Archive for December, 2008

Review: State Shirt – This Is Old

It’s been four long years since I last heard anything from Ethan Tufts and his State Shirt musical outlet. ‘Don’t Die’ was one of the most angst-filled records I’ve ever heard, yet – thanks to some modern electronic touches and Tufts’ way with a melodic hook – it was surprisingly addictive; believable rather than whining. ‘This Is Old’ proves that the fire in the man’s soul remains undiminished and ten more emotionally-powered songs have now emerged.

Openers ‘This Is Old’ and ‘Time To Go’ revolve around distant keyboard hooks. The verses appear to be a passengers on a rollercoaster that can only hurtle downwards but then the chorus kicks in and uplifts the whole song to a more blissful place. For ‘Fell Out Of The Sky’, there’s a welcome vulnerability to Tufts’ vocal before it strains to the inevitable melodic hook. That’s the key to most of State Shirt’s success: emotional desolation followed by an escape route.

Few songs deviate from this formula (and since he’s good at it, there’s no real need to) but ‘Computer’ is a successful experiment which revolves around a catchy guitar and synth arrangement topped off by the yearned lyric of “Future… Hope”. ‘I Hate California’ is ushered in on a female vocal loop with Tufts on despairing but riveting form. In short, each song has a little touch to make it different enough from the last one. Only on ‘Hospital Hill’ does the tactic come unstuck as the song desperately needs a kick up the backside to deliver a sense of urgency.

For ‘Don’t Die’ I compared the music to Radiohead circa ‘The Bends’ and ‘This Is Old’ – in an ironic reflection of its title – is arguably more of the same. However, it’s to Tufts’ credit that he’s developed an almost flab-free record that knows just what buttons to push to grab the casual listener’s attention.

Web Sites:
State Shirt Official Site
State Shirt MySpace
Los Fucking Angeles Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Kent, Radiohead, Placebo, VAST


Review: Lorna – Writing Down Things To Say

If Nottingham band Lorna had existed twenty years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid if you’d said they were a side project by the members of The Field Mice. For it is with this group that Lorna share a love for sensitive folk-tinged indie, yearning vocals and romantic ideals. Their third album is another lovely whisper of a record, which has a comforting warmth and melodic flair to it.

Bookended by two straight folk numbers, ‘Writing Down Things To Say’ actually contains a few surprises. In fact Lorna are best when they do take risks. ‘Not In My Lighthouse’ features the vocal harmonies of husband and wife team Mark Rolfe and Sharon Cohen-Rolfe at their most aching but also makes clever use of light electronica. Yet better still is ‘(I Wish I Knew) How To Build A House’; here the couple again team up perfectly on a song which captures innocence and wonder but without ever sounding cloying; not bad for a track which is based on a Stereolab-esque drone. At other times, Lorna are merely inoffensive and pleasant; the countrified ‘Mostly Good Times’ and ‘Monsters Are Forever’ being solid but inessential album tracks. Nevertheless the steady percussion employed on ‘East Of The Stars’ reveals they are, above all. masters of subtlety. 

Overall, ‘Writing Down Things To Say’ is a good example of the slow-core sound. Although it lacks originality and there are times when the music wafts away in the background, it maintains a high quota of tunes and warmth. It is these kind of skills which show why Lorna have forged a loyal following over the last decade; consistently delighting their fanbase with each new release.

Web Sites:
Lorna MySpace
Words On Music Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
The Field Mice, Coastal, Low

Review: Kate Miller-Heidke – Curiouser

Thanks to a good reception for her first album and a career-boosting tour with Cyndi Lauper, Kate Miller-Heidke is considered a big deal in her native Australia. It’s easy to see why, for this second album is full of the kind of cunning hooks, imaginative arrangements and a slick, modern production that could see her achieving similar success in Europe and beyond.

The catchy but idiosyncratic opening salvo to ‘Curiouser’ reminds me of Gwen Stefani’s output, with Miller-Heidke occasionally prone to odd tics and on more than one occasion she shows off some high-pitched operatic vocals which suggest annoyance rather than quirkiness. Yet backed up by commercial nous, there’s some well-written lyrics from Miller-Heidke herself. All elements reach their peak on ‘Caught In The Crowd’ where the singer recounts a tale from her school days with tenderness and regret but backed up by the all-important killer chorus. Perhaps even more clever still is ‘Can’t Shake It’, which celebrates an inability to dance (“Somebody called the nurse thought I was having a fit. I execute the moonwalk like I stepped in shit”) within the constraints of a very danceable disco number. Continuing the rich vein of form, ballad ‘The Last Day On Earth’ is handled with warmth and clarity, not unlike an MTV-friendly Kate Bush.

However, there’s no escaping from the fact that ‘Curiouser’ is front-loaded and the second half of the record is patchy, even though it sticks rigidly to the pop formula. Quite simply, the songs just aren’t as strong. ‘I Like You Better When You’re Not Around’, ‘Motorscooter’ and ‘Supergirl’ are moderately acceptable but disposable and way too sugary. Ironically, ‘The End Of The School’ is hookier and edgier despite its unpromisingly youth-orientated title and the acoustic simplicity of ‘Our Song’ is welcome.

Ultimately I found ‘Curiouser’ a little bit confusing with Miller-Heidke and her team seemingly unsure what their potential market is. Whilst the first half of the record seems directed towards smart indie-pop, the second half can surely only appeal to teenagers; most of whom will have probably lost patience with the record by that time. Still, as commercial albums go, this will be one of the best of the year and it will be interesting to see which direction this talent is steered towards on her next album.

Web Sites:
Kate Miller-Heidke Official Site
Kate Miller-Heidke MySpace

 Further Listening:
Gwen Stefani, Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper

Review: Various Artists – The Germinal Disc (An Introduction To Sitting Target Music)

Of all the records I’ve reviewed this year, one of the most endearing of releases was by Dave Milligan AKA Penguin Party. On his debut album, Milligan recalled a classic style of songwriting from the era of Squeeze and Elvis Costello. Until now, that record has been the sole offering from Sitting Target Music but now comes the introduction to the rest of the roster courtesy of ‘The Germinal Disc’. With each of the five artists (including Penguin Party) providing a couple of new songs each, it’s an excellent way of finding out about the other talents on the Sitting Target imprint.

If it’s one thing these artists have in common it’s that they each aim their targets for the heart.  Whilst John Aldington and Nicola Harrison opt for acoustic laments and dreamy folk respectively, Penguin Party’s Dave Milligan creates a very British style of power pop nostalgia as the titles ‘Song For My Old Lady’ and ‘Whatever Happened To Tomorrow’s World?’ suggest.   There is a marked contrast between the two contributions from Urko Daniels though. Whilst ‘Sarah/34’ is a real weepie of a ballad, the guttural ‘F**k Off And Leave Me Alone’ (complete with barber shop vocals) recalls none other than Shaun Ryder. That just leaves Superchap’s articulate take on lo-fi indie.

In its compact thirty-five minutes, ‘The Germinal Disc’ provides a great showcase for some otherwise unknown talents. Daniels and Harrison, in particular, stand out from the pack with their more adventurous approach but overall it’s a victory for high quality songwriting over low budgets.

Web Sites:
Sitting Target Label and Shop Site
Sitting Target MySpace

Review: Boo And Boo Too – No Tempo

Now here’s an interesting record courtesy of Boo And Boo Too from Kansas. Their debut ‘No Tempo’ is basically the sound of rock songs being demolished by a bulldozer. Yet within these crumbling walls of deconstructed rock can be found traces of beauty.

‘I Know Nothing’s All Right’ sees the music collapsing aroud the band as  helpless cries of group members can be heard whilst the debris piles above them. ‘I’ll Be Your Whore’ and ‘Sometmes At Night’ are less fragmented examples and use strident guitars to force the message home; the end result possibly creating the missing link between Broken Social Scene and the drunken tears of The Walkmen.

The pattern for much of ‘No Tempo’ is that each track has to been torn apart so much, that by the time it ends, only fragments of the original song remain. The effects are particularly memorable on ‘Bottom Of The Lake’ wheer the odd mixing suggest that much of the music is played in backwards sequence whereas the title track is thrust into My Bloody Valentine’s effects pedals. Unsurprisingly there is a distinct shoegazing influence to the record but there’s just as many pointers to indie and punk, with the latter genre being particularly relevant for the chaotic ‘White Light, Dark Sheets’.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the discord and dissonance, Boo And Boo Too sound like they’re on to something new here and the album excites and enthralls with its sheer experimentation. Due to the emotions and punishing noise though, by the end of the record it’s hard not to feel exhausted by the whole experience.

Web Sites:
Boo And Boo Too Official Site
Boo And Boo Too MySpace

Further Listening:
The Walkmen, Broken Social Scene, My Bloody Valentine

Review: Luga – Be May Day

‘Be May Day’ is the second album of the year from Luga AKA Lewis Broad-Ashman. After an original release of just twenty-five copies, it understandably sold out pretty quickly but will be available to download very soon. A good thing too as the music within complements the electronica of ‘Sending Triangles’ but is less reliant on shoegazing influences.

As electronica artists go, Broad-Ashman doesn’t seem to be one of the understated kind. His music deals in broad layers of music; consistently made up of layers of beats, bleeps and sheets of synth melodies. ‘Understand Theory’ – one of the few tracks to use vocals – is full of the kind of warm tune-making that Luga is capable of. Yet it’s only towards the middle of the album that the artist seems to explore new and more satisfying territory.

‘Be Mine’ and ‘Monitron’s frosty outlook and metronomic rhythms reminded me of Millimetrik whilst ‘Living’, a refreshingly laidback but mysterious number, reveals a complexity absent from the beginning of the record. Meanwhile, the clever ‘Way Home’ experiments with robotic noises but makes them sound almost emotional.

Overall, ‘Be May Day’  is an album to remain in the shadows of similarly-styled records from Avrocar and Millimetrik, yet it shows a lot of potential. If Lewis Broad-Ashman can continue to work on a unique style, there’s no reason why his material can’t sit amongst more exalted company.

Web Sites:
Luga MySpace
Distant Noise Records

Further Listening:
Innerise, Millimetrik

Review: City Of Satellites – The Spook

City Of Satellites are an Australian-based duo who have created a richly-layered debut to unite the worlds of dreampop and ambient rock. Despite containing a mere three tracks, the twenty-two minutes contained within this release show commendable depth, emotion and high production values.

‘Moon In The Sea’ begins with a densely-constructed introduction of drums, bass and synths, which soon allow Jarrod Manuel’s whispered vocals to make themselves known. Like the rest of the EP, there’s nothing immediate about this song but it becomes more involving after each listen. ‘Sleeping Disgrace’ uses a slow and deliberate rhythm with its languid guitar offering a fine counterpoint to Manuel’s falsetto, rather like a post-rock Scritti Politti. There’s even time for a couple of synth solos that border on prog rock but otherwise City Of Satellites retain an understated approach to songwriting. Finally, the EP’s title track shoots off into space with a gorgeous arrangement of uplifting guitars and effects. It’s the track which most openly reveals their shoegazing influences the but it’s also a song that seeks to embrace the future rather than churn up the past.

Although they are clearly a band with their own sound, the nearest comparison I can think of are Breathless. Like that British band, City Of Satellites create meticulously-constructed songs of mystery and drama and this is a brilliant start to their career.

Web Sites:
City Of Satellites Official Site
City Of Satellites MySpace
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Breathless, Glassacre

Review: Joe Frawley – A Book Of Dreams

For his first release, Connecticut’s Joe Frawley has crafted an ambitious album forged on the combination of piano music and found sounds. The end product is a sometimes beguiling, sometimes disorientating record that is certainly to be admired from an artistic point of view.

As a typical example of the listening experience, the pitter-patter of piano raindrops are heard on ‘The Hypnotist’ and then layers of sound samples (a woman’s laughter, an older man’s spiritual awakening and the distant sounds of nature) merge to create a piece of music that is as mesmeric as its title suggests. Furthermore, the usage of field recordings for ‘The White Gloves’ are certainly in keeping with the title of the album.

At other times I thought I was being subjected to a relaxation tape (“Breathe in, breathe out”). As the chief culprit, the five-part ‘Tangerine’ suite contains a few moments of beautiful, elegiac melody from Frawley but struggles to sustain its importance for the whole of its sixteen minute duration.

There are definite parallels to be drawn with The Orb (‘The City (Map 2)’ is Frawley’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’) but here the ideas are set to classical rather than ambient music. Although there are moments when I thought I was listening as a means of meditation, ‘A Book Of Dreams’ frequently evoked visions and images of childrens’ fantasy stories, the psychiatrist’s couch and haunted locations.

Web Sites:
Joe Frawley Official Site
Joe Frawley MySpace

Further Listening:
The Orb, Erik Satie, The French Impressionists

Review: Various Artists – MMM Compilation

When Make Mine Music started in 2002, with a split EP by label founders Portal and Yellow6, many must have doubted the longevity of the label. Yet here we are six years later with the fiftieth release. At a time when record company managers and artists panic over contracts, marketing and sales, MMM showed prescience by allowing each of their artists to pay for their own manufacture and promotion and to receive all the income back themselves. As the press release for this new compilation claims, “it is a cause for celebration”. In both business and musical terms, it’s hard not to agree.

It’s a mark of how far MMM’s reputation has grown that they can attract relative indie heavyweights such as Piano Magic and although his band’s contribution is a short instrumental, Glen Johnson’s solo offering is the kind of haunting, minimalist track that he has excelled in for the last decade. It’s also a pleasure to hear the recently reactivated Portal back in the groove with a song that exudes warmth and melody.

In some cases (Avrocar and Piano Magic), there’s a sense that the artists have held something back for their own individual albums. Yet in others, they seem to revel in the exalted company. Certainly Innerise’s stunning enigmatic contribution ‘Dreams At E38th Street’ is far more impressive than the artist’s album from last year and ambient newcomers Still Crescent and Jelly Antler also suggest they’re talents worth keeping an eye on. Then there’s Epic45 who reliably evoke elusive yet eerily familiar times and places.

With a wealth of talent now signed up to the label, there’s every chance Make Mine Music will make it to MMM100 in the next few years. I am more confident still that the generally excellent quality of the records will also be maintained.

Web Sites:
Make Mine Music Official Site
Make Mine Music MySpace
Shop Page for Make Mine Music

Album Stream: Luke Jackson – …And Then Some

Click here to listen to a full stream of Luke Jackson’s debut.