Archive for June, 2015

Review: Paperhaus – Paperhaus

Influenced by the heavier end of psych rock, Krautrock, post-punk and possibly many other sub genres in between, Washington DC’s Paperhaus have been causing quite a stir and it’s easy to hear why on this assured, multi-layered debut album.

Paperhaus Album Cover

Thanks to its escalating guitar riffs, there’s an early sign of great urgency on opener ‘Cairo’. The contrast comes from the breathy vocals, which provide an insouciant foil to the intensity of the post-punk arrangement. It’s a tremendous start but the style isn’t actually representative of the album as a whole. ‘Untitled’ settles into a subtle interlude of attractive dream pop before unfurling into a guitar storm and thereafter the album edges towards a harder-edged sound.

Bluesy centrepieces ‘Surrender To The Night’, ‘Misery’ and ‘432’ are punishing, gruelling songs; the kind you’d expect from a veteran, well-drilled unit on their fourth album rather than a young quartet on their first. Towards the end of the record, the mood brightens somewhat thanks to the optimistic vocals and janglier guitars of ‘I’ll Send It To You’, with a brass accompaniment even suggesting Dexys Midnight Runners in their prime, even if the lyrical matter is resolutely downbeat.

Paperhaus’s forte is creating lengthy, complex songs which span genres in a manner which seems natural and unforced, rather than the hamfisted “something for everybody” approach of many of their contemporaries. They may sound groovy but – as their press release proclaims – Paperhaus are “not a band of hippies” and who are we to argue based on this bruising evidence?

Web Sites:
Paperhaus Official Site
Paperhaus Bandcamp
Paperhaus perform ‘Cairo’

Further Listening:
Deaf Horse


Review: The Van Allen Belt – Heaven On A Branch

If anyone should ask you “I’m looking for a band that don’t sound like anyone else”, then Pittsburgh’s The Van Allen Belt must surely qualify. If you can imagine an alien Karen Carpenter singing on The Avalanches’ first album, you’ll get a taste of what they’re about. This is only half the story, though, as we once more enter the curious, exotic world of The Van Allen Belt.

The Van Allen Belt Album Cover

Never ones for subtlety, the record kicks off with the ultra-bouncy ‘Rain’ and the ever distinctive, classically-trained voice of Tamar Kamin: part 60’s girl pop siren, part hectoring spokeswoman. The song is underscored by Scott Taylor’s highly imaginative turntable and percussion skills and it’s Benjamin Ferris who we have to thank for the subversive songwriting and production, as well as a selection of choices of samples and mad keyboards. Time has done little to diminish the fine balance of invention and craziness since 2010’s ‘Superpowerfragilis’, so when Kamin urges “Don’t you worry your head’ on ‘Words’ at the centre of the album, the warning might come a little too late for the uninitiated.

That said, ‘Clouds’ boasts another reliably creative production but the relatively mainstream melody provides a welcome comfort and contrast to the often unhinged nature of some of the songs. Humour is at the core of much of the The Van Allen Belt’s lyrics, not least on ‘Afternoon Walk Of Shame’ (where “Everybody Knows My Name”). Versatility is undoubtedly a strength here. Some tight percussion and Tom Altes’ bass add a slinky edge to the streamlined ‘Slopes’ whilst ‘Bandi Shaum’ seems to borrow inspiration from The Chordettes’ ‘Mr. Sandman’. Then demonstrating their cinematic potential, ‘This Is The Best Shower I Have Ever Taken’ is part dream pop, part lost Hollywood film score and ‘Different Storm’ captures the melodrama of a Bond theme.

‘Heaven On A Branch’ isn’t the most coherent album you’ll ever hear. It’s all over the shop stylistically and thematically but their songs are always touched by warped genius and this record is no exception. Long may their peculiar journey continue.

Web Sites:
The Van Allen Belt Official Site
The Van Allen Belt Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Avalanches, The Carpenters, RedTails

Review: Graveyard Tapes – White Rooms

As if they weren’t busy enough with their other projects, when Edinburgh-based Euan McMeeken (glacis, The Kays Lavelle) and Matthew Collings (Splintered Instruments, Sketches For Albinos) decided to team up as Graveyard Tapes for the first time in 2013, they served notice that they were an inspired partnership. Touching on Radiohead at their experimental and angst-ridden, the results gathered on ‘Our Sound Is Our Wound’ were a highlight of the year. Sensibly, the partnership was renewed last year, giving us ‘White Rooms’.

Graveyard Tapes Album Cover

The album begins with an incongruous proposition. When faced with the image of a man singing “You raise me up” against a myriad of electronica and FX, It should be jarring. it’s actually rather thrilling with intense rhythms and guitar trails colliding beautifully with some genuinely heartfelt singing from McMeeken. One could almost say it was chart-worthy but for ‘Exit Ghosts’ the hand-wringing angst delves into more abstract territory as some gloomy keyboard motifs and drones lead to an inevitably doomed conclusion. Perhaps more attractive, though, is the stark ‘Sometimes The Sun Doesn’t Want To Be Photographed’ whose haunted piano and (what appears to be) sampled hordes of feet is both smart and bone-chilling.

Towards the middle of the record, there’s an even greater emphasis on experiments in noise, most notably for ‘Could You Really Kill?’ where the duo seem to be channelling the latter-day contributions of both Bauhaus and Scott Walker albums. Challenging and brave stuff indeed but it’s easier to be drawn to ‘The Secret Voices Of People’; a delicate, stripped-back song, arranged in the gothic simplicity of a This Mortal Coil cover. Special praise too for the finale, ‘I’m On Fire’, where McMeeken appears to be losing his grip on sanity; the skill here is that it’s not a last cry for life but more a subtle murmur as the victim seems resigned to his fate.

Many tracks were improvised with Ben Chatwin whose own releases under the name of Talvihorros are an indication of how harrowing this music could be. Balanced against this, though, are fragments of dark beauty to make ‘White Rooms’ as appealing as it is uncompromising.

Web Sites:
Lost Tribe Sound Label and Shop Site
Graveyard Tapes Bandcamp

Further Listening: Radiohead, Caught In The Wake Forever, Matthew Collings, Talvihorros, Hood, Eyeless In Gaza

An Announcement Regarding Leonard’s Lair

Dear purveyors of fine music and listeners thereof

The world of online music criticism has changed a lot since I made my first tentative steps back in Summer 1999. Back then there was the excitement of being offered actual physical CDs to review, which were often carefully prepared with a covering letter, a bio and – if I was really lucky – even the odd sweetie (I should now point out that I never took bribes). Now, though, I come home from work and am faced with 50+ e-mails and Facebook messages from independent musicians, PR agencies or random mailing lists. I realise I can cherry pick through these but to be honest my thirst for discovering new music and being passionate enough to write about it has diminished in recent times.

This isn’t a reflection of the music on offer, more a realisation that I’m now at the time of life (having just turned 41) that I’m more inclined to listen again to all the music I have enjoyed in the past rather than spend hours per week sifting through SoundCloud and Bandcamp sites searching for the next big thing and then analyse it in my slightly awkward way. I’ve always known there are better, more articulate writers out there and they can also write about music within a short time of the release date. In my current situation, I’m struggling to write about an album within 6 months of it being on general release!

I expect I will still write about music in some form but I just haven’t decided what form that will take yet. Perhaps it will be via the means of dance or even a vaudevillian puppet show. So a (possibly permanent) break from taking on new reviews seems like the best option. Until then I will do my best to finish reviews I’ve already committed to.

I would like to thank all the musicians, label reps, PR people and the readers of my blog (not to mention the original Leonard’s Lair site) for your support over the last 16 years or so. It really has been an honour to write about your work and to introduce it to people who might not have otherwise listened to it (there must be at least one of you out there!). I’ll still keep my ears alert for new music but just not with the same diligence as before.

All the best