water’ seems cut from the same cloth as Beck circa ‘Sea Change’, yet ‘This Is No Fun’ is edgy and wired.

Quality-wise there’s little to choose between School Of Language and The Week That Was. The two clearly have similar influences as well but whilst Peter Brewis loves his string arrangements, David prefers angular, guitar-based compositions. Either way, they’ve both made great, melodic albums.

Web Sites:
School Of Language Official Site
School Of Language MySpace

Further Listening:
Field Music, The Week That Was, XTC, 10CC

Review: The Lake Situation – The Lake Situation

Tim Ineson was a member of cult alt-rock bands Nub and The Seals. I have to say I was unfamiliar with either band and Google searches don’t reveal much more in than that they were critically acclaimed. In many ways, Ineson’s The Lake Situation define a typical a cult act with a wilfully subversive streak guaranteed to send the average music fan scurrying away into a corner whilst the more adventurous listener is rewarded for his patience.

Key to The Lake Situation sound is the apparent collision of calm vocals and power guitars. Naturally it shouldn’t really work but it does particularly well for slow-burner ‘The Trailer, The Boat And The Silver Fish’. ‘Boxes’ and ‘His Eyes Saw Nothing’ initially seem caustic and abrasive but both these and opener ‘The Great Snow Parade’ hurtle off into several melodic tangents, which are always lurking underneath their harsh exterior. The short instrumental pieces seem to break from the tension of the songs until the multi-layered, explosive ‘Bracken’ makes itself known.

The tunes are certainly the key. There were times when I thought I was listening to Placebo or even AC Acoustics but as soon as Ineson’s assured tones appeared, those thoughts swiftly disappeared. For this is clearly a different kind of angst indeed.

Web Sites:
The Lake Situation MySpace
And Then Records Label Site

Further Listening:
Nub, The Seals, Placebo, AC Acoustics

Review: Dawn Chorus Ignites – Glimmer EP

For the ninth release in Distant Noise Records’ series of limited edition CDs, it’s the turn of South West shoegazers Dawn Chorus Ignites to strut their stuff. Their name is indicative of their sound, given that they’re just as likely to offer dreamy soundscapes as they are to throw in a couple of nightmarish curveballs, liable to blow up at any second.

The title track demonstrates the group at their most peaceful. It’s a pleasant journey through chiming guitars and shimmering effects. ‘Sea Flowers Rising’ doesn’t set the pulse racing either but a repetitive melody combined with a cinematic, easy-listening feel is hypnotic for all the right reasons. This leads us on to ‘Turquoise Android’; the centrepiece in every sense as wintry atmospherics help to develop a tune of depth and mystery. Meanwhile, ‘Am I Here’ slowly descends into a chasm of depression whilst the EP ends with the noisefest that is ‘Clear The Space’, which is kept thankfully brief.

Dawn Chorus Ignites’ willingness to diversify could serve them well on future records but sometimes it’s at the expense of a lack of identity. Overall, I prefer it when they tone down the rather generic louder tracks and let the melodies come to the surface.

Web Sites:
Dawn Chorus Ignites MySpace
Distant Noise Records Label Site

Further Listening:
Mogwai, Destroyalldreamers