Thursday, 29 November 2012

Swans - Live At KOKO, London 15/11/12

"Good evening, boys and girls," growls Swans' grizzled, 58 year-old cult leader Michael Gira. Over the shimmering sound that a wine glass makes when a finger is run around its rim, he begins to chant, slowly: "To be kind, to be kind," he's saying. Let's be clear – one thing Swans have never, ever been is kind.
The shimmering sound turns out to merely be the moment of calm before a two and a half hour shitstorm of noise, as thunderous feedback and the crash of cymbals herald the presence of the five other long-serving members of Swans.
The US band don’t do things by halves, and one quick glance at tonight's stage set up shows nothing has changed. Two almighty drum kits sit side by side, one of which has two (TWO) gongs, while huge amps have been stacked up on top of one another, as if the roadies are all set to play a Borrowers-style game of Jenga after the gig.
The backs of the heads in front bob rhythmically with the second-by-second pounding of drums in 'Avatar', as a wall of sound rises up and KOKO's foundations get a fairly good idea of what to expect should Camden ever find itself at the centre of an earthquake.
At times the intensity of the volume is close to unbearable. Also, because frequent moments in Swans' music could easily soundtrack that bit in a horror film where they find the bodies, parts of the gig feel more like an endurance test than a night out. But, despite the colossal weight of the songs that Swans create, there is also a subtly to their brutal power.
People always recommend that meditation should take place in as quiet a place as possible; however Swans construct an environment of such perfectly orchestrated carnage that it's impossible not to think of anything else except the immediate full-frontal assault happening in front of you. This forms the basis of a strange feeling of peaceful escapism.   
Meanwhile, the melody-less 'Coward', a heaving great slab of industrial rock, highlights the tightness of a band that first started playing together thirty+ years ago. The 1980s track again sees Gira chanting, this time the words, "I'm useless, walk away." A few people towards the front of the crowd do, leaving to seek refuge nearer the back with a terror-stricken look on their face.
On the band's return in 2010 after 14 years in the wilderness, Gira promised that Swans would not turn into some "dumb-ass nostalgia act." With a setlist made up of blistering new songs and tracks from this year's apocalyptic 'The Seer', he's a man of his word.
Originally published in
Photo credit: Marco Micceri

Alt-J, Michael Kiwanuka & The Maccabees Live 25/10/12

Albatross round the neck or not, the Mercury Prize remains as hard a fought piece of music industry back-slappery today as it ever has. And tonight, playing with Michael Kiwanuka and The Maccabees, it’s Alt-J that make the strongest case to be thrown into the full media spotlight come November 1st.  
The Cambridge band’s set is an almost note-for-note recreation of ten crafty songs from their inventive but instantly accessible debut, ‘An Awesome Wave’. Appropriately enough, seeing as tonight’s venue is a converted church, ‘Interlude 1’ sees three of the four-piece harmonising like a group of monks, softly cooing together about who knows what.
Fizzing with genre-bending idiosyncrasies the songs may be, but these quirks don’t cover the fact that Alt-J’s kingdom is built on orderliness, control and, above all, melody. Take the track ‘Something Good’ as evidence, with its beguiling time shifts and magnetic chorus.
Like The xx (another band no stranger to the Mercury merry-go-round), each Alt-J track is lean, measured and concise, pricking the attention and then doing just enough to hold it. The crowd seems transfixed throughout and when the set has finished, men whistle the riff to ‘Taro’ as they pee together in the gents.
After they’ve had their two shakes, the unabashedly smooth Michael Kiwanuka takes to the stage, surrounded by futuristic beams of blue lights rather than a sea of lava lamps, as would befit his retro take on ‘70s soul.
The singer-songwriter’s ‘Tell Me A Tale’ nestles neatly in-between two classic styles – the free-swinging jazz of Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ and Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ – in such a way that’s undeniably comforting, but ultimately borrowed.
Yet, despite Kiwanuka being more sound of 1972 than Sound of 2012, he still deserves a place on the Mercury stage. The woozy ‘Rest’, which the charmer dedicates to a recently married couple (n’awwww), silences the chattering coming from the bar, while ‘Home Again’ rises above any timeframe as one of those songs that just won’t get old.
Next up it’s The Maccabees who, once upon a time, were fun and sung about swimming pools with wave machines. Now, they’re an altogether different proposition- surly but shy and armed with effects pedals and smoke machines.
The Maccabees’ set is weighed down by a nagging sense that, whereas Alt-J manage to sound relatively innovative in the face of retromania, the South London band’s muscular and accomplished indie rock moves in well-trodden, rather than unchartered, territory.  
Not that there’s no kind words to say; ‘Pelican’ is impressively beefy, establishing a stark contrast between Orlando Weeks’ gliding, affected vocals and the violent stabs of guitar. But the maturity and depth in sound apparent on the band’s third album is hard to pinpoint live. Instead, most of it simply washes over the senses, rather than invigorates them.  

Photo credit: Barclaycard Mercury Prize

Originally published in

Beacons Festival 2012

2012 hasn’t been a bad summer for Yorkshire. As a suited and booted Roots Manuva acknowledges in his propulsive Friday night headline set, athletes from these green hills ran away with seven gold medals in London earlier this month. 

This brings an unfamiliar sense of optimism to the north of England, perfectly setting the scene for 4,000 or so people to lap up this boutique festival’s discerning line-up. After being unceremoniously rained off last year, Beacons is back. 

The cruel post-punk of Savages takes the first night by the scruff of the neck and wrings it without mercy. Every so often a set reaffirms your faith in the ability of live music to turn individuals in a crowd into sweaty cogs in the same machine. This was one of them. 

Numerous Yorkshire bands were cherry picked to play across the weekend, ranging from local lads done good, Wild Beasts, to those hoping to follow in their footsteps. The extroverted pop rhythms of Antibangs, a seven-piece band studying at Leeds Uni, stick in the memory, but that might have had something to do with each member being semi-naked with faces daubed in silver paint. 

Now removed, but no less attached to these beautiful and dramatic surroundings, Wild Beasts receive a rapturous homecoming welcome. Sensuous and meticulously played tracks from last year’s ‘Smother’ continue to transmit surprisingly well live, while older songs ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ and ‘All the King’s Men’ ensure the set boils over into a sweaty orgy of adoration for the band by its end. 

Elsewhere, Factory Floor ran a marathon of industrial electro, their tireless drummer working overtime to pin down the aggressively hypnotic synths with continuously inventive fills, before Andrew Weatherall’s otherworldly DJ set warmed the cockles of a tent packed full with soggy revellers. 

Paws, Mazes, Gross Magic and Holograms provided an abundance of fuzzy lo-fi rock over the weekend, while Ghostpoet’s late-night, plaintive musings got a shot in the arm from his live band, energising the crowd and turning the set into one of the weekend’s most memorable. 

Fans of bookish Americana were well catered for on Saturday, with the striking simplicity of Cass McCombs followed by an intimate set from the promising Grass House, who, despite being made up of northeners, look and sound for all the world as if they’ve taken up the lease in Bon Iver’s cabin. 

On the final day, Willis Earl Beal, black cape across his huge frame, made the startling jump from lo-fi to hi-fi, departing the main stage drenched in sweat, his combo of tape machine, guitar and impossibly booming voice leaving mouths agape. Then, it was the turn of Toots & the Maytals to bring this all-encompassing festival, overflowing with musical enthusiasm, to a close in the way only true reggae legends can, embraced by the audience after playing a setlist with “crowd pleaser” written all over it. 

Photo credit: Xander Lloyd

Originally published in

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Micachu and the Shapes @ The Arcola Tent, London 24/07/12

Micachu and the Shapes create songs that test the parameters of pop music. And if that sounds a little pretentious, it's important to acknowledge how much fun it is listening to the three-piece while they're doing it.
Led by the precocious talents of 25-year old Mica Levi, they've had a reputation as the edgy oddballs of UK indie for the past four years, during which time their uncompromising brand of DIY deviant-pop has built them a loyal following, not least in East London.
Many of these folk have congregated tonight underneath the big top of the Arcola Tent in Dalston, to see the London band perform tracks from their second studio album, ‘Never’, released earlier in the week.
The quirky venue breathes creativity as much as its lack of ventilation causes those inside it to sweat profusely. And the perspiration increases the more and more crackpot the exploits of the support acts get.
These include a go-go dancer smearing herself in chocolate spread (at least we hope it was chocolate spread) to the sounds of 'Don't Cha' by The Pussycat Dolls, and a female rapper called MC Gaff E shouting "lizard tits" for a while.
But, as UK border staff have been at pains to point out recently, good things come to those who wait. Appropriately, Micachu and the Shapes walk on dressed in shirts the patterns on which they seem to have painted themselves. Mica Levi, small in stature but big in charisma, immediately thanks the audience for being there, before picking up a guitar and nodding at her two bandmates to begin.
By being smarter than the average indie band, the three musicians are able to deconstruct and experiment with traditional song structures, creating sounds that are both abrasive and satisfyingly direct. Live, there's a curious appeal to seeing classically trained musicians (all three met whilst studying at Guildhall) producing such disjointed sounds.
Within the confines of a drum kit, keyboard and guitar, tracks such as 'Slick', 'Never' and 'Low Dogg', constantly shapeshift to marry industrial hip-hop beats, out-of tune guitar and skittering, pinpoint drums. Levi's voice is the unifying feature amongst all the madness, her not-fussed, cool cockney drawl contrasting with the instability of the instrumentals.
Avant-garde ballad 'Nowhere', a beautiful song that's been turned inside out to reveal bloody guts, is harsh and melodic, unnerving and uplifting, all at the same time.
Often experimental pop is something that exists to be admired rather than loved. But Micachu and the Shapes' music seems genuinely unburdened by any overbearing sense of seriousness that could come from being tagged as 'experimental'.
The pace at which the band plays their short, buzzy tracks suggests a flashback to punk. But it's Micachu and the Shapes' enthusiasm for pillaging from a smorgasbord of different sounds that sees them looking dead straight into the future.

Written for Clash

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Tindersticks @ Somerset House, London 15/07/12

Performing in the courtyard of a 460 year-old building, one that's practically next-door neighbours with grandiose landmarks such as St. Paul's Cathedral, imbues a gig with a sense of occasion that only a few bands could live up to.

Tindersticks are so good tonight that it feels like Somerset House was built for the sole purpose of having them play inside its grounds.

The Nottingham natives begin with the typically understated ballad 'Blood', something of a symbolic gesture given that the track appears on their self-titled debut album, released back in 1993.

The first thing that becomes apparent is how impeccable the sound is, as lead singer Stuart Staple's distinctively deep voice pounds against the stonework, engulfing the courtyard with its resounding baritone. 

The set draws heavily from Tindersticks' latest album The Something Rain, including the 10-minute, spoken word track 'Chocolate'. A short story narrated by pianist David Boulter, it gently lulls into a stupor with its hypnotic, semi-improvised jazz instrumentation accompanying a seemingly humdrum tale of weekly routine, pool tables and cocoa.

The potential for 'Chocolate' to reek of self-indulgence means it's exactly the kind of thing that shouldn't work at an outdoor gig. But it’s a testament to Tindersticks' ability to subtly tweak their aesthetic that every one of Boulter's words, which build to a memorable climax, hold the attention.

Other new songs, such as 'Frozen', 'Show Me Everything' and 'This Fire Of Autumn' have a rewarding vitality that defies the band's years. Their intensity confounds any assumption that the six-piece, some of whom have been together on and off for over 20 years now, should be ready to hang up their boots.

The reality is that even when Tindersticks first appeared in the early nineties they had the refined and full-bodied sound of a band that had been together a short lifetime.

Almost note-perfect throughout, there's very little said between the band members and even less said to the audience after each song. But there's lots of smiling – a surprising amount, perhaps, given that Tindersticks have a reputation for being the audio equivalent of the pissing rain.

That reputation is also challenged by the double-whammy of redemptive and soulful tracks 'I Know That Loving', from 1999's Simple Pleasure album, and 'Slippin Shoes', which swells with saxophone and exotic drums.

The night ends, however, with the booze-induced melancholy that they made their name with, and it couldn't be any other way. During 'Cherry Blossoms', the six middle-aged men, on a stage lit up like an Amsterdam prostitute's window, dab at their instruments, as Staples mumbles a characteristically solemn soliloquy. The lights that have been illuminating the walls of Somerset House in blue and purple begin to dim, while Tindersticks burn as bright as ever.

Written for Clash

Sunday, 24 June 2012

White Denim @ HMV Forum, London 22/05/12

White Denim are relentless. Live, they exhibit all the restraint of an untrained Rottweiler that's caught the scent of raw meat in its nostrils. There's barely even a moment left vacant in tonight's set for the Texan four-piece to say a quick "hello"; instead they tear through their back-catalogue of disparate genres as if held to ransom.

Without any concept of boundaries and propelled by a sense of no-holds-barred adventurism, White Denim are a rare breed of modern rock band. D, their latest album, not only proved against all reason that prog, country and psychedelia could co-exist in harmony, but that they could live together in a veritable, albeit dysfunctional, state of marital bliss.

Playing live, the shackles of being constrained on record come loose and White Denim go all out. They take the opportunity greedily, resulting in songs that sometimes drag, lost in the midst of extended guitar jams and the venue's muddy PA system. 

Nevertheless, their ambitious approach also means moments of formidable greatness arise in amongst all the noodling. The segue between 'It's Him' and 'At The Farm' sees colossal riffs and time signature changes come at a thrilling speed, carried by the beat of a drummer who plays so fast you'd think it was an octopus possessed by the spirit of John Bonham up there on stage.

Only during the fragile 'Street Joy' is the band given the chance to catch its collective breath. The track, brokered by lead singer James Petralli's earthy howl and a perfect, Neil Young-esque guitar solo, is satisfyingly disarming sitting beside all the frenzied noise that has come before it.  

Photo: Sara Amroussi-Gilissen (stolen from TLOBF)

Cate Le Bon - CYRK (Onvi)

John Cale, improvisational viola player in The Velvet Underground and one of the finest musicians to ever hold a Welsh passport, has one daughter. Cate Le Bon, a singer-songwriter from Wales, is not that daughter. However, imagine for a moment Cale consummated his relationship with his stunning, icy-voiced Velvet Underground collaborator Nico. And that the resulting bambino grew up and recorded an album. You wouldn’t bet against it sounding something very much like Cate Le Bon’s sophomore album, CYRK.

With imaginary rock ‘n’ roll parents of that stature, you’d expect CYRK to be a dark album, complemented by a fair bit of musical experimentation, with a haunting, deep voiced singer melodically cooing about mad things. Pleasingly, CYRK is just that.

But, perhaps fittingly for an album that takes its title from the Polish word for ‘circus’, CYRK has a constant sense of mischief about it. Essentially, it is the soundtrack equivalent of a nautical-themed bric-a-brac shop, full of oddities and queer ragbag sounds.

Psychedelic pop songs in slow motion define the album’s beginning, with garage rock and scuzzy guitar notes rubbing up against Le Bon’s doomy tones on ‘Falcon Eyed’ and ‘CYRK’. Then Le Bon begins to sound increasingly and characteristically disconnected from reality, wistfully pondering “In the morning the universe shines from under her skin/A delicate pattern of places she’s been” on ‘Greta’, accompanied by peculiar art installation type hubbub.

Later, ‘Fold The Cloth’ moves things out of the garage and into a cosy living room, albeit one full of shrieking guitar solos and the lingering smell of sexual frustration and loneliness. Here, the influence of Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, whose label the album has been released on, makes a welcome appearance.

Even backed by a band Le Bon sounds all alone, as if she’s recorded all the parts of ‘Ploughing Out’ separately; “On the last day of the year/I’m just happy to be here,” she muses. The album ends in a psych-pop cavalcade, as Le Bon sails out to sea with her weird and wonderful instruments, possibly on her own, which you suspect was her intention all along.

CYRK never sees Le Bon reach the musically dexterous heights of any of her fictitious parents’ output, but it’s still a raw, intimate and beautiful album.

Published on For Folk's Sake 

The Dø @ The Garage, London 12/4/12

The Do - Live At The Garage, London
The old adage that London gig audiences are hard to please has one very simple solution. Simply replace all the Londoners in the audience with French people. It's a tactic that gives tonight's gig, by Franco-Finnish hybrid The Dø (pronounced the same as 'dough'), an atmosphere akin to a homecoming show.
The boy/girl two-piece enjoy a hero’s welcome as they take to the stage, which is adorned with the kind of percussion instruments you'd associate more with an African tribal group, less with a quirky indie pop band from the continent.
But then again, The Dø are not your average quirky indie pop band from the continent, at least not anymore. Their debut went to number one in the French album chart and last year's follow up 'Both Ways Open Jaws' was an improved, more refined take on their scattershot sound.
They're even more of an uncategorisable prospect live, jumping from style to style as freely as if they were changing their socks. The placid musicians that open the set – with a sweeping song that showcases lead singer Olivia Bouyssou Merilahti's icy, childlike vocals - is virtually unrecognisable from the band a few songs down the line, who revel in pounding artificial drum beats and sustained guitar feedback.
On record, The Dø roughly occupy a space in the middle of a graph that has fellow Europeans Air and The Knife at either axis. But live, flanked by two other musicians, one in charge of the drum machine and the other a pony-tailed electric guitarist, the industrial rock grind of The Kills begins to creep in, albeit in a more polished, shiny form.
'The Bridge Is Broken', dispatched early on, has instant appeal. It's a catchy, fiery tale of betrayal that takes in a backwards guitar riff and electronic meanderings, as the lead singer wails "Boy you got nerve/it's all your fault/this stitch is open".
But The Dø are a hard band to predict. 'Dust It Off', a song that initially has a soft, hypnotic, swirling piano melody at its core, unravels at its climax, drum machine in overdrive and guitars entering cardiac arrest.
However, this chameleon-like approach to songwriting means not everything comes off. Sometimes, without a clear plan in mind, their songs are mere indulgent ideas, performed with the kitchen sink but without proper execution.
But you need only wait a bit untill something eventually connects. The topsy turvy groove and sweet melody of 'Gonna Be Sick' for example, the bhangra beat exuberance running through 'Slippery Slope', or the layered pop hooks on 'Smash Them All Night'.
Often, it's the vocals of frontwoman Olivia that hit the spot, with a Nordic twang similar to Bjork's, mixed with the same crystal clear delivery. Her voice is a recurrent centrepiece in the jigsaw puzzle that is The Dø's sound; not exactly edgy, but arrestingly unconventional all the same.

Published on
Photo by Helen F Kennedy

Weird Dreams @ The Others, London 08/04/12

Weird Dreams - Live At The Others, LondonThroughout tonight's gig, located in the "arse-end of East London" as one audience member puts it, a video is projected onto the wall behind Weird Dreams. It features two attractive girls laughing and doing strange things with test tubes and a Slinky, played backwards, on a loop. It could be, and probably is, an extract from some creation of subversive film director David Lynch, a cultural figure this rock four-piece with an ear for jangly 1960s melodies have been keen to associate themselves with.
But Weird Dreams are not weird enough to soundtrack any Lynch film. Rather, they do a decent enough job of exploring the same discordant suburbia in their lyrics as Lynch does in his films, and zoning in on certain musical traits that tend to crop up in most Lynch soundtracks. A few sinister lyrical themes here, and layers of shimmering guitar reverb there; it's a curious mix that guarantees the band will prick the ears of anyone who enjoys a dark side to their indie pop.
Tonight sees the band celebrating the release of their debut album, entitled ‘Choreography’, earlier this month. They open with 'Hurt So Bad', a track that's been available on the internet since 2010, but could well have been floating in the ether as a rip from the cassette tape demo of any number of pioneering indie guitar bands circa mid-1980s.
On it, lead singer Doran Edwards sings "I want to feel pushed around, I want to feel the back of your hand, I want to feel demoralised, I want you to force me to say it baby", sounding like a sexually unhinged Brian Wilson. Edwards' vocal melodies are the best thing about the band, and when his voice is allowed to rise above the action behind him, Weird Dreams suddenly wake up.
But, alas, the Beach Boys melodies all too often get lost at sea amongst the colossal drums unleashed from the back of the room. Daubed in tattoos up to his neck, this drummer seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet as the rest of the band, who gently sway while he aggressively gives his drum kit a thoroughly good smashing.
He calms down to provide a measured, marching-beat for '666.66', a song about satanic worship with glossy guitars and woozy melodies. Things quickly become prettily hypnotic, as the Lynch extract replays on a constant loop behind them, while the jangly guitars swirl and the word "six" is harmonised over and over.
In an interview with Clash, Weird Dreams spoke of toting a "progressive nostalgia", and the sleepy pop of 'Little Girl' embodies this entirely. It's seemingly built around three different choruses, each of them catchier than the last, and, like all great pop songs, has a timeless, ethereal quality to it.
But tonight, it's the guitar effects pedal that steals this short show, which serves as something of a taster of a Weird Dreams gig, rather than a full course. Soaking final track 'Suburban Coated Creatures' in retro-reverb, the Rickenbacker guitars again combine together in the melodic climax, and Weird Dreams' hip hypnosis begins all over again.

Published on 

Cymbals - Sideways Sometimes EP (Tough Love)

In 1976, Wild Cherry famously demanded that white boys across the world "played that funky music" till they died. 36 years later, in 2012, Cymbals are a new band very keen to satisfy the US band's somewhat unrealistic demands. 
Approaching the task with gusto, Cymbals - an East-London four-piece - are in good company. Bands like Metronomy, who continue to a give danceable indie a good name, and disco upstart Kindness show that there's a continued commitment to the cause. Hell, even Mark Lanegen is providing the world's most notorious funky white boys The Bee Gees with some of a cultural cred, recently telling the Quietus that they’re "his Beatles".
Sideways Sometimes, an EP that follows Cymbals' 2011 debut Unlearn (both released on Tough Love), has more than enough funk in its trunk to keep Wild Cherry happy. But there’s also an out-and-out indie-pop sensibility running through the EP that will prove incredibly persuasive to anyone who thinks the genre has lost its sense of fun. Fleshed out with three untitled ambient tracks, the EP breezes along with basslines that err on just the right side of slapped and impeccable synths that evoke 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', if it was written by a happy person.
Bright and confident,  Cymbals are a band with an ethos summed up by a line in 'Intense Kids': "If you're going to make a mix, keep it light mate, their feet want to move." And keep it light they do. 'It Makes Me Seriously' has a casual disco groove befitting of Hot Chip, while 'No Bad Decisions' is an ode to riding bikes set to harmonies and skittering guitars. 

But, for some, Cymbals' upbeat joviality and their lead singer's East London affectation will certainly begin to grate after the seventeenth shrieked 'Ow!'. This vocal quirk, most prevalent on 'The Norms', an agitated tribute to irregular sleep patterns, sees lines enunciated in a pitch that constantly vies to register above the guitarist’s spikey notes, which are played exclusively from the fretboard's nether regions.

However, the lead singer has toned it down a fair bit since the debut, which bears results, as the contagious ‘Candy Bar’ shows. It strikes a catchy balance between brisk guitar and vocal restraint; exactly the kind of song you want to hear as winter finally ebbs away and spring turns into summer.


We Are Augustines - Rise Ye Sunken Ships (Oxcart)

All the brawn of We Are Augustines’ instrumentation could easily mask the emotional clout that Rise Ye Sunken Ships contains. The opening gambit of a four-to-the-floor drum beat and the ensuing anthemic guitar chord progression in ‘Chapel Song’ immediately defines the band as the brazened, Springsteen-savvy rock band that the Brooklyn three-piece are.

What the band has successfully achieved on their debut, however, is to make the thunderous drums and big, festival conquering riffs act as pillars, not obstructions, for McCarthy’s impassioned and spirited outpourings.

McCarthy has had two family tragedies darken his life so far. His mother died when he was 19 and, in 2009, his brother committed suicide in hospital whilst bring treated for schizophrenia.

It would have been a real shame if McCarthy’s lyrics – refreshing in their naturalness but heavy in sentiment (note: not sentimentality) – had been drowned out. Instead, the contrast forces a beguiling contradiction to appear between Augustines’ brassy, bold instrumentation and McCarthy’s vulnerable vocals and deeply autobiographical lyrics.

It takes a heart of stone to not feel the harsh resonance behind lines such as “Keep your head up kid, I know you can swim, but ya gotta move your legs”, on ‘Augustine’, or the dismal way Billy cries “James” on ‘Patton State Hospital’.

Meanwhile, ‘Book Of James’, the song most will be familiar with after the modest airplay it received, is a tune that cannily evokes the heart of Americana. Hats off to a record that so adeptly transported people from listening to the radio, peeling potatoes in their kitchen, to speeding down a dusty Route 66 with dry lips and the sun in their eyes.

Nevertheless, the album’s unabashed fist-in-the-air rock sound will be a turn off for many. And there is a one-dimensionality to the band’s well-worn template that all the song writing power in McCarthy’s fists can’t shift. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of surprise – ‘Strange Days’ has an undeniable pop sensibility about it, so much so that it echoes The Kinks.

And, all in all, why wouldn’t McCarthy and his band prefer to face tragedy with the help of some almighty sun-scorched rock ‘n’ roll, rather than wallow in amongst some more fashionable lo-fi style instrumentation?

Rise Ye Sunken Ships won’t win any awards for pioneering a new sound anytime soon, but a more open, honest and spirited record you’re unlikely to hear in 2012.

Published on For Folk's Sake, 7 March 2012. 

Shearwater - Animal Joy (Sub Pop)

Named after a seabird, releasing an EP called The Snow Leopardalongside albums called Rook, Palo Santo and now Animal Joy, it’s safe to say Shearwater have always had nature at their core. Lead singer Jonathan Meiburg has long used it in his lyrics to serve as a parallel to his emotions, while Shearwater’s instrumentation, like the weather, is often calm, but poised to turn into a destructive force at any time. And on this, their eighth album, it’s as if all the previous emotion of the reclusive Texan three-piece’s albums has been amassed and then unleashed. This is first noticeable on the mighty and apocalyptic ‘Breaking The Yearlings’, a song which any self-respecting Mayan follower needs on their End Times Playlist 2012. “The river is blocked, the road is hot, the sky is blazing,” Meiburgh blasts, “black smoke on the rise, the weather rolls until it’s on you and suddenly breaks.” It’s rare for a song to sound so much like the atmosphere its lyrics describe.

Brooding and dark, but concise and tightly played, the songs have a more direct urgency than some fans will be used to. There’s brevity too, with a real economical use of melodies and hooks which ensures that, despite the territory, it never becomes a listen you get bogged down in. Instead, space is allowed for a song as spirited as ‘You As You Were’, with its hyperactive xylophone, to burst out, sounding like Sigur Rós on amphetamines. ‘Insolence’, however, is the album’s centrepiece, a gothic ballad that, by its climax, has all dials turned to ‘epic’ as Meiburg, in a juxtaposition of introversion and extroversion, cries “all your life inside a chrysalis writhing?.. One more time, it’s real.” Then, as the album changes gear again, ‘Immaculate’ injects a satisfying shot of breezy punk-rock into the rural-prog palate that’s gone before, proving that Meiburg doesn’t spend all of his time pouring over wildlife annuals. Or, at least, that while he does, he’s listening to Spoon records.

Meiburg has a vocal technique that is very much a ‘technique’. It’s developed over the years and is now a curious mix of falsetto and bravado, heavy with thought and conviction throughout. Coupled with the feisty but restrained instrumentation, the album maintains a dramatic sense of wilderness that is hard to ignore. A certain Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead aggression creeps into their songwriting at points too, and ‘Pushing The River’ is a case in point. Had there been a little more dynamism of sound on Animal Joy, it would be tempting to hypothesise that, should Thom Yorke have come to embrace ornithology rather than technology with Radiohead in recent years, the Oxford band’s latest album may not have sounded too dissimilar to these eleven songs.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Band Of Skulls - Sweet Sour (Electric Blues Recordings)

If Led Zep were a bunch of Brummies who became the best rock and roll band ever, then why should the fact Band Of Skulls are from Southampton get in the way of us enjoying the ride? There’s definitely a template being followed on Sweet Sour, Band Of Skulls’ second album, and it’s one that will be very familiar to anyone who uses the ‘sign of the horns’ as a greeting method. 

Hard rocking is never off the menu on Sweet Sour’s first half, even when it looks like we’ve ordered a nice, mellow, acoustic love song- as the middle of ‘Lay My Head Down’ proves. 

Band Of Skulls have supported both BRMC and The Black Keys recently and it’s obvious the unisex trio would be a top notch support act – all cheap thrills and direct, impressive musicianship. It’ll be interesting to see which of the two Black band’s career paths Skulls will end up going down - the former appear down and out, while the latter seem to be miraculously giving rock music CPR. 

On this evidence, it’s hard to say. However, as the pensive, affecting ‘Navigate’, ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Close To Nowhere’ from the album’s second half show, there’s at least one more string to the band’s bow than would first appear.

The Big Pink - Future This (4AD)

Most of the bad things said about The Big Pink are said in reference to their breakthrough hit ‘Dominos’, an infuriatingly catchy song which we now know was written in cahoots with a well known pizza chain in order to subliminally brainwash the minds of students. But, no matter what you say about the London duo, at least they have a ‘sound’ that they can call their own. 

This ‘sound’ is one founded on a bombastic chorus, faux-futuristic guitars and a big, thumping beat. In shampooing terms, it is washed, rinsed and repeated on their second album Future This. 

Opener ‘Stay Gold’ satisfies as a more tolerable version of the aforementioned ‘Dominos’, while ‘Rubbernecking’ exemplifies their characteristic use of a juvenile vocal propelled by a heavily processed drum effect. Let it be known that, for better or worse, subtle is not a word that exists in The Big Pink dictionary. 

On ‘Give It Up’ there’s some evidence of the hip-hop direction that lead-singer Milo Cordell alluded to in interviews, but the influence is most obviously borne out in the extra beef put behind the album’s notable production. Indeed, the gargantuan effects on ‘1313’, a heartfelt ballad about waking up and then going back to bed, are certainly a treat for the ears, should they be listened to on good enough speakers or earphones. 

As on the latter song and album closer ‘77’, the band appear more palatable when they inject an earnest lyric or two into the mix, to counteract the sheer clout of their techno rock orgy. (Yet, it has to be said, The Big Pink are no wordsmiths). 

Essentially, Future This won’t disappoint those who enjoyed The Big Pink’s debut. It will, however, also vindicate those who never claimed to like them in the first place.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Columbia)

Back in 1988, Leonard Cohen, whilst promoting his album I’m Your Man, said he’d just read in a newspaper that as you get older, “the brain cells connected with anxiety begin to die, and you start feeling a lot better”. 24 years later, Cohen repeated the same neurological titbit in an interview with the Observer, crediting his overall better mood to this process of ageing.

But Cohen, not unfairly caricatured as rock’s Don of Despair, is a man for whom sounding downbeat has long been a way of life. Resolutely philosophical, Cohen has specialised in ruminations on the relative merits of death and birth, religion and spirituality, hatred and horniness since he first put pen to paper back in 1956.

It would be something of a shock then if ‘Laughing Lenny’, the ironic nickname given to Cohen by journalists in reference to his less than chirpy demeanour, suddenly made an appearance on Old Ideas.  

Thankfully, any fears that Cohen has lightened up as he has matured are quashed by the self-referential lyrics in the powerful opener ‘Going Home’. “I’d love to speak with Leonard”, Cohen tells us, “he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit… He will speak these words of wisdom like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tune”.

Old Ideas is defined by Cohen’s growing sense of his own mortality, and listening to the characteristically confessional and intensely stirring songs together is hugely engrossing. The grizzled 77 year old, one of the few songwriters journalists can call a poet without it sounding conceited, is as brilliantly lugubrious and self-deprecating as ever throughout.

‘Darkness’ is a particular highlight, during which he growls, “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few”. Few expected Cohen to write another classic to join the likes of ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ after so long out of the game- but this timeless song rises very near to the top of his canon.  

Cohen’s unfeasibly deep voice charges every song with an indomitable sense of importance. He makes today’s most eminent baritone vocalists, such as Nick Cave or Matt Berninger from The National, sound fit only to serve as backing singers for Alvin & The Chipmunks. When Cohen sings, “I’m naked and I’m filthy, there is sweat upon my brow” on ‘Anyhow’, the seismic rumblings are of such a force that they risk dangerously interfering with any Richter scale that may be nearby.

But as the overtly hymnal ‘Come Healing’, and laborious ‘Lullaby’ testify, not every song on the album is vintage Cohen. However, occasional overbearing female vocals aside, each song’s modest production ensures nothing sounds pompous or dated, which is where some of Cohen’s latter day synth-infused albums have come a cropper. Instead, a classy, jazz-inflected style defines the understated instrumentation, purpose built for Cohen’s sonorous waltzes.

‘Crazy To Love You’, simply an acoustic guitar straddled by Cohen’s bottomless voice, is very much early-era Len, and will no doubt transport many diehards back to the bedsit in which they first heard the so called ‘Master of Erotic Despair’. Then, closing the album, ‘Different Sides’ is typical Cohen, playing his own relationship counsellor in a confrontation with a sultry female vocal.

Over the course of the album it becomes clear that Cohen is much too wise to even attempt reinventing himself for any new generation(s). He simply doesn’t need to, and so Old Ideas sees him playing entirely to his strengths.