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albums - february 2016


Elevant - 'There Is A Tide'

From Liverpool, a power trio with grunge instincts bring their third album with a combination of swirling guitar pyrotechnics and powerhouse rhythms, 11 songs of verging on metal excess but with a practised indie artpunk ethos in their anthemic, powerdriven songs. And 'There Is A Tide' is Elevant's third album, traditionally something that is described as 'difficult', a description made somewhere on the assumption that a band has run out of ideas, money, fans or a combination of all of these by the time it makes its third full length, which would be unfair if it were applied to 'There Is A Tide' as it's an album that I've appreciated more on repeated listenings. Amongst the seemingly endless streams of undemandingly laid back country rock I've heard in recent weeks. 'There Is A Tide' leapt out of my stereo with the virulent energies of an undiscovered - or recently rediscovered - garage punk classic, one with unsuspected depths to its songwriting and musicianship, and its production, which adds a dark gloss to Elevants grimy thrashings and slower, more developed moments.

Beginning with 'I'm Only Falling Apart', and its seemingly messy, undisciplined intro, and I was thinking 'at least they're making an effort' and kept listening as the trio use one of their least complicated songs as an introduction. I realised this with second track 'Audience', which right from its creaking, Cure inflected intro is a quite different song to its predecessor and while the Kurt-isms are noticeable, there's a lot going on in the background, a song that's too cleverly put together between its howling verses and swirling choruses. Something going on here, definitely. Over the rest of the album, Elevant make much of contrasting the varied aspects of their sound, and from the acoustic balladry of 'Last Man Standing', through to the nightmarish pyrotechnics of 'We Eat Our Young' (a song title worthy of Alice Cooper), the controlled tensions of 'Again' and the tightly paced overdrive of 'Hand Over Fist', Elevant's third album is about as good a rock album as I've heard these past few months, and has more than enough in the way of inspiration and some neatly handled instrumental pyrotechnics that bolster their already defined songs. Nothing difficult about it.


The Wild Wild - 'Into The Sea, Into The Stars'

Following on from its instrumental intro, 'Into The Sea ...' is another six tracks of electronic beach pop, the work entirely of Benjamin Dunn and whose influences undoubtedly include MGMT, Foster The People and probably a few other bands and musicians whose music is resolutely mainstream friendly, the sort of - I know, I've said it before - music designed as a lifestyle accompaniment for people that don't really listen to what's on the speakers with any great amount of interest when they're doing other things, mostly shopping or using public transport, music of the Brian Eno school of borderline mediocrity. The Wild Wild aren't going to gain many awards for originality or innovation, although Benjamin Dunn does know exactly what he's doing with those keyboards, with the sequencers and samplers, and as far as it goes for the actual music, I think I can say with confidence that I've heard worse.

And that was nearly it for the Wild Wild until I listened to fifth track 'London', and paused in mild astonishment at the utterly naff lyric, sung by its composer as if it were the wordage of a passing bus advertisement : 'let's go to London / let's go to Spain / let's go to Portugal / where it doesn't rain.' It doesn't rain enough where Benjamin Dunn lives, obviously, and after coughing a mouthful of warm tea over my laptop, I decided that he'd caught me on a bad day with that one, a lyric so mind numbingly awful on an album such as 'Into The Sea ...' is putting itself across as. Ben mate, go back to your studio, think about what songs you really like and what the words to those are, and if it isn't too much effort, write words of your own that at least match the music you've written for them and remember that, if you release your music on places like iTunes, that other people might also hear what you are singing about, and wonder why if the music is sort of okay then why are the words so not very interesting. And don't ever visit Wales. Just don't.


Tortoise - 'The Catastrophist'

One of those bands that you think you know about, but it is around seven years since their previous album was released, 2009's 'Beacons Of Ancestorship', an album title that should tell anyone much about the varying complexities of a band that is to some extent revered by many in the post-rock world, a name to mention alongside Calexico, Mogwai and any of those numerous other bands whose combination of rhythmically complex instrumentation, electronica and sampling puts them into that particular niche. I've always thought that a lot of music buffs have a favourite post rock band whom no one else knows anything about - I can mention Radius System, City Of Satellites and The Low Frequency In Stereo, reasonably certain that no one I ever talk about music with will recognise those names. A lot of people know who Tortoise are though, and will recognise the name even f they aren't greatly familiar with their music and I know less of them than I do of some other bands, although their mid paced, bassy and percussive sound is one I think I'd recognise whenever it turned up unannounced on a playlist anywhere. And 'The Catastrophist' is the work of a band with a prodigious reputation, tracks perhaps recorded over the preceding five or so years and released now as the Chicago based musicians reincarnate themselves for a newer audience and remind their older listeners of their continued existence.

They certainly seem to have been enjoying themselves a bit. From beginning to end 'The Catastrophist' is filled with a vast array of electronic trickery, vintage keyboard and rhythm boxes appearing alongside the consistently solid bass and drums, mood inducing instrumental music that contains an assortment of hidden depths. on tracks that are with the exception of 'Gesecape' not more than about four minutes in length. Given the amount of invention that Tortoise can display even within a relatively short piece of music, and quite memorably on what is the albums most experimental track 'The Clearing Fills', the complete album seems somehow abbreviated, as Tortoise discard ideas almost as quickly as they realise them. Listening to 'The Clearing Fills' as it slips from a measured keyboard led number into some darkly echoing aural sculpture, and get the idea that 'The Catastrophist' isn't maybe the album that Tortoise wanted to make (or release), its most interesting moments fading out just as they appear. Add to this the inclusion of a cover of David Essex's 1972 chart debut 'Rock On' (which reached #5 in the US) and get the idea that just maybe Tortoise, for all their musicianly reputation, would really like to be proper pop stars, or that they've recognised a strange connection between that song and its production and their own music. It's unusual to hear them utilising a vocal, at any rate. Ultimately, 'The Catastrophist' would work more successfully if its tracks were longer and more developed, as the atmospheric and often intricate dubtronics lose their impetus purely because the tracks aren't of sufficient length to convey the music and its ideas fully. Tortoise are quite up to releasing an album of more developed and actually longer pieces of music, and few if any of their actual fans would complain a lot were they to ever do so.


James Brant – Strange By Design

Philadelphian folk-rock singer-songwriter and musician James Brant has taken a winding journey to get to the point of releasing his solo album, Strange By Design, last year. Brant grew up in Western Pennsylvania and as a child of the 1980s, he saw many of the old steel mills shutting down in his town (Billy Joel addresses this industrial downturn on his song ‘Allentown’). During his adolescence, Brant played his father’s piano, took guitar lessons, and worked on his own specific guitar-playing style. He jammed with his musically like-minded friends in the classic rock mold.

Brant’s next step was to take Music Theory in college, but this changed to other, non-musical, majors while he figured out what he wanted to do as a musician. He also developed his skills in recording and sound technology, building up his home recording studio named Sweaty Dog Studios. During the late 1990s to the present, Brant plunged into the music scene, successively being a member of the bands Casual Freedom, Transient, and the still active Couple Days.

Brant had been wanting to create and release a solo album for over a decade and he has finally done so with Strange By Design, a 14-track record that reflects his life so far. The album is a labor of love for Brant and he played all the instruments and recorded and engineered Strange By Design in his home studio. Tom Volpicelli of The Mastering House mastered the album. Brant incorporates not only acoustic guitar, but also piano, bass, mandolin, banjo, and drums into his appealing, folk-rock sound. He also composed all the songs and lyrics and he reveals personal and universal musings and truths through his clear-eyed words and direct vocal delivery.

Strange By Design begins with the brief instrumental ‘A Tone, A Phrase’, which nonetheless sets the contemplative, but bittersweet to hopeful mood. This immediately slides into ‘Knew Myself’ which treads with a sedate pace. Brant sing-talks plainly, drawing out his words over the steady drum beat, occasional cymbal hits, and short piano refrains, stating “There was a time when I knew myself.”, but “It didn’t matter at all / I wasn’t in control.” Over the course of the song, Brant learns to let detrimental influences go and to find the inspiration to get motivated to really know himself. Delicate mandolin plucks make an appearance, along with dancing piano notes that signify this change for the better in Brant (and/or the protagonist of the narrative).

The heartfelt and insightful songs keep on coming, from the upbeat guitar strum of ‘Oceans’ (with Brant’s regretful lyrics “Spent all those nights thinking / and all I did was pass the time / No good has ever come / from idle minds.”) and ‘Stranger In My Skin’ to the banjo inflections of ‘Prima’, the Americana-influenced ‘Rain’, ‘Flood’ with Brant singing in a softer tone “If I could turn back the tide / but I can only go back in my mind.”, the mellifluous picked acoustic guitar, complete with fingers glancing off the strings, and subdued vocals of ‘Know You’, the more intense ‘Don’t Expect’ with its acoustic and electric guitars interplay, the mandolin-led ‘Unexpected Expectations’, and the piano and electric guitar-driven ‘Fell Into Your Past.’ where Brant questions “Will you ever change?” There’s no need for Brant to change anything on Strange By Design, although at 14 songs, it does run a bit long. His perceptive lyrics and pleasing song structures, however, will keep the listener tuned in for the duration.

Jen Dan