Archive for January, 2012

Review: Na Style Jaa – Violins

Unusually and unfashionably for a hip-hop outfit, Na Style Jaa are proud to say they rap about history. If this fact alone draws in curious listeners, then the Michigan trio’s music delivers on a level which is both edifying and enjoyable too. ‘Violins’ is their new, freely downloadable EP.

Although fond of the sampling and beats associated with their genre, there’s very little evidence of the self-aggrandising and “dissing” that is usually prevalent on such records. Instead they humorously cover subjects as ‘Cops Vs Lumberjacks And Animals’. Yet it’s on a musical level where Naa Style Jaa particularly excel, right from the opening strains of an orchestra starting up. The title track features a downbeat and memorable chorus, ‘Knights At The Casino’ makes the most of its downbeat, noirish atmospherics, then we have the inventive beats and hooks of ‘Vietnam’s The Bomb’ and ‘My Name Is Jesse Owens’.

Towards the end of the EP (that would be ‘8th Grade Dance Party (Dirty)’ then) they appear to be running out of ideas. However, these blips aside, ‘Violins’ is characterised by a wit and an ambience that could appeal to hitherto non-believers in hip-hop.

Web Sites:
Na Style Jaa Official Site


Review: Carpet Of Horses – Carpet Of Horses

Carpet Of Horses is a project founded by Tobin J Stewart and friends which began in Toronto but is now based in Berlin. Their first release spans a mere four tracks but already the potential of their eerie brand of folk rock appears quite exciting.

‘Take Hold’ begins like acoustic/country rock but soon the song mutates in to something altogether more sinister and turns into ambient folk. It’s a pattern repeated for ‘Night Song’ where rustic sounds are balanced by a sense of chilling etherealism. In contrast, ‘Fall Song’ is the most grounded track with female backing vocals to match Stewart’s appealing tones. Undoubtedly, the most dramatic moment – courtesy of ‘Train Tracks’ – is saved to last where the group reveal a dark side only hinted at on the first three pieces of music.

The slow pace and downbeat nature of this EP won’t appeal to everyone. However, its expansive production hints at an ambition which stretches beyond the indie folk margins.

Web Sites:
Carpet Of Horses Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Band Of Horses

Review: Collider – Vaede EP

It sounds like a contradiction in terms but a few years ago, The Big Pink managed to make shoegaze danceable and have recently returned with a new release. In the meantime, Collider have been covering similar ground and although their music is less immediate, the San Francisco outfit make their own mark with the impressive ‘Vaede EP’.

If one were pushed to give a three word phrase for Collider’s music it would be “Shoegaze In Space”. ‘Mono’ revolves around post-Madchester vocals, an abundance of beats and overloaded FX pedals. Infact each song is based on repetitive but addictive melody from the concise ‘Deco’ to the hypnotic insistence of ‘Same Things (Different Again)’. In between, ‘Silos’ mixes up pace and space with delightful results whilst the shifting soundscapes and throbbing bass of ‘Scenes Of Ourselves’ sounds like a modern remix of something from My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ period.

Given the excellent production skills on offer on ‘Vaede’, perhaps what is most impressive is that Collider mix and master their own work. So by matching those gifts with a well-tuned appreciation of what makes a good hook, this duo are on to a clear winner.

Web Sites:
Collider Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Big Pink, My Bloody Valentine

Review: State Shirt – Let’s Get Bloody

Self-professed nerd Ethan Tufts has never been one to celebrate the bright side of life but his latest release is his darkest offering yet. With subject matter including domestic abuse and its cautionary title, one wonders whether Tufts can make such bleak material palatable for the listener on ‘Let’s Get Bloody’.

As it happens, there’s no cause for concern. After thumping opener ‘National Felt’, the more sombre side of Tufts takes over. Thanks to his slightly whiny voice, a cry of “Are we there yet?” (from ‘The Road To Hana’) may not be the wisest lyric but Tufts’ main skills are in his songwriting and arrangement skills which make him sound him like an emo act for electronica-loving adults. As a case in point, on ‘Suffer Someday’ (think Smashing Pumpkins in their ‘Adore’ phase), Tufts demonstrates that his music can be rousing and anthemic.

‘Disappointed’ is a decent cover of an Electronic song which adds new layers of melancholy but Tufts has actually written better songs himself. One of these is ‘Beth’s On Fire’ where – against some dark yet bubbly electronica – a chilling tale is built up. Elsewhere, ‘Cassettes’ and the inventive ‘Crush’ provide excellent support.

Infact there’s so many good songs here that ‘Let’s Get Bloody’ is probably the best of State Shirt’s three albums so far and both of the previous ones were very strong. So, for students of brooding electronica – whether they’re angst-filled teens or mildly troubled adults – Ethan Tufts’ compositions come highly recommended.

Web Sites:
State Shirt Official Site

Further Listening:
Electronic, Smashing Pumpkins

Review: Sordid Dream – The Archetype

Sordid Dream is the somewhat unnerving name given to Anders Lindfors’ post-rock project and ‘The Archetype’ is the last of three releases from 2011. Encouragingly, in this rather over-populated genre, Philadelphia-resident Lindfors proves that he can stand out from his contemporaries with an uneven but frequently captivating collection of instrumentals.

‘Inspections At Fault’ sets the tempo but the tempo tends to be very variable. The intro offers the false dawn of ambient restraint but that’s followed by metal riffing and then back to melancholic melody again. Thanks to its intricate electronica and starry atmospherics, the excellent ‘Inverted Calligraphy’ and title track give progressive space rock a good name. In fact the latter track is actually the most convincing display of the battle between metal loops against electronic despair. It’s just a shame that ‘Carcinogen’ becomes jarring rather than thrilling. Meanwhile, the guitar-free ‘Tunnels Underground’ is a moving and welcome respite from the controlled chaos and the climax to ‘Part II’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bark Psychosis album.

Although Lindfors persists with his metal riffs, the quiet parts of ‘The Archetype’ are undeniably the most intriguing. Furthermore, at his best, the tracks here carry an emotional resonance that is only rarely achieved in this genre.

Web Sites:
Sordid Dream Facebook
The Archetype Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Boy Is Fiction, Bark Psychosis

Review: The Heatheners – Slow Lineage EP/Nocturnes EP

Portland, Oregon has long been hailed as a reliable source for great alternative American bands but few will ever sound so British as The Heatheners. In November 2011 they released two EPs which I’ve reviewed together, since they are inseparable in terms of style and quality as well as time.

It’s immediately apparent that the first two tracks on ‘Slow Lineage’ – ‘Afterglowing’ and ‘Quite The Ordeal’ – speak of the innocent times of The Wild Swans and The Lotus Eaters. The singing is of the pure, English variety with matching idiosyncratic lyrical matter, whilst the guitars jangle as if caught forever in an endless summer. ‘Iroquois And Mercury’ and ‘New Nephilim’, on the other hand, represent the more insular, experimental side to the group which pitches them as a modern day Eyeless In Gaza.

The second EP begins in much the same positive manner as the first but the close harmonies on ‘Backwards Halo’ are particularly enchanting. In another parallel with ‘Slow Lineage’, the songs takes an increasingly darker turn. ‘Nocturnes’ then concludes with the ringing, mysterious ‘Heimlich Maneuver’.

Even down to the Factory Records’ period arrangements, The Heatheners teeter on the verge of early-1980’s pastiche but their music possesses a ghostly resonance and authenticity. Intriguingly, their biographical info is minimal which makes one wonder whether this is a new act or some old hands showing beginners how it’s done.

Web Sites:
The Heatheners Bandcamp
The Heatheners Soundcloud

Further Listening:
Wild Swans, The Lotus Eaters

Review: Dave Chisholm – Calligraphy

His name is Dave Chisholm and his album cover features nice pastel shades. These are the least interesting facts about this trumpet player/composer and Doctoral student based in New York, whose modest first impression shouldn’t disguise the fact that he’s created a rather special post-rock/jazz album.

‘A Fitting Combination’ is a superb way to start. The noirish guitar is enhanced by a mournful burst of trumpets and fleshy percussion. After that initial flurry, ‘And Now, We Wait’ is a more chilled out affair but its languid outward appearance becomes more moving and exuberant as it progresses. The emotional peaks and key changes of ‘Plant A Seed’ and the title track recall Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk whereas ‘Whisper’ forms an attractively elegiac centrepiece. By the end, there are signs that Chisholm is beginning to run out of ideas, but the album is never less than classy.

The name may not sound quite as exciting as Godspeed You! Black Emperor but Dave Chisholm successfully balances old and new jazz to form his own musical identity. Delivered with a flourish, this is definitely an album worth writing about.

Web Sites:
Calligraphy Bandcamp
Dave Chisholm Official Site

Further Listening:
Jaga Jazzist, Talk Talk

Review: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Although linked with the shoegazing/dreampop movement, Anthony Gonzalez’s M83 project has become even more closely connected with 1980’s soundtrack excess. His last album, ‘Saturdays = Youth’, was arguably his most coherent with a better understanding of songwriting on display. ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ is the double album Gonzalez apparently always wanted to make after hearing Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Mellion Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ and it is inspired by dreams.

As he often does, Gonzalez begins well. ‘Midnight City’ is like an 80’s cop theme in overdrive. It’s brash (especially so on the sax solo) but also compelling for all the right reasons and then Gonzalez comes up with ‘Reunion’, one of his best songs to rival his best single ‘Run Into Flowers’. It begins like Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and then turns into a hypnotic mesh of glistening guitars, passionate vocals and dreampop effects.

The trouble with M83 is that one great song does not make a great album and so it proves with much of the remainder here. Even attempts at subtlety (‘Wait’) seem hamfisted whereas the child’s narration on ‘Raconte-Moi Une Histoire’ is horribly saccharine. Like the first CD, the third track is the best with ‘OK Pal’ again proving that 1980’s excess isn’t always bad news but it’s a rare highlight.

Everything is OTT, the drumming, the stentorian keyboard washes, even the song titles (‘My Tears Are Becoming A Sea’ anyone?). So it’s another bloated outing for M83, only emphasised by the fact that it’s stretched over two (thankfully short) CDs.

Web Sites:
M83 Official Site

Further Listening:
The Bird Day, Maps, Dextro

Review: Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

Coldplay have taken a lot of stick for their earnest hand-wringing style and whatever is said about their frontman, Chris Martin, there are few who take their position as a leading figure in music quite so seriously. Looking at the lengthy track listing to Coldplay’s latest epic, one would expect an hour’s worth of music. Perhaps ‘Mylo Xyloto’ is the response to that. Each track seems to flash by in an instant.

In fact it’s hard to imagine a bouncier, more positive beginning than the title track and ‘Hurts Like Heaven’, where even Chris Martin sounds like he’s inhaled some helium. Everyone will have heard ‘Paradise’ by now. Naturally, its over-familiarity will annoy as much as delight but it’s simple verse-chorus structure still makes it a highlight on this album and worthy of respect. Brian Eno sprinkles his fairy dust over ‘Charlie Brown’ too but on here the effect is uninvolving.

There’s certainly plenty of variety here. For the old school Coldplay fans, ‘Us Against The World’ keeps things simple with little more than Martin and his guitar although ‘Up In Flames’ is a better showcase for his plaintive side. At the most extreme end of their already OTT material, ‘Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall’ sings of “cathedrals in my heart” and features guitars as bagpipes. It’s big but certainly not clever. At least ‘Major Minus’ sees the group reclaim some rock gravitas. The guitars are edgy and for once the band sound intense. Kudos too for ‘Princess Of China’, where some icy pop textures and Rihanna make this an unexpected highlight.

Taken each song on its individual merits, the good songs actually outweigh the not so good moments but as a whole much of it sounds over-produced, unbalanced and somewhat inhuman. Martin and co. may well have reinvented themselves as pop stars but as far as this reviewer’s concerned, the hand-wringing days were preferable.

Web Sites:
Coldplay Official Site

Further Listening:

Review: Sport Of Kings – Logic House EP

“Yacht rock” was a term given to a highly polished form of American rock in the mid-70s to early 80’s. It’s now been given a 21st Century sheen by Brooklyn’s Sport Of Kings as they present their new ‘Logic House’ EP.

‘Free Jazz’, also released as a single, is pop music of the most sophisticated and relaxed kind. The musicians never seem to break into a sweat as whistling, trumpets and crisp drums underscore the clever but also warm and addictive melody. If this is rock, it’s rock of the softest kind. ‘1964’ even adds in breezy harmonies but its complicated key changes struggle to arouse much interest. ‘Preface’ and ‘Some Histories’ fare slightly better and resemble the nerdy, literate yet dreamy material of Grandaddy.

Sport Of Kings fly in the face of fashion in terms of their music style but there aren’t many bands around who summon up the spirit and intelligence of Steely Dan. If they could inherit a little more of their genius way with a tune, this group could be on to something here.

Web Sites:
Sport Of Kings Official Site

Further Listening:
Steely Dan, Grandaddy