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Is there any city in the world that has shaped the content of popular culture more than Los Angeles? Sure, New York is more photogenic, London is cooler (in every sense), and Paris more romantic, but there’s something about the sprawling, palm-tree ambience of LA, where everywhere is 45 minutes by car away from everywhere else, that has made it the epicentre of the world’s film industry. Therefore how LA thinks is crucial to how we see the world – through the big screen at least.
It simply wouldn’t be possible for the city’s music scene to be as influential and lucrative as its films, but they’ve had a good go. From the country-rock days of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Eagles, through the ‘80s and ‘90s hard rock and hair metal phase, to today’s diverse offerings, whose alumni include Best Coast and Local Natives, there’s certainly a lot to commend LA’s music scene. There can be no doubt about the continent from which Northern American spring; we can add their name to the long list of LA hopefuls too.
Not that you’d really infer their city of origin from throwing on their début collection, ‘Modern Phenomena’. The first bars of opener ‘Feel Like Whatever’, with its baggyesque drumming, washy synths and trebly, languidly optimistic vocal, could have easily been recorded in Manchester any time between, say, 1992 and 2008. This most certainly is not the L.A. of sleaze and rock ‘n’ roll excess as screamingly documented by Axl Rose and Nikki Sixx. Where Northern American are concerned, Los Angeles sounds like dusty boulevards, tumbleweed, and thousand-yard-stares over the firmament into the mountains and deserts beyond. Guitars are used as watercolour backdrops rather than aggressively riffing their way into one’s skull.
As the instrumentation subtly changes throughout the set, from shimmering electric pianos to eclectic percussion, the one constant is Augusto Vega’s minimalist yet assertive bass playing. He manages to achieve the subtle trick of being solid yet melodic, creating a foundation yet pushing the music forward with admirable persistence, at times having the confidence to drop out completely for a few bars, making the impact of his reappearance all the more intense. Well done that man.
‘So Natural’ is the archetypal chilled-out ballad, complete with hazy vocal and a gently psychedelic instrumental break. The title track comes in at under 3 minutes despite its sweeping ambition: keening strings reinforce the main guitar riff, while the none-more-chilled voice can just about get it together to give a gently chiding commentary on the perils of conducting one’s life through the vector of silicon-based devices. Two minutes in there’s a big crescendo, when the band might even be breaking a sweat, but don’t worry, it’s not long before they can have a nice sit down.
As you might be guessing, if there’s one criticism to be levelled at this collection is that it’s almost too relaxed: certainly there’s nothing here that’s challenging or dangerous in a conventional sense, or that might give a more balanced documentary of the dubious virtues of their home town. Nevertheless, the side they have chosen to reflect, the hanging-out-by-the-pool-with-a-piña-Colada one, is amply and ably discharged here. For those of us lucky to have the opportunity to party in such style, there’s little more of an appropriate soundtrack than ‘Modern Phenomena’.
Northern American’s debut LP ‘Modern Phenomena’ is due for release on the 1st of June via Heist or Hit Records. Previous TGTF coverage of Northern American is right this way.
We at TGTF have featured several top-notch Swedish acts on our pages in recent months, including First Aid Kit, Amason, and Tove Styrke. We’ve also featured our share of female garage rock artists, including Aussie singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett, Manchester quartet PINS, and Scottish duo Honeyblood. So my ears might have been fatigued from overexposure to subdued female vocals juxtaposed against heavy, distorted guitar and bass lines when I had my first listen to latest Swedish sensation Pale Honey.
The Gothenburg-based duo, comprising Tuva Lodmark on guitar and vocals and Nelly Daltrey on drums, recently released their self-titled debut album, following on last year’s ‘Fiction’ EP. ‘Pale Honey’ is replete with serpentine guitar and bass lines, lightly chugging percussion, and the double-tracked echo of Lodmark’s restrained vocal delivery, which is by turns sullen and sultry, depending on the lyrical intent. Lodmark and Daltrey worked with producer Anders Lagerfors in locations ranging from Stockholm to Paris to create a emotionally distant lo-fi sound that switches between what the album’s press release calls “themes of disheartenment and melancholy, empowerment and strength”.
While the album occasionally feels monotonous and one-dimensional, its unpredictable dynamic and rhythmic shifts manage to keep it interesting, even when the songs don’t fully engage. The deep, resonant guitar line and mellow “do-do-do-do-do” melody in the opening verse of ‘Fish’ explodes without warning into a larger, more expansive dynamic. Recent single ‘Youth’ opens with a similar stripped-back texture before kicking into overdrive for the chorus “I feel fine when you’re not mine / I get around, no I’m not bound.”
The album loses traction with the slower, sultrier ‘Bandolier’, where the growling guitar riffs become a bit over-repetitive and the vocal line is overly subdued. While the guitar line takes on a noticeably brighter harmonic tone, the monotonous rhythm and relative lack of dynamic contrast make the song seem longer than its four and a half minutes. Likewise, ‘Lonesome’ maintains sonic interest with synthesized background effects, but its aloof vocal delivery and repetitive rhythmic ideas fail to make a solid connection.
‘Fiction’ sees the notable addition of brass and cowbell to the otherwise monochromatic instrumental palette, but further expansion of the synthesized effects in the second half of ‘Desert’ seem to appear from out of nowhere and don’t fit comfortably in the song’s overall texture. The laser-like sonic effects are more effective in the context of the dramatically reverberant guitars and dark harmonies of recent single ‘Tease’, which finds Lodmark experimenting very successfully with a richer, rougher vocal quality as she intones the memorable lyric “Baby, I like you better when you dress in black.”
It’s perhaps telling that ‘Pale Honey’ seems to alternate between repetitive monotony and wildly erratic shifts in mood and intensity. Pale Honey seem somewhat constrained by their own minimalist tendencies as well as by their two-woman lineup, which may have necessitated the overuse of synthesized production effects. But their sporadic forays into expanded texture and brighter harmonies are among the best moments on the album, and the potential for growth and refinement of their style is readily apparent.
‘Pale Honey’ is out now on Instant Records, but if you prefer to listen before you buy, the album is also streaming in full on Consequence of Sound. Pale Honey will play a one-off show at the London Islington on Wednesday the 20th of May.
Snug Platters is the new record label project of Elbow frontman and BBC 6 Music radio presenter Guy Garvey, in collaboration with Fiction Records executive Jim Chancellor. The word ‘platters’ in the label’s unusual moniker presumably refers to the planned format of Snug Platters’ releases, which will be pressed onto 10” vinyl and limited to 1,000 copies of each, exclusively available at the Fiction Records’ store.
For their first release, Snug Platters have chosen the single ‘Emergency Art Rate’ by art-punk artist Steve, aka Jane Parker, formerly the lead singer of Manchester rock band Rude Club. Though the elusive Steve doesn’t appear to have an official Web site or presence of her own, the official Web site for Snug Platters features an oddly intriguing audio introduction by the woman herself. (Be warned: the audio begins to play, on a loop, as soon as you click the link.)
The grungy, uptempo ‘Emergency Art Rate’ has an anxious and insistent energy starting immediately behind its opening line “Baby, get your heart rate up”. The lyric changes quickly to the vainly repeated plea “Baby, get your heart rate down”, but the music doesn’t allow for that in the slightest as it builds in pace and intensity throughout. The song’s upbeat dynamic and relentless momentum would be a perfect soundtrack for a slick television advert, but it’s a highly infectious earworm all on its own.
Steve’s debut EP ‘Danger! High Failure Rate’ is due for release on the 18th of May on Snug Platters. Describing the new EP, Parker says, “Me, the guitar, the computer, the keys and the random noises all live together in one big house like The Monkees, but not as zany.” The EP will include four self-produced songs, ‘Emergency Art Rate’, ‘2 Point Nearly Zero’, ‘Flik Flak’ and ‘Electric Steam and Diesel’.
Singer/songwriter Esmé Patterson has recently released her new album ‘Woman to Woman’, which explores the perspective of female characters in classic popular songs, including Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ and the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’. ‘Woman to Woman’ has already garnered radio play on BBC 6Music and attention from online publications such as The Guardian and The Quietus, as well as TGTF’s own earlier In The Post feature. The album’s next single, titled ‘Tumbleweed’, is Patterson’s take on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Loretta’, which is the track that initially inspired the concept behind the record. Patterson explains:
“I was touring with my old band Paper Bird when we stopped in Spearfish, South Dakota and the venue had given us enough hotel rooms so that each of us could have our own. Alone time was a rare treat, and I decided to use the space to learn Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Loretta’ and was looking up the chords and the lyrics, and in the process started thinking about how one-sided it seemed. I imagined, “what would that woman, Loretta, say about him?” I gave up on learning Townes’ tune, and found my song ‘Tumbleweed’ rattling around in my heart somewhere. I finished it that night.”
‘Tumbleweed’ is a rebellious, uptempo track that imagines the fictional Loretta as defiant and strong-willed, in contrast to Van Zandt’s more objectified depiction. The song itself is sassy from its very outset, opening with a bending guitar riff and hand-clapping percussion over a heavy bass groove. Its initial lyrics attempt to capture Loretta’s true essence as Patterson cheekily intones “Well, you say you’ll be back in the spring / but I need a man like a tumbleweed / And I’ll keep my dancin’ shoes on long after you’re gone”. After a second verse retort about spending her man’s money and being treated roughly, Patterson’s Loretta gets to the heart of the matter in the bridge, asking “What about the way I want to be loved?”.
Esmé Patterson’s ‘Tumbleweed’ will be officially released on the 25th of May via Xtra Mile Recordings. Just below, you can view the video for another track from her ‘Woman to Woman’ LP, titled ‘What Do You Call a Woman?’. Released back in February, the track and its sexually provocative video comprise Patterson’s response to Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit ‘Billie Jean’.
Former punk musician PJ Bond has just released his second studio album ‘Where Were You?’ via Xtra Mile Recordings, home of fellow folk-punk crossover artists Frank Turner and Skinny Lister. Bond’s more recent Americana-folk style, which is infused with a just a hint of punk rock energy, fits in perfectly with the genre-bending mentality currently being nurtured at Xtra Mile, which we first heard described in an interview with labelmates Skinny Lister at SXSW 2015. Bond describes his own relationship with the record label in a positive way as well:
“Xtra Mile is one of the rare labels where it seems that they put out music that they truly believe in, and are not so much constrained by genre that they’ll question whether or not it is a ‘good idea’. This approach by clearly music-loving people is what drew me most to XMR, and was supported by everyone with whom I spoke about them. Honesty, respect, heart, these are the common threads. All in all, I think I’ve found a lovely home.”
That sense of contentment and belonging is at odds with the general mood of Bond’s songs on ‘Where Were You?’, which relate nostalgic tales of restlessness and regret. The album has a sentimental air of melancholy about it, each song’s reflective storyline playing out both in its lyrics and almost imperceptibly in the musical gestures between the lines. The real ingenuity in Bond’s songwriting is in the way he creates a mood, sets a scene, and then allows the stories to play out in his listeners’ imagination.
Musically, the album is centered around catchy guitar melodies and a warmly reverberant production style, which paired with Bond’s unadorned, passionate singing tone allow the lyrics to deliver their full impact. The uptempo tracks on the album, such as ’87 Broadcast’ and lead single ‘The Better Option’ gain energy from propulsive rhythms behind that lyrical and musical melodicism. Some of the slower, more pensive numbers, by contrast, tend to lose momentum, particularly mid-album track ‘Hellfire’, which, at nearly five minutes in length, stretches itself just a bit too thin.
Opening track ‘Everglades’ is the most immediate and captivating tracks on the album, with its lightly innocent guitar intro accompanying the foreboding first lyric “I came to town with nothing but a warning / everyone here hears everything”. Its lyrical narrative takes a dark turn into a dangerous tale of love, abuse and jealousy, asking “Do you think anyone would ask if he ended up missing?” before the final repeated fade-out “I could take him down into the Everglades…”
‘Calm in the Corner’ is one of the album’s more effective slow numbers, employing light percussion and ethereal backing vocals under its existential refrain: “there’s a calm in the corner, I don’t know what / but it’s staring straight at me, I can feel it in my guts”. It segues smoothly into ‘Seer’, a gentle examination of the potential risks involved with falling in love, and then into ‘Neighborhoods’, which wistfully observes the universal conflict between past and present.
The album title ‘Where Were You’ presumably refers to the initial poetic line in ‘For J.’, which is one of its most elusive and yet emotionally poignant tracks. ‘Lucknow to Birmingham’ is similarly obscure thematically, but its fuzzed out guitars give it a bit more traction leading into the gritty final track ‘We Were Just Kids’.
The overwhelming honesty and authenticity of Bond’s lyrics is certainly the most essential characteristic of ‘Where Were You’. While I might have liked to hear a bit more dynamic and emotional range in the instrumental arrangements, I was intrigued by Bond’s ability to create and convey stories that are by turns enticingly exotic and intimately relatable.
PJ Bond’s second full-length album ‘Where Were You?’ is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings.
Just ahead of the upcoming festival season, Liverpool trio Stealing Sheep have released their second studio album ‘Not Real’, which comprises a shimmering set of hazy dream-pop tracks perfect for easing into the bright sunshine of summer. Noticeably more streamlined than their 2012 debut LP ‘Into the Diamond Sun’, the new album sets the band’s ethereal three-part vocal harmonies over austere tribal-sounding percussion rhythms and glistening synth and guitar arrangements to create an overall sound that is both bright and breezily cool.
‘Not Real’ is a quick listen overall, without any rough edges or extraneous material to interrupt the concise impact of the individual songs. Opening track ‘Sequence’ starts with sparkling electro-synth keyboards over an immediately catchy bass groove and a lively melody decorated by the trio’s signature vocal harmonies. ‘Apparition’ takes a slightly heavier tone, the harmonies becoming more darkly haunting over its ominous bass line.
The album’s current single ‘Not Real’ has been featured in two previous TGTF Video of the Moment pieces, one for the song’s official video and one for a live performance at Liverpool’s Vessel studio. Aside from being the title track, ‘Not Real’ clearly wasn’t chosen by accident as the first release from the album. It catches attention instantly with the dramatic simplicity of its opening vocal line, “Don’t let the daytime fool you that you’re not real”. The stridently singsong quality of that lyric combines with a stark dance beat and bending guitar lines that are glossed over by the angular synth melodies and soft backing vocals.
Heavily beat-driven tracks ‘This Time’ and ‘Greed’ both feature visceral percussion rhythms and deep bass riffs under hazy, psychedelic vocal effects. ‘Greed’ in particular has a more muscular sound, realized in its initial lyric “The sun is tough / the ground is dry / your blood is thick / your skin is worn’. The brief but effective instrumental section at the end of the song stands out in contrast to the more straightforward arrangements of the other tracks on the album.
The most austere track on the album, ‘Evolve & Expand’, is a slow, stark acoustic ballad whose haunting harmony and angular guitar line somehow feel very much in place with the rest of the songs, despite the dramatically stripped-back instrumentation. It creates an interesting contrast, but one that perhaps could have been evolved and expanded upon a bit more.
The pace of the album slows a bit toward the end, with the simple, repeated lyrics and the singsong quality of the vocal delivery, particularly in the trite chorus of the rather unimaginatively titled track ‘Love’: “L-O-V-E / spell it out so I can see your love”. However, final track ‘She’ closes the record on a stronger note, with a slow burning introduction that gracefully evolves into a sensual rhythm and a gradually layered instrumental texture. The hazy three-part vocals lend themselves remarkably well to the allusion to the feminine mystique in the lyrics “she has gone, I feel it in the air”.
While the simplicity of the lyrics on ‘Not Real’ might at first seem to be a detriment, the vocal lines make perfect sense as part of the overarching instrumental texture, especially with the trio’s effective blend of lightly layered vocal harmonies. Focusing on their delicately psychedelic instrumentation, Stealing Sheep have created here not a sharply-defined sound, but more of a surreal, otherworldly aura.
Stealing Sheep’s sophomore album ‘Not Real’ is out now on Heavenly Recordings. The trio are currently touring in the UK and will appear at Liverpool Sound City 2015 at the end of May. They have also announced a September/October UK tour. Previous TGTF coverage of Stealing Sheep can be found here.
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