Archive for September, 2009

Review: The Mummers – Tale To Tell

The Mummers are a tale of a talent being put on hold and then re-emerging even stronger. This is certainly the case with Raissa Khan-Panni who released a well received solo album under her first name in 2000. Alas, as is so often the case, critical acclaim didn’t equate to sales and Khan-Panni went back to a life of waitressing. All was not lost however as she continued writing with Raissa collaborator Paul Sandrone and then eventually got to work with orchestral arranger Mark Horwood. Finally the three got together to write an album as The Mummers and what a wonderful fairytale of a record they have made here.

Very few bands manage to make the best use of an orchestra; sometimes using them as an excuse to blow their budget and frequently mistaking a bigger sound for a better performance. Under the experience hand of Horwood that’s never a problem. Yes, each song is underscored by variations of flute, cello, violin, trumpets et al but they’re designed to complement the music around them and help to create their vintage cinematic sound. Khan-Panni herself has been compared to Björk and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between the two in terms of both vocal range and quirkiness. Yet the former judges her performance to suit the arrangements; making this very much a band album rather than a solo vehicle.

As opening tracks go, ‘March Of The Dawn’ has it all; a genuinely spine-tingling song thanks to a gorgeously emotive turn from Raissa Khan-Panni and a fabulous arrangement which is part Hollywood, part Disney. ‘This Is Heaven (Glow)’ emits similar positive feelings with a song that can’t help but put a smile on the listener’s face. Despite its title, ‘Wonderland’ is a rare melancholic moment; the Moog parts only adding to the strangeness. Meanwhile, ‘Teardropsfall’ and the uncredited final track represent the subtle side of The Mummers but they still tingle with their unique magic.

As a tragic footnote to this record, Horwood has since passed away. It would be too early and disrespectful to speculate whether The Mummers will carry on but what is certain is that they have left behind at least one fantastic record.

Web Sites:
The Mummers Official Site
The Mummers MySpace

Further Listening:
Björk, The Divine Comedy


Review: Gus Garcia – Many Hiding Places

Gustavo Nebo Garcia originates from Brazil but now calls London home and from there he pursues, like so many others, the dream of success in the music world. Recording under the trucated name of Gus Garcia, he’s made a more than an accomplished start for his debut EP.

Garcia showcases his angsty vocals immediately for the acoustic, rootsy opener ‘Colleagues’. If the verses sound a bit whiny then the chorus is certainly uptempo and when the harmonies kick in, Garcia really seems to be on to something. ‘Before The Winter’ features deceptively simple hooks; once again the song begins slowly and earnestly and then the harmonies take over with an insouciant Kinks-like melody to guide them. The third and final song ‘Menace’ is arguably the most distinctive. Against the backdrop of a haunting steel guitar, Garcia explores his full vocal range with a portentous whisper turning into a falsetto with impressive fluency.

Garcia won’t be the first London-based singer songwriter to evoke the classic sounds of 1960’s/1970’s British rock and he certainly won’t be the last. Neverthless his vocals are distinctive and – based on the three songs here – he has the capability to stand out in a crowded field.

Web Sites:
Gus Garcia MySpace
Gus Garcia CDBaby Page

Further Listening:
The Kinks

Review: Sankt Otten – Morgen Wieder Lustig

So often great albums pass by unappreciated when they are first released. The result of an initial lack of promotion and underground word of mouth often means that a lucky few at least get praised in hindsight. That was the case with Sankt Otten’s 2000 record ‘Eine Kleine Traurigkeit’, a reissued record which for me provided a very edifying exposure into the German trip-hop scene that I would have otherwise never heard. Nine years on, the duo of Oliver Klemm and Stephan Otten still record and ‘Morgen Wieder Lustig’ is their latest offering.

Like their debut, the new album is a bit of a slow burner and is largely built on atmosphere rather than melody. Surprisingly the mood is dreamy and ambient for opener ‘Ein Himmel Voller Galgen’ and things only start to enter a downward curve for ‘Lustig, Lustig, Demain Encore Lustig’ which adds insistent bleeps to a noirish synth wash. To be honest, this is the area where Sankt Otten really excel and they wisely stick to the dark material for the remainder of the record.

‘Fromme Lügen’ and ‘Mein Freund Aus Köln’ experiment with jazz but are careful to add warm textures to make them compelling. Though it may seem obvious to point out they emulate their Teutonic forefathers, ‘X für U’ and ‘Wenn Die Rechnung Nicht Aufgeht’ even capture the emotional longing and simple but genius tune making of Kraftwerk; the latter track being particularly gorgeous.

Overall, ‘Morgen Wieder Lustig’ falls short of the consistently evocative material from ‘Eine Kleine Traurigkeit’ but even an album that is three quarters as good as their debut is worth anyone’s time. It’s a welcome shot in the arm for German electronic music, which I haven’t heard too much of in recent years.

Web Sites:
Sankt Otten MySpace
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore

Review: Sweet Trip – You Will Never Know Why

On their last album ‘Velocity:Design:Comfort’, Sweet Trip made a pretty good job of becoming the Stereolab it’s easy to love, with extra layers of warmth taking the place of those explorations of Krautrock. That was way back in 2004 though and the follow-up is a welcome return to their psychedelic, oddball songs.

‘Conservation Of Two’ bridges the gap between easy listening and shoegaze. Carefully crafted harmonies are at the heart of ‘Forever’ whilst groovy lounge and bossanova dominate the seven minute long epic ‘Acting’. Elsewhere, Valerie R. Cooper’s vocals have never been captured quite so dreamily as on ‘Milk’. Thereafter the album experiences a disappointing lull but it is partially redeemed by the excellence of some of the later tracks: ‘Pretending’ being a jangly delight and ‘Your World Is Eternally Complete’ is a triumphant finale (ignoring the uncredited experiment ‘Female Lover’).

However, you categorise them, ultimately, Sweet Trip are a pop band and a very good one too. The only criticism is the disinct twenty minute sag at the centre of the record which spoils an otherwise sumptuous listen.

Web Sites:
Sweet Trip Official Site
Sweet Trip MySpace

Further Listening:
Stereolab, Alpha

Review: Julian Plenti – Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper

With drummer Sam Fogarino having already teamed up with Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin for Magnetic Morning, there is now another Interpol band member experimenting with a different kind of music. The man is Paul Banks, the frontman and owner of that very distinctive “sad robot” voice. He doesn’t fare too badly either.

Unsurprisingly, Banks solo doesn’t sound that far removed from his erstwhile employers. Where the main difference lies is in song structure. Initially the likes of ‘Fun That We Have’ and ‘Fly As You Might’ don’t appear to deviate too much from the miserablism/euphoria of Banks’ usual band but the verse chorus traditions are toyed with.  Fogarino lends his percussion prowess to the agitated ‘Games For Days’; definitely the most Interpol-like offering on the album.

Strangely, it takes a near instrumental for Banks to make his most original impression as the soundtrack-worthy ‘Skyscraper’ winds down a morose route laden with strings, acoustic guitar and Wild West ambience. The piano-led ‘Madrid Song’ is similarly filmic but less epic. Thanks to its blasts of trumpet, ‘Unwind’ sounds celebratory and triumphant whilst ‘Girl On The Sporting News’ shivers with mystery and even a little sensuality.

‘…Skyscraper’ is a very worthwhile solo album which proves that Banks has more than one string to his bow and is not just the mouthpiece for one of New York’s most admired bands. He is, after all, a guitarist in the band too lest we forget. Yet however admirable this record may be, it does lack the cohesion and addictive qualities of the first three Interpol albums.

Web Sites:
Julian Plenti Official Site
Julian Plenti MySpace

Further Listening:

Review: Down Review – From Here, For Anyone

Down Review is what one may loosely call as a “spin off” group, which is only a small step away from terms such as “hobby band” and “stopgap between proper records”. In this case though, the two protagonists (Arc Lab’s Medard Fischer and Near The Parenthesis’ Tim Arndt) deliver further proof that it’s possible to make beautiful music without ever being in the same room together.

Beginning with the deliciously comforting sounds of ‘Anything Is Everything’, the scene is set for some lovely, warm instrumental music. It recalls a mixture of Kraftwerk and – somewhat incongruously – The Edge’s subtle chiming guitar work of a 1984 vintage. In an apparent reversal of approach, ‘Archive’ is initially unsettling and provocative as its breakbeats and synth noise threaten to assault the listener. Yet eventually a dark melody emerges which is every bit as addictive as the first track. ‘Always Enough’ is colourful and playful; its cut-ups and samples conjuring up images of clockwork toys but once again the tune and air of mystery are of paramount importance. Finally, ‘All In’ busies itself with layer upon layer of electronic wizardry but it is arguably the weakest of the four contributions.

Luddites will profess that the Internet is killing music but ‘From Here, For Anyone’ shows that bringing together talents via computers and wires is something to celebrate. Especially so when they produce electronica featuring such distinctly human qualities.

Web Sites:
Down Review MySpace
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Near The Parenthesis, Arc Lab

Review: Epic45 – In All The Empty Houses

The duo of Ben Holton and Rob Glover released their first record as Epic45 a decade ago; where they first introduced their summery, nostalgic summery music. However, they have never sounded quite so haunted as they do on their new mini album ‘In All The Empty Houses’, which hangs heavy with a sense of lost love.

From its chiming tune to its delicate vocals ‘We Were Never Here’ recalls the innocent simplicity of The Field Mice.  The similarly fragile ‘Daylight Ghosts’ speaks of teenage romance; its fey harmonies saved from soppiness by some deliciously crisp drumming from ex-Slowdive man Simon Scott, whilst the title track and elegiac instrumental ‘Their Voices In The Rafters’ – despite the modern beats – are both gentle and wistful.

Epic45’s lyrics have tended to get lost amongst the gorgeous music they generate, yet this time some of the words are impossible to ignore. ‘The Future Is Blinding’ consists of just two repeated lines. “You said there must be more to life than this. How much more do you want?” sighs Holton despairingly amidst the jangly guitars; as if two long-standing partners are facing up to the fact that they are growing apart. All very poignant but Glover and Holton save their best to the last with the simply brilliant ‘Ghosts On Tape’. “Birds don’t fly, they just stop themselves from falling” would sound childishly out of place in lesser hands but here it’s sung beautifully over infectious layers of Hood-like rustic melody to create a heart-stopping and beautiful moment. 

Granted, ‘In All The Empty Houses’ may only be a twenty-five minutes long but it would be difficult to find a release which matched it for sheer emotion. Ten years on, Glover and Holton are just getting better and better at bringing on the heartache.

Web Sites:
Epic45 Official Site
Epic45 MySpace
Make Mine Music Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Hood, The Field Mice

Review: The Opposite Sex – Live + Burn EP

When I first heard The Opposite Sex’s self-titled EP in 2006, I was quite taken by the doomy sound but it was admittedly too rooted in the past to suggest they could progress further. Three years on and though the 1980’s ghosts of post-punk still linger, they have embellished their sound with a visceral energy. ‘Live + Burn EP’ does much to consolidate the good work from 2007’s first album and even adds fresh influences.

The EP begins thrillingly. ‘Frozen Heart/Froze Mind’ allies their punk intensity with the kind of raw production you’d expect from a live performance. ‘Is That You’ is built around a guitar figure that recalls the epic widescreen melodies of Echo And The Bunnymen’s early albums. The title track is equally fired-up whilst ‘Thread’ – the slowest track – is dominated by stuttering percussion and frontman Shawn Helton’s haunted bellow.

‘Leave It All Behind’ is the strangest song here. After some portentous verses, the chorus is curiously uplifting; almost as if two different bands are at work. Only the overly-melodramatic finale ‘Another Big Bang’ outstays its welcome but otherwise they sound youthful and alive.

Across six concise tracks, The Opposite Sex prove themselves as far more than mere post-punk plodders. Instead they make stirring music, which has a relevance that transcends their influences.

Web Sites:
The Opposite Sex MySpace

Further Listening:
Bauhaus, Echo And The Bunnymen

Review: The Sky Drops – Bourgeois Beat

Back in 2006 Delaware’s The Sky Drops were described as the “shoegazing Everly Brothers”. Despite being a girl/boy duo, you can see the reference as their harmonies were perfectly tuned towards their hook-laden noise pop. It’s taken a while for the first album to come out but here it is and it sees their style consolidated by a noticeably harder edge.

‘Heavy Penny’ and ‘Truth Is’ are the clearest indications of the more aggressive stance taken by the duo. They are decent songs but the airy beauty of their lighter material is a better indication of their talents.

The excellent ‘Swimming With Fishes’, ‘Throw Your Weight’ and the title track all align folky vocals and grinding guitars perfectly. I loved the way Rob Montejo and Monika Bullette’s sighs dovetail for the supremely infectious ‘Long Way’ whilst ‘Hang On’ (the only song here to have featured on their debut EP) possesses the aura of a windswept beach romance.

‘Bourgeois Beat’ sees Montejo and Bullette make the successful transition from promising EP to strong album. Clearly, they have the energy, ideas and melodies that make up a great band.

Web Sites:
The Sky Drops Official Site
The Sky Drops MySpace

Further Listening:
Autolux, Her Vanished Grace, Spotlight Kid, The Seldon Plan, Suturee

Review: Ecovillage – Phoenix Asteroid

The first album by Swedish duo Ecovillage is released on Darla, the spiritual home for all things shoegaze. If one could imagine My Bloody Valentine at one end of the spectrum with their ear-bleeding tunes of distortion, Ecovillage are at the opposite end with music that is designed to be heard whilst sitting in a bath surrounded by scented candles.

Most of Ecovillage’s songs consist of breathy harmonies floating on clouds of effects. Their USP, if you can call it that, is the use of sitar although it tends to get submerged amongst the layers of music around it. Sadly, some of the time their output sounds as tough as their chosen band name and those who dismiss shoegazing as watery and insubstantial will find plenty of ammunition to support their argument here.

However,  on the unusually strident ‘Here And Now’ and the elegant instrumental ‘Dawn Was Brand New’, they seem to be on to something good. For ‘Horizons And Beyond’ the duo decide to employ a female vocalist and it pays dividends with a glorious melody that adheres to the Cocteau Twins’ school of dreampop whilst ‘Mustard Seed’ makes use of another lady singer and adds an hitherto undiscovered air of mystery. Even the sixteen minute mood piece ‘Phoenix Asteroid’ is superficially attractive but it is basically New Age.

Part of me thinks ‘Phoenix Asteroid’ is a work of genius developed by two men who have successfully unified nature and sound, yet the cynical part of me wonders whether I’ve been duped in to listening to a relaxation tape to help me unwind after the daily grind of work. In the final analysis, the album is best described as background music; pleasant and ethereal but too undemanding to make it essential.

Web Sites:
Ecovillage MySpace
Darla Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
M83, Ulrich Schnauss, Cocteau Twins