EP/LP/Single Reviews

Mikey Kenney & Ottersgear – The Quest for Rest (Sotones)

Reviewed for Bearded Magazine

When they roll out the clichés about the difficulties of making the follow up album, one should really consider the privileged position of the subject/s. If we have to generalise about such things then we could say that the hardest one to make is rather the debut, for unless you get that first LP just so, you may never make another. As an emerging artist, one desires many things: a voice, confirmation of one’s own ability, a way of wrapping up half a lifetime’s worth of ideas, a way of balancing needs and expectations against the vicissitudes of the industry, the list goes on.

Mikey Kenney hails from Liverpool, but he’s a man of nature, and a gifted multi-instrumentalist – he plays most of the instruments here, including fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo. His Ottersgear project is a concept that has changed over time: these initial songs for The Quest for Rest growing alongside him since their birth in the Lancastrian wilds, through their teenage demo phase, to professional maturity. In Kenney’s case, perseverance has paid off – sticking to the root idea, but refining it, has allowed him to instil a mature sense of self within the confines of the idea, and within the confines of this recording. Perhaps more importantly, by narrowing in on the songs’ very real sense of place, Kenney has filled his world, and we are left with a picture bursting with life; a fullness of sound, and a sense of completion. Read more . .

Trojan Records Presents: Freedom Sounds. CD Box Set Review.

Reviewed for Listomania

Released on 6th August, to coincide with fifty years of Jamaican independence, Freedom Sounds is a five-disc trawl through the decades since, and through the history of this most celebrated of islands, from one of the world’s most celebrated record labels.

We’ve all heard the accusation that Jamaica punches above its weight, in terms of its impact on the international music scene, with a relatively small population producing a quite staggering number of superstars. These days the analogy tends to be used with regards to the nation’s prowess in the sporting arena – for Usain Bolt surely is to athletics what Bob Marley is to Reggae – and well this may be true in both cases, the possible reasons as to why are far more interesting than the statement itself. Read more . . .

ALBUM REVIEW: Syd Arthur – On An On (Dawn Chorus)

Released, July 2nd. Reviewed for Listomania

According to The Guardian, “Syd Arthur are sons and heirs of those Canterbury musicians who did sometimes whimsical, sometimes intense things with psychedelic and progressive rock.” This is nonsense, they just happen to be from Canterbury. One saving grace for this daftly named band is that their debut album presumably will not include an equally daft press release when it goes on sale to the general public. That’s the sort of thing that can really put you off a band, especially when the faux mysticism keeps on coming, in band name, album title, and cover art as well; indeed it “comes in many guises”, to quote the band. Sure, everyone needs an angle, but being from Canterbury and drawing upon “imagery from the dream world” does not make you the new Soft Machine.

Well, well, well. This is really more of an attack on the hyperbole-driven labelling machine – that’s desperate to package, market and sell, sell, sell – than it is on a solid quartet who have borrowed heavily from across the swirly psych-folk spectrum. From too polished, too-tight versions of Grateful Dead riffs and licks, to David LaFlamme (of It’s a Beautiful Day) lead violin, to Andrew Bird-like jauntiness and melodies. This of course there’s nothing wrong with, though those I’ve mentioned are all American. Soft Machine really were progressive, and are certainly a highly influential band, but they were never a commercial outfit; the music always came first.

Album closer ‘Paradise Lost’ indicates Syd Arthur have a lot to offer as a live band, for a more open and free sound would suit their mission statement. On An On is a very well put-together record; it’s self-engineered, mixed, and produced too, which highlights the integrity of the musicians themselves. What it lacks though, is a bit of soul and originality, but I’d bet on that coming along further down the line. The lyrics in particular feel rushed at or a little lazy perhaps; it could have you crying out for them to just forget the machine, the conventional, and the brand, and to just relax, and take it easy, and form naturally etc. There is also far too much funk going on here full stop. That’s just wrong, and not psychedelic or progressive at all.

FINGLEBONE – VOORWERP EP (2012)

Available here.

When Syd Barrett unexpectedly turned up to observe the recording of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, he may have wondered why the band had a) written a funeral song about him, and b) why it was so incredibly long, and tinged with elevator gospel and jazz. The band was obviously short of confidence, or sleep, at the time, for otherwise how they could turn the simplest of acoustic ditties into an overblown opus, and seemingly forget the point of the song in the process.

Voorwerp comprises of two nine-minute tracks, which combine the softest elements of drone, and the harder edges of ambient, and are akin to the best bit of ‘Shine On . . .’, which is it’s introductory sequence. What Finglebone, aka Adam Varney, does, is to stop before the theme gives way to cliché. Pink Floyd were well past their best, when it came to the extended format, by 1975, and Barrett even said the track sounded old. Finglebone, on the other hand,  by sticking rigidly to one musical theme at a time, has created something that would sound contemporary in any era, and he hasn’t had to weld it to any teary verse-chorus strum-along songs in order to get the job done.

Voorwerp is subtle, and is mysterious like its cosmic namesake. It achieves a great deal, without doing a lot, and this is down to some excellent instrumentation, a good deal of thoughtful self-confidence, and a few happy accidents no doubt. Perhaps though, Voorwerp’s defining feature is in Finglebone’s mastery of the field recording, which only ever seems to enhance his material, by adding to the journey, and not overshadowing the music, for it becomes an intrinsic part of it. A decade into his home-recording career, and Finglebone’s quality keeps growing. Long may he run, for he’s a long way off Wish You Were Here, which might mean his Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon are still to come.

SINGLE REVIEW: PRINCESS CHELSEA – THE CIGARETTE DUET

EUROPEAN TOUR EDITION) (Lil’ Chief Records)

Release date: 14/05/12. Reviewed for Listomania

In terms of a concept, New Zealander Chelsea Nikkel’s stab at the modern fairytale is both a well-executed and multi-faceted one. The Cigarette Duet is taken from Nikkel’s debut solo record Lil’ Golden Book; a Disney-esque tale of growing up, in which Nikkel casts herself as the cutesy princess, and employs a small cast of characters, along with keyboards, sequencers, drum machines and minimal guitars, to tell her story.

This single features two duets; both of which highlight the humourous side to her character, before it then moves into territories – more electro pop atmosphere than twee parody – that make the LP such a success.

The Cigarette Duet is a concept in itself: A couple debates, wittily, her smoking of “Just a cigarette . . . just a Marlboro Light . . . only twice a week” etc. He (label and former band-mate Jonathan Bree of The Brunettes) is the ever-so-slightly-annoying voice of reason. As an anti-smoking campaign piece, his wet lines are about as effective as an overbearing hypocritical parent’s, and the whole thing comes across as more dumb than funny. The song also fails to make use of the sheer excellence of the word ‘cigarette’ which so often has sounded so good for its syllabic and scene setting qualities. Ironically, here, the word is overused, and it loses its potency, as childlike rhymes take precedence. Luckily, however, the concept of the track is two-fold, and the musical arrangement – chamber-pop watery waltz meets Lee & Nancy, with echo guitars and overlapping dialogue – is a much bigger success. This re-released track is still a good one, but with a bit of re-writing, it could’ve been great.

Positive Guy Meets Negative Man is a throwaway duet between Nikkel and another former band-mate, Brad Fafejta from Teen Wolf. There are nice musical touches here, Nikkel’s keyboards and arrangements are always bang on the money, but it’ll have you pining for the A-side.

In Goodnight Little Robot Child, Princess Chelsea tackles the subject of her anthropomorphic laptop; here, the dreamy electro elements to her composing are allowed to take centre stage and her contemporary voice shines through, every tone is carefully chosen and exquisitely handled. This epic, yet restrained and minimal style, ought to appeal to an adult audience more than her more sing-a-long material, and it is the hallmark of the closing section of the LP; a section which elevates a record I recommend much more highly than this single. Nikkel’s subtle, well-phrased vocals, classical training and selective thievery can produce unique sounding results, her next move could be decisive.

Princess Chelsea plays Start the Bus, Bristol, on Wed 16th May.

Single Review: AGE OF CONSENT – ‘Heartbreak’ (Inside Animals).

Release date: 11/06/12

Reviewed for Listomania

Making upbeat, joyous music out of plumbing the emotional depths is a well-practiced art, and there is perhaps nothing felt as deeply or experienced as universally as the notion of ‘heartbreak’, thus making it an ideal subject for pop music. Indeed the concept of ‘breaking hearts’ or ‘having one’s heart broken’ feels so natural to most of us that it is no wonder that we enjoy dancing around so much like the unbalanced apes we are. It is of course a concept that makes no sense when you think about it. What is love anyway? Is it even real? What is real? What even is sense? Human don’t know. Human give it a name. Human connect now with other humans. Love hurts. Read More . . .

Single Review: MOTHLITE – Something in the Sky (Kscope)

Reviewed for Listomania

If ‘Something in the Sky’, first single from the second Mothlite album, Dark Ages, and free download album track, ‘Zebras’, are anything to go by then Daniel O’Sullivan is looking to further up the stakes, after what has been a jam-packed decade of musical exploits. Known for his work with Guapo, Æthenor, Miasma & The Carousel of Headless Horses and Ulver – the list goes on – and his collaborations with Sunn O))) and The Big Pink, to name but two, O’Sullivan is credited on around thirty releases since 2003, and is something of an experimental art-rock legend, though not necessarily a household name. Read More . . . 

DYNAMITE PUSSY CLUB – THE CHURCH OF YEAH! (Motor Sounds)

Reviewed for Listomania

When Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was busy laying the bloody foundations for his empire, and eventual legacy as some sort of cultural icon, he, as one does, went about trying to convert people to his church, notably the Saxons, who were condemned to death if they didn’t hastily renounce their pagan ways. The Saxons sat about sharpening their axes and asked the crows what they thought about it, the crows squawked back “A lot of you girls and boys are gonna die, but you’ve gotta make a stand. The church of no way siree is no way to fly.”  And so, Charley had his answer. Now, when the fighting was over, about twelve centuries later, a few of these Saxons said “We don’t want to fight no more, let’s start our own church based on the fins on this Thunderbird, the stench down that alley, these tasty burgers, and anything else damn right greasy and cool we can think of.” And so was born the Church of Yeah! As a nod to the mistakes of the past, they set about ordaining their flock with the devil’s music rather than with the blood of their children, and seeing as there were just three of them, they called themselves The Dynamite Pussy Club.

The DPC made a record next; they imbued it with a sense of knowing, by celebrating the art of pretending not knowing too much at all. It was both a statement of intent and a statement of yeah, whatever. They clearly understood that something can be ‘cool’ just because you say it is, for cool and un-cool can mean the same thing sometimes. They wore boogie shoes not sandals. They took to invading the airwaves and the ear-holes, stuffing them with ‘Crab Bait’ and ‘Sick’. They put on a united front, and made a video in a meat-locker to prove it. They ripped people from off of the fence, as would a junkyard dog. They begged, borrowed and stole for the sake of rock ‘n’ roll, and armed with this 23-minute manifesto they converted a fair portion of the nation to their cause. If you liked your beats hard; like some like their liquor, your lyrics bite-sized; like some like their bikinis, and your guitars squirming and snarling like a trussed-up sack of ferrets down at the local fair, then this was the club for you. Others hid behind the polished emotions of their torchbearers, Adele ‘rolling in it’ Adkins and David Guetta-life, to name but two. These folk unfortunately missed a trick, and were later put to the sword by a murder of crows.

SHE MAKES WAR – Little Battles

Laura Kidd’s ability to turn the simplest tunes, hooks, and lyrical motifs into songs that worm their way into your brain is a feature of this album that is more recognisable the more you listen to it, and that is a very good thing indeed.

The She Makes War approach to recording makes for a record that sounds brisk and intuitive as well as clean and contemporary. Yet despite its modern, digital crispness, at times Little Battles has a certain warmth and ethereal timelessness about it. Perhaps this is due in part to the balance that is struck emotionally, and musically too, through the blending of genre and influences. The full fifteen tracks are awash with the same tonal qualities that smooth the rougher edges into glorious pop catchiness, and save the pastoral, airy moments from becoming twee, instead imbuing them with a magic that anchors them, like great fantasy becoming mythological under the weight of the writer’s own self-belief.

Finding fault in such a well-executed album is difficult; perhaps it could dig a little deeper, push the boundaries, and unleash an inner fire. Perhaps though, Kidd’s reserved musicality and to-the-point lyrics are a selling point that smacks of universal appeal; for this is a commercially viable independent release, the flagship of a one-woman media empire, and one that does its author great credit.

Wonderful intricacies sublimely dress what is a subtle, ‘grower’ of an LP. The keys on ‘Exit Strategy’ hold the key to its anthemic quality, and expertly counter the overlapping guitars and direct vocal lines. Nothing is overdone, it is one of the heavier tracks on the album but its instrumental layering includes plenty of space. This technique is echoed time and again, notably on ‘Magpie Heart’ and ‘May Our Daughters Return Home’, with their slow-core meets crescendo structuring. ‘Done and Said’ is similar again, but shows off Kidd’s ability to keep repetition interesting, and not take herself too seriously. Her live looping techniques are even the subject of the ironically titled ‘Delete’, which sounds alarmingly full and familiar despite its stark, almost a cappella individuality.

If ‘Exit Strategy’ is the closest the album gets to a title track, then ‘In this Boat’ is the closest thing to its lynch pin. The metaphor of human as a vessel is a good one, and the lyrics here treat the subject with as much care as the players and production treat the music. ‘Blue’ is perhaps the best of the more fairy-like moments for its lovely melody alone, though the strings on ‘Butterflies’ are well handled.

‘Never Was’ shows off the simple glory of Kidd’s guitar playing, it’s an understated masterpiece of an album track, creeping up on you, before tickling your spine. ‘Out of My Hands’ switches between the dour and gloomy and the expansive with flair, its computerised enhancements are smart and lend the album another soft touch of variety.

The cyclical nature of the trademark She Makes War sound is echoed in the album’s structure. It has an introduction, and a final track that joyously concludes. Like a glittering mirror of the classic Kid A closer ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, ‘Disarm’ ends with a lilting question, then a pause, just long enough to have you hit the repeat button.

Kidd describes the She Makes War sound as ‘gloom-pop’, a genre that is surely not afraid to update its songwriters’ folk aesthetic side into something accessible to all. Nor one that is afraid to revel in the ‘blissed out’ qualities of 90s indie and grunge, whilst at the same time embracing 21st Century technology. Whilst Kidd’s versatile, beautifully toned voice keeps the record sounding English to the bone, the loose conceptual feel, combined with its emotional and tonal aspects, make Little Battles sound like the heavily edited, stripped-down, good-natured, mature little sister of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

BIG JOAN – The Long, Slow Death of Big Joan (Blood Red Sounds)

The second full length album from Bristol based quartet, Big Joan, is an auricular cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer; a treasure-trove of danceable post-punk gems. Like their live shows, this release will be an acquired taste; but one that once acquired should become a firm favourite. It’s an industrial sounding record; think time-lapse cinematography, cold blues, winter greys, and steam powered rhythmic machinery – and yet it is not without soul – its bristling, itchy, awkward side is a breath on the back of your neck; it feels very much alive. Thankfully the funereal overtones are largely conceptual; you can feel the clock ticking throughout, tension is built, and we, the listener, are often teetering on the edge of an abyss – but this is not a break-up record, it is far too questing and exploratory for that.

‘(They Call Him) Johnny’ introduces Keith Hall’s soft-handed shuffle grooves, Simon Jarvis’ undulating bass, and kicks into life with Annette Berlin’s turbine hall Euro howl. Adam Burrows’ stabbing guitars are abrasive and threatening, but never overstep the mark. Synth parts pepper the album, punctuating and enhancing the spooky gloom. ‘The Creature’ sees every instrument becoming the hook, and hints at the full range of Berlin’s fantastic voice – fans of her solo work might expect more refinement, but here Berlin is very much part of a team, and it is this teamwork that makes this such a unique sounding musical collection; greater than the sum of its parts, and full of necessary space. ‘Funeral’ is among a number of swelling, progressive tracks that ride ominous waves to victorious conclusions; whereas ‘Beautiful Idea’ is a firecracker, an assault, a last gasp and a setup for instrumental finale, ‘Bin 1’ – the final death throws notable for the vocal absence; as if the head has been cut off the beast and it stays upright, still dancing, holding out, in a pulsating final chapter that finally ends with a count to four; signifying both a definite end, and perhaps a new beginning.

All in all, this is a fabulous album, as much for its clarity of vision and well drawn structure, as it is for its frantic display of cold hard talent.

ROCK IN YOUR POCKET – GUTTERDUB (ARTSCARE).

ALBUM REVIEW: 8th Feb 2012, for Listomania

Rock In Your Pocket is the lovechild of Charlie Beddoes (vox/bass) and Ben Fisher (guitar/vox); a child that, though nurtured – fed on a diet of tasty licks and meaty riffs – remains rebellious. I suspect it knuckles down to its studies with gusto; knowing full well that it can slip out of the backdoor late at night undetected, and then be found necking potent liquors in the park, unsuspectingly high on its own cunning, and dressed all in black.

Gutterdub is an LP that revels in the duality of a rebellious, youthful streak, that’s matched with the cool maturity of a dependably slick band that could easily be taken for granted. ‘Nobody’s Bitch But Mine’ is a great album opener, setting the unforgiving tone. It comes screaming into the world – before slipping its leash and heading for the hills, in a verse that rollicks away in the manner of Ministry’s ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod.’ The guitar salvoes are pinpoint accurate and the squeaky-clean production allows the intricacies to remain intricate. The same could really be said of any point on the album, which is compact and concise, running just a little over the half hour mark. It’s an exercise in editing, rather than a lack of material, and one which really packs a punch.

Beddoes’ voice is an understated triumph that floats above a cauldron of swirling alt-rock trickery. Her bass playing is similarly unpretentious. Listeners beware though; both can turn at the flick of a switch, with biting lyrics that are hissed over snarling hooks – for some of the record is intensely personal material, describing a journey to empowerment through catharsis. The fact that there are three drummers credited on Gutterdub, (Jake Luxton, Chris Langton and Ben Savigear) hints at unknown difficulties in making, the playing however is seamless throughout, faultless even. ‘Doubtbox’ is a dark homage to a shadowy internet life full of effective metaphor and general unease. ‘You Only Love Me When You’re Drunk’ is another track whose title says it all; it builds up a head of steam, weaving and winding effects laden progressions, before opening the floodgates to a torrent of seriously big chords. ‘Le Son De L’Argent (Dirty Hands)’ brings the album to a close in a slow burning blaze of glory.

The other major hallmark of this record has not a lot to do with its slightly misleading title. There are many subtle dub elements (effects and bass-lines mostly) but this is a guitar record, a 21st Century guitar record where pedal work replaces the solo. Fisher excels in this area, like a few lefties before him, he’s probably some sort of genius. Sure, his style comes by way of 90s bands such as Therapy?, My Bloody Valentine, and even the Wildhearts but he’s tighter, faster and extremely varied, with more grinding, clicking and whirring than a tree surgery convention. In many ways Fisher is more contemporary than the theme-park he dwells in. If Garbage made records with Nine Inch Nails they might sound like this; and that, I believe, is a compliment.

run, WALK! / Sirs – Split 7” (Holy Roar / Topshelf)

Reviewed for Bearded Magazine

Boston label Topshelf ally with the UK’s own Holy Roar to release four blistering tracks from a couple of their best exponents of catchy yet brutal musicianship.

run, WALK! a duo that hail from pretty little Winchester, make the kind of music that is deliberately at odds with the Hampshire countryside. On ‘Rainhouse’ bassist/vocalist Matt P-Copley plays and sings like a man possessed, stringing together a series of effects laden hooks that use every bit of the speakers, looking for a way to jump out and bite you in the throat. He roars like the existentialist beast that missed out on dinner, it’s far from pretty but is somehow still melodic and there is a subtlety in the phrasing that matches the cleverness of the musical arrangements that it both punctures and punctuates. Tom Clements’ drumming is as key, instrumentally, as the bass. Cymbals splash wildly to further expand the spectral horizon, merciless pounding gives way for inventive and well-balanced work through the quieter sections. ‘Straight Lines’ is, as it name suggests, more direct. It might just be a noise-pop classic, though it has a dark edge that lives up to the ‘death drone’ tag that they have given themselves. These are well-produced songs from a band on the rise. Read more…

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