Archive for February, 2010

Review: Sone Institute – Curious Memories

Roman Bezdyk calls St. Albans in Hertfordshire his home but, as his press release suggests, he seems more likely to inhabit an “imaginary fairground ride in an abandoned English seaside resort”. As the title to his first album suggests, ‘Curious Memories’ is one of the most wonderfully bizarre nostalgia trips I have ever encountered.

From the opening salvo of ‘Inter Asylum Cross Country’ and its vintage organ players and easy listening atmosphere to the elegiac send-off ‘Sleep has its Embers’, ‘Curious Memories’ plots a course for the soundtrack to childhood dreams (both good and bad). In between, ‘Dark Forest – Silver Sea’ takes on a glistening dreampop melody and haunted digitised voice samples, there’s also nightmare sci-fi (‘Hobbyhorse’) whilst ‘Lazy London Ways’ recalls the languid summer day sound of so many Cherry Red artists. Of course, not everything Bezdyk throws together gels qute so well. There’s a number of sound collages (‘Steps to the Sun (Part 2)’ for example) that sound ponderous in the context of the album. Where he excels is in the easy (or should that be queasy?) listening approach where ‘Tea for Four’ and ‘Sweetness Coyed’ hint at a time and a place that could never have existed.

All those hanging on for the next Avalanches album should satisfy their needs for a sample-heavy psychedelic trip and investigate ‘Curious Memories’ right away. It’s not quite as pop friendly but its sheer abundance of ideas and obscure references make it ideal for the more adventurous listener.

Web Sites:
Sone Institute MySpace
Front And Follow Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
The Avalanches


Review: These New Puritans – Hidden

After their uncompromising 2008 debut ‘Beat Pyramid’, These New Puritans were hailed as a “next big thing”. Yet somehow you knew they would never be big as their music seemed so confrontational. Not for them the “Josef K Go Pop” of Domino labelmates Franz Ferdinand. Instead they made music which seemed tailor-made for modern warfare enthusiasts thanks to its chanted vocals and military percussion.

Yet when they’re on form These New Puritans have a canny knack for making music that seems very subversive but is actually no stranger to a dancefloor, albeit one frequented by studious types. ‘We Want War’ is as much informed by ragga beats as it is by marching bands. That the second half to the track is dominated by haunted choral accompaniment and mournful brass seems like a deliberate attempt to reassure everyone that they aren’t aiming for chart exposure just yet though. Likewise, ‘Three Thousand’ provides the missing link between Dizzee Rascal and Jonah Lewie.

Refreshingly, hitherto unnoticed signs of humanity occur regularly thanks to the warmth of their brass and woodwind arrangements and even a yearning vocal for ‘Hologram’ and some wistful nostalgia for the brilliant ‘Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie’. Hats off too for ‘White Chords’ where they master minimalist electronica and moody vocals in a manner which would make Radiohead very jealous indeed. Elsewhere the music is as clinical and precise as the noise of swords being drawn; a sound they seem to be quite fond of sampling judging by this release.

‘Hidden’ is certainly not the kind of album to help you unwind after a tough day at work. Yet however cold they still appear, the band offer something utterly unique; dipping into the most incongruous of influences and pulling out something quite extraordinary.

Web Sites:
These New Puritans Official Site
These New Puritans MySpace

Further Listening:
M.I.A., Liars

Review: Hot Chip – One Life Stand

After 2006’s excellent ‘The Warning’ Hot Chip released the curious and slightly disappointing ‘Made In The Dark’; a record where they seemed determined to underplay their obvious commercial potential. Thankfully the band have embraced pop again and core members Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor are fast becoming one of the finest songwriting double acts of this century. Exhibit A being their new album ‘One Life Stand’

The album begins like a singles collection. ‘Thieves In The Night’ is set to bouncy electronica and a disco-worthy groove. Then we have ‘Hand Me Down Your Love’, where beneath its rather cheap house piano motif lies a beautifully lovelorn chorus.  ‘I Feel Better’ is based on the contrast between some autotune vocals and Alexis Taylor’s white soul choirboy routine. These kind of tunes would deserve shouts of “sell out” were it not for Hot Chip’s genius way with an original hook. Even right at end there’s the towering ‘Take It in’, which manages to sound both danceable and effortlessly cool at the same time.

Not that Hot Chip have totally succumbed to their quest for pop’s holy grail. There are songs here which wouldn’t work as singles but help to make a good album great. ‘Alley Cats’ is one of those tracks hidden away towards the end of the record that reveal the sensitivity at the heart of Hot Chip’s best songs; Taylor and Goddard’s vocal interplay here is genuinely shiver-inducing. Likewise, ‘Slush’ is a ballad so disarmingly simplistic it makes a mockery of their “electro geek” image; where only the inclusion of steel pans (actually a well-used instrument on this album) mark it out as quirky.

Forget those occasional bursts of greatness which come from the Xenomania team, ‘One Life Stand’ is a great album from beginning to end. Pop music doesn’t get much better than this.

Web Sites:
Hot Chip Official Site
Hot Chip MySpace

Further Listening:
Clor, Hot Chip, Junior Boys

New Video: Dextro – Momentary

This is the new video for Dextro’s ‘Momentary’, one of the standouts from last year’s ‘Winded’ album.

Over the course of two albums, Scotsman Ewan Mackenzie has established a reputation for a form of shoegaze/electronica instrumental music which is bolstered by strong rhythms. For ‘Momentary’ we also get to hear Mackenzie’s vocals for the first time. The results are both dreamy and dramatic.

Web Sites:
Dextro Official Site
Dextro MySpace

Review: Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor – Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor

As well as having a fabulous name, Sisters of Your Sunshine Vapor brand themselves as “Detroit based neo-psychedelic glam rock”. These qualities are hard to ignore and their self-titled debut generally doesn’t disappoint.

Opening with huge drums and reverb, haunted fairground keyboards and the deathly howl of frontman Sean, ‘Lord Is My Gun’ is an arresting statement; like Black Rebel Motorcycle meets The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. Then ‘Victims Of Momentum’, as the title attests, surrenders to a Krautrock groove. Even better is sinister single ‘Slow Suicide’ where the band make the best use of their tight bass-driven rhythms and menacing vocals and – just to show SOYSV aren’t all about creating drone-y, doomy stuff – the rockier ‘All You Lovers’ is a real thriller.

It’s the second half of the record where the group lose their way somewhat. ‘Spaceman Blues’ and ‘Doom’ lack the drive and hooks of what has gone on before. Happily, it’s a brief lapse and by the time of ‘Two Thousand Nine’ and ‘At The Gates’ they’ve recovered both the drama and the aggression.

Naturally, there’s a sense of “we’ve been here before” with nearly all of this record. Yet with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club having lost their way recently, SOYSV could claim the neo-psychedelic glam rock crown as their own.

Web Sites:
Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor Official Site
Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor MySpace

Further Listening:
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Soul Merchants, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown

Review: Planivaar – Bulb

With a number of releases already to his name, Mark Lippett has gradually enhanced his growing reputation for dark and deeply textured ambient music under his Planivaar guise. Yet the artist now claims that ‘Bulb’, his new EP, is a “darker, more troubled cousin to all of his previous works”. By his standards, that’s really saying something.

Much of ‘Bulb’ is based around drone. ‘Closed Eyes’ features vague fragments of strummed melody and distant radio frequencies. ‘Here’ is a little more coherent as background layers of Talk Talk-like guitars compete with sound samples whereas ‘Broken Clocks’ offers a chink of light when elsewhere all is shade. However, ‘Desert’, the final instalment, is the one which really burrows its way into the brain. Here, the drones give way to quivering piano keys as events take a haunting turn guaranteed to stir anyone who had drifted in and out of consciousness during the first three tracks.

Once again, Lippett seems in touch with nature but after the undersea mystery of ‘The Green Boat’, the music here is evocative of the plants, small animals and insects that hide away in the forest and carry out their own secret lives.

Web Sites:
Planivaar MySpace
Split Femur Recordings Label Site

Further Listening:
Mole Harness, Talk Talk

Review: Blag’ard – Mach II

Relatively unknown though they may be, Blag’ard provide a valuable service of sorts. And when not running his window cleaning business, Adam drums and sings with Blag’ard along with guitarist and fellow vocalist Joe Taylor. Together this North Carolina duo offer the lean, macho alternative to Placebo’s popularised angst. ‘Mach II’ is the commendably taut and muscular follow-up to 2008’s debut long player ‘Bobcat’.

Blag’ard build their songs on the foundations of mighty riffs and punk vocals. ‘Major’, a fine case in point, benefits from a mighty hook-filled chorus and ‘Babushka’ my not be a brave cover of Kate Bush but it’s a cracking song in its own right. There’s no let up in pace or intensity and even at their quietest ‘Jenny G’ sounds pretty bone chilling. In fact, these aren’t just men churning out hooks for a cult following. There’s a dark heart to this record too. So much so, when you hear the title to ‘Ophelia’ being screamed it sounds more like “Oh failure” whereas, on a less subtle level, Taylor claims on ‘Life In Reverse’ that “There are people who would like me to shoot myself in the head”.

As with the first album, ‘Mach II’ uses a refreshingly no-frills approach to production and songwriting. However, don’t be too deceived by the simplicity of the arrangements, as many of the tracks feature complex chord changes and the end result is a punk record full of melody.

Web Sites:
Blag’ard Official Site
Blag’ard MySpace

Further Listening:

New Video: The Sky Drops – Long Way

I’ve decided to remodel the “Video Nostalgia” as “Video Features” so I can encompass music videos both old and new.

This brings me on to ‘Long Way’, the promo for The Sky Drops’ latest single.

‘Long Way’ is one of the standouts from The Sky Drops’ debut album from last year, ‘Bourgeois Beat’. The song is the perfect blend of breezy harmonies and grinding guitars and now it’s accompanied by some vintage nature footage from The Prelinger Archives. An odd combination perhaps but somehow it works.

Check out more of The Sky Drops on these sites:
The Sky Drops Official Site
The Sky Drops MySpace

Review: Tracy Shedd – EP88

Based in Arizona, Tracy Shedd released the highly impressive ‘Cigarettes & Smoke Machines’ at the back-end of 2008. With an equal admiration for grunge and lovelorn ballads, it was a stylistically adventurous album but consistent in its good quality. Next up is a five-track EP based around piano, the place where she began her musical education as a six year-old.

‘City Of Night’ is a spare ballad; its hushed intimacy and hopeful melody proving that sometimes the most simplistic arrangements are the most effective. ‘How Your Eyes Affect Me’ enlists husband James Tritten’s on nagging guitar duty to accompany Shedd, with her voice yearning and pulling at the heartstrings again. ‘Tokyo Rose’ and ‘West Inn Love’ fare less well. They seem to be building up to good songs but then when you grasp at the hook which drives them, they slip away from view as they finish too quickly. This just leaves ‘Husbands & Wives’; by some distance the longest track and without question the most dramatic as well. It builds on a threatening post-rock drone and is sweetened by Shedd’s beautifully clear voice.

Shedd’s new EP may lack the variety of the previous album but the songwriting remains top notch. Furthermore, she has revisited her past with the added benefit the of her maturing years, yet she’s still able to evoke childlike awe in her plaintive tones.

Web Sites:
Tracy Shedd Official Site
Tracy Shedd MySpace

Further Listening:
Suzanne Vega, Gemma Hayes

Review: Maps – Turning The Mind

From nowhere to a Mercury Music Prize nomination, Northampton’s James Chapman was hailed as a musical visionary; embracing the values of dreampop and fusing them with the likes of Spiritualized. That was two years ago and ‘Turning The Mind’ arrives with little fanfare but could it be the record which builds on the promise and takes him to the next plateau?

 The title track takes a while to get going but eventually that familiar dreampop carousel takes hold. Next we have ‘I Dream Of Crystal’, which certainly has a celestial chorus and the fact that it has been featured on Sky Sports coverage is a suggestion of Chapman’s growing popularity. Later on, Chapman gives a rare glimpse of his darker side with the urgent, almost threatening swirl of ‘Nothing’ and ‘Chemeleon’, meanwhile, is Chapman in his element as he makes the best use of Numan-esque synth effects and a beautifuly breezy pay-off on the chorus.

However, much like ‘We Can Create’, there’s a noticeable sag in quality towards the middle of the record; Chapman’s fairly undistinguished vocals don’t really help matters either. Furthermore, there appears to be a disconcerting move towards the dancefloor, exemplified by ‘Let Go Of The Fear’, which sounds like a Faithless song and then ‘Love Will Come’; both tracks are decent enough genre examples and would probably sound great in clubs but they seem like the kind of soulless fare you’d expect to hear from anonymous DJs. Similarly the chorus to ‘Everything Is Shattering’ sounds like a dancier (and inferior) version of Prefab Sprout’s ‘I Love Music’.

After describing ‘We Can Create’ as a “delightfully unique” album it’s hard to pay a similar compliment to ‘Turning The Mind’. Instead, Chapman seems to have opted for a commercial approach, which will possibly lead to more fans (and who can blame him for that?) but it lacks the emotional depth of its predecessor and sometimes ends up emulating shallow shoegazers like M83. Yet for all its flaws, ‘Turning The Mind’ is a perfectly serviceable record, just don’t expect to be moved.

Web Sites:
Maps Blog
Maps MySpace

Further Listening:
Secret Machines, Cajita, ReCoup, M83