Archive for December, 2010

Review: EL Heath – Shropshire Hill Country

Following hot on the heels of the new release from My Autumn Empire, labelmate Eric Loveland Heath returns with another record strong on psychogeography. Few album designs will have received such care and attention as ‘Shropshire Hill Country’. Inside the recycled cardboard sleeve there are some Ordnance Survey Map stickers and a leaf. Both are samples from England’s largest inland county and add a tangible slice of the atmospheres Heath captures on record.

Jolly folk instrumental ‘Bishop’s Castle Carnival’ – replete with accordion and flute – evokes images of villagers dancing and cheering but it’s the only time when happiness seems to be the dominant emotion. ‘A Song For The Village Of New Invention’ sees the tone shift towards darker waters with a sample from a folk evening.

‘Knockin Radio Telescope’ is guaranteed to cause a chill, whilst ‘Round And Round And Round Again’ drifts in to pastorally-flavoured dreampop territory. The nostalgic ringing guitars of ‘The Bridges, Ratlinghope’ will be familiar to those who’ve followed the music of July Skies and Epic45 down the years, although it has to be noted it’s also one of several tracks which remind me of Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’.

Comparisons to seasonal singles from prog-rock heavyweights aside though, ‘Shropshire Hill Country’ enhances Heath’s position as an expert in evoking the daytime reverie and nocturnal mystery of the English countryside. He could have easily made a folk pastiche record but his thirst for experimenting is once again rewarded here.

Web Sites:
EL Heath MySpace
Wayside And Woodland Recordings Label MySpace

Further Listening:
Mike Oldfield, Epic45, July Skies, Les Étoiles, Talk Talk

Review: My Autumn Empire – The Village Compass

Despite being active for nearly a decade, Ben Holton’s My Autumn Empire project has never delivered a full album until now. Yet ‘The Village Compass’ will be familiar fare to those who’ve followed the pastoral and nostalgic music of Holton’s regular band, Epic45.

Guitar lines ring and resonate and although he doesn’t sing much Holton relies on his trusty whisper of despair. ‘The Approach Of The City’ may sound like an optimistic little ditty but its theme of rural life being overtaken by housing development (Holton sings “They’re building around you and you won’t even notice”) is quietly chilling. Likewise, ‘We Were Happy’ and ‘The Playing Fields’ seem to be hanging on doggedly to memories of better days. Holton reaches his peak on ‘Woodland Theme/Wood Alcohol’; layering his own vocal harmonies on top of each other against the most melancholic of melodies but the deliciously languid title track – a battle between traffic noise and rustic arrangements – runs it close.

‘The Village Compass’ is a beautifully realised piece of work. If you were unfamiliar with his previous material, you would have thought Holton would be a middle-aged romantic but the fact that he is still in his twenties and able to articulate nostalgia so poignantly through his music has to be this album’s main achievement.

Web Sites:
My Autumn Empire MySpace
Wayside And Woodland Recordings Label MySpace

Further Listening:
Epic45, July Skies, Hood

Review: Nick Garrie – The Nightmare Of JB Stanilas

The late 1960’s was a fabulous time for original singer-songwriters. Whereas Scott Walker is rightly revered, there’s also rewards to be gained from checking out relatively obscure artists such as Bergen White, Mark Wirtz  and Nick Garrie. Garrie was a Yorkshireman whose debut album – not helped by the record label owner committing suicide immediately after its release – has been a collector’s item until its recent reissue. 

Clearly, Garrie deserved more fortune as his talent emerges fully formed. It’s there from the lush atmospherics which greet you as the title track begins proceedings. The orchestration is ambitious and colourful, rather like Mark Wirtz’s ‘A Teenage Opera’ soundtrack and many of the songs exude a similar kind of magic.

‘Can I Stay With You’ is a charming, countrified love song full of self-effacing lyrics (“Everything I seem to do is wrong” being the key line) whilst ‘Ink Pot Eyes’ has a similar yearning quality. ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ is embellished by a gorgeous string arrangement, that contrasts nicely with the spare, Nick Drake-like ‘Evening’ . In fact, only the ‘Queen Of Queens’ feels out of place with an ill-advised, Americanised vocal from Garrie.

‘The Nightmare Of JB Stanislas’ is worthy of better status than a rarity. The whole album has an innocent quality, touched by darkness and self-doubt and its clever, imaginative arrangements keep the interest going from start to finish. The bonus tracks also include several acoustic version, which prove that these stripped back songs hold up without the fancy production lending a hand. Happily, Garrie still records to this day and is arguably more popular now than he has ever been.

Web Sites:
Nick Garrie MySpace

Further Listening:
Bergen White, Mark Wirtz, David Francis

Review: Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

By the time a band releases a fourth album, the chances of pulling a classic out of the bag begin to diminish. Determined to buck that trend, Georgia’s Deerhunter have delivered. Tantalisingly, they describe their music as “ghost rock”, which is an apt description for these terribly haunting songs.

Each track seems infused with tragedy. Whereas Morrissey had on obsession with failed anti-heroes, Deerhunter tell even darker stories, often romantically brought to life. ‘Earthquake’ begins with a spectral guitar figure but soon both the frontman’s vocal and guitar melody is sucked away whilst ‘Sailing’ is so stark and eerie, partially due to the disturbing noise of what could be a gas leak. They’re not totally downtempo though; ‘Revival’ has its roots in glam rock whilst ‘Desire Lines’ is a heads-down indie rocker.

Then on the eighth track, something very extraordinary indeed happens. ‘Helicopter’ is based on the tragic tale of a Russian wannabe fashion designer who became a star of hardcore gay movies in order to finance his dreams. The story ends inevitably traumatically but Deerhunter use it as an inspiration for an absolutely fantastic song, that is so beautiful, poignant, spine-tingling and chilling that the whole album – great though it is – seems to be building up to this life-changing moment. Not far behind is the final song ‘He Would Have Laughed’, where Bradford Cox sounds at his lowest ebb as the contrasting sound effects seem ever more euphoric.

With the addition of acts like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Deerhunter, 4AD seem to have rediscovered their knack for finding special bands again. What is more, ‘Halcyon Digest’ is a very special album too and a welcome shot in the arm for both dreampop and indie rock in general. 

Web Sites:
Deerhunter Official Blog
Halcyon Digest Album Site
Deerhunter MySpace

Further Listening:
David Bowie, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Review: The Walkmen – Lisbon

 It’s taken a while but The Walkmen are now quietly earning the kind of reputation which seemed destined to elude them. These New Yorkers look for a more mature audience than slick doom mongers like Interpol. Instead, they identify with life’s losers and drinkers so, the question is, do they tone down their style to take advantage of their new found exposure or stick to what they do best? The Walkmen choose to take the latter option and it turns out to be the right move.

‘Juveniles’ opens in familiar fashion with wonky but controlled instruments accompanying the permanently bruised vocal of Hamilton Leithauser. Albums by The Walkmen usually contain at least one track which could be termed as “anthemic” and ‘Angela Surf City’ is certainly a contender; largely due to its brutal percussion and thrilling chorus. So too does ‘Victory’; a song as defiant and proud as the title indicates. 

Yet The Walkmen are far more comfortable with material of a brooding and downtempo nature. For this reason, ‘Blue Is Your Blood’ fits them perfectly. It’s a testament to their class that the introduction of a string section to an already stunning song, serves to induce even more goose bumps . Similarly, ‘Torch Song’ may employ backing harmonies and have an obvious title but the way in which Leithauser howls to the moon with his bandmates seemingly on the brink of exhaustion preserves their status of outsiders. Then there’s ‘While I Shovel The Snow’ (with quietly disaffected lyrics like “so for now I’ll take my time for now I can’t be bothered”), which is the exemplar of how they can connect with everyman concerns.

Whereas my feeling with current media favourites The National is that their best work is in the past and they’re too comfortable playing to the middle-aged male demographic, The Walkmen show no sign of compromising and retain a scruffy, unique charm. ‘Lisbon’ may not quite be their best record but they still sound like the cool underdogs of the pack.

Web Sites:
The Walkmen Official Site
The Walkmen MySpace

Further Listening:
The National, Unknown Component

Review: Engineers – In Praise Of More

After the protracted release of their second album – last year’s excellent ‘Three Fact Fader’ – there’s a particularly swift turnaround for album number three from Engineers. This is more suprising given that the band have shed one member and gained two others in the form of shoegaze specialists Ulrich Schnauss and Daniel Land (from Daniel Land and The Modern Painters).

The record begins very promisingly. Opening track ‘What It’s Worth’ is pitched perfectly against the backdrop of glistening guitars and smooth landscapes, with vocals which caress and comfort the listener. This is dreampop at its most dreamy. Similarly impressive – although noticeably darker and more aggressive in tone – is ‘Subtober’. Thereafter, though, an amorphous blend of soft focus arrangements follow; with several songs having little in the way of a hook. For example, ‘There Will Be Time’ is too gentle and unassuming and ‘To An Evergreen’ is awash with insubstantial synths. The accompanying instrumental version of the album, therefore, is superfluous for all but the die-hards.

It would be difficult and – given the personnel changes – possibly unfair to expect Engineers to surpass their last album but this certainly seems to be a step backwards for the group. Perhaps on their next record the new members will have had more time to integrate themselves with one of shoegaze’s finest acts but for now they sound like one of a bunch of “nu-gaze” hopefuls.

Web Sites:
Engineers Official Label Page
Engineers MySpace

Further Listening:
Daniel Land And The Modern Painters, Ulrich Schnauss

Review: Ollie Stewart – Night Bell

The backstory to Ollie Stewart’s debut EP is surprising giving the end result. The press release tells a tale of music conceived in a Dorset garden shed, so on that basis one might expect a back to nature, folky record but instead we get heavy layers of instruments and lots of voice manipulation.

‘I See Love’ begins in suspiciously similar style to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, albeit sung by a computer. For ‘Savour Me’ and ‘Tare’ – which build around an epic wash of synths and percussion respectively – there is a heartfelt vulnerability in Stewart’s voice proving that he can sing pretty well without digital assistance but the chorus resorts to type again. Finally, Stewart reveals his true talents on the last song ‘Made At Dark’, where the beats and synths build up a dramatic atmosphere.

Admiration for ‘Night Bell’ will very likely depend on your views on the human voice. There are certainly times when Stewart’s efforts to convey emotion are undermined because of the over-reliance on technology. Then again, the melodic strengths of his songs almost compensate for these failings.

Web Sites:
Ollie Stewart MySpace

Further Listening: