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albums - november 2015


Marry Waterson and David A. Jaycock – ‘Two Wolves’ (One Little Indian Records)

Despite a musical career stretching all the way back to 1977, having made her recording debut on her mother Lal and aunt Norma Waterson’s A True Hearted Girl, and later under the name The Waterdaughters became part of an occasional singing partnership with them and cousin Eliza Carthy, and appearing on numerous Watersons and Waterson/ Carthy recordings, this is only Marry Waterson’s third album, following on from her 2011 debut, The Days That Shaped Me and its successor, Hidden, from 2012, both made with her brother, Oliver Knight. While its predecessors are very fine albums, Two Wolves sees Marry, in new creative partnership and therefore taking a slightly different tangent, stretching her singing and song-writing skills, to produce what is her finest work to date.

“I don’t play an instrument, my tunes are sung into existence”, she explains in the press release for this new album. So, last year, when Oliver decided to take a break from music, Marry found herself without a musical partner. However, as chance would have it, at that point guitarist, composer and multi-instrumentalist David A. Jaycock contacted her to renew an acquaintance first made when he had been asked by mutual friend, James Yorkston to re-arrange Yolk Yellow Legged (co-written with Yorkston for Marry & Oliver Knight’s debut album) and to see if she might be interested in working together, having previously seen Marry performing with Yorkston in 2009 and been struck by the distinctive character of her voice; “It was earthy, dreamlike, warm, powerful and jagged. It had the capacity to be both melancholic and joyful, and it could tell a story - of course Marry Waterson could tell a story!”

Two Wolves is therefore the product of this creative symbiosis; a blending of David’s gently psychedelic, post-rock sensibilities, multi-instrumentalist skills and intricate guitar with Marry’s distinctive performance style (one rooted firmly within the English folk-tradition but in no way confined by it) and her undoubted abilities as a lyricist and story-teller. Bringing in Neill MacColl and Kate St. John to produce and play on the album, and recruiting a set of outstanding musicians; Kami Thompson (The Rails), Michael Tanner (Plinth), Alison Cotton (The Left Outsides), Simon Edwards (Fairground Attraction) and Emma Black (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) to give a final shape to material that began life as a musical correspondence by phone and e-mail, a creative dialogue made possible by technology.

Perhaps inevitably, much is made of Marry’s membership of the Watersons ‘folk-dynastry’ and indeed, this is acknowledged and celebrated in two songs on the current album. The Honey And The Seaweed, crafted from words written by Lal Waterson in the late 1960’s, as a tribute to her friend and co-writer Christine Collins; and Velvet Yeller both a tribute to Marry’s uncle, the late Mike Waterson, and by utilising samples from his version of the legendary ballad, Tamlyn, which appeared on his only solo album from 1977, an opportunity for them to sing together for one last time.

The album’s songs range over a wide spectrum of subject material. Hoping To Be Saved gives us a lament about the disappearance of village communities disguised, almost, as a picture of idyllic, childhood seaside summer days. The title track, Two Wolves, is a reflection on the duality of human nature that, initially, seems to borrow the pacing of Leonard Cohen’s A Stranger Song, before taking the listener to an altogether more musically eerie place. Ginger Brown and Apple Green presents a showcase for Marry’s untreated voice, singing acapella, accompanied only by field recordings of birdsong. Digging for Diamonds is a meditation on the pleasures and pains of the creative process, while Brighter Thinking, with David’s obvious referencing of the guitar of John Fahey, and, along with Mockingbird evoke, for me at least, the legendary partnerships of the English folk-blues boom of the early 1960’s, such as Davey Graham and Shirley Collins, or Dorris Henderson and John Renbourn, but brought up to date and entirely something of the 21st century.

In its entirety, Two Wolves is an exceptionally fine, satisfying album of moods and textures, with a contemplative, pastoral, seamless and idyllic ambience that persists throughout a lyrically and instrumentally lush set of intimate and intricate songs. A work of honeyed, dappled sunlight, shot through with occasional melancholy and moments of shadow.

Bill Howe

Metrotone - 'Amateur Astronomy'

For around two decades, Bristol based John Brenton has been making and releasing music as Metrotone and as several other aliases, and 'Amateur Astronomy' is a compilation of singles he has released since the early 90s, 15 tracks of music that while it may not have received a tremendous amount of recognition, is the work of a dedicated and talented indie musician pursuing his own musical pathways regardless of whether his songs ever found a significant audience, or even if anyone actually knows who he is. This is somehow reflected in how the album is put together, with practically no information aside from the song titles and whichever name the song was released as, so I haven't any way of knowing what was released when or if a song found its way into the indie charts. His songs have had radio play, including from John Peel, from Steve Lamacq and Jen Long, from Radios Bristol and Wales, so perhaps you may have heard Metrotone or Southville, Landshipping, Tonfedd Oren and other projects Brenton has participated in.

I need to say that, once you've heard him, there is every chance you'd recognise one of John Brenton's songs again if you heard another one. There's a definable thread running through the 15 tracks and the songs, while the recorded or uploaded quality can vary a bit, are almost all written and performed in a similar manner, which is John Brenton and his guitar (or piano) and a lot of reverberating echo and effects added to highly personalised observations of his everyday life. Vocally, there's a defimnite similarity to that voice of Bernard Sumner and one or two of the tracks, particularly the 'Atmosphere' referencing 'To Be Like The Stars' are reminiscent of New Order in some ways although Brenton seems content to let his guitar and echo effects provide most of the backing, a minimalistic approach to songwriting that Brenton makes something of with tracks like 'Shimmer', 'When It All Comes Down' and 'I Ache For You Still'. Perhaps the tracks are in chronological sequence as the later part of the album sees Brenton moving away from the songwriting and into ambient electronics, although 'Just So Very Stupid' is a highlight, and by the time we get to final track 'Arran' and its dissonant ambiences, it seems as if after two decades, perhaps some belated recognition should find its way to Metrotone.


Imaginary People - 'Dead Letterbox'

A five piece band from New York, Imaginary People start things off fast and frenetic with the opening tracks on what is their first album. 'Simple Life', 'Summerstock' and 'Plain Purple' are bursts of synth fuelled powerpop of a kind that you maybe thought no one could really put together anymore, but resembling nothing less than a cataclysmic encounter between The National, The Killers and The Bravery, Imaginary People seem determined to bring the reality and, ten or so minutes into 'Dead Letterbox' it appears to be working for them, with vocalist and songwriter Dylan Von Wagner's abilities bringing an added flair to the finely played and garage punk edged songs that the album opens with. The production has a slightly fuzzy quality, as if it was recorded on tape or something but this only heightens the tensions at the core of the Imaginary People sound. Things take a slower turn with 'Agata', a europop influenced ballad that displays a depth to the band's sound and songwriting and which they handle with skill and a measure of authenticity. Far from being glam pop rehashers, Imaginary People are a band whose songs contain the necessary amounts of originality and whose arrangements aren't overworked. It's a compelling and involving sound.

Over the rest of the album Imaginary People avoid repeating themselves. The kaleidoscopic vibes of 'All Star' give way to the harder edged 'She Is' and 'Fever Nation' and there's a perceptible enthusiasm in the songs that binds the entire album together, whichever direction the songwriting takes. End track 'Stella' closes it down with some smoothly phrased mellowness and ends just a little too soon, but that's a slight criticism of an album that hasn't really a dull moment within it from beginning to end. Imaginary People deserve a lot of appreciation for their first full length release, 'Dead Letterbox' is a real highlight amongst what I've listened to in 2015.


Mittenfields - Optimists

Opener title track ‘Optimists’ has a Pavement feel to it, drenched in feedback and a vocal not that far off that of Frank Black of Pixies fame. A sub-pop beauty is throttled throughout and has kick started this album perfectly. ‘We’ve Become Numbers’ begins with a stomping bass line, thus being one that’s fatter than a blimp at a kebab shop! One thing that is forefront, is the spiral riffage as it burgeons its way into your skull. The outro will get you by the balls, very unexpected and that’s what makes a good tune in my books. ‘Telepathic Windows’ is ballad happy and intricate as well as jangly. His voice reminds me of Krill’s singer here, possibly due to vicinity and both carrying the sword of American alt-rock meets yesteryear’s grunge platter. ‘Doctor! Doctor! The Heart Isn’t Beating’ is a slower carnival; backed up with guitar wailing and David Lovering style drum patterns, followed by ambiance. I love the breakdowns towards the end of this. ‘Goldmine’ sounds like an outtake from ‘Trompe Le Monde’ era Pixies, which is more than a complement coming from me, that being one of my favorite records of all time. The vocal power is epic on this offering and is carried across a sea of racing guitar tremors! ‘Mr. Hope’ displays an off beat drum introduction; before bursting into a joyous wave of see-sawing guitar heaven, with an almost Nick Cave (Birthday Party era) feel to the vocal finishing the song off perfectly. ‘Birth To Broken Hearts’ is like a carousel of sonic beauty, with occasional speedy paces as a distinctive guitar off comes to an end, and with much enjoyment. After what has been a most pleasurable ride, the album closes with ‘Surprise Me’, which still carries the torch of the Kim Deal posse, and much to the delight of any sub-popster’s still stuck in the mittens of time. Find this record and your blow your cats ears off with it. 8/10

Gavin Tate

Wand - 1000 Days

I’m reminded right away of Kevin Parker’s psychedelic squad Tame Impala, maybe even a pinch of Stereolab on opening track ‘Grave Robber’. They’ve got an early Pink Floyd vibe to them as well, giving an almost ‘See Emily Play’ delivery, and you’ll hear this mostly in the vocals. Guitars and high pitched synth action bring this gem to an end. Now into their 3rd album, Wand have more than progressed from the early material. ‘Broken Sun’ is like ‘Station To Station’ era Bowie meets The Grateful Dead. Fuzzed up guitar saturates the air with a howling vocal, also a tempo that is a strain to walk on the moon. ‘Paintings Are Dead’ is a joyous scattered journey, whilst wrapped in layers of bells and grunge-tastic bridges. This is on par with anything off of The Pretty Things ‘SF Sorrow’. Even his voice is like the great Phil May’s. ‘Dungeon Dropper’ has a guitar that carries more meat than a butchers. One thing that has really grabbed me so far about them, is their ability to completely vary their sound without throwing you off too much. ‘Dovetail’ is reminiscent of something off of PIL’s ‘'Flowers Of Romance’ album, as it throttles a drum noise epic lasting up to just under 4 minutes. ‘1000 Days’, the title track; being my favourite so far. Imagine Uriah Heap, but with a drum machine, jangle happy and spaced out to the max, only then you’ll be somewhere close to what these Los Angeles psychester’s are achieving here. ‘Lower Order’ has some guitar work in it that could melt steel. They’ve definitely got a sludge element to them that is more than addictive. The drums are more than prominent on this track, as they off beat their way into oblivion! ‘Sleepy Dog’ is a carnival of high toned organs, drenched in that same meat guitar heaven we stepped into mid album. These spirally riff patterns will be stuck in your head for eternity. ‘Stolen Footsteps’ has a Tubeway Army feel to it. There’s nothing more enthralling than hearing something close to early Gary Numan, and to Wand’s credit, they have used that influence to their own advantage. I’m loving the synth outro here. ‘Passage of the Dream’ again, displays spirally riffage and joyous climbs that rolls into ‘Little Dream’ so fast that I can’t tell where one ended and the other began. That ladies and gentlemen is when you know you’re listening to something truly great. It’s like a trick of the ears. This is my highlight of the album, with delayed noise breakdowns that all of sudden break back into frantic guitar mayhem, very similar to The Pretty Things ‘Defecting Grey’, that being mostly due to the changes. ‘Little Dream’ ends this mammoth perfectly. I think I’ve just discovered my new favourite band. 10/10

Gavin Tate

The Chills – ‘Silver Bullets’ (Fire Records)

Following on from last year’s ‘BBC Sessions’, Fire Records now release The Chills first full length album in almost 20 years, and a thing of sheer lovliness it is too. Having lost track of them myself after their sublime ‘Submarine Bells’ from 1990, an album I remember proselytising vociferously at the time, it is a genuine surprise and a real pleasure to find them still shining as brightly as ever.

Originating from New Zealand and one of the earliest advocates of ‘The Dunedin Sound’; a form of guitar and keyboards based ‘jangle pop’ cited as an early influence by bands such as Pavement, R.E.M. and Mudhoney, The Chills formed in 1980 around the pop-rock song writing abilities, guitar and lead vocals of band leader and only constant member, Martin Phillipps. In the intervening 30 or so years they have undergone constant line-up changes, breaks and reformations, signed to influential labels Homestead and Creation, recorded the afore-mentioned sessions for John Peel, and enjoyed significant critical and chart success, both at home and worldwide.

With only a scattering of live shows in Australia and New Zealand since the release of the mini-album, ‘Stand By’ in 2004, the band returned to the recording studio in 2013, for the first time after a 9 year hiatus, releasing the digital only track, ‘Molten Gold’ (featured here in re-recorded form) on Martin Phillipps’ 50th birthday in July of that year.

Now, with the release of ‘Silver Bullets’, Phillips, supported by James Dickson (Bass/Backing Vocals), Todd Knudson (Drums/Backing Vocals), Erica Stichbury (Violin/Backing Vocals) and Oli Wilson (Keyboards/Backing Vocals), has produced an album as equally subtle, idiosyncratic, complex, charming, intelligent and damnably catchy as anything in The Chills back catalogue.

From the opening ‘Father Time’, a short, chorale of voices, strings and bells that serves as the introduction to the reverb-laden guitar hook of the dreamy, ‘Warm Waveform’ all the way through to the closing track, the previously released single ‘Molten Gold’, the album is a faultless and absolute delight.

For me, the album’s standout highlights include the title track, ‘Silver Bullets’ with its immaculately precise guitar melodies, swirling paisley keyboards and infectious earworm chorus; the aquatically themed, ecological-anthem, ‘Underwater Wasteland’, and the magnum opus of ‘Pyramid / When The Poor Can Reach The Moon’, a track that manages to be simultaneously dystopian and uplifting all at once.

‘Silver Bullets’ is an album from which each re-playing brings its own rewards, and each track is a thing of liquid, shining, and inherently iridescent beauty.

Bill Howe

EagleWolfSnake - 'Zang!'

I was only just one letter away from naming this San Francisco trio as EagleWolfSnale (it could work, but ...) but that would misrepresent a band that are making a bit of an impression for themselves in and around their hometown after just about a year together. I can't tell you what their names are, as they actually call themselves Eagle, Wolf and Snake and their website reveals two main influences on their music, one of which are the oft quoted Talking Heads and the other which are Franz Ferdinand. about whom their website makes some comment along 'those guys never did change their sound' and, fans of Alex Kapranos and his chums that they are, EagelWolfSnake make a sound that is detectably influenced by Spark's best mates, in fact I found myself thinking 'that is a bit like 'FF' when listening to first track 'Do What You Want'. Imagine my surprise when I went to look at EWS's website and there it was, in white on black, an open admission of the creative debt the SF band admit to what are after all the acknowledged best Scottish band of the last fifteen or so years. And whatever the hidden formula of their sound, it seems as if attempting to replicate it isn't bringing EagleWolfSnake any harm whatsoever.

Take 'We Are We Are' for example. It is an undeniably Franz Ferdinand influenced track, and EagleWolfSnake play the song with a cheerful enthusiasm, as opposed to the slightly more angst ridden sound of FF and there's the recognisable hi hat timings, the gritty guitar lead parts, and EWS's own sound mixed up together in it, guitars that resonate and developed tunes, a sound that's less abrasive than FF but no less committed or energetic. As for being influenced by Talking Heads, debate is continuing as to exactly what they actually sound like, and 'Whatever You Say' takes the agit-funk noise in a different direction, one that while it references David Byrne somewhere in the vocal and jitters along convincingly, inevitably falls short of the standards EWS are setting themselves on what is after all their first album. As first albums go 'Zang!' is a quite creditable performance though, and EagleWolfSnake's growing reputation is quite likely going to continue to do so.


The Silence Set - Teeth Out

As it goes for sort of unappealing and perhaps misleading album titles, The Silence Set are ahead of the game after naming their first, or at least the first album they've released that I know about, as a reminder of how enjoyable a visit to the dentist can be. The Silence Set do probably know that no one, or at least very few people, really like having their teeth removed, or are the nine tracks on the Swedish duo's nine track release actually meant to function as 'Music For Dentistry'? That is an idea that a lot of people would approve of so I won't make any more dental allusions and just write about the music.

First track 'We Will Die Enraged' begins with some faint hissing and electrical sound before the music properly begins, an ambient combination of what resembles xylophone and some other plucked string instrument, and the electronics reappear and slowly take over the track until it ends abruptly, although it could have segued more comfortably into second track 'The Passing' which is an introspective sounding number, slowly paced drums, more whirring electronica and a banjo, and a softly phrased vocal that does indeed refer to teeth : 'let your teeth shine / let your teeth bite down hard'. I'm unsure to whom the lyric is addressed, but I can't think of ever needing instructions as to how to chew anything, and I'm sorry The Silence Set, but your fascination with molars and canines is making me wince slightly, despite the elegiac and intricately arranged music which you are both quite good with. As the album progresses, the whirring electronica that provides a counterpoint to the music begins to seem slightly excessive and even irritating and guest performer Heather Woods Broderick's vocal performance on 'Worry, Glory' seems to belong on another album entirely. There is a lot to appreciate on 'Teeth Out', but The Silence Set's music begins to seem too mannered and repetitive as yet another piano tune is overlaid with those hissing electronics, and I'm reminded that it's past time for my annual check-up.


Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Years ago, I was at a dinner party at a friends house and during the meal, someone suggested changing what was on the stereo, and put on a copy of Elvis Costello's then still fairly recent 'Blood And Chocolate' album. As the bleakly disturbing 'I Want You' crept out of the speakers and grimaced neurotically across the dining table, the conversation slowed as we listened to what was and probably is the most intense Costello performance that he ever put on record. As we listened, deciding whether or not any of us actually liked the song, someone else suggested putting on his 'greatest hits' album, if there was a copy of that in the room. I mention this because on that particular occasion, an Elvis Costello song achieved exactly what its creator set out to achieve with it. It unsettled us, it messed up our cosy little party, it had us looking over our shoulders on the way home. If you haven't heard it, the song is track eight on this compilation designed to accompany an Elvis Costello biography that, a lot like his music, will probably raise more questions than it answers.

The other thirty seven tracks on 'Unfaithful Music' aren't all as difficult to listen to as that probable highlight of his 1986 album, and in fact one of Declan McManus's prime strengths as a songwriter has always been his ability to sugar coat the dark sentiments and acerbic commentary of his lyrics with a glossily tailfinned and bequiffed rock n roll musicality. 'Radio Radio' probably wouldn't make it onto a playlist were it released today, 'Watching The Detectives' still clatters along as an object lesson in how to play white reggae, 'Shipbuilding' remains one of the most powerful protest songs the 80s ever produced, 'The Other Side Of Summer' sounds even more like an unlikely collaboration between Brian Wilson and Leonard Cohen than it did in 1991, and 'Beyond Belief' from 1983's 'Imperial Bedroom' is just one of the greatest songs anyone ever wrote, with its combination of garage punk psychedelia and a lyric to savour : 'I might make it California's fault / be locked in Geneva's deepest vault / just like the canals of Mars and the great barrier reef / I come to you beyond belief'. Whenever the litany of great lyrical songwriters is rolled out, the list that includes Ray Davies, Paul Weller and Damon Albarn (among others) Costello's is a name rarely mentioned openly, as if he deserves a category entirely of his own, and over the four decades of music represented on the compilation, it now seems this is an aura of respect that he has purposefully cultivated.

And it must annoy Elvis Costello no end that with his chart heyday now a matter of history, that the recognition he has always seemed too aloof from hasn't ever really arrived, that he lacks somewhere the matey bonhomie of other elder musical statesmen such as Ray Davies, or the subtle presence of Brian Ferry, or even the actual worship bestowed upon his sometime 80s collaborator Paul McCartney with whom he wrote 'Veronica', one of his songs that you probably do know, and which is the best known track from the 1989 'Spike' album. After all that, he may feel that a compilation such as this is necessary to remind some people of his work alongside Burt Bacharach, Brian Eno, Allen Toussaint and the numerous backing bands he has employed over the years, the Attractions, the Imposters, the Sugarcanes, his work with the Brodsky Quartet and more lately reinventing himself as D P McManus. Perhaps he just shrugs when other songwriters quote Tom Waits, Nick Cave and David Byrne as influences and forget to mention him entirely, or goes back to his Jazzmaster and piano and writes another song that can equal the music and words of any of those acknowledged greats. 'Unfaithful Music' isn't a greatest hits album, and contains music that will make people that think they know about Elvis Costello reassess their opinion of a performer whose last prominent chart success was 1993's 'Thirteen Steps', the guy that wrote 'Oliver's Army' and 'I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down', perhaps the most enigmatic and gifted songwriter of his and several other generations. For all its scope and its salutary reminders of what a towering figure he actually is, 'Unfaithful Music' isn't quite the last word on the career of Elvis Costello.


Radare - 'Im Argen'

I could write about fifteen words to describe Radare and their music and those of you reading this would quite quickly decide whether you had any interest in the album, but that wouldn't really say very much about the Darkjazz quartet from Wiesbaden in Germany that are making music which is a bit of a specialised interest for music listeners here in the UK. It is a bit jazz, although anyone expecting spectacular be-bop improvisations will need to look elsewhere, as the one thing that connects the five tracks on 'Im Argen' is the slow timing of the playing which, while it isn't all taken at exactly the same beat, never really goes beyond something like the pace of Tom Waits' 'In The Neighbourhood'. That isn't to say that Radare are lacking in enthusiasm or that they're deliberately playing their instruments very slowly, just that they're doing something that only really they know how to do, and 'Im Argen' is an album whose doomy presentation belies the extent of what the quartet are actually able to achieve.

A lot of what makes Radare more than just experimentalists fusing post rock to a jazz format is their use of clarinet and trombone, which gives their already noir-ish ramblings an added depth, alongside the sonorous keyboards and surf/prog guitar that are backed by some mimimal sounding drumming, which is a sound that could work well enough but the clarinet gives Radare's music added texture and the result is an album that tries and mostly succeeds in bringing together some very different elements, crime thriller soundtrack one minute and melancholy surf ballad the next, and then a sound that I've only ever heard Radare make, one that combines those post rock and jazz elements, taken at a very measured timing and with the clarinet/trombone providing a developed counterpoint to the other instruments, and while Radare present themselves as monochromatic miserablists, there's a colour and energy within their music that says much about their varied musical skills. 'Im Argen' works as an album around the dynamic that the four musicians create between themselves, and an impressive performance it is.