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Album Review: Camera Obscura – Desire Lines

 
By on Friday, 7th June 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Camera Obscura Desire Lines coverI’m a huge fan of Belle and Sebastian. And as a huge fan of Belle and Sebastian, I feel like I have to come clean and admit that I have been cheating on them with another Glaswegian indie-pop group who also thrive on their quaintness (quaintosity?); a band more twee than Zooey Deschanel walking a clowder of cats around the garden of her thatched cottage.

It all started in 2010 when I was eagerly awaiting Stuart Murdoch and co.’s eighth album, ‘Write About Love’. Whilst impatiently trying to find something to fill the gap whilst I awaited its release, I found Camera Obscura (or rather, Spotify Radio found them for me). Their latest release at the time, ‘My Maudlin Career’, had dropped the previous year to almost universal acclaim and I decided to see what the fuss was about. I quickly found out. With gorgeous instrumentals and precious vocals, Camera Obscura are without a doubt the closest thing there is to a female counterpart to Belle and Sebastian.

Camera Obscura are a relatively unknown band with a few relatively recognisable songs in their repertoire. ‘French Navy’, arguable one of their best tracks, has been doing the rounds on British television adverts for the past couple of years, which has done great things for their exposure.

Now three years on from my first encounter with them, ‘Desire Lines’ is to be released: the band’s fifth studio album, their first of which to have been recorded in the United States. The album continues the band’s exploration of wistful themes and again brings memories of the long summers days spent doing absolutely nothing in the sun. It’s quintessentially Camera Obscura down to a tee, something that could be its own downfall for some listeners. In other words, the band have not evolved at all since their previous effort 4 years ago. Belle and Sebastian have managed to remain fresh since their first album nearly 20 years ago, something that Camera Obscura have failed to replicate with ‘Desire Lines’. With the exception of a couple of tracks, the album throws the usual catchy, summer pop tunes at you in abundance.

One of the standout tracks on the LP has to be ‘Cri de Coeur’, which my GCSE in French can tell you is roughly translated as ‘Cry of the Heart.’ Down tempo and sentimental, lead singer Tracyanne Campbell truly sings a tale from the ‘coeur’. It’s a welcome turn away from the usual upbeat pop songs that dominate Camera Obscura albums and the hypnotic percussion makes the song almost like a lullaby. (Note to self – business idea: Have Camera Obscura release an album of children’s lullabies. That would sell.)

On the subject of vocals, it would be hard to review ‘Desire Lines’ without paying great compliment to Tracyanne Campbell’s sweet pipes. They carry a sentimental and wistful tone that is without a doubt Deschanel-esque, (even if the band were around even before the world caught Zooey Fever). In fact, the entire album could have been a She and Him album without the Him. Coincidentally, the bands will be touring together for a string of dates this year in the United States.

Campbell’s crooning takes a back seat on ‘New Year’s Resolution’, instead the lead guitar riff takes the centre stage and it works perfectly. Playing almost like a duet between the guitar and vocals, it is a refreshing change to hear the rest of the band take the limelight. Although a great song, the smooth Fleetwood Mac-like track transitions awkwardly into the next song ‘Do It Again’. Any soothing feeling caused by the former tune quickly evaporates and you are once again taken to the usual happy-go-lucky pop song that we expect from the band.

Overall, the Glaswegians-that-aren’t-Belle-and-Sebastian have released a great summer album. While it’s an album that won’t break boundaries in the indie-pop game (and doesn’t even break boundaries for Campbell and co.), it is nonetheless a great listen.

7/10

Camera Obscura’s ‘Desire Lines’ is out now on 4AD.

 

Album Review: Ben Folds Five – Live

 
By on Thursday, 6th June 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Ben Folds Five Live coverHot on the heels of their recent world tour, Ben Folds Five have released ‘Live’, a compilation of live recordings from a selection of those shows. The band have been touring since last summer in support of their most recent studio album, ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’. From that album, the new live record includes performances of ‘Erase Me’, ‘Sky High’, ‘Do It Anyway’, and ‘Draw A Crowd’. The new songs sit comfortably among a mix of favorites from Ben Folds’ back catalogue, with and without the rest of the ‘Five’. (I assume it’s commonly known by now that Ben Folds Five is composed of three members: Ben Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge. If not, then you’re now in on the joke.)

Overall, the tracks on ‘Ben Folds Five Live’ are tight performances. The three musicians sound sharp and well-rehearsed, but they maintain the spontaneity and dynamism that can only happen when the songs are second-nature. Ben Folds’ singing voice sounds particularly crisp and energetic throughout the album. The sound quality on the recordings is amazingly good, and crowd noise amazingly minimal. Most of the selected tracks are fairly true to their studio recordings, so familiar fans won’t be alienated, but there is plenty of variety to keep things interesting.

Of course, the real fun of live performances is in the improvisatory moments, and here ‘Ben Folds Five Live’ doesn’t disappoint. ‘One Chord Blues / Billie’s Bounce’ is full track consisting of a spirited and profane 12-bar blues vamp in which Folds pokes fun at his own musical pedanticism. A 9-minute long version of ‘Narcolepsy’, recorded before an appreciative Japanese audience, highlights the inventive ad-libbing abilities of all three players.

Hit single ‘Brick’, a given on Folds’ live set list, is handled nicely here. Prominent bass gives the song more depth and movement than on the original recording, but otherwise its simple, poignant beauty is untouched. Wisely sandwiched in the track listing between a runaway train rendition of ‘Do It Anyway’ and the bawdy ‘Draw A Crowd’, ‘Brick’ mellows the up tempo mood of the album only for a brief moment.

The end of the album is set up almost like an encore, with band member intros, thank yous, and good nights preceding the final track, ‘Song for the Dumped’. By this point, I found myself rocking and dancing along as if I really were at a live gig. Indeed, the live shows must have been brilliant, particularly at The Warfield in San Francisco, where 5 of the 15 tracks on the album were recorded. I missed Ben Folds Five last time around, but after hearing ‘Ben Folds Five Live’, I’ll make it a point to catch them on tour this summer.

9/10

‘Live’, the new live album from Ben Folds Five, is out now on Sony. You can stream the whole album on the Wall Street Journal here. Ben Folds Five will join Barenaked Ladies and Guster on the ‘Last Summer On Earth’ tour of North America this summer.

 

Album Review: Youngblood Hawke – Wake Up

 
By on Wednesday, 5th June 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Youngblood Hawke Wake Up cover Youngblood Hawke, a sparkling, poppy quintet from Los Angeles, have released their debut album ‘Wake Up’. Through trials and tribulations that you would never guess from the perky, exuberant music, they have succeeded in making an album that has some pretty serious things to say in a package that brilliantly presents it as bright synth pop. With references to addiction, overcoming adversity and the difficult things you have to endure for your passions, the twist put on it is that there is always a redemptive quality. Sometimes it is through sheer will, but with effort, it’s never too late to make it through. I am happy to see all four of the songs from their eponymous 2012 EP make it to the album, because there wasn’t a dud in the bunch – ‘Stars (Hold On)’ is still my favourite. (You can watch the band perform a studio version of that track here.)

Youngblood Hawke open their album, like they opened their live show when I saw them last October, with ‘Rootless’. It’s the kind of pulsing groove that gets you going and is a perfect opener. They quickly flow into their single, the perfect summertime anthem, ‘We Come Running’. Fresh and bright with a chanting chorus sung by the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir, you can just see summer flowing around them. ‘Dreams’ hits a little harder with some driving synth grounding it. This is the song that probably gets them the most deserving comparison to Passion Pit. With some deeper bass underneath and Martin’s piercing falsetto, it’s a bit epic in its dealing with making choices.

‘Dannyboy’ is a track inspired by a friend of the band, Danny McGuire, who was put into a coma after being hit by a drunk driver. Its words exhort him to ‘wake up’ and enjoy the beauty of the world. Deceptively, as with many of their songs, despite its joyful sound Danny never woke up. Of the songs new to me, ‘Live and Die’ drew me in the most, a tune that tells you to go for it when you are passionate about something, “Gonna find my fortune / gonna steal our fame / gonna live and die along the way / Gonna reach up higher / gonna feel the flames / Live and die along the way”.

Earlier I had predicted that the band had grabbed hold of just the right combination of indie pop and California sunshine to make waves. Youngblood Hawke have crafted tunes that are insanely catchy and have a beat that is imminently danceable, if just the tiniest bit too similar to one another. However, all Youngblood Hawke really needs is a champion to get them played on the radio to send them shooting into the stratosphere à la Imagine Dragons.

The iTunes version of the album has a 13th track called ‘In Our Blood’ and the Spotify version has a 13th track called ‘Survival’. ‘Wake Up’ is available now on Universal Republic Records.

7.5/10

Wake Up’ is available now on Universal Republic Records in America but if you’re in the UK, you’ll have to wait until the 29th of July to nab it on Universal.

 

Album Review: Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

 
By on Monday, 3rd June 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Queens of the Stone Age Like Clockwork coverQueens of the Stone Age‘s Josh Homme stands at a formidable 1.93 m: in layman’s terms, that’s a fucktonne bigger than you and me, and I am comically large, I will have you know. [John is. The top of his head banged into the shower head at the place we were staying for Liverpool Sound City. This sort of thing is unfathomable to a prawn like me.- Ed.]

Homme has collaborated with Dave Grohl *a lot*. He has collaborated with John Paul Jones *a lot*. He and Alex Turner ride bikes together and make music together *a lot*. Oh, and Elton John personally asked to appear on his newest record, ‘Like Clockwork’. Josh Homme would beat Jack White in a fight, no matter what Q’s Niall Doherty says. He’s massive and scary, and I bet his dad could beat your dad in a fight too.

Now that that’s over with, let’s concentrate on the music, shall we? ‘…Like Clockwork’ is QOTSA’s sixth record and their first since 2007’s ‘Era Vulgaris’, and for certain, this is their most competent and conclusive effort since the critically lauded ‘Songs for the Deaf’. It’s been 2 years in the making and as mentioned above, it features a plethora of contributors, from the most bulging Little Black Book of contacts, this side of ‘The Joshua Tree’.

‘…Like Clockwork’ is dramatic, with almost a pantomimic sense of angst underlying angst and despair. It’s not a sob story to Homme’s underlying medical traumas, which were parallel with this album’s recording; it’s instead a general tale of misery and desolation, interspersed with the ferocious guitars of Homme and co. on banger ‘My God is the Sun’. As an album the record runs perfectly. It tells a story and no song is trying too hard to be anything different to what QOTSA are: a sleazy tribute to desert rock, put together by the mastermind of the barren areas of the world. What the record lacks is that stand-out single which is going to make festival audiences, from Mexico City, to Rio, to Reading go ballistic.

‘Kalopsia’ comes close to that mark, jutting away in the middle with bipolar changes of pace, and second single ‘I Appear Missing’ trickles with gore and skulduggery. On ‘Smooth Sailing’, Homme proclaims, “I blow my load over the status quo” and he’s “risking it always, no second chance / it’s gonna be smooth sailing from here on out”, before the track morphs into a chugging profusion of filth and swagger as the thudding bassline persists along underneath Homme’s screeching vocals.

Throughout the record, QOTSA’s trademarked coolness and fuzzy guitars lie beneath the subtler melodies. Whilst the drums, in part provided by that lad from Foo Fighters and Nirvana Dave Grohl, hammer at an almost frenetic pace, that’ll have ex-QOTSA drummer Joey Castillo, the only man I have ever heard break a drum skin with his stick, curl with rage. QOTSA are back to their best, as if they ever really left it with the relatively tame ‘Era Vulgaris’. They at times reach Rated R levels of naughtiness, but let’s be honest, isn’t it just nice to have the band back to their eponymous best?

Keep on riffing, Homme. See you at Download.

8/10

‘…Like Clockwork’, Queen of the Stone Age’s sixth album, is out today on Matador.

 

Album Review: Bell X1 – Chop Chop

 
By on Friday, 24th May 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Bell X1 Chop Chop coverIn January of this year, Irish rock trio Bell X1 completed work on their sixth studio offering, the somewhat bewilderingly titled ‘Chop Chop.’ The summer release of ‘Chop Chop’ is anxiously anticipated by Bell X1 fans, but perhaps more so by the band themselves. In advance of the release, they have made several tracks available on SoundCloud and YouTube for sneak previewing. While the individual tracks are strong enough to pique interest, their musical and emotional impact is best realized in the context of the full album. (For singer Paul Noonan’s thoughts on this subject, see our earlier interview with him here [part 1] and here [part 2]).

Bell X1 have always had an immensely underrated talent for making glorious music from the mundane. Their choices in subject matter on ‘Chop Chop’ are as unique as ever, from the murmurations of starlings and unexpected weather patterns to pensive soul-searching on both societal and personal levels. Like past albums, this one leaves an impression of slightly uncomfortable self-consciousness, with its quirky pop-culture references and often startling exposure of basic human weaknesses. While the fist-to-the-solar-plexus lyrics are kept to a restrained minimum, there are still moments of sharp wit and stinging candor. Bell X1 have never made music for the faint-of-heart; ‘Chop Chop’ is no exception to that.

Sonically, the album is much more organic than past offerings, lighter on synthesized effects and drum machines, which creates a welcome sense of intimacy. Memorable piano melodies are present on almost every track, most notably ‘Diorama’, sung in a gently introspective lilt by David Geraghty. Its hypnotically rocking piano figure is saved from sleepiness by a subtly shifting meter, while the lyrics are so understated that they almost slip by before you notice their brilliance. Especially captivating are the lines, “The woman she was before they met / he longs to meet again. / Wise is unknowing in the end,” but the whole song is elegantly and eloquently nostalgic.

In addition to their distinctive percussion, Bell X1 have experimented here with some different brass and vocal arrangements, presumably inspired by producers Peter Katis and Thomas Bartlett. Trumpeter C.J. Camerieri and “girl singer” Hannah Cohen, who have both worked with Katis and Bartlett in the past, provide ‘Chop Chop’ with a slightly lighter, warmer color than Bell X1’s past work. (Camerieri’s impressive biography can be viewed here. Cohen’s debut album ‘Child Bride’, produced by Bartlett, was released in April 2012 on Bella Union Records.)

Bell X1 do have a tendency toward moments of jarring noise, particularly in otherwise bittersweet songs like ‘A Thousand Little Downers’. It feels almost as if they’re trying to create some distance from the tenderness in the lyrics, and, oddly, it does come as somewhat of a relief from the heart-rending melody. Stand-out track ‘Motorcades’ addresses that contradiction with a musically light-hearted take on an emotionally pregnant experience. The clever lyrics are specific enough to feel personal, while the predominantly third-person point of reference keeps the sentimentality at arms’ length: “People cry at the strangest things / Mine is the Venezuelan national anthem.” (For the record, mine is ‘Just Like Mr Benn’.)

Taken independently, the songs on ‘Chop Chop’ are an eclectic mix, ranging from ethereal grandeur to whispered sweet nothings, with a few moments of soulful hip-shaking (‘I Will Follow You’ and ‘Feint Praise’) added for good measure. It’s a delicate and carefully crafted set of songs; while short in duration, its thematic material is dense and intensely thought-provoking. It clearly required great care in the making, and it will be most appreciated by those who take the same care in listening.

9/10

‘Chop Chop’, the new album from Bell X1, is set for release on 28 June in Ireland, 1 July in the UK and Europe and 2 July in North America, via BellyUp Records. Stream first single ‘The End is Nigh’ below.

 

Album Review: British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy

 
By on Thursday, 23rd May 2013 at 2:30 pm
 

British Sea Power Machineries of Joy coverNever one to back away from a challenge, I was enthusiastic about taking a first listen to British Sea Power when editor Mary suggested I review their sixth full length album, ‘Machineries of Joy’. I’d heard of British Sea Power in passing and been warned that their sound was a lot to take in, but I didn’t even have enough background knowledge to preconceive any notions. Now, after extensive listening to the new album, I’m still not quite sure I know what to think.

My overwhelming impression of ‘Machineries of Joy’ is one of impenetrable cloudiness and fog. Its blurry, fuzzy bass lines and wailing guitars often obscure the whispered vocals, which causes the lyrics to get lost. There are some clever and even purely beautiful phrases scattered throughout the songs, but more often, the lyrics are unclear and unwieldy. The lack of distinguishable melody and the muttered, droning intonation of singer Yan (Scott Wilkinson) prevent any of them from sticking in the memory.

The album’s first single, title track ‘Machineries of Joy’ (video at the bottom of this post), draws the listener in very gently and slowly with hazy guitars and soft, husky vocals. Unfortunately, the song stretches on just a bit too long, with very little dynamic change or dramatic interest. (The album and song both take the title ‘Machineries of Joy’ from a collection of stories by Ray Bradbury. Not having read the stories myself, I can’t comment on that connection, but it’s worth looking into if you’re of a literary mind.) By contrast, the second track, ‘K Hole’, is a necessarily more upbeat number about a ketamine high. ‘K Hole’ is easily the most energetic song on the album, and its catchy chorus, ‘Staring down the cannon / We’re staring down the cannon / Of joy “ is among the album’s most memorable lyrics.

After that point, the next several songs seem to blur together indistinguishably. Even the edgy ‘Loving Animals’, with anxious opening lyric, “in for the kill / in for the kill / in for the kill”, fails to maintain its musical or dramatic tension long enough to make a lasting impression. The middle of the album seems to drift aimlessly, until final track ‘When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass’ provides a brief moment of lucidity with its mysterious, pulsating intro, its almost tribal percussion, and its echoing, chant-like vocals.

With 10 tracks coming in at just under 43 minutes, ‘Machineries of Joy’ feels like a much longer album than it really is. Its sleepy ambience drags heavily after the first two songs. Over the course of listening several times, I never felt that I gained any clarity as to the album’s intent or direction and I found it very difficult to connect emotionally with any of the songs. While I probably won’t revisit ‘Machineries of Joy” very often, I am sufficiently interested to take a look into British Sea Power’s extensive back catalog. Perhaps more context will help me put this album into clearer perspective.

5.5/10

‘Machineries of Joy’ is out now on Rough Trade Records. The album’s second single, ‘Loving Animals’, has just been added to BBC Radio 6 Music’s B-list. Watch the video for ‘Machineries of Joy’ below.

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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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