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London neo-folk artists Bear’s Den have spent their fair share of time on the road in their 5-year history. TGTF’s own first feature on the band, way back in 2011, found them playing for the now-defunct project Bands in Transit. They subsequently joined Mumford and Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road Stopover tour and Communion Music’s Austin to Boston tour, as well as making two appearances at the SXSW music festival and playing worldwide headline dates around their debut album ‘Islands’, released back in 2014.
Now, just under 2 years on from that first LP, the band’s relentless toil and travel has resulted in a breathtaking new album, titled ‘Red Earth & Pouring Rain’. In the process of making the record, Bear’s Den have slimmed down from a trio to a duo, with the amicable departure of Joey Haynes in February of this year. “Being on the road so much pushes friendships to the limit and really affects your relationships outside of it. You get extreme highs and lows,” remarks lead singer Andrew Davie.
Bear’s Den have also streamlined their sonic identity, finding inspiration in the FM radio soundtracks of road trips past – Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and Bruce Springsteen – as well as current artists like The National and Sufjan Stevens. “We spent a lot of time on the road and that music really fitted our head space,” Davie explains. “It felt like the natural musical progression.” Davie’s bandmate Kev Jones continues that train of thought: ”We wanted to make a great album for driving at night. There’s a technical level to that, matching the sounds to Davie’s lyrics, but thematically, a good metaphor for the mood is the idea of driving forwards while looking in the rear view mirror. A sense of contrary motion.”
The album starts with a quick hit of adrenaline in its anxious title track ‘Red Earth & Pouring Rain’. The song could depict either a desperate escape or a pleading return as Davie sings, “please don’t pin all your dreams on me / you can count on me to fuck up everything”, but the blindly repeating chorus “don’t you remember, love? / don’t you remember anything?” propels the song, regardless of its ambiguous direction. Sharp guitar riffs and anxious pulsing rhythms maintain the album’s restless momentum through the emotional crossroads of ‘Emeralds’ and ‘Dew Upon the Vine’. Both songs combine the familiar folk element of Davie’s Romantic-style lyrical imagery (“though the morning light will burn away / all the fog that night creates / there’ll still be a trace of our love left behind / in the dew upon the vine”) with sleek, synth-laced instrumental arrangements and angular vocal harmonies to create a darker, more visceral soundscape than what we heard on the diffuse and dreamy ‘Islands’.
The choruses throughout ‘Red Earth & Pouring Rain’ aren’t so much catchy as acutely gripping. The excruciating refrain “somewhere deep down I still believe / you’ll always be / the love of my life” punctuates the off-kilter rhythm and stream-of-consciousness lyrics in ‘Roses on a Breeze’. The introspective and acoustic-flavoured ‘New Jerusalem’ entwines and circles around itself in the lines “love is just a word you thought you heard / all it means is never, never say never, no / don’t give up on me yet / can you learn to forgive all that you learned to forget?”. ‘Greenwoods Bethlehem’ has a similar acoustic tone, but a jarring dynamic change in its chorus marks the thematic contrast between sweet memories and bitter present reality.
Memory is a central theme on the album, and it stands out particularly in a pair of intense mid-album tracks. ‘Love Can’t Stand Alone’ is a painful childhood recollection of loss that finds Davie channeling Springsteen to astounding effect in the lines “I prayed for the day my prayers would end / but nothing ever came that was heaven sent”. Lead single ‘Auld Wives’ is equally dramatic and emotionally effective, with a haunting keyboard melody and deep chugging guitar rhythms underscoring the anguish of losing a loved one to dementia.
Heavy and formidable track ‘Fortress’ features some of Davie’s most striking and convincingly sung lyrics, “I’m calling the blame / won’t you let me own it . . . a coward might call it a conscience / and a liar might call it the truth”. Current single ‘Gabriel’ is instrumentally lighter and warmer, but its lyrics are deeply introspective, and its exquisite vocal harmonies keenly illustrate their duality and sharp internal conflict.
Album closer ‘Napoleon’ makes skillful use of lyrical analogy and musical device to portray the uncertainty and pain of childhood with an emotionally destructive parent. The song’s melodic counterpoint, march-like drums and regal brass lend a rather ironic sense of optimism as Davie compares an alcoholic father to the eponymous and ill-fated French Emperor in his opening lines “I still see you there / a tall glass of Napoleon and an off-white leather chair” and his closing refrain “we’ve only got one shot now, Napoleon / it’s not too late to mend what we’ve broken”.
While time spent on the road has clearly given Bear’s Den the opportunity to reflect upon relationships and ponder past memories, it has also provided them the means and motivation to refine and even redefine their sound. Davie and Jones have jump-started their alt-folk lyricism and atmospheric musicality with a bolder, darker dynamic and a more technically focused, purposeful approach to their songwriting. Sonically compelling and emotionally evocative, ’Red Earth & Pouring Rain’ is, quite frankly, a stunning success.
‘Red Earth & Pouring Rain’, the sophomore album from Bear’s Den, is due for release on Friday the 22nd of July via Communion / Caroline International. They will play headline dates in the UK this November in support of the album; you can find the details here. TGTF’s complete previous coverage of Bear’s Den is conveniently collected here.
The ever hard-working duo of Chris Cain and Keith Murray, better known as We Are Scientists, are back at it again. Having just released their fifth studio album ‘Helter Seltzer’ in April, they’re hitting the road. Hard. With dates completed in the UK and American already, they’re embarking once again to the fair British shores for a few small festival dates before a much larger and focused album tour in October. One of the festival dates coming up is at LeeFest, based in Kent (the one from the advert on TV for UK readers), one of a small explosion of smaller festivals appearing over recent years. We managed to get a phone call with Chris (pictured left at top) during this hectic season, where he spoke to us about the difference between playing to smaller festivals than larger ones. Also discussed was the new, slick We Are Scientists look and the new album artwork that is, shall we say, for your own interpretation.
Chris Cain has one of those voice that kind of lends itself to being father-like but also an air of humour, which is just one of the reasons why a We Are Scientists show is one of the best investments you could make. As previously mentioned, they are returning to the UK for a run of those quaint, smaller festivals before embarking on a larger tour later in the year. On the subject of the differences between those behemoth festivals that shadow the festival season, compared to those smaller, metropolitan festivals that are sprouting up everywhere, Cain muses, “A smaller festival shares some characteristics with a club show, where you know you feel more of a connection with the audience. And ultimately, that’s our preferred type of show, where it’s a few hundred to maximum a couple of thousand.” Elaborating further, he offers, “once you get into [playing to] 20,000 people, which we’ve played a handful of times, it’s cool, it has its own thrill to have that many people doing anything in sync with each other, with the energy there, that’s the only good thing about larger festivals.”
We all know that atmosphere at festivals is the most important part. It’s why we attend them as music fans. There’s a certain feeling that can only be found when surrounded by several thousand of your fellow music fans, rather than a concentration of specific band fans. Cain says, “It’s that specific moment and that vibe. There’s so many other things that you lose when you play to that many people. And I also think as an audience member, there’s so much that kind of disappears, although that crazy energy of being in sync with many thousands of your fellow man is pretty cool. Luckily we have both in the world.”
The rise of smaller, city-based festivals has definitely increased the ability for bands to both tour while gaining new fans, as well as bringing an atmosphere otherwise reserved for large fields to towns that would normally go amiss. These smaller festivals are certainly more suited to We Are Scientists, as Cain mentioned. “City festivals are cool because you’re still playing in a club, but you have this sort communal spirit of a festival where a bunch of people are out for a couple of days to listen to music and that’s kind of the focus of everyone’s lives which gives a kind of a festive atmosphere than a single club show can provide.”
‘Helter Seltzer’, the reason behind all these shows, features artwork that is particularly, we’ll go for inexplainable, even by Cain himself. “I’m not sure I can completely claim to understand the artwork, it was a very much a collaboration with our artist who is a weird New Zealand recluse who iIve never met face to face. He did our last record as well, he makes all of our merch designs and he re-did our Aeb site for this record. Very talented, a drawer as well as a builder of Web sites, but also very crazy, strange fella with highly peculiar tastes. So this album artwork was very much his reaction to the music.” The best advice we can give is to listen to the new record whilst staring intensely at the artwork. Without blinking. If you manage to make any sense of it, leave a comment here or send us a postcard.
Moving onto their current live show. If you haven’t seen We Are Scientists before, then you are greatly missing out. And this time around you’ll notice they’ve suited up, making the well-oiled machine that is We Are Scientists an even smoother watch. “It was kind of an arbitrary decision, we had a friend take some photos of us, because we needed press photos around the time we were announcing the new album and we decided to wear those outfits, just all black.” For some reason this look seriously suits the duo, ridiculously so. Cain continues, “then we really liked how the photos turned out and thought, ‘are we really going to pack five black outfits?’ So we decided we would. It kind of hasn’t been as much of a laundry nightmare as I thought it would.”
There is literally no reason to not catch We Are Scientists on tour this year and if they aren’t coming to your town, get some friends and travel. They’re worth it. Catch them at Kendal Calling this weekend in the North, followed by their appearance back in the South East in Kent for LeeFest Presents: The Neverland 2016.
Do you think having kids means you can’t indulge in a festival weekend of nonstop, top class music, comedy and the odd craft ale? Deer Shed Festival 2016, nestled in the heart of beautiful North Yorkshire, is here to prove that little ones are no barrier to such delights. Now in its seventh year, and having grown bigger and better every year, Deer Shed prides itself on not just catering for kids in one corner of the festival arena, but actually integrating activities and attractions for your offspring throughout the festival itself. Activities break down roughly into Arts, Science, Sporty and Workshops categories, and there’s far too much going on to do justice to here. But here’s a list of the more, ahem, unique activities: Sock Wrestling, Tree Identification, Guerilla Archaeology, Taking Things to Pieces (my favourite!), not to mention loads of kid-friendly comedy and films.
So whilst the kids are busy deconstructing the inner workings of a cathode ray tube, the adults’ attention turns to the music stages. And I can confidently say that no festival has their finger on the pulse of contemporary alternative music as precisely as Deer Shed does. Between their modestly-sized stages, they put on an extraordinarily diverse and beautifully-curated lineup, the strength of which will make even the most clued-up muso stroke his or her beard and exclaim, “Forsooth, whence has this talented beat combo passed me by, for they are excellence personified!” (Translation: there’s loads of brilliant bands, some of which you’ve never heard of.)
There’s a lot of ladies at Deer Shed this year; it might even be the unofficial theme, like Celts were last year. By my calculation, almost exactly half of the acts are either actual ladies or lady-led, which is how it should be, but rarely is. Amongst others there’s Tuff Love, a pair of chiming, Glaswegian ladies with a melodic sensibility; Gwenno, ex of The Pipettes, her of the Welsh-language dystopian album ‘Y Dydd Olaf’; a rare festival appearance from famously reclusive Mancunian groovenik Lonelady; a touch of nu-soul from Mahalia; and Irish ethereality from Saint Sister. Phew.
Let’s turn to the headliners. And if I may indulge myself in a reminiscence, here’s some words from last year’s review (in which I got a bit huffy in parts): “the hope was that future years would essentially duplicate the pattern for well-regarded contemporary indie band on Friday for men of a certain age, big name from the parents’ past on Saturday for everyone.” Well, that’s exactly the formula that’s been used this year, and it promises to be a triumph. Everything Everything should need no introduction: now they’ve got three albums to go at, so expect their characteristic jumpy rhythms and highly-strung vocals, perhaps with a bit more guitar than we’re used to if their latest material is anything to go by. Beth Orton is the closing act on the Sunday, and a more gentle and apposite comedown is difficult to imagine. Her dreamy arrangements and almost-whispered vocals became the soundtrack to coming-of-age for a certain generation around the millennium that have all grown up a bit now but still remember fondly those hazy, lazy days.
When Deer Shed management asked on Facebook for suggestions as to future headliners, my answer was clear: Jarvis, Jarvis, Jarvis (I also made this suggestion in my 2014 review). If I’d thought harder, that answer actually could have been expanded to “any former member of Pulp with a decent solo career”, and who better fills that brief than Richard Hawley (pictured at top), Saturday’s main stage main man. He can pick and choose from an oeuvre spanning decades, varying from gentle pastoral acoustica to transcendental psychedelic jams. He’s rapidly becoming one of the country’s most well-renowned songwriters and performers, managing to be both a ‘50s throwback and achingly contemporary simultaneously and effortlessly. It’s difficult to think of a more appropriate talent to be this year’s main attraction… Unless he’s joined by Jarvis, of course!
All in all, it really is no exaggeration to say that 2016 could and should be the best year yet at Baldersby. The secret to Deer Shed Festival? It’s not just for kids.
‘Say Yes’, Big Deal third album, was released in mid-June on Fat Cat Records. Unfortunately for the transatlantic duo, it wasn’t easy getting to that point. They ran into many complications along the way, one of which involved Kacey Underwood having his laptop, filled with demos, stolen from his apartment. They had also split from their previous label Mute, which meant they had to borrow money to self-fund their new album. In this respect, the new record stands for a lot to Big Deal, to such an extent that when asked about it, they explain “it is about taking all kinds of heartbreak and defeat, and just looking at it dead in the eye and going for it.”
Big Deal essentially began in London in 2010 when Kacey Underwood taught Alice Costelloe some songs on guitar. Prior to ‘Say Yes’, they released two studio albums via indie record label Mute: ‘Lights Out’ in 2011, followed by ‘June Gloom’ in 2013. Costelloe says, “‘Lights Out’ is about not being together, ‘June Gloom’ is about being together and ‘Say Yes’ is about breaking up and trying to make sense of it all.” With such a depiction of an ever-meandering relationship in mind, one can really get a grasp on how the duo set out to portray this in the album. One aspect in particular is the complete utilisation of bassist Jesse Wong and drummer Jessica Batour, whom together bring the album a whole new level of attitude.
The album’s opening tracks ‘Hold Your Fire’ and ‘Avalanche’ showcase Wong and Batour perfectly; the monstrous drum sound and aggressive guitar riffs, doubled on bass throw you right into the deep end, and in a way that represent the struggles the band had experienced with the album and how they overcame them. The dynamic fluctuations and expressive vocal melodies in each meandering section together paint a sonic picture of a break-up, taking you through the stages of grief, anger and confusion bubbling at the surface of those involved.
Following closely at the heels of ‘Avalanche’, and in keeping with the portrayal of problems, is album title track ‘Say Yes.’ The track focuses on the band’s determination to turn negatives into positives. It was fight or flight for the duo, and thank god they chose to fight. ‘Say Yes’ is an ode to Big Deal’s ambition and strive to pull themselves out of the slump. Led primarily by Costelloe’s vocal performance and lyrics, the track gives us a look into what the couple was going through in their moment at professional life rock bottom. The jangly guitar line and accompanying open string chords don’t provide much substance within the verses. However, this works because the heavy hitter of the track is the most definitely the screeching, war cry of a chorus, propelling the message “I won’t tell you, won’t tell you / everything works out right.” Each chorus is emphasised further by the moments of tension that precede them, whether it’s a chord change to the 7th creating suspense before resolving, or dropping the guitars out completely and chanting lyrics like “I was ready, I was ready / are you ready, are you ready / just let it happen!”
As the album moves into its middle stage, there is a gradual shift in emotion, from anger and aggression to somewhat sadness and disparity. It feels almost as if the band are taking a moment to step back and reflect on the events surrounding the making of the album, rather than attacking them head on as on earlier tracks. Songs like ‘Lux’ and ‘Veronica’ carry an overtone of said emotions,. However, the beguiling yet beautiful melodies within contradict these feelings, ultimately revealing the sense that the healing process has begun in this metaphorical breakup. ‘Kitty Pride’, with its upbeat tonality and nonstop bounce, marks a turning point for the band, in which they decide to pick themselves up and move on from the crumbling relationship. With lyrics “it’s not over / just starting over / we’ll get over / getting older” accompanying the catchy melody, it’s very hard to avoid the message the band are delivering.
The album winds down to a resting feeling of relaxation and accomplishment as it approaches its final few tracks. We also see a throwback to Big Deal’s roots when they were merely a guitar and voice duet, playing sweet yet gritty songs like ‘Talk’ and ‘Homework’. ‘Still My Dream’ and the album closer ‘Idyllwild’ replicate this period of their career very closely. ‘Idyllwild’ in particular is filled with emotion in every aspect. The key to this song is to wait and expect the unexpected, specifically approaching the 6-minute, 50-second mark. The verses carry a graceful blend between Costelloe and Underwood’s voices amongst the backdrop of delicate chords that plod along with a sense of safety. That is, until the chorus, when a huge wall of fuzz juxtaposes the previous feeling with one of pure disparity.
The duo have stated that they did everything backwards in terms of discovering themselves and developing their sound. However, how they got here doesn’t subtract from the fact that ‘Say Yes’ is Big Deal’s strongest release yet. If this is the direction in which they continue in, things are going to get very exciting.
Big Deal’s third album ‘Say Yes’ is out now on Fat Cat Records. For more of TGTF’s coverage on Big Deal, go here.
With racial and class tensions coming to a head both in America and the UK, British Ugandan Londoner Michael Kiwanuka occupies a rather unique position in time and society upon the release of his second album ‘Love & Hate’. As he profoundly explains in the album’s lead single, “I’m a black man in a white world / I’m in love but I’m still sad / I found peace but I’m not glad”. That song, ‘Black Man in a White World’, is the most immediately outstanding track on the album, but it’s also central to the development of the album as a whole. Kiwanuka illustrates its thematic duality by alternating between a gritty musical setting of rhythmic handclaps, blues-inflected guitar lines and gospel backing vocals and a more elegant arrangement of soaring strings and subtle keyboard lines.
The juxtaposition of those two seemingly opposite musical styles is at play throughout ‘Love & Hate’, starting with opening track ‘Cold Little Heart’. Its delicate and slowly-evolving orchestral arrangement pivots around a repeated figure in the backing vocals, morphing into raw soul and sensuality as Kiwanuka intones the question in the song’s opening lyrics: “Did you ever want it? / Did you want it bad?” ‘Cold Little Heart’ transforms again at its close, paring down to Kiwanuka’s starkly exposed and richly-textured voice over a single acoustic guitar ahead of the final coda.
Title track ‘Love & Hate’ finds focus in a similar backing vocal, which along with the song’s deep bass groove and dramatic string gestures portrays an almost hypnotic swirl of emotion. The graceful fluidity of the arrangement is only enhanced by the wailing guitar solo in the bridge and the echoing production effects. Later in the tracklisting, ‘Rule the World’ is gentler and more introspective but again punctuated by a remarkably effective arrangement of backing voices, adding significant depth and colour to Kiwanuka’s already rich sonic tapestry.
‘One More Night’ is straightforward blues rock, with a hip-swaying bass rhythm and a dense arrangement of brass behind Kiwanuka’s thick vocals and sultry guitar melodies. It stands out for its relative simplicity in comparison to the rest of the songs on the record, but Kiwanuka hints at internal strife and resisting temptation in the song’s elusive lyrics: “I’ll be trying in the morning . . . no more lies in the day”.
Kiwanuka shifts his focus even more sharply inward for the final pair of songs on the record, which showcase the self-described “confessional aspect” of his songwriting. ’Father’s Child’ starts in a bright, buoyant tone and finishes with a darker sense of self-doubt as Kiwanuka contemplates his own spirituality. Album closer ‘The Final Frame’ tackles the dual-nature of romantic commitment, passion vs. placidity, in a slow and evenly-measured ballad spiked with a potently seductive guitar solo.
Describing the themes on ‘Love & Hate’, Kiwanuka explains, “A lot of this album was grappling with the insecurities that I’d learned. The first album was grappling with faith. Here, I’m not so worried about that – I’ve accepted that it comes and goes, and now, I’m left with myself.” Unfettered by the heavy burden of expectation that surrounded his debut album ‘Home Again’, ‘Love & Hate’ finds Kiwanuka coming to terms with duality, both in himself and in the world around him, and finding an exhilarating sense of artistic freedom as a result.
Michael Kiwanuka’s sophomore album ‘Love & Hate’ is due out today, Friday the 15th of July, on Polydor Records. In support of the new album, Kiwanuka will play a list of headline dates in the UK this October. TGTF’s collection of previous coverage on Michael Kiwanuka is back this way.
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 14th July 2016 at 12:00 pm
If you’re an avid fan of Glass Animals, German electronic musician and producer Marius Lauber may ring a bell. Two years ago, he remixed the Oxford band’s single and ‘Zaba’ album track ‘Pools’. If you’re a fan of EDM, the odds are even better that to some point in the recent past, his awe-inspiring beats have passed through your ears. Better known in cyberspace under his stage name Roosevelt – no relation to the past American presidents, I don’t think? – the man from Cologne is getting ready for his very own close-up. His self-titled debut album is due out in mid-August, and following the previously released ‘Colours’, he has unveiled another fantastic banger to preview his new record.
A hallmark of Roosevelt’s wholly engaging ‘Pools’ remix are its fanciful, lighter than air synths. Smartly, ‘Fever’ takes full advantage of several different layers of synth, all with a similar joyful bounciness. Honestly, if this had been a purely instrumental track, I would have been totally happy, as Lauber has a great command of what it takes to write a catchy melody. The leading notes of the song are pure sunlight, peerless. It’s the true essence of summer, distilled down into just over 4 minutes, housed within an electronic party piece.
While the lyrics to ‘Fever’ are relatively simplistic and obvious (“fading back into the night / no, nothing’s gonna hold us down”, “bring back the fever again / don’t lose the fever again”), that’s okay in a song for summer like this. They’ve been designed to continue the song’s overarching feeling of euphoria, by painting us a picture of nostalgia of all those good times we’ve had. We all want to go back to those times, don’t we? Walking off into a tropical sunset with Roosevelt’s dulcet beats in ‘Fever’, you won’t be led astray.
‘Fever’ will be released on the 15th of July on Greco-Roman / City Slang Records. Roosevelt’s eponymous debut album will follow on the 19th of August.
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