Archive for October, 2012

Review: Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

Paul Buchanan is chiefly known for being the frontman for The Blue Nile; a group who are known as much for making stunningly atmospheric white soul music as the lengthy gestation periods between albums. Just like his parent band then, Buchanan has taken his time producing his first solo record; his mid-50’s, infact.

Ostensibly, ‘Mid Air’ could be referred to as a quieter version of The Blue Nile. Most of the tracks here feature the base components of Buchanan’s comforting blanket of a voice and his own piano accompaniment. Themes covered are grounded (as one can imagine with titles like ‘Buy A Motor Car’ and ‘Two Children’) but there’s still that air of romanticism and positivity usually captured when Buchanan’s vocal soars so high it seems in perfect harmony with the strings. Very few people can get away with humming away almost absent-mindedly as he does so on ‘A Movie Magazine’ but Buchanan is one of the few to do so and when he can still produce a three track sequence as warm and soulful as ‘Newsroom’, ‘I Remember You’ and ‘Buy A Motor Car’, there are few more pleasant sounds to experience.

Comparisons to The Blue Nile’s sequence of exquisite albums would be a little unfair since ‘Mid Air’ rarely strives for studio perfection but instead opts for simple intimacy. This is an album to sit down to in a comfy chair, whisky in hand and contented but secretly wishing for one last dream to be fulfilled.

Web Sites:
Paul Buchanan Official Site
Paul Buchanan Soundcloud

Further Listening:
The Blue Nile, It’s Immaterial


Review: Machine Birds – Save Yourself EP

They make music with machines and they are – to use the British vernacular – “birds”, so Machine Birds is a logical name for this Norwegian female duo, one surmises. Naturally this only tells half the story because Maria Skranes and Marte Eberson are masters of arrangement rather than the lightweight synth act you might expect.

‘Save Yourself’ is the first exhibit of their prowess and delights with Skranes’ powerful, emotional vocals and Eberson’s vibrant layers of ambient pop. ‘The Way It’s Meant To Be’ swaps between vocoders and Skranes’ purity and its darker, experimental hue calls to mind fellow Norwegian Anja Grabarek. ‘If I’ is simply gorgeous, though, from its lush synths and the tenderness of the singer’s tones to its glorious Euro-pop chorus. It deserves to be a big hit. The same could be said for ‘Time’; another song which demonstrates the joys of an original melody and even when they attempt instrumental weirdness – as they do on ‘Interlude’ – they emerge with dignity intact.

This may just be an EP but based on the evidence before us, the potential of Machine Birds is enormous. ‘Save Yourself’ rivals the best work of Björk and The Mummers for production values, ambition and sheer love of pop.

Web Sites:
Machine Birds Official Site
Machine Birds Soundcloud

Further Listening:
Anja Garbarek, The Mummers, Björk, Lidwine

Review: Matthew Dear – Beams

Matthew Dear’s records have been remarkably consistent in terms of both quality and in his successful rebooting of Teutonic electronica (“Teutronica?”). Whereas modern music can be stylish yet uninvolving, Dear has a clever way of getting under your skin through a sequence of beats or an unexpected key change. ‘Beams’ continues his excellent form.

Dear’s voice may not appeal to everyone. Imagine hearing The Human League’s Phil Oakey the morning after a particularly heavy night on the tiles and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. However, his music is often tailor-made for the dancefloor; bouncy opener ‘Her Fantasy’ is a chip off the old Hot Chip block whilst ‘Headcage’ aims for Junior Boys-style sensuality. ‘Earthforms’ is more downbeat and robotic and therefore in keeping with Dear’s familiar style but he never loses that gift for finding something infectious.

With that thought in mind, ‘Up & Out’ is typical Dear genius; all tight rhythms and sharp metallic hooks whereas ‘Get The Rhyme Right’ possesses an unshakeable groove and unexpected melodic about-turns. Furthermore, for those who find Dear’s music rather cold, look no further than the warm washes of sound which accompany his soothing tones for ‘Ahead Of Myself’.

So overall it’s business as usual for Dear but whilst he’s still able to craft cunningly addictive and intelligent pop songs, there is absolutely no reason to complain. More of the same German-style efficiency next time please, Matthew.

Web Sites:
Matthew Dear Official Site
Ghostly International Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Hot Chip, Tarwater, Colder

Review: Crash Island – II

The days of indie bands belonging to just one genre are certainly becoming less common. In the case of Crash Island, a four-piece based in London but with roots in France, Spain and South Africa, the group source their influences from electronica, rock, soul, pop and funk. It could have sounded like a mess. It doesn’t.

On the face of it there’s a sense of confused identity to Crash Island. ‘Nothing’s Fine’ is heavy on guitars, synths, pounding rhythms and anguished vocals. If that sounds over-busy then be reassured by the fact that the group know their way around a hook-laden melody. ‘Soul Train’ takes a more streamlined approach but also packs a lot into its four minute length. ‘Leaving Me Roar’ is the one track which leaves doubts. In the context of otherwise fine musicianship, the bouncy, uptempo chorus seems out of place. There are no such worries with ‘Living Dead’, however, as the group rediscover their muse to unveil their strongest and most urgent song to date.

Even if Crash Island do appear to want to be all things to all men, their songs have plenty of substance and often emerge with triple-barbed melodies. So far so good but the true test will be to see whether they can sustain that form over the course of a whole album.

Web Sites:
Crash Island Bandcamp

Further Listening:

Review: Solo Project – Unwind

Raf Batchelor is an English musician with a liking of the folk genre and all its multiple possibilities. Apart from the album cover art, ‘Unwind’ is all his own work which means his chosen name of Solo Project is accurate if rather lacking in imagination. Thankfully, it’s pleasing to report that imagination isn’t in short supply where his music is concerned.

Batchelor is just seventeen and this is his second album already and initially his songs border on the naive. Yet if ‘Camera Rolls And Casios’ gives the impression that we’re in for a record of frail freak folk then it proves to be a false dawn. This is a folk album but one which takes all kinds of experimental detours and about-turns. Indeed, ‘Lily Of The Emerald Valley’, the track which follows the opener, witnesses Batchelor switch from lily-livered teenager with a falsetto to a dark knight of deep-voiced decadence; still vulnerable, only now he sounds rich with experience. Thereafter, we can enjoy rattling intensity (‘Around My Head’), shoegaze effects (‘I Don’t Care (It’s Summer)’) and eerie rock (‘Friends’). Yet perhaps the most impressive moments are saved towards the middle of the record where the artist unveils the ghostly ‘Hazed Dream’ and the beautifully desolate ‘Holiday’.

It’s an over-used compliment but Batchelor does prove to have the talent, songwriting and arrangement skills that are well beyond what we can expect from a teenage solo performer. Some may label ‘Unwind’ as freak folk but it sounds equally at home alongside the ghostly psychedelia of Deerhunter.

Web Sites:
‘Unwind’ Bandcamp Page and Free Download

Further Listening:
Deerhunter, That Ghost

Review: Sone Institute – A Model Life

In 2010, Roman Bezdyk unleashed his ‘Curious Memories’ album to an unsuspecting world. With its inspired sourcing of samples and surreal genre clashes, Sone Institute provided the closest we’ll probably ever get to a second Avalanches album. As if we weren’t spoilt enough, ‘A Model Life’ arrives just two years later and with a barrel-load of more ideas.

‘Witchcraft And Pornography’, a shuddering mix of rock guitar solo and trip hop effects, is a bizarre way to open the record but neither this piece nor the breakbeat vs spoken word ‘The World Is A Confusion’ is not really representative of what is to come. For if there is a period in time which Sone Institute tends to prefer it’s the 1960’s, whether it’s his favoured chill out/ easy listening approach (‘Back At Yesterday’, ‘Scuppered Flow’ and ‘Tradition And Dream’ are all sublime), would-be Western soundtracks (‘M’Ling’), BBC Radiophonic Workshop-style experiments (‘Brittlestar’) or “dreamfolk” (the title track). ‘Struck By A Rock’ continues the easy listening theme but adds country guitar and guest boy/girl vocals which provides a human counterpoint just when it’s easy to get lost in Bezdyk’s weird creations.

After several tracks which rely on surprise and shocks, once it gets going ‘A Model Life’ begins to make sense and the result is a surprisingly coherent record. Bezdyk takes us on a fascinating trip through a 60’s inspired fantasy world and it’s to his credit that most of the tracks here sound like lost treasures from a forgotten age.

Web Sites:
Sone Institute Official Site
Front And Follow Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
King Of Woolworths, The Avalanches, BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Review: Man Without Country – Foe

Man Without Country subscribe to the school of thought that electronic music should be of epic proportions. It turns out to be a good move in the skilled hands of Welsh duo Tomas Greenhalf and Ryan James who chose their name to convey their “sense of not belonging”.

Even though ‘Foe’ sounds like its sung by a droid, the melodic core to the song is a good indicator for quality of the remainder of the album. There can be few more impressive contributions than ‘Clipped Wings’. Its glistening synth hook is bolstered by Greenhalf’s vocals which swoop and soar between yearning melancholy and impressive falsetto. The bird-inspired titles continue with ‘Migrating Clay Pigeon’; a track that is as ingenious as the title, thanks to its Klaxons-esque take on rave music. Even when their lyrics border on White Lies-style awkwardness (“You are a mild irritation like a stone in my shoe”) they sound endearing rather than annoying and with mighty songs like ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Closet Addicts Anonymous’ at their disposal, it’s easy to see why their music is popular with Radio 1 DJs and disaffected youth alike.

Man Without Country may think big but Greenhalf and James have the writing and arranging skills to back up their ambitious soundscapes. Infact, it’s doubtful there will be an album out this year which demonstrate a better mixture of geeky, lovelorn lyrics and the power of popular electronic melody.

Web Sites:
Man Without Country Official Site
Man Without Country Soundcloud

Further Listening:
Delphic, White Lies, Foster The People, Mirror Talk

Review: Hatcham Social – About Girls

The genius behind Hatcham Social’s debut (‘You Dig The Tunnel, I’ll Hide The Soul’) lay in its shameless pilfering of fine bands allied with an admirable energy. With songs that borrowed from the books of Orange Juice and Ride, they could have been a Franz Ferdinand it’s OK to like. ‘About Girls’ is described as their “party record”.

‘NY Girl’ is a fine and energetic way to start with the band ripping through the song like The Horrors without the shoegaze fixation. After that, ‘Nicola Tells Me’ possesses a sing-along, London-centric quality reminiscent of Blur. Sadly the record then flickers between low-grade indie pop  (like a mixture of Suede and Blur only not as good) and occasional inspiration. ‘Like An Animal’ is good because its catchy, albeit in a student-friendly way, ‘Escape From London’ rumbles with menace, ‘All Summer Long’ features some sparkly new wave and ‘Somebody Else’s You’ is the only song which sounds like they’re trying something different but the likes of ‘Invention Of Air’ and ‘Would You’ sound limp and devoid of new ideas, as if they had put a student union indie playlist into a blender to see what would come out.

‘About Girls’ is disappointing simply because it’s not distinctive enough. Whereas the debut promised much with its thrilling mix of indie’s past and added quirkiness, here they sound like a mix of Britpop bands and – worse still – modern day exponents like The Kooks. Thankfully the consistent energy of the rhythm section and occasional moments of individualism save it from also-ran status.

Web Sites:
Hatcham Social Official Site
Hatcham Social MySpace

Further Listening:
Suede, Blur, The Kooks, The Auteurs

Review: Patchy – Barrow Road

The signs look a bit ominous for Bristol’s Patchy. Dodgy name aside, this young band of scallywags have chosen album cover art featuring the not entirely unattractive picture of the backs of two naked women. Subtlety doesn’t seem high on the agenda but one should never judge a book by its cover as Patchy prove.

‘Barrow Road’ may be shallow initially but happily it has depths and a sure-footedness which confirms creative minds are at work here. ‘Share My Bed’ undoubtedly plays on its overtly sexual suggestions but the song itself is a gem which revolves around funk guitars and an addictive chorus. Steffan Knight is a fine frontman; “old beyond his years”, his vocals possess an earthy gravitas reminiscent of Alex Germains from the long lost Mountaineers. He adds a melancholic warmth to the already wonderfully crafted songs ‘Dementia’ and ‘Million Pieces’, whereas ‘Medicine’ is impressively soulful. To cover their more aggressive (or laddish) side, ‘Generation’ is bursting with infectious punky energy.

So from unpromising beginnings, Patchy definitely exceed expectations; their music treading an impressive path from indie rock thrills to subtle introspection. So if their next records features bare breasts or animals fornicating, one can only assume they’re going for the avant garde classical market.

Web Sites:
Patchy Facebook
Barrow Road Records Soundcloud

Further Listening:

Review: Joe Frawley – A Hundred Years

Connecticut’s Joe Frawley is chiefly known as a composer and pianist, with his albums often centred around voice samples. In the past, the reference points have been unknown but ‘A Hundred Years’ is Frawley’s musical interpretation of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ story.

‘Halothane’ features the kind of watery piano melody which wouldn’t sound out of a place on a Harold Budd recording; representing familiar territory for Frawley. However, his USP is the use of samples and how he integrates them into the music.

Gradually the flow of the record makes sense and it feels like one is drifting in and out of a dream, with birdsong, voices (both ghostly and grounded) being fed in from speaker to speaker to our subconscious state.  The experience reaches its peak for ‘Into The Softness’; an eerie combination of whispers, choral loops, strings and the raindrop-like effects of piano keys but the stark ‘100 Years’ is just as memorable as the claustrophobic effects send chills to the bone.

Frawley’s music can be a little highbrow and if you were listening to the album for the first time with no biographical information, it wouldn’t be so apparent what the source material is. However, the concept is actually perfectly in tune with Frawley’s elegant yet disorientating approach and – with perseverance – the artistic endeavours translate to an experience that is actually rather moving.

Web Sites:
Joe Frawley Official Site
Bandcamp Stream of ‘A Hundred Years’

Further Listening:
Harold Budd