For editor Mary's coverage of SXSW 2013, go here.
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By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 12th May 2010 at 3:30 pm
Keane have gotten so popular worldwide that they seemed untouchable. Kind of like U2 before Bono went off to do the politics thing and became a philanthropist. However, with their new EP ‘Night Train’, Keane may have finally bitten off more than they could chew. They’ve tried way too hard to evolve their sound with this effort, and I think they may have lost the plot. According to online reports, the band recorded these tracks in various studios while they were touring in support of ‘Perfect Symmetry’ last year, and from what I can tell having interviewed bands on the road, it’s not easy writing or recording while you’re touring. This may explain why the tracks don’t feel cohesive and run the gamut from great to terrible.
The album begins with trying to create atmosphere with the creepy instrumental ‘House Lights’. So creepy that it sounds like an attempt to ape Jacko’s ‘Thriller’. Not exactly what you’d expect with a Keane album. The next song, ‘Back in Time’, sounds more like early Keane, with Tom Chaplin’s yearning vocals, but we are reminded that this is the ‘new’ Keane with interstellar synth action popping up every now and again. It’s nice but it’s not an earworm by any means.
Better still is ‘Clear Skies’, a hand-clappingly fun pop affair that reminds that Keane (or rather Tim Rice-Oxley) is capable of writing some great tunes. And judging from ‘Your Love’, the first Keane song Rice-Oxley has ever sung lead vocals on, he has a decent voice as well. Tim, don’t hide your light under a bushel! This song has a definite ‘80s vibe to it and it goes on for a tad too long, but it’s not horrible. ‘My Shadow’ ends the EP on an up note, sounding more like the sweeping Keane we once knew.
By far the strongest track is the previously released ‘Stop for a Minute’ collaboration with Canadian-Somalian rapper K’Naan (watch the video and read our single review). I sat in on the band’s live webchat with Ryan Brockington of the New York Post on Monday evening, and I learned interestingly that K’Naan’s words have been mysteriously removed from the song when it is played in certain markets, such as the Netherlands. Drummer Richard Hughes said that in some markets rap wasn’t accepted on pop radio stations, and that explained the different versions. Say what? Talk about unnecessary censorship, as K’Naan’s vocals are such a great addition to the Keane sound that listening to the rest of this EP, I almost wished he was now part of the band, because maybe he could have saved this sinking ship.
At the EP’s worst moments, the band sounds unintentionally humourous. Take ‘Ishin Deshin (‘You’ve Got to Help Yourself’, a collaboration the band did with Japanese rapper/MC Tigarah, which starts off oddly enough with the sounds of an antiquated dial-up modem and then turns into something that could have soundtracked a Nintendo (first generation, none of this DS stuff) game back in the day, complete with tinkling background melody. Errr…pass. ‘Looking Back’ starts with a ‘Rocky’-style fanfare. K’Naan also contributes to this one, but the gratuitously cheesy fanfare keeps coming back in and distracts from the lyrics – come now Keane, seriously? Your older listeners are snickering. All in all I’d say if you liked ‘Stop for a Minute’, buy the single. But unless you’re a Keane fanatic, you probably don’t need this EP.
Night Train is available now. Keane is touring England this summer, and we’ve got a competition for a lucky winner and a guest to see them at Birmingham Academy on 16th June. Enter here.
The word perfect has been redefined, and it comes in the form of “High Violet.” Don’t worry, it will all make sense once you listen to The National’s latest album. First things first, though. If you’re a casual fan of the band, having only heard their highly acclaimed “Boxer” album released three years ago, fear not. The group has picked up where they gloriously left off.
The ambiguity is richer, the themes of loneliness and confusion still remain, as do thick layers of heavy instrumentation and spine tingling emotions. Take opening track, “Terrible Love”, for example. The song kicks off with an anthemic tones that are more than a little reminiscent of very early U2 riffs. Similar to “Fake Empire” on the band’s last album, the song holds the right amount of welcoming power to pull the listener into the entire LP.
Produced by the talented Peter Katis, many of the tracks are fittingly weighed down with spectacular layers of sounds, but the thing is that those multi-layers are less than obvious upon first listen of the album. You really have to cram your headphones down your ear to try to make sense of the rather brilliant noises rising above it all. It would be wiser to just appreciate the hard work of the band who created this masterpiece, though.
Still another more obvious subject that baritone singer Matt Berninger frequently references to is that of anxiety. In fact, dizzy apprehensions are dripping through in most songs. If track titles like “Runaway” and ‘Everyone’s Ghost” don’t signal a sense of unease, then well maybe lyrics such as, “With my kid on my shoulders I try not to hurt anyone I like…I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”, pervade an overwhelming feeling of nervousness on “Afraid of Everyone.”
What makes the album even more beautiful are the soaring crescendos heard in songs such as the five minute, climax building “England”, where a gentle piano riff opens the song and a sublime, rockier, blast of strings finishes it off.
Oh, and that well-rehearsed adage of “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, could certainly be applied to album standout “Lemonhead”, a poppy narrative backed by the pulsing of strings and lovely spoken rhythms of a muttering Berninger. As a side note, the song apparently went through different 80 takes! The band ultimately stuck with the original version in the end.
It would be natural to spill the beans with a lot more specifics and details of “High Violet”, as it’s simply a great piece of work that is too easy to gush about. That would spoil the many great surprises within, however. So follow the words of a simpleton and check out this album. If you’re not a fan of the band yet, you soon will be.
The National’s High Violet is out on Monday – you can pre-order it from Amazon.
Edinburgh-based band Ardentjohn, described on their myspace page as folk rock/ambient/pop, are often compared to Mumford and Sons. While their debut album, ‘On the Wire,’ certainly shares the same genre, it is neither as energetic and raw as Mumford, nor as ethereal and haunting as fellow folksters Fleet Foxes. They are certainly talented, so I would love to be able to say that they’ve carved out a niche that’s all their own between the two, but in reality the album is a bit underwhelming.
This isn’t to say that the album isn’t good. At it’s best, it evokes the feeling of laying in the tall grass “all afternoon, with warm sun on my back.” It has a lush, laid back sound and earnest vocals backed by solid instrumentation. The first track, ‘All That We Need’ is one of the best on the album, starting out with gorgeous a Capella harmonies and building up the backing instruments slowly throughout the first verse. Second track ‘Open Road’ is another high point. It has more energy behind it than most of the other tracks, and there is a great bit at the end of the song where it fades completely out before coming back in with harmonized “ahh-ahh-ahhs” over an intricate combination of drums and acoustic and electric guitars. A hidden gem later in the album is ‘One Step Behind,’ a song that strays more towards the traditional pop/rock genre than folk, and makes great use of the electric guitar.
Beyond these, there is nothing much in the other tracks to distinguish them from one another. They’re a bit too ambient to really grab a hold of the listener. Musically, it is competent yet nondescript. There is not enough energy and passion behind the vocals to lift many of the songs above relaxing background music, and lyrics like “I need you, I want you, can’t you see?” don’t add much interest either.
The two original members of Ardentjohn come from the Scottish Isle of Bute, and have since collected members from Crieff, as well as such distant places as New York and Alberta. I can’t help but feel that the six of them haven’t quite figured out the sound that best suits them. It’s a solid effort for a debut album, but I’d really like to see them grow into their talents. As their best songs are the ones with the most energy, they’d do well do play up their rockier side. Have a listen to the tracks on their myspace page and look out for great things from them in the future. They will be playing the following UK dates over the next month:
Friday 29th January 2010 – Manchester, Dry Bar
Saturday 30th January 2010 – London, Bull and Gate (Album Launch Party)
Tuesday 16th February 2010 – Edinburgh, Bongo Club
Thursday 18th February 2010 – London, The Lexington
Ardentjohn’s debut album ‘On The Wire’ was released on 25th January 2010. The first single from this album, ‘Home/Where All Paths Lead’, will be released on Label Fandango on 15th February 2010.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 14th October 2009 at 12:00 pm
Miike Snow is a collaboration between Swedes Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (famed producing/writing duo Bloodshy and Avant) and American musician/songwriter/producer Andrew Wyatt. I’ve heard conflicting stories on the origin of the band’s name, so I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole. Instead, what I am going to talk about: their electro / layered eponymously named debut coming out in physical form later this month.
Thanks to Radio1 playlist addition this year, you are likely familiar with ‘Animal’ and ‘Black and Blue’, the first two singles from the album. ‘Animal’ starts the album off right with enjoyably bouncy synths, then Wyatt’s voice comes in, just as percussive rhythms join in. This is pop, but done in a less conventional way. This is not a song custom made for a club, at least not in its current form. It’s the kind of tune that makes you want to dance out of your office chair, but not necessarily on a dance floor in Ibiza. The chorus is infectious: “I change shapes just to hide in this place / but I’m still, I’m still an animal / nobody knows it but me when I slip / yeah I slip, I’m still an animal…”
‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Plastic Jungle’ are r&b flavoured pieces of pop, almost necessitating a Jacko-style moonwalk whilst listening. The percussion is the star, but they don’t completely obscure Wyatt’s soulful delivery and on ‘Black and Blue’, the backing vocals are pleasantly Motown-esque. That said, many of these songs are amalgamations of all the right parts of successful pop recipes, but mixed up in interesting combinations or with unusual treatments (like in the xylophone-tinged ‘Burial’ or the mildly laughable robotic squeaks and drum machines in ‘Sans Soleil’).
Overall, while Wyatt’s lyrics are broad and engaging enough to be enjoyable, it’s the lush instrumentation throughout that is this band’s strength. Surprisingly, these tracks stand up well live, not exactly what you’d expect from a band two-thirds made up of a studio trickery-dependent production team. One wonders how Miike Snow would react when the tracks will – and they will, inevitably – be remixed!
The debut album by Miike Snow will be released physically in the UK on 26 October.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 7th October 2009 at 2:00 pm
New York City quartet the Pains of Being Pure at Heart released a new, five-track EP, ‘Higher Than the Stars’, in late September. It’s a slight departure from the band’s eponymous debut (released in February 2009 on Slumberland Records in America and Fortuna Pop! in the UK) that brought us ‘Everything with You’. But it still sounds like the Pains…, who in my opinion have been unfairly branded by the hipster-cum-twee pop genre label. Steve Lamacq predicted at the new year that shoegaze would make a comeback, and this band is evidence that the sound so big in the ‘90s can rise again in a newer, better form, with its dexterously lush guitars and emotional lyrics.
As per their debut album, at the forefront are the freewheeling guitars of bassist Alex Naidus and frontman Kip Berman, propelling the songs with a sense of urgency, augmented by keyboards from Peggy Wang and drumming from Kurt Feldman. Berman’s vocals and Wang’s harmonies round out the Pains’ sound. The title track is sublime, guitars and vocals washing over you like a midsummer’s kiss in the rain (see the video filmed by Seattle radio station KEXP at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge below); the same could be said about ‘Twins’. ‘103′ is short and infectious. Love it. If you are old enough to remember, the instrumentation and vocals of ‘Falling Down’ will remind you of Kajagoogoo, but better! (Sorry Limahl.) Most unique in this set of songs: the Saint Etienne Visits Lord Spank Mix of ‘Higher Than the Stars’, in which a gentle song gets the rave treatment. Readers familiar with my current favourite artists as of late will not be surprised that I really dig this remix.
EPs afford bands the opportunity to branch out and record something between albums without being confined to the figurative boundaries of an album. According to Berman, this is exactly what they set out to do with this EP. Their effort succeeds admirably and leaves the listener eager for the band’s next album release. Let’s hope that appears sooner rather than later.
After the jump: more of my photos from the Pains at Being Pure at Heart gig at Washington DC’s Black Cat on 30th September 2009.
Continue reading Album Review: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Higher Than the Stars EP
on Friday, 20th February 2009 at 11:01 am
It’s about time we heard some fresh noise from former Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland and his new album has plenty of it. The double disk, twenty track monster that is Happy In Galoshes should certainly put a smile back on the faces of Velvet Revolver fans.
Now not every track is going to be a top ten hit but the record still has its highlights, however, you do get the feeling that a few concept tracks were left on to make up the numbers. The variety on display is honestly amazing. There are tracks that feel like Velvet Revolver classics and then some sound like something you’d hear in the indie scene.
We’d be here till next Christmas if we were to review every track but there are some that stand out. “Hyper-Fuzz-Funny-Car” is one of the oddest song titles you’ll hear all year but it has a great dirty rock tone that you might get from a velvet revolver album and it has bucket fulls of attitude. “Blind Confusion” and “Blister On My Soul” are another two great hits and sound like chirpy pop rock ballads in many ways.
Now I said the album had variety and I wasn’t joking. Just look at the track “Fame”. It sounds like it’s come straight from some gangster rapper, while the track “Arch Angel” sounds like some sort of mario kart game. “Big Black Monster” sounds like a Muse track and it’s not hard to imagine Mika singing the chorus, the album has just about every genre known to man featured somewhere.
At times, to be truly honest, Scotts voice sounds woeful and out of place, however it must be said he’s awesome on the rocky tracks. It may have been better if the album was condensed and some of the more alternative tracks were left off but fair play, the record is like no other and it should have something for everyone.
Happy in Galoshes is out now on Soft Drive Records.