Sunday, 31 January 2010

2010 Music Chart - January

A great start to the year with the debut album from Delphic setting the standard for the new crop of up-and-coming musicians. Also a welcome return for the mighty Lostprophets. Also a UK release of Andrew Vincent's Rotten Pear. And because I'm a big fan, the new EP from Jason Ward: Graceful Bow.
  1. The Betrayed by LostProphets.
  2. Acolyte by Delphic.
  3. Graceful Bow (EP) by Jason Ward.
  4. Rotten Pear by Andrew Vincent.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Black Soul Strangers - Lies Single Review (2010)

Another single review for AltSounds.

From Dublin but now based in London, the Irish quartet of Gorey, O’Mahony, Wyer and O’Brien are edgy guitar band Black Soul Strangers. They are like that sexy boy band it’s ok to like because they play their own intruments and write their own songs. Lies is the band’s debut single, a drum and guitar driven modern mood-fest of a love song.

The single has both the ‘radio edit’ and ‘original version’, of which the latter is thirty one seconds longer. Why the need for two cuts of the same song is anyone’s guess as the second edit, at just about spot on three minutes, is perfectly acceptable, and less polished - a good thing in this case. The song pounds along with lead singer Gorey in majestic control, his straight no-nonsense vocal directing the melody. Well structured and focused, things only go astray when “Who let the kids outside?” announces a sudden change. But we are soon back on track.

Lies is unlikely to move mountains but for Black Soul Strangers it’s a good start; a solid debut to promote both image and sound. Hopefully this is a sign of more to come as the band will certainly need better stronger songs for an attention grabbing debut album. Perhaps less restraint within a self-imposed strict formula and more creativity will ensure these boys won’t be strangers for long (sorry).
-- CS (for AltSounds)

Birds of Tokyo - Universes Album Review (2010)

A review for AltSounds...

Universes is the second album from Australian indie band Birds of Tokyo. They are huge in native Perth, nominated for and winning many WAMis (Western Australian Music Industry Awards) but the band is yet to have any impact around the world. Formed in 2004 and grafting a trade touring and headlining shows, Birds of Tokyo now put their international fate in the hands of MGM. But how will a home-grown album, produced by the band’s guitarist and song writer Adam Spark, fare in the big scary world-wide mainstream?

The songs on Universes are arranged so that the lead singles are first. This would normally mean that all the great music is stacked toward the front of the album but nothing could be further from the truth. With the exception of Broken Bones, a great bass and riff-driven rock track with a wonderful falsetto chorus from singer Ian Kenny, the first half of Universes is a mess. Wild Eyed Boy is weak emo-pop in spite of great vocals, all diluted guitars and limp chorus. Silhouettic is better but suffers from dumb lyrics: “there goes my baby, she’s gotta know, that when the red lights on there’s no one home” and “I’m saying if you want blood, you’ll never get a drop out of me” being prime examples. Head In My Hands is an odd song. Kenny sings “I hate my melodies. They’re all the same”. Is he being ironic, or brutally honest? This self-examination is hard to interpret.

Only when White Witch breaks the formula does Universes really start to impress. A great structure and a metaphor that almost goes too far: “Kick the cat out and hang up your high heels. Show me magic and spells unknown. With your potions show me some good love…”. At last this is a band having some fun and not taking themselves too seriously. An Ode To Death couldn’t be more different, like Muse meets Queens Of The Stone Age. More great guitars, and dark moody vocals. But the real highlight of the album is the magnificent Armour For Liars. Overtly and obviously political: “I would hate myself knowing that I’m responsible”, sings Kenny, “Flowing blood for wealth and oil, the arms race and their toys. Power suits and power ties, corporate armour built for liars” is excellent and proof that strong song writing is possible. This and two decent guitar solos.

After the prog-rock extravaganza of The Bakers Son, which has more ideas in the first two minutes that the entire of the album’s first half and more twists and turns than the last Mars Volta record, the big balled Train Wrecks continues the impressive roll. The three minute point when the piano melts into guitars is one of the musical highpoints. Universes should have probably ended here but closer Medicine spoils the show. It is an honest open-hearted piece but a bitter way to end the album, downbeat and with surprising uncomfortable expletives.

Universes suffers at times from over-thought and over-production, and the first half really lets it down. It could be a lot less polished. Lead singer Kenny is still involved in the much heavier (and arguably more successful and musically appealing) Karnivool which still feels like a much more comfortable project. This could mean Birds of Tokyo is nothing more than a liberating side-project; a shame as it has much to separate it from its peers.
-- CS (for AltSounds)

Andrew Vincent - Rotten Pear Album Review (2010)

A review for AltSounds...

Formerly the front man of Ottawa indie band Andrew Vincent and the Pirates, Canadian singer Andrew Vincent is now a solo artist. Opting for a more stripped down ‘acoustic’ approach that his previous incarnation, Vincent is now his own soul free to explore the world around and his own mind in equal measure. Rotten Pear is Vincent’s fifth album, a year old in Canada, but now released in the UK to gain exposure in the international market.

Opener Hi Lo immediately exposes the listener to the warts-and-all world that Vincent knows. This is the tale of a drug-addled relationship and seedy bars: “In their sweatpants and with acne scars, one by one they ask you out…”. The flip side of this is the wonderful Going Out Tonight, with a superb guitar arrangement, this is more alienation and despair: “I’m going out tonight. It ain’t gonna be good, it ain’t gonna be right”. Moving through the first half of the album, Diane is another highlight with brilliant lyrics, inspired by Lou Reed, Vincent is in conversation with himself: “Hurry up and finish that new record and I’ll see you on the OC”, proves he knows the world around him on a different level.

Drawing upon other early influences, the two songs Nobody Else and Under Your Thumb are much heavier than most of the album. The former is uncomplicated folk-punk, part Joey Ramone, part Jonathan Richmond. Under Your Thumb, essentially about fighting, is brutal song writing. “Count me in and knock me out, well I wanna taste blood in my mouth”. The track tries a similar approach with toy piano and organ.

An excellent trio of songs pack the end of Rotten Pear. Ruffian is the best song on the album, like Rosh Ritter with a more challenging subject matter - that of childhood delinquency with an honest final message. The guitar work and arrangement is sublime. Canadian Dream is bitter-sweet, another conversation song about a ‘friend’ that ‘moves East’ then overseas for a better life. Vincent then turns this back to himself. Excellent song writing. And Bus Stop could be an Eels cover, a gorgeous melody and subtle instrumentation.

The real surprise is closer Hounds Of Love, a cover of the Kate Bush song. Vincent makes it his own completely. Much of the original vocal melody is gone but the core of the song remains. A great addition.

Like most experienced musicians who go solo, there is a dramatic leap from old to new, from familiar to unknown. Vincent’s sound may now be divorced from that of a full band, but his spirit and gift for crafting lyrics is still as energised as ever. This is much more thoughtful and reflective song writing as Vincent inhabits a persona of self-loathing and depression - always challenging stuff. Rotten Pear is a solid work but the impending UK tours will be the definitive sign that Vincent, much revered in his home country, will have a world-wide appeal.

-- CS (for AltSounds)

Monday, 25 January 2010

Black Gold - Breakdown Single Review (2010)

A single review for AltSounds...

Breakdown is the third single from Black Gold’s debut album Rush. The Brooklyn pair of Eric Ronick and Than Luu excel on the album which is impressive, if inconsistent, throughout. Breakdown is far from the best song on the album but after hearing the whole of Rush it is clear that this is simply part of the band’s six song marketing campaign.

The biggest problem with Breakdown is the subject matter. Essentially lyrics about mental illness and losing control would be perfectly acceptable if they were delivered with the appropriate tone. The electronic start moves quickly into piano and soft vocals. Lead singer Ronick races through a garbled hook into a simplistic and obvious chorus. “All those things you ask in your prayers are falling away now” is probably the best line. But it’s a mid-tempo drawl that quickly gets repetitive and the song is about a minute too long. A few tracks from the album suffer from the same lack of knowing when to, and how to, stop.

Musically, Breakdown is solid but it’s a one idea single that fills out four minutes when it should be a slick three. As multi-instrumentalists Ronick and Luu blend perfectly and sound for the most part like a well-organised five piece, such is the work they put into every song. But this time, as a showcase for Rush, Breakdown is more likely to instil caution than generate interest.

-- CS (for AltSounds)

Black Gold - Rush Album Review (2010)

A new review for AltSounds...

Sometimes two people are all you need to make a band. The Brooklyn duo Eric Ronick and Than Luu have been making music and touring (with an extended line-up) since 2006 and now release the debut album Rush (possibly a tribute to the Canadian rock powerhouse, but more likely to be a simple way of summing up the euphoria of making your first record…). Made during various tours, when the band took breath to form a solid collection of songs, Rush is a seemingly random, wandering fusion of rock and sleek piano-led pop.

Rush opens with two of the album’s best songs. Detroit buzzes with dirty guitars, an anthemic chorus and affectively makes use of layered vocals. Into Plans & Reveries and the piano has a Fleetwood Mac feel, with Ronick doing a passable impression of Lindsey Buckingham. Again the vocals are a highlight, into the finale. After a great start, Rush stutters slightly. Breakdown suffers from a mismatch of subject and upbeat, almost celebratory sound. The electronic opening, piano and soft vocals lead to a garbled hook and simplistic chorus. The song, a recent single, is about a minute too long and quickly gets repetitive.

The album doesn’t pickup again until the glorious Shine. A fantastic song, all structure and melody, great vocals (again) and middle of the road pop at its best. The way the song changes pace effortlessly is supreme song crafting. Idols is very different but almost as good. A lower register for Ronick is a refreshing change from his usual drift into falsetto; this sounds like The Libertines, especially on the verses. Another great juxtaposition of flowing verse and stomping chorus. To complete a great mid-album trilogy, The Comedown is different again: soulful, funk-pop vocals and great vibe. The guitar work is the best on the album. After two minutes it transforms into The Small Faces, which is never a bad thing.

There are three noticeable ‘ballads’ on Rush. The first is Silver which never really gets going. The song is lumbering, slightly sinister and packed with military drums. Much better is the closing pair of Canyon and After The Flood. The former, a six and half minute epic, starts slowly before becoming one of the highlights; the most open and heartfelt songs on the album, about separation and loss. “This canyon between us. One push into dust”, sings Ronick earnestly. It is a simple metaphor brilliantly observed as the song unfolds. The latter is more emotional but overtly dramatic. Another strong vocal is impressive but an odd downbeat way to end the album.

Like any music produced by ‘multi-instrumentalists’, there can be a lack of cohesion (the band could really use a full time drummer) but in this case it is grounds for expansive ideas and freedom. Occasionally you get bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys who manage both but Ronick and Luu throw everything into a record that transcends typical genres while maintaining the ethos of the American independent scene. Consequently the music does hit and miss, usually the former and both within the same song, as rampant thoughts force new directions. And no one would want to stop that. As multi-instrumentalists Ronick and Luu blend perfectly and sound for the most part like a well-organised five piece, such is the work they put into every song. A solid debut.
--CS (for AltSounds)

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir Update (January 2010)

A new song from Thea Gilmore for January 2010, for all use Angels, is entitled Who Are You Now Justine?

This is dark moody stuff, and about time too! More of a bitchy rant than a song - with a twist: added lyrics from Pulp's Common People. Thea describes it simply as "a little ditty about the trappings of fame".

Opening, and closing, with the lyrics: "Poor little rich girl wants to be a star...", this pretty much sums up the message. "You can't buy the talent but you can buy the press..." is a spiteful, venomous, bitter and completely justified line. Inside all the spite is an earnest message and almost sums up Thea's approach to music and publicity. Instead of pandering to the populist masses, whoring yourself day and night, and trying every bit of desperate media boot-licking, try something else to enable you to leave within your means and live for your art.

Who Are You Now Justine? is not the best song Thea has made but it's certainly one of the most direct. And I wonder who Justine is..?

Sunday, 24 January 2010

New Throwing Muses Demo

Kristen Hersh is revitalising her band Throwing Muses.

You can download a new demo at the website here.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Jason Ward - Graceful Bow EP Review (2010)

Everyone’s favourite melancholy folk singing West Virginian Jason Ward has picked up were he left off in 2009 with a new seven song EP showcasing some of the material from his new album. Unlike last year’s understated masterpiece Almighty Row, Graceful Bow is more organic, filled with cold yet vibrant acoustic guitars. And of course Ward himself provides a unique vocal melody of bleak poetic musing.

Bless You dives straight into the vocals with “How horrible are you…Your face is stuck with the same expression…” and is delivered with a thick slice of venomous irony, describing a love-hate relationship. Pretty Nice Things starts much darker, the edgy strings complimenting Ward’s stark deliberate vocal style. Not So Lonely shares the same softness as Bless You coupled with a more upbeat, almost joyful chorus. Ward has such a wonderful tone, precise and controlled and always within it’s own boundaries. A strong opening trio.

Here’s Looking at You (From Behind) is the best song on Graceful Bow. The vocal production fills the sound perfectly, turning it into a duet. “I don’t think it’s fair. That’s just how I feel. I tell you the truth and I get a raw deal” is a lyric that Mark Everett or Elliot Smith would shy away from. It is brilliant song writing from start to finish. Ain’t No Way starts with some shaky vocals but soon the tune emerges, proving that Ward is a solid diverse vocalist, fragile and with an honest vulnerability. The last minute harmonica is a gentle surprise. It’s hardly Dylan but fades before it’s welcome is outstayed. But it soon returns for the start of By Now (You Should Know) which rambles quietly and is the obvious weak song even if it does try to do something different.

Graceful Bow finishes strong. Dark In Here closes the EP with another gorgeous vocal, sounding like a four part harmony from Crosby Stills, Nash and Young sitting round a campfire looking up to the stars. But it’s just one voice. Mesmerising.

Jason Ward has set aside much of the cold edgy menace of Almighty Row to return to some roots with Graceful Bow. Free from self-imposed constraint and restraint, the seven songs have a freedom to breath. Graceful Bow is more evidence that Jason Ward will soon be discovered in the mainstream.
-- CS

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Delphic - Acolyte Album Review (2010)

Mixing the guitar indie approach with electronic ideals, Delphic is not the most typical of Manchester bands. A city soaked in musical heritage boasting the mighty Oasis, The Smiths and Happy Mondays as well as the iconic record label Factory, Delphic already has much to live up to. But unlike Kasabian who inject a Gallagher-esque swagger into everything, these guys are providing a much more subdued and chilled-out delivery. And it’s a refreshing change. The debut album Acolyte has immediately kick-started the year in the same way the White Lies did in early 2009. Both bands made the BBC Sound of the year and on the strength of Acolyte, Delphic reinforce a well-deserved third place in the list.

Acolyte is centred round the magnificent title track, nearly nine minutes of shimmering swirling synths and strings. The song builds slowly for the first minute before exploding into a thumping rave. A quieter interlude brings back the pulsating beats and intricate distant wordless vocals before an acute change of direction into the world of 8-bit computer soundtracks and the mesmerising soundscape shifts to the halfway point gliding ethereally through the song’s rhythmic centre. The looping keyboards announce a new transcendence just at the right time and soar upwards for a rousing finish, as more choral vocals force through to what emerges as an anti-climactic breath-catching last minute. Superb.

This is somewhat of an exception to a rule as much of Acolyte’s other finest moments are more straightforward electro-pop. What Delphic manage to do is keep things engaging and fresh, never tired and soulless. Recent single Doubt is a great example of fusing ideas, structures and textures with plenty of breathing space. Front man James Cook has a distinct style and vocal delivery; half singing, half speaking with an urgency not unlike Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke. It is not really about the words for Delphic but more about musical style and feelings. Likewise This Momentary drifts from soft harmonious repetitious beginnings to hard-edged stomp and back again without breaking sweat, a gorgeous hypnotic vocal washing through everything. Opener Clarion Call sets the scene perfectly, unfolding like a movie soundtrack.

The second half of the album is as strong as the first. The dark edges of Submission drag Delphic back to late 80s Depeche Mode - very much a good thing, keeping well in control of a stadium-anthem chorus and glorious rock guitar solo into the last minute and fractured ending. This leads into another highlight: Counterpoint, the most complete song on Acolyte driven forward by a synth tour-de-force that fills the senses. Most bands would fade this after three minutes but we get an encore, quiet at first then throwing in more ideas. This is like the electronic Coldplay, for every moment of genius there are three of baffling mediocrity. But more Okereke vocals and a frantic outro rescue the proceedings from all things Chris Martin.

Even in the album’s weaker parts, Acolyte belies the youthfulness of a band still trying to make it. The musical vortex of Red Lights is most definitely style over substance but compelling nonetheless, if a little long. Halcyon is a stuttering collection of drums within a power-pop ballad to which the Pet Shop Boys still aspire. Remain starts well and then falls a bit flat, retreating into safety. More great vocals bring back memories of I Was A Cub Scout. Yet, closer Alterstate is a space-age trip back through what has come before which is the album’s only disappointment.

Hype comes with a price. You have to live up to it. And these days the last thing new bands want is the pressure of media and an increasingly eager and accessible fan base. With Acolyte, Delphic not only live up to the hype, they rise above it. Live shows are sure to be a sweaty nerdy dance-fest filled with disillusioned Hot Chip fans and a plethora of hit singles will maintain interest through the summer. It’s only two weeks old but we may have set a high benchmark for the year. Delphic has our attention. Now they need to do something with it.

-- CS

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Portishead - Chase The Tear

A bit late with this one but Portishead released a new song in aid of Amnesty International: Chase The Tear.

A great song available for 50p on 7Digital.

Friday, 8 January 2010

BBC Sound of 2010 - The Top 5

Ellie Goulding has been announced the BBC Sound of 2010, to the surprise of no one. In the last three years, the BBC has championed female artists. Last year it was Florence & The Machine, La Roux and Little Boots with Duffy and The Ting Tings the year before.

The 2010 top five is:
  1. Ellie Goulding
  2. Marina & The Diamonds
  3. Delphic
  4. Hurts
  5. The Drums
So much for my choices. I would have placed The Drums, Owl City and Delphic ahead of the top 2 with Stornoway the winners. It's a shame that bands are now being overlooked.

All the best to Goulding and Marina. I hope they use this exposure as a good opportunity to write some decent songs and impress everyone.

BBC Story.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Musical Stamps

The Royal Mail has produced a collection of 'classic' album cover stamps.

The 10 album covers to make the stamps:
  • Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin
  • Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - David Bowie
  • Parklife - Blur
  • The Division Bell - Pink Floyd
  • Screamadelica - Primal Scream
  • Power Corruption & Lies - New Order
  • A Rush of Blood To The Head - Coldplay
  • London Calling - The Clash
  • Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
  • Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones
Definitely not my choices and it's already been said that Dark Side Of The Moon is a more iconic album cover than The Division Bell. Coldplay is a controversial choice but it is the band's best album and most interesting cover which isn't saying much. The album is hardly a 'classic'. And is this about artwork or music. Many classic albums have very boring covers. The New Order album is good but the cover isn't. Likewise Led Zeppelin.

Here is the Telegraph gallery.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

BBC Sound of 2010

Since the BBC Sound of 2010 longlist was announced I have been meaning to find out more (ok let's face facts, by 'more' I mean 'something') about the fifteen artists.

Here they are:
  • Daisy Dares You
  • Delphic
  • Devlin
  • Ellie Goulding
  • Everything, Everything
  • Giggs
  • Gold Panda
  • Hurts
  • Joy Orbison
  • Marina & The Diamonds
  • Owl City
  • Rox
  • Stornoway
  • The Drums
  • Two Door Cinema Club
Daisy Dares You is 16 year old Daisy Coburn. She sounds like a high-pitched Lily Allen produced by Akon. Her songs start dark and moody but soon turn into perky (and slightly irritating) pop. Saying that Number One Enemy is really good. One for the future rather than the present.

Dephic is a band from Manchester. They sound like Hot Chip should. A bit of 80 electronica which seems to be the way things are still going. Anyway, the music is a mesmerising mix of beats and loops with enchanting vocals - a bit I Was A Cub Scout (how I miss them). Excellent prospect.

Devlin is a 20 year old rapper from Dagenham. He is part of The Movement and underground Grime scene. His delivery is bold, aggressive, rapid-fire and an acquired taste.

Everything Everything is Mike, Jonathan, Jeremy and Alex from Manchester. They produce eclectic guitar/keyboard pop that sounds different from song to song. They all play and sing. A bit Kaiser Chiefs with an 80's twist (let it go people!).

Giggs is a rapper from London, recently out of prison and making music about 'street life'. His droll, laboured delivery and hard-hitting lyrics take London rap back to the sound and style of 80's LA. Refreshingly honest retro or hapless cliche? Not sure yet.

Gold Panda is a producer and remixer making low-fi (mainly) instrumental Japanese influenced electronica. Some of his music is great, some of it is awful. It all sounds a bit cut-n-paste at times which is a shame but time will tell. I love this sort of stuff when it's filled with melody and ideas.

Ellie Goulding is a 21 year old from Hereford. Her squeaky vocals are sure to mature with age but there is way too much production and unnecessary gymnastics going on. One to keep an ear on for the future.

Hurts is the duo Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson from Manchester (again?) who seem to only have one song: Wonderful Life. Again it's horribly retro but sounds quite modern, unlike their look. Good song. Need more!

Joy Orbison (the worst name ever) is 22 year old Pete O'Grady from Croydon. He makes space-aged electronic music, pulsating, vibrant but a little predictable. Another to keep track of as the year unfolds.

Marina & The Diamonds is Welsh/Greek Marina Diamandis. Probably the most interesting of this years artists. Great songwriting and a decent vocalist (when/if she doesn't veer into high-pitched territory). A bit self-conscious and pretentious but time will sort that out.

Owl City is 23 year old Adam Young from Owatonna, Minnesota. A wonderful mix of the Bens Folds and Gibbard, dreamy emo and heartfelt songwriting all wrapped up with an electronic R&B twist (again Akon is involved?). More stripped down would be excellent.

Rox is Roxanne Tataei, a half Iranian, half Jamaican Londoner. Her music is exactly as you would expect but has a tendancy to descend into weak R&B ballad rather than the more upbeat vibes (see Rocksteady). Good voice that needs the songs.

Stornoway is two pairs of brothers (and another bloke) from Oxford. They make soft, folky guitar pop, brilliantly played and wonderfully written. This band are my choice for winners.

The Drums is a New York/Florida quartet blending guitar surf-pop with Jesus And Mary Chain/Smiths indie-punk. Interesting but will they be anything new? I Felt Stupid is an excellent song.

Two Door Cinema Club is a trio from Bangor, Northern Ireland. This is more electronic indie but without the obvious 80s sound. Again this is very I Was A Cub Scout with an injection of pace. And maybe if they make it big they can get a drummer. The drum machine begins to sound a bit too obvious after a while.

So there they are. 2010 is more 'band' focused than 2009. No obvious choice for the winner but that's not important. If anything it can put too much pressure on people at such an early stage. But a more promising list than last year.

BBC 6music report

Craig Armstrong OBE

Congratulations to Craig Armstrong who has been awarded an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours.

I have been a huge fan of Armstrong's work for years and rate his albums As If Nothing and The Space Between Us as two of the best albums of the last twenty years. He is best known these days as a prolific film score composer whose credits include Moulin Rouge, Ray and the new Clash Of The Titans.

Craig Armstrong music.

Press release.