Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Music Chart 2009 - September

Wow what a busy month! Lots of great new stuff to add in September including a welcome return for Pearl Jam, Arctic Monkeys and Muse, and great albums from Blind Boris, Rodrigo Y Gabriela and Jason Ward. All storm into the top 20!
  1. Horehound - The Dead Weather
  2. Two Suns - Bat For Lashes
  3. To Lose My Life - White Lies
  4. Welcome To The Night Sky - Wintersleep
  5. Backspacer - Pearl Jam
  6. 11:11 - Rodrigo Y Gabriela
  7. The Resistance - Muse
  8. Wait For Me - Moby
  9. We Are The Same - The Tragically Hip
  10. Yeah So - Slow Club
  11. Almighty Row - Jason Ward
  12. Sweetheart Rodeo - Dawn Landes
  13. Port City - Grassmarket
  14. Scream - Chris Cornell
  15. Humbug - Arctic Monkeys
  16. Sea Sew - Lisa Hannigan
  17. Blind Boris - Blind Boris
  18. Battle For The Sun - Placebo
  19. Hands - Little Boots
  20. Dark Was The Night - Various
  21. Alpinisms - The School Of Seven Bells
  22. It's Blitz - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  23. 21st Century Breakdown - Green Day
  24. The High End Of Low - Marilyn Manson
  25. Kingdom Of Rust - Doves
  26. Fork In The Road - Neil Young
  27. Not Without A Fight - New Found Glory
  28. Hypnagogues - David Cronenburg's Wife
  29. Riceboy Sleeps - Jónsi and Alex
  30. Fortress 'Round My Heart - Ida Maria
  31. Nonsense In The Dark - Filthy Dukes
  32. A Fool In Love - Florence Rawlings
  33. West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum - Kasabian
  34. Lovethief - Lunic
  35. Hey Everyone - Dananananaykroyd
  36. The Airborne Toxic Event - The Airborne Toxic Event
  37. Rockwell - Anni Rossi
  38. Shaka Rock - Jet

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Grassmarket - Port City Album Review (2009)

I like discovering new bands. And when they are Canadian folk bands it is even better. This is another review for Altsounds.

The review...

In no way connected to the district of Edinburgh in Scotland, Grassmarket is a trio of folk musicians from Nova Scotia, Canada. Following the seven track EP Waiting, Port City is the band’s first full-length recording combining pop tunes with banjo, guitar and violin driven North American roots. Penelope Jackson, Dan MacCormack and David Bradshaw all share vocal duty and instruments throughout the Jackson/MacCormack compositions; songs that transcend the years, connecting the old with the new, blending fresh ideas with traditional sounds and textures.

Opener Endless Summer is a gliding ballad building slowly to a soft harmonious chorus keeping the consistent feel right to the wordless ending - a perfectly controlled four minutes. Jackson takes lead vocal for the sublime This Is The Life, her voice bringing together elements of Thea Gilmore, Elana James (Hot Club of Cowtown) and Rebecca Taylor (Slow Club) to create a magically evocative voice of clear quality and depth. After a short guitar solo she is joined by the guys for a brief time before they hand her the last word. Miles And Miles is different again, underpinned with a frantic jolly banjo that gives the song an odd urgency, for the vocals are slower and measured, bringing in the trio of voices for the chorus. Into the last minute is the world’s smallest guitar solo. Lyrically, the themes wander into “I’ll trade mine for the life of a Yeti, I’ll be my own disguise. Running free on the frozen Serengeti…”.

The best song on the first half of Port City is the beautiful It’ll Be Dark, again sung by Jackson and a gorgeous melody allowed to glide across the sparse music. Into Good Man, and some of the best music on the album and a much more traditional feel. “As you come across the prairies, leave your trouble in every town, and the next time you climb Kelly’s mountain, you’ll be light enough to float back down…” is more wonderful song writing. Heartful is a sweet minute and a half blast to complete the Jackson trilogy. It should be twice as long but races through it’s brief lifetime, from frenetic verse: “My boy smells of grass and clover, chase a rock and turns it over, intrepid and unsteady rover. Little boy, a heart full of joy…” to a clever chorus of glorious vocal sparing.

A Canadian roots album would not be the same without one song about the country. Bearkill At Quajon Fiord (a coastal area in Nunavut, the largest and newest federal territory in Canada) rattles through its instrumental two and bit minutes like the soundtrack to a silent movie or a cool episode of Wacky Races. Brilliantly played and thoroughly enjoyable. Road Often Travelled brings back the lyrics, the life story of family life and leaving your friends. More sultry vocals are combined with stark harmonica. Another short track, the tongue-in-cheek I’m Gonna Make A Great Fossil follows with more great lyrics “…my footprint in the rock. I‘m gonna be the subject of future Archaeological talks…” then duelling vocals right to the end. But the best is left until last. The whimsical title track closes things in style, changing pace and slowly building the instrumentation into the last minute before a harmonious finale.

Port City delivers exactly what it promises. The musical threesome combine harmonies and instrumentation with talent and charm, juxtaposing the quick and the slow, the old and the new, and different lyrical and vocal styles. A constant joy, this is music to get lost in. If there is a criticism, Port City is just a bit too short. At just shy of half an hour, it is over too quickly but great while it lasts. This music will never change the world. But it will preserve a small yet celebrated part of it for future proud generations.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir Update (September 2009)

Time for this month's Angels In The Abattoir news and fantastic news it is!

The signed lyric sheets have been shipped and I got mine last week. Thankfully Thea's handwriting is much better than my own. I haven't got around to framing it yet but I will. Here it is in all it's glory...

And the song this month is the four minute ballad So Long, as always beautifully delivered with delicate acoustic accompaniment. Even in this mood, Gilmore still manages to sound menacing and vindictive as her voice cuts the air. The song stays in the same gear throughout and never threatens to get heavy or show-off. In this world of X-Factor trying to prove that the only way to sing is to show off and yell at the top of your lungs, it is singers like Thea Gilmore who show yet again that a controlled approach always wins. Yes this isn't the best song she's every written in terms of melody but the heartfelt retrospective lyrics are superb. The quiet outro is chilling.

"So Long. We had our time. Broke a few rules. Crossed a few lines...".

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Get Back Guinozzi! - Carpet Madness Album Review (2009)

A review for Altsounds.

Get Back Guinozzi! is a new French band formed a few years ago by Eglantine Gouzy and Fred Landini. After a brief foray as a solo artist in 2004, singer Gouzy teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Landini for this unique collaboration. The band’s debut album Carpet Madness is an interesting ride, blending genres, random concepts, child-like vocals and a plethora of backing tracks.

At it’s best, the songs on Carpet Madness instantly grab your attention. The title track owes much to De La Soul’s Eye Know with its jangly guitars, odd keyboards and simple chorus. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone is deliciously dark and folky. After a minute it turns into a series of industrial steam-engine beats and animal noises. Sweet guitars and wistful, if creepy, vocals are at the core of Personal Lodger and L.A. is lo-fi electro-pop, very reminiscent of early Stereolab. Opener Where Are You is a good introduction to Gouzy’s charms, which sadly don’t last through the course of the album, and Landini’s tendency to throw in disjointed beats, odd guitar loops and other things to throw the listener off-guard.

Carpet Madness never completely falls apart, it just gets more eccentric. Low Files Tropical sounds like slowed down Shonan Knife doing a reggae cover mixed with old Nintendo sound effects. Gouzy seems to be singing three or four vocal tracks at the same time. Truly mesmerising but utterly bizarre at the same time. Go Back To School is like a rebel anthem for the Cbeebies generation complete with strange giggling samples in the outro. Sick suffers from an out of place expletive that doesn’t fit with the nature of the album. That said, it is wonderful wobbly shimmering surf-pop to the end. Closer King’s Song is not the big upbeat finish the album needs. It ends suddenly with the word ‘disaster’.

Even with the bad ending, the album has some real gems towards the end. Police And Thieves, the Junior Murvin reggae hit covered by The Clash, is given the Get Back Guinozzi! treatment. But what could be a huge mess turns out to be one of the most straight-forward songs on Carpet Madness. Aside from some brief interludes, the version stays true to the original even if Gouzy’s vocals fall a little flat. Baby Baby is wonderfully controlled, given what has come before. It sounds way too fast with garbled vocals, but eventually morphs into a series of layered African choir-like voices. Jungely brings it all together for a decent semi-psychedelic guitar-pop song. Gouzy is enchanting and dreamy, if a little disorganised with her lyrics.

Carpet Madness is extremely challenging stuff that moves from fresh and quirky to annoying and back again. It draws you in then alienates you, then draws you back in. In spite of the band’s French roots, songs are delivered in English which in itself is not a problem (the effect is similar to another French band Arther who sing in English yet retain all of their ‘Frenchness‘). It would too easy to say that you have to be in just the right mood to enjoy Get Back Guinozzi! but repeat listens and the album will begin to get under your skin. Whether this is in a good way, only you can decide…
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Light Streams - Lost EP Review (2009)

A review for Altsounds.

The Light Streams are the latest young band out of Leeds (Yorkshire, UK) trying to find a unique new sound and stand out from the crowd. Produced by Andy Hawkins who works with The Cribs and The Pigeon Detectives, the Lost EP breathes a fresh energy into familiar territory. Throughout the four songs, the band delivers something different each time, from the safe country-rock of opener Caroline to the more punk-pop Beatles meets Springsteen lad-rock stomp of Whatever Gets Your Through (Gets You Through). There are obvious west coast US influences at work here. Not quite The Thrills, The Light Streams keep their roots on their side of the Atlantic.

The best song on the Lost EP is City Walls, fusing Arctic Monkeys swagger with Cast-like soaring melodies (circa 1997 - Mother Nature Calls). It kicks off with a rousing blast of vocals before the song takes shape. A great chorus and some majestic drumming combine to create a decent slice of shining guitar-pop. Save Me borrows nicely from Del Amitri before taking on a life of it’s own, the guitars kicking in - first heavy then brimming with melody. A nod to Oasis and The Stone Roses using the ‘Sally’ character, this cleverly reintroduces repeated lines into different parts of the song as it recalls the sorry tale of loneliness tinged with hope. “Each generation will fight from the ropes they’re upon…” are lyrics worthy of Currie.

The Lost EP is a promising debut, packed with talent and ideas. It is songs like these that rekindle the fiery passion for new bands just about on the verge of getting noticed. The Light Streams has ever chance of becoming one of those bands that creates a buzz, but only if they continue the consistency shown here. An excellent debut.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Natalie Imbruglia - Want Single Review (2009)

A review for Altsounds. I was quite excited about this. I'm a huge fan of Natalie Imbruglia and her album White Lilies Island showed the world what she is capable of. Unfortunately her singing career only lead to TV work and by her own admission she got 'lazy'. Her comeback is something of a soft option. I hope the album is not all like this...

The review...

Best known for the big single Torn (let’s get this out of the way early), Natalie Imbruglia is back with a new album Come To Life. The lead single promoting the album is the Chris Martin collaboration Want. He co-wrote the song and provides keyboards and backing vocals but you wouldn’t know from hearing it.

One of the great things about Imbruglia was that at heart she was never drawn into the mainstream dance-pop scene. Both Left Of The Middle and the wonderful follow-up White Lilies Island are honest and heartfelt, down-to-earth song writing and open performance on every song. This is such a massive change in direction. Imbruglia was the antithesis of Australian compatriot Kylie, a more refined Avril Lavigne making indie pop tunes, wearing baggy clothes and never submitting to the enforced stereotypes. Now she is taking the easy option and copying Kylie’s sound. Vocally, there is so many layers of production that it’s hard to connect the Imbruglia of now with the burgeoning singer of the past. The L'Oréal deal and attempts to be a film star finished that. And it’s not even comparable with Chris Cornell’s fantastic teaming up with Timbaland as here there is a complete loss of identity, soul and ideas.

As a song, Want is just a dance chorus and a pounding drum beat. It does nothing lyrically and Imbruglia sounds flat and listless. At the two minute point it does try something new but quickly returns to the repetition. The outro just runs out of ideas completely. It is such a shame that a promising musician has been distracted by outside influences only to come back with something so flimsy and vacuous. Natalie Imbruglia needs to ditch the people around her, take a guitar and a piano, lock herself in a log cabin for a year, write some decent songs and achieve the potential that we all know she can.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Pearl Jam - Backspacer Album Review 2009

So glad to get this to review for The Music Magazine. A welcome return for Pearl Jam.

Backspacer is the ninth studio album (if you don’t count b-side compilation Lost Dogs) from US band Pearl Jam. In recent years the band has thrown away the shackles of serious polished rock music and returned to the garage days of previous incarnation Mother Love Bone (they so should have kept that name). The band's last release, the eponymous album of 2006 went by largely unnoticed but was well received by those that cared to listen, as was Riot Act four years earlier. Before this, Binaural and Yield attempted (with limited success) to recapture the sounds and production of Pearl Jam’s most popular album, the wonderful debut Ten. But even though Backspacer continues on from the previous album, it throws in a few echoes from the past...

One of the only problems with Backspacer is a difficult early obstacle to overcome. At the core of Pearl Jam is Eddie Vedder. His voice is described as a rough baritone, equally at home screaming out as it is delicately crooning. He does both very well. Or he did. Here, however, and not always, Vedder is either making bad choices or straining to get his voice where he wants it. It is hard to believe that in search of something more honest and open, the band’s singer is compromising a key sound. The first half of the album suffers slightly from 'screechy' vocals. Thankfully this isn't a huge distraction. Johnny Guitar is a real problem and that's only because it's just not very good. The only fault.

Backspacer manages to balance the gritty with the melodic without getting too anthemic. Much of this is down to the reintroduction of producer Brendan O'Brien. There was a time when songs like this would be subjected to layers of production, swathes of guitars and plenty of gloss. Not anymore. The album is tightly edited and has a refreshingly short running time of just over thirty five minutes. It is very much a case of what was taken out over what was left in. The punchy stary-eyed Supersonic is just about right, as is opener Gonna See My Friend, a song seemingly about finding your dealer when things get tough and inevitably finding help. This leads neatly to Get Some, and a similar subject: "I got some if you need it..." but with Vedder ultimately finding music. And a sublime, if short, guitar solo...

First single The Fixer, with its disjointed slow-then-fast verse structure and empty chorus is an odd choice to 'promote' Backspacer but an elegant simplicity results in a decent middle-of-the-road rock track. It covers just about every style Pearl Jam can cope with. This is the best of the first half before a massive mood change. Just Breathe is one of two gorgeous soft acoustic heart-breaking love songs. Again, Vedder's voice is cracking with emotion but the change of pace and direction is startling. Time after time Pearl Jam move between dirty rock and mushy ballad, each time retaining just enough credibility. The sudden ending adds to the heartbreak. But the best is just around the corner. Amongst The Waves is exceptional, up there with the band's best. It's a soaring epic that feels like an outtake from Binaural or Yield given a modern take. A brilliant chorus: "Riding high amongst the waves; I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved; I can feel like I put away my early grave..." of a man being given a second chance lifts the album just when it needs it. More great guitar work pins the centre before Vedder is back, as passionate and committed as ever. If this isn't enough Unthought Known is almost as good, lacking the predictable structure but avoiding the big anthemic stadium moments.

Into the last three songs and Speed Of Sound is another beautifully crafted song, framed with some more excellent guitars and piano. Yes it's bordering on soft rock but most bands who only have this never sound this good. Force of Nature threatens a return to the gritty start of the album but a great vocal melody from Vedder transforms it into another classic. More intimate storytelling about holding a relationship together: "One man stands along, awaiting for her to come home; eyes are closed, you cannot know but his heart don’t seem to roam". Closing with The End, predictability becomes a last surprise. Following on from Just Breathe, The End has Vedder serving up even more emotion for part two: "Slide on next to me, I’m just a human being; I will take the blame, bust just the same; This is not me you see; Believe I’m better than this". More proof that Vedder's song writing is maturing with time. The final words form a sudden finale: "My dear The End comes near. I’m here. But not much longer".

A new Pearl Jam album will always come with certain expectations. Ten was such a great debut, an anti-grunge masterpiece that challenged Nirvana’s Nevermind but lost every time. Fans will always want the next album to capture the wide-eyed intensity of the first few albums. From Ten, through the trials and troubles of Vs. and into the dark menacing Vitalogy (the band’s finest hour) and the wonderfully diverse No Code, Pearl Jam always deliver something special. Backspacer has that something, and it has the intensity and the passion but the band is always held to a higher standard because of the early heights. This is the reason no one wants to trawl through a new U2 album. Nothing will be as good as The Joshua Tree and then Achtung Baby. When you go to a Radiohead gig you don’t want to hear In Rainbows. You want High & Dry and Fake Plastic Trees and you don’t care if the band aren’t into that anymore. Every new REM album is treated with the same level of stomach churning anticipation. Long gone are the days of Life’s Rich Pageant, Green and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. What we now get is Reveal and Accelerate even when we would settle for another Automatic For The People...

So back to Pearl Jam. Success does change bands. They don’t become lazy and complacent. They don’t stop trying. But they do move on, trying something different and challenging each other. So why shouldn’t the same challenges be levelled at the listener? With liberation from a record label, the freedom to do what you want, and the knowledge that fans will still buy your music is what band’s like Pearl Jam now have. The industry is not what it used to be. Pearl Jam will not make another Ten, or a Vitalogy and it's taken three albums, but this is further proof that the band is still a potent force. Backspacer is vibrant, uplifting, emotional and honest. Not bad for a band on the verge of a tenth album.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

David Cronenberg's Wife - Hypnagogues Album Review (2009)

A new review for The Music Magazine.

One of the great things about reviewing music for other people is that often a band comes along that is genuinely surprising. Writing about a favourite artist is always preceded by expectations leading to inevitable joy or ultimate grudgingly accepted disappointment. But the experience is always biased in some way. A band you have never heard before is a rare experience even if they turn out to sound like someone else. Occasionally they don't. The intriguingly named David Cronenberg's Wife is that band. Hypnagogues (which apparently means 'a drug that induces sleep') is the second album from the London art-rock sextet.

Hypnagogues is a weird and wonderful experience that threatens early on to deliver something different on each track. Singer and guitarist Tom Mayne is a sublime mix of Ian Brown, Jason Pierce and Frank Sidebottom. Opener Sweden is a brilliant torrent of monologue John Cooper Clarke lyrics eventually gliding into a dance-induced chorus. Mayne namedrops Ideal Homes, Annabel Croft, talks about downing pints of fish oils and feeling crap but living until he's a hundred and twenty four. That is just a taster of a wondrous trip through a frantic mind. On first listen, it seems like an entire album like this would be a huge breath of fresh air but what transpires turns out to be a smart move. Never holding on to a single idea for too long, David Cronenberg's Wife swiftly move on.

Can't Keep Doing What You Do is less talking and more 'singing', a clanking, stomping, uneasy pop song that's not sure if it wants to let anyone know what it is. The first real highlight on Hypnagogues is the majestic The Lou Reed Song, so unashamedly an homage disguised as a rip-off it finds that sweet-spot both musically and ironically before unfolding beautifully into a blatant finale. It is also home to the best line on the album: "So you're in a good mood, but the party it brings you down; If you don't want to go home barking, then stop acting like such a hound...".

As with all music that tries to do something new and unique, not all of Hypnagogues works. Fight Song is like a bad journey through a budget ghost train ride at a seedy faire. It lacks any form of melody. Likewise In The Limo is a drunken attempt at a Pogues cover - a mean feat but Mayne and the band execute it perfectly. After a minute it gets truly irritating. Even the guitars and the big 'sing-a-long' ending does little to improve things. You Should've Closed The Curtains brings back the style in spectacular form. Playing out like The Stranglers at their most eclectic, this tale of voyeurism brings together sultry vocals, swathes of strings and harpsichord. The racy Body To Sleep With continues the oscillation, a quick blast of disjointed punk-pop.

Desperate Little Man could be Mark Everett at his best, a bitter-sweet slice of storytelling with lost love, stark imagary and honest reflection. The arrangement is exquisite. Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace is dark, creepy guitar-based indie with distant nasal vocals. The instrumentation just before the three minute point is breathtakingly delicate and controlled against the edgy vocal delivery. In contrast Jailbird is too obvious, packed full of tongue-in-cheek metaphor: "I was roughly fingerprinted, there was no chance of bail...She even took my shirt, I had to be strip-searched...". Back to a high for the closer Drawn Again, a slow mesmerising trawl from the depths, again full of wonderful imagery and observations. In spite of Mayne's prosaic tone, he has an oddly tuneful voice. The tumbling guitars and violin dance away into the last minute.

Hypnagogues is twisted, direct, melancholy, uplifting, dark and light. Tom Mayne's vocals are responsible for the unique approach of David Cronenberg's Wife but the band play a big part. The six musicians combine through interesting and brave arrangements to compliment the words of the front man which rarely falter. Mayne's unwavering attempts to ignore structure and convention (if the words don't fit, just say them quicker so they do) is refreshing and compelling. Hypnagogues is far from great. But like all great art it has plenty of delicious faults.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

New Death Cab For Cutie 'Soundtrack' Single

Normally a new Death Cab For Cutie song is cause for celebration. But on hearing that Meet Me On The Equinox is a track from the soundtrack for the new movie The Twilight Saga: New Moon I approached it with trepidation. DCFC on the soundtrack of a teen vampire movie? Oh dear.

Thankfully it's not bad. It's not great either and it doesn't end well, ironic given the lyrics in the chorus. Gibbard, Walla and the boys are on great anthemic form but Meet Me On The Equinox is at times horribly mainstream, polished and far removed from the intimate storytelling DCFC are famous for.

You can hear the song full on the band's MySpace page.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Jason Ward - Almighty Row Album Review (2009)

One great thing about reviewing music for other people if you always discover new music. In this case, Jason Ward sounding like someone I would like but I has never heard any of his music. Not sure why as he has made 30 albums worth of songs in the last ten years and doesn't have a record deal. Thanks to Altsounds again for this one. Oh and you can listen to the whole album on Ward's Myspace site.

The review...

Not many mainstream artists can claim to have written over three hundred and fifty songs this decade. This year alone the West Virginia musician Jason Ward has released two albums, two EPs and seven singles, yet he is far removed from the mainstream music industry and remains unsigned. He is Kurt Cobain if Nirvana had never happened. The world is full of people making music for themselves. A voice, a guitar, some words and a room is all you need these days to make a song. But very few are as talented as Jason Ward.

Almighty Row is just a small example of Jason Ward’s work, but as a complete album the songs share a similar mournful and ethereal sound. Ward’s vocals have a Thom Yorke quality but there is often more to his voice. The music treads a fine line between heartbreaking melancholy and soulless depression, the words complimented by a minimalist framework of acoustic guitars, strings and piano. This album is proof that less is more when you make the right choices.

The definitive highlight of Almighty Row is the haunting Sugarcoat, a perfect three minutes of captivating performance. Ward’s vocals are interchanged with a delicate and simple piano melody and the whole song is washed with a subtle string arrangement. It is probably the most ‘complete’ song on the album. Sinkhole is a close second with an achingly beautiful chorus: ‘Enjoy your sinkhole, make it your home. You raise your kids there and die alone…’. The trails and tribulations of ‘family life’ summed up.

Opener I’m Not In Trouble sets the uneasy scene from the outset, a tale of self-doubt and denial centred around the line: ‘I know it’s not me and I’m not in trouble, still think I may have done something wrong…’. It could be a small child facing a parent or a serial killer talking to the devil. Perfect abstract song writing. Bright continues the sinister feel, flat verses leading up to a melodic chorus: “…And I’ll be happy though it’s wrong. And I’ll be happy knowing you are where you belong”. The backing vocals by Ward himself are excellent.

Almighty Row often breaks the formula. Hinting At The Door is a slower piano-led piece using few words to first create the pictures: ‘She came down from Pennsylvania where the horses run. I came from the tributaries where the sun is spun’, then the personal touch: ‘She looked out the window once, at the empty field. When I asked her what she saw, she kept her thoughts concealed’. Sendoff could be a Rufus Wainwright closer. The combination of piano and Ward’s change of vocal style conjures images of a faded actor in a downbeat musical. Hope You Don’t Mind is similar with a startling vocal mix above a plodding piano. The choral strings provide backing vocals and the brief outro of deep electronica is over too quickly.

At just over half an hour, Almighty Row never feels too long. The pace of each song is measured and consistent but never laboured - a wonderful feat of control and production. Song after song you keep expecting Ward to suddenly start yelling or throw in a massive blast of industrial noise to release the tension and angst. It never happens. But on repeat listens you keep expecting it as the songs reveal more and more hidden depth and meaning. Given that Jason Ward has made so much music in the last ten years and his creative output has produced something as good as Almighty Row, it remains a mystery why he doesn’t have a record deal. Maybe he doesn’t want one. Maybe he is living the life that Kurt Cobain never had - making music out of the public spotlight and staying well in control.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Blind Boris - Blind Boris Album Review (2009)

Another review for Altsounds. An amazing album considering these guys are unsigned and don't have a label. Hopefully not for long as this is a strong piece of work, even if it leans a bit too far toward those uncool bands of the 80s who put melody and harmonies into rock music.

The review...

The London duo of Samuel ‘Blob’ Gough and Amir Alam moved to Los Angeles to soak up the west coast rays and form Blind Boris. Obviously inspired by the melodic rock scene of the late 702 and 80s, the debut album sounds for the most part like it was made thirty years ago in the glory days of The Eagles, at the start of Bon Jovi’s career, back when it was acceptable to brandish the badge of ‘soft rock’ with pride.

Setting an uneasy mood from the start, Blind Boris doesn’t start well. Opener Rain Song tries too much and tries too hard, moving from acceptable smoky country-rock to ridiculously over-the-top howling in four minutes. A shame that they feel the need to do this from the outset and fall flat before they have even started. That said, the intro is superb as is the first display of vocal harmonies from the band led by Gough‘s wonderful vocals - like a smooth sandstone.

The great news is that from this shaky start, Blind Boris is packed with magnificence, each song a brilliant example of a great new band in the making. It makes you wonder why and how these guys, who make such an incredible noise, don’t have a record deal. Skin And Bone is majestic stuff but the album doesn’t really take off until the sublime Already Done, beginning slowly and delicately acoustic before a predictable yet honest blast of rock brings in the chorus. Then back to the fragility building up to another. The song is controlled and focused, even when the guitars kick in it never oversteps the mark, and ends as deliciously as it started.

From here there is a mix of full-on rock and folky ballads. Travelling captures a modern Led Zeppelin at the band’s most mellow - Robert Plant on one of many journeys of self-discovery. In spite of this obvious influence, Blind Boris let a new personality wash through the sound. More great guitar work in the last thirty seconds before an acoustic outro. Looking For A Way Out continues this laid-back approach, fusing in piano and a dreamy arrangement, complete with another soaring guitar solo, it just about holds it together to the end.

So far so good and the album is settled and focused with only a few mild moments of self-indulgence. From The Deep is more Zeppelin folk-rock. Burning Hole returns to the dirty rock with a vengeance and the best guitars on the album. An excellent drum arrangement announces the big outro which is not as huge as it could be. There’s A Chill is one of the most modern sounding songs Blind Boris delivers, stuck somewhere in mid-tempo and not deciding what it wants to be. A slight lapse as Heaven Spun is a master class in vocal harmonies and the proof that sometimes less is more definably more. Gough is supreme. The closing song A Little While is completely different but just as good, another perfect rock song, building from quiet to loud through a five minute duration. Gough comes back after a quirky guitar solo and in the last minute he sticks to an odd falsetto

If you take Blind Boris on face value, it is a hugely enjoyable album. In the same way that every new band in the UK is determined to relive the glorious musical renaissance of the 1980s, Blind Boris is doing the same thing…for 70s and 80s soft rock. The album is delivered straight, no tongues in cheeks and embracing the sounds and textures of those bands that excelled in guitar-led melodic rock. At times excellent guitar-work, keyboards and harmonies bring in a guitar solo that could go on for five minutes and it would have made parts of the album an instant classic. But the band never stray into prog-rock and keep things punchy. Going retro is nothing new. Some bands take the influences and copy them directly and others turn them into something new and fresh. Thankfully Blind Boris falls into the latter category, even if it is only just.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Florence Rawlings - A Fool In Love Album review (2009)

Mike Batt has a keen ear for talent. Not content with working with the hugely successful Katie Melua, and helping to shape her into a unique and interesting musician, Batt has now turned his craft to Florence Rawlings. Having toured with Batt on his ‘Songwriter’s Tale’ promotional tour, Rawlings now has her chance to prove herself with the debut album A Fool In Love. As you might expect this is a bluesy, soulful, jazzy, rhythm and blues collection of original songs and covers in (almost) equal measure. Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and Allen Toussaint all feature, and all are delivered in a similar predictable style.

The first noticeable highlight is Rawlings herself. A voice so strong, so full of power and depth, it rarely oversteps it’s boundaries. At times, the barometer swings the other way and the singer sounds nonchalant and distant - probably something to do with the material. The covers are a wild adventure for the most part but the original songs don’t generate the sort of connection between vocalist, musicians and writer that you get in a well-established band. Not to say it doesn’t gel but the arrangements are ambitious and often a simpler production is needed.

Thankfully some of the best moments come from Batt. The Only Woman In The World feels like a modern take of an old classic, with a powerful arrangement and a quirky harmonica break. Rawlings sings with incredible control and presence. Jump On The Wagon is a solid guitar-led rhythm and blues number, pulling in bits of everything to form something new. And Wolf Man is more blues and a subtle arrangement to create a new unique take on the Three Little Pigs story. Again Rawlings makes the most of a basic idea, adding her own sultry personality to the tale. In spite of the repetition, she adds more and more to each turn.

The odd single Hard To Get tries to sound smooth and silky but the vocals are very laboured, the arrangement is a mid-tempo drawl and Batt does not deliver his best writing. Can’t Hold Your Hand is much better, slowing to a smouldering crawl. If anything it would benefit from less not more. The overused backing vocals could go and a simple piano would suffice. A Fool To Love closes with Batt’s earnest ballad Love Can Be A Battlefield, another example of a singer making the most of an average song. A slow, and at times clumsy, arrangement distracts from some great lines and a strong central piece: “Love can save you, it can make you whole. It can enslave you, it can take your soul. It can break you, take your world apart. If you let it, it will break your heart”.

As for the rest, opener Wouldn’t Treat A Dog is nothing more than a great introduction to a great voice as the disjointed arrangement is delivered like a patchwork quilt of sounds and ideas. In an attempt to tone things down from the outset and not throw too many ideas in the pot, the effect is lacklustre and a bit too ‘laid back’ in the first half. Riverboat is a decent attempt to ‘jazz’ up the Toussaint classic, adding in guitars and gospel backing singers. It works but has a ridiculously long thirty second fadeout.

The title track is a controversial choice, the Ike & Tina Turner debut single from 1960. It turns out to be one of the best songs on the album, with some excellent guitar work, blasts of brass and soft backing vocals. Rawlings in no Tina but it’s a decent effort. Moving into more difficult territory, Gladys Knight’s Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me is excellent, as is Chuck Berry’s Can’t Catch Me - one of the only fast-paced songs, expertly performed and thoroughly enjoyable.

An oddball in the mix is A Dollar Of My Pain, written by guitarist Chris Spedding. The problem here is that it’s not sure what it wants to be and although full of Spedding’s wonderful guitars, he never upstages his singer. Lyrically it kicks off with “I’ve invested all my time in you, at no dividend; Interest is so low, baby, I got nothing to lend” which sounds like a trendy accountant.

The old and new on A Fool In Love compliment each other thanks to Mike Batt’s attention to detail. He clearly understands Rawlings and the two never try to outpace each other. The singer respects the material and the writer compliments the voice. As it should be. And this feels like the early days of a burgeoning relationship and not just a musician giving one of his backing singers a quick break. What would be great now is if Florence Rawlings started writing and arranging her own songs. Only then will a great artist be born.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

Monday, 7 September 2009

Florence Rawlings - Hard To Get (Single)

With her wild hair and mock-goth outfit, leaning away from the old fashioned microphone stand, Florence Rawlings looks more like Alison Mosshart than Katie Melua. But this is another artist who seems to be embarrassed to be associated with such a mainstream commercial sound. Either that or Rawlings wants to create an intriguing persona. As part of Mike Batt’s band, Rawlings provided vocals and backing vocals, and is now signed to Batt’s Dramatico label. The single Hard To Get is taken from the new album A Fool In Love.

Opening with a couple of bars including the basic repeated chorus from the outset, there is an obvious new jazz feel to Hard To Get, blending old-world soul and old-time rhythm and blues (unfortunately this immediately means a guest spot on the next series of Jool Holland’s BBC 2 music show with Holland adding his own honky-tonk piano and filling the backing with a seven piece string section and a swathe of horns). As a piece of song writing Batt is not stretched: “And now you’re playing the crying game, you say that it’s never gonna be the same, but honey you’ve only got yourself to blame, and you know why, coz time flies by…”. What is impressive is the strength and depth of Rawlings’ vocals, always clear and strong.

At just three minutes, the song rolls along repeating itself and not doing anything unpredictable. The ‘b-side’ is a new interpenetration of Dedicated To The One I Love, the 1960s classic single by The Shirelles. It is best known as a cover by The Mamas & The Papas. Rawlings’ version is held together by the strength of her voice, some great piano and an invasive brass section. It is a modern remake but captures the feel and time of the original.

Hard To Get is a good introduction to Florence Rawlings but an unchallenging mid-tempo track is an odd choice to promote an album which needs better exposure. No doubt it will be a success off the back of radio airplay and guest spots. Such is the power of a ‘single’ these days.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

Echo Screen - Goodbye Old Life EP

A great new EP reviewed for Altsounds...

Like most up-and-coming American emo bands (often labelled punk-pop), Echo Screen got noticed by the seminal Drive-Thru records in the US before the release of debut album Euphoria. The band signed to Rockout and such is the life of young bands these days, Echo Screen has already replaced a guitarist and broken up (a hiatus), only to reform to record new songs. The result of this is the Goodbye Old Life EP.

The key to getting yourselves noticed in a genre so saturated with every teenager who picks up a guitar and forms a band is to be something slightly different. Sounds obvious but when fans seem to revel in compilations full of manufactured punk-pop outfits, off-the-shelf bands for the masses are everywhere, all striving for individuality. Thankfully Echo Screen are beginning to stand out from the crowd. Euphoria is largely stuck to a formula but the album is liberally sprinkled with gorgeous genre-breaking moments from sweeping ballads to quirky pop.

The 5 track EP Goodbye Old Life continues this trend. Singer Shaune Scutellaro has an uncanny resemblance to Ben Folds on opener I Amsterdam, a sound mirrored by the band complete with dancing piano and a cheesy handclaps before a slowdown outro. A decent start and miles away from the tried and trusted world of emo pop. The Ballad Of Jack Shepard (Battle Chorus) moves more towards Ben Gibbard. Comparisons aside, this is slower soaring dream pop with a big ‘woah woah’ sing-a-long chorus. In spite of all the effort the song feels very distant and soulless - the great lyrics are lost in a heavy guitar mix (take note Ace Enders - one of the only times he gets it vaguely wrong on production duties).

When I Escape (L.A.) combines the approach of the first two songs to produce something much more comfortable. Some great vocal interplay between Scutellaro and the band. The staccato guitars and drums are a distraction from the flow but the last minute exceeds early expectations. JT Sanford joins in the vocals on Bombs Away and it doesn’t quite gel. The ‘live’ feel of the recording with clear vocals and stark raw acoustic guitars is excellent but it sounds like the song was a ‘one take’ that took a couple of minutes for the two singers to synch. The EP closes with an open-hearted ballad about the trials and tribulations of being a band on the road - The Sun. An obvious subject matter considering the fractious nature of the band and ‘making it‘ but a fitting close.

Goodbye Old Life is a good EP - solid and tuneful and full of great moments, but what we really want is a full album. There is enough evidence here to justify the band’s continued existence and more cohesive effort could, and probably will, create a good career defining sophomore album. Until then this is a short and sweet taster of Echo Screen’s capabilities.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Rodrigo Y Gabriela - 11:11 Album Review (2009)

If you are new to Mexican classical guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela and the thought of two people playing two guitars for eleven songs over forty-five minutes strikes you as slightly dull, prepare to be enlightened. The guitarists have followed up their hugely successful eponymous album with a new collection of original songs inspired by artists and musicians who have inspired them. A simple idea and one that has been treated with respect and delicacy, never letting the inspiration take over their trademark speed-flamenco style. This makes perfect sense: you are inspired by others and they shape your sound, not create it.

11:11 brings together musicians such as Santana, Hendrix and Pink Floyd as well as the more traditional Paco De Lucia. Given that Rodrigo and Gabriela cite Metallica as a major influence, and their roots in metal, it is a shame that one of the new songs is not directly attributed to Hetfield and crew. Maybe they thought the cover of Orion on the previous album is enough. And this time out, there are two guest spots: Alex Skolnick from Testament plays on the tribute for Dimebag Darrell (the Pantera guitarist murdered while on stage) and the mighty Strunz & Farah also appear.

Definite highlights are the opening Hanuman, a swirling mass of strings, at least three separate melodies and a central piece made to sound like an old record. Rodrigo embodies the spirit of Hendrix for Buster Voodoo, a four minute rock track peppered with mini guitar solos and clear riffs. The 70s style ‘wakka wakka’ piece near the end is pure genius, as is the subtle addition of the main riff ‘borrowed‘ from the Hendrix original.

Atman (the song for Dimebag Darrell) is at times impossibly fast. The song has a distinct ‘eastern’ feel, transforming the usual sound into something darker, brimming with menace. It races through the near six minute running time, at the end joined by the electric squealing of Skolnick to form a trio. This is only time the ‘format’ is broken but it never overstays it’s welcome. Strunz & Farah adds to the hectic arrangement of Master Maqui and features some of the best playing on the album. The central piece is a breathtaking guitar solo. Savitri revisits the dark overtones of Atman, brilliantly using the sample of a creaking door to break the flow and announce a new direction.

As a slower interlude, Logos is beautifully controlled and could be a Metallica intro. The song uses a series of rolling melodies before a sky burst of electric shimmering. This slides straight into the more traditional and faster Santo Domingo. This is business as usual, as is Hora Zero for the most part, doing nothing new given what has come before. That is until the last minute which contains the best sequence on the album. The short Chac Mool transports the listener to the depths of the rainforest, shimmering with odd samples before a simple and elegant guitar melody.

The title track, inspired by Pink Floyd, is probably the most diverse song on the album with a wonderful Gilmore-esque clarity, plenty of slap percussion, handclaps and additional layers. It definitely has a unique lightness. The song closes the album and in an odd move, Rodrigo Y Gabriela choose to end things with a short piano piece. Beguiling to the very end.

11:11 is a glorious example of expert guitar playing. It is that simple. At times, the sound defies belief as the experience becomes a frantic blur of strings and percussion. These moments of breathtaking performance draw you in and are scattered within a familiar combination of melodies and light touches. At times 11:11 gets comfortable and safe, reverting to a traditional Spanish style and revisiting themes and textures heard before. But it can be easily forgiven due to the constant flow of ideas. This is the sound of two musicians very much in control of where they are, where they came from and where they are going.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Stairway to Heaven live (Rodrigo y Gabriela)

No reason, other than I love this performance. Exceptional.