Archive for August, 2010

Review: Garforth & Myers – Bonfires

South Yorkshire’s Rory Garforth and Adam Myers apparently provide “lushly brewed melodious folk hypnosis”. It’s a bold statement but one which isn’t so far from the truth as their acoustic fare is very well arranged and expertly written.

As soon as we hear the lilting ‘Bonfires’ it’s clear that Garforth and Myers share the same vision; their harmonies are beautifully delivered and guitars are strummed gently. ‘Mirrors’ is, shall we say, a more reflective moment for the duo as strings add a layer of melancholy to an already rather sad song. For ‘The Past’ they sound like folk veterans reclaiming former glories but they do so with a believable authenticity and finally – thanks to its double bass and lighter than air vocals – ‘Lighthouse’ is a dead ringer for Kings Of Convenience.

The songs are traditionally arranged and stylistically offer little that’s different. Yet each one contains a memorable melody and that is the most striking and important point to the EP.

Web Sites:
Garforth & Myers MySpace

Further Listening:
Kings Of Convenience, Conrad Vingoe, Simon And Garfunkel


Review: M.I.A. – Maya

After ‘Arular’ (named after her father) and ‘Kala’ (her mother) ‘Maya’ completes the trinity of family-themed album titles with this time Miss Arulpragasam as the focal point. So can we expect lots of self-analysisand introspection? Well, no not really.

The place of power drills in music has always been a questionable one but of course M.I.A. shows no such fears and after a brief intro of keyboard tapping we are treated to ‘Steppin Up’, which also features a lot of booming drums. It’s not the first song which sounds like warfare on the eardrums but it also generates an excitement due to its compelling hooks. ‘XXX0’ is similarly edgy and thrilling; like unearthing a great, lost Sugababes track. This comparison is indicative because for all of M.I.A.’s personality the credits show she has co-writers on every track, not to mention a who’s who of name producers.

Revealingly, for the gentle, sunny ‘It Takes A Muscle’, – one of the less “busy” offerings here and therefore one of the most coherent – she has no writing credit at all. Yet I’m probably being harsh here, for to sound quite as contemporary as this anyone would need a bit of outside help. M.I.A.’s scattergun delivery is usually infectious and it’s sustained even for late album tracks like ‘Born Free’ and ‘Meds And Feds’, although for the latter the rhythms are downright hostile. For the last couple of songs here, she even shows a little bit of humanity; there’s yearning and “proper” singing for both ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘Space’. For the bonus edition, there’s also a gem called ‘Caps Lock’, where her voice cracks with emotion and a welcome degree of vulnerability.

Packed to the gills with possible singles, ‘Maya’ sounds like a greatest hits album and therefore turns out to be possibly her best record yet. One might criticise the artist for her lack of soul but she clearly has a vision and the connections to make her the thinking man’s alternative to Lady Gaga’s assault on the pop charts.

Web Sites:
M.I.A. Official Site
M.I.A. MySpace

Further Listening:
Björk, These New Puritans

Review: Jesus Makes The Shotgun Sound – Damnant Quod Non Intelligunt

Jesus Makes The Shotgun Sound inhabit a curious world where industrial, gothic and electronic music live in perfect disharmony. The Californian quartet now deliver their new EP which is, at the very least, dramatic. 

From the beginning – with first song ‘Do Not The Clothes Make The Man!’ – the group seem to be combining the grandiosity of Muse with the experimentalism of Radiohead. It’s a track which goes through several detours and never threatens to produce a chorus. ‘Janessa Sais Quoi’ is bold and cinematic and improved by the frontman’s brooding vocals but at other times he tends to overdo it like a camp goth overlord.

The best moments are when the group show more human qualities like warmth and melody. A an example, the symphonic ending to ‘The Moonlit Landerous’ is really rather beautiful but this contrasts with the jarring lack of focus displayed on ‘Split The Pig’. The one time they truly nail it is on ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’ (a Lee Hazelwood cover) and here the band excel as they add the kind of stately arrangement you might have heard on a This Mortal Coil record.

‘Damnant Quod Non Intelligunt’ is certainly inventive but that doesn’t always mean it’s likeable. Yet there are moments when something wonderful emerges from the dissonance.

Web Sites:
Jesus Makes The Shotgun Sound Blog
Jesus Makes The Shotgun Sound MySpace

Further Listening:
Muse, This Mortal Coil, Bauhaus, Radiohead

Review: It’s Immaterial – Song

It’s Immaterial described their own second album from 1990 as “commercial suicide but definitely worth doing”. No surprise then that they failed to shake off the “one hit wonder” tag bestowed on them after 1986’s ‘Driving Away From Home’ single. A great shame because ‘Song’ is a classy ambient pop affair that’s worth revisiting.

Comparison with The Blue Nile are obvious and not just because their producer Calum Malcolm is on board here; emphasising the lush synth textures of ‘Song’. For It’s Immaterial also favoured the long-drawn out approach to each track. Even if John Campbell’s half-spoken/half-sung approach lacks the emotional power of The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan (at its worse, on ‘Endless Holiday’, Campbell sounds detached, almost disinterested), his narrative is usually warm and involving.

Hooks are few and far between but certain key lines are memorable; like a reassuring “It’s going to be alright. Things are going to work out fine” for ‘Heaven Knows’ or a defiant “goodbye suburbia” on ‘In The Neighbourhood’. Flamenco-flavoured ‘Homecoming’  is a lovely slice of subtle melancholia whilst ‘Your Voice’ ups the melodrama with its romantic images. The two bonus tracks are also quite delightful and perversely feature Campbell in his most yearning form.

The sleevenotes to ‘Song’ suggest the album was ahead of its time and would have achieved higher sales if it was put out today. This is unlikely given that many of the tracks here lack a conventional verse and chorus structure; ‘Song’ could surely have only been released nowadays on a tiny independent label who hadn’t heard of the term “profit margins”.

At times the album is too understated and rambling to be truly satisfying but it maintains a elegant, wistful atmosphere. So it is probably best appreciated on a long train journey whilst watching the crumbling landscapes of Northern England pass by.

Web Sites:
It’s Immaterial Page from The Antimatter Containment Field
It’s Immaterial Wikipedia Page

Further Listening:
The Blue Nile, China Crisis

Review: Madness – The Rise & Fall

By long player number four, Madness were still following their album a year form. Somehow between the constant grind of touring and promotion, they managed to find time to record their most adventurous outing yet. Originally conceived as a concept album based on the band members’ childhood, ‘The Rise & Fall’ presented a bleak document of bittersweet nostalgia.

The highlights, as with previous albums, include the singles. Strange though, that ‘Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day)’ was such a success given that its consistently depressing lyrics (“It’s down and down there is no up”) were based on Chas Smash’s experiences behind bars. Then of course there’s ‘Our House’. It’s a testament to the enduring quality of the song that it still retains its charm after the countless times it’s been played on commercial radio. Amongst other tracks, ‘Primrose Hill’ features the prettiest of piano melodies and a brass band segment. Meanwhile, ‘Blue Skinned Beast’ attacks Thatcher’s handling of The Falklands War and ‘New Delhi’ takes on Eastern influences before it became fashionable.

‘The Rise & Fall’ is arguably Madness at their most articulate yet but falls a few songs short of its predecessor’s consistent excellence. That said, Madness deserve great credit for experimenting with their sound when they could have sold records by the bucketload, by sticking to their tried and tested Ska formula.

Web Sites:
Madness Official Site
Madness MySpace

Further Listening:
Blur, The Kinks

Review: Grasscut – 1 Inch: 1/2 Mile

Grasscut take psychogeography to a new level. Their album is designed to be listened to whilst taking a walking tour of the South Downs of Sussex and discovering the site once known as Balsdean; a village which was destroyed during World War II. The group consists of well-respected soundtrack composer Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair.

‘High Down’ sets the scene for the adventure but it’s not quite how you might imagine. A haunted ghostly vocal from Phillips is accompanied by sombre piano but soon some baroque keyboards kick in. ‘Old Machines’ is even quirkier since it is part historical tour, part dance music and ‘The Door In The Wall’ is remarkably upbeat. There’s already a strong sense that Phillips and O’Dair are fighting against any feelings of atmosphere and nostalgia.

‘Meltwater’ is the first time Phillips begins to soar and the music around him seems lifted too whilst ‘Muppet’ emerges from its awkward, glitchy backing to a moment of rare beauty courtesy of a choir; it sounds like Talk Talk put through a techno blender. ‘1946’ – featuring the voice of Mrs. May Phillips (presumably a relative of Andrew, she passed away last year) – is arguably the most chilling moment where apparently innocent lines such as “it was a hell of a winter” attract deeper resonance amongst the mournful accompaniment.

Not having taken the walk as described in the sleeve notes, I can only imagine what it is like based on what the music evokes. There is a sense of history but also a sense of modern trends having taken over due to the often disorientating reliance on techno music. Neverthless, sometimes it works and the unholy alliance of the old and the new can be curiously attractive.

Web Sites:
Grasscut MySpace
Ninja Tune Page for Grasscut

Further Listening:
July Skies, Talk Talk

Review: The Superimposers – Sunshine Pops!

The Superimposers have been peddling their own brand of summery, psychedelic pop since 2005 which has so far yielded two excellent albums. Not too much has changed for album number three really, except now they have Shawn Lee on board as producer.

To begin with a criticism, two older songs crop up again in slightly altered form so here we get to hear ‘Seeing Is Believing’ (benefitting from a percussion-heavy facelift by Lee) and the wistful ‘Would It Be Impossible’ again, although that means – regardless of whether they are two of their best early songs – the sum total of new material adds up to less than half an hour.

It’s lucky their other songs are just as great. ‘Where Do You Go?’ showcases the duo at their most throwaway; it’s an opening gambit which revels in its Beat Group simplicity right down to its cheesy bird song sample. Both ‘The Beach’ and ‘Sometimes’ are made up of classy easy listening arrangements which exhibit a faraway beauty. ‘The Harbour Mystery’ continues the seaside theme but its wonky key changes and shuffling drums remind us that this is a lo-fi band at heart. Furthermore, ‘Tumbledown’ and ‘Four Leaf Clover’ prove that these unlikely looking fellows can create some truly lovely harmonies.

Despite the quibble about there being just seven new songs on this album, the quality is marvellous. One might say that for late 1960’s nostalgia this is hard to beat but it’s the strength of melody which really astounds.

Web Sites:
Wondeful Sound Label and Shop Site
The Superimposers MySpace

Further Listening:
Beach Boys, Arnold

Review: Dedicated To Dedications – Dedicated To Dedications

So many groups strive to make big statements by packing as many layers into their music as possible. So here we have Dedicated To Dedications, a seven-piece band including brass, string and woodwind players as well as the usual guitar, drums, keyboards and vocals. They have just three songs available so far but they display an abundance of charm in their allotted ten minutes.

The yearning vocals of Lauren Rebecca Bayross Payne are the main focal point of the EP but the songs really flourish when the strings begin to swell. From ‘Strange Neighbourhood’, it’s clear the classical instuments haven’t just been flung together but are expertly co-ordinated by the band. ‘Crash Or Burn’ may be short but it’s the most beautifully realised track; the emotionally torn tones of Bayross Payne and the cello and violin parts dovetailing perfectly with each other. ‘Midas’ is less arresting but is still as warm and heartfelt as classically-infused pop music can be.

What impresses most is the sheer joy the group seem to have had in producing these songs. The group are currently unsigned but I have a feeling they won’t have to wait too long for that situation to change.

Web Sites:
Dedicated To Dedications Official Site
Dedicated To Dedications MySpace

Further Listening:
The Mummers

Review: Rich Bennett – On Holiday

Rich Bennett’s tastes seem to veer towards lounge pop as evidenced on his “better than it sounds on paper” last album ‘Music For Supermarkets’, not to mention his significant retro-futurist contributions to great records by Monocle and Hotels. As the title implies, ‘On Holiday’ is a concept album Bennett has created (along with singer-songwriter Rebecca Pronsky) about leisure time away from home and work pressures.

Courtesy of its steel guitar figure and close harmonies, ‘Misty Valley’ represents the initial euphoria of an ideal holiday; arriving at your destination to be greeted by beautiful scenery. ‘Back Around’ evokes sunny days on the beach but ‘Wild Ride’ is the first indication of a darker turn as Bennett and Pronsky’s interchange begins to descend the rollercoaster. Ghostly whistling dominates the eerie ‘EPD’ and the two parts of ‘The Night’ sum up the feeling of disappointment as the vacation draws to a close; the latter part containing some of Bennett’s most beguiling key changes. By the time of end piece ‘Green Memories’ though, events have taken a really sinister detour.

As with some of his previus records, Bennett appears to be in typically laid back mood on the surface. Yet after each listen, the record sounds deeper and more troubled than the last time, which indicates Bennett is a less than ideal travelling companion but at least his music offers an alternative soundtrack.

Web Sites:
Rich Bennett MySpace
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Monocle, Hotels, Gnac

Review: Kyle Bobby Dunn – A Young Person’s Guide To

In the world of ambient there are records which are subtle and there are those which are “so quiet they’re hardly even there” kind of records. ‘A Young Person’s Guide To’, a 2CD compilation of the work of New Yorker Kyle Bobby Dunn, falls somewhere between those two camps.

‘Butel’ is essentially a drone with occasional additional effects which sound like insects hovering in the night air. After fourteen minutes, the same track is still playing and then it finally accommodates a keyboard melody. ‘The Tributary’ is a tad more involving with variation and melody more prominent but by the time of ‘Promenade’, Dunn’s vision reaches a lovely, elegant peak.

The second disc begins in much the same fashion as the first but soon begins to become stirring as second track ‘Empty Gazing’ enters the fray. Here Dunn explores hypnotic shoegaze sounds with a hook that drifts from speaker to speaker. Another highlight is solemn piano piece ‘Sets Of Four’ and there’s even some voice recordings on elegiac finale ‘The Nightjar’.

Two hours of this kind of ambience is certainly relaxing but I would recommend it is listened to in two separate sessions to avoid nodding off. One must also presume the collection’s title is ironic given that these pieces are strictly for those who like their music to be languid and graceful.

Web Sites:
Kyle Bobby Dunn MySpace
Low Point Label and Shop Link

Further Listening:
Stars Of The Lid