Archive for June, 2014

Review: Kaela Sinclair – Sun & Mirror

Kaela Sinclair is unquestionably a talented and versatile singer-songwriter but one who has the distinction of being called “the red-headed Morgan Freeman” by one particularly imaginative critic. This is presumably a reference to the Texan’s vocals which have that experienced, unforced emotional quality that belies her relative youth. Her debut, though, straddles an unexpected line between the worlds of indie pop and soul music.

Kaela Sinclair Album Cover

Sinclair couldn’t have started much better than the terrific opening couplet ‘Ghosts You’ve Won’ and ‘Stranger’, where her relaxed yet emotive style can be enjoyed over imaginative ambient pop/orchestral arrangements. At this point she is reminiscent of Rose Elinor Dougall; a wonderful voice but also one who isn’t afraid to venture into the great British indie songbook. Continuing the impressive beginning, an elegant ‘Without’ and a romantic ‘Lock And Key’ demonstrate subtlety and soul.

From here, however, Sinclair is content to ease into late night soul. On the better material this can be appealing but during the middle section of the record, the comfortable aura Sinclair projects errs towards the bland. It is here where more hooks are required or at least a variation in style; just something to break up the pleasant, jazz club vibe. Belatedly, on the ninth track, ‘The Realist’, that change arrives as Sinclair and her band raise the game again to locate the kind of inspired vocal arrangement and infectious, playful melody so prevalent on the first few songs. The album ends well too with the towering ballad ‘Remnants Of’ and an aching 1970’s-flavoured ‘Coral Castles’.

For now, this somewhat uneven record suggests an artist caught between two genres, at the cusp of something special. Because when Sinclair follows her imagination and takes risks, she proves that she could follow in the footsteps of the inspirational, individual female performers her undoubted potential suggests.

Web Sites:
Kaela Sinclair Official Site
Kaela Sinclair Bandcamp
Video for Kaela Sinclair – Ghosts You’ve Won

Further Listening:
Rose Elinor Dougall, A Girl Called Eddy


Review: Dolls Come To Life – The Groundskeeper’s Daughter

When two talented pianists/composers work together, there’s a potential threat of egos taking control. Thankfully this wasn’t the case with Michelle Cross and Joe Frawley’s collaboration as Dolls Come To Life, with the former proving to be an excellent foil for Frawley as his always experimental approach began to place more emphasis on song-based material. Next up is another concept album called ‘The Groundskeeper’s Daughter’.

Dolls Come To Life Album Cover

‘First Memory’ encapsulates Frawley’s solo output; distinguished by melancholic piano melodies, nature samples and female murmurings. For ‘The Nightingale And The Rose’, however, Cross is pushed to the forefront with the minimum of backing. Thereafter the duo push themselves into fascinating and varied directions. Frawley introduces sonic trickery on ‘Outside’, making the backgrounds shift and shimmer to add credence to the ghostly tale whilst ‘Wake Up, Wake Up’ and ‘The Language Of Flowers’ make clever use of vocal layering and “ambient guitar”. The production is also laden with echo which serves to add further chills to the already haunting material. Despite that the arrangements are actually fairly delicate, never threatening to oppress the listener.

Cross earned comparisons with Tori Amos on the first Dolls Come To Life album and she deserves them again on ‘The Violet Hour’; a rare (and not unwelcome) concession by the duo to record a mainstream song. Furthermore, the last official track is a lovely version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard ‘Stardust’. Here, the lyrics of “Beside the garden wall, when stars are bright, I am in your arms. The nightingale tells her fairytales of paradise where roses grew.” are perfectly chosen given the subject matter of the record.

Frawley and Cross make music which is designed for a dreamlike state, so material based on ghosts in gardens and half-formed memories fit this approach like a glove. Granted, there are a few times when the sounds blur so much that it’s hard to keep focus on the melodic themes but otherwise this songwriting partnership continues to bear fruit.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream of Michelle Cross & Joe Frawley’s ‘The Groundskeeper’s Daughter’
Michelle Cross Official Site
Joe Frawley Official Site

Further Listening:
Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Dead Can Dance

Review: Strata Florida – Made Of Stars

4AD followers will be aware of Swallow, a male/female duo who released an album called ‘Blow’ in 1992. It encapsulated the dream pop/shoegaze movement of the time with Louise Trehy’s gentle, whispered vocals a ghostly presence in their brief recording career. Since then, Trehy abandoned the music business altogether so the appearance of a new project called Strata Florida is something of a surprise. Here she is joined by veteran guitarist Pete Pavli and drummer Steve Kent.

Strata Florida Album Cover

‘Made Of Stars’ begins with anything but a whisper since it is ushered in by a sequence of murky guitars but then the reassuringly familiar vocals of Trehy soon make their presence known. As comebacks go, Trehy and her musical partners certainly don’t play it safe with some of the arrangements bordering on the abrasive side. However, the one constant is Trehy’s lighter than air tones which lend an angelic contrast to the devilment around her. Amongst such FX-saturated tunes, the relatively spare ‘Hang On’ emerges as a moment of warped beauty. Swallow earned expected comparisons with My Bloody Valentine during their time and choice cuts here such as ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Monster’ pull off that trick of finding blissful melody underneath walls of bruising, manicured noise. At other times, though, it’s difficult to detect the melody and one almost feels sympathy for Trehy on her quest to be heard above the cacophony.

In conclusion, ‘Made Of Stars’ requires a fair amount of hard work to appreciate its qualities. However, shoegazing fans are noted for their patience and by peeling away the layers of distortion, the album eventually represents an unexpected and equally welcome return for Trehy.

Web Sites:
Strata Florida Official Site
Saint Marie Records Label and Shop Site
Strata Florida – Made Of Stars on Bandcamp
Video for Strata Florida – Hang On

Further Listening:
Swallow, My Bloody Valentine, Cranes

Review: Jupe Jupe – Crooked Kisses

If Seattle’s Jupe Jupe existed thirty years ago, it’s easy to imagine them lining up alongside the synth pop giants of the day. They have a fine and distinctive frontman in the lovelorn, brooding tones of My Young whilst the songs consist of swish synth pop backed up by mildly aggressive guitars, provoking comparisons to Ultravox in their pomp.

Jupe Jupe Album Cover

Lead track ‘Pieces Of You’ collects all the key elements together into an exquisite whole, making it the perfect choice for the first single too. European pop is revived again for ‘Love To Watch You Fall’ and for the first few tracks, the band appear to be sticking rigidly to a slick, shiny but effective formula. However, the darker ‘Whispers Kill’ and ‘All The Things We Made’ suggests the bittersweet delights of Magnetic Fields, thereby revealing further depth to their songwriting credentials. To offer even further contrast, ‘Vicariously’ is disposable but also insanely catchy and ‘New Stars In The Sky’ rounds off the record with an excess of romantic longing.

The album could do with a little pruning here and there. After all, good pop albums tend to clock in well under the forty five minute mark. However, ‘Crooked Kisses’ is certainly hook-heavy and if you’re partial to synth pop fronted by rich, melancholic vocals, dive right in.

Web Sites:
Jupe Jupe Official Site
Jupe Jupe Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Levy, Ultravox, The Magnetic Fields

Review: Mr. Forest Green – Fluorescent Night

Mr. Forest Green have emerged from Modesto, California and simply sum up their genre as “indie”. This admittedly open-ended description is probably the easiest way to define this fascinating EP which straddles shoegaze, post-rock and even a smidgen of folk in search of multi-layered euphoria.

Mr. Forest Green EP Cover

In keeping with the nature-themed band name, a chorus of bird song opens the EP but then a cavalcade of guitars begins accompanied by a brief sequence of aching vocals. There’s a definite shoegaze ambience here but then there’s also dense passages of acoustic guitars in the mix too so the effect is like listening to a rustic version of The Walkmen. ‘Disregarded Love’ layers on the guitars too, with once again little in the way of human voices but plenty of dreamy melodrama.

The lack of vocals on the first two tracks is actually a little disappointing since they are strong and expressive when they do feature. Thankfully, they are much more prominent on the engaging ‘Casual Convenience’ and ‘Yellow Orange’. The production could benefit from a little more clarity but they are clearly emerging as songwriters rather than post-rockers with the latter offering, in particular, ratcheting up the intensity levels. Meanwhile, the final track, ‘Hollow’, is slightly trippy and psychedelic, showing a different slant to the group’s ouevre.

Overall, it’s an encouraging start for this fledgling band which has the key elements you would demand from any new act. Good songs, creative arrangements and a myriad of directions they could take forward for future releases. Therefore, ‘Fluorescent Night’ is definitely good indie.

Web Sites:
Mr. Forest Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Broken Social Scene

Review: Glue Trip – Just Trippin EP

Lucas Moura and Felipe Augusto live in a small coastal city in North East Brazil, resplendent with tropical scenery and tropical weather. It must be a fine source of inspiration for making music and the duo have duly obliged with their first EP of psychedelic pop.

Glue Trip EP Cover

‘Elbow Pain’ isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last song to be influenced by the beach, nostalgia and the break up of a relationship but the captivating mix of languid flamenco guitars, falsetto vocals and thick production to the fore. This paints a picture which is original, colourful and – let’s be honest about it –  trippy. The vibe on the next trip is considerably more folk-flavoured on the excellent ‘La Edad Del Futuro’ with wistful flute and organ melodies interweaving expertly with the duo’s chanting. ‘Birds Singing Lies’ sees the duo experiment with samples of avian calls to chilling effect whilst ‘Lucid Dream’ presents a moment of skewed beauty; all swirling keyboards and slightly off-key Beach Boys harmonies.

They begin to overdo the sleepy effect on the drowsy closers  ‘Sophie’ and ‘Old Blood’ but maybe that was the idea all along and Moura and Augusto are musical geniuses designing the perfect soundtrack to evoke a dreamlike state and eventual sleep. Either way, the whole experience certainly adds up to something far more substantial than any suggestions of drug-fuelled nonsense they might initially be mistaken for.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Glue Trip – Just Trippin

Further Listening:
The Kinetic Stereokids

Review: High Hazels – In The Half Light

Part of the same Sheffield scene which spawned The Crookes, High Hazels step into the limelight with their first EP. Like their fellow South Yorkshire pretenders, this new four piece specialise in a happy/sad Northern Britain outlook, predominantly informed by the romance and rock and roll of yesterday but with a nod to the dream pop productions of today.

High Hazels EP Cover

Yet whilst The Crookes specialise in an almost breathless form of indie, High Hazels are the kings of lovelorn ballads. Opener ‘French Rue’ is an absolute killer of an opening track. Scott Howes’ vintage guitar hooks shimmer deliciously and when James Leesley opens his mouth something really quite beautiful emerges; a young voice but one equipped with all the bittersweet experiences of a man twice his age. Clearly, these guys are not another set of young upstarts jumping on the retro bandwagon, there is real emotion and talent here.

The tender melancholy of ‘Winter Song’ sounds magical, featuring lovely layers of reverb-soaked guitar and a key lyric of “The sun has fallen down, on an empty town”. It’s unmistakably nostalgic but High Hazels put their own stamp on it, just as The La’s did a quarter of a Century ago. Continuing the weather theme, ‘Summer Rain’ is a stomping number more redolent of The Crookes or indeed those other modern purveyors of jaded romance, Chapel Club. This just leaves a glistening ‘Loose Stitches’ to close the EP, reverting to the quartet’s strength in balladry with yet more 60’s period grace.

High Hazels are currently working on their first album and if they keep up this brilliant form, it could be one of the best of the year. So Richard Hawley better watch out because a new band of heartbreakers are in town to steal his mantle.

Web Sites:
High Hazels Tumblr
SoundCloud Page for High Hazels – In The Half Light

Further Listening:
Richard Hawley, The Crookes, Chapel Club, The La’s

Review: Carbon Handshake – A Dive Right

Carbon Handshake are a group from Minneapolis who are ostensibly part of the post-rock scene. However, this term doesn’t really do them justice. They write complex, intricately arranged songs which deserve dedicated listening.

Carbon Handshake Album Cover

This creative group certainly defy pigeon-holing, so there is space for ‘Technicolor (Waste Our Days)’ and its full-on chamber folk-pop whilst ‘Circumstance’ is a terrific excursion into ambient rock and country territory.  On ‘Kids Are On Their Own’ they also pursue a rock-ier approach, not unlike Arcade Fire in their pomp.

The second half of the record gives the impression of an extended suite or at least passages of music, seguing into each other. It’s an ambitious but worthwhile set of ideas with ‘The Horseman’ standing out in particular as it burns with a quiet intensity. Furthermore, whatever Carbon Handshake achieve from here they have made at least one really special song in the shape of ‘Synapse’. It’s another busy, multi-layered arrangement propelled by a simple but addictive sequence of stabbing keyboards but most impressive of all are the yearning vocals of Clancy Brady.

Not for this band the traditional verse-chorus format. Here are songs carefully arranged and intended to provide atmosphere and drama rather than go for obvious hooks. Better still, for all its craft and technical detail,  ‘A Dive Right’ is a frequently warm and joyous record.

Web Sites:
Carbon Handshake Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Arcade Fire, Silicon Ballet

Review: Atom Band – Atom Band EP

Any band which attracts the label of “Craptastic melancholic punk” has got to be worth investigating. In the case of Johannesburg’s Atom Band, we have a group made up of members called John Gonzo (lead guitar), Ryan the Toyota (the bass guitar), Riaan Nirhoo (guitar) and Vasane Sinatra (vocal). It’s possible these may not be their real names but the music they make is as convincing and raw as you could wish for.

Atom Band Image

Upon listening to ‘Betsy (Stalker Sympathy)’, there is certainly a wild 1970’s vibe about the band. The murky production doesn’t help but give the impression that the band members are not necessary on the same page, with post-punk bass clashing with howling feedback and the Sinatra’s almost state of consciousness wailing. Yet despite the crazed nature of it all, there’s something very thrilling to behold here. Imagine Suicide’s Alan Vega performing a cover of Department S’s ‘Is Vic There?’ and you wouldn’t be a million miles away from the truth.

‘Flies In The Marketplace’ is a much more haunted affair; the band this time work in unison to create a claustrophobic shroud of a song which captures the essence of 1979. Then comes the equally fine ‘The Panic In Needle Park’ which combines rattling punk with Postcard Records-era funk/post-punk. If these songs sound dirty then ‘Description Of A Struggle’ is positively filthy with the South Africans summoning up the rawness and visceral energy of a live performance on their strongest song.

It’s debatable whether this is a proper EP since their site info suggests the four offerings here are individually produced songs. This might explain the lack of cohesion between each track but it matters little because The Atom Band are clearly on to a winner based on this brief but compelling evidence.

Web Sites:
Atom Band Bandcamp
Atom Band SoundCloud

Further Listening:
Suicide, Department S

Review: Victory Kicks – The Decibel Age

London’s Victory Kicks created a largely impressive first EP which drew comparisons with fellow indie rockers French Kicks and The Stills. A new album has followed swiftly and stays true to their promise of “lean catchy rock music”. Interestingly, the title ‘The Decibel Age’ came from a 60’s article in The Chicago Herald decrying the increased noise levels in the city and there is a quiet confidence to this record which only rarely threatens to “rock out”.

Victory Kicks Album Cover

Carried along by chugging rhythms, ringing guitars and John Sibley’s breezy vocals, ‘Suitcase’ is an arresting opener. What the song lacks in intensity it makes up for in insistent melody and energy. That’s Victory Kicks’ charm and appeal in a nutshell really; their songs don’t blow you away but they are certainly infectious in a controlled and intelligent way. ‘Junior Code Course’ and ‘Autumn Machine’ tick the right boxes too, with strong footholds in the new wave scene.

‘The Decibel Age LP’ is a model in consistency for the most part and whilst deviations from the slick formula are encouraged, the acoustic number ‘Losing Time’ possibly loses momentum too although the twinkling, wistful ‘Replaced With Birds’ is a much more effective variation. It’s perhaps no coincidence that they sound better when the band toughen up a bit so ‘Expected A Ghost’ and ‘Mercy Rules’ both have a satisfying muscular edge, whilst Part II of the title track closes the album with another compelling hook.

Across thirty five minutes, ‘The Decibel Age’ consolidates rather than progresses the band’s oeuvre and one feels if they are to achieve the next step up, they need to develop a greater urgency and dynamism. Nevertheless, Sibley and his bandmates prove themselves to be a tight little unit who are content to make their mark with tunes rather than high volume levels.

Web Sites:
Victory Kicks Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Pilots Of Japan, French Kicks