Archive for July, 2011

Review: Foster The People – Torches

We’ve heard it before, a songwriter heads for LA and churns out an album’s worth of sunny pop. What is less heard though is a heart of darkness and this seems to be the inspiration for Mark Foster whose band Foster The People have produced a record which – at the very least – forms an interesting discussion point.

On the face of it, ‘Torches’ is a soundtrack to teenage dreams with all the attendant sugar rushes on display. Yet look beneath the surface and the dream is characterised by angst and paranoia. For the superb opener ‘Helena Beat’, Foster’s cheery tones can clearly be heard singing “I tie my hands up to a chair so I don’t fall that way” on its high energy chorus. The subject matter moves from suicide to mass murder for ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ whose key lyric is “You better run, better run, faster than my bullet”. As a double salvo, in both a musical and cerebral sense, the impact is hard to beat.

The unfortunate drawback is a few of the tunes are so chart-friendly they can end up sounding disposable. Foster’s falsetto is so saccharine for ‘Don’t Stop’, it sounds like the kind of teen pop S Club 7 might have turned out. Furthermore, the kitchen sink production accompanying ‘Life On The Nickel’ and ‘Miss You’ could do with being sligtly less beat-heavy.

Thankfully Foster keeps a good balance on the remainder of the record. ‘I Would Do Anything For You’ boasts an “Ooh la la” chorus but the tune is top notch whilst ‘Houdini’ and ‘Warrant’ may slam down the big beats and euphoria in equal measure but the message of the songs’ need for escape is always apparent.

Foster The People offer an alternative view of sugary pop; one which balances the summery optimism of The New Radicals and the 80’s dreams of M83 with some frankly nightmarish lyrical matter. One can imagine troubled teens finding solace in this record but at least half of it is deep enough to appeal to an older audience too.

Web Sites:
Foster The People Official Site

Further Listening:
New Radicals, M83, Delphic


Review: Umpire – Now We’re Active

Umpire are a new act hailing from Perth, Australia. Yet despite ‘Now We’re Active’ being their first album together, the band members have also appeared  in various other guises, most notably as fellow Hidden Shoal Recordings’ labelmates Mukaizake, whose own technical expertise was matched by tunefulness for 2009’s ‘Unknown Knowns’.

‘Green Light District’ reflects an upbringing on left of centre American radio rock. It’s anthemic but it has a core of misery running through its veins. The second song, ‘Supply Chins’, is propelled by crunchy guitar riffs and FM friendly choruses. It’s an impressive start from Umpire and they very rarely lose momentum after that.

The guitar and vocal curveballs on ‘Corner An Owl In An Alcove’ and ‘Jewellery Can Be Disturbing’ are as inventive as their titles suggest and even more compelling. Some momentum is lost on the leaden-paced ‘On The Fringes’ but if that song is a band tired of life, ‘Streamers’ and ‘Milking A Thistle’ sees them invigorated with youthful exuberance, whilst the stark, echo-laden ‘Spotlights’ proves they can perform ballads and still send shivers down the spine.

Intelligently the group have learned from experiences in progressive, American radio and post rock to produce a satisfying and complete record. This is proof that mature rock can also thrill.

Web Sites:
Umpire MySpace
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Mukaizake, The Mitchells

Review: Computer & I – Computer & I

Preston Hitzler from Phoenix, Arizona is one of those few artists who doesn’t lend himself too easily to comparisons. If there is a sub-genre for his Computer & I output it would be called something like “throbtronica” as the primitive electronica tends to cause speaker vibrations.

‘me v. we’ spends five minutes revolving around a short, simple melody; the pitch and keyboards varying slightly with each repetition. It’s a decent beginning but rather thin material to merit its length. In fairness, it’s as “difficult” as the EP gets. ‘Burn Yourself’ begins with a female spoken word passage and abstract electronica. However, it then becomes a “proper song” with brittle verses building in to shouted chorus. ‘Buttons’ adds wiry guitar shapes for good measure whilst Hitzler does a fair impression of Beck on the vocal front. ‘Love+’, meanwhile, clever merges soul vocals with Hitzler’s bedroom beats and then it’s left to the largely instrumental ‘me, now what’ to end the EP on a slightly sombre note.

After a fairly average beginning, Hitzler slowly peels back the layers to reveal his skills as an off-kilter songwriter. A little less reliance on those throbbing beats may be required next time, however.

Web Sites:
Computer & I EP Cover
Computer & I MySpace

Further Listening:
Black Moth Super Rainbow, BFF

Review: Pico & Alvarado – Interfering Waves

Pico & Alvarado (AKA Kevin Cogliano and Adam Thornton) describe their music as moody, fun pop. It’s a fitting description for their tunes which offer a happy and sad outlook within the confines of each track.

The approach is revealed early on with ‘Kaffe Katt’, which rides in on a New Order-style melody but its effect is diminished by some cheesy synths. ‘Style Kitchen’ follows a similar formula.  ‘End Credits’ may also be fond of “vintage” electronica touches but its slower, melancholic approach is altogether more satisfying. ‘Sandbar’, likewise, is a mature, well-constructed instrumental. Then the EP ends with a playful but rather unnecessary 12″ “disco mix” version of ‘Kaffe Katt’.

‘Interfering Waves’ is a  little short to get a true sense of the potential of the duo. However, one feels if they could explore their darker side a little more, they could yet produce something of real substance.

Web Sites:
Pico & Alvarado Bandcamp

Further Listening:
New Order, Gary Numan

Review: (ome) – Tired Birds

(ome) aren’t the first act to be compared to The Beach Boys and they certainly won’t be the last. Yet on occasions this solo project from Minneapolis-based Mark Edwards is a triumphant evocation of Brian Wilson’s harmonic glory and experimental production.

If ‘Mourning Doves’ is the aural equivalent of spring flowering, then the summer really arrives on ‘Soul On Fire’, as Edwards unleashes his remarkable harmonies which really do sound like Brian Wilson in his prime. This is hardly a pastiche record though. ‘New Jamb’ dabbles in big beats and aggressive rhythms whilst ‘Hungry Bears’ offers fuzzy guitar pop and abstract electronica. Venturing further in to the album, ‘Off The Rails’ is arguably Edwards’ ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ as it builds from a simple acoustic figure in to an epic heart-wrenching ballad.

Given that Edwards is a mere solo artist and records in his own home studio, the sounds he has created here seem even more remarkable. ‘Tired Birds’ brings to life his technicolour dream.

Web Sites:
(ome) Official Site
(ome) Bandcamp Site

Further Listening:
The Beach Boys, Simian

Review: Phantom Caste – Phantom Caste

Phantom Caste hail from Fort Worth in Texas and set their stall out with footholds in the camps of shoegaze, post-punk and goth. Attempting to merge these influences in to a coherent whole would be no mean feat but it’s been achieved by the likes of Chapel Club and The Horrors in recent years and this foursome give it their best shot on their self-produced debut album.

‘Here In Hundreds’ opens with glistening guitars and effects caught halfway between The Cocteau Twins and, indeed, The Horrors. From the outset though there is a danger of the vocals struggling to become submerged above the noise in a manner that wouldn’t happen, say, with Puressence. Furthermore, the military percussion which ushers in ‘Atlas’ promises gothic melodrama but – despite picking up its urgency by the song’s conclusion – it ends up sounding like a watered-down Interpol.

However, three tracks in, for ‘Cavlier’, the group seem to be on the same page as the singer adds croaky vulnerability to a well arranged song whilst ‘Fates’ has a strong enough melody to be wordless. They truly hit top form towards the end of the record and ‘Fireworks’ is arguably their best song as falsettos twist around twanging guitar shapes; the song swooping between euphoria and darkness in a most appealing manner.

At the moment Phantom Caste sound too much like a mish-mash of the groups which have inspired them. Yet if they can reach out beyond their influences, this band could become something quite special.

Web Sites:
Phantom Caste Bandcamp
Phantom Caste Home Page

Further Listening:
The Horrors, Interpol

Review: A. Rex – Neighborhood Of Open Doors

Thanks to his solo work as A. Rex and last year’s collaboration as The Shy Bunch, Andrew Espinola has started to prove his credentials as a master of old fashioned songcraft. So even if ‘Neighborhood Of Open Doors’ is frustratingly short (a five-track EP of twenty minutes in length), this is the Texan’s most thoroughly satisfying release yet.

Built from a simple acoustic melody, Espinola’s warmth of delivery on ‘Plan Your Love’ ensures that the EP gets off to a typically likeable beginning. ‘Froze’ is like listening to one long chorus such is its infectious nature, whilst ‘Soldier’ features a more full-bodied arrangement and a sense that there is a band performing it. In contrast,  ‘Hard To Love You’ is wonderfully intimate; it even features a non-indulgent guitar solo and gets away with it. Then to end the EP, ‘Shades Of Gray’ Espinola unleashes, for him, his inner Rock God with a grungier edge to the chorus.

Espinola isn’t attempting to craft anything that’s going to turn the world of music on its head. What we have here instead is honest, heartfelt songwriting delivered via finely-tuned pop arrangements. Furthermore, for those who miss the time when Eels’ Mark ‘E’ Everett delivered “proper” singing, Espinola provides a solution.

Web Sites:
A. Rex MySpace
A. Rex Main Site

Further Listening:
Death Cab For Cutie, Eels

Review: Offthesky – The Beautiful Nowhere

Offthesky is the solo work of Colorado resident Jason Corder. Corder was diagnosed with Attention Deficiency Disorder as a child and there is a defiinite kind of restlessness to ‘The Beautiful Nowhere’ which suggests a lack of sleep, despite its quiet, glacial facade.

‘Surface Of The Skin’ is the musical equivalent of waking up as various unidentified acoustic instruments and drone combine in a blurry, unfocussed way. ‘No We’re Nowhere’ is more coherent as plucked guitar strings provide a melodic structure but some distant howls, moans and reverb ensure that danger is lurking every step of the way. ‘Whittling You Little Lights’ takes a similar setup but its stark simplicity sounds like the most haunted of folk music whereas ghosts of Yellow6 is recalled on the twangy ‘Waiting To Fade’. Other tracks like ‘Daydream Tarnation’ are rich in mysterious detail.

‘The Beautiful Nowhere’ takes a while to get under the skin and can occasionally be underwhelming. Yet towards the middle of the record, in particular, Corder has cultivated a pastoral atmosphere that takes you into his world of dreams.

Web Sites:
Hibernate Records

Further Listening:
Flying Saucer Attack, Planivaar

Review: RealPolitik – And The Night Was All In Pieces

Yorkshire’s RealPolitik impressed with last year’s ‘2repelGhosts’; a debut full of confrontational sounds, offset by the  haunting vocals of Cleo Harratt. The nature of the music was that it was compelling albeit a little too austere to love but ‘And The Night Was All In Pieces’ could possibly be the way to address that perceived shortfall. 

‘Nocturne’ is the first sign that the group are now fully focussed on spare arrangements and letting their frontwoman take centre stage. The effect is now no longer redolent of Portishead but more of Dead Can Dance. ‘These Lullabies’ contains some lovely string passages whilst the stark piano-led ‘Sonata’ comes dangerously close to a verse-chorus arrangement. However, the real moment of class appears courtesy of ‘Something Forgotten’ where Harratt gives a restrained yet heartfelt performance above a backing of beats, percussion and orchestral swell.

RealPolitik deserve a lot of credit here for making their songs far more approachable, yet without compromising too much on the experimental touches. They are definitely on to something here and 4AD Records would have loved this twenty five years ago.

Web Sites:
RealPolitik MySpace

Further Listening:
Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil

Review: Doug Hoyer – Walks With the Tender and Growing Night

Canada’s Doug Hoyer is known as a ukelele troubador but this is a very simplistic take on the music he produces. The other side of the tale is that he is an immensely talented and versatile artist who injects his songs with emotion and wit.

With the addition of brass instrumens, there’s a warm, traditional heart to album opener ‘Little Things’, which is reinforced further by Hoyer’s comforting vocals. ‘With You In My Arms’ has the air of a classy C86 record whilst ‘Oh, The Wind Will Blow’ is delivered in the style of a 1960’s soundtrack, complete with female backing vocals but at its core is Hoyer’s rich vocal and insistent ukelele. It would also take a heart of stone not to be moved by the tender, romantic ‘Tattoo’. Early single ‘Northern Lights’ is largely synth driven but still packs an intimacy and the Belle and Sebastian-like ‘Snow Bank’ is a lovely way to end the record.

Granted, a few of the later songs lack a little energy but Hoyer’s delivery is never less than charming. In summary, ‘Walks With the Tender and Growing Night’ is an exemplar in how to make traditional folk music sound contemporary and relevant.

Web Sites:
Old Ugly Recording Company Label Site
Doug Hoyer Bandcamp

Further Listening:
M. Craft