Archive for April, 2014

Review: The Velvet Ants – Solt Olio

The Velvet Ants’ biographical information is fairly thin on the ground but they have a simple story to the build-up to their latest album which is both believable and admirable. They hail from Fairfax, Virginia and are based around the talents of founder member Ian Margolycz who proclaims that upon working with new members Jordon Zadorozny and Eric Sakmar, he found musicians “inspiring each other, instead of convincing each each other”. It sounds like a cliché but you can certainly hear the evidence of an almost telepathic, tight-knit unit on the seamless ‘Solt Olio’.

The Velvet Ants Album Cover

The power pop and harmonies of first song ‘Find You’ are rather misleading since this is a largely downbeat, gritty record. So the next track, a rather grungy ‘Cardigan’s Fable’, is a better indicator for what is to follow which is smart, edgy, incisive indie rock and yet the band can also server up some excellent mid-paced tunes too. The vocals may lack identity; instead they act as another layer of instruments and within the context of the song they work well, such as on ‘What If I’, which is set to hypnotic jangly guitars or the driving rhythms of ‘K9 (Return Of Youth’).

‘Mirror Matches’ is possibly the band at their best. The verses creeping eerily and slowly into the chorus, with subtle and clever hooks along the way. If it has a more well-known equivalent it would be Engineers’ ‘Come In Out Of The Rain’. The middle of the record is actually where it’s strongest with the group hitting a rich seam of songwriting form. ‘The Hornet’s Eye Is Grey’ and ‘Idle Tears’ equate mystery with melancholy and melody whereas ‘Over Harbors’ pulls back from aggression when it threatens to explode into heavy metal or hard rock, all tracks evoking the latter day material of The Comsat Angels.

Too clear to be classed as shoegaze, too light to be grunge and too left of centre to be perceived as pop. Instead The Velvet Ants take the best elements of these genres as touchstones for informing their indie/alternative rock songs. The end result is a dense record which requires some work to get into it but the investment in time will definitely be rewarded.

Web Sites:
The Velvet Ants – Solt Olio Album Stream

Further Listening
Engineers, The Comsat Angels


Review: Hotels – Cinemascope III

It’s been a while since we last heard of a new album from Seattle’s Hotels which isn’t too surprising since founding member Blake Madden is now the only constant. Yet since their 2005 debut ‘Thank You For Choosing’, Hotels’ music appears to have become more and more influenced by the world of film to such an extent that this is the final part of a trio of EPs inspired by the movies.

Hotels EP Cover

‘Relentless Practitioners’ rumbles along a backdrop of Krautrock rhythms and stop-start drums, building up to a bruising and intense chorus. It is here that the familiar sound of the Hotels’ surf guitar kicks in, by which time the vocals are all but drowned under the barrage of instruments. No matter, it’s a cage-rattling good start with a retro-futurist twist. ‘The Man Who Went To Bed’ is a far more serene affair, led by a heavenly, rather wistful synth wash, not unlike The Chameleons’ ‘Silence, Sea And Sky’, whilst ‘La Maldicion Sur La Miami’ (translating to the curse of South Miami) brings back the surf guitar again, for a frenetic boat ride on the Florida surf. ‘New Beginnings In The Sun’ is the sole concession to shoegaze/dreampop and one where the songwriting rather than the soundtrack prowess is to the fore; the verses building up slowly and elegantly like an indie Bond theme before exploding into a heart-bursting chorus with gorgeous layers of effects and male/female harmonies.

‘Cinemascope III’ maintains Madden and co’s knack for creating noir-ish soundscapes with a healthy undercurrent of romance and danger. Whatever happens next, Hotels have left behind a fine legacy of film-worthy music. Thank you for choosing them.

Web Sites:
Hotels – Cinemascope III

Further Listening:
Monocle, Stereolab, The Chameleons

Review: Gonzalo Esteybar – About (EP)

The worlds of ambient and jazz fusion are joined for this new EP from Argentina’s Gonzalo Esteybar. Esteybar is clearly a specialist in electric and acoustic guitars and his fluid, dexterous yet never showy technique may well catch the casual ears of Vini Reilly followers.

Gonzalo Esteybar EP Cover

This may be a new EP but included here is a remix of an earlier track and a version of a Bach piece. The languid jazz/funk of ‘Pero Voy’ is one of the new tracks and opens up the EP with an abundance of warmth and relaxed melody; the kind of music which could be played at a dinner party but also complex enough for headphone listening. ‘About’ itself is the moment which most easily lends itself to Durutti Column comparisons, specifically during his mid 80’s phase. Esteybar employs some rather primitive programmed beats and a selection of samples; the track then working its way into curious passages of psychedelia but with Estyebar’s infectious playing the one key constant.

The remix of ‘Paspartu’ lasts significantly longer than the original but it’s such a charming little tune, it’s a privilege to hear it in its longer format. Meanwhile, the Bach reworking (‘Prelude in C#m, BWV 849’) is clever and interesting if a little shrill and awkward so it’s a testament to Esteybar’s creative talents that his own modern compositions stand out the most. Certainly, the last two tracks ‘Cuatro, Siete’ and the bonus track featuring The Rosario Guitar Ensemble aren’t quite up to the earlier standards but they do demonstrate the versatility of the artist.

‘About (EP)’ is generally of very good quality but one suggestion would be to record a few tracks which don’t include the ambient touches. After all, Esteybar’s playing is strong enough not to need them.

Web Sites:
Gonzalo Esteybar Official Site
Gonzalo Esteybar Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Durutti Column

Review: The Crookes – Soapbox

The backstory to The Crookes begins as a chance encounter when the original band members found each other dancing alone in a Sheffield club. Fast forward six years and now they’re now an indie rock band recording their third album on Fierce Panda Records but the loneliness still remains their constant inspiration.

The Crookes Album Cover

Sonically, The Crookes are cut from a similar cloth as Chapel Club, in their first album guise. They have a distinctive frontman, duelling guitarists and a widescreen epic rock sound and the doleful ‘Echolalia’ really does sound like a Chapel Club pastiche. Lead single and first track ‘Play Dumb’ could be considered their anthem but in truth there are many contenders. Here, the twin attack of jangly and jagged guitars prompts George Waite to croon and brood on inner turmoil. ‘Don’t Put Your Faith In Me’ revels in the role of the loser too, confidently proclaiming “you can count on me to fuck it up” but even though the production and words belong to the modern era, the guitars can be back-dated to the rock and roll years.

After a breathless opening of incisive indie pop, some space is required and ‘Holy Innocents’ duly arrives. It’s just Waite and a piano for ninety minutes before the band lend subtle but trademark reverb-heavy support. Naturally the quartet had to name a track ‘Outsiders’ but its impassioned cries of defiance (“Everyone you love will leave you in the end. Oh if we’re gonna die let’s go all the way”) could well be another set text for the next set of lonely dancers in South Yorkshire. There is a tendency for the songs to merge into each other a little too easily so the introduction of the fuzzed-up, gritty ‘Marcy’ is a rude but welcome interruption, whilst the low-slung rhythms of the title track brings events to a classy close.

Concentrating on lyrics alone you would have thought these were the words of a doomed folk/blues singer but it’s to the band’s credit that their music is infectious, lively and surprisingly hopeful sounding. If they cut loose a bit more on the next record and smear some mud on the production, their songs of solitude should have the necessary edge to appeal to even more outsiders too.

Web Sites:
The Crookes Official Site
The Crookes – Play Dumb Video

Further Listening:
Chapel Club, The Smiths

Review: perth – What’s Your Utopia?

perth are a relatively new four piece with three quarters of the band from promising post-rock act Apricot Rail whilst the remaining quarter is songwriter Matthew Dolan. This is very much a band effort of course but Dolan may be the key ingredient which could deviate the other band members from the “rockier” inclinations that threatened to undermine their good work.

perth Album Cover

If they must be pigeon-holed, perth belong in the subcategory known as ambient rock but in reality this only tells a fragment of the story. Each song is lovingly arranged with contrasting layers whether it’s a keyboard wash, crying birds, breakbeats, brass or, on ‘Drank And Kites And Tomorrow’, vocals which seem to have been exhumed from some obscure psych rock act from the 1960’s. The gorgeous ‘Saw Promenade’ brings out the xylophone and its subtly romantic feel is brought to the fore by its post-rock-meets-dreamy easy listening backing. The eerie, glacial ‘Greasy Moon’ recalls the mysterious, lunar sounds of Avrocar, then there’s the curiously subdued electronica of ‘Sunday Stroll’ and the twinkling, starry beauty of ‘Collapsible Lung’. All are excellent, complex songs which seem to exist in their own universe. Even the finale ‘Viewmaster’ can’t resist a touch of weirdness as it mutates from a fairly understated acoustic rock number into an odd coda of what sounds like cuckoo clocks and then there’s a chilling hidden track characterised by choral samples and stately piano.

‘What’s Your Utopia?’ is likely to be one of the most unusual albums you will hear over the course of a year. However, whereas other bands try too hard to sound different, perth blend their enigmatic layers subtly and ingeniously; never forgetting those key attributes of melody and emotion.

Web Sites:
Perth Album Trailer
Hidden Shoal Recordings Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Glassacre, Avrocar, Apricot Rail

Review: Painted Palms – Forever

Internet collaborations have become the norm rather than the exception of late. Painted Palms’ Reese Donahue and Christopher Prudhomme are another example but whereas other bandwidth-troubling music partners aim for kinship and telepathy, these young gentleman have the advantage of being cousins. They put it to excellent use too, on the glorious debut ‘Forever’, which mixes 60’s psych pop with modern production values.

Painted Palms Album Cover

One listen to ‘Too High’ and images of The Beach Boys in space spring to mind thanks to the exuberant aura, Prudhomme’s high-pitched vocals and busy beats, not to mention the gorgeous pop melody. The addition of sleigh bells for the similarly dazzling ‘Here It Comes’ possibly brings this image even clearer into focus and then they have the audacity and charm to aim for Sgt. Pepper’s-era psych for the title track. There’s rarely time to draw breath between each song as one crafty hook follows another but when the chance finally does arrive via the elongated, glacial romance of ‘Soft Hammer’ and the sweetly seductive ‘Carousel’, they arguably prove they are even better at the slower numbers. It’s the kind of album where even a brief interlude called ‘Hope That You See It Now’ sounds magical.

Even if there’s an overdose of sugar towards the end of the record the duo still save one of their most inspired moments until last, courtesy of the perfect dreampop featured on ‘Empty Gun’. So for those who find Deerhunter a little dark for their tastes or those who want a 21st Century take on psych pop, ‘Forever’ provides the solution to your problem.

Web Sites:
Painted Palms Official Site
Polyvinyl Records Label and Shop Site
Stream of Painted Palms – Forever

Further Listening:
Beach Boys, Deerhunter, Paul J Fox

Review: Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain

Public Service Broadcasting announced themselves last year with a bold manifesto to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future”. On paper this sounds like a rather pretentious prospect. Nevertheless, their concerts, where they accompany their audio nostalgia with archive video footage, has attracted audiences searching for that elusive, deeper, three-dimensional live experience.

Public Service Broadcasting Album Cover

If one were to dissect Public Service Broadcasting they would discover a strange hybrid of Kraftwerk-derived melody, accompanied by the motorik rhythms of lesser known Krautrock bands. Teutonic directions aside, however, the USP is merging these influences with samples from public service and propaganda films which lend most of these tracks a haunted, mysterious quality. Some have accused them of being contrived and they have a point, after all the use of sampling is hardly new and they wouldn’t be the first band to attempt to emulate the magic of German pioneers. In the case for the prosecution, the confusing, banjo-led ‘ROYGBIV’ may provide a bit of light relief but doesn’t even approach the standard of Boards Of Canada’s track of the same name and ‘The Now Generation’ sounds like a tired facsimile of the aforementioned Kraftwerk.

Yet there’s much to savour here too. The insistent machine-made rhythms and usage of wartime dialogue elevate ‘Spitfire’ to one of the most effective moments. Elsewhere, there’s playful electro-pop (‘Theme From PSB’) whilst waves of grinding guitars channel the aggression of British Sea Power on ‘Signal 30’. Tellingly, PSB are at their best when they keep things less complicated. ‘Night Mail’ may feature somewhat mundane subject matter but the piece is shrouded in glacial melancholic melody, the equally understated ‘Lit Up’ is another moving highlight and the nocturnal, noirish ‘Late Night Final’ ends the album on a satisfyingly, largely word-free note.

Unaccompanied by the visuals of their well-received live shows, it’s arguable that listening to the album is like watching a film with your eyes closed but this should not deter potential listeners from enjoying ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’ as a standalone piece of entertainment. Indeed, the combination of propulsive rhythms, chilling archive dialogue and no shortage of tunes leads to an experience that is both edifying and shiver-inducing.

Web Sites:
Public Service Broadcasting Official Site
Public Service Broadcasting performing ‘Night Mail’ at LeeFest 2013

Further Listening:
Kraftwerk, Komputer, British Sea Power, Colourbox

Review: RedTails – The Start Of The Beginning

I must confess I wasn’t too familiar with the world of futurepop until I heard about RedTails, who are modern exponents of this subgenre. In technical terms, if you have a penchant for synthpop, trance and dance music with large doses of sampling it’s fair to say you might like this band from the South of England. Then again, if you like cinematic hip-hop with strident female vocals fronting glorious pop songs as well, you would appreciate ‘The Start Of The Beginning’ even more.

RedTails EP Cover

The EP begins brilliantly. Set to a Morricone Western-style soundtrack-meets-Pearl & Dean intro-meets-hip-hop beats backing, the samples of Rick Carrington and Dan Alland provide the perfect platform for Colette Francis-Lee’s lively vocals. Add in Alland’s crisp live drums and you have a thunderous, dramatic opening. ‘Blinding Lights’ is better still. It begins with a thrilling hybrid of stop-start, quasi-military percussion and string samples but this is just a taster for a huge chorus where Francis-Lee shines again with a performance which speaks of heartbreak upon every utterance of the word “Goodbye”. Her lyrics are far more biting for the frenetic ‘Brighter Place’, however, virtually spitting blood as she screams “You’re a liar. You’re a cheat. You’re no good for me”. Once again, Carrington serves up an inspired stew of samples too. The last track, ‘These Times, These Minds’, begins with a trance-y intro, before the excitable beats kick in again. It’s the most danceable of the four songs but it still has an intelligence and soul which ensures this doesn’t feel like an anonymous DJ-plus-singer side-project.

Naturally, the true test of a band’s endurance is to see them perform over the course of a whole album’s worth of material but these four songs are both exciting and moving at the same time. Imagine early Portishead stepping into clubs and discos before recording their debut album and this would go some way to understanding the appeal of RedTails.

Web Sites:
RedTails SoundCloud
Video for RedTails – Brighter Place

Further Listening:
Portishead, Marshall Star

Review: My Favourite Things – Tomorrow’s Far Away

It took a decade for New York’s Dorothea Tachler to begin her solo career after serving time in various bands. On the evidence of her latest album ‘Tomorrow’s Far Away’ she definitely put the time to good use with no less than fourteen instruments (amongst them harmonium, kalimba, taishōgoto (a Japanese harp), violin and steel drums) all credited to her, not to mention her own soothing yet rather subdued vocals. One can only assume she brought in other collaborators simply because she ran out of hands to play everything.

My Favourite Things Album Cover

So, to the music then. ‘Flight Of The Pterodactyl’ begins like a fragile, rather forlorn little song but, by its elongated coda, the track has become awash with strings, crunching percussion and kitchen sink production. It may be the first track on the album but it has the sense of a finale as Tachler and her various contributors sound like they exerted their last efforts to complete it. What comes in between is rather shy and timid in comparison. Next comes the morose title track which is enlivened by Andreas Nick Horn’s impressively crisp drumming but it’s the first of many moments where you wonder whether Tachler is too shy a performer to really stamp her authority on the otherwise lovingly-arranged material.

When Tachler comes out of her shell she begins to show her true talents. ‘Even When I’m Alone’ may have a fairly modest set-up with just Tachler and a marimba but here her close-mic delivery and gorgeously sad melody really plucks at the heart strings. Likewise, on the surface ‘A Little While’ consists of little more than harp and Tachler’s sighs of despair but it’s a key moment at the centre of the record. She even tries her hand at Country and Western with the ukulele-assisted ‘El Sereno’. Finally, the real last track turns out to be a highlight too thanks to ‘Not By Now’ and its spellbinding ghostly folk.

Sometimes it’s apparent that Tachler is still coming to terms with performing alone as several of these songs lack the confidence of a solo artist. However, her virtuoso talents can certainly not be disputed and there are plenty of examples here which suggest that moving away from the band experience to perform this kind of wistful, dreamy folk music was the right idea after all.

Web Site:
My Favourite Things Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Tracy Shedd