Archive for November, 2008

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

Review: The Organ – Thieves

Fair play to The Organ. At a time when fans feel cheated when their favourite bands have broken up, the last incarnation of this excellent Canadian group regrouped together for (supposedly) one last time to record their final songs. The result is ‘Thieves’. It’s another brief selection of songs (just seventeen minutes this time), which demonstrate the band’s raw talent and possibilities that they didn’t have time to fulfil.

The EP starts with the slightly wonky ‘Even In The Night’. Sketch voice seems to be a little off-key but it may just be the emotion of the song, as lyrically it’s a harrowing tale of a girl being lost – perhaps physically, perhaps psychologically – but either way “oh good God you’ve got to find me” and “it’s going to be alright” sound convincingly despairing. Musically it’s quite primitive until the magnificent coda when Deborah Cohen conjures up some beguiling melodies.

The final track ‘Don’t Be Angry’ gives a glimpse of a different path as its plaintive tune verges on a very dark brand of folk music. Elsewhere, the stacatto ‘Oh What A Feeling’ is oddly set against Jenny Smyth’s Church-like organ counter-melody whereas ‘Fire In The Ocean’ and ‘Can You Tell Me One Thing’ are OK but B-side quality compared to the ‘Grab That Gun’ material. On these songs the impression of a split is tangible as the key members of the band seem to be pulling in opposite directions.

The real moment of class is ‘Let The Bells Ring’ where all performers seem to be reading from the same page. Cohen’s delightful guitar shapes, Sketch’s rich moving vocal, Smyth’s complementary support and the stuttering brilliance of Shelby Stocks’ drums are in complete unison. I’m sure this perfectly melancholic pop song will remain one of my all-time favourites.

Yet largely, it’s a case of unfinished business. That doesn’t just describe The Organ’s frustratingly brief career in recorded music (even with two EPs and an album, there’s still plenty of space left on a 70-minute CD-R) but the general quality of this posthumous EP. We live in forlorn hope that the band members may come together again at some point but I’m more thankful I’ve heard the imperfections of this release than not to have experienced these songs at all.

Web Sites:
The Organ MySpace
The Organ Wikipedia Page

Further Listening:
Blondie, The Cure

Review: The French Impressionists – Amelia Rosselli

It was less than a year ago that I reviewed ‘Fête’, the first ever album by The French Impressionists; a group based around the talents of classical pianist Malcolm Fisher.  This doesn’t sound like a great achivement in itself but considering their first singles were released in 1981, the comeback was as unlikely as it was hugely rewarding. Once again, Fisher brings in guest assistance but this time just one vocalist is employed, Sara Cicenia, whose Italian vowels graced much of the best moments of ‘Fête’.

The new record is based on the poetry of Amelia Rosselli, whose sadness-tinged poems reflected a turbulent life.  Amelia was the daughter of an anti-fascist resister Carlo Rosselli, who was assassinated by Mussolini’s agents. Whilst experiencing more personal suffering, Amelia went on to be a renowned poet and critic before taking her own life, exactly three decades to the day of Sylvia Plath’s own suicide. Sensitive to the subject matter involved, this tribute is touching and classily delivered.

‘Fête’ gave us a preview of the project with a couple of the versions here already being featured on that album. Certainly ‘Se Nella Luce’ (‘If In The Light’) stands out. It’s a real spine-tingling moment delivered with a sense of romance and tragedy by Cicenia’s restrained yet passionate vocals. ‘È Forse I’anello Della Fedeltà’ (‘It’s Perhaps The Ring Of Loyalty’) is a breathy delight whilst Fisher’s solo piano works provide touching interludes too; with the fluid beauty of ‘Fly’ being his personal standout. The remainder of the album continues in much the same vein with Fisher and Cicenia never threatening to upstage each other. Instead each delivers worthy contributions which befit the troubled but eloquent lyrics.

The album ‘Amelia Rosselli’ is a very respectful and respectable set of compositions; given life by understated performances from both Cicenia and Fisher. Granted, seventy-plus minutes of largely sombre music can be difficult to take in one sitting but the duo are never overblown in their approach. In fact, some of the more popular independent artists in operation today could learn a lot from these inspired performances.

Web Sites:
Malcolm Fisher MySpace
LTM Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Erik Satie

Review: Keane – Perfect Symmetry

Cruelly criticised for their public school background and cherubic singer Tom Chaplin’s stint in rehab, Keane have been unfairly dismissed by some who probably haven’t even heard their music beyond their overplayed singles. Clearly, Keane don’t care much for these accusations on this, their third album. It celebrates the fact that they are, above all, a pop band and here to appeal to the masses. However, I think they’ve gone a bit too far to prove the point.

Fresh from his time off, Chaplin sounds in top form throughout the record. In fact, he’s the best thing about the record. His passionate, energetic vocals give life to otherwise unexciting songs like ‘The Lovers Are Losing’ and ‘You Haven’t Told Me Anything’. The other not-so-secret weapon of course was Tim Rice-Oxley whose fluid piano melodies and dark lyrics ensured Keane ensnared critical respect.

Sadly, it is Rice-Oxley who sounds like he needs a break now. Everything here smacks of the 1980’s but not in a good way. ‘Better Than This’ begins like Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ but this doesn’t disguise a bland synth-pop tune.The title track is a decent song but ridiculously overblown and it’s hard to remember any song from the over-produced but ultimately lightweight second half to ‘Perfect Symmetry’. The notable exception is a delightful little ditty called ‘Pretend That You’re Alone’; I found its simplistic arrangement and positive message quite charming in the context of the bombast that preceded it.

Overall, the deep, emotional epic flourishes of previous works has been replaced with empty husks of digital noise. Keane certainly evoked euphoria convincingly in the past but now they just sound too happy and eager to please and I can’t help feeling they sounded better when their songs were written under the cloud of intra-band turmoil.

Web Sites:
Keane Official Site
Keane MySpace

Further Listening:
Tears For Fears

Music Stream: Mr. Meeble – Never Trust The Chinese

Click here to listen to a complete stream of Mr. Meeble’s debut album