Sunday, 11 December 2011

St Vincent - Leeds

Written for Kicking Against The Pricks.

Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. November, 16th.
On more than one occasion this evening, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) manifests on stage as a bona fide Rock God. During countless almighty guitar solos that combine with the Brudenell’s apocalyptic stage lighting and dry ice, she evokes a time when all guitarists of her ilk had mullets and wore spandex. Famously, they would use their guitars as extensions of their penis. Here and now, however, Clark’s guitar merely serves as an extension of her brilliance.

The wide-eyed, Texan multi-instrumentalist single handedly blows to pieces all the pomp, cliché and chauvinism that have justifiably given that kind of posturing a bad name. What’s left is a performance as sincerely affecting as it is entertaining; songs with an intense emotional core that sound as satisfying sonically as the most OTT rock.

Set opener ‘Surgeon’ grows, with lyrics that recall bedbound recovery from panic attacks, to a climactic nervous breakdown of cataclysmic, fuzzy synths, scrambled guitar notes and pounding drums - typical of Clark’s ability to combine sensitivity with bombast.

Clark’s innovative guitar skills alone are worth the ticket. Hers is a unique style made possible by an ability to arch her fingers into spiders’ legs, which delicately crawl up and down the fret board to produce eccentric and singular riffs. It’s abrasive, but thrillingly so, as anyone who’s heard Strange Mercy, the band’s third and best album, would testify. Cuts from the incredible album form the bulk of the set, with every song but ‘Hysterical Strength’ getting an airing.

The awesome thump of ‘Cheerleader’, fleshed out by sample pads, and heightened drama of ‘Strange Mercy’, which uses Clark’s virtuous vocals as its axis, are the pinnacles of a set that will go down as one of the best the Brudenell has ever seen. The other members of the band deserve special praise too, as it’s their proficiency that ensures that the crystalline production of Strange Mercy is preserved in a live setting.

In terms of older songs, ‘Save Me From What I Want’, ‘Actor Out Of Work’ and ‘Marrow’ - all highlights from 2009’s Actor - benefit from the muscular songwriting prowess perfected on the band’s latest record. Old set against new, it’s clear that the band were merely warming up before the triumph that is Strange Mercy.

Later on, a rampant cover of The Pop Group’s ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’ gives a good indication of where the inspiration for Clarke’s convoluted pop songs comes from. This is mirrored in the demented aggression of ‘Northern Lights’, which also benefits from the expert use of a theremin as drinks table and high-pitched squeal machine. ‘Year Of The Tiger’ may have other, less obscure influences, but is just as idiosyncratic- if only for its repeated refrain of “Oh America, can I owe you one?” and its irresistible prog-rock grandeur.

‘Your Lips Are Red’ brings the night to a dramatic finish as Clark, intermittingly basking in bright neon light and pulling off another thorny solo, balances on the edge of the stage before wading straight into the middle of the audience for the song’s frantic conclusion. Clark may be a Saint in name, but in spirit she’s much, much more.

BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson

BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson on 6 music My pieces for the BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson blog

Connan Mockasin

Written for Kicking Against The Pricks.

You wouldn’t expect one of the year’s most exciting, forward-thinking and rewarding albums to have been made because the artist’s mum told them to make it. But that’s how Forever Dolphin Love, the debut long-player from New Zealander Connan Hosford, aka Connan Mockasin, came to exist.

Recorded at his Mother’s request in their tall, wooden beach house in Te Awanga, the album is a sprawling yet cohesive exercise in gentle but disconcerting psychedelia, with an irresistible spirit of weirdness running all the way through it. Doing away with traditional song structures, the album feels like an extended jam between bandmates, with exceptional nuggets of pop and blues rock appearing intermittingly.

Most distinctive are Connan’s vocals, which have an appealing brittleness to them; his Kiwi accent distorted to the point of eccentricity, a creepy style accentuated by his magical, otherworldly lyrical themes. Songs about unicorns, rat-snakes and other such jibberish highlight his childlike imagination which, coupled with his obvious musical talent, gives his debut a unique voice.

Talking over the phone, Connan’s voice suggests a childlike innocence, and he seems slightly uncomfortable with the whole interview process. He avoids talking about his music in terms of genre. This, I suspect, doesn’t stem from a diva-like refusal to talk about his art (in conversation he’s actually exceedingly polite), but more from the fact that talking about his strange music in a conventional way does it an injustice - unfairly bringing it down to the boring constraints of reality.

It’s hard to think of a word that sums him up. Calling his music ‘psychedelic’ seems clichéd, conjuring unwanted images of tie-dye t-shirts and tacky hallucinogenic visuals to mind. And comparisons to jazz, in reference to the breezy looseness that his compositions float around in, don’t fit for Connan - “one of the main things I’ve read about myself in the press is that I went to jazz school, which I didn’t.”

Nevertheless, it’s a credit to Connan that he remains so difficult to categorise. When major labels started showing interest in his previous project, blues-pop outfit Connan & The Mockasins, but tried to impose their own influence on the group, Connan was having none of it.

“I was very close to giving up at that point. Having no money and nowhere to live in London and sleeping in the park… and then getting label interest, which turned out to be a lot of rubbish. They wanted us to work with specific producers and were picking the songs to go on the album, which was a crap way of doing things,” he says pointedly.

“So I got quite stressed about it all, and was like, no, I’d rather work at a fish and chip shop. So that’s when I went home and my mum told me to make my own record.”

And how about New Zealand itself, how did that shape the album? “Well, first of all, not having to worry about what the labels wanted meant that making the album was easy and really good fun.”

“And being from a very relaxed little beach village really influenced it too. But I don’t play my music when I’m in New Zealand as such, because they don’t appreciate stuff there until it’s been proven overseas, unless it’s bad dub/reggae. They’re pretty narrow-minded over there.”

Releasing his music on Erol Alkan’s eclectic Phantasy label and returning to live in London, 2011 has also seen Connan tour Europe as well as complete various high-profile support slots. On stage, Connan again is a bit of a man-boy, shy but playful and revelling in the audience’s attention.

When I saw him as a support act for Warpaint, he giddily came on and off stage after his set time was up to play more songs, attracting pockets of dischord from some people in the audience who were perplexed as to why this Andy Warhol lookalike wouldn’t piss off. But the majority enjoyed seeing a genuinely interesting support act, one that clearly got off on the thrill of performing.

I ask him if he’s always been like that? “I’ve always loved and hated performing. I don’t always enjoy it, and sometimes when you’re not in the mood and it doesn’t go well, you just want to be in bed on your own. But that’s part of it - most of the time I really enjoy it.”

Connan’s overall aesthetic is pretty distinct too, as anyone who’s seen a few of his music videos, full of anthropomorphic dolphins and face-painted, cardboard-box-headed figures, would confirm. Is there any direct influence behind all these creations? “I don’t really get inspired by other stuff, as such. Things come to me when I’m just wandering around.” Are you a spiritual person? “I guess so. There’s definitely some weird stuff out there that we can’t explain - we don’t know everything. I’m open to lots of things.”

In an interview on BBC 6 Music last month, Connan told his interviewer, to their great shock, that he’d not heard much Syd Barrett or Pink Floyd. But he says he doesn’t feel any pressure to surround himself in the vast swaths of pop music’s heritage. “I’m really lazy at collecting music,” he states.

“Now, everyone copies each other just to sound popular, and I think that’s pretty boring. It brings the quality of the music down, and makes it less interesting. I don’t see it as me being in this strange world, I just see it as other people copying too much. They’ve lowered the game.”

Meanwhile, Connan is at the top of his. Forever Dolphin Love has seen various high-profile endorsements from the likes of Radiohead, Johnny Marr, and Guy Garvey of Elbow. Connan’s collaborated with Charlotte Gainsbourg on her next album, Stage Whisper (out 7th November on Because Music), and is set to release new material with Late of the Pier frontman Sam Eastgate next year.

How about his future as a solo artist? “I think the next [Connan Mockasin] record is going to be a lot better than the last one. It’s going to be quite a lot different. I’m just playing round with stuff to try to keep things interesting.”

Album | Real Estate – Days

3 November 2011
By Nico Franks for For Folk's Sake

The word ‘sunny’ rarely gets a look in around this time of the year, when daylight itself becomes a precious commodity. But Real Estate are a band that can’t avoid the word. Categorised as ‘surf-pop’, which essentially means they sound a bit like The Beach Boys, the New Jersey five piece have been intrinsically linked with summer since their debut Real Estate was released in 2009. And album number two, Days, doesn’t show any dramatic change in sound – instead showing more of a refinement. It’s very much the album expected of Real Estate- undemanding, romantic and, of course, summery.

Given that we’re now told to buy our vegetables seasonally, should we follow the same logic with our album purchases as we enter the winter months? A few of the lyrics to ‘Easy’, the breezy, reflective album opener, could indeed jar with your average winter commuter: “Floating on an inner tube, in the sun/Around the fields we run, with love for everyone”.

But as soon as the bouncy optimism of ‘It’s Real’ leaps out, it becomes clear that what Real Estate inspire is escapism, not seasonal jealously. Often the songs end hypnotically, with repeated bars of the same rolling basslines and woozy reverb, played at a rhythm that could relax the most agitated of commuters. Vocalist Martin Courtney, with a singing style bordering on comatose in terms of its lack of urgency, dictates the woozy tone of the album to a tee.

Yet the ease with which it’s possible to drift in and out of Days, almost as if in a perpetual daydream, could be seen as the album’s main weakness as well as its strength. The band lose focus after the halfway mark and songs instead start to ape styles bettered by their contemporaries, turning nonchalance to lethargy.

‘Wonder Years’ sounds similar to Yo La Tengo at their most sunny, but lacks the enticing threat of experimentation that won the latter cult following. And ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ carries the same classic rock sound of Springsteen and Neil Young that Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs have already nailed.

But Real Estate’s defining characteristic is their canny knack for melody, exemplified on the instrumental ‘Kinder Blumen’, spaced out single ‘Out Of Tune’ and the blissfully layered ‘Municipality’. Come the end of the winding, sedative album closing track ‘All The Same’, you’ll be ready to start daydreaming all over again.

Album | Cass McCombs – Humor Risk

18 November 2011
By Nico Franks for For Folk's Sake

Humor Risk, the second Cass McCombs album to be released this year, juxtaposes itself against April’s Wit’s End; where the first was harrowing and gloomy, this is, at times, surprisingly buoyant and hopeful. And as the album’s title suggests, Cass has stuck his neck out by adding a sense of lightness to his songs, resulting in a style that doesn’t always fit. ‘Robin Egg Blue’ has an appealing pastoral folk-rock spirit, but lacks a backbone, while the ‘The Living Word’ is drearily inoffensive.

The problem is that, though each song holds its own distinct and singular musical character, sometimes the hooks aren’t strong enough to drive a song anywhere special. The repeated riff of ‘Mystery Mail’ that signals a gear change to 70’s AOR rock is initially refreshing but soon drags, once the guitarist develops repetitive strain injury.

However, diehard doom-lovers need not fear. Despite a lack in quality control in this offering, the two albums are, to borrow Cass’s phrase, cut from different sides of the same cloth. And this being the work of a songwriter very much the heir to Elliott Smith’s misery throne, there are still plenty of moments laced with Cass’s characteristic melancholia as exemplified in one song’s refrain that “pain and love are the same thing”.

His attempts at comic relief won’t have you stifling the giggles, but there’s a definite smirk lying beneath some lyrics that exposes Cass’s gratifyingly dry wit. ‘To Every Man His Chimera’, which sustains a satisfying, linear morbidity throughout, much like Lennon’s ‘Mother’, sees Cass rile against his friends and his hometown: “California makes me sick / Like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick”.

At it’s best, the album’s tone is musically more aggressive than the mid-tempo fare on Wit’s End. The muffled bassline on ‘Love Thine Enemy’ embellishes the distinctly vitriolic tone of Cass’s lyrics, as he puts the knife into insincere poseurs. Elsewhere, there’s a rolling, infectious optimism to ‘The Same Thing’.

‘Meet Me At The Mannequin Gallery’ is charmingly eccentric and the lo-fi hiss of ‘Mariah’ gradually grows into something beautiful, providing an ominous, disorientating end to the album. But by that point the album’s more lightweight moments have already instilled a nagging sense that, despite its admirable diversity in sound and mood, Humor Risk is nonetheless frustratingly inconsistent.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Big Deal interview: "Any fool can make something complicated..."

Attempting to suss out the level of sexual tension that exists between two people can be a tricky business. A task made even harder when done down a telephone line. For all I knew, Kacey Underwood and Alice Costelloe, who together form boy-girl minimalist indie-rock duo Big Deal, were speaking to me whilst sat at opposite ends of the sofa. Alternatively, I could have just interrupted a great big spooning session.

This ‘are they/aren’t they’ dilemma is the enduring appeal of listening to Big Deal. With four basic ingredients to the songs - fuzzy electric guitar, Yank drawl, gentle acoustic guitar, and breathy female vocals – the up-front lyrics are given a prominence that makes the listening experience akin to being a fly-on-the-wall during one of those conversations. 

"You don't trust me to sit on my bed … Only want me for the songs I write about about how I like you … Don't you want that morning again/ I want to be your lover I don't want to be your friend" – confessional and revealing, the words are usually sung together by Underwood and Costelloe, often giving the impression that one is speaking to the other.

To keep the mystery of the lyrics alive, I don’t ask Kacey or Alice directly if they were, or had been, in a relationship together. Instead, I skirt around the topic awkwardly.

“Our lyrics are a dual process”, Alice says, with cards pressed firmly against her chest.

Then, as a subtle signal to suggest that this is a topic almost out of bounds, Kacey deadpans, “Sometimes we just start typing words on google and when google finishes the sentence we just use that…”

Finding myself down a conversational cul-de-sac, I assume the pair would prefer to talk more about their music, not their sleeping arrangements.

The pair met when Alice started taking guitar lessons after her Mum recommended a music teacher at the primary school where she worked. Kacey was that teacher.

"The first song I asked to be taught was Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth", remembers Alice.

So was being a duo a situation borne out of necessity or choice?

“It was a necessity that became a choice”, answers Kacey. “We like the fact we don’t have to rely on a bunch of people to get things done. The bigger something is the more things can go wrong.”

And how does the set-up shape the songs?

“Painting someone’s portrait, compared to painting a huge landscape, means there has to be much more detail”, begins Kacey’s analogy. “There’s so few sounds that you have to make sure they’re absolutely perfect”, Alice clarifies.

The Big Deal sound follows a 'too many cooks' ethos pretty strictly. But do they ever feel any pressure to add any more frills to the songs?

“Neither of us likes music that is really grandiose,” adds Kacey. “Even with a really complicated band like Arcade Fire, none of their parts are virtuoso. And some Strokes songs seem almost classically composed, the way all the parts fit together. But neither band is out to prove something – it’s about the song working.”

“There’s a really good quote from Woody Guthrie”, Kacey starts. “Ah, I know what you’re thinking of but you’re not going to remember it…”, interjects Alice.

“No - I’m gonna prove you wrong”, returns Kacey. “It goes ‘Any fool can make something complicated, but it takes a genius to make something simple’”.

“Not that I’m saying we’re geniuses”, Kacey says hastily, while Alice laughs.

How about the comparisons with other bands you’ve picked up in the press already, do they act as an encouragement or are they annoyingly predictable?

“It’s strange because everyone compares us to these bands that we don’t listen to. I’ve never actually even heard a Kills songs,” Alice says.  

“I guess it makes sense from an outside perspective because of the basic set up of having a boy and a girl”, Kacey chips in. “We sometimes stop ourselves because we’ll be writing and we’ll go, this is too much like such and such band.” 

“But not a single time has anyone compared us to one of those bands that we’re always worried about being compared to… and no I’m not going to tell you who those bands are.”

“We’re looking at it from the way we write and the themes we sing about”, begins Kacey, “but it’s bands that have been able to write with a similar kind of honesty to us that have been the biggest influence”, finishes Alice. 

Though, with so much baggage attached to the lyrics, how does it feel playing the songs live, night in, night out? 

There's a pause as Alice considers. "Playing live is draining for anyone because you’re giving so much of yourself just by standing there. But it can also be cathartic," she replies. 

"We sweat a lot", ends Kacey. 

Single 'Chair' is out now and their debut album 'Lights Out' is out on Mute Records on September 5th. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit

Jonathan Wilson is clearly someone who appreciates that there’s a lot wrong with the world today. Gentle Spirit is, in his own words, an attempt to “give humanity some kind of reverence-laden soundtrack”. The North Carolinian shouldn’t be derided for his sincere efforts. However, championing a new respect for the world doesn’t necessarily have to sound so, well, respectful.

Sometimes, Wilson completely misfires in his valiant efforts to add some ‘big issue’ relevance to his writing. A protest song, only with a chorus written by Black Eyed Peas, ‘Can We Really Party Today?’ and its refrain of “with all that’s going on?” is, far from being a wake up call to Westerners with their heads in the sand, the low-point of the album. At least you can say Wilson is successful here; with the patronising rhetoric repeated for a dreary 6 minutes, it’s likely you’ll never want to party ever again.

However, after tripping up so monumentally early on in the album, there’s a lot of time for Wilson to regain some dignity. ‘Desert Raven’ takes America’s ‘Horse With No Name’ as a template and captures its mood to a tee, with the help of some woozy guitar lines. And, as Wilson’s lyrics fill with colour – reds, blues, greys, saffron – so too does the music.

Suddenly we go on a journey through various different offshoots of rock, from country to psychedelia. Often, as foot meets feedback pedal, and late-Beatles era McCartney basslines begin to throb above Wilson’s languid vocals and trippy drum rolls, echoing Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, the listening experience is akin to being in a time-warp.

But far from being satisfyingly disorientating, everything here fits neatly in place, never threatening the listener. It’s very much easy listening throughout, while Wilson relies on the tried and tested hallmarks of rock. Wilson takes ‘risks’ in the sense that they’re risks already taken by previous artists, with the intermittent blasts of electric guitar seen on ‘The Way I Feel’ very much Neil Young’s trademark.

Wilson makes a relaxing sound but, in music, vital issues need to be raised by equally vital singer-songwriters. On the evidence of the 80 minutes here, Wilson is far too much a gentle spirit to ever become one.

Monday, 1 August 2011

PJ Harvey - Alexandra Palace, London 23.07.11

Riding yet another wave of critical acclaim, PJ Harvey is 
currently joint favourite to win this years Mercury Prize for her latest album, Let England Shake. Made up of songs that consider England’s national identity (with its brutal and bloody war history as well as the inherent conflict between humanity and nature) the album may have been PJ’s fastest selling to date but it’s not your typical, hands-in-the-air festival fare. However, this weekend’s I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival, curated by Portishead and ATP, is not your typical festival. Here, in the expansive main hall of the elegant Alexandra Palace, Harvey’s emotive tales find a fitting venue that’s the equal to the poignant and stirring songs.
Such is the respect that Harvey now commands from her audience, there’s little movement from the crowd in her set, even during the lively outpourings of ‘The Skies Lit Up’ or ‘The Pocket Knife’. Far from this being a reflection of apathy, the crowd is so engrossed by the sleek movements of the figure in black, it’s all they can do to try and take in as much of her performance as possible.
But this isn’t a one-woman show. Along with Harvey’s distinctive auto-harp, Mick Harvey, John Parish and Jean-Marc Butty’s instrumentation blends folk, rock, blues, and even reggae (thanks to the disorientating but brilliant sampling of ‘Blood and Fire’ on ‘Written on the Forehead’) so well that the boundaries blur to form a sound that belongs to Harvey and Harvey alone.
Plus, there’s a great deal of restraint shown towards the structure of every song, with the placement of each beat, strum and lyric clearly meticulously considered. This ensures that the songs never collapse under the weight of Harvey’s heavy lyrical themes, drenched in gory battle imagery and laden with dark reflections on the human psyche as they are, and instead allows them to blossom. ‘The Last Living Rose’s contagious brevity and unwavering hook encapsulates this. In fact, the whole set feels barely a tenth of the 60 minutes that it lasts.

*Originally published on The Line Of Best Fit

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Intro Festival - Middlesbrough

Very much Evolution’s older and wiser sister, Intro Festival is the reincarnation of what used to be Middlesbrough Live. With a notably diverse mix of music on show, featuring up-and-coming indie artists like Cloud Control, legends such as Neville Staple of The Specials, and a whole stage dedicated to the art of the circle-pit, over on the heavy metal Sumo stage, Intro festival is fast becoming the festival of choice for the North-East’s many music freaks.

Liverpudlian post-punk outfit Clinic perhaps don’t make the most normal of first impressions, arriving onto the stage of the atmospheric Empire clad in surgeon costumes, complete with surgical masks. However, you have to admire the band’s dedication to the gimmick, never failing to play a show without appearing as a St. Johns Ambulance tribute to Slipknot. Luckily, the band’s mix of forthright guitars, incessant keyboards and precision drumming combine to make the fact you have no idea what the band’s facial features are up to add to the overall sound rather than detract from it.

Next, a move to the Evening Gazette Sounds Stage over in the impressive Town Hall to see the Jools Holland starring Vintage Trouble. After the awkward restraint of Clinic, this group of booted and suited American gents, playing a mix of Stevie Wonder meets Ike & Tina Turner good-time rock ‘n’ roll, complete with a pelvis-thrusting nymph of a lead singer, are totally refreshing, granted what they’re doing isn’t particularly fresh.

Hurling ourselves over the musical genre fence to the Sumo stage, we find hardcore punk band Trash Talk providing another master class in rock performance. As lead singer Lee Spielman screams various incomprehensible things over cannonball riffs and manic drums, devoted ‘Boro teens throw themselves at one another in a mass circle pit, to the clear surprise of the concerned stewards. With the band’s bassist scaling the stage’s infrastructure, Speilman strikes a different kind of power chord when he tells the crowd “this set up you got here is pretty cool- support this sh*t and keep it going!”, and receives a rapturous cheer in response.

Back over the genre fence once again, we find the acoustic sweet-nothings of Benjamin Francis Leftwich soothing the ears of those at The Central’s Cosmos Stage. Making the female, and some male, members of the audience visibly swoon, Benjamin sings with a maturity that betrays his age (he’s 21). There’s no doubting that there’s an audience for his chord-based romantic middling, whether or not he’ll develop into the same calibre of distinctive young singer-songwriters like Laura Marling or Pete Molinari though will perhaps rest on how many more messy relationships he can cram into his formative years.

Closing the Town Halls’ stage, Darwin Deez manages to trump all the other performers on the day. Accompanied by a band of skinny (but practically obese when compared to Darwin himself) musically gifted extroverts, the whole band exuded confidence, especially on biggest hit ‘Radar Detector’. The band’s attitude to their set seemed to be to have as much fun as physically possible, peppering the performance with catchy riffs, extended rap freestyles and meticulously choreographed dance routines featuring all four musicians. With the audience deliriously lapping it up, the band were given an extra 15 minutes of stage time, allowing for more of those dance moves and a few extra songs that sound like the Strokes if all five of the New Yorkers were on an extensive course of Prozac.

By catering to a whole spectrum of different tastes, Intro festival successfully brooded an atmosphere where everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there, despite the shabby weather. I won’t be in Durham next year, but I’m still going to make the trip up/down from wherever I am to ‘Boro for this gem of a festival.

Chapel Club - Palace (Loog)

As the doom-rock formula becomes ever more diluted, it’s getting harder and harder for a band to stamp their own unique footprint on a style of indie that, arguably, was perfected by Joy Division back in 1979. Songs on Palace like ‘The Shore’ swell to nothing much more than waves of expansive guitars and hefty drumming, producing a powerful yet completely indistinctive sound. If you find it difficult to discern between Editors and White Lies, Chapel Club will only add to your confusion.

The modern reworking of the ancient ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’ on the meaty ‘Surfacing’ shows a rare moment of creative prowess while the sheer force of  ‘White Knight Position’ is impressive. Bowman’s downbeat vocals and wry lyrics combine well with the heavyweight production on show to give the album a lot of clout. Essentially, the best compliment you can pay Chapel Club is that if they are the new White Lies, at least they’re a better version. 


Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See (Domino)

The purposefully awkward and obtuse song writing of Humbug, the Arctic’s third album, left a bad taste in the mouth of many. However, those who suck this follow up will be pleasantly surprised by its overall sweeter taste. Continuing to evolve from the winning kitchen-sink realism of their overwhelming massive debut, these songs are bolstered by an underlying retro romanticism that sees Alex Turner challenging Richard Hawley for the title of Sheffield’s chief crooner. 

On ‘Piledriver Waltz’, Turner flexes his witticisms, warning the unlucky in love, “if you’re gonna try and walk on water, make sure you wear your comfortable shoes”. Lyrical inspiration may have gone walkabout on meat-and-potato singles ‘Brick By Brick’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cos I’ve Moved Your Chair’, but it’s hard to argue with the latter’s sheer ballsy force. Plus, mysterious femme fatales, group harmonies, and cranium-penetrating hooks elsewhere ensure the band continue to lead the way in the much-maligned genre of British indie-rock. 


For Folk's Sake

*Originally posted on the For Folk's Sake New Bands Panel*

Milkwood - All Of Its Ways

Just when you think you’ve got Milkwood sussed as another standard folk three piece from the South of England, they do something that takes you by surprise. Like when a disjointed but inspired fingerpicked banjo solo gatecrashes 'Bite My Thumb'’s sweet melody, or the moan of a Velvet Underground-esque dying violin throws 'The Passanger' into a cascade of electric guitar and drums. Johnston’s hearty vocals, heavy with the same kind of maturity that has earnt Laura Marling so much recent praise, make sure the songs stay festering in your ears, like an ear infection you don’t mind having. The only things you can get for £3 nowadays are posh sandwiches or a pint- however you can go buy Milkwood’s debut album for a mere £3 from a link on their Myspace. Forgo that sandwich or pint- it’ll be worth your while.

Amos Zimmerman - Amos Zimmerman & The River Band

Curiously, Amos’ surname suggests lineage to probably the most famous singer-songwriter of all time, some guy called Bob Dylan. However, you won’t find any pictures of Amos in Bob’s family albums, for the simple reason that they aren’t related by anything more than a mutual love of semi-acoustic songwriting. Hailing from Tel Aviv and already a rising star in Israel with his ‘Quasi-Rockabilly-Country-Swamp-Jam-in your face-Original Folk Rock’, Amos and his ‘Riverband’ are strong musicians but often edge too close to pastiche. With a voice like a less depressed Elliot Smith and a band indebted to Neil Young circa-Harvest, the group could do with having a few more sparks of inspiration that aren’t linked to the aforementioned Canadian ‘Godfather of Grunge’. Nevertheless, the song ‘Patience’ highlights Zimmerman’s ability to craft an original sound that rises above his already towering influences. 

Let's Buy Happiness - Six Wolves / Woodrings

Consisting of four unassuming guys and one female lead singer, Let’s Buy Happiness, or LBH as my fingers prefer, create thoughtful, mid-paced indie-pop. Edge-esque guitar delay fill the songs, swirling around and gradually building up and up, allowing Sarah Hall’s ethereal vocals to jump ship and float around in the expansive sound. LBH lack the urgency needed to set pulses racing, but they’re widely seen as one of the north-east’s most promising bands and there’s certainly a lot of potential in the songs. For one thing, Hall’s Coco Rosie/Bjork style vocals are reason enough to see the band live. If they took more unexpected turns here and there to jolt the listener back down to earth, rather than letting them drift along on a wave of sweeping guitars and drums, LBH could be 2011′s surprise package. That kind of musical prowess can develop over time though. At the moment LBH have a loyal following in the north-east, with fans sensing they might have found something special on their doorstep.

Foxpockets – The Coracle & The Albatross EP

On this EP of ‘modern day fables’, Foxpockets mix their folk-pop sensibilities with pagan traditionalism. If that sounds like a potentially horrific car crash of sounds then fear not, there’s enough in the delicate instrumentation, detached vocals and eerie lyrics to steer these songs in an intriguing and impressive direction. On the surface the band’s sound may seem like a pleasant enough exercise in pastoral folk, however there’s a dark undertone to each song. No more so than on the haunting ‘Grendel’, which would fit right in on the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, with its gruesome lyrics (“He might rip off your head, he’ll grind your bones to make his bread”) befitting of a sadomasochistic folk sing-a-long. And luckily Foxpockets seem to agree with me that the phrase “less is more” was coined with the banjo in mind, as shown in its understated use on the fantastic ‘The Nautical Song’. Time to party like it’s 1899.

You can download ‘Grendel’ for free from the band’s soundcloud:

Oh Stockholm! – When It’s Dark and Cold EP/Leaving You Ain’t Easy EP

The title and snow covered scene that appears on the front cover of this EP means, you’d suspect, that it was the artist’s intention for the songs to be enjoyed when it really is dark and cold. So, always conscious of a fair test and because it’s July, I went down to the cellar to do this review. There’s more than a little Bright Eyes about Michael Hutchinson’s fragile vocals and Anna Bennett’s mournful violin in ‘Walking In The Snow’, and the Conor Oberst comparisons carry right on through the EP of soft, sorrowful, wintery laments. The second set of songs showcases more of the same, and the overarching theme of a tortured long-distance relationship will strike a chord with many. But although Hutchinson’s love songs are indeed honest and sincere, there’s a distinct lack of bite to them that, if found, could take the songs to a more engrossing, perhaps vitriolic, level. By the next EP, that’s very much a possibility.