albums - november 2012
After supporting Miles Kane and Noel Gallagher on their assorted
recent tours, Folks debut album does contain recognisable nods to
their headline partners, particularly the latter's former band in
their late 90s mid-period. But what do Folks really sound like? First
track 'My Mother' boogies along like BRMC in their heyday, 'Avalanche'
and its phasy intro drifts purposefully like an unreleased Turin Brakes
EP track, 'People I've Known' is a bit Lennony, 'Skull And Bones'
is eerily like Ben Folds Five jamming with ELO in Jack Whites studio,
'Ink' has shades of Weller about it, 'Where Does The White Go?' is
a bit Liam going a bit Lennony, then 'Do The Right Thing' is a sort
of Folks song where they aren't really sounding much like anyone else
and its a bit of a Glampop stomper with just a hint of Slade in its
gritty repetition. 'Anywhere You Want To Go' is possibly my own favourite
track, an easy on the ear guitar ballad that's somewhere reminiscent
of The Eagles in one of their edgier moments. 'Venom' could've been
written by Arthur Lee, 'Say Something' has some of the music hall
jauntiness of early Blur, 'Four And Twenty Blackbirds' gives a nod
towards the Mersey, smiultaneously recalling The Coral, Shack and
even the Bunnymen. Lastly 'The Ship' very definitely put me in mind
of 'Imperial Bedroom' era Elvis Costello, in a good way. Jacks of
all trades and masters of at least some, Folks are.
Paul Elam returns under his Fieldhead guise to follow up his previous release for Gizeh Records (Riser) and his debut album (They Shook Hands for Hours) on the equally wonderfully consistent Home Assembly Music.
Previous listeners to Fieldhead’s music will not be surprised to find the album exquisitely layered in delicate drones, tape hiss and field recordings. However on this album, Fieldhead’s previous musical ingredients list is flavoured in a different way by the violin playing of Elaine Reynolds, instantly creating warmth and adding a soulful taste to his slightly extrinsic offerings of before. Deceptively sparse, this is actually an album wide in musical scope and ambition and one that certainly challenges its listeners to remain focused throughout. Organic in sound, this album flows seamlessly with tracks often running into those that precede creating a musical tapestry rich in colour and texture without any awkward transitions. Without being even close to a musical departure this is simply another evolvement in the journey of Fieldhead’s music and one that should see him accumulating a number of new listeners without alienating any previous admirers. ‘a correction’ promises to be an enriching accompaniment to those forthcoming walks through the never-ending blankets of snow.
Four years since their debut release ‘With Our Arms Wide Open We March Towards the Burning Sea’, Glissando finally return quelling fears that Richard Knox’s many other critically acclaimed projects would take precedence over a second Glissando album.
Bookending the album ‘Still (1) and ‘Still (2) linger beautifully, the former built around a collection of field recordings massaged by poignant piano and murmuring drones swelling underneath before rising unforgettably to the surface. Released as a double-A-side ‘The Long Lost’ and ‘Of Silence’ seem unusual album track contenders considering the time passed since their release over two years ago. Their inclusion however is a masterstroke as they both sit majestically as two of the many album highlights, gripping the listener with their intensity despite the restrained nature of their playing. Title track ‘The World Without Us’ entrances as the album continues its magical voyage, with the vocals instantly reminding of Kate Bush at her most harrowing. ‘The World Without Us’ is an album of immense beauty which is seemingly comfortable meandering mournfully along whilst slowly revealing its mystical charms, rather than over spilling prematurely attempting to navigate its first bend. Fortunately we no longer have to consider ‘The World Without…’ Glissando as they have returned and the world is all the better for it.
‘Gambler’s Ecstasy’ sees Chris Brokaw release his first solo vocal record since 2005’s ‘Incredible Love’. In the years since he has released numerous albums, some solo and instrumental, a couple with Geoff Farina and many others as part of various groups and collaborations to cement his reputation as one of alternative music’s hardest and most prolific workers. He rose to the forefront of the underground scene after playing in critically acclaimed bands such as Come and Codeine before going on to play live with artists such as Evan Dando and Thurston Moore. Highly competent on a range of instruments, ‘Gambler’s Ecstasy’ sees him primarily playing guitar whilst backed by a full band.
Opening with a heavily distorted guitar riff, ‘Criminals’ appears here in very different form as when last heard acoustically on ‘The Boarder’s Door’, a limited edition tour release from a couple of years ago. It instantly reminds of his earlier days as part of Come, employing driving guitar rhythms and an almost spoken vocal delivery to devastating effect. ‘Crooked’ is a cover of a song by the recently hyped Wussy who Brokaw has toured with previously and showcases perfectly the gentler side to Brokaw’s music with his acoustic guitar playing and heartfelt vocals. ‘Danny Borracho’ and its preceding track ‘Into The woods’ also sit in complete contrast with the former a bar-room brawler with guitars slugging, whilst the later again features the most exquisite acoustic guitar playing that has been the trademark of many of Brokaw’s (instrumental) releases, a style which is further demonstrated in all its glory on ‘California’. Epic closing track ‘Richard and Vanessa In The Box’ is dark and apocalyptic in places. Smothered completely in drones it is certainly the most experimental track in this collection and is more reminiscent of other recent releases by Chris Brokaw on a variety of different record labels.
The former frontman for indie-rock band Hefner has turned prolific English 'Urban Folk' singer-songwriter. Darren Hayman completes his Essex Trilogy of albums with The Violence, a collection of songs about the witch trials that took place in that part of the country during the English Civil War. About 300 women are believed to have been executed by hanging in East Anglia in the period 1644-1646, largely the result of fanatical puritan activity led by self-appointed Witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne. Hopkins and Stearne used the chaos and mayhem created by the war as a cover of darkness to pursue their witch hunts relentlessly and remorselessly.
Hayman is joined on this album by an assembled band of musicians known as The Long Parliament, rather than the group he used to record first instalment Pram Town in 2009 and second 2010's Essex Arms, The Secondary Modern. It's hard to tell the difference, although the arrangements on The Violence are more traditional, with some beautiful folk and chamber pop (particularly nice woodwind and brass on the orchestral pieces) backing Hayman's soft unpolished voice, something like Donovan or Steve Harley, belying the dark content of the subject matter.
The songwriter has busied himself with numerous projects since Hefner's indefinite hiatus from 2002, including an electronic music group in The French and the more recent bluegrass ensemble Hayman, Watkins, Trout & Lee, along with a steady stream of albums with his very own brand of Metropolitan indie-pop. The Essex Trilogy has become something of a labour of love as he tries to re-connect spiritually and artistically with his birth county. It's fair to say there's no great love affair going on here, as each album uncovers dark and uncomfortable themes in amongst the various human interest stories that characterize a lot of Hayman's songwriting:
“I have been drawn to my birthplace because it is both familiar and alien to me,” says Hayman.“Essex is so close to London yet so remote from it in many ways. I want to be both brutal and tender about the place in my songs.”
And so it was with Pram Town, where he focusses on the estrangement caused by suburban living, with songs set in the new town of Harlow (of all places!), while Essex Arms looks at the rural underbelly of the county with its reputation for general lawlessness. There's something of a modern Shane Meadows gritty social drama going on in these accounts, but The Violence concentrates on chilling events from Essex's past, and by his own account this seems to be the one closest to the songwriter's heart (and bones!):
“It’s easy to become trapped by your own tropes. I write easily about modernity and pepper my lyrics with slang, brand names and colloquialisms. I wanted to write about something in Essex’s past that spoke of its strangeness and also forced me to write in a language suitable for another period.”
Hayman's songs are full of vivid descriptions of times, people and places, indicating a lot of research and ideas drawn together with the furtive imagination of an artist trying to grapple with the gruesome flavour of the time. 'Elizabeth Clarke' is a good example, with its personal testimony from the gallows. It's the odd details the woman notices while she waits and wonders: “Who's going to feed my dog? Who's going to pull on my ankles when I swing? Who's going to dig my grave, who's going to wash the dirt away and who's going to spend the winter days singing out of tune?” Hayman at once tries to get inside the heads of his characters but also narrate the carnage, the title track painting a chilling picture of the times:
“The wood splits and gives you splinters, bark tears the tissue
The songs all fit together like a musical, with several instrumentals along the way, and a general creaking ambience which includes a church organ and other ghostlike effects. But The Violence isn't short of a good tune either. The melody of 'Vinegar Tom' haunts with its gently plucked mandolin as Hayman describes the bone collector lamenting the struggles of the living and the dying and the painful memories of war. His voice often cracks in just the right places. Then there's 'Henrietta Maria', a beautiful pop song aka Incredible String Band, actually about the doomed King Charles I and his French bride who fled when the Roundheads defeated the Cavaliers, with Hayman singing its epitaph: “Paint my face white/paint my heart blue/paint the fields red/they're bloody for you”. Sinister 'Outsiders' sounds like the voices of ghosts coming back from the dead, and 'Rebecca West' was the turncoat (“You changed your tune, oh what did you do?”) who gave away many women to save herself from execution. The songs of the album are peppered with characters like this, places, even the stenches of the time, and which all go to make up a sort of Bayeux Tapestry for the Essex Witch Trials. 'Kill The King' is delivered like a bloody valentine, and 'The Laughing Tree' is an echoey piano ballad and comically dark finale:
“Who's going to think of me underneath the laughing tree?
All the waste all the hate all the blood all the pain
It all unravels into a fairly epic piece, not so much a rock or folk album, but something more substantive and ambitious than Hayman's previous work, the narrative and various characters fleshed out into episodes of this dark chapter in Essex's (and ultimately, England's!) history. All the atmospheric sounds with the folk arrangements give his latest an eerie ring of authenticity, like it actually belongs to some earlier time and place. In the internet age where our memories may be getting shorter and shorter, the songwriter's message is a timely (and indeed timeless) reminder of what a climate of fear can do to people. On a purely artistic level, The Violence by Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament's is a triumph, the case of an artist pushing his boundaries a little further and coming away with dignity and respect … now that's something you can't say very often these days, can you?
Things are not quite what they seem on 'Cutting', opener for Jesse Bryant's stunning debut album Silvern. Gentle orchestrations and even the chimes of a glockenspiel can hardly disguise the dark secret that lies at its heart: “you're hiding some bad things, awful things you don't want to tell us for fear that you'll scare us” sings Bryant with barely suppressed foreboding in her voice. It's this sense of the drama of the unknown and the beauty which it plays out, which make the next 40 or so minutes like a cinematic dream, folk music with the magical quality of a Grimm's fairy tale: stories about mythical beings are mixed with the darker elements which leave us with a deep chill.
The London-based singer-songwriter uses modern composition to create a rich sonic palate for her songs, explorative rather than experimental music, so quite commercial in places but offering a rich treat for the ears! The pastoral pop on songs like 'Cutting' and Radiohead-esque 'The Glance' are combined with some modern classical orchestral arrangements ('Oracle Night'), Steve Reich-style layered electronica ('Stone Lady') and the ambient chimes of Philip Glass minimalism ('Molten'). There are songs about ghosts, oracles, and the sea, of course, which would no doubt meet with the late-great Sandy Denny's approval. Bryant's voice ebbs and flows around all these musical contours, a sort of modern-day Sonja Kristina (Curved Air), her rich alto directing the subtle shifts in mood and tempo that characterize much of Silvern.
There's a powerful vision behind songs like 'Oracle Night', one of the album's high points. Its twinkling ambience and use of orchestral and choral music transports the listener off somewhere distant, perhaps the northern lights or a bubbling volcanic lake somewhere in Iceland. While most people will hear Enya in the voice and music, surely the fiddle and guitar that crash through the middle section create a storm like Sigur Ros, as Bryant sings “The sun doesn't love me like you do. Oracle Night you came to me ...”
Daniel Lea's inspirational production has the sort of attention to detail that Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green achieved on some of Talk Talk's later recordings, especially with the eerie brass and woodwind sounds. Hollis once said "Before you play two notes learn how to play one note - and don't play one note unless you've got a reason to play it." This uncluttered approach is perfect for allowing Bryant's voice space to breathe. The atmospheric 'The Sea Is Asking' is another standout track from the album, starting with a clarinet rising above the strings and sounding like some sort of ship's horn in the distance, as she sings “We wait for hours, we wait for ever, we wait for the tide to come in”. Silvern has a lot of these elements of beautiful sonic layering where each sound has earned the right to exist. The saxophone opening on 'Deepest Blue', for example, has that breathless quality John Coltrane gave to some of the early Miles Davis recordings, surely a reference to the Davis/Coltrane 1959 classic Kind Of Blue? Bryant's ghostlike voice pins something dark and mysterious to the song, all set to a metronomic snare sound.
Songs like 'Quiet Beauty' and 'Molten' show off the range in the singer's voice, but it's the control which she exercises throughout Silvern which really grabs the listener. It's become a bit of a cliché to say the voice is another instrument, but Bryant cleverly 'shades' and 'textures' hers, and makes it an extremely important element in shaping the music around her. There's also a fiery quality, but she understands the real power in holding something back. The repetition and hypnotic quality occasionally remind me of Laetitia Sadier's best work with Stereolab, but it's neatly counterbalanced with darker tones which suggest mystery and melancholy, even a sense of resigned dread on album closer 'Gravity & Grace'. With it comes the realization that this dream's finally … and happily we all survived! Hansel and Grettel were never offered any kind of health warning: 'Go out to play, but just don't go too deeply into the forest if you know what's best for you.'
The album was released last year on London independent Red Deer Records, and while generating ripples of interest didn't get the attention it truly deserved. Release dates are redundant when more and more music is available online, and it's easy for things to get lost in the pile. Hopefully the timeless quality of this music will ensure it sticks around. Bryant can be found through the usual electronic channels and she plays fairly regular low-key gigs in and around her home in London. She is worth catching live to experience directly the extraordinary control she exercises in her voice, quiet really is the new loud etc. If people miss Silvern this time round, perhaps they'll come back to it when Jess Bryant is on her fifth or sixth album. Good luck to her, I'm afraid I've rather lost my sense of perspective as I listen to the seductive charms of 'Oracle Night' one more time!
True Bypass is the combined talents of Chantal Acda (Sleepingdog, Isbells) and Craig Ward (The Lone Substitutes, A Clean Kitchen is a Happy Kitchen and formerly of Deus). ‘Toby’ is their second album release and follows a very productive release schedule for both artists individually with critical acclaim poured heavily on many of their aforementioned musical projects.
That critical acclaim appears destined to continue as ‘Toby’ itself is a work of greatness, albeit one created in a slightly unusual way for a record that feels so personal, exposing and then scattering emotions all over the place. The lyrics throughout this album were actually written by novelist Toby Litt who became close friends with Acda, and are based on her personal life. This possibly explains why Acda sings with such emotion and conviction, whisking the listener away into a life full of adventures, regrets and unanswered questions. This method of writing creates interesting situations and ones of great intimacy, not least when Acda sings “…You shouldn’t feel so sad for me, I’m really not that nice”… Present throughout the album, although buried deep at times, are further lyrics black in comedy (“... You didn’t tear my life in half, you just ripped off the face…”). The music, strangely written by Chantal Acda and Craig Ward as a response to the already written lyrics, is gentle throughout, complementing the lyrics and soothing melodies, letting them take centre stage.
‘Toby’ reminds of Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ in mood as well as sound but hopefully this album won’t take as long to be universally accepted as a work of greatness.
I really don't think I'm in the right mood for this but here they
are, spilling out of my stereo like a very bad hangover from the mid
80s, when something called 'Shambling' was for most of 1986/7 the
actual New Rock N Roll. WATP may cite influences such as Devo, the
Skids and Buddy Holly but the one band they've really reminded me
about are The Membranes, whose 'The Gift Of Life' album is still the
template for something chaotic and nerve jarringly unpredictable,
the sort of phrases anyone writing about WATP will need to use and
probably more than once. Other reviewers have accused them of something
derivative in their artpunk stylings, but you need to 'get it' about
WATP in a similar way to which audiences had to 'get it' about any
number of other bands including WATPs influences and others including
Jon Robbs old band.
Recorded in 2011 between the mountains of Pratomagno in the Tuscan Appenines and the city of Berlin with a participation of a wide international line up, The Somnambulist have produced an electric and ultimately very satisfying album.
Opening with sweeping orchestration, ‘My Own Paranormal Activity’ begins business as the album plans to continue with a mixture of softly growled vocals and instrumentation refusing to settle into any one stride for too long. Instant reminders of Deus’ early, and more electric output, are present throughout, a compliment of the highest order. With songs twisting and then morphing into different beasts throughout the musical ambition and unique arrangements could be compared to releases such as Mansun’s masterpiece ‘Six’. The musical diversity is demonstrated beautifully during ‘Logsailor’, the menacing snarled vocals reminiscent of Korn, before being wrestled to the floor by a huge current of melody. Further evidence of this album’s eclectic nature can be found in ‘A Daisy Field’ with its power ballad chords lingering beneath the haunting vocals of Marco Bianciardi and Albertine Sarges. ‘Steam’ is quite possibly the stand-out track of ‘Sophia Verloren’, immersed in a dancing musical saw and employing a sound suggestive of a stuck cd on a number of occasions before bursting back into life. Closing track’ Monday Morning Carnage’, which begins life as a sultry, smoky jazz number before erupting into a huge sing-along, is indicative of many of the changes of pace, direction and style in the preceding thirty nine minutes, keeping the listener focused throughout.
From Nottingham, Injured Birds take a far more leisurely approach
to their folksy strummings and pluckings than, say, Mumford &
Sons, who knock it out like they're concerned we'll lose interest
if things get a bit 'atmospheric'. Injured Birds know that there's
an audience for a more thoughtful, even subdued folk rock sound and
they're also more than competent songwriters, able to create an image
and tell a story without going into reams of impenetrable verbiage.
You'll get what Injured Birds are about on a first hearing.
One of these CDs, you put it on and immediately take it off again
because you think it's faulty, at least I did and one or two other
listeners might do the same, but that's the intro to first track 'How
It Happens' for you. Get past the atonal skidding of the first 15
or so seconds and it's not that bad a song really in fact Negative
Pegasus could've done it without the abrasive grindcore intro and
we'd have been none the wiser. 2nd track 'Ottoman Silver' goes into
thudding blues rock territory, while 'Floating Omen' takes a definable
nod towards Led Zeppelin and by the time we get to final seven minute
epic album closer 'Visitation' things are getting altogether SpaceProg
complete with howling feedback, reverberating vocal and cataclysmic
finale. The sort of band that play ten minute sets to near empty venues
for purely artistic reasons, Negative Pegasus draw as much as they
can from their cobbled together and ancient equipment, accidentally
destroying around half of it as they do so. Play loud, if at all.
Despite a career spanning 30 years, 31 albums and numerous tours providing support for such ‘big’ names as Art Garfunkel, Jools Holland, Joan Armatrading, Susanne Vega, Celine Dion and Shirley Bassey, this is my first experience of Welsh singer and songwriter, Martyn Joseph. The fact that I don’t own records by any of the afore-mentioned may even go some way to explain why I haven’t come across him before.
However, here we have a songwriter who takes his craft seriously, and with this release, has produced a very fine collection of mature, contemplative, passionate, and at times hauntingly beautiful songs, gathered together in a ‘traditional’ album, presenting a scrapbook of moods and textures, at times both deceptively simple and sonically complex. Songs that stand on their own and together form a set of raw performances underpinned with stunning and inventive instrumentation.
The album opens and closes with swelling ambient sounds, drones and strings fed through long delays that reminded me a lot of King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’ ‘Diamond Mine’, or mid-1970’s John Martyn, and while Martyn Joseph has a distinctive voice, I found myself making comparisons with Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and most often, Leeds own Michael Chapman.
The first song, ‘Crossing the Line’ I found so engagingly melancholic that I played it three times in succession before moving on to the next track, the more polemical and no doubt live sing-a-long anthem, ‘Beyond Us’ with its brass mid-section and stomping, Strawbs, ‘Part of the Union’ beat.
I particularly liked the way, Joseph chooses to use a distorted harmonica to play what would have more usually been the lead guitar riff in the albums other stomper, ‘Not a Good Time for God’, and this is typical of the care and attention to varied and innovative instrumentation that makes this collection a growing pleasure to listen to.
The album’s closing track, the eerie and fragile ‘Archive’ is, for me, the albums stand out track, built around a single, improvised performance overlaid with string drones and layered delays - as Joseph himself says of the track, “It me with my soul howling.”