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albums - march 2012


Various: The Bristol Reggae Explosion 3 (Bristol Archive)

The third of this series of compilations of 80s reggae from Bristol, and it does seem that the keepers of the Bristol reggae archive are saving the best for last. If part one was an introduction of sorts to the now only dimly recalled bands and vocalists that were keeping Stokes Croft skanking three decades ago, and part two a reminder of some of the more musically developed tracks that were emerging from the scene then, part 3 delves into some quality songwriting and some of the really quite astounding reggae/jazz crossover that fully deserve a wider hearing today. Second track, Bunny Marrett's 'I'm Free' is a verging upon actual genius example of this. The tune is carried by a double bass and piano, with some bongos to add percussion and moving away from the more recognised approach to reggae musicianship gives the track a remarkable air of originality, adding depth to Marrett's vocal as it does so - something like Burning Spear fronting Count Ossie's band, awash with spiritual depth and with its jazz groove providing a dash of invention.

Talisman's 'Taking The Strain' is a slightly ahead of its time (1983) roots tune of the kind that Aswad would take into the charts later in the decade, and its infectious keyboard riff could very well have found a larger audience at the time. Ron Green is credited with dubby instrumental 'Then Came You' whose resonating drum sounds piledrive their way across the track, and the album press release makes a request for more info about Zapp Stereo, whose 'The Mission' resembles PIL jamming with Pigbag's brass section amidst a storming array of sound effects. None of the other 15 tracks are anything less than inspired and, credit where its due, Volume 3 is the album which takes the Bristol reggae archive away from just historical curiousity to a vital listen entirely in its own right.



Sophia Knapp - 'Into The Waves' (Drag City)

Every now and again I get an album that I'm very definitely in two minds about, and 'Into The Waves' is unquestionably one such of these. Unashamedly mainstream in its ambitions and slightly self conciously uptempo in its rhythms, the music on its ten tracks didn't exactly have me exclaiming comparisons with Throwing Muses and Laura Marling, although Sophia Knapps voice does contain traces of Kirstin Hersh amongst its component parts (alongside Stevie Nicks, Edie Brickell and Dolly Parton) and I'm feeling like putting my ingrained Indie prejudices to one side and actually attempting to listen to 'Into The Waves', partly in the hope of the album suddenly displaying the ingenuity and originality, and also to find out if I'm feeling very 'ironic' today - is this a work of singer songwriterly genius half hidden amongst some mildly cloying MOR arrangements, or is it really just a bit dull?

It's beyond question: the instrumentation on 'Into The Waves' is mostly performed upon one of those clunky big Japanese keyboards, the ones with 34 rhythm options and a button that shouts 'DJ!' when pressed accidentally. And Sophia Knapp's vocal errs on the wrong side of 'fey' with startling regularity, to a point where she appears to threaten to suddenly disappear in a wispy cloud of sparkly electrons, just out of spite at hard nosed cynics like me who want a bit more gravitas in our listening and who might need convincing that the Sophia Knapps of this world are actually human, as opposed to just some cleverly scored vocal sampling pieced together in a grimy Brooklyn basement by a former Peter Frampton roadie. Forget techno and deep house, this is about the most robotic sounding album I've heard for years, the songs taken at near identical BPMs, the instruments sounding flat and dreary, and with an echoing void either near or actually at its core. It's probably best to let Sophia Knapp sleep on.



Pinhead Nation - Luck Had Nothing To Do With It (Onomatopoeia Records)

It isn't often you hear a début album that's been seventeen years in the making, but this is exactly that. A trashy thrashy alternative punk explosion that spans three decades but somehow, doesn't sound dated. You'd expect a disjointed collection of tracks but all of this could have been recorded at any given date in that time-frame; there's something timeless about a lot of punk, isn't there? Thirteen tracks of pacey heavy punk noise, paying homage to the genre's pioneers with songs like I Love My Wife and First Floor Flat – juvenile takes on life events with a similarly unsophisticated take on music. If you can tell one punk record from another then you might like this.

Thom Curtis


Conor Mason – Standstill (Armellodie Records)

This is the third album from Northern Ireland's delightfully charming Conor Mason – a singer songwriter who couldn't be offensive if he tried. Legend has it that if he ever lets an expletive slip, Ireland will disappear into the ocean. What a pleasant album this is – the equivalent of a lazy river at a water park, drifting through ten songs featuring Mason's soft and flawless vocals, and a nice assortment of acoustic guitars, pianos, brass, bass and drums. There are occasional folk undertones, but generally the album has the charm of a Belle and Sebastian record. Isn't it strange how you have the least to say about some of the best albums? This is just bloody lovely; honest and tuneful.

Thom Curtis


Antlered Man – Gifties Parts 1 and 2(Goo Grrrl Records)

This audio onslaught from Antlered Man has the capacity to make you forget your own name, and if you play the tracks in a certain order you can summon up the devil himself, so I've heard. This versatile band have crafted an album by fusing elements of nearly every genre imaginable with their own edgy progressive style.

The album opens with Outrages 1 Ta 3, led by a plodding into which slowly builds to incorporate an overly complex drum beat as vocals arrive to follow the mental disjointed guitar melody. There is a great deal to take in, and just not enough time to take it in.

If You Can't Beat Them, Try Solvents is a Hamley's nightmare complete with wonky crunchy toy noises and a whimsical floating progressive top line, and Better The Calamity You Know is fundamentally a Bloc Party tune on a bizarre scale, with the exception of its heavy chorus. Surrounded By White Men, the début single, is a System of a Down wonky political poetic explosion, whilst Buddhist Soup is a McClusky-esque fun-fest. But as previously mentioned, this mis-match of other sounds is blended with Antlered Man's own unpredictable splashes of fuzzy prog rock.

It's a bit much for me, but I know some people relish a head-fuck. Any soldiers looking to get out of deployment should play this a couple of times and you won't even know who you are.

Thom Curtis


Gretchen Peters - Hello Cruel World

There's something of Dylan Thomas's "do not go gentle into that good night" about Gretchen Peters' latest album Hello Cruel World, as the accomplished Nashville singer-songwriter exorcises personal and political demons that blighted her life in 2010. Peters not only had to face the personal tragedy of a friend's suicide but felt the after-shocks of ecological disasters like the Gulf Of Mexico oil spill and recent floods in her adopted home (Peters is originally from Boulder, Colorado, but moved to Nashville in the late 1980s). These events and others have conspired to inspire a survivors anthem of songs quite gutsy compared with 2008's Northern Lights and the excellent compilation Circus Girl released just 2 years ago. Country & Western aficionados are used to the honeyed voice and music which mixes elements of country, folk and the blues, but while Peters' latest album was obviously recorded with a stellar group of musicians, including long-term partner, pianist and musical arranger Barry Walsh, the various assembled are doing more than just playing the notes on Hello Cruel World.

Gretchen who …? Well, Gretchen Peters is better known for the songs she writes for other singers. 'Independence Day' was made famous by Martina McBride in 1994, chronicling domestic violence through the eyes of a child but with a narrative where the victim fights back. Initially, it was refused airtime by the arch-conservative C&W stations, until it picked up a number of awards and earned widespread praise for drawing attention to a problem which is still taboo in many communities. Sarah Palin used the song inappropriately in the McCain/Palin 2008 presidential campaign, but Peters cleverly disguised her annoyance by insisting all the royalties were sent to Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization which provides advice on reproductive healthcare (including abortion which Palin opposes!). Ouch!!

There are elements of this campaigning spirit on Hello Cruel World. The title track combines clever words with melody in the same sort of bitter-sweet coctail which Elvis Costello made his trademark on mid-period albums like Get Happy!! Trust and Imperial Bedroom in the early 1980s:

I’m a ticking clock, a losing bet
A girl without a safety net
I’m a cause for some concern
You don’t live this long without regrets
Telephone calls you don’t wanna get
Stones you’d rather leave unturned
But the grain of sand becomes the pearl
Hello cruel world

Peters inhabits a number of guises on the album, but it's that rare ability to turn a song on a phrase or thought which ultimately sets great songwriters apart. The lyrics and insightful commentary are provided on her website along with the chance to listen to many of the songs. The central theme of survival is explored in both the personal and the political, with the excellent '5 Minutes' offering a message similar to Lennon's 'Whatever Gets You Thru' The Night (Is Alright)', while 'Camille', replete with its beautiful trumpet coda, makes observations about the pain and abuse we hide in the everyday. 'St Francis' (the patron saint of ecology) reflects on recent world disasters without getting all preachy about it, while 'The Matador' explores the nature of art in the dark spirit known by the Spanish as 'Duende', in other words that 'hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck' feeling we get when we're really moved by an artist.

Disasters are never very far away on Hello Cruel World. 'Dark Angel' is a powerful duet with C&W veteran Rodney Crowell who is Dylan to Peters' Baez as they agree that life is indeed a beautiful disaster, and on standout song 'Natural Disaster', Peters delivers an Emmylou-like pop tune, again ruminating on the precariousness of existence, earthquake fault-lines being compared with the fissures that break out in relationships. On 'Idlewild', she trades the secrets of childhood for a tender musical arrangement, shades of Suzanne Vega's 'Small Blue Thing'. At the end of the album, there's an invitation to enjoy a good red wine together on the intimate 'Little World', certainly the best offer I've had all week!

Words are really at the heart of Hello Cruel World so the arrangements work best when they give the the writer's ideas room to breath. In the 1990s, Gretchen Peters negotiated the rigid divide between singer and songwriter in Nashville 'Music City', having her songs performed by artists like Etta James, George Strait and even Neil Diamond and co-writing with musicians like Bryan Adams (they have recorded over 30 tracks together), but also by notching up a fine string of albums in her own right. Now she's producing music that fuses both the personal and the political with some thoughts on our searching times. The activist is all grown up on Hello Cruel World as Gretchen Peter reminds us once again that the troubadours weren't only men.

Matthew Haddrill


Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet

If you’d have surrendered your spare change to Portico Quartet’s hat on a drizzly London day sometime before their rise to the throne of youth-friendly post-jazz jamming, it may not have been obvious that a few years later they’d be competing for a place as the next Four Tet. However, after the electronic hinting of 2009’s Isla, it shouldn’t be too shocking that the follow-up has found an infatuation with synthetic production– an infatuation that all but buries the sax and hang drum rambling of their tube station busking days.

Logic would suggest that the switch from their incomparable roots to a more contemporary electronic aesthetic (Flying Lotus, Burial and the Ninja Tune family spring to mind) would leave Portico Quartet’s uniqueness feeling spent, but there is absolutely nothing tired about their latest offering – the edges of the experimental digi-field are still way too out of sight for creative clever-clogs like these guys to get stuck in.

A rich pool of resources can be heard deep below the surface of ‘Portico Quartet’ - various world music’s, deep house (‘City Of Glass’), free jazz (the manic drums in ‘Rubidium’) and Stockhausen-style avant garde (‘Trace’) are telling of an eclectic and intriguing listening diet.

This is 48 mins of your life you can get totally lost in – the delicate, cinematic collage of fascinating timbres and ideas is worth every second. It’s bigger, stranger and wilder than anything they’ve done before, spacious and yet totally saturated with colour. Rarely is an album this transcendent - it doesn’t get much better than this.

Lawrie Donohoe


Seth Lakeman - Tales From The Barrel House (Honour Oak Records)

To paint a picture. You’re in a pub, a cosy pub full of odd relics of years gone by. A straggly looking dog is settling in for the evening beside its friend’s favourite chair in the corner. It’s a blustery Sunday afternoon in late Autumn and you’re weary from hiking along the sweeping contours of rural Devon. You’re greeted by several warm expressions as you hang up your scarf. Now, if Seth Lakeman isn’t resting an acoustic guitar against the aged oak bar then this picture can end here.

Luckily, Tales From The Barrel House paints absolutely charming pictures rich with Celtic traditions and folk sensibilities. Lakeman’s ability to craft a melody with endearing musicianship is evident from the off with the charismatic sounds of the fiddle, tenor guitar, viola, and banjo, all performed by Lakeman himself with great effectiveness.

Tracks such as The Sender are beautiful forays into country ballad territory with dynamics at the heart of its message, whilst Blacksmiths Prayer resembles an old-fashioned work song saturated by monotony and solemn tones.

Tales From The Barrel House closes with The Artisan, an uplifting track with sustained, sweeping motifs that elegantly accompany Lakeman’s distinctive brand of percussive guitar playing. With songs such as these, it is easy to see how Seth Lakeman is releasing his sixth studio album. If, unfortunately like me, it’s taken you this long to become acquainted then may I suggest you make it sixth time lucky.

Lee Swinford


Say Anything - Anarchy, My Dear (Equal Vision Records)

Now, Say Anything have often cropped up on my musical radar as a ‘similar artist’ or ‘an artist you should check out’. Yes, I’m a fan of a fair few of the bands and artists who share a genre label similar to Say Anything. However, in writing this piece, I’m listening to the band for the first time, with perhaps the added bonus of a limited knowledge of their history.

So, what do I know? Well, I’ve seen them labelled as alternative rock, as indie-punk. I’ve even seen them characterised as ‘angsty’ pop-punk. After a brief visit to the press release accompanying this record, it should be noted that vocalist, Max Bemis, claims Anarchy, My Dear to be an “intense expression of love for the idea of anarchy”, as well as it being the first record they’ve made in years in which they had total freedom to explore their “edgier” side. Wow. Really? I mean, really? Have the previous efforts resembled JLS records? Upon playback of Anarchy, My Dear, there is very little to call edgy about this record.

It takes until track 4, Admit It Again, for any sort of angst to rear its slightly unsightly face with lines of displeasure aimed at everybody’s favourite stereotype in society, the hipster. Other than that, a lot of the tracks can go largely un-noticed. Well, I lie. You may hear one or two, such as So Good, and the title track, as backing music to a film where two American teens slow dance at their high school prom, but that’s about it. Hang on, there’s a trend appearing here; “backing music”, “largely un-noticed”- yeah, you’ve got the idea.

In short, the record could be described as a pop album for teenagers testing the water between the commercial charts and Kerrang! TV. I say pop not only because of the songwriting and positive tonality of most of the chord progressions but because of the production, too. For a band with 6 members, there is a sparseness, both in instrumentation, and willingness to create interesting musical melodies. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid if Anarchy, My Dear was actually by Max Bemis and friends. It just feels like a one-man show for the most part, which wouldn’t necessarily be a negative thing if it wasn’t for the fact that Bemis’ voice grates on you.

Lee Swinford


Jester At Work - Magellano (Twelve Records)

The pseudonym of songwriter Antonio Vitale, Jester At Work releases his second album ‘Magellano’. Conceived a short distance from a port (“…the perfect place from which to sail away, and at the same time, a place that offers no reason to stay”…), the album tells of a journey of discovery to the shores of a new world.

Recorded entirely in analog, ‘Magellano’ is stripped bare, leading to a genuine sense of vulnerability and honesty. The lack of modern technologies by no means results in a predictable sound as many songs are sparse and often feature the simple accompaniment of acoustic guitar, albeit distorted or with the sound that they were recorded using the most primitive of recording techniques. Comparisons could certainly be successfully drawn with Nick Caves’ more haunting releases alongside the soft percussion used by artists such as Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.

This is enchanting album, and one that deserves praise for its ambition and the melancholic mood it creates.

Mark Whiffin


Northerner - I Am On Your Side (Home Assembly Music)

The follow up to ‘The Ridings’ sees Bradford based guitarist Martin Cummings delve into a range of new, and at times slightly surprising, genres.

Diverse throughout, this is a bold and hugely elaborate release. The acoustic guitar melodies that typified Northerner’s earlier offerings seem content to take a back seat as almost each track is taken for a spin by a new genre. Sampled soul vocals, minimal house and dubstep are a few of the unforeseen styles at the wheel. However, despite the great variety of sounds on display there is an impressive cohesiveness to this album and it flows gracefully throughout. Great care and attention has clearly gone into the sequencing of the album as well as each individual track.

Northerner clearly displays that he is a master, not jack, of many trades.

Mark Whiffin


Owun - Le Fantôme De Gustav (Self-released)

Owun reformed in 2007, after initially splitting five years previously following ten years’ service and three albums.

Heavily instrumental, this is an enthralling release which fuses a number of genres to create an expansive and hugely satisfying sound. Thick on distortion at times, many tracks burn slowly before often settling into a rhythmic chug reminiscent of a shoegaze style being played by Neu! Not afraid to layer their music densely, tracks are often covered with a topping of drone and complementary noise. Closing track ‘Volux +’ unusually manages to combine the aforementioned genres with a jazz swing rhythm creating one of those tracks that on paper should never work but in reality sounds equally alluring and unique. This is a very rewarding album and certainly recommend to fans of sounds slightly out of the ordinary.

Mark Whiffin


Papier Tigre - Recreation (Africantape/Murailles Music)

Papier Tigre return this month with their third album. Despite being their first release in four years there is no let-up in the energy and intensity that characterised their previous efforts.

Never afraid to shake a few hips, the album successfully injects a heavy dose of grooves and complex rhythms throughout its ten tracks. ‘I’m Someone Who Dies’ fearlessly features a healthy measure of cowbell to season its distinctive vocal hooks, immediately reminding of The Rapture. Further funky rhythms spill out regularly and it won’t be long before listeners’ joints are loosened and feet are tapping instinctively. Papier Tigre demonstrate a good understanding of knowing when it’s time to retire a groove and rhythmic patterns are frequently developed or interchanged before they become stale. Fierce, fuzzy guitars riffs are inserted on occasions adding a further element of variety to the album. This album will probably be enjoyed by those who’ve appreciated recent releases from bands as varied as The Mai Shi, Mi Ami and Foals.

Mark Whiffin


Picore - Assyrian Vertigo (Jarring Effects)

Five years on from their last full length release Picore return with their new album. Produced by Oktopus from Dälek,' ‘Assyrian Vertigo’ tells of the rise and sudden fall of the Assyrian Empire many centuries ago.

Industrial sounding in places, ‘Assyrian Vertigo’ is a challenging listen. Dark and claustrophobic at times, its tracks are often long, sometimes sprawling, occasionally noisy, affairs. However, there is real intensity and progression within each track, capturing and transporting the listener to the most bleak and isolated of places. Combining the expanses of post rock bands such as Red Sparowes and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with industrial and tribal sounds and sometimes smothering them in layers of drone and theremin, this album is nearly off the ambitious scale. The three years spent creating this release have certainly been worth it however as the album, despite its retrospective theme, brilliantly soundtracks the harrowing times we currently inhabit.

Mark Whiffin


Lostprophets - Weapons (Visible Noise)

Admit it, as far as Lostprophets are concerned, you’ve either loved or loathed them throughout the past decade. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably managed the two extremes on a single album. Hailing from little ol’ Pontypridd, the Welsh band have continually evolved and developed their sound, resulting in finding themselves at the forefront of the UK (radio) rock scene on many occasions. Those who have found themselves hopping aboard the ride in the last few years may consider their musical tastes to be far from the band’s early records, which is part of the appeal of Lostprophets. They’ve always boasted an ability to write anthemic rock songs that don’t sound out of place on the lunchtime schedule at Radio 1, nor are they any less fitting for tens of thousands of metal-heads on the main stage at Download Festival. So, after reaching the landmark of studio album number five, will you love or loathe Weapons?

In Bring ‘em Down, the debut single from the record, Lostprophets seemingly get us underway as they mean to go on with a high tempo and a penchant for big riffs and memorable vocal melodies. Frontman, Ian Watkins, sets the tone by affirming the band’s international presence (just in case we had forgotten): “We’ve been here before, won every time but who's keeping score? Still kicking, still alive, we built this to survive, everyday is a blessing, here we go again!”

Next up is We Bring An Arsenal, a track that builds on the opening lyrical theme of ‘band making triumphant return’ with Watkins and accompanying gang vocals chanting “If you bring a gun then we’ll bring an arsenal, if you think we’re done, we’ll bring it, we’ll sing it”. Yep, Lostprophets are clearly here to prove a point.

I could carry on with a track-by-track account of the album but I would inevitably end up using ‘catchy’ a few too many times as my adjective of choice. That is because Weapons boasts several well-crafted slabs of modern, mainstream rock. It’s a record filled with the anthemic choruses that you would expect from an Ian Watkins production. With songs such as Better Off Dead, Another Shot, and Heart On Loan, it’s also a record with enough powerful riffs to keep the rock purists amongst us interested.

Tucked away at number 4 of 10 is a song entitled Jesus Walks, which is perhaps the strongest ‘single’ on the album. With keys punctuating a pop-rock guitar line, it’s a prime example of a feel good, sing-a-long Lostprophets track. Whilst it is not currently apparent that it will see an official release, I would be surprised if it doesn’t make an impact on radio and television in 2012. It’s certainly been on repeat in my head for the past few days.

Lee Swinford