Archive for November, 2012

Review: The XX – Coexist

Of all the Mercury Music Prize winners, The XX must have been the most unassuming. Capturing a nation’s taste for less is more subtlety, their self-titled debut seemed to gain even more popularity after that; soundtracking sporting events and TV dramas alike. Every band should strive to be liked and respected but we all know that over-familiarity can breed negative behaviours. ‘Coexist’ comes out over two years later and if these introspective songs do turn up on Match Of The Day, no one could say the band wrote them with that intention.

Having said that, if opening track ‘Angels’ is anything to go by, they’ve turned into Beach House. The song is underscored by the Baltimore act’s familiar dreamy languid melodies, except here Romy Madley Croft adds her equally distinctive soft, melancholic tones. From this point you might expect them to broaden their horizons further and widen their sound palette but the trio retreat to their default shy setting almost immediately. ‘Try’ yearns like Everything But The Girl, ‘Sunset’ is shrouded in a constant ghostly shimmer whilst ‘Tides’ makes the best employment of Jamie Smith’s shuffling beats. Yet the truly stunning moments of their debut are in short supply. The use of steel drums and guitar effects on ‘Renuion’ make The XX sound vital again but it’s essentially a great track amongst a collection of good and satisfactory ones.

So overall, ‘Coexist’ is an album of fine moments but seems reluctant to grasp the opportunity afforded to it by all the exposure they have gained. It’s a record where one listens to the album waiting for something to happen but not enough does to make you remember it. After this cool but consistently muted follow-up, expect The XX to retreat into the margins as a result. After all, it does seem to rather suit them.

Web Sites:
The XX Official Site

Further Listening:
Everything But The Girl, Young Marble Giants


Review: Andrew And The TV Cowboys – Mono No Aware (A Soundtrack)

Boston, USA’s Andrew Cosentino describes himself as a nineteen year old music drop out so marketing may not be his strong suit. Furthermore, as the artist concedes, his new album is sample heavy to such an extent that Cosentino has actually forgotten the source of some of the samples. Nevertheless ‘Mono No Aware’ is, as the subtitle suggests, a soundtrack of sorts as it’s certainly an evocative collection of music.

The album couldn’t begin in more sedate and elegant fashion, thanks to the piano piece ‘Kingdoms’; giving the impression of a talented, possibly tortured classical artist. The mash up that is ’99th Lullaby’, all eastern mysticism and glitchy beats, isn’t the most logical way to succeed that sombre tune but then this isn’t a logical record. We also have African chant samples (‘Afarensis’), breakbeats and busking (for ‘Public Alleys’) to follow. The samples vary between world music, soul singers, rap and Francoise Hardy; frequently appearing at odd moments.

Another piano piece, ‘Don’t Go There On Foot (Piano Sonata No. 1)’,  comes across as rather austere although its sample of waves does somewhat soften the mood but the two part ‘Seratonin Blues’ is just discordant and jarring. Thankfully, that turns out to be an aberration rather than the norm as each piece tends to be, at the very least, atmospheric but there are only a few tracks which really stick their hooks into you. In this regard, the album works best towards the centre as the hypnotic, ambience of ‘Nona’ and ‘Gara’ seduce by the ears.

So the school report in this case is promising. Lack of cohesiveness aside, ‘Mono No Aware’ should be seen as a record demonstrating the possibilities available to  Cosentino. Attention to quality control and a more linear approach would be advised for future assignments but one day people might look back at this record and see it as the first step in a musical journey from a talented, genre-bending producer.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for the Album

Further Listening:
A Ninja Slob Drew Me

Review: The Echelon Effect – Field Recordings

It wasn’t so long ago that solo artists seemed to be restricted to singing and playing just one instrument at a time. Now thanks to advances in the production process, one performer making music on an epic scale is a regular occurrence  The Echelon Effect is a solo project from David Walters who – apart from some additional drum parts – played all the instruments on this multi-layered post rock album himself.

One can be forgiven for thinking that Walters is hellbent on achieving a Sigur Ros level of grandiosity. Much like its title, ‘Tracking Aeroplanes’ aims high; its pretty but portentous piano and swirling effects seem to be forever on the brink of turning into something huge and orchestral. However, the fact that it doesn’t explode is to Walter’s credit; meaning the track is elegant and grand rather than grandiose. The following ‘Antenna’ and ‘Call To Ground’ are undoubtedly more experimental and concentrate as much on manipulating samples as much as evoking the wonders of flight but they do provide a necessary feeling of space at centre of the EP. So by the time of the final two dreamy tracks, ‘Outer Marker’ and ‘The Brighter Star..’, the listener is ready to be uplifted again.

‘Field Recordings’ isn’t an album to set the world alight with its originality but its consistent theme and general cohesiveness means that it flows very well indeed. When one considers the positive aura it radiates and the strong melodies too, one can’t help but feel happier having heard the record.

Web Sites:
The Echelon Effect Official Site
Field Recordings Bandcamp Page

Further Listening:
Good Weather For An Airstrike, Sigur Ros, Hammock

Review: Hot Chip – In Our Heads

Hot Chip have proudly become the flag bearers for the geeky-dance generation; making themselves accessible to the kind of folk who probably never considered disco as viable genre. One thing that set them apart was their aloof persona as if they, like many others, disapproved of popular music themselves. So in that respect, ‘In Our Heads’ is a great leap from the dancefloor voyeur to the breakdancer taking centre stage.

‘Motion Sickness’ may feature ex-This Heat man Charles Hayward on drums but the song is as exuberant as a child’s fifth birthday party. The new style works too: ‘How Do You Do?’ may be irony free but it’s confident and immediately dance-friendly. ‘Don’t Deny Your Heart’ commits all kinds of 1980’s crimes: tinny synths, steel drums and harmonies which border on high camp but the infectious qualities of the songs make it excusable. Nevertheless, after this breathless start to the record it’s a relief when the album breathes to allow Alexis Taylor to exercise his soulful self-doubt and the guitars ache obligingly in unison.

Towards the middle of the record it initially seems the wheels are starting to come off. After the bouncy ‘Night & Day’, ‘Flutes’ is an overlong and repetitive exercise and lacks the usual Hot Chip hook. Thankfully, it is just a blip and the three tracks which follow all excel. ‘Now There Is Nothing’ sounds like it’s going to turn into 10cc’s ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’ at any moment and is all the better for it, ‘Ends Of The Earth’ is their new brasher direction at its dizzying hypnotic peak whereas ‘Let Me Be Him’ lets Joe Goddard’s deeper tones take centre stage on a happy/sad epic.

This is unquestionably Hot Chip’s most upbeat and – let’s not be shy about this – most “pop” album. There are a couple of times I felt that, by shedding some of their insecurities and outsider outlook, they could lose what made them special but by the end of the record, the new fun side of Hot Chip becomes as endearing and addictive as their previous records.

Web Sites:
Hot Chip Official Site

Further Listening:
Junior Boys

Review: Star FK Radium – Solitude Rotation

Certain people, perhaps even themselves, must have had doubts when Bill Martien, Alissa Taylor and Matt Clarke decided to team up to become an instrumental trio. Yet with guitar, violin and drums at their disposal they duly set about making their consistently rewarding debut, ‘Blue Siberia’, in 2010. ‘Solitude Rotation’ is the follow up and proves that there’s plenty more mileage in the concept.

The title track is a glorious way to start the album. The interplay between the trio is a joy with Taylor’s fragrant flourishes offset by Martien’s dexterous finger picking and concluding with a ferocious drum/violin duel. ‘Honey Jazz’ builds from an elegant start into a thunderous frenzy of noise but it’s the yearning ‘My Favorite Color’ which wins the day. Taylor is perhaps the key to the trio with her violin providing the emotional counterpoint to Martien and Clarke’s impressive foundations.

With so many variations on the theme and changes of pace, no one could accuse the trio of ever being dull. However, if there is a criticism, it is that – in their efforts to add variety and degrees of light and shades – a few of these pieces would have sounded better if they didn’t change so much halfway through. Otherwise, there’s much to enjoy for fans of early 4AD records.

Web Sites:
Star FK Radium Official Site
Star FK Radium CD Baby Page

Further Listening:
Dif Juz, The Milling Gowns

Review: Whitman Proud – Run

Andrew Mercer-Taylor is Whitman Proud; a one man electronica act with footholds in IDM, experimental rock and psychedelia. ‘Run’ is his debut record which contains ten songs/pieces which challenge, confuse and delight in equal measure.

Openers rarely come in such awkward yet oddly brilliant shape as ‘Dedalus’. The retro-synth sound will be familiar to 1980’s electro-pop admirers but not so the processed vocals, stop-start beats and gothic shimmer. ‘Globetrotter’ is perhaps even more alienating due to it being a rather tuneless experiment but Mercer-Taylor shows his production and songwriting mettle with ‘Broke’; his jaded vocals contrasting nicely with the chilly clock chime melody and funk guitar whilst ‘My Equations’ marries early Depeche Mode with cool European vocals. On the flipside of the coin, the likes of ‘Winter’ may provide little more than a BBC Radiophonic Workshop/vintage Doctor Who influence and the inclusion of rock guitars for ‘Abstraction’ suggests his adventurous spirit needs to be managed in more constructive ways.

The chief component of ‘Run’ is its cold, dark heart and there are a few moments here when it’s not clear if Mercer-Taylor intends to infuriate the listener. However, for half of the time, when he concentrates on writing actual songs, he reveals a willingness to reach out to the ears of lovers of oddball electronica.

Web Sites:
Whitman Proud Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Colder, Millimetre

Review: Blag’ard – Fresh Candy

North Carolina’s Blag’ard offer alternative rock of the strictly “no frills” variety. Just one listen to their songs and you get the picture of a couple of working men taking their frustrations out a beat-up set of guitars and drums. That’s probably not an exciting prospect in itself but the duo of Joe Taylor and cohort Adam Brinson make the best of what they’ve got with their hook-heavy rock sound.

As ‘Cindy Town’ starts the album, one can be forgiven that Blag’ard have slowed to a bluesy rock crawl but the cunning twosome soon turn it into their familiar and highly serviceable mix of raw riffage and crafty hooks. If ‘Pony Boy’ seems a little too sombre and lo-fi, there’s much pleasure to be had from the de-tuned guitars of ‘Down South’ and ‘Tea Is For Cookie’ or the infectious tension of ‘Integrity’, whose title alone could be a description of their approach.

For once, Adam and Joe sound a little jaded on parts of this record but to a certain extent musical development is not too applicable to this kind of music. In addition, whilst ‘Fresh Candy’ never tries to break out from the solid formula, in a parallel universe it’s feasible they could be just as famous as The Black Keys.

Web Sites:
Blag’ard Official Site
Link to Stream of Album

Further Listening:
Pavement, The Mitchells

Review: the British IBM – the British IBM

The British IBM appear to have taken nerdy indie rock to a whole new level with their band name inspired by a punch-up between Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry, who founded the Sinclair and Acorn computer companies respectively. Such devotion surely sets the scene for introspective, geeky indie pop. Not quite so, in this case.

Indeed, lead-off song ‘Animal’ is based on the kind of simple riff which underscores so many Brit-pop bands and ‘Sugar Water’ sounds like its going to turn into Sixpence None The Richer’s ‘Kiss Me’ at any minute. Nevertheless, Adrian Killens is a likeable vocalist; his delivery seems forever on the verge of tears. The title track makes the best use of his talents as the band move from a playful indie sound to urgent new wave-flavoured rock to recount the Sinclair/Curry battle as if it were a tension-filled love story. Encouragingly, ‘Good Afternoon’ projects the right air of wired energy and menace whilst ‘Cannibal’ resembles the early work of Suede. On the debit side, Open Your Eyes’ and ‘Feeling’ are on a par with B-sides from The Auteurs; which make them solid album tracks but somewhat lacking in adventure.

After that brilliant first single, one can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity for the British IBM because what could have been a radically different album slips too often into indie rock cliché. Nevertheless it’s concise, the songs are broadly infectious and the best songs here bode well for future records.

Web Sites:
the British IBM Official Site
the British IBM Album on Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Suede, The Auteurs

Review: Mark Tranmer – How Scarlet The Leaves

Whether its recording as the instrumental half of The Montgolfier Brothers or solo under the moniker of Gnac, Mark Tranmer is a skilful purveyor of nostalgia-flavoured music. Yet it’s not cheesy or retro cool and is highly unlikely to feature on any “I Love The 80’s’ tours because it’s a far more refined take on times past. The skill here is in the way in which one can associate his compositions with a time in your life.  Here, Tranmer enlists the assistance of Alessandra Celletti who plays piano on all eight tracks.

Central to the album is the title track which appears at the beginning and in two more variations on the record. The pieces are the essence of Tranmer’s musical progress so far: sad, stately melodies which speak of melancholic autumnal afternoons. ‘Cusp & Brow’ is brighter and more fragrant and its crisp rhythms are reminiscent of early Yellow6 whilst the charming ‘{Seagull Bracket}’ and its simple melodic refrain recalls the innocence of Cherry Red Records’ output from thirty years ago.

Switching to the second side of the LP, the tradition of warmth and elegiac moods continues. However, it works on an even more understated level. ‘Loch’ begins as an elegant piano piece but the impression given is of the piano being lowered further and further underwater as other instruments and effects come into the foreground. The album reaches a stunning conclusion too with the stark, haunting echoes of ‘Bell’ and one can picture a ghost ship drifting in an unchartered sea as it plays.

Like the great wordless storyteller that he is, it seems that Tranmer’s ability to evoke a time, a place or a mood will never desert him. Furthermore, ‘How Scarlet The Leaves’ is the ideal soundtrack for Sunday afternoons at this time of year. The limited edition release also includes a full album’s worth of unreleased Tranmer work which contains further thoughtful-provoking gems from this gifted artist.

Web Sites:
Mark Tranmer’s ‘How Scarlet The Leaves’ Page
Mark Tranmer/Gnac Soundcloud

Further Listening:
Alessandra Celletti, Gnac, The Montgolfier Brothers, Talvihorros

Review: Heart Of Hearts – My Society

If most people were asked to write an album based on their day job, it is likely the results may not translate too well to the listener. In the case of Baltimore’ s Greg Hatem, ‘My Society’ is a musical reflection of his role as an aviculturist or – to put in his own words – “Ten songs about breeding and caring for finches and doves”. The results are wonderful.

Opener ‘Love Of Pearls’ comes across as a lost cousin of The Flaming Lips’ space rock sound but Hatem’s material is much more isolated in its outlook. Indeed, his best work here belongs to another world entirely. ‘Candling’ is covered in lush yet eerie atmospherics; switching effortlessly between vintage arrangements and futuristic noise, whilst the alien noise of ‘Grass Mask’ explores the often overlooked work of Avrocar. The excellent ‘Feather Fast’ contains a great chorus to top off the gorgeous combination of stuttering beats and warm electronica but better still is ‘Unbound’ which benefits from another heavenly chorus and inventive use of Eastern and African rhythms.

‘My Society’ is reminiscent of a time when “indie” was a by-word for mystery and individualism. Thanks to his unusual job, an air of detachment and unique vision, ‘My Society’ is not only one of the most unusual albums I’ve heard this year but also one of the best.

Web Sites:
‘My Society’ Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Avrocar, Glassacre, The Flaming Lips