Archive for February, 2012

Review: Victoria Hume – Landing

London-based Victoria Hume earns a crust as an arts manager in the NHS during the day but in her spare time has taken to writing music. In her case it’s a mixture of folk, jazz and a little bit of pop and ‘Landing’ is her second solo album, following on from 2009’s ‘Limbs & Digits’.

Hume has a breathy voice which is part Annie Lennox (but without the melodrama) and part Beth Orton (but with a little more melody). ‘Sorry’ is certainly a challenging opener. It has a staccato tempo and lacks a traditional chorus but it’s a song which swells at important moments. This unorthodox approach is key to charm of ‘Landing’. ‘Mirror’ is a jazz piano track which meanders even further and several other songs follow the same (non) pattern. This can lead to a lack of cohesion but there are some exciting moments here too. ‘Exiles’ impresses the most; its urgency is apparent as soon as the rumbling piano melody kicks in whilst Hume glides over the instruments with her insouciant tones sounding both emotional and detached at the same time.

Form this evidence, Hume seems like a wayward talent. Yet her appealing voice and distinctive, off-kilter arrangements could mean that she will be an artist to treasure in years to come.

Web Sites:
Victoria Hume Official Site
Victoria Hume Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Nicola Harrison, Beth Orton


Review: Hearts Fail – Other Blessings

Bands like Hearts Fail are a dying breed these days. They create an irony-free take on gothic rock/post-punk, last in fashion over twenty years ago. Despite a number of line-up changes since 2010’s ‘The Dying Season’, ‘Other Blessings’ sees the San Antonio group pick up where they left off but with a notable increase in keyboard use.

‘You’re Burning Everything’ is typically earnest and a decent introduction to a decent outfit. Frontman Ed Wagner may not have the greatest of rock voices but he certainly doesn’t lack passion. ‘Keepsake (47 Whispers)’ is a more intriguing offering as the subtle synths merge with post-punk guitar and the song weaves an interesting and original pattern. This new fascination with electronica is explored still further for ‘We Wore Blinders’ which features the EP’s best melancholic chorus although the finale ‘Hold On’ runs it close.

‘Other Blessings’ is rather too caught up in the past to cross over in to the mainstream. Yet the songs are noticeably slimmed down from past releases and that gives the EP an immediacy that makes it as enjoyable as it is unfashionable.

Web Sites:
Hearts Fail Official Site

Further Listening:
The Mission, The Comsat Angels, Bell Hollow

Review: Silicon Ballet – Utopia

Belgium’s Showstar unleashed their own brand of infectious pop, courtesy of the excellent ‘Think Ringo’ album in 2010; the bittersweet lyrics giving the record an edge that is often beyond their peers. The same group members have now brought in composers and arrangers, and the newly-monikered Silicon Ballet could be seen as purveyors of a more mature form of Belgian pop.

The propulsive ‘Victory’ takes a while to get going and although it’s cheery chorus is likeable it lacks the immediacy of Showstar’s best material. No matter, the project improves steadily. ‘Stellar Fade Out’ is more ambitious with strings adding an extra layer to this dark pop song; the blackness further emphasised on the instrumental track (‘Utopia’) which succeeds it.

Thanks to its odd uptempo words (“Let’s celebrate Christmas in summer”) and flower-power arrangements, the Beatles-like ‘Sunglasses’ sees the group step further back in time for inspiration.  Similarly, calling the next song ‘Different Class’ speaks of a certain irony given the band’s dalliances with Brit-pop but both this piece and the finale ‘Spectrals’ are definitely in closer alliance with British psychedelia.

‘Utopia’ proves what a talented and versatile set of musicians Silicon Ballet are, with a whole new direction mapped out for the band. The only small criticism would be that the journey seems to be focussed on the past rather than the future.

Web Sites:
Silicon Ballet Official Site
Silicon Ballet Bandcamp
Rainboot Label Site

Further Listening:
Showstar, My Life Story

Review: Kapowski – Boy Detective

Oakland’s Kapowski promise much on paper. They don’t even use guitars, just piano, organ, bass and drums and some rather splendid harmonies. In addition, the quartet’s influences stretch much further back in time then most other bands dare to go, so this is a world where George Gerschwin is mentioned in the same sentence as Van Dyke Parks and Ray Davies.

The lead singer and songwriter Jesse Rimler has a real emotional ache of a voice, with a slightly unhinged quality caught halfway between The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser and Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips. Often it’s a strong enough instrument to carry the song but the band all play their part with some wonderful set-ups. ‘Section Eight’ is set to the quirkiest, geekiest of keyboard melodies but after that the band become far more ambitious.

The impressively arranged ‘Picture Of Health’ has its roots in musical theatre thanks to its storytelling and big band send-off, ‘Shut-In On The Go’ is dominated by an unusual combination of intense percussion and baroque organ fills, whilst ‘Lunatic Talk’ locates a halfway point between Queen and Vaudeville. Meanwhile, ‘Late Last Night’ and tender closer ‘Reel To Reel’ are as warm and as intimate as American indie rock gets.

‘Boy Detective’ is blessed with original arrangements and songwriting but also delights with its aura of teary-eyed romanticism. Sometimes, when there’s a danger that music is becoming increasingly homogenised, it’s heartening to know that there are acts like Kapowski who dare to be different.

Web Sites:
Kapowski Official Site 
Boy Detective Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Roommate, Eels, Queen, Ben Folds Five

Review: Various Artists – Vega Productions & 89.3 The Current Present Here Comes The Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 3

Charity records are always a difficult hurdle to negotiate but when you set out to cover the songbook of arguably the most influential band in the world using a largely unknown crop of talent, the chances of failure are surely even higher. If so, no one told the artists involved in the Minnesota Beatle Project, which is set up to benefit music and art education in Public Schools in the area.

As is so often the case with covers, there’s a risk:reward ratio to get right and the key is often to do justice to the original without being too reverential and also putting your own identity on the song. To this end, Cloud Cult combine countrified vocals and Christmassy arrangements for their version of ‘Help’ and Solid Gold re-imagine ‘Love You To’ as a trippy road movie soundtrack. Also worthy of special mentions are White Light Riot’s and Red Pens’ spirited run throughs of ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ respectively, whilst Dark Dark Dark’s inevitable choice of ‘Long, Long, Long’ adds a new shade of beauty to this melancholic number.

It would be remiss not to mention Anoka Middle School For The Arts who – as the first beneficiaries to appear on one of these compilations- evidence that the proceeds have been well spent as they tackle ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. All in all, this is an enjoyable experience which not only emphasises the enduring appeal of The Beatles but also the talents of the Minnesota acts who have contributed.

Web Sites:
Vega Productions Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
The Beatles

Review: pacificUV – Weekends

Only a few months ago, I wrote about ‘Chrysalis’, an EP from Athens, Georgia duo pacificUV. It was a rather uneven release but the two original songs on it proved that there was some exciting potential. ‘Weekends’ attempts to prove that potential across a full album and largely succeeds.

From the outset, it is clear that this is going to be an enjoyable album. The moving strings on ‘Friday Night Dream’ create a melancholic nocturnal feel, Kraftwerk pastiche ‘Funny Girl’ demonstrates the lighter side of the band and ‘Just4kix’ is reminiscent of the twisted love songs ROC used to make in their prime.

Much as these songs demonstrate a playfulness and diversity though, it is towards the middle of the album when pacificUV truly come in to their own. ‘Baby Blue’ treads every FX pedal in its quest for trippy euphoria whilst the subtle romanticism of ‘I’m Not Here (But It’s Not Me)’ forms a stunning centrepiece.

‘Weekends’ does contain a few songs which fall on the queasy side of sweetness and the detached vocals could do with being a little more approachable. However, they handle the shoegaze/electro-pop conundrum with skill and the songs they’ve created here have bags of charm.

Web Sites:
pacificUV Official Site
Mazarine Records Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Junior Boys, The Jesus And Mary Chain, ROC

Review: Whizz Kid – Covered In Santa Wheels

If there’s one label you can rely on to produce oddball electronica, it would be Bearsuit Records, whose worldwide range of artists is matched by a similar amount of invention. As the duo of J-Kane and Harold Nono hail from Belgium and Scotland respectively, this is a short distance collaboration relative to other projects on the label and ‘Covered In Santa Wheels’ is basically a taster for an album to follow later this year.

After an apparently random beginning to ‘Falling Out Of Trees, Falling Down Hills’, the various analog instruments join together to present a cosmopolitan jazz track not unlike the kind Mice Parade used to produce a decade ago. ‘Charly Stories’ relies a little too much on clicks and whirring objects but it pays off when the easy listening hook kicks in. Then ‘Trapeze’ features a noirish tune but the arrangement is so playful, it’s more likely to generate smiles rather than hard stares. The old adage of saving the best to last is definitely true though, since ‘I Fall In The Grandad Bus’ hits just the right balance between idiosyncrasy and emotional pull.

Much like other Bearsuit artists, Whizz Kid sound like they’re in a world of their own but they possess the spirit of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop allied with the sweetly nostalgic noise of Black Moth Super Rainbow. Somewhere out of all the sonic clutter, the end result is the musical equivalent of a shop of toy clocks.

Web Sites:
Whizz Kid Soundcloud
Elegirl Label Site

Further Listening:
Black Moth Super Rainbow, BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Review: Radio For The Daydreamers – Praying For The Be(a)st

By way of an introduction, the first Radio For The Daydreamers was entitled ‘Mother Superior And Her Fields Of Migraine’; Part One of a triptych which dealt with accepting evil. The second documents the “struggle to find a cure to the plague that his mind has become after visiting Mother Superior in the first act”. Once again, admirers of the Handbag House movement are likely to be disappointed.

Indeed, once again, ‘Praying For The Be(a)st’ can be loosely defined as post-rock but – just like its predecessor – that only tells half the story. We are greeted by haunted female vocals, cute keyboards, menacing trip-hop and crisp rhythms and that’s just the first track. During the seventy-plus minutes, highpoints include a warm and doleful ‘Wasted Faces In Secret Places’, the combination of sighing strings and throbbing rhythms for ‘Neither Of Us Will Live On’, plus the brilliant if rather self-explanatory ‘Prog Jazz’. Indeed, jazz music seems a fine move for Radio For The Daydreamers as ‘Necrosis Stupor’ and ‘Curl Up, Time To Die’ benefit from a sense of space and diverting time signatures. Certainly, those tracks are an easier listen than some of the evil-sounding narratives towards the end of the album.

Even though the bleak mood is omnipresent, the good quality of music is equally consistent. ‘Praying For The Be(a)st’ will be hard going for many but for those who value dark, instrumental material, there is much to feast on.

Web Sites:
Radio For The Daydreamers Official Site
Radio For The Daydreamers Bandcamp

Further Listening:

Review: Embark – Inside Andromeda

Embark is the nom de plume of a French musician called David Teboul and ‘Inside Andromeda’ is said to have been recorded “at home between the shouts of my children”. With such a difficult obstacle to overcome, it’s to Teboul’s credit that he’s managed to put together five largely electronic-based tracks.

The EP begins, perhaps sensibly, with the most radio-friendly offering, ‘It’s Time To Go’. It’s based on the simplest of riffs and even simpler lyrics (the title repeated ad infinitum) but strangely satisfying thanks to the fleshy percussion, strident bass and serene keyboard washes. ‘By The Sea’ moves in to prog rock territory with aching guitar melody and its followed by the sinister ambience of ‘Everyone But You’; a moment which unearths the common ground between Tangerine Dream and early Depeche Mode. Teboul chooses to whisper in English through most of these tracks but the notable exception is ‘La Terre Tombe En Morceaux’ spoken in his native language; the threatening delivery given further ballast by some stentorian keyboards. Finally, ‘Sunrise With Sea Monsters’ seems to borrow a bassline from Breathless and is a suitably moody way to end the EP.

‘Inside Andromeda’ does seem a little dated thanks to its progessive tendencies but Teboul has assembled some inventive, original arrangements. Let’s hope the children allow him to make an album next time.

Web Sites:
Embark Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Tangerine Dream, Breathless

Review: How How – Flickers

In May 2011, this blog described How How’s first EP ‘Bumpy’ as uneven, awkward and queasy. Fast forward to the present day and little has changed for their new album ‘Flickers’, which contains fine moments but the whole package doesn’t quite convince.

As the album opener, ‘Bumpy’ (which strangely didn’t appear on the identically-titled EP) sets expectations for experimental electronica seemingly influenced by Japanese artists. The childlike vocals are muffled and distorted, not unlike Múm. ‘Tetrolux’ is underscored by excitable beats but they can’t disguise a woozy feeling of sadness.

However, the main problem with ‘Flickers’ is its lack of focus as promising moments dither and deviate on the threshold of something special. In this company, ‘Kuterek’ is like a breath of fresh air. Its simple acoustic figure and seaside sample neatly segues into ‘Klakier’s Nap’. ‘K2’ is another one of the most coherent tracks but ‘GM’ provides the biggest frustration as its promising melancholic verses meander too much in to abstract territory.

Rather like their EP, ‘Flickers’ is sporadically good but How How’s songs tend to be made of sleepy half-melodies rather than nailed-on hooks. So this is one of those albums where nothing sounds wrong but nothing really stands out either.

Web Sites:
How How Bancamp

Further Listening:
anata wa sukkari tsukarete shimai, Múm