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Album Review: Noah and the Whale – Heart of Nowhere

 
By on Monday, 6th May 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Noah and the Whale Heart of Nowhere coverNoah and the Whale broke through their own folk pop barriers with last album ‘Last Night on Earth’, which editor Mary named her #1 album of 2011. The songs on that album were pensive and often philosophical yet musically upbeat, especially lead single ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’. The band continue that trend with their new release ‘Heart of Nowhere’, out today on Mercury. A cursory glance through the tracklist hints at a particular concern with passage of time, which is fully realised upon hearing the album.

Thematically and lyrically, ‘Heart of Nowhere’ bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘80s era-Bruce Springsteen. In ‘Lifetime’, frontman Charlie Fink sings, “we got high a thousand times / in your brother’s room / talked about how we’d break free / guess it came too soon”), which drew an immediate comparison in my mind to Springsteen’s ‘Bobby Jean’. In another nod to the band’s folk roots, ‘Silver and Gold’ opens with a reference to Neil Young (“well, I was looking for ‘Harvest’ but only found ‘Silver and Gold’”). Fink’s voice often reminds me of Tom Petty with its nasal drag and languid delivery, but Fink is deeper and less strident, much easier on the ears. His voice was well-suited to the band’s earlier folk sound, but it works equally well in this more recent pop sound, allowing for contrast and depth that could easily have been lost in the shift.

‘Heart of Nowhere’ begins with a decidedly pop-sounding instrumental piece titled simply titled ‘Introduction’. Its light percussion and floating strings flow almost seamlessly into the first full track, which shares its title with the album and includes a smouldering vocal contribution by Anna Calvi. ‘Heart of Nowhere’ the song features a distinctive string melody, and a heavy, pulsing rhythm section, both of which are characteristic of the album as a whole. Its narrative reference to a presumably fictional female character, in this case called Sarah, is another repeating motif on the album.

‘One More Night’ once again evokes the ‘80s with a softly seductive, deliberately synthetic sound, cool and crisp, but with a deep, moving bass. The wistful lyrics, about a love that might have been, are sung suggestively to ‘Jennifer’, beginning with the intensely provocative lines, “are you lying in your bed alone tonight / while he watches TV? / can you hear it coming through the floorboards / while you’re thinking of me?”

‘Still After All These Years’ is also addressed to a specific woman, this time named Lisa, who is described in the lyric as “dark and brooding, fickle and demure”. Musically, though, it is jaunty and upbeat, with a mellow rhythmic groove and some nice guitar work in the solos.

Final track ‘Not Too Late’ leans ever-so-slightly back toward folk in sound, with predominant acoustic guitar and softer percussion, especially in the introduction. That earthy feeling extends through the lyrics, about “find(ing) my own way to be a man”, and into the legato strings behind the closing melody.

At 10 tracks, including the brief ‘Introduction’, ‘Heart of Nowhere’ feels short in length, but the individual songs are earnest and strong. Unusual instrumental arrangements give the album a mild twist, saving the vibe from being overly derivative. The lyrics are emotionally evocative and often witty, easily rhythmic without becoming trite. While there isn’t a wide variety among the songs, there is a certain consistency. If you love the first track you hear, you’ll probably love them all.

8/10

Noah and the Whale’s fourth studio album, ‘Heart of Nowhere’, is out in the UK today via Mercury Records. The first video released from the album, for ‘There Will Come a Time’, was featured in this previous Video of the Moment post. There are two Sundays left in the band’s London residency; all details here.

 

Album Review: Skint and Demoralised – The Bit Between the Teeth

 
By on Wednesday, 1st May 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Words by Jason Graham

Skint and Demoralised The Bit Between the Teeth coverSuddenly Skint & Demoralised is three records old. How did that happen? Dare I suggest it comes from not yet having had that break out moment that lifts a band and shoves their wares in your face? And now their moment on a major is gone, it is time to reassemble.

Hailing from Wakefield in Yorkshire (big rugby town), Skint & Demoralised remains a duo that wears its heart and influences heavily on its sleeve. Within seconds Leeds United player Billy Bremner is referenced in a manner that will typically tickle and tantalise some listeners, while confusing and possibly losing others before their work has even started. As the album advances, it’s all quite kitchen sink and very blokey in execution. Then 6 minutes into the record somebody has broken the narrator’s nose.

It is such local reference that gives the act a solid footing being very much in the now. This is will always be celebrated by certain circles of the audience, these are the touchstones that bring an act close to their public. There is little question of their geography, the only issue is their perception of the moment. This is the sound of signing on and heading straight down to Wetherspoons afterwards.

The words arrive from Matt Abbott. It is somewhat established that he is writer first and vocalist second and that is why the heftier, spoken word workouts here are the tracks that stand out on this release (and the current music climate in general). At a time when Plan B is expressing appreciation for the trail blazed by John Cooper Clarke, Abbott makes for a pretty decent midpoint between the two. Additionally, when the poetry sinks to its bleakest points I find myself thinking of Tony Harrison and grimace he expounds.

It is ‘Breakfast At Sylvia’s’ (video below) that immediately grabs the attention, surfing a cool glide between spoken word and sung celebration. For me the scene setting storytelling echoes the great arrival of Arab Strap on ‘The First Big Weekend’ along with the early peak of The Streets that came with ‘Weak Become Heroes’. It is all about making the gesture to shine a light on some grotty existence and double up the excitement of mundane motions.

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‘The Bit Between the Teeth’ is a title that suggests an animal ferocity and determination built on horsepower but too often certain tracks resemble a stagger. The fluctuation between hard narrative and chirpy indie somewhat scuppers momentum, even when the switch in style is so clearly book ended. Tracks such as ‘Plessey Road’ and ‘Lucifer’s Cardigan’ do musically remind of The Smiths (especially the latter sounding like ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’) but its not necessarily in a strong fashion while other efforts at times curiously recall Inspiral Carpets, The Pogues and even Carter USM. Was that really the intention?

My personal opinion is that the guitar tracks should go, even though such was the style of their last album ‘This Sporting Life’. Sure, the direction offers light relief but this band is not the Arctic Monkeys, it’s the beats and strings than enable these words to flourish and breathe, such as on the almost trip hop ’The Long Night That Lies Ahead’. It’s the future.

To name yourselves Skint & Demoralised is ultimately quite the grand gesture. It is the opposite of the ‘aspiration nation’ mindset the powers that be are currently attempting to coerce a generation into subscribing and thus in response we have what is something of a defiant accessible sneer attached to our stereo. But I’m just not convinced that they are fully match fit to pull it off.

Time is already running out.

Rough.

6/10

‘The Bit Between the Teeth’, the new album from Skint and Demoralised, is out now on Heist or Hit.

 

Album Review: Story Books – Too Much a Hunter EP

 
By on Tuesday, 30th April 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Story Books Too Much a Hunter coverFinding their footing with last summer’s single ‘Peregrine’ on BBC Introducing, Story Books follows up with their new EP ‘Too Much a Hunter’, out this week on Communion. Tipped in January in Mary’s TGTF Guide to SXSW 2013, Mary wondered out loud, “Not really sure why they’re not more popular or, frankly, why we haven’t heard of them yet”. Kristofer Harris, Robert Wilks, Joseph Whitnell, Andrew Parry and Jack Tarrant however, did make a splash at this year’s SXSW in Austin playing the Communion showcase and more. We got to catch up with them in Austin too. The now released EP is set to show them in a proper light ready to take the stage.

The EP opens with ‘Simple Kids’ and a sound ever so slightly reminiscent of South Africa’s Civil Twilight, profound and evocative almost like the beginning of a really good movie. The deep piano chords characterize the tune and it crashes in a glorious wrap up with ‘stay close to your troubles don’t let them interfere/with your sense of wonder until it disappears.’ ‘Knot’ ups their game a bit with strummy guitars and a driving beat. It’s also a little more biting in its view of life: “Oh Lord, she chose / she chose the crooked path / from the start she’d never be pure enough / she could be cold as a cave / cold as a cave should be”. Meanwhile, ‘Glory and Growth’ shows off some acoustic guitar skills over an eerie palette of piano and slight distortion. Harris’ voice caresses the lyrics and teases out a story. He is quite hypnotic to listen to. ‘All Those Arrows’ winds up the album with a crashing build showing just a hint of just how good this band will be live.

Supporting such TGTF familiars as Grouplove, Kyla La Grange and most recently King Charles, Story Books is poised to make a splash in the indie alt-folk arena. Catch them at the Great Escape in Brighton 16-18 May. Editor Mary and festival liaison John Fernandez will both be there to greet you (and them) with a hearty hello.

7.5/10

The debut EP from Story Books, called ‘Too Much a Hunter’, is out now on Communion Records. Watch the promo video for ‘Simple Kids’ below. Mary interviewed three of the band at SXSW 2013 last month, and you can listen to the interview here; you can also read her reviews of their live show from the Wednesday and Saturday of SXSW 2013.

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Album Review: Bo Bruce – Before I Sleep

 
By on Monday, 29th April 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Bo Bruce’s full-length debut has been a long time coming. Her EP ‘Search the Night’ was released near the end of 2010, but didn’t reach its peak in the charts until after her appearance on The Voice UK, where she finished as runner-up. Shortly following that appearance, Bruce began writing and recording her new album, ‘Before I Sleep’, which she has described as an extension of ‘Search the Night’. (Read more in my review with Ms. Bruce here.)

The album title is inspired by the famous Robert Frost poem, ‘Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening’. Having grown up in “the middle of a wood in the middle of nowhere”, it’s easy to see how that imagery would have stayed with Bruce, and it carries over into the songs on Before I Sleep. Overall, the album has a sort of fairy tale feeling to it, especially in the lyrics, which are appropriate for the proverbial damsel in distress.

Bruce’s singing voice is the true star of the album, and the production has displayed it to full effect throughout. Its fragile, wispy texture is often delicately layered with sheer backing vocals, but it has an equally enchanting sound when left perfectly alone. On ‘Speed the Fire,’ Bruce is paired with a male singer (who sounds to me like Johnny McDaid, though I have no information to confirm that), which comes as a nice surprise, adding a degree of depth and vocal contrast to Bruce’s light, graceful tone.

Opening track ‘Landslide’ is among the catchiest tunes on the album, making it a perfect choice to introduce the others. Musically, the songs are varied enough in tempo and mood to hold interest, from the up tempo numbers ‘Save Me’ and ‘Telescope’ to the slower and more melancholy tracks, such as ‘The Fall’ (see video at the bottom of this post). The album does lose its momentum a little bit toward the end, as the heartbroken-heroine theme and the predictability of the lyrics begin to wear a bit thin. Final track ‘How We’re Made’, with its ambient instrumentation and gentle, whispered vocals, slips away like a wisp of smoke into thin air.

With 14 tracks on ‘Before I Sleep’, Bruce has proved herself to be nothing if not earnestly prolific. In fact, she has already mentioned writing songs for a second album. Upcoming tour plans include The Great Escape festival in May, a tour of the UK through June, and the Cornbury Festival in July.

7.5/10

Bo Bruce’s debut ‘Before I Sleep’ is out today on Mercury Records.

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Album Review: Little Green Cars – Absolute Zero

 
By on Friday, 26th April 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Little Green Cars Absolute Zero coverOh my God, I really wanted to like this album from Dublin’s Little Green Cars. Early single ‘The John Wayne’ was absolutely stupendous, and thankfully that song appears on the album release. Starting off with an appealing deep drum beat, the vocals soar over the top and repeat just enough to make it feel familiar instantly. The EP ‘Harper Lee’ continued to set expectations high for Little Green Cars. Luckily again, the title track from the EP is on the album and is terrific. But the rest of the album gives me pause. I feel like the album is all over the place. Maybe I am missing something and this is a treatise on the collapse of both society as a whole, or the music industry specifically, but as an ‘album’ I don’t think they quite pulled it off.

The trading off of vocals seems to be a thing now. At first I was quite enamoured of it. I’ve heard brilliant treatments of this style (see Milo Greene, Of Monsters and Men) but I am getting a little tired of it. Multiple-vocal fatigue, maybe? Perhaps it is part in parcel with alt-folk fatigue. Stevie Appleby’s voice is so dissimilar from Faye O’Rourke’s that it makes tracks where they take lead individually quite at odds with one another. I don’t dispute that when blended together the sound is quite lovely. But when an album is filled with three distinct ‘sounds’ (O’Rourke alone, Appleby on lead or a harmonised lead), it just doesn’t flow. My problem with the album is not that there aren’t good songs on it, there are. I love ‘Them’, ‘The Kitchen Floor’ and the earlier releases. My problem is with the lack of cohesion on the release.

‘My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me’ seems modeled after Florence and the Machine. O’Rourke sounds very Flo-like here and the storyline of the song is also reminiscent of ‘What the Water Gave Me’. However, voice is even more enjoyable to listen to, it can be both delicate and earthy. ‘The Kitchen Floor’ shows this off spectacularly. Organ-heavy song ‘Red and Blue’ didn’t set well with me because of all the vocal manipulation. It didn’t go with anything else on the disc and muddied their usually clear voices and harmonies. However, see my review here of them playing in Washington DC to read how they brilliantly transformed this song live.

Let me be clear, I did get an opportunity to see Little Green Cars play live before the release of the album and I really enjoyed the gig. Perhaps they are one of those bands whose live performance outshines their recorded work. On repeated listens, the album did grow on me. But my main beef remains. Is the album format dead? Are artists reduced to stringing songs they individually like together so they can release an album? I sure hope not.

7/10

‘Absolute Zero’ will be out on the 13th May through Island Records. Watch the promo video for ‘Harper Lee’ below. For a listing of their live dates, go here.

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Album Review: Sweet Baboo – Ships

 
By on Tuesday, 23rd April 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Sweet Baboo Ships coverOne of the greatest pitfalls as a music editor is the ongoing whinge that it will always be humanly impossible to check out every single band I’ve been recommended to check out by all my music business acquaintances. Sweet Baboo, aka the all too cute stage name of Welsh singer/songwriter Stephen Black, has been a longtime favourite of BBC 6music Marc Riley and I’ll be honest, just hearing the name of the act would send me into a fit of giggles.

Surely you can’t be serious, eh? I mean, come now. It conjures up images of Charlie Brown’s sister Sally chasing around her childhood sweetheart, the blanket-wielding Linus Van Pelt, in the annoying, sickly sweet way that only little kids can be in the state of one-way puppy love. But maybe that is exactly what Black was going for with the name, for his latest album ‘Ships’ could be best described as sweet, disarming, idiosyncratic pop. God willing I will be seeing the man at King Tut’s next month and I’m very excited about this, and I will tell you why.

This past weekend, Cheryl and some friends of ours went to go see the Joy Formidable, who, coincidentally enough, has their roots in Wales as well. One of the opening bands had a singer that sung in this high-pitched, baby-like voice that drove me bananas. I bring this up because Black, while you could argue he sings in a somewhat funny, sing-song way, and in an entirely different way than most male vocalists you are likely to encounter these days, it’s entirely endearing. This is achieved also in a way not unlike Camera Obscura, with lush layered instrumentation with many less usual suspects in pop, such as first single ‘Let’s Go Swimming Wild’, a lilting minor-chord organ number that opens its arms wide for the uplifting chorus.

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The only thing that could be said to be similar to other pop records is the underlying theme of love. But even then, Black takes an unconventional approach to waxing philosophical about the apple of his eye that, evidently, he’s lost. Morse code is hilariously tapped for ‘The Morse Code for Love is Beep Beep, Beep Beep, The Binary Code is One One’. The cheers and heys of the driving ‘Build You a Butterfly’ just sounds like a good time; it would be a good encore number, so I’m wondering why it was placed second to last instead of dead last, as the song ends with “I’ll make sure you’ll be all right”. Sigh.

Black then pledges his love “will always be my baby” in what sounds like an Alice in Wonderland fantasy with “giant ladybugs outside” bring this person back to him in ‘Twelve Carrots of Love’. He dreams of catching a whale for a ride and then drinking coconut milk with his baby in the far too precious ‘Chubby Cheeks’. ‘If I Died’ (video below), the current single, has a fatalist theme: would a former lover remember you after you’re gone? Despite its sweet pop melody and jammy synth bridge, the take home message still is a melancholy one (“if I died / would you remember that you loved me? / if I died / I guess I’d never know”).

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However, there are some less entertaining and more overbearing tracks. In light of the previous stellar tracks, ‘You Are a Wave’ is jus hohum. Not bad, but not terribly inspiring either. The same could be said for ‘The Sea Life is the Life for Me (Mermaid Cutie)’ earns many points for actually sounding like it was recorded underwater. (Maybe it was? And ‘Cate’s Song’ as well?) ‘8 Bit Monsters’ has a buzzing tuba and a wonky oompah beat. Despite a song that comes across emphatic with punctuation and potentially exciting, ‘C’mon Let’s Mosh!’ is sonically and lyrically a letdown.

Bottom line though, it’s far too easy to play pop ‘straight’ and that’s why most of the records coming out these days that purport to be ‘pop’ sound too similar. Quirky, fun, and thoughtful, the singles of Sweet Baboo’s ‘Ships’ come across as an antidote to all of that. But there are some challenging numbers that may either leave new listeners disappointed.

7/10

‘Ships’, the new album from Sweet Baboo, is out now on Moshi Moshi, Stephen Black’s first for the label.

 
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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest tours, gigs, and music we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like idiots.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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