Archive for November, 2008

Review: The Eisenhowers – Film Your Own Atrocities

Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of discovering ‘Almost Half Undressed’, the first record by Scottish act The Eisenhowers. Touching on some great cornerstones of literate pop – chiefly XTC, Elvis Costello, Squeeze – it simply had to feature in my “best of” list for that year. Two years later, the follow-up duly arrives and little has changed; the music still revolves around the wordsmithery and vocals of Raymond Weir but now he is assisted by more than ten other musicians.

Although the sound is understandably fuller (with backing singers featured on every other song), Weir remains the real hero being the sole songwriter and his vocals have a melodic and yearning quality in their own right. The bright, strutting pop of ‘Gathering Dust’ is a definite highlight whilst the spirit of Costello is recalled again for undeniably infectious pop nuggets ‘Reign Of The Stupid’ and ‘Less Than Nothing’. There’s no lack of ambition in ideas either. On centrepiece ‘1969’, he contrasts the TV spectacle of the moon landings from that year with today’s love for Z-list celebrities.

Sadly, the second half of the album witnesses decent but less noteworthy attempts to captivate the listener. It does contain ‘Being There’ though, a beautifully arranged wistful number about a disillusioned millionaire; infact, it is probably the pick of the album overall. Elsewhere, ‘Lighthouse’ and the piano-led ‘Janine’ are imaginatively produced but struggle to find memorable hooks; not something Weir could often be accused of.

Overall, ‘Film Your Own Atrocities’ isn’t quite as addictive as The Eisenhowers’ debut but it still makes a lot of the right noises. Weir also retains a happy knack for penning sweetly melodic material, coupled with the kind of acerbic lyrics which we’ve come to expect from the finest Scottish songwriters.

Web Sites:
The Eisenhowers Official Site
The Eisenhowers MySpace

Further Listening:
Elvis Costello, XTC, The Kinks, Gum


Review: The Deaths – Centralia

Don’t be put off by the name, The Deaths never come close to unleashing metallic horror upon wary ears. Rather they recall songwriting of a considerably older vintage with their woozy, psychedelic pop music. ‘Centralia’ is the follow-up album to 2006’s well-received ‘Choir Invisible’.

Karl Qualey’s throaty performance could probably determine whether you like the band or not; in fact I had to double take to check that he wasn’t Andrew Chester of My Computer fame, such are the vocal simlarities between the two. Of the album highlights, ‘Revolution’ sways dramatically between ‘Strawberry Fields’ and British grunge whilst sax and organ-assisted interlude ‘Lemon Lane’ (Parts I and II) and ‘To The Start’ evoke a nostalgic trip through a 1960’s street market.

Most of the other material doesn’t stand out so boldly but makes sense in the context of album; only the beats-heavy ‘Selecter’ sounding out of place. Then from out of nowhere comes what I think may be an affectionate tribute to Blue Peter hero Peter Duncan. It’s an infectious pop highlight and would surely be a hit if it had been released twenty years ago.

It is at this time that I would normally summarise by saying ‘Centralia’ deserves to be hailed as a typically idiosyncratic British effort. So the surprise is The Deaths are a Minneapolis-based outfit whose most recognisable infuences just happen to be from 1960’s England. Nonetheless, the record stands on its own two feet as a wistful, colourful and lovingly-produced collection of songs.

Web Sites:
The Deaths Official Site
The Deaths MySpace

Further Listening:
The Crimea, My Computer, Mountaineers, The Kinks, Dawn Of The Replicants

Review: The Fabulous Artisans – From Red To Blue

Much like Cherry Red Records, Bendi Records are a label who pretend that the last two decades of music never happened. Their roster encompasses the kind of unfashionable artists that known record companies wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Yet, as is often the case, the music produced can often be delightful. True to form, The Fabulous Artisans make passionate, 80s-styled pop led by a big-voiced singer and kitchen-sink arrangements which belie this small label’s cult concerns.

The romantic title track is certainly a brilliant way to start. Neil Crossan’s rich Scott Walker-meets-Edwyn Collins croon is perfectly matched to Jeremy Thoms’ beautiful arrangements; it sounds like a lost Associates song. Similarly, the slower, reflective likes of ‘Wintertime’ and ‘Queen’s Park’ are rich in both vocals and songwriting prowess. Meanwhile, doleful melodies such as ‘Say Hello To The Summer’ and ‘Self Proclaimed Genius’ certainly wouldn’t seem out of place on one of Collins’ solo records. Yet other influences are stranger. The busy ‘Like A Saviour’ recalls The Style Council, there’s even a bit of fuzzed-up Bowie for ‘Return (Lord I Can’t)’ whilst the harpischord and “sha la la” backing vocals employed on ‘Sycamore Square’ can only be put down to the duo’s own delightful quirkiness.

Crossan and Thoms may be relative veterans on the indie music scene but their talents for perfect pop is of the finest vintage. Discovering ‘From Red To Blue’ may feel like digging up a long lost treasure from a quarter of a century ago but (much like Thoms’ other project, Skyline) it’s a superbly executed exercise in classic, soulful British pop.

Web Sites:
The Fabulous Artisans MySpace
Bendi Records Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
The Associates, Misty Roses, The Style Council, Danny Wilson, Skyline, Scott Walker

Review: Sleepingdog – Polar Life

Sleepingdog are Dutch-born singer Chantal Acda and Adam Wiltzie; the latter better known for his work with Stars Of The Lid and Dead Texan. The couple’s talents complement each other perfectly since they are clearly subscribers to the “less is more” theory. ‘Polar Life’ is their second album of ambient folk.

The songs on the album are usually based around mininmalist electronica and subtle string arrangements, over which Acda lends her beautiful pure voice. Sometimes the music is dsarmingly simplistic. ‘Your Eyes’, for example, is largely based on a couple of piano keys supporting Acda’s elegant tones with only the swell of the strings towards the middle and end of the song threatening to complicate matters. The electronic-led material also works well with the title track recalling the work of ‘Múm’ amongst others. On one of Acda’s strongest performances, there’s emotion and melody by the bucketload in ‘Alleys’ yet my favourite song is actually a cover version; an interpretation of Sophia’s ‘If Only’  providing a moving finale.

My only criticisms would be the constant slow pace of the record and occasionally Acda’s voice seems so fragile and tender it appears over-calculated. Yet rather like the debut by fellow Gizeh Records artists Glissando, ‘Polar Life’ is a record full of stark beauty, with the duo guaranteed to pluck heartstrings aplenty with their most effective songs.

Web Sites:
Sleepingdog Official Site
Sleepingdog MySpace
Gizeh Records Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
This Mortal Coil, Glissando, Múm, Low

Review: Ólafur Arnalds – Eulogy For Evolution

Top marks to 21 year-old Ólafur Arnalds for boldness. His ambition is to “bring his classical influence to the people who don’t usually listen to this kind of music”. Cynics may argue that past efforts to do this largely involved in some pretty young things who relied more on image than unique talents. Arnalds seems to be a more serious proposition and thus far his plan seems to have been quite successful too with North American and European tours receiving rave reviews. His well-judged first album also does a fine job of attracting potential new listeners.

Opening piece ‘00.40’ and ‘09.52’ makes the decision of fellow countrymen Sigur Ros to use him as a support act very wise indeed; they’re both lovely, fragrant pieces of music, made up of delicate piano and string arrangements exuberant in warmth and melody. ‘14.40’ and ‘19.53’ take us into more melancholic territory; the latter in particlarly has an aura of epic romance that is tailor-made for soundtrack work. Only the final track really threatens to affront classical snobs and – in fairness – its apocalyptic storm of guitars is the only ill-advised step on a record which generally plays it safe.

Although the music is ostensibly modern classical it’s not of the confrontational, scary variety. Rather, ‘Eulogy For Evolution’ sticks to orchestral traditions but uses just enough modern production techniques to bring it to the wider audience Arnalds is aiming for.

Web Sites:
Ólafur Arnalds MySpace
Erased Tapes Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Sigur Ros

Review: The Mill – Relative Absolute

Belfast’s The Mill have taken a relatively short time between their EP from earlier in the year and this first album. Part of the reason is probably because all the songs from ‘Meno Forms’ appear on ‘Relative Absolute’ as well. No matter, it’s still a decent record which is a throwback to psych/hard rock times of the 1970’s as well as the British indie movement of the late 1980’s. The six new songs also show pointers to the future.

The album can be split into two halves; one ugly and guttural, the other dreamy and melodic. Murky guitars dominate ‘Bound’ and ‘Heard Her Call’ is downright nasty-sounding. On the more positive side, ‘As Stone’ is languid and summery; Cullen developing a soothing vocal which he carries off surprisingly well.

Of the new songs, ‘On We Run’ rattles along very nicely whilst ‘Let It Out’ and ‘Weight On My Mind’ are further fine example of mature songwriting. Better still is the subtlety and warmth of ‘Own’; the song retaining its psychedelic imprint but still managing to be both tender and moving.

‘Relative Absolute’ is a record to divide opinions, not of least which my own. Sometimes I was drawn into its hypnotic, disarmingly pretty guitar textures whereas on others I was reminded of a bunch of hoary old rockers. However, it’s undoubtedly a very serious set of songs built on the solid foundations set by equally serious and well-respected bands from the past.

Web Sites:
The Mill Official Site
The Mill MySpace

Further Listening:
The Doors, The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses

Review: Various Artists – Vacant Passages – Volume One

‘Vacant Passages’ is a new four-part series created by Texan Jon Thompson for his Drifting Falling label. When all the parts are complete, the CD covers will form a picture of, what appears to be, a large vacant passage. Yet is the music a void, bereft of importance or feeling? Quite the opposite in fact. Across a quartet of tracks, the artists involved sit comfortably alongside each other; each crafting their own individual sounds.

Thompson’s own Oppressed By The Line outlet begins proceedings with ‘Oceanic’ and offers suitably grand gestures on this almost hymnal track. I particularly appreciate the way Thompson layers his own voice at various pitches to add soothing textures to his always melodic music. Continuing the dreampop theme but taking it to a narcotic level is The Air Alone whose ‘I Wish I Could Dream Of Spacemen’ emits a languid glow. Mole Harness is a relatively old hand now in layering acoustic and electronic instuments. Once again, he impresses with the twinkling atmospheres of ‘Meet By The River’. Then the EP ends with a slice of Scottish folk courtesy of My Kappa Roots, who effortlessly evoke warmth and nostalgia.

Despite the different styles contained within Volume One of the series, there is a common theme of unrushed, melancholic sounds at its core. The quality contained within certainly augurs well for the next three episodes.

Web Sites:
Drifting Falling Label and Shop Site
Drifting Falling MySpace

Further Listening:
Oppressed By The Line, The Air Alone, Mole Harness, My Kappa Roots

Review: BirdPen – On/Off/Safety/Danger

Available initially in download-only form, ‘On/Off/Safety/Danger’ is the debut long-player from BirdPen; one of the more original alternative rock acts around today. Gifted musicians that they are, main songwriters Dave Pen and Mike Bird have produced close to an hour of dense, dark music, which reveals even more of their diverse talents.

Sensibly, they kick off with the excellent lead-off track from ‘Breaking Precedent E.P.’; like Dawn Of The Replicants fuzzed-up rock but with strident vocals instead of the Scottish outfit’s guttural rasp. Yet that song is unrepresentative of the album as a whole as it shifts in to darker, deeper territory. “Moving” isn’t a word I’d normally use to describe BirdPen but there’s a lot of heartache invested in to ‘Airspace’; a relatively straight song by their normally subversive standards.

The grungy ‘Admiral Red’ is another passionately-delivered number whilst “The thought of never seeing you is tearing me apart” is the key line to the spare, eerie and semi-acoustic ‘The Ghost Bird’. On these moments it’s easy to understand why one half of the songwriting team, Dave Penney, is also a member of Archive; a group who made the uneasy transition from edgy trip-hop to sprawling psychedelic rock anthems. Like them, occassionally BirdPen’s music drifts on for too long; ‘Slow’ and ‘The Birds And The Antennas’ segue in to each other without much of a hook to keep either track afloat. Likewise, ‘Thorns’ is an unremarkable strummer that would probably sound great in a live environment but appears laboured on CD. At least they end on a high note, though, with the glistening piano melody and downbeat guitar-led coda of ‘Cold Blood’

Overall, BirdPen have made a successful transition from their immediate EPs to lengthy, introspective songs which suit the album format. ‘On/Off/Safety/Danger’ may require some emotional investment as well as the obvious listening time but it is an ultimately rewarding record.

Web Sites:
BirdPen Official Site
BirdPen MySpace

Further Listening:
Dawn Of The Replicants, My Morning Jacket, Archive, The Hours

Review: Shelleyan Orphan – We Have Everything We Need

One of the most unpredictable comebacks of the year must be from Shelleyan Orphan. Although it’s been a tidy quarter of a century since their formation, they were never a band one would associates with an 80’s revival. Jemaur Tayle and Caroline Crawley were out on their own; successfully merging gothic-folk with indie jangle and classical infuences. To be honest, little has changed in their style in two decades but considering no one sounded quite like them anyway, this is no reason to criticise.

‘How A Seed Is Sown’ is their music at its most life affirming. Right from its strident opening of organ and buoyant strings, Crawley coos in her usual delicate yet crystal clear way. Although Tayle is a distant second in the vocal stakes, his skills are just as distinctive where instrumental backing is concerned; setting the gothic folk canvas on which Crawley performs her artistic skills. Witness the subtly sinister arrangements for ‘Judas’ or the fragrant settings for ‘Your Shoes’. Strangely, the moment that stood out for me is hidden away towards the end of the record. ‘Beamheart’ is a beautiful showcase for Crawley’s innocent English vowels, accompanied by languid guitar and a serene classical backing. It’s just a shame that this moment of perfection is followed by ‘Bosom’; a misguided attempt by the couple to “rock out”.

Admittedly, ‘We Have Everything We Need’ contains a few too many lightweight songs to justify its fifty-minute plus length but it’s a heart-warming return, which sticks endearingly to the eternally unfashionable Shelleyan Orphan template. Fans can rejoice yet more with the news that all four of their albums will be repackaged into a new boxed set that will feature a CD of unreleased material as well as a DVD.

Web Sites:
Shelleyan Orphan MySpace

Further Listening:
This Mortal Coil, Goldfrapp

Review: Polestar – Space Expanses

Polestar’s ‘Camplex’ EP was the first CD I had the chance to review from Boltfish Recordings. Since then it’s been my pleasure to write about a great number of further releases from this frequently entertaining label. It’s encouraging to see how Polestar’s Jon Elliott has grown as an artist as well. ‘Space Expanses’ is inspired by the ambitious (and frankly daunting) idea of merging outer solar system exploration with progressive rock.

‘Welcome To Space’ says it all. Though it’s partly filled with glitchy electronics, the clean retro-futurist melody conveys a nostalgic look at other worlds from a time when Star Trek was the nearest we would get to it. Thus the album continues in endearing form: never threatening to set a new musical agenda but always eager to please with another sweet tune. In fact, some of the tracks seem more suited to computer games rather than soundtrack work.

Those looking for a more edifying listening experience should find ‘Polaris Theme’ and ‘EVA Dance’ far more enlightening. Beyond the R2D2 bleeps and further glitches, the mood is lonely and melancholic. Meanwhile, ‘Return To The Moon’ assembles several layers of digital tricks into a haunting, lovely centrepiece and ‘Space Junk 1970’ possesses a peculiarly faraway beauty.

Even if it does cast a pale shadow compared to Avrocar’s stunning space-themed album from this year, ‘Space Expanses’ should be judged in its own right for taking a naive, straightforward and tuneful approach to exploring unchartered territory. It’s a little superficial but enjoyable nonetheless.

Web Sites:
Polestar MySpace
Boltfish Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Avrocar, Vangelis