Archive for June, 2013

Review: Helene Greenwood – The Break EP

It’s taken a while for Helene Greenwood to release her first EP. Her music career began as a contemporary composer studying at The Royal Academy before the birth of her daughter eight years ago set her on the road of writing and singing her own songs. The only criticism you can direct at her on the evidence of her first EP is “What took her so long?”.

Helene Greenwood EP Cover

To put it plainly, Greenwood is blessed with a lovely voice; one that speaks of English innocence in the same way as The Sunday’s Harriet Wheeler or Rose Elinor Dougall. ‘Break In’ resembles a sedate dinner party number until the song explodes into a heart-bursting chorus. For The Cure’s ‘In Between Days’ she strips down the angst of the original to a new level of vulnerability but the flowing piano and relentless percussion ensure that the loneliness of the song is offset by musical joy. ‘In The Sunshine’ is a beautiful and tender ballad accompanied by the minimum of instrumentation whereas the darkest moment, ‘After The Fire’, is lit up by dramatic flourishes. This just leaves ‘Fools Rush In’ where Greenwood and her band once again show their telepathic understanding for subtlety on another respectful cover version.

‘The Break EP’ is a collection of music which makes you glad that people still care about the simplicity of songwriting. Rather like The Mummers, the songs here sound magical in their purity and love of melody and just like that band – even though the star is undoubtedly the frontwoman – her experienced band mates know how to make a song special too and never threaten to drown Greenwood in their perfectly-judged layers of sound.

Web Sites:
Helene Greenwood Official Site
Helene Greenwood’s Soundcloud Page

Further Listening:
The Sundays, The Mummers, Rose Elinor Dougall, A Girl Called Eddy


Review: Silicon Ballet – Slowly Slowly EP

It’s probably fair to say that we have all experienced disappointment when a musical act we’re fond of suddenly changes direction. There’s a sense that as fans we have been almost betrayed as we bid a bitter farewell to a group searching for their next level of success. The trick is, of course, to make the change in direction convincing enough so that it doesn’t really matter or, even smarter, to keep two identities running in parallel.

A fine case in point would be Belgium’s Silicon Ballet who also operate as a bright and idiosyncratic act with a knack for infectious, if slightly naive, indie pop called Showstar. As Silicon Ballet,  they have matured into a string-laden outfit and although, ‘Utopia’, their first album, certainly had a lot of positives, I did rather yearn for more Showstar material instead. The ‘Slowly Slowly EP’, however, makes a much more convincing and consistent case for the new project.

Silicon Ballet EP Cover

Keeping in character with its title ‘Slowly, Slowly’ begins gently like a lullaby, with soothing vocals and delicate guitars. Gradually the production becomes grander, though, as strings are brought into the mix and suddenly the song has built into a miniature epic. ‘Goodbye Low’ brings in the strings right from the beginning and the track rattles along at a fair old pace from start to finish. Dynamically it couldn’t be more different from the opening number. ‘Blind Boy’ sounds haunted as soon as the glistening guitar is heard, the vocals are full of trepidation whereas the strings incline towards a sinister path. In this excellent company, the final track ‘Nowadays’ appears to be ending the EP on a bit of a damp squib but after some folky murmurings, it recovers the urgency two minutes in and ensures Silicon Ballet’s endeavours are completely rewarding.

Ultimately, ‘Slowly Slowly’ consists of four very strong songs, which impress to such an extent that the transition from quirky indie poppers to multi-layered chamber pop begins to make perfect sense. Now it feels like there are two great bands to follow for the price of one which surely has to be a good thing.

Web Sites:
Silicon Ballet Official Site
Bandcamp Stream for Silicon Ballet’s ‘Slowly Slowly’
Rainboot Label Site

Further Listening:
Showstar, My Life Story

Review: Jikan Ga Nai – Plenty Time

Thanks to the possibilities of the Internet, we music listeners have become rather accustomed to cross-continental music projects and Bearsuit Records are shining examples of what can be achieved. Jikan Ga Nai (the name means “there’s not enough time”) suggests more mayhem over long distances. In actual fact the two protagonists here, Harold Nono and Eric Cosentino, are Scottish and French respectively but Cosentino now calls New York home. This being Bearsuit Records though, that’s as conventional as things get.

Jikan Ga Nai EP Cover

Against a backdrop of loping beats and psychedelic jazz, the hilariously-titled ‘When We Lie Down We Take The Penguin Home’, presents an atmosphere of approaching terror. The feeling of dread subsides for second track ‘Of Course We Weren’t Always Superstars’; a colourful yet always tuneful glide through unidentified instruments. ‘Legend Days’ is a rather more sober experience to match its comparatively staid title. Indeed, for two minutes it’s a pleasant and pretty acoustic strum balanced by crystalised synths. Then, however, they add retro-futurist effects a la Stereolab, to winning effect. Finally, track four of four is the most difficult to follow as it allies buzzing electronica with guitar solos and stentorian keyboards; interesting but a bit too avant garde to love.

Nono and Cosentino have proven their talents on their own solo projects (Nono under his own name, Cosentino via Pain Noir) and for three quarters of this EP they prove they can work as a team too. We’ve come to expect  bizarre yet quality instrumentals from Bearsuit and this EP is no exception.

Web Sites:
Bearsuit Records Label and Shop Site
Bandcamp Stream for ‘Plenty Time’

Further Listening:
Stereolab, Harold Nono, Pain Noir

Review: Wiretree – Get Up

Committed Anglophiles Wiretree have been plying their trade since 2005. They originally began as solo project for Austin native Kevin Peroni but have since developed into a full band. Now “guided by the power pop light of Big Star”, their new album sets the expectation for tune-encrusted songs from a different time.

Wiretree Album Cover

The breezy opening title track sets the agenda for some uptempo pop nostalgia. Whereas I had previously made comparisons for Peroni’s vocals to George Harrison (and ‘So Bold’ does sound like a lost Travelling Wilburys’ number), now it’s possible to hear those throaty tones of The La’s Lee Mavers too. Certainly, there is a strong 1960’s/1970’s pop thread running through the guitar strings on these songs, or at the very least the 1990’s Britpop version of it). ‘Marching Band’, for example, name-checks The Beatles and The Stones but the plinky-plonk piano is reminiscent of an earlier history whereas ‘In The City (Rail)’ is the closest they get to the aforementioned Big Star.

Yet as much as ‘Get Up’s outlook could be described as having a sunny disposition, several songs stand out for their melancholy. ‘Out Of My Mind’ adds a welcome shot of urgency, courtesy of its intense percussion and widescreen rock production. Two of the longest tracks (four minutes for them is lengthy), ‘Doctor’ and ‘To The Moon’, reveal a depth of songwriting that stretches beyond their usual easy on the ear material and full marks too for the introspective, atmospheric closer ‘When You Were Young’.

As much as one can criticise this kind of music for shamelessly reviving scenes which have been so well-trodden, these are undoubtedly well-crafted songs, professionally produced and performed with a real love for melody. More importanly, there’s more going on under the surface than initially appears, making ‘Get Up’ possibly their most fully-formed album yet.

Web Sites:
Wiretree Official Site
Bandcamp Stream for Wiretree’s ‘Get Up’

Further Listening:
World Party, Big Star, The Travelling Wilburys, The La’s

Review: Yolke – Syrup

Those crazy Yolke guys from Australia, promise to serve up “cosmic cheese platters and squelching synth hors d’oeurves” on their second EP ‘Syrup’. An elaborate and eye-catching description maybe but once which almost cheapens the quality of the tunes within since this is electronic music of depth and distinction.

Yolke EP Cover

The title track is the first example of their stellar dreampop. It veers between Boards Of Canada-style psychedelia and the brasher, colourful likes of Black Moth Super Rainbow. ‘Good Rings’ rides in on the crest of a wave of warm bass rhythms with some perfectly judged, world-weary vocals adding a lazy calm to the summery, vibrant feel of the song. It is arguably the outstanding moment but one has to acknowledge their overall greatness. ‘Tough Times’ is a moody counterpoint to the euphoria of ‘Golden Rings’, ‘rushH’ adds layer upon layer of lush electronica (guitar, alien-like noises and plenty of those promised “squelching synths” for good measure) whereas ‘Wedgetail’ experiments with swinging jazz and baroque pop.

The six tracks on ‘Syrup’ are wonderfully melodic and rhythmic and there’s a real feeling of sadness when this glorious twenty-two minutes of music is over. It’s kaleidoscopic, psychedelically-infused electronica and makes a fine companion to Giraffage’s superb 2011 album, ‘Comfort’.

Web Sites:
Yole Artist Page on Fallopian Tunes
Bandcamp Stream for Yolke – ‘Syrup’

Further Listening:
Black Moth Super Rainbow, Giraffage

Review: Depeche Mode – Delta Machine

Emerging bruised and battered after their latest battle with death and personal demons, whether you like their music or not, Depeche Mode deserve at least some grudging respect for carrying on. Yet carry on they do and they continue to make electronic based music which nonchalantly straddles stadium rock with an integrity and rawness which few can emulate. By the evidence of album number thirteen, there’s no intention of slacking off yet either.

Depeche Mode Album Cover

‘Welcome To My World’ is the archetypal slowburner to open the show; Gahan’s weary yet strident vocal are joined by minimal electronica until they dovetail angrily into the familiar slick and mighty operation we have come to admire. At once Depeche Mode reclaim their crown as digitally-powered stadium rockers and so their position is bolstered by the similarly huge ‘Angel’. Those age old question marks with Depeche Mode persist though; making this slick operation sound really emotional is a tricky task. Gahan is always passionate in his delivery and he has lost not a jolt of power after passing the half century but many of these songs are undoubtedly beasts that are too cold to love.

Yet worry ye not. ‘Heaven’ is a brilliant gospel-flavoured number and big enough to merit the weight of its title and even the less dramatic songs such as ‘My Little Universe’ and ‘Should Be Higher’ (where Gahan really strains every sinew) sound big and important. It’s certainly not all about power either. The hidden gems here are ‘The Child Inside’; another great showcase for Martin L. Gore’s slightly creepy yet vulnerable tenor and the brilliant ‘Broken’, where the trio reveal they still have some mysterious and beguiling melodies in the locker. It is these types of songs, tucked away in the centre, which demonstrate the depth of a band.

Admittedly, there’s a few less memorable songs towards the end of the album but far from being the kind of heritage act which churns out records as a means of justifying endless tours, this is another Depeche Mode long player which can proudly stand alongside their back catalogue. Their sound is as crisp and as relevant as ever and with Gahan and Gore in such good voice, it’s feasible this machine could keep on running for another decade yet.

Web Sites:
Depeche Mode Official Site

Review: The National Rifle – Almost Endless

Although largely unknown outside their native Philadelphia, The National Rifle have enlisted a couple of Grammy-nominated producers for their latest album. It shows too, as ‘Almost Endless’ shimmers with fairy dust. Yet it must be stressed that the songs on here deserve that extra dose of magic since this band are clearly a fine set of musicians equipped with knack for writing infectious tunes.

The National Rifle Album Cover

‘Coke Beat’ arrives on a dreamy wash of synth melody. It’s an excellent start helmed by band leader Hugh Morretta, relentless drumming, squalling guitars and some background cooing from keyboard player Lynna Stancato. ‘Young In The Future’ follows a not dissimilar formula but here the chorus is wordless and importantly, no less hooky. Next, ‘Glass Line’ positions Stancato to the forefront; lending her soothing vocals and keys to a track which wonderfully recalls acts like The Wake on the melancholic verses, although the chorus is strident and cheery.

‘Almost Endless’ does actually sound like a collection of nine indie pop singles but on a record which is generally strong on vocal performance, the falsetto which leads out the title track seems like a mistake until the song ascends into its dizzying shoegaze melody and everything makes sense again. Elsewhere, early 1980’s synth sounds are joyfully revived for ‘So Real’ and ‘Back To Nature’ whilst ‘Visuals’ and ‘Street Burn’ (for the latter Morretta resembles a youthful Ricky Ross) head for guitar pop euphoria.

As much as ‘Almost Endless’ sounds like the work of a quartet of a young people in thrall to their passion for 1980’s synths and infectious guitar pop, they are right on the money when it comes to making catchy music. Indeed, there’s not actually an average track on ‘Almost Endless’. So, in conclusion, The National Rifle are a great little indie pop band who have the potential to be an even bigger little indie pop band.

Web Sites:
The National Rifle Official Site
The National Rifle Soundcloud

Further Listening:
The Wake, New Order

Review: Radio For The Daydreamers – Denouement

At the turn of the year, the final part of the Radio For The Daydreamers trilogy was released; the epic project from the Pittsburgh based musical collective. If the first two parts were musically diverse, the final one is merely kaleidoscopic. Mainman Aki Srivastava describes the character in the story as “realizing that without an audience, a catastrophe is short lived. So eventually. it is up to him to stop fuelling the fire”. Well, who are we to argue with that?

Radio For The Daydreamers Album Cover

With only the loose threads of darkness and paranoia to hang the music together, Srivastava and his trusty cohorts are given wide boundaries within which to tell their stories. The likes of ‘Dorian, The Apathetic’ sound like old medieval pieces, albeit with the expected modern sheen. There’s a wonderfully-titled mini suite of ‘But Passive Aggression Is All I Have Got’, ‘But Pessimism Is All I Have Got’ and ‘But Life Is All I Have Got’ which owes a lot to This Mortal Coil’s melancholia. Elsewhere wonderfully moody late night jazz (‘Drawing Teeth On The Moon’, ‘Closure’) rubs shoulders with excellent evocative dramatic instrumentals (‘Confusion Is My Birthright’) and Mike Oldfield-style strumming and prog for ‘Everything You Can Not C#’. Most surprising of all, the freak-folk of ‘Insect Eyes’ manages to sounds uncannily like a proper song.

There’s a lot of fine music on here and much of it seems to be crying out for a horror or science fiction commission. Its only flaw is that very few of these tracks make an emotional connection and the narrative is somewhat confusing. That said, it’s a record where you could randomly generate a running order and still end up with a compelling album.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Radio For The Daydreamers’ ‘Denouement’

Further Listening:

Review: I Used To Be A Sparrow – You Are An Empty Artist

After being introduced to the music of an artist named Songs For The Sleepwalkers, it was intriguing to know which path the artist would take next. This is because the man behind the avatar, Andrea Caccese, dispensed epic, uplifting pop, indie folk and abstract instrumental music all on the same album. I Used To Be A Sparrow is his most recent outlet where he is joined by Swedish friend, Dick Petterson.

I Used To Be A Sparrow Album Cover

A contribution to a Postal Service covers album is the biggest clue to where I Used To Be A Sparrow are positioned and ‘You Are An Empty Artist’ is full of tune-encrusted, electronically-infused indie rock with yearning vocals. The beat-heavy ‘Warpaint On Invisible Children’, is the first indication of what’s to come. ‘Spring Knows Where You Live’ is based on a catchy grunge pop riff; Caccese’s vocals effortlessly swooping and soaring between low and high notes. ‘Cannonball’ is another infectious sugar rush of a pop song; bolstered by a relentless chorus, as is ‘On/Off’ which bears strong similarities to the work of Canisius. Indeed, only the last track, ‘July’, shows signs of a break from the energetic nature of the record as its relatively solemn melody brings events to an unexpectedly bleak end.

By the end of the record the constant dreampop formula of ringing guitars, Caccese’s irrepressible chirpiness and driving bass can get a little wearing so it feels like you’re being suffocated by the sweet melodies. Therefore a little more space and reflection would be hoped for on their next album. However, when they’re on their game, the songs this duo produce are genuinely uplifting.

Web Sites:
I Used To Be A Sparrow Tumblr
I Used To Be A Sparrow Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Postal Service, Death Cab For Cutie, Canisius

Review: Vliot – La Super Idea

Vliot’s first album, ‘Invisible Cities’, was a fine soundtrack to the summer of 2011. Evocative of lazy summer days, band leader Fabian Wilkins added a modern post-rock sheen to a classy set of jazz and Latin-based tunes. So it seems appropriate that we hear from him in summer again, even if it is just a short EP.

Vliot EP Cover

One of the highlights of the album was that Wilkins occasionally used his voice to enliven proceedings. Sadly, there’s no sign of his voice at all here so the success of ‘La Super Idea’ rests entirely on his instrumental and arranging skills. So what we have is a very likeable, if slightly undemanding set of Latin-inflected tunes. Followers of Mice Parade’s alternative twist on this genre will be engaged by much of this material. Of particular note, the crisp rhythms of ‘Arriba Y Abajo’ and languid melodic detours are infectious, whilst ‘La Vuelta’ is resplendent with deliciously aching guitar. There’s even the deft finger-picking of ‘#88 -the illest traitor’ to bring events to a classy close.

With just fifteen minutes of music on offer, there’s  not a lot of time to make big impressions.  Wilkins isn’t one for shocks or grand emotional gestures but he certainly makes music which is easy on the ear and gets your feet tapping, to such an extent you can forgive that he doesn’t sing at all this time.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream of Vliot’s ‘La Super Idea’

Further Listening:
Mice Parade