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Album Review: Lightships – Electric Cables

 
By on Friday, 20th April 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

When I was a young whippersnapper, released into the big boys’ world of proper music by dint of attending a provincial university and hanging out with those who had reached the heady heights of their 21st birthday, CDs were at their peak of popularity. Those little silver discs held a genuine aura of exoticity and desire – vinyl was dead, the internet was slow – and amongst the also-ran Britpop, heavy metal and proto-girl bands available at one’s local HMV was a swiftly-growing metagenre called ‘Chill Out’. The nadir of which was “three discs for £4.99” specials, usually headed by a track made by a band one had heard of, otherwise padded with whatever the label could get their hands on with the minimum of cost – anyone with a TR-808 emulator and an FM synth could knock off a handful of chords, a basic 75bpm beat, and earn a few quid. However, its zenith was a slew of albums from genuinely talented and groundbreaking bands that just happened to fit the ;Chill Out’ label – Massive Attack‘s ‘Blue Lines’, Portishead’s eponymous debut, even acts like the Orb, who had been doing their own thing for years, suddenly found themselves the soundtrack to early-’20s’ pseudo-pretentious dinner parties across the land, not to mention the bedroom fumblings that inevitably followed.

Eventually the 1990s fizzled into the millennium; ‘Chill Out’ was inevitably adopted into the mainstream, losing its aura of sophistication in the process. CDs became tarnished, both literally and figuratively, as the world became blasė and cynical about digital technology; vinyl nostalgia increased with every little nubbin that broke off a CD case. But of course people do still engage in the act of chilling out, even if they don’t use the term itself in polite company, and require a soundtrack to enhance the experience. Which is where Lightships‘ ‘Electric Cables’ comes in (Gerard Love’s solo debut).

With not a drum machine to be heard, ‘Electric Cables’ nevertheless runs at such a trance-like mid-tempo for its entire running length, with its somnambulant vocals and gentle, flutely instrumentation, making it a perfect album to lay back, float away, and (whisper it…) chill out to. Its opening couplet in ‘Two Lines’ (“Somehow through a series of exchanges / Two lines get entangled and entwined”), sets the intent. Invisibly subtitled “love by Love”, there’s all sorts of elemental romance here – spark; rivers; blossom; silver; gold; sun; photosynthesis; dawn – even in the song titles there is earthly optimism.

This is undeniably a Glasgow album – featuring as it does half of Teenage Fanclub and Belle and Sebastian‘s bass player, how could it not be? ‘Every Blossom’, with its spiderweb acoustic guitars, flute solos (and is that a glockenspiel?), is quite the companion to the barbed pop of B&S. ‘Sweetness in Her Spark’ (video below) has a lovely, proper chorus and tempo, and shows the potential of the project for combining the pretty presentation into a chart-bothering song.

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‘Silver and Gold’ is ’60s Californian fuzz-pop incarnate, with swatches of vocal harmonies and ambience, but still cannot resist almost-whispered, barely-there verse arrangements. The record pivots around ‘The Warmth of the Sun’; so sparse as to feature an actual metronome to keep time, this almost-instrumental sums up how leisurely the whole affair is – it sounds very pretty, but it’s not a record for anyone in a hurry for kicks. Things do make a break into a slightly higher gear in ‘Stretching Out’, which adds a bit more of an urgency to the whole affair, but like a chamber-pop Jethro Tull, there’s always that underlying flute to keep things grounded and, well, somehow British-sounding.

Fans of the Scottish sound will love this, as it neatly fits into the oeuvre, not stepping on any other bands’ toes, but being clearly of a certain school. Others may find it more of a niche record, one that suits a very specific need – it’s no good when preparing for a night on the tiles, for instance. But if you’re planning a romantic candlelit home-made dinner for two, once the wine has been opened, and the beef’s resting, the gentle tones of ‘Electric Cables’ will be the perfect accompaniment. Just be careful not to overdose on the chill out – everyone knows a sleeping date is not a date at all.

6/10

The debut album from Lightships (aka Gerard Love of Teenage Fanclub fame) is available now from Domino.

 

Album Review: Bear in Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool

 
By on Monday, 16th April 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

There’s a lot of pressure on a new release when your previous album received the Best New Music award from Pitchfork, a Web site notorious for being so easily unimpressed that I’m sure that if it had been around in 1967 it would have lambasted ‘Sgt. Pepper’ for being lazy and uninspired. However, Bear in Heaven have released their third album ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’ in a bid to step out of the successful shadow of their critically acclaimed 2009 record ‘Beast Rest Forth Mouth’.

In an innovative PR stunt, the band made ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’ available to stream on their website but slowed the entire album down by 400,000%; stretching its running time to 2700 hours, or 112.5 days (don’t be too impressed with my maths, I used a calculator). Perhaps a message from the band that the album takes time to truly get it? I’m not sure.

Onto the actual content of the album. It’s hard to listen to the album without it reminding you of several others from different artists. At first listen, albums that immediately come to mind are ‘LP’ by Discovery and Passion Pit‘s ‘Manners.’ Not to mention the fact that Bear in Heaven’s vocals are straight out of Phoenix‘s ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.’

Everything about the 10 tracks seem standard and a tad repetitive, which is a major danger with this genre of music. It’s hard to have an electro-pop album such as this that doesn’t overuse the synthesisers making all the songs sound far too similar. Sometimes this is a style that can be quite effective but not here.

Tracks such as ‘Cool Light’ and ‘Kiss Me Crazy’ both have the same flaws. There’s just too much going on in the song; all the instruments and long-noted vocals overlap and create a slight mess of a song. Actually, a note that could be carried across all the songs on the album is that synthesisers and drums take front seat and vocals and every other instrument are relegated all the way back to the car boot.

Deviating from the formula that made ‘Beast Rest Forth Mouth’ a success, you have to admire Bear in Heaven for taking a risk with ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’ but it’s not a risk that paid off. In short what I’m saying is, this album has been done before and it’s been done better. Got a hankering for some synthesised, high-pitch electro? The market is full of much better options.

3.5/10

Bear in Heaven’s ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’ is available now from Dead Oceans.

 

Album Review: The Futureheads – Rant

 
By on Monday, 2nd April 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Sometimes the unlikeliest things happen. A black and white silent film has won the best picture Oscar. Newcastle are level on points with Chelsea late in the season. A sumptuous a capella album has been recorded by a bunch of Wearside lads better known for their jagged guitar-led post-punk. We are being excessively taxed on behalf of natural variations in the Earth’s climate. These are strange times.

To the topic at hand: most groups follow a conventional career trajectory of releasing increasingly directional material of their own invention. But what if a band take the time out to reassess who they really are; what they stand for; and most importantly what music should represent them in these unpredictable times? For that is what the Futureheads have done.

‘Rant’ presents twelve songs arranged for voices only. There are five Futureheads originals re-imagined, four traditional standards and a handful of covers. What they share in common is that they are all far superior to the original recordings.

The evidence? ‘Meet Me Halfway’, originally a discarded Black Eyed Peas track, is unrecognisably reimagined for voice; ditto for Kelis and Sparks. The four-part harmony has never been so front-and-centre, so full of its own self-confidence, and so appreciably better than its source material, that at first hearing one literally takes a second breath, deletes the memory of the originals, and starts afresh with that which is presented. Neither has there been such a definitively Wearside album – the accents are parodically strong, but that is not to say they are fake – there is a deep history of upbringing, of living the life of baby, child, teenager, and finally the release of adulthood in the sound of each voice of the four. Anyone who knows the men involved will recognise each voice as an individual; it’s probably better to let them all blend into one satisfying whole.

There is so much to digest here, it seems unfair to choose one song over another. But the star of the show is undoubtedly ‘Beeswing’, written by Richard Thompson and famously described in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as England’s finest electric guitarist. A heart of stone would surely melt on hearing this period tale of hard living, hard drinking, and hard loss; Thompson’s original is lethargic in comparison with the urgency and emotion with which the ‘Heads infuse this poignant tale of love in a world where one’s independence was all there was to live for.

The most intriguing aspect of this collection is that it is as if the Futureheads have discovered a new way in which to interpret songs; whether it be their own, other contemporaries, or traditional songs. In dispensing with any instrumentation, four men have delved into the soul of the pieces and emerged with a way of portraying them with their essence laid bare. In every case, the originals sound distant; their employment of instrumentation a distraction from the essential message of the piece. Why not just sing every song – whither the piano or guitar at all?

In any event, the traditional pieces have never sounded or been arranged better: for instance, their arrangement of ‘The Old Dun Cow’ (live gig video here) is an utter bawdy delight, showing an affiliation with the folk songs of the North East which cannot be faked or approximated. The salty sea shanty tang, the football chant, the chorus of drunks emerging from the pub on match day: this is the sound of Rant. At once humble and arrogant, vibrantly performed with the energy of men singing with purpose, and a genetic knowledge of that which they present. Faultless in choice of material, arrangement, and execution, ‘Rant’ is an instant modern classic.

9.5/10

‘Rant’, the new and unusual album from the Futureheads, is out today on the band’s own label Nul.

 

Album Review: Elvis Costello – The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook

 
By on Wednesday, 28th March 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

In a shrewd piece of either child psychology or ’70s snot faced rebellion, Costello advises his eagerly baying (as in ‘at the full moon’, everyone knows he knocks an album out a month) fans to go for something “by one of the most beautiful and loving revolutionaries who ever lived”.

And, who might this musician be? Does Elvis, the man with the perceptive skills of Randy Newman and the coherence of Van Morrison, see himself as finally crumbling under the weight of his own burdensome genius? Of course not; this is pub rock and the man he’s talking about is, bizarrely, Louis Armstrong. It may seem like a strange, even flawed marketing technique. But, for a CD, DVD, vinyl, book, poster and postcard, a price tag of £170 plus is enough to make you pull that “I’ve just done a slammer but forgot the tequila” face.

Then you notice there’s a copy of the album alone, the transcendent feature of this box set, and it’s yours for just £12.99. The tracks themselves are a mixed bag, with classic Costello hits such as ‘Lipstick Vogue’, ‘Watching the Detectives’ and ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding’, as well as more recent releases, b-sides and covers.

Like on the game show Wheel of Fortune, the album starts with an almighty din, before tailing off to sound more like a sarcastic clap. The first 3 tracks ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, ‘Heart of the City’ and ‘dad’s favorite’ ‘Mystery Dance’ go off with a tempo reminiscent of the Clash in the early days, and has that sort of manic folk rock drum beat heard on The Levellers’ eponymous release. Here, the organ takes precedence as the melodic lead over both the guitar and Costello’s own vocals.

Then we enter what can only be considered the holy quarter of the wheel. Whether intentional or not, ‘Every Day I Write the Book’ and ‘God Give Me Strength’ smack of god rock apathy and annihilate the gripping pace. ‘Watching the Detectives’ is given a raw two-tone edge, complete with extended dub breakdown, while ‘Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)’ featuring Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles turns out to be the album’s hidden gem. Lyrical and instrumental issues on ‘Out of Town’ and ‘I Want You’, respectively, cannot be ignored, but in ‘All Grown Up’ the vocal melody is more tangible and ‘Lipstick Vogue’ is effortless in its bombast.

‘The Spectacular Spinning Songbook’ has never been a tour in and of itself (it was incorporated in to the 1986 Costello Sings Again tour, before being repeated and recorded 25 years later on the Revolver tour) and is basically a glorified Wheel of Fortune spun to decide his set order. A bit like Russian roulette with a revolver that shoots ballads. It might, therefore, seem counterproductive to release a concrete CD/DVD/vinyl/binary version of something whose sole purpose is to create variation. Not so, as long as you are willing to fork out for the box set that includes a replica spinning wheel (available with all reputable Twister-style board games) or have figured out the shuffle function on iTunes.

5/10

Elvis Costello’s ‘The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook’ will be released 2nd of April on Commercial Marketing.

 

Album Review: The Static Jacks – If You’re Young

 
By on Wednesday, 21st March 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s frantic, it’s lively, it’s raucous and its lyrics sound like they’re being sung from a good distance away! It’s the Static Jacks with their debut album ‘If You’re Young’. Now if you’re late to the indie rock party, these guys are from Westfield, New Jersey, have been gigging since 2007, and are fronted by Ian Devaney a vocalist with a serious case of the ever so talenteds.

It seems it’s in vogue at the moment to have a frontman whose voice has that nice echoey touch, first White Lies, next the Vaccines, now the Static Jacks; it’s just nice that Devaney seems a little bit less miserable (!) The music is nothing particularly out of the ordinary; I mean it’s difficult for the first 6 or so songs to make any differentiation in pace, and we can all say a good album should just flow from song to song, but hey just throwing it out there, change of pace is good. Look up those guys Gorillaz, they do it pretty good yeah?

The opening of ‘Walls (We Can’t Work It Out) sounds pretty much identical to the Vaccines’ ‘Wreckin Ball (Ra-Ra)’s and goes on to underperform in the fact I was expecting something as good as what the Vaccines did. I was not satisfied in this way. The album does have its merits though, even though frontman Devaney begins to sound like Harry McVeigh ever more as the album goes on; on ‘Relief’ I am literally waiting for him to burst out with “You got blood on your hands/And I know it’s mine/I just need more time/So get off your low/ Let’s dance like we used to…”

It’s difficult to find anything special about these guys throughout the album, the choruses are to echoey and far off to be even the faintest bit catchy, while the songwriting is nothing short of, well, bog standard. ‘Blood Pressure’ is a rare gem among the field of mediocrity, whereas ‘This is Me Dancing’ sounds like a completely different band, with its honky tonk guitars and rolling drum beat.

Under the surface, the Static Jacks have got a nice little piece of indie pop, but nothing especially assured. I feel like these guys haven’t exactly found their sound yet. If they can replicate some of the promise of the second half of the album there is some promise for these New Jersey rockers. Maybe a leaf out of another NJ band’s book is needed, a spot of the Boss worked for the Gaslight Anthem maybe it could work for these boys. Worth a shot eh. Now, if only Glastonbury was on this year! SHUCKS!

6/10

‘If You’re Young’, the debut album from the Static Jacks, is available now.

 

Album Review: Dry the River – Shallow Bed

 
By on Thursday, 15th March 2012 at 4:30 pm
 

They say the most important element of a good comedy act is timing, the same thing can be said of a good album. Nowadays it’s commonplace for a band to come out all guns blazing and smash through an intro track, then the lead single, then a backup single, then seven tracks of filler material. After 12 minutes you’re left underwhelmed, bored and just wishing the LP would hurry up and get back to the ‘good bits’. But just as good comedians are rare but worth waiting for, as are records.

London-based quintet Dry the River have released their debut album that isn’t in a rush to get anywhere. Yes, there’s a climax and a fantastic story is told throughout, but it’s not a mad rush of clanging and strumming to showcase just how catchy they can be. The love story told during the 50 minutes of ‘Shallow Bed’ is much more engaging than anything the radio fodder guitar bands have released in years.

The sound is one of serenity and passion that lends itself to frontman Peter Liddle’s tale of happiness, heartbreak and hope. Starting with ‘Animal Skins’, Liddle’s beautiful falsetto voice lends itself perfectly to the whimsical, floaty nature of Dry The River’s inherently calm music. But as the record progresses Liddle’s lyrics become the focal point that really elevate them above their peers. Descriptions of “dancing to the shipping forecast” with his partner conjure images of adoration and the unmitigated devotion he feels.

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Musically the band create monumental soundscapes that are truly impressive. The blend of guitars, drums, a violin and Liddle’s unmatched vocal ability are responsible for a stadium-sized sound that doesn’t sprint to the finish line but takes in its surroundings and gives its all for the full marathon. The huge swelling choruses of ‘Shield Your Eyes’ and ‘The Chambers and the Valves’ (previous Video of the Moment here) stand out against the usual indie-rock twaddle, and ‘Demons’ is so wonderfully hypnotic with its choir-like vocals that you struggle not to get sucked into the love story unfolding before your ears.

The story takes a downward turn, though, toward the end shortly after lead single ‘No Rest’ in which Liddle emotionally declares he “loved you in the best way possible”. Despite it becoming increasingly clear the previous songs of finding love are going to crumble, the sound is oddly uplifting. ‘Weights and Measures’ is the epitome of the break up as he finally admits its gone, even though he was “prepared to love you, I never expected anything of you”. Whether you’re currently single or in a relationship, this song will undoubtedly remind you of someone you are/were close to – and that’s the point of the album. Although on the surface it’s just one man’s struggle with his feelings, it’s something everyone can relate to. Whether it’s one who got away at school or even a messy divorce, the idea of love is so universal that it can be felt by everyone for anyone and music written about this ideal of unimaginable compassion is for everyone.

9/10

Dry the River’s debut album ‘Shallow Bed’ is available now from RCA.

 
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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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