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Header photo by Noah Abrams
Summer road trip music seems to be in high demand recently, and 2016 has been a good year so far for producing it. For example, I recently reviewed the excellent new album from Bear’s Den, which is a perfect soundtrack for restless late night drives in the hallucinogenic glare of headlights on long, empty stretches of highway. But if a daytime drive in the carefree sunshine of late summer is more your speed, you’ll won’t do better than American producer and songwriter Butch Walker‘s new album ‘Stay Gold’.
The album’s upbeat title track is a perfect lead-in, with bright alt-country instrumentation and a rousing chorus that references S.E. Hinton’s classic novel ‘The Outsiders’. I’m not sure if this is “required reading” in the UK, but most Americans of a certain age will be warmly familiar with either the book or the movie adaptation from the 1980s. Like the story it refers to, the song ‘Stay Gold’ is immediately engaging from the first guitar riff, and Walker’s blue-collar, working-class lyrics are relatable without devolving into the gimmickry that often plagues mainstream country. (I can’t say the same for its promo video, which is featured below.)
Musically, the album touches on a wide variety of styles with the kind of easy proficiency that can only come from Walker’s years of experience. ‘East Coast Girl’ is an interesting combination of influences, invoking Lou Reed in the spoken prosody of the verses and pure classic Springsteen in the chorus; its repeated plea “baby, baby, baby, where are you?” fairly begs for a live singalong. The heart-racing pulse and devil-may-care chorus of New York-centered track ‘Ludlow Expectations’ are even more palpably anthemic, as Walker sings lustily of “burning down the subway / running down the alleyway / high out of our minds on love.”
By contrast, gentle duet ‘Descending’, co-written and sung with country artist Ashley Monroe, softens Walker’s rough-around-the-edges vocals with Monroe’s sweet and clear tone, providing just enough stridency to give the harmonies a sense of emotional traction. The album takes a mildly misogynist misstep in ‘Mexican Coke’, comparing an objectified love interest not to the narcotic but to the soft drink, which is sweetened with sugar rather than corn syrup in markets south of the American border. But that rather oafish moment is balanced by the clever traditional string arrangement of ‘Irish Exit’, a nimble pub rock song about escaping from the superficiality of the party scene, and the visceral emotionality of ‘Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night’.
Walker himself says of the album, “It’s been fun to listen to [‘Stay Gold’] in the car. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t play my records after I do ‘em. And it’s a blast to drive down the [Pacific Coast Highway] and listen.” After spending some quality time with ‘Stay Gold’ on my own car stereo, I might be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m seriously contemplating a road trip to hear these songs live on Walker’s current North American tour. A full listing of Walker’s upcoming live dates, along with enthusiastic recaps of his recently played shows, can be found on his official Facebook.
Butch Walker’s eighth studio album ‘Stay Gold’ is due out today, the 26th of August, on Lojinx. TGTF also reviewed his previous album ’Afraid of Ghosts’ right back here.
Singer/songwriter Jake Bugg is in the midst of a massive touring cycle following the June release of his excellent new album ‘On My One’. After a busy summer of festival appearances, Bugg will spend September playing live dates in North America before returning to the UK in October and November. A full listing of Bugg’s upcoming tour dates, including shows in continental Europe, can be found on his official Web site.
Tickets for the following UK dates are available now. TGTF’s previous coverage of Jake Bugg, including editor Mary’s feature of his latest single ‘Bitter Salt’, is collected here. Just below the tour date listing, you can watch Bugg’s live performance of ‘Bitter Salt’ from The Great Escape 2016.
Tuesday 18th October 2016 – Manchester Apollo
Friday 21st October 2016 – Glasgow Academy
Saturday 22nd October 2016 – Glasgow Academy
Monday 24th October 2016 – Birmingham Academy
Tuesday 25th October 2016 – Sheffield Academy
Wednesday 26th October 2016 – Leeds Academy
Friday 28th October 2016 – Sheffield Academy
Saturday 29th October 2016 – Newcastle City Hall
Sunday 30th October 2016 – Hull City Hall
Tuesday 1st November 2016 – London Brixton Academy
Wednesday 2nd November 2016 – Bournemouth Academy
Thursday 3rd November 2016 – Cardiff University Great Hall
Saturday 5th November 2016 – Dublin Olympia Theatre
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 25th August 2016 at 6:00 pm
Former lead singer of S.C.U.M. and now a singer/songwriter in his own right, Thomas Cohen released his debut solo album back in May. As one might imagine, the songwriting on ‘Bloom Forever’ was influenced by the sudden and tragic death of his wife Peaches Geldof in 2014. While Rebecca previously featured LP single ‘Hazy Shades’ for us here on TGTF in April ahead of the album’s release, Cohen has a new visual for us this week.
Of the song itself ‘New Morning Comes’, he says, “The song is simple really, it’s about finding new hope out of hopelessness.” Director of its accompanying promo Victor Gutierrez said he took his artistic cues from a photograph of John Lennon sat in a limousine by Kishin Shinoyama. “In the image, John is successful and alone, looking strong and sensitive at the same time. Death foreshadows the image. Still Lennon seems brave, especially for his solo work at the time that explored his emotions, his psyche, and shares his vulnerabilities.” Watch the new video for ‘New Morning Comes’ below. Cohen’s debut album ‘Bloom Forever’, recorded and finished in Iceland, is now available from Stolen Recordings.
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 25th August 2016 at 12:00 pm
Following the announcement in autumn 2013 that Keane were splitting up, fans had a bit of a reprieve. Frontman Tom Chaplin, known for his singing and charismatic presence onstage and not for his own songwriting, revealed his desire to release his own solo album. After the release of ‘The Best of Keane’ in November of that year, the months and years passed. Except for a one-off cover of Stornoway’s ‘Fuel Up’ with Chaplin on vocals and bandmate and primary Keane songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley on piano in April 2015, we heard nothing. I had begun to think that this Tom Chaplin solo album was nothing but a faraway dream that would never be realised. Then in the middle of July, Tom Chaplin registered an Instagram account and started posting photos. A lot of them. As Chaplin had always been someone relatively reticent on social media, this new development meant something big was obviously afoot.
One of the first true tastes of his forthcoming debut solo album ‘The Wave’ due out mid-October is a clear indicator of the pain Chaplin suffered during the years of superstardom with Keane and after. Read this feature by Neil McCormick from the Telegraph this month, and you will be astonished by Chaplin’s honesty with his recent battles with drug use and anxiety, which he – and all of us fans for that matter – thought he’d kicked a decade ago, following treatment at The Priory in London. As a longtime appreciator of Keane, it hurts me deeply that someone I’ve looked up to, with the most precious of musical gifts – his amazing voice and his showmanship – has lived such a hidden, troubled existence. Chaplin admits that in recent years, his family had all but given up on him, his wife saying at one point, “I want to tell you that I love you because I don’t know whether I will get a chance to again.”
A quick examination of the lyrics of ‘Hardened Heart’ reveals Chaplin’s tortured soul, one grappling with depression, part and parcel of the fallout of a life ravaged by addiction. This song is written from the inside of depression looking out. When you’re depressed, the outside world seems like a strange, almost cartoony place. Everyone around is getting on with their lives, but you can’t. You’re stuck in one place. “It’s such a beautiful world”, yet you don’t see it. All that’s in front of you is filtered through grey shaded glasses, darkness. It’s a tough place and even as concerned as they are, it’s hard to explain to those on the outside.
His pronouncement that “all the people that love me / they never know if I’m up, down or round”, mirroring the Jekyll and Hyde characters described in Barry Hyde’s ‘Monster Again’ on his own debut solo album ‘Malody’ (“Who am I tonight? What am I tomorrow?”). But arguably the worst part of this form of mental illness is realising you could be close to losing everything, but feeling helpless, unable to do anything to lift yourself out of the mire. As noted in the start of the chorus, it’s part of a vicious cycle: “hurting everyone I know / bringing everybody down so low / stuck along a road of sadness with nowhere to go”. Another sinister slice of depression is apathy, coupled with the overwhelming desire to reach a place of emotional normalcy. “Oh, I know that my hardened heart is beating still / I drove it to the point of madness just to feel”, sings Chaplin expansively. Though it sounds counterintuitive, finally going from numb to feeling is important towards the transformation, on the road to recovery.
The promo video for ‘Hardened Heart’ was filmed in the Peak District, starting with Tom Chaplin’s silhouette framed by the first few snatches of daylight at dawn. The visuals effectively parallel the shifting moods contained in the track, as the misty clouds lift over the water and rolling hills. Even with the sunshine, the landscape is rough with brush and bracken. Yet Chaplin finds a dirt path, walking down it with not just a renewed faith, but with gusto as the chorus turns to uplifting, with expressive strings and driving drumbeats: “here’s hoping that the signs are real / and tomorrow with a spring in my heel / somewhere on the road of sadness lies a better deal”. After years of leaning on the artistry of bandmate Rice-Oxley, media pundits have understandably wondered if Chaplin had the talent of penning a pop hit of his own. The answer is a resounding yes. And that voice? It’s never been better.
It takes strength to return from the brink, to come back better than ever, to fight for another day. Tom Chaplin is living proof of this. This song is his way to remind others who feel lower than low that even if you don’t feel it yourself, you matter. You matter to the people who love you. Above all, you are worthy of this life. The title ‘Hardened Heart’ speaks of not only of what depression does to our most important emotional organ, but also how the heart can survive and rise above after battling mental illness.
Tom Chaplin’s debut solo album ‘The Wave’ will be released on the 14th of October on Island Records. To read TGTF’s back catalogue of posts on his old band Keane, follow this link. To read about depression and addiction from a doctor’s perspective of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, go here.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 24th August 2016 at 6:00 pm
When I was in Denver for work in May, I was reminded by a massive marquee outside the Paramount Theater that American piano pop maestro Ben Folds is still knocking out them tunes. And still making plenty of jokes, like this one in Perth, Australia. In the uplifting ‘Capable of Anything’, the emotion of Folds’ music is heightened wonderfully with a contemporary dance routine performed by Vivienne Wong and Calvin Hannaford. The song appears on ‘So There’, Folds’ collaboration with New York City’s yMusic string ensemble. Watch the inspiring promo video, soundtracked by its equally inspiring tune, below. More Ben Folds-flavoured goodness on TGTF is right this way.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 24th August 2016 at 12:00 pm
A few years ago, a little EP called ‘Leaflings’ was released by a mysterious act called Glass Animals. Soon discovered by one Paul Epworth, who signed them as the first band on his record label Wolf Tone’s roster, their combination of disparate elements of rock, pop, r&b and hip hop proved not only unique but weirdly irresistible to the public. Global stardom followed their debut album ‘Zaba’, so it seems good fortune that I caught them live at Liverpool Sound City 2014, a month before its release in June. On their second album out this Friday, Glass Animals are out to prove they’re more than a one-trick pony.
Thematically, the new LP is a major departure from ‘Zaba’. Instead of fanciful stories about peanut butter vibes, twee voles and hermits lacking sex and violence that only seemed possible to have come out of a drug-addled haze, realism rules the day on ‘How to Be a Human Being’. Primary songwriter Dave Bayley admitted in early press releases that the new material had been inspired by people they’d met during their travels: “I try to sneakily record people, and I have hours and hours of these amazing rants from taxi drivers, strange people we met outside of shows, people at parties. People say the strangest shit when they don’t think they’re ever gonna see you again.” Snatches of these secretly taped conversations appear to have found their way onto this LP, acting as spoken word interludes between songs or in the case of ‘[Premade Sandwiches]’, a whole track that sounds like Darth Vader going off on Whole Foods. Let’s hope he got clearance to use these clips. This on the ground, secretive sampling is on par with what frontman Bayley’s biggest hero, Kanye West, gets up to. Err, right.
On their last album, there was a strange yet oddly intriguing juxtaposition between the world of a child and the dark existence that loomed outside of it. Because ‘How to Be a Human Being’ is placed in the real world, there’s less possibility – and room – for whimsy. In a recent interview with Consequence of Sound, Bayley explained that the new record is meant to mirror a path from birth to death, with “Everything in between is what happens in life.” Early on in the album’s ‘life’, video game sounds are incorporated into ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ and ‘Pork Soda’ to reflect the lazy days of childhood.
Bayley’s falsetto flits from track to track, singing of things that fit into Glass Animals’ slacker image. Unveiled this week, ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ mentions cereal, cola and “getting blazed”. It’s also a prime example of where the band from Oxford appear to have lost the plot. While the vocal melody is pleasant enough in a singsong, nursery rhyme fashion, the rest of the song is literally voice, video game blips, a keyboard warbling and minimal percussion. Where Glass Animals used to shine – in making something exotic, different and most importantly, groovy – has been lost. Listening to the album, I’m reminded of the ‘90s gangsta rap Bayley says was influential in his formative year in College Station, Texas. Back in the day, how minor keys were used and the menacing undercurrent to the music made sense in the context of the heavy subject matter (drug use, domestic violence, murder).
This kind of negative fog hangs off of several album tracks – ‘Mama’s Gun’ in particular – making for a less distinctive, less than memorable listen. Forgetting its unsettling human barks, ‘The Other Side of Paradise’ is an unflattering snapshot of the very “caught up in camera lustings”, image-centric industry Glass Animals now find themselves the darlings of. Bayley croons, “I feel so fucking numb”, and you’re left wondering if he’s speaking of his own confused mental state inside the machine or if the song is based on an anecdote told to him by another. Because he’s been unwilling to admit which parts of ‘How to Be a Human Being’ are autobiographical or which are stories he’s woven from the experiences of others, you’re never 100% sure of their source. [Update: Bayley revealed in a previously recorded interview with Steve Lamacq that aired on BBC 6 Music on 24/08/2016 that this song was partly based on the real life of his favourite American basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon. You can listen to the interview 2 hours and 30 minutes on BBC iPlayer here.]
On the plus side, ‘Cane Shuga’ has bouncy synths and an intriguing drum pattern from Joe Seaward that will make it fun to watch live. The sleaze of ‘Take a Slice’, with its lo-fi, fuzzy production and wigged out guitar line, tempers its shockingly frank messages, such as “I’m filthy and I like it”. Prostitution rears its ugly, real head in ‘Poplar Street’, the guitar hook intro catchy but similar to John Frusciante’s work on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Under the Bridge’.
Bayley’s self-described closing bookend to the album, ‘Agnes’, seems to mock our society’s reliance on technology, the sad sound of a mobile phone’s dying battery trilling in the background. Instrumentally, this is as uplifting as this album gets, which highlights what’s missing from this album. I suppose you could argue that while ‘Zaba’ was written from a perspective inside the jungle of a children’s book and this new one is from the concrete jungle, there were bound to be wildly major differences between the two. Because there’s much less to latch on to on ‘How to Be a Human Being’, it makes for a challenging follow-up listen.
‘How to Be a Human Being’, the sophomore album from Oxford’s Glass Animals’, will be out this Friday, the 26th of August, on Wolf Tone / Caroline International (UK) and Harvest Records (North America). Read my past review of the LP’s first single ‘Life Itself’ through here. For more on Glass Animals on TGTF, follow this link.
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