Archive for June, 2009

Review: Sleeping Me – Cradlesongs

Hidden Shoal Recordings have introduced a succession of great ambient works since their inception in 2006. Next up on their roster is Sleeping Me AKA Clayton McAvoy from California. ‘Cradlesongs’, his debut, sets out an ambitious manifesto including delivering “the poignancy of an ever-elusive yet omnipresent love” through his music. Needless to say, much melancholy will ensue.

‘Empty Cradles’ begins the story and will be familar to those who favour the delayed guitar techniques of Yellow6 or Labradford. Immediately, that sense of loss which was promised is delivered in spades. The Robin Guthrie-esque ‘Tired Hearts’ builds on the dark, dreamy textures whilst ‘Egdon Heath’ and ‘Here In The North’ are blessed with a classical, stately elegance. Towards the album’s denouement, the spare acoustic simplicity of the title track tingles with glorious melody and the story ends with the vibrant ‘The Rattle In Or Hearts’ in a surprisngly compact forty-one minutes.

‘Cradlesongs’ is a record which only suffers by its similarity to so many other artists. Given the quality of those comparisons though, that’s certainly no crime. Other than that, the music is a gorgeous happy/sad ride that – due to its relative brevity – never outstays its welcome.

Web Sites:
Hidden Shoal Label and Shop Site
Sleeping Me MySpace

Further Listening:
Yellow6, Labradford, Robin Guthrie


Review: PNDC & housework – Secondhand Language

With last year’s sterling album ‘Fading Away’, PNDC provided a new source for cool European electronic music. It came from Predrag Nedic from Serbia and here he teams up again with the strangely monikered Greek vocalist/guitarist housework to produce another fine slab of icy electro/dance sounds.

As with ‘Fading Away’, the key strength of the record is the telepathy that seems to exist between Nedic and his remote colleague. In the manner of The The’s Matt Johnson, housework snarls with way through ‘30,000 Feet’; wrapping his tongue around lines such as “I can’t spell and I can barely read. And my flesh ain’t good for the piranhas to feed” with a high degree of self-contempt. The evil sounding ‘Animal Farm’ is dominated by a Peter Hook-like bassline whilst not even a pure-sounding contribution from guest singer ‘Shadowlike’ can disguise the menace beating at the heart of ‘Pilots’. All these tracks are riveting.

The second half to the record cannot quite sustain the momentum but still throws up occasional delights. Even when housework does lose his way with an ill-advised falsetto turn for ‘Lost Message’, Nedic resecues the situation with an addictive synth melody. There’s an experimental edge to ‘The Buzz’ which reminded me of early Wolfgang Press releases and ‘The Fix’ builds up impressive layers of tension. The only real disappointment is ‘Goodnight’ where rhythms fly off randomly as shadowlike narrates a bedtime story.

On the face of it, ‘Secondhand Language’ is Depeche Mode with all sense of emotion and harmonies removed but for the most part it’s actually a compelling record. housework expresses fear and anger in his voice, as he and PNDC throw up some terrific hooks with their respective skills on guitars and synths.

Web Sites:
PNDC MySpace
housework MySpace

Further Listening:
Colder, DK7, Circlesquare

Review: Section 25 – Nature + Degree

Of all the old Factory bands, Section 25 are the ones whose critical approval has always eluded me. With their dry Northern vocals and experimental electronic/dance music, the Cassidy brothers struck me as a decent but lower division version of New Order. How delightful then – that 29 years after their debut record – they’ve made an album which I’ve enjoyed from beginning to end.

Sure, it takes a while to get going but ‘Nature + Degree’ is a remarkably fresh-sounding set of songs. Indeed, ‘Remembrance’, ‘Attachment’ and the supremely catchy ‘L’Arte Du Math’ are as pop as Section 25 have ever got. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the former track features our first glimpse of the band’s new secret weapon, Beth Cassidy, who does a more than decent job of fulfilling the vocal role of her late mother Jenny Cassidy; adding a youthfulness which seems to have brought life to the rest of the band.

‘Garageland’ is dignified and melancholic, ‘One Way Or Another’ is three minutes of controlled anger, whilst the rough edges of Larry Cassidy’s tongue are smoothed over by a beautiful string section for ‘Saddled With Something’. ‘Mirror’ is the definite standout for me though; a very unusual and cleverly-constructed song which cleverly mixes Beth Cassidy’s narrative with her own harmonies. Section 25 were hailed for their ground-breaking dance music and this track deserves to be praised in a similar fashion.

After New Order’s hugely disappointing last album, Section 25 have shown it is possible for Factory veterans to create something relevant and addictive for the modern age. Credit to them for making the most unlikely of comebacks.

Web Sites:
Section 25 Official Site
Section 25 MySpace
LTM Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
New Order, The Other Two

Review: Circlesquare – Songs About Dancing And Drugs

That Jeremy Shaw is from Canada isn’t much of a clue to the music he makes. Sure, there’s a fair share of electro/dance acts from there (most notably Junior Boys) but the colder, more austere side to electronic music has its roots in Germany. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Shaw recorded ‘Songs About Dancing And Drugs’ in Berlin.

Most songs feature stuttering drums, understated beats and some very icy, almost spoken-word vocals. Some of it is very impressive. ‘Dancers’ could only feasibly be danced to by robots but its precise rhythms are almost sensual in their execution, whilst ‘Hey You Guys’ begins slowly but soon disappears into a void of effects and ghostly harmonies.

The one true moment of warmth is reserved for ‘Music For Satelliites’ as a lonely guitar and some ambient passages create a gentle atmosphere that borders on the romantic. Finally, ‘All Live But The Ending’ takes its time – thirteen minutes in fact – but its relentlessness and sense of loneliness is performed well.

Given the rather basic instrumentation employed on the record, some songs seem trapped in their own self-imposed minimalism; blessed with plenty of cool but little in the way of hooks. I envisage Circlesquare’s music being played at fashion shows and art events but back in the bedroom it only makes its mark half the time.

Web Sites:
Circlesquare Album Site
Circlesquare MySpace

Further Listening:
DK7, Colder

Review: Nick Hopkin & Friends – Project X

Nick Hopkin’s musical adventures have thus far centred around the electronica scene; covering pop to ambient moods. ‘Project X’ sees the artist stretch himself further still, by not only taking on new musicians but also expanding into concept-led music and veering away from the traditional song structures he has been used to. This mini album is split into four sections – helpfully titled ‘Part One’ to ‘Part Four’ – but listening to it as a whole is a confusing experience.

Project X CD Cover

‘Part One’ begins as an ambient/chill-out journey, which nods to dub on its way and then explodes unexpectedly into life for a multi-harmonic fragment in the vein of The Polyphonic Spree, urging us to “remember to smile”. As if that weren’t enough styles covered in one track, the same piece then moves towards an acoustic guitar passage, a ghostly narrative and then a chilling finale which reminded me of an UNKLE collaboration.

‘Part Two’ starts gently enough but all feelings of calm are rudely interrupted by grunged-up guitars and distorted vocals. Bizarrely, the route is taken up with more dub, whilst a blissful techno tune competes with some irritating frog and baby samples. The third part is less experimental but ultimately more addictive, as a heavenly mix of elegant strings and ambient music combine beautifully. ‘Part Four’ is better still and is characterised by a seamless synth theme which brings the album to a dreamlike end.

Eclecticism and a sense of adventure are usually a good thing but Hopkin’s meanderings on Parts One and Two lack any kind of cohesion. So much so, it was difficult to know when each part started and ended, without keeping a close eye on the track number. Nevertheless, by the final two pieces, I’d been won over again by Hopkin’s undoubted talent for melody.

Web Sites:
Nick Hopkin Official Site and Free Download of Album
Nick Hopkin MySpace

Further Listening:
They Came From The Stars (I Saw Them)

Review: Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications

A lyric whose key line is “Your life is just a carrier bag”, songs called ‘Pilchard’ and ‘Leftovers’. Yes, another idiosyncratic British songwriter is back and it’s Jarvis Cocker, who has been relating his own idiosyncracies to recorded music for over a quarter of a century now. ‘Further Complication’ is his second solo album and it’s noticeably rawer in sound than the first.

‘Angela’, ‘Fuckingsong’ and ‘Homewrecker!’ are straight-ahead glam rockers, free of pretension or, indeed, much production but all the better for it. For ‘Caucasian Blues’ he even loses his breath whilst singing; perhaps again wanting to prove that he is human and he is flawed. If the aforementioned ‘Pilchard’ is a fairly pointless dronefest, ‘Leftovers’ is much better than its title suggests, where Cocker claims he just need a cuddle after all and a similar self-effacing theme is explored for ‘I Never Said I Was Deep’ as he admits “his lack of knowledge is vast”.

So Cocker is laying his emotions bare for all to see and the primitive production for most of ‘Further Complications’ reminds me of his work as one half of Relaxed Muscle. Then at the end are two surprises that reveal ambition beyond the rough and ready outlook. ‘Slush’ is a slow burning but atmospheric number and for ‘You’re In My Eyes’, Cocker goes all Barry White. It may sound like Cocker singing along to an Avalanches track being played in a separate room but it’s arguably the most stunning offering here.

‘Further Complication’ does – on more than one occasion – sound like the diary of a dirty old man and it makes no effort to hide that fact. Yet as well as this, the music fits Mr. Cocker very well and he relates his inner troubles to an audience that still finds him fascinating. On this evidence, it’s easy to see why.

Web Sites:
Jarvis Cocker Official Site
Jarvis Cocker MySpace

Further Listening:
Pulp, Relaxed Muscle, Pony Club

Review: The Rest – Everyone All At Once

The Rest are a Canadian outfit who deserve far more attention than they have gained thus far. Their second album ‘Everyone All At Once’ comes highly recommended for those looking for emotive songwriting and ambitious arrangements, topped off by glorious vocals. Although they have been compared to media darlings, Arcade Fire, The Rest are a tad less bombastic and all the more likeable for it.

The highlights to ‘Everyone All At Once’ are many. ‘Apples & Allergies’ is all over the place melodically but is held up by Adam Bentley’s emotive turn in front of the mic and ‘Blossom Babies’ features passages of shoegaze effects but is chiefly notable for Bentley’s unfathomably high falsetto.  Then ‘Coughing Blood/Fresh Mountain Air’ rides in on a sweeping, cinematic motif whilst ‘Drinking Again’ contrasts nicely with its intimate, acoustic simplicity.

With all this emotion flowing out though, there is a danger of the listening experience being too much to take in one sitting. ‘Modern Time Travel (Necessities)’ overdoes the whooping and hollering and ‘The Lady Vanishes’ is just over-produced; rather like Arcade Fire in fact. Fortunately, ‘Walk On Water’ is pitched more evenly and sounds like The Guillemots teaming up with The Beach Boys.

The Rest are one of those treasurable bands who are too wayward to atract mass attention but alongside equally heralded but obscure acts like Thin Cities and Argentine, they have left a legacy of some special music that, with any luck, will be hailed as classics in years to come. Hopefully, The Rest will return again once more and turn some of the occasional excesses on this album into something subtler.

Web Sites:
The Rest MySpace
Indiecater Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Thin Cities, Argentine, In Civilian Clothing, Arcade Fire, The Guillemots

Review: Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care

What an inspired partnership Junior Boys are. Whilst Matthew Didemus crafts minimalist electronic/dance backdrops, frontman Jeremy Greenspan brings an incredibly human touch to proceedings with his tender vocals. Despite ‘Begone Dull Care’ being recorded by men who live so far apart (Didemus in Berlin, Greenspan in Hamilton, Canada), the two boys together make the kind of love songs it’s OK to like.

‘Parallel Lines’ seems to have emerged from relatively colder climes but as soon as Greenspan’s whispered soul vocal makes itself known, we’re headed for reassuringly romantic territory. As ever, it’s all in the little details; ‘Work’ is built on modern beats and the kind of subtle synth melodies that Depeche Mode were using for their album ‘A Broken Frame’; at once it sounds like the loneliest ever dance record. ‘Hazel’ is this album’s ‘In The Morning’ with squiggly electronica breaks and Greenspan’s melancholic ache making it an obvious choice for a single. Demonstrating their softer side, classy soul number ‘Sneak A Picture’ is the requisite last dance track and ‘What It’s For’ is a beautiful way to end the record.

Alas, ‘Begone Dull Care’ is by no means perfect. Early Depeche Mode appear to be an influence again for the vocal harmonies on ‘Bits & Pieces’ although the song is a rare disappointment for the band with very little else to distinguish it above the level of servicable synth-pop. Likewise, ‘Dull To Pause’ and ‘The Animator’ possess plenty of warmth but lack the invention.

The chief criticisms of ‘Begone Dull Care’ are basically, that amongst its eight tracks, a few of them are unremarkable. Yet  considering their two records were near fautless, I’m merely quibbling here and there will be few more accomplished records out this year.

Web Sites:
Junior Boys Official Site
Junior Boys MySpace

Further Listening:
Depeche Mode, Richard Davis

Review: Seeland – Tomorrow Today

Since Seeland formed in 2004, it’s taken a while for Tim Felton and Billy Bainbridge to release their first album together. Felton was chiefly known as a member of Broadcast whlst Bainbridge can point to his experience with fellow Birmingham act Plone on his CV. ‘Tomorrow Today’ reveals their shared love of the exponents of vintage electronica such as Joe Meek and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Kraftwerk-style instrumental breaks intermingle with deep vocals for sterling opener ‘Burning Pages’. Lighter pop songs such as ‘Hang On Lucifer’ and ‘Colour Dream’ also impress and the mood on these songs is optimistic with frequent splashes of colour, which reminded me of The Superimposers in their execution. Yet there’s a lot more going on here beneath the summery surface.

The naggingly infectious ‘Captured’ recalls both 60’s beat groups and jangly indie guitar pop from twenty years later, ‘Static Object’ glides on metronomic beats whilst even the most experimental offering, ‘Library’ – consisting of a harpsichord tune and all kinds of sound affects – is unerringly melodic. Similarly, it would take a hard heart not to be swayed by the romantic tones of ‘Station Sky’ and the enigmatic ‘Call The Incredible’ – formerly a B-side – is the unheralded gem amongst a treasure chest of jewels.

Undoubtedly Seeland can be classed as a retro-futurist act alongside the likes of Stereolab but, ultimtately, ‘Tomorrow Today’ is a pop album and a very good one at that. In fact it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year, regardless of its genre.

Web Sites:
Seeland MySpace
Lo Alternative Frequencies Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
The Superimposers, Hotels

Review: The Hours – See The Light

Impressive though it was, it’s difficult to see where The Hours’ could go next after their ‘Narcissus Road’ debut. For within the constraints of piano-based indie rock, there isn’t much mileage to be had. Yet The Hours haven’t actually tried to expand their sound for the follow-up; rather they have just decided to produce an equally strong set of songs. Not a bad tactic as it turns out.

The first track, ‘Big Black Hole’, revolves around a familiar but effective formula of moody verses and euphoric choruses. The Hours may reside in London now but ‘These Days’ is the kind of rainy day rock which could only have arisen from the North; by the end they’ve even taken on an orchestra with a typical blast of surefire confidence. ‘Car Crash’ is the requisite tear jerker containing clichéd lyrics like “I was just a boy and you were just a girl” yet somehow it seems pitched just right.

The second half of the album does peter out a little but only ‘Love Is An Action’ – which pounds away relentlessly and is drowned in busy, cluttered arrangements – could be classed as a weak song. Another far superior longer song ends the album beautifully as the title track ticks away hypnotically for seven riveting minutes.

Despite never threatening to develop into something new in a musical sense, I think what attracts me to The Hours is that they have an emotional honesty about them and that feeling that they have really lived through both good times and bad. ‘See The Light’ may not be quite as immediately engaging as its predecessor but it still provides an acceptable showcase for anthemic rock.

Web Sites:
The Hours Official Site
The Hours MySpace

Further Listening:
Doves, Elbow, Oasis