Archive for November, 2013

Review: Prefab Sprout – Crimson Red

Prefab Sprout fans rejoiced in 2009 when ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ was finally released to the public. Emerging from one of the almost mythical batch of albums which Paddy McAloon had locked away in his vaults, forever destined to be unheard, it was the first new Prefab Sprout album since 2001’s ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’. Created in 1993, the production was very much of its time but the songs were a reminder of one of Britain’s finest songwriters. ‘Crimson Red’ is another new album and one which cherry picks from the famed McAloon archives.

Prefab Sprout Album Cover

The story begins in almost vintage Prefab Sprout fashion. The keyboard melody and police sirens would be naive and kitschy in other people’s hands but this is an artist clearly still in love with music. The song in question, ‘The Best Jewel Thief In The World’, contains a wonderfully joyful melody and Paddy even gives us a few blasts of his trusty harmonica. Far from being a traditionalist, on this particular record, McAloon performs better the more risks he takes and the more vibrant the arrangement, the better the song sounds.

The grand keyboard washes of ‘Adolescence’ (“it’s a psychedelic motorbike” apparently) enchants whilst ‘Grief Built The Taj Mahal’ is a subtler number but the Eastern arrangement is a delight. Furthermore, the rattling and rumbling ‘Devil Came A Calling’ (easily the nearest the album approaches a level of menace) is the closest he will come to writing ‘Faron Young Part 2’. Yet the centrepiece is ‘Billy’, an autobiographical piece which exemplifies all we expect from Paddy; the song is so bright and colourful (“Her smile is like a fairground, I’m basking in the glow”) that it’s hard not to listen to it without a smile. Along a similar idealistic line is ‘The Dreamer’ and although it’s a little too light on drama, the instrumental sections are wonderful.  A couple of other songs, however, ‘List Of Impossible Things’ and ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’, rarely rise above a status of pleasant but they are resolutely tuneful.

Overall, ‘Crimson Red’ isn’t quite up there with classics ‘Steve McQueen’ and ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ and it would be unfair to expect them to be but ‘Crimson Red’ is a statement record, which really does show the young music makers that it matters not how many bells and whistles you add to your production, what matters are great songs and this album has plenty. Rest assured, McAloon is still, to quote the title of one of his songs, the last of the great romantics.

Web Sites:
Prefab Sprout Net
‘Crimson Red’ Official Album Site
Prefab Sprout – ‘Billy’

Review: Anna Jordan – Dust EP

Ireland has proved to be a reliable source of female singer/songwriter talent through the decades and it’s no surprise to hear of another talented newcomer. Also known as being one half of Selk, Dublin’s Anna Jordan has ow stepped out on her own with a debut EP which marries folk and jazz music with unexpected moments of electronica.

Anna Jordan EP Cover

The opening title track is definitely not one that can be ignored. Lyrically, it contains little more than the line “Gonna tear it all apart, as it chips away my heart” but the increasing angst of Jordan’s delivery is captivating. The vocals are part piano balladeer, part jazz singer but all around her is the kind of production which certainly falls outside the usual singer/songwriter domain, with clipped and chattering beats bringing the song into the modern age.

For the comparatively traditional ‘Air That You Breathe’, Jordan dispenses with the beats but her wounded sparrow tones are given full flight for this lovelorn yet never cloying multi-part folk song. ‘She Dances’ shows further thirst for experimenting, with Jordan harmonising against her own vocal loops in a peculiarly addictive pop song; calling to mind the playfulness of Anja Garbarek. So this just leaves ‘Silent Sea’; a desolate and elegantly performed song which strips the music back again to just Jordan and her piano and she delivers a wonderfully understated performance.

‘Dust’ is a delightful beginning for Anna Jordan. Her willingness to try out new techniques marks her out as an original, adventurous performer with more than just a great voice and a sad tale to tell. It will be fascinating to hear what her next release sounds like.

Web Sites:
Anna Jordan Official Site
Anna Jordan Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Anja Garbarek, Beth Gibbons

Review: Deerhunter – Monomania

The cover slip to Deerhunter’s new album helpfully indicates ‘File Under: Nocturnal Garage’; a hitherto unheard of sub-genre but one which sums up this strange but rather wonderful band very well. Back in 2010, the Georgia-based act crafted the outstanding ‘Halcyon Digest’; giving birth to a new batch of dreamy garage-punk artists as a result.

Deerhunter Album Cover

If the last album was remarkable for its unexpected moments of beauty, the beginning to ‘Monomania’ is unquestionably ugly, evidenced by the guttural outpourings of frontman Bradford Cox for ‘Neon Junkyard’ and ‘Leather Jacket’. It’s an abrasive start which will deter the less patient listeners looking for a sign of melody. However, things get a whole lot better from then as Deerhunter hit a reach seam of form without losing their natural murkiness. ‘The Missing’ takes the rumbling menace of the first two tracks but aligns it into a more insidious whole, with Cox’s murmurings now perfectly co-ordinated with his bandmates. ‘Pensacola’ and ‘Dream Captain’ encapsulates the garage-punk sound which Deerhunter do so well; both rough and ready tracks but – for all their apparent awkwardness – they’re also extremely catchy.

For the excellent ‘Blue Agent’, the underdog nature of the song makes it a modern day equivalent of Magazine’s post-punk classic ‘A Song From Under The Floorboards’. For all those who find Deerhunter’s too unsubtle, direct them to ‘T.H.M.’; a marvellously keyboard-led slice of warped pop music whilst on ‘Sleepwalking’ and ‘Back To The Middle’, the guitar work of Lockett Pundt and Frankie Broyles truly shines through; rivalling the talents of Television’s Tom Verlaine. It’s somewhat inevitable that the quality at this point dips slightly, with the title track coming across as uncharacteristically self-indulgent chaos but by that time their brilliance has already been proved and they stir themselves again for the starkly-named and perfectly-judged finale ‘Punk’.

It’s easy to imagine Deerhunter recording their songs in a dark basement room, riddled with disease but their music is infectious in all the right ways and what we have here is a wonderful collection of original, seedy pop songs. File Under: Nocturnal Garage, maybe, but file alongside other great mavericks like Magazine, Babybird and Dawn Of The Replicants too.

Web Sites:
Deerhunter Official Site
Youtube Video of Deerhunter’s ‘Back To The Middle’

Further Listening:
Dawn Of The Replicants, Magazine, Babybird, Television

Review: The Severely Departed – Two

There have certainly been no shortage of melodramatic post-rock releases since the turn of the century; the kind where morose, piano-led intros give way to a hailstorm of guitars. The most remarkable factor about The Severely Departed is that there are just a couple of band members making the noise and San Francisco’s Chris Grimm and Ben Crowley perform with some panache on their second album, helpfully entitled ‘Two’.

The Severely Departed Album Cover

‘Beneath The Years’ sets events onto a strong foot and although the guitar parts recall just about every loud post-rock cliché from the past decade, the flowing piano melody creates an elegant counterpoint. These indications of refined times are fleshed out further for the reflective ‘Moving On’. Then we are treated to ‘Into The Open’, which is a much more convincing document of their quiet/loud prowess; the track resembles a suite as it is directed down a variety of tuneful and undulating passages. Better still are the insistent, chiming textures of ‘A Parting Glance’, which cast an almost Christmas time spell on the listener then, finally, ‘Relapse’ ends the album on a decent note but the real meat of the album is on the middle three tracks.

It took The Severely Departed six years to release this album and one feels a progression will be needed if they leave it so long next time around. Yet without ever threatening to set the world alight, this is forty minutes of solid, quality instrumental music which ticks all the right boxes.

Web Sites:
The Severely Departed Official Site
The Severely Departed Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Parhelia, Milhaven, Explosions In The Sky

Review: Chapel Club – Good Together

They may now be no more but the brief story of Chapel Club is one of the most fascinating of recent times. Their legacy will be a couple of anthemic singles, an excellent EP and two wildly different albums. In fact the difference between the two albums is arguably what killed them. You have to wonder whether all five members of the band were content to completely change their style especially after such a well-received debut.

There’s no subtle deviation from formula here. In advance of the new album’s release frontman Lewis Bowman wanted to produce “something bright and playful and surprising”. It’s fair to say he achieved these aims and it must be conceded ‘Palace’ was roughly 75% rooted in the past but his further announcements such as “Forgive us while we purge the CC fanbase of dopamine-soaked post-punk nostalgists” won’t have endeared him to followers of their earlier sounds or, for that matter, dopamine-soaked post-punk nostalgists.

Chapel Club Album Cover

The album begins, rather bravely one could argue, with the shifting, disorientating beats of ‘Sleep Alone’ and immediately gives the impression that if this record does have a dancier vibe, it’s not a “wave your hands, let’s celebrate” type of record; it’s far too experimental and smart for that and the opening lyrics “Go out every night, I’m so tired… How could I let myself sink so low” share the same reluctant party-goer vibe as latter-day Roxy Music. ‘Sequins’ certainly fits the description of “playful” but the rumbling bass undertow and Bowman’s forlorn lyrics balance out the pretty synths. The radio-friendly ‘Shy’ and the video game melodies of ‘Wordy’ toy with Bowman in both digitised and falsetto form whilst ‘Jenny Baby’ piles on the echo and drum loops.

Synth-heavy records often evoke inevitable comparisons with the 1980’s but in the case of ‘Good Together’, it very rarely reeks of nostalgia; a testament to the inventive musicianship of Bowman’s bandmates. In fact, only on the Human League-esque ‘Fruit Machine’ do the band begin to sound like someone else. The beats and bleeps of the first single and title track cannot disguise the ennui of Bowman’s delivery where even the unnecessarily-extended outro drips with prolonged regret. The outstanding cut comes later for the cinematic, swirling soundscapes of ‘Force You’ with Bowman’s voice acting as a cool, melancholic breeze to counter the fantastic, psychedelic arrangement of harp and keyboards. Finally, the romantic, quasi-easy listening vibe of ‘Just Kids’ represents a rather sweet send-off for both the band and this album.

In terms of dance-inflected experimental pop, ‘Good Together’ stands up alongside the best work of Hot Chip but it certainly doesn’t sound like Hot Chip; there’s a unique style here which doesn’t offer any easy comparisons. Their proposed next step – according to the soundbite-savvy Bowman again – promised George Michael-style vocals, suggesting yet more means to kill off another section of the fan base. Whatever happens now, though, Chapel Club left behind two very different but also rather brilliant albums.

Web Sites:
Chapel Club Official Site
SoundCloud Stream of Chapel Club – ‘Good Together’

Further Listening:
Hot Chip, Roxy Music

Review: Aestrid – BOX

The Netherlands’ Aestrid promise much when stating their influences are Sonic Youth, The Sound and Krautrock. However, their second album ‘BOX’ has a noticeable Scandinavian feel to it. Pounding percussion, chiming guitars, relentless synths and the attractive, yearning falsetto of Bo Menning are the main ingredients and together this quartet serve up a feast of vibrant, modern indie rock.

Aestrid Album Cover

The emotional outpourings are brought immediately to the surface for the dramatic opener ‘Dover’ and the band rarely let up for an hour’s worth of invention and quality. The title track is another sweeping epic but this time the guitars are more ferocious, whilst ‘Im Einzelgang’ brings back the keyboards and the result is a spectacular, stadium-sized slice of glistening synth rock. Elsewhere, the quiet/loud dynamics of ‘Fair Start – Fire Hill’ demonstrates a thirst for experiment, the two part ‘Oregon’ provides a euphoric centrepiece and they only really begin to slow down for somewhat plodding ‘Northern Line’. After what has gone before, though, the band deserve a breather and the initially gentle but eventually intense ‘Quitsville Trash’ gets the band back on track in some style.

‘BOX’ certainly stands up strongly against those aforementioned Scandinavian connections. They can certainly rival the melodramatic hooks of Mew and the widescreen, swooning pop of A-ha. What is more they are able to maintain interest on a full hour’s worth of material. A splendid, energising record.

Web Sites;
Aestrid Official Site
Bandcamp Stream of Aestrid – BOX

Further Listening:
Mew, A-ha

Review: TaughtMe – Am I Old?

It’s been a long time since I last heard from San Francisco-based songwriter Blake Henderson and his solo project TaughtMe. Back then, in 2005, he released ‘ReadyToGoUnder’, an album whose themes of childhood were matched by a boyish enthusiasm for experimentation. Eight years on and – since his new album is named ‘Am I Old?’ – one can assume the transformation from child to adult has reached the completely opposite end of the age spectrum.

TaughtMe Album Cover

There are certainly shades of vaudeville about the beginning to this record. The opening selections are experimental and sometimes theatrical in nature. For example, using a background jazz/waltz template, ‘Into The Thicket’ stumbles and teeters attractively whilst Henderson emotes but the first three tracks also seem rather tentative in their approach. Henderson is a frontman with a voice that lingers forever on the threshold of tears and he is best employed when he pours out those emotions. Thankfully, this is more evident later on.

The title track turns out to be the first  main draw. It builds slowly with minimal backing; allowing Henderson full rein to release his demons. For ‘Really That Cute’ both the melody and Henderson himself seem to have been injected with optimism and this languid but more uptempo song is a welcome gear shift after a largely morose opening. So too are ‘The Truth (Really?) Every Time’ and ‘Boys You Don’t Love Me To Be’; delicate yet bright and colourful songs which emphasise the commercial appeal of TaughtMe’s material.

So whilst many albums tend to be front-loaded, ‘Am I Old?’ improves as the story progresses. If you’re looking for standard verse/chorus structure, you would be best advised to look elsewhere but this album’s strength lies in its emotional scars and its challenging arrangements and when Henderson is in full voice, he really is a joy to behold.

Web Sites:
TaughtMe Official Site
Bandcamp Stream of TaughtMe’s ‘Am I Old’

Further Listening:
Merz, Antony And The Johnsons