Archive for March, 2014

Review: The Workhouse – The Sky Still Looks The Same

A combination of baritone vocals and guitars on the knife edge of hope and despair have been the hallmarks of The Workhouse’s output so far. Their music has led the NME to hail them as “the new priests in cathedrals of sound” and they do have an uncanny knack of channelling the influences of so many great bands, yet retaining a distinctive and recognisable sound. ‘The Sky Still Looks The Same’ is their first release for the new German label, Oscarson.

The Workhouse Album Cover

A mixture of skyscraping and staccato guitars signify The Workhouse’s early aggression for the opening title track. It’s a shot across the bows which features the band at their bold and dramatic best. Bands very rarely deserve genuine comparisons with Joy Division but the thrilling bass and drum alliance underscoring the second track, ‘F.N.O.’, will convince some that they have uncovered a new Peter Hook versus Stephen Morris duel. Similarly, thanks to a strident melodic bassline driving the song forward, ‘Western Skies’ is more reminiscent of New Order and its lyrics of “And it seems like nothing’s changed. Everything just seems the same old way” certainly conjure up their simplistic but always effective way with words. Meanwhile, ‘Now I Am On Fire’ tones down the intensity and moves into slowcore territory but there’s always a refreshing sense of elegance and dignity in The Workhouse’s kind of despair leaving ‘Seven Stars’ to end the EP on an impressive crescendo of chiming post-rock.

It’s slightly disappointing that after all this time, a solitary EP is the only result from the band since 2011’s ‘The Coldroom Sessions’ but given the quality on offer here, no one should feel short-changed. The sky still looks the same according to the band but more importantly the music is as excellent as it has ever been.

Web Sites:
Oscarson Order Page for The Workhouse – The Sky Still Looks The Same
Video for The Workhouse – The Sky Still Looks The Same

Further Listening:
Kitchens Of Distinction, Redjetson, Raymond Scott Woolson, Joy Division, Abandon, The Chameleons

Review: Talk Less, Say More – Violent

When an artist considers making his seventh album he (or she) can be forgiven for beginning to run out of ideas or perhaps re-tread old ground once too often. On the evidence of ‘Violent’, the seventh album from Talk Less, Say More’s Matthew Jennings, the basic template of synth pop remains but this time he has enlisted an assortment of talented collaborators to create some devilishly inventive new songs.

Talk Less Say More Album Cover

There’s barely time to draw breath as first song ‘When The Storms Came’ bounces along, fuelled by high energy beats and Jennings’ distinctive Matthew Dear-meets-Phil Oakey vocals and when he intones the line “Tonight is like petrol and you have the match” it’s hard not to smile. Listeners should be advised to expect the unexpected where arrangements are concerned. ‘Oh Hi’ brings in steel drums, the title track features chanting and slap bass and it’s a big “Hello” to the early electronic instrument, the Martenot, for the bizarre but lovely ‘Becoming An Island’. Meanwhile, the bright, humorous pop of ‘Cantona’ (describing a chance encounter with the former Manchester United footballer) cries out to be an indie hit.

All of these first few songs are immediately likeable and infectious but it could be argued there’s a lack of depth. To answer those claims, Jennings reveals more of his soulful side as the album progresses. One can tell by its title alone that ‘Honest’ is going to be one of the most emotive tracks on the album but also the longing of ‘It’s Just That I Worry About You’ gives glistening early 1980’s synth pop a very welcome shot in the arm, whilst the brass-assisted ‘Yeah, That’s Right’ wears its melancholic heart proudly on its sleeve. Finally, the influence of Junior Boys is apparent on the relatively spare ‘Let’s Be True To One Another’.

On an album where understatement is in short supply, Jennings is clearly revelling in the cornucopia of instruments and talents at his disposal. However, he never loses his way in his search for a crafty tune and this is reliably melodic, eclectic and fun synth-pop with its tongue firmly in cheek.

Web Sites:
Records On Ribs Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Hot Chip, Matthew Dear

Review: The Attic Ends – Mark Of The Moon (Part Two)

Brooklyn’s The Attic Ends originally made their mark with their ethereal indie rock for last year’s ‘The Sky Begins (Part One)’. They are aiming even further with ‘Part Two’, cleverly entitled ‘Mark Of The Moon’, and they are ready to travel via different musical routes to get them there.

The Attic Ends EP Cover

It takes a while to get to it but ‘Radio’ has a fine if somewhat unexpected chorus. The title is entirely appropriate given that it has more in common with the AOR/FM rock of Fleetwood Mac rather than the quasi-gothic pop of their previous EP. Emphasising the band’s softer side further, for ‘No More Angels’ Samantha Rex’s voice lowers to a hushed whisper and the song has a breathy elegance and arrangement which makes it one of the strongest tracks.

This leads to the contrasting ‘Pharoah’; unearthing the rockier side to the band that continues for the second half of the EP. Pleasingly, the group provide the necessary intensity and rhythmic backbone without seeming to do battle with Rex and they repeat the trick again for the riff-heavy ‘More Than Lovers’. Whereas ‘The Sky Begins’ featured the best song at the beginning, it’s the final track of ‘Mark Of The Moon’, the towering title song, which takes the plaudits here thanks largely to guitarist Pete Hur’s best hook and Rex’s strident performance.

Overall, the band sound like a much more cohesive unit this time, whilst also expanding their palette to incorporate less indie/alternative influences. Whether these contrasting styles will confuse or excite fans, there’s a definite vibe to ‘Mark Of The Moon’ which makes one think back to the late 1980’s.

Web Sites:
The Attic Ends Official Site
Stream The Attic Ends – Mark Of The Moon (Part Two)

Further Listening:
Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, All About Eve, Ending People

Review: Nheap – Flying And The Silence

With his Nheap identity, Massimo Discepoli has earned a reputation for adding a distinct level of warmth to his jazz/post-rock tunes. It’s what enhances his past albums above other pretenders to the Tortoise throne, who are surely one of Discepoli’s main influences.

Nheap Album Cover

‘Origin And Water’ immediately puts the listener in a relaxed state. Not that this is a soporific introduction by any means. Yet the steady drums and Fender Rhodes accompaniment are the musical equivalent of visiting a friend or relative’s house and feeling at home straight away. There is definitely a pattern of track titles matching the mood of its instrumental piece thereafter. Exhibit A is ‘Wandering’ which – in its own mercurial way – weaves in and out of different key changes throughout its complex and fascinating arrangement. ‘Two Types Of Awakenings’ drifts between lovely nocturnal shadows and the final track ‘Recurring Dream’ is restless and hypnotic. Surprises tend to be few and far between but ‘Lost In A Leaf’ briefly suggests it’s turning into The Isley Brothers’ ‘Summer Breeze’, before settling into a familiar groove. On the debit side, as intricately performed they may be, ‘Primary Colors’, ‘Half-Asleep’ and the title track do err towards the noodly, background music trap which has claimed so many victims in this genre.

Discepoli may have been known as a drummer by trade but here he once again demonstrates the beauty of multi-layered arrangements, with that all-important warmth still intact. ‘Flying And The Silence’ isn’t quite as addictive as 2009’s excellent ‘Skymotion’, with a few tracks not quite hitting the mark. That said, Discepoli firing on all cylinders half the time is better than some of his compatriots manage in a whole career.

Web Sites:
Nheap Official Site
Acustronica Label and Shop Site
Bandcamp page for Nheap – Flying And The Silence

Further Listening:
Kobol, Tortoise, Jaga Jazzist

Review: Tracy Shedd – Arizona

Way back in 2008 was my first opportunity to write about the music of Tracy Shedd. The mixture of grunge and lovelorn ballads on that year’s ‘Cigarettes & Smoke Machines’ album called to mind the missing link between Suzanne Vega and Gemma Hayes. 2010’s ‘EP88’ stripped back the production further with a selection of piano ballads. Now ‘Arizona’ takes an even more back to basics approach with, for the most part, just Shedd and her husband James Tritten’s acoustic guitar.

Tracy Shedd Album Cover

Named after her home state, the spare arrangements offer the duo no hiding place but they perform with great emotional honesty and distinction. Backed by the most beguiling and sad guitar melodies, ‘Take A Ride’ takes on a shivery, haunting aura, ‘You’re No Fool’ glistens whilst album highlights ‘Control’, ‘Boats’, ‘A Million Pictures’ and ‘Sing To Me’ are full of romantic despair and longing.

Not that this is a one-paced affair at all, the Everything But The Girl-like ‘Broken Arrows’ ups the pace and adds male vocal harmonies whilst the upbeat ‘All The Little Things’ adds a little French for romantic intrigue. Elsewhere, there are also fine covers of both Magnetic Fields’ ‘Candy’ and a delicate take on Sonic Youth’s ‘Teenage Riot’; each delivered with respect, dignity and fresh ideas.

Throughout, Tritten’s contributions are intricate and simplistic when they need to be, winding around the clear and emotionally charged tones of Shedd. Across the three markedly different releases I’ve written about, it’s pleasing to note that not only is Shedd equally at home with each style she performs but also her songwriting seems to resonate and improve more and more with each release. Sterling stuff.

Web Sites:
Tracy Shedd Official Site
Stream of Tracy Shedd – Arizona

Further Listening:
Suzanne Vega, Dawn Dineen, Everything But The Girl

Review: iiii – iiii

iiii are a quartet of jazz-trained musicians, keen to combine their education and talents with soul and R&B influences. It’s a tiptoe into more commercial waters for pianist Paul Bloom and bassist Connor Schultze, who were last heard on a surprisingly fun and vibrant jazz instrumental album inspired by the works of Dr Seuss.

iiii Album Cover

Most of the best songs are at the beginning of the album. ‘Trust’ dispenses with the somewhat wayward approach of the later tracks and is an early, fine example of how to incorporate jazz into a modern, soulful pop song; given voice by Laila Smith’s pitch perfect tones. Even better is ‘Agree To Disagree’ where Smith and Bloom provide the melodic core but they are brilliantly assisted by the crisp and intense rhythms from Shultze and Jeremy Dutton. It actually sounds like an alliance between Swing Out Sister and Steely Dan.

Further on, the downbeat yet warm ‘One Million’ is reminiscent of early 1980’s Scottish act The French Impressionists whilst the impassioned delivery of ‘Is That Really What You Want’ features Smith at her most soul-baring, although she gives a very refined turn for the poignant ‘1999’. Elsewhere, the exciting moments are more sporadic as the music becomes less infectious and more improvisational. It may be a good way to showcase their versatility and you can visualise these performances going down well in a live setting but on record, the “nice at dinner parties” vibe feels a little flat.

So, at just under an hour in length, ‘iiii’ the album is definitely too long but for at least half this time, the young foursome demonstrate the necessary warmth and soul as well as the kind of arrangement and songwriting skills which make a mockery of their youth. With all band members still attending school, it will be interesting to hear what their next move will be.

Web Sites:
iiii Official Site
Stream of iiii – iiii

Further Listening:
Swing Out Sister, The French Impressionists

Review: Unconditional Arms – Kinship

An album made as a gift to a newborn son is undoubtedly going to be an emotional affair but the key is that it doesn’t slip into overly-sentimental waters. In the case of Unconditional Arms’ ‘Kinship’ that tricky obstacle is negotiated by making it an entirely instrumental affair. A good move from this Californian band, as it happens.

Unconditional Arms Album Cover

‘Kinship’ is strongly influenced by post-rock giants such as Explosions In The Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor; two outfits not renown for looking on the bright side of life. However, the actual mood of the album is an appropriately celebratory one, with each ringing guitar figure and percussion crescendo casting a bright glow over proceedings, as befits the occasion. After the wind tunnel approach of ‘The Family Tree’, the towering ‘Television On The Weekends’ dazzles with its slow-building chimes and triumphant aura. If the excess of ‘First Love’ over-eggs the pudding, then the contrasting shimmer of ‘Transition And Finality’ provides a fine antidote. ‘Conscious Whirr’ is another track which concentrates on the loud end of the spectrum but at its beating heart is a lovely melody. This just leaves the acoustic resonance of ‘Rest’ to end this strong instrumental album on a subtle, fragrant note.

If you weren’t aware of the inspirational backstory to ‘Kinship’ this could, in fairness, be an album about any dramatic event you could think of. However, the final word should be reserved from band member and proud father Jeff Wright: “lyrics just couldn’t convey the incalculable emotions a new child presents”.

Web Sites:
Unconditional Arms Official Site
Stream of Unconditional Arms – Kinship

Further Listening:
Explosions In The Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Raymond Scott Woolson


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