Archive for July, 2012

Review: Shoeb Ahmad – Watch/Illuminate

Canberra born and bred, Shoeb Ahmad has produced an early contender for the post-rock/ambient album of the year. Armed with guitar, voice, field recordings, keyboard and a laptop, his set-up may be familiar to many but what emerges is a dreamlike world where drone and minimalism are perfectly combined.

‘Falling Fast’ is the single and scene setter for the album. Its slowly undulating melody and string samples gradually giving way to a tune that is not unlike Kraftwerk if they recorded in a forest. Yet if the first track was good, then ‘Coronation’ is a masterpiece. Here, a mesmeric tapestry of chiming guitar, clipped beats and ambient noise is given further flight by female sighs and Ahmad’s hushed vocals. The track contains a pastoral beauty and reassuring calm which ranks alongside Hood at their most melancholic and poignant.

Far from being front-loaded, Ahmad is superbly consistent for the album’s hour-long length. ‘Watch/Illuminate’ includes explorations in to ‘Laughing Stock’-era Talk Talk (‘Robertson Quay’, ‘When We Were Sirens’), Boards Of Canada mystery (‘The Orchids’) and pretty Durutti Column-like patterns for an exquisite ‘Appleseed Snow’. Finally, ‘The Sleeper’ provides a wistful send-off with Ahmad whispering “Guess I was dreaming” as the song disappears into vapour trails of sonic beauty.

Ahmad’s distant murmurings and the insistent throb of the production ensure there is a hazy, early morning vibe throughout the record; making this a perfect record to listen to for those times when it’s 6am and too hot to sleep. Simply put, there will be few records as deeply atmospheric as ‘Watch/Illuminate’ this year.

Web Sites:
Shoeb Ahmad Blog
Shoeb Ahmad MySpace

Further Listening:
Talk Talk, Hood, July Skies, Epic45


Review: Between Days – Before I Say Goodbye

The first album from Kenny Miller performing as Between Days was characterised by quiet/loud guitar parts and a bit of shouting. So far, so very post-rock. In truth, those same elements are to the fore on Miller’s next endeavours but this brief follow-up serves as a tender tribute to his grandparents.

Even if the EP is split into three tracks, they segue into one another; forming one lengthy fifteen-minute piece. Mothers going into labour may disagree but Between Days’ version of ‘Birth’ is a relaxed affair; the delicate piano and low-strummed guitars indicate a subtle sense of melancholy, not unlike Mogwai’s quieter moments. ‘Life’ is undeniably livelier and we hear the screams of Miller although the sense of relief is palpable rather than alarming. The shouting continues to the final segment but this is soon replaced by mournful trumpets and further feelings of emotional desolation. All of this is accompanied by recordings of Miller’s recordings of his grandparents; bringing a human and tender touch to the noise and the spaces in between.

By the end, one is entitled to feel slightly exhausted as Miller is clearly setting a very personal journey for himself to music. It’s post-rock with a very real sense of loss but it’s sensitively handled (even with the shouting).

Web Sites:
Between Days Bandcamp

Further Listening:

News: Leonard’s Lair is now on Facebook!

Well, I added a Facebook page a couple of weeks ago actually. I very much doubt I’ll be tweeting anytime soon though!:

I intend to use the Facebook page for posting music videos (both old and new) and possibly other stuff too (I’d be grateful to hear any suggestions). However, this blog will still be the place for music reviews.



Review: Keane – Strangeland

Keane unquestionably lot their way with third album ‘Perfect Symmetry’; an album which tried too hard to emphasise their pop credentials. In many ways, the EP which succeeded it, ‘Night Train’ – with its hip-hop guest vocalists – pushed them as far in to the mainstream as they could go but at least featured better songwriting. For fans of their early albums, though, ‘Strangeland’ will feel like a comfort blanket.

The back to basics approach is apparent from the start. Keane may have gained a new member but the first few songs are a definite throwback to the original Keane of 2006. ‘Silenced By The Night’ and ‘Disconnected’ are the best of these largely thanks to Tom Chaplin’s stirring vocal and Tim Rice-Oxley’s melodies which remind us of all that was so endearing about their debut album.

At these times the lack of development is excusable but surely there was no need to make this album stretch to over an hour in length. Song by song goes by, with each largely indistinguishable from the last. ‘Black Rain’ and ‘Neon River’ provide a couple of exceptions and even though their ambient leanings would hardly be classed as experimental, they at least evidence a willingness to deviate from formula. That’s certainly more that can be said for the plodding ballads which characterise the album’s end.

Granted, ‘Strangeland’ is a return to form after their last msiguided efforts but the album is so tentative and safe that it’s hard to feel involved once the best songs have passed by. This is a case of a band sounding a bit too comfortable.

Web Sites:
Keane Official Site

Further Listening:
A-ha, Coldplay

Review: Lee Chameleon – June

This reviewer’s one previous experience of Lee Chameleon was as one half of Lee & Willbee and their marvellous folk/electronica concoction. Now the Chicago resident – who divides his time between being a sculpture artist and dog walker – has gone solo, with an entirely self-written, self-produced effort which proves that his initiation in rhythm section work provides the strong foundations for the well-judged space and dynamics on this quality EP.

When the light funk guitar and crisp percussion and Chameleon’s cool wave of a voice kick in, it’s hard not to be enraptured by the opening track’s combination of breezy insouciance and sinister undercurrent. ‘Star Chaser’ switches from laidback to persuasive empowerment (“Take the bull by the horns… Grab the tiger by its tail”), accompanied by a nagging guitar riff. Isolated and lonely, ‘Pillow Puncher’ evokes the dreams of being lost in space through the medium of electronica whilst the busy ‘Divided Sky’, with its twitchy synths and drum samples, is reminiscent of the sadly neglected British act The Aloof. This just leaves straight-ahead rocker ‘Streets Of Gold’ which ends an otherwise excellent EP on a slightly disappointing note.

There are echoes of dreampop, wistful electronica, The Sea And Cake and Beck on this inspiring EP yet Lee Chameleon comes across as a true independent.  Forgetting the one false move amongst the five songs here, it’s refreshing to listen to music which sounds so effortlessly cool.

Web Sites:
Lee Chameleon Official Site
Lee Chameleon Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Sea And Cake, Beck, The Aloof

Review: Piano Magic – Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet

When Piano Magic signed to 4AD, it seemed so right since they exhibit those hallmarks of mystery, darkness, art and poetry which their roster was indelibly linked with throughout the 1980’s. However, Glen Johnson’s crew have always led a nomadic existence where labels are concerned and they now find themselves on Second Language Music.

The early indications are the group have maintained their core values and infact ‘Judas’ is like Piano Magic in a microcosm. All the best elements are there: Glen Johnson’s deadpan, haunting vocals, minimal electronica and that unmistakable air of historical times create a song that is a study in detached perfection. The beautiful tones of Angele David-Guilou may be used sparingly but when she takes on the lead on ‘Sing Something’ and ‘A Secret Never Told’ she provides an exquisite counterpoint to Johnson’s stern performances.

Yet even when Johnson seems to be sleepwalking through the frigid title track or a darkly experimental ‘Chemical’, he delivers his strongest display of emotion for ‘(The Way We Treat) The Animals’ and it feels as if he is crying out for the creatures who have had pain inflicted on them. Then, for different reasons, the lonely but exquisitely captured despair of ‘You Don’t Need Me To Tell You’ sends a deep shiver down the spine.

Piano Magic always have been and always will be a stately and elegant proposition and – on those terms – this may be their strongest offering yet. If there is a flaw here, it is that the album as a whole is restricted by its slow pace and it’s hard not to occasionally yearn for those times when the band combine urgency and thrills with their immaculately carved creations. Minor gripe aside, though, music lovers have definitely not finished with them yet.

Web Sites:
Piano Magic Official Site
Second Language Label Site

Further Listening:
Dead Can Dance

Review: The Absolute End Of The World – We Don’t Exist

As daunting as it seemed, the title given to Luca Maugeri’s solo music project proved to be anything but a doomy prospect. Indeed, if his last EP really did represent The Absolute End Of The World then at least we’d all die in a state of chilled-out euphoria, given the dreamy soundscapes delivered on ‘Welcome Time Travellers’. To prove it was no fluke, the Italian has produced a quick follow-up.

‘The Right Serenity’ does a fine job of living up to its name. Guitars chime away and keyboards wash over you but the tight percussion ensures the track is strong enough for it not to float away completely. ‘The Winner’ surprises because it sounds very AOR; guest contributor Luca Porporato lending his slightly husky, warm vocals to a decent Blue Nile meets Dire Straits-style song. The expertly multi-layered ‘La Crime Di Cassandra’ is more typical of Maugeri’s work though and evokes a train ride through dreampop’s history and even if the two tracks which follow it seem to go through the motions, relatively speaking, ‘ L’odio Di Voi Miserabili’ ends the EP  with a beautiful air of melancholy.

Unsurprisingly, given the short time that has passed since his last EP, ‘We Don’t Exist’ is not a huge departure from ‘Welcome Time Travellers’. However, much of the music here still manages to be blissfful, uplifting and unerringly melodic.

Web Sites:
The Absolute End Of The World Bandcamp
The Absolute End Of The World MySpace

Further Listening:
Dextro, Raymond Scott Woolson

Review: Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge

Richard Hawley’s albums thus far have featured several constants: titles inspired by Sheffield landmarks, twanging guitars and possibly the best modern croon in Northern England. Well, there’s a litle less crooning than normal on ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ as Hawley gives vent to his hitherto undiscovered psychedelic leanings.

Indeed, Hawley’s usually understated steel guitar is now replaced by a howling gale of immense noise, complimented by sitar and pounding drums. For all followers of Hawley’s tear-stained tales of Northern loss, this will come as quite a shock. It tales a while to get used to the new regime but ‘Time Will Bring You Winter’ sees Hawley’s voice mutate from a vocally-blessed best mate at a pub to an evil Hammer Horror figure, ‘Down In The Woods’ is one of many songs to possess admirable levels of velocity and energy and the denoument to ‘Leave Your Body Behind You’ must be the Yorkshire Apocalypse.

Those worried that Hawley has sold his soul to the devil (quite literally in this case given the inescapable feeling of darkness) will be consoled by ‘Seek It’ which is a return to the gentle comforting blanket of Hawley’s previous records. ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’, meanwhile, seems to stand at the cusp of the old and the new Hawley world and is arguably the best track; it’s akin to hearing Gerry And The Pacemakers performing ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ in a wind tunnel.

Certainly it’s fair to assume that Hawley has wanted to make this record for some time, given his mighty band’s full blooded endeavours. It’s a testament to his talents, that it’s often quite a thrilling record too, even if there’s that nagging thought that he conveys tenderness so much better.

Web Sites:
Richard Hawley Official Site

Further Listening:
The Animals

Review: Adios Amigo – Dos

Released not long after their first EP, San Francisco’s Adios Amigo have created a second (craftily entitled ‘Dos’) that may sound even more like summer than their first, which is saying something. However, they have also added some heft to accompany the heavenly side to their material.

The opening to ‘Colony’s Dead’ isn’t so far removed from a boy band as some “oh oh oh” harmonies introduce the song. The track itself is rather slight both lyrically and tunefully but at least partially rescued by some impressively aggressive guitar work. ‘Chicken’ is much better and revolves around clever interplay with acoustic guitar and a banjo to create a fine alt-country number. ‘Never Forget’ balances the Beach Boys harmonies with heavy indie guitar riffing and it works surprisingly well and by the time of the aching finale ‘Pretty Pretty Princess’ the band sound like they’ve put themselves through the wringer such is the breathlessness of their performance.

Although Adios Amigo’s easy on the ear gifts remain, they’ve also added urgency thanks to some intense guitar work. So this is a good follow-up and one which shows a willingness to progress even if the same style as the last EP would have been perfectly acceptable.

Web Sites:
Adios Amigo Official Site
Adios Amigo Bandcamp

Review: Shmu – Discipline/Communication

As one half of chaotic duo Zorch, Sam Chown is known for making music which requires the tagline of “challenging” cosmic rock. Chown’s solo endeavours as Shmu, however, are certainly inventive but also very accessable and unashamedly pop-centric.

‘Discipline/Communication’ has an unmistakable sun-kissed vibe, reminiscent of 1970’s yacht rock as much as dreampop. Sure, the opening gambit of ‘Impressions’ contains a hazy sequence of guitar effects but its core song is more akin to The Sea And Cake in style. ‘House Of Stares’, a fine choice for a single, revolves around a hypnotic hookline and Chown’s warm vocals. Thereafter, the radio-friendly pop moves tend to give way to more experimental fare but the excellence and tunefulness rarely peters out.

Jazzy detours take place via the Stereolab-like ‘Directions’, ‘Shadowgames’ gives an opportunity for a shoegaze pastiche, ‘Vanitos’ is one of many tracks with a Latin twist, whilst stunning couplet ‘&Hearts’ and ‘Heads Will Fall’ and their fuzzed-up psychedelic craziness could give Cornelius a run for his money. Even the eight minute finale makes the most of its repeated motif.

‘Discipline/Communication’ lasts just short of an hour but its melodicism and interest is almost relentless. Hopefully another solo excursion will follow for Chown in the future.

Web Sites:
Shmu Official Site
Shmu Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Mice Parade, The Sea And Cake, Cornelius