Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (January 2012)

A great start to 2012! Thea Gilmore has given all her lovely Angels a fantastic new song, exclusive to all subscribers and no one else! Hold Still is a deep and meaningful piano ballad with huge deep echoing vocals and plenty of atmosphere. Here's what Thea says about the song:
"This is a title that I've had for a while and I could never quite write the right song for it. I'm still not sure that the song quite lives up to its idea, so you may hear another song with the same title somewhere down the line (some of you may be interested to know that I wrote 3 Red White And Black's before finally settling on the right one!)"

A song worthy of a new Thea Gilmore album.

2012 Music Chart - January

A busy month with some great new albums (thanks Spotify Premium!). Tough Love by Pulled Apart By Horses leads the way followed by the wonderful Ani Difranco with ¿Which Side Are You On? Also this month: America Give Up by Howler, Given To The Wild by The Maccabees and Black Light by Diagrams. All contribute to a great start to the year and the first Underwurld Music chart of 2012!

1. Tough Love by Pulled Apart by Horses
2. Given To The Wild by The Maccabees
3. ¿Which Side Are You On? by Ani Difranco
4. America Give Up by Howler
5. Black Light by Diagrams

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Pulled Apart By Horses - Tough Love (Album Review 2012)

There is a growing consensus that guitar music is in crisis. If there is any truth in this, Leeds post-hardcore garage quartet Pulled Apart By Horses sound like a band on the verge of pioneering the resurgence. After the release of their rough-round-the-edges eponymous debut in 2010, the band hit the festivals and were asked to tour with Muse, and growing as musicians, the follow-up Tough Love is a much more solid record, building on the might of early single I Punched A Lion In The Throat – a furious combination of lead singer Tom Hudson’s terrifyingly straining vocals and the swirling guitar work of James Brown. Having a unique and interesting sound is one thing and only gets you so far, so does Tough Love have the songs to back it up?

Tough Love starts in blistering form. Big single V.E.N.O.M. is like being dropped into a thundering vortex, with its sudden jolting start and fierce ‘spelling bee’ chorus – Hudson’s vocals screaming the letters as a prelude to stomping guitars. While this is not the best songwriting, the whole execution packs a mighty punch even into the third minute ‘80s metal’ instrumental – a slow deliberate dirge metamorphosing into a frantic burst of thrash. Brilliant.

Elsewhere, no song matches this incredible start but a few come close. Bromance Ain’t Dead is glorious pop-metal and Hudson’s best vocal performance: mesmerisingly combining insane laughter with an effective tuneful delivery. A neat late guitar solo divides the action. Some Mothers is short but excellent, packing in as many ideas as possible in fewer than two minutes. And Epic Myth, with sedate harmonising vocals matching sedate guitars then exploding into life due to a spectacular vocal performance from Hudson and more furious guitars, is also excellent. We continue to fear for the long-term health of his voice.

Late on, Give Me A Reason sounds like another single; a good structured arrangement and a terrific guitar solo is a winning combination. In spite of these high points, Tough Love falls off the rails in the middle. The start/stop vocal/guitar arrangement of Night Of The Living (I’m Scared Of People) with its horrible uninspired chorus fails on all levels. And Wildfire, Smoke & Doom is a great twenty-three seconds of rampant guitars with two minutes of average build-up.

The rest is more hit and some miss. On Wolf Hand, Hudson sings, “When I was a kid, I was a dick. But nothing changes”. A surprisingly melodious chorus and epic guitars save the song. The drumming on Shake Off The Curse is a constant driving force in an otherwise unspectacular effort. A shame as the writing is adventurous: “You won’t send me back to the dark place”, Hudson spits. Into the third minute, a great gliding guitar solo is cut short. Degeneration Game revisits old ground musically while Hudson provides another stupendous performance.

Tough Love closes with Everything Dipped In Gold, the album’s longest song at four minutes. Although the band sound in control, the wealth of ideas get away from them, falling apart slightly around a decent pop chorus and into an elegant instrumental finale. Another two minutes with a thrash-metal crescendo and it’s a great song – but maybe there is more to Pulled Apart By Horses than this predictable formula.

On the strength of Tough Love, Pulled Apart By Horses should be the most exciting new band since Nirvana. One is reminded of the raw power of Bleach before the magnificence of Nevermind yet to come. This is a much improved second effort from a band who know they have more to give – and touring has made them better musicians: a template for any new band. Fully aware of their own ambitions Pulled Apart By Horses have made an album as challenging as it is fascinating, taken a few risks and confirmed their place in an exciting music community. Guitar music is dying? No way.
-- CS

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Ani Difranco - ¿Which Side Are You On? Album Review (2012)

Musical careers are filled with ups and downs, good songs and not so good songs, commercial success and obscurity. The professional life of Ani DiFranco has seen all of these, from her charming auspicious début in 1990 to the wonder years of the 1990s, through the desolation of the start of the last decade into the revival of the end; DiFranco has tasted the highs and the lows of being a musician. Now, aged 41, married and enjoying motherhood, her seventeenth album ¿Which Side Are You On? is a heady mix of the politically charged (the name of the album and title track is taken from the Florence Reece protest song made popular by Pete Seeger – who also features on the song) and the deeply intimate and autobiographical. This is much more edgy than her previous album Red Letter Year – the resounding result of five years of toil and battling out of the wilderness than began with 2001’s monstrous and directionless Revelling/Reckoning – and continues a run of good (return to) form.

¿Which Side Are You On? immediately hits the right mark. Perfectly pitched in the centre ground between delicate empty acoustic folk and mid to fast tempo alt-rock, DiFranco blends some her best song-writing in a decade with a wonderful collection of arrangements to give the songs character and identity. At times ¿Which Side Are You On? feels like a ‘best of’ collection but falls short (thankfully) of repetition – everything sounds new and fresh but easily placed at different points in her back catalogue; like the album is a deliberate anthology.

Opener Life Boat is a great start – the spiky staccato guitar, fuzzy bass and Difranco’s delicious voice – part smoke, part fire – to bring it all together. The song attempts to sum up the ‘story so far’ from her engaging personality to life as an ‘exposed’ musician and icon. Unworry takes the same approach but is two songs wound together – DiFranco interrupts her own flow several times like a rambling, yet charming, schizophrenic.

The title track, underpinning the whole album, is way ahead of everything else in its directness and no-nonsense execution. The only criticism is the lack of subtlety makes it sound more like a parody than an open, honest appeal to the powers that be. The non-universal nature of the song is its only downfall. This is one of the reasons most of the world dislikes Bruce Springsteen, especially when his music is used in the wrong context. This aside, this is solid reinvention of an old established idea that has some startling moments.

Splinter, with its pseudo-calypso feel, couldn’t be more different. A pro-feminist song sugar-coated, it delivers some of the best lines: “Watch out for that TV; it’s full of splinters. And remember you can always go outside…Really, really, really far outside…” and “Who put all this stuff in my apartment? Who put all this ice in my drink? Who put the poison in the atmosphere? Who put the poison in the way I think?”. Musically there are some great touches. Unfortunately ¿Which Side Are You On? falters slightly with the odd  Promiscuity. This time, the start/stop arrangement distracts from the positive message.

¿Which Side Are You On? comes back kicking with the beautiful Albacore – the most obvious love song on the album. A perfect bleak arrangement with DiFranco as the central instrument is accompanied by exquisite piano. J is an intriguing exploration into culture and purpose, again filled with keen observation and social commentary, but it fails to translate into a structure – the song ambles and loops through its five minutes. In contrast, the short punchy and industrial If Yr Not is a moment of brilliance. Continuing the diversity, Hearse is a truly beautiful vocal performance set to a balanced piano-led backing – odd euphemism aside – this manages to be both kooky and meaningful in equal measure.

Into the final trilogy, Mariachi is another elegantly performed love song of unravelling stories and experiences. More great guitar work and piano take it from page to performance as the tales unfold. Another sidestep takes the album to the menacing equal-rights anthem of Amendment, fusing light and darkness, positive with negative, and highlighting more issues in six and half minutes than the rest of the album put together. Again, a direct unsubtle delivery is made credible with a sincere honest vocal.

¿Which Side Are You On? closes with the downbeat and world-weary Zoo, bringing the album to a very dour end. It is a shame that this feels like DiFranco giving up instead of fighting on and an odd choice for closer. That said, the final hard-hitting lyrics are: “Pour your love into your children…until there’s nothing left to say”. Twice.

Ani DiFranco has gathered together an interesting group of musicians for this album. As well as Pete Seeger, she is joined by Ivan and Cyril Neville, Adam Levy and saxophonist Skerik. And musically ¿Which Side Are You On? is more coherent and stable than it could have been, with plenty of flourishes. Long gone are DiFranco’s angst-fuelled days of the brilliant brutal and bare Dilate, and this is certainly far removed from the sparse hopelessness of Revelling/Reckoning and chaotic Puddle Dive. Music often echoes the musician’s own life and this certainly does – Ani DiFranco is now older, wiser, calmer and settled, but her music is continuously thought-provoking, compelling and it still packs a punch.
-- CS

Saturday, 7 January 2012

BBC Sound of 2012 - a very uninspiring Top 5

The BBC 'Sound of...' is generally a good indication of talent to listen out for in the coming year. The shortlists have introduced us to the likes of Florence and The Machine, The Ting Tings, Mumford and Sons, Adele, Vampire Weekend, Dizzee Rascal and Lady Gaga as well as less mainstream artists trying to make it big.

This year the top 5 is...

1. Michael Kiwanuka
2. Frank Ocean
3. Azealia Banks
4. Skrillex
5. Niki and The Dove
    Starting with Niki and The Dove, the Swedish electro-pop duo sound a bit like Florence and The Machine (with a bit of Bjork) as remixed by Underworld. No bad thing as in these days of 80s retrospectives, these guys bring something unique and interesting.

    Skrillex (Sonny Moore from Los Angeles) is trying to take electronic music to another level, combining dubstep, hardcore and more conventional dance music elements. It doesn't sound too radical but definitely has an edge.

    New York rapper Azealia Banks is best known for 212 (featuring Lazy Jay), a torrent of sexually explicit lyrics wrapped up in half-decent rap-pop, but there needs to be more to Azealia Banks than headlines. Her cover of Interpol's Slow Hands is genuinely interesting but the rest of her material is definitely not radio-friendly. She has talent and with the right direction she can use it.

    US singer Frank Ocean seems like nothing new after a few listens but he does bring something fresh to a tired genre. A good voice, if over-produced, and strong, hard-hitting subject matter (see Novacane) is one thing but he sounds in danger of getting lost amongst everyone else.

    BBC Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka is the only Brit in the top 5 and the obvious choice for first place. A soul/folk combination is not original but his voice is a breath of fresh air. Single Home is a delight.

    It's a shame that there appear to be no indie 'guitar' bands on the horizon and I can't say that I'm going to rush out and start buying any of this. Uninspiring top 5.

    Those that didn;t make the top 5 are:

    A$AP Rocky
    Dot Rotten
    Dry The River
    Flux Pavilion
    Jamie N Commons
    Lianne La Havas
    Ren Harvieu

    I would have gone for Jamie N Commons, Dry The River and the wonderful Friends in the top 5.