Archive for March, 2009

Review: Windsor For The Derby – How We Lost

When musical historians look back to the first decade of the 21st Century, they will hopefully recall some of the more idiosyncratic bands of the era. They might even consider Windsor For The Derby. Granted, some of their early material is too unassuming, as if this Texan outift were too shy to emerge as songwriters. Yet since 2004’s ‘We Fight Til Death’, the band have gained some aggression and hooks to accompany their experimental, post-rock inclinations.

‘How We Lost’ is very much the archetypal Windsor For The Derby record. Starting with a minute of drone and drums, some pretty organ frills cannot overshadow the familiar aura of doom. No surprises then, that ‘How We Lost’ is not geared for the popular market. ‘Maladies’ is, as the title suggests, a melancholic tune but it’s also given a sense of urgency by its “Joy Division meets My Bloody Valentine” guitar riffs. ‘Fallen Off The Earth’ crosses into shoegaze territory as does the drone-led ‘Hold On’ but the latter is as melodic and infectious as a Beach Boys single. Another fine track, ‘Spirit Fade’, provides a fitting end; the combination of Dan Matz’s blissful vocal and the angry instruments around him create a sinister and haunting climax to the album.

There are weak moments but timid ambient piece ‘Robin Robinette’ and the discordant ‘Troubles’ are little more than interludes anyway. Representing the experimental side to their talents, ‘Forgotten’ is a rare excursion into acoustic material where, for once, frontman Matz sounds vulnerable rather than his default setting of insouciant. Furthermore, ‘What We Want’ is initially confusing as its jarring percussion and guitar seem to be competing against the track’s core lullaby-like melody. Yet after a while the layers merge into another ultimately rewarding piece of music.

Although certain songs tread familiar ground already covered by Windsor For The Derby, ‘How We Lost’ is still a satisfying album. For this outfit inhabit their own peculiar world, untroubled by outside influences from the modern day and they persist with creating short but atmospheric albums that manage to find space for strong songwriting amongst the dark textures of their arrangements.

Web Sites:
Windsor For The Derby Official Site
Windsor For The Derby MySpace

Further Listening:
Piano Magic, Ghost Of The Russian Empire, The Meeting Places


Review: Johnny Parry – More Love & Death

Back in 2006, I experienced the music of Johnny Parry for the first time. At the time I compared him to Antony Hegarty and I’m surprised I haven’t heard more from Parry until now. The comeback ‘More Love & Death’ sees him return with a trusty backing band of string and brass players.

‘God Loves Me’ represents a typically ambitious introduction. As the operatic soprano Donna Loomans warbles in the background, the strident tune seems vaudevillian at first but it is brought back to the modern age by visceral lines such as “I have woman. I have cock”. By contrast ‘Fields and Birds and Things’ is a subdued whisper of a track; ambient and evocative of nature. ‘Kicking And Screaming’ begins similarly slowly but the drums and Parry’s increasingly desperate rasp stagger towards the chorus whilst the high-pitched ‘Dine Alone’ – mainly just Parry and percussion – is the most Hegarty-like song.

Yet for all its tasteful classical arrangements, I was left a little cold by some of the album and the novelty of Loomans’ operatic backing becomes irritiating after a while. Nevertheless, there are gems here and all of them occur in the second half. There’s the spare piano-led ‘Love Will Hunt You Down’, the soaring elegance of ‘Piece By Piece’  and  ‘The Wonderful Adventures Of Lucy And I’; a fabulous piece of music that is as sad, poignant and beautiful as Tindersticks’ ‘My Sister’.

‘More Love & Death’ is certainly a bold, artistic statement. It’s a little highbrow in parts and consequently the theatrical nature of some of the music can get in the way of the songwriting but – towards the end of the record – Parry’s talent begins to make sense. Don’t be surprised to hear more from him in the future.

Web Sites:
Johnny Parry Official Site
Johnny Parry MySpace
Lost Toys Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Antony And The Johnsons, The Bathers

Review: The Leisure Society – The Sleeper

Towards the end of 2008 I was informed about a seasonally-themed song called ‘The Last Of The Melting Snow’ by The Leisure Society. I checked it out and immediately fell for the vulnerability and warmth of this lovely ditty, which reaffirmed my belief that it really is possible to make a great Christmas record. The good news is that this and many other fine tunes are assembled on The Leisure Society’s debut record.

In keeping with the single, ‘The Sleeper’ is a warm, optimistic set of songs. Doubtless the externally sunny ‘Save It For Someone Who Cares’ and ‘A Fighting Chance’ will win similar admirers too but that only tells half the story. For despite its whimsical feel there’s more depth to this album than initially seems apparent. ‘A Short Weekend Begins With Longing’ may rattle along on a countrified undertow but the song has melancholic depths to befit its title. ‘We Were Wasted’ is set to mournful strings seemingly borrowed from ‘River Man’-era Nick Drake, ‘Are We Happy?’ possesses a wonderful, doleful melody beneath the deadpan vocals and the chorus to ‘A Matter Of Time’ is genuinely uplifting.

Fascinatingly, former members of The Leisure Society include film maker Shane Meadows and actor Paddy Considine but whilst they have gone on to achieve to success in the cinema, fellow original member Nick Hemming has now submitted evidence that he and his bandmates are just as talented in their own field.

Web Sites:
The Leisure Society MySpace
Willkommen Records Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Belle And Sebastian, Nick Drake

Review: U2 – No Line On The Horizon

Like many other people I’m sure, part of me wants U2 to fail spectacularly and produce a rubbish record. Part of it is to do with their enormous popularity when there are more talented acts around and another part is probably due to my own jealousy and bitterness. Still, with the band now having completed what will probably be their last record before they turn fifty, the U2 bandwagon trundles on and I think ‘No Line On The Horizon’ will stand out as their best album of the decade even though the two previous efforts weren’t too shabby either.

The title track and ‘Magnificent’ lay the foundations for a solid, strong album; the former proves Bono is still a fine frontman whilst the latter is steered by The Edge into a widescreen epic. However, the first genuinely great song from the record is ‘Moment Of Surrender’. Like earlier classics such as ‘One’ and ‘With Or Without You’, it reveals the group’s gifts for slow-burning majesty and it’s a credit to Bono and co. that – despite their millionaire status – they convey just as much warmth and feeling here as on a Blue Nile record. Cynics may baulk at its universal themes but if all popular music was as good as this, we can’t have too much to complain about.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois who decorate ‘No Line On The Horizon’ with reliably subtle, ambient touches. Their influence ensures any egos are restrained and only on a few occasions do their charges threaten to escape from the shackles. ‘Get On Your Boots’ is certainly one of those culprits. It may be the single but it does sound like a band trying to recapture their youth. That said, ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’ is acceptable despite Bono’s cries of “Baby, baby, baby” and ‘Stand Up Comedy’ is a very decent funky workout for the boys. They don’t need to sound younger of course, since they’re maturing nicely as evinced on the experimental ‘Fez-Being Born’ and the stark, understated beauty of ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’. Of the remainder, The Edge is let loose again with a spiralling, chiming riff enveloping ‘Unknown Caller’, ‘White As Snow’ is a so-so ballad and ‘Breathe’ is like a poor man’s ‘Desire’.

Whilst ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ and ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ were initially hailed as a return to form, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ is a return to the atmospheric U2 when Eno and Lanois first came on board. Credit to all concerned then for, once again, not producing a rubbish record.

Web Sites:
U2 Official Site
U2 MySpace

Further Listening:

Review: Heat From A DeadStar – Seven Rays Of The Sun

Now signed to the same label as their heroes Mission Of Burma, Heat From A DeadStar are a London-based act with a penchant for psychedelia, noise-rock and post-punk. After the promising EP ‘The Lighthouse’, their first album is an experimental, awkward affair that excites as much as it frustrates.

The production on ‘Seven Rays Of The Sun’ is lo-fi and one must assume deliberately so, to capture the raw energy of the band’s material. Pierrick Abouquir has a tendency to shout his way through the songs whilst he and his two bandmates throw up all kinds of dissonance. Still, Heat From A DeadStar are occasionally excellent and – although the group always retain their psychedelic edge – they are canny enough to keep their messages brief and to the point so even the more tuneless excursions (like ‘Crown’ for instance) don’t have to be endured for too long.

‘Messy Kid’ may appear ragged but is a well controlled form of rage and ‘Seahorse Seafish’ is even better as twisting, edgy riffs teeter excitingly on the knife edge of danger; the fact that this is basically an instrumental track makes the achievement even more impressive. To support their genre-bending outlook, there’s even space for a piano solo on the elegiac ‘Summer Of Dark’. ‘The Gallows’ is even weirder as keyboard swirls vie with glum rock rhythms whilst slacker indie-rock is well represented by ‘Craving’ and the superb ‘Unharmed’.

Ultimately, in its efforts to fit in so many genres and influences, ‘Seven Rays Of The Sun’ lacks focus and cohesion but it does contain a handful of great moments. The trio are also more melodic than they initially seem to be; with the inventive guitar work as the driving force behind their best offerings.

Web Sites:
Heat Fro A DeadStar Official Site
Heat From A DeadStar MySpace
Ace Of Hearts Records

Further Listening:
Blag’ard, Mission Of Burma

Review: Redjetson – Other Arms

Posthumous albums tend be fascinating and flawed listening experiences, where it’s possible to detect the causes of potential conflict within the band. ‘Other Arms’ by Redjetson is certainly no masterpiece but it’s a passionate send-off for a band who have managed to produce a distinctive sound in a crowded genre; think of The Editors discovering post-rock and you wouldn’t be far off.

Key to Redjetson’s success is the performance of their frontman. Although Clive Kentish rarely moves away from his foreboding tones, when his voice chimes perfectly with the driving guitars it can be a thrilling experience. A case in point is opening track ‘Soldiers & Dinosaurs’ where the key changes are engineered perfectly to capture euphoria from the depths of despair. Enhanced by moving strings, ‘Count These Demons’ is a beautiful, heartache of a song and ‘For Those Who Died Dancing’ is similarly dramatic; Kentish even claiming “There is no apocalypse” although the storm of guitars and percussion gathering around him suggests otherwise.

‘First Of The 47,000’ slows down the pace a notch to provide respite from the noise and tension but – unlike so many of their contemporaries – Redjetson are actually better the louder and more melodramatic they are. On the debit side, ‘Witches At The Controls’ huffs and puffs but fails to find a hook. This track ushers in the considerably dirgier, weaker second half to ‘Other Arms’; with the powerful finale ‘These Structures’ saving the record from being a first-half wonder.

Along with Hope Of The States and Johnny Poindexter, Redjetson are the latest in a line of promising vocal-led post-rock acts to disband. A shame because they all achieved a level of greatness in their brief time. Maybe this kind of music requires so much emotional investment that it’s too difficult to carry on producing it.

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

Further Listening:
Mogwai, Hope Of The States, Editors, Johnny Poindexter

Review: Chancellorpink – Life Like Sad Music

Sticking to his promise to release an album every year until he dies, Ray McLaughlin AKA Chancellorpink unleashes the follow-up to last year’s anti-romance album ‘Valentine Parade’. Although ‘Life Like Sad Music’ sounds like a DIY album in many ways (particularly the production), this doesn’t detract significantly from much of the songwriting, which finds the crucial middle ground between miserablism and melody.

After the full-throated ‘Bleed The Enemy’, McLaughlin sounds thoroughly evil on the verses to ‘Walk On Water’ but still manages to conjure up a fine, melancholic chorus. Likewise, ‘Tears At The Cemetery’ possesses the hallmarks of quality dark pop music. Like his last record, McLaughlin is fond of varying his vocal stylings; even harmonising with himself on some of the tracks. Most of the time, the eclecticism pays off too.

Chancellorpink also performs well with slower material; the pretty guitar patterns on ‘Feet Shuffle Leaves’, the minimal, brooding ballad ‘In Self Defense’ and the romantic ‘You Are Everyone’ are all standouts. However, it’s a pity that more quality control wasn’t applied to some of the later material. ‘Three People Care’ seems rushed whilst an essentially good song like ‘Meat Market’ is undermined by the singer’s annoying refrain of “Are You Gonna Check Me Out?”. However, these are exceptions on an otherwise very enjoyable album.

Now more than ever, McLaughlin is heading towards the sinister but tuneful territory of Babybird and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. McLaughlin is clearly not quite as provocative in his lyrics but there’s that same sense of reclusive pop genius at work here.

Web Sites:
Chancellorpink Official Site
Chancellorpink MySpace

Further Listening:
Pony Club, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Babybird

Review: Asobi Seksu – Hush

Despite naming themselves after a Japanese term for “casual sex”, Asobi Seksu aren’t a group who are likely to stir up much controversy. Instead, the New York-based quartet satisfy themselves with their own take on the dreampop sound. ‘Hush’, their third album, is an eventful and sporadically great record which should keep shoegaze fans happy enough.

The opening strains of ‘Layers’ show that much of what Asobi Seksu do is gorgeous.  ‘Familiar Light’ is an equally fine track, which sways between the melancholia and childlike awe of the verses and some urgent, heart-bursting choruses. Meanwhile, ‘Transparence’  and ‘Glacially’ cherry pick from 1980’s indie-pop and the distorted melodies of My Bloody Valentine respectively and the last song ‘Blind Little Rain’ is a brilliant, lovelorn track with a Spector-esque production.

Not all is perfect in Asobi Seksu’s world though. Yuki Chikudate’s voice is certainly a thing of beauty and purity, which makes you wonder why the band often decide to muddy the waters with some OTT arrangements that often undermine the singer’s performance. ‘In The Sky’ is a case in point where Chikudate varies her tone between doleful and euphoric but the song is spoiled by an overblown coda. Furthermore, ‘Me & Mary’ ends messily and ‘Gliss’ uses a theremin but otherwise fails to engage the ears.

‘Hush’ works well most of the time but the band’s desire to experiment can delights and frustrate in equal measure. After three albums you would have thought the band would have figured out what they do well and what they’re not so good at. Perhaps the solution will be revealed by album number four.

Web Sites:
Asobi Seksu MySpace

Further Listening:
Color Filter, Cocteau Twins

Review: The Seal Cub Clubbing Club – Super Science Fiction

There are unwise band names and then there’s The Seal Cub Clubbing Club whose tongue twisting and politically incorrect choice is at least different. Much the same can be said of their music, which draws mostly on 1970’s influences but this quintet from The Wirral are clearly working on their own unique agenda.

Merseyside bands always seem to have a strange obsession with psychedelia and TSCCC are no exception. ‘Lone Planet’ is essentially whimsical soft rock and ‘3ft Of Air’ seems to have borrowed Justin Hawkins from The Darkness but still sounds surprisingly good. Most bizarrely of all is ‘PSPN’; a track which draws comparisons in equal parts from Queen, Rage Against The Machine and the post-punk scene.

Full marks for invention then but all these ideas would be meaningless without good songs. Fortunately, ‘Aurienteering’ is the work of madcap pop genius and ‘Slow-Motion Powerslides (In Dee)’ and ‘Dawn Lamb’ are awash with high-pitched harmonies and hooks. This being a first album – and a very strange one at that – we can’t expect everything to turn to gold; so ‘Song For Haku’ is an experiment in search of a melody and the hidden final track does them no favours once the joke has worn off.

Their MySpace site declares their manifesto as “Putting The Pop In Unpopular” and it’s a fair assessment of ‘Super Science Fiction’
since the music manages to remain simultaneously original and addictive. Shame about the name though which gives the impression they’re a comedy act.

Web Sites:
The Seal Cub Clubing Club MySpace

Further Listening:
Mountaineers, Super Furry Animals

Review: Pomegranates – Everybody, Come Outside!

Cincinatti’s Pomegranates produce bright, melodic pop with more than a hint of 1960’s psychedelia about it. ‘Everybody, Come Outside!’, their second album, is a record which showcases a group confident enough to experiment wildly and usually with some weird but rewarding results.

The title track gets events underway with an explosion of jangly guitars, thunderous drums and helium vocals whilst ‘Beachcomber’ sees the guitars fade in and out not unlike former touring partners French Kicks. After this burst of colourful pop, though, the group let their creative juices really flow with some ambitious arrangements.

‘This Land Used to Be My Land, But Now I Hate This Land’ veers off into several different directions but it’s the core of aching guitar melodies and heartfelt vocals that keep the complexities of the song together. Amongst the other notable moments, ‘Piano’ incorporates wildlife noises, the single ‘Corriander’ is a sun-kissed delight and ‘Jerusalem Had A Bad Day’ sounds like dreampop twenty years before it was invented. Only the acoustic-based final act ‘I Feel Like I’m A Million Years Old’ boress but then any song that ends with ten minutes of a repeated chord sequence is unlikely to set the pulse racing.

Pomegranates should be applauded for mixing up so many styles and song stuctures at a time when it’s becoming more and more difficult to define your own sound. My only problem with the record is that it almost has too many ideas and lacks cohesion as a result.

Web Sites:
Pomegranates MySpace
Pomegranates Blog

Further Listening:
French Kicks, Peter Bjorn And John