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By this point in his career, Benjamin Gibbard can effectively be called indie-royalty. Having led Death Cab for Cutie out of obscurity on the West Coast of America with a series of fairly alright records, Gibbard really got his break during the hugely acclaimed ‘Transatlanticism’ era. Not only did it see Gibbard and co appear on The OC, but it saw them make a huge step-up in audience. From there, it’s been an enjoyable and successful career in music. Even his side project the Postal Service has seen its Sub-Pop release break the platinum mark. So it’s rather surprising to see him make a solo record.
This then, is the Ben Gibbard side story. The one not reflected in the moods of his other endeavours and one that we’re asked that, even given his recent lack of colour, that ‘Former Lives’ will fill in the gaps with vibrancy and understanding. This promise starts well as the scene is set in a raining west-London as Gibbard, accompanied by himself a capella sings the romanticisms of a lonely evening before the album sets its scene in ‘Dream Song’. Written in third person, you wonder what the point really is, but it’s entertaining enough with the simplistic chords and rhymes as you would expect of a slightly folksier attempt at a solo record. It breaks into ‘Teardrop Windows’, a similar track only instead of being entirely about its writer, becomes an ode to The Smith in Seattle. It makes for another listenable track.
Yet three songs in, you’re already starting to get bored. It’s his own fault as well. In writing this record, Gibbard is hardly departing from his own outfit like Kele did with Bloc Party, he’s not in between acts like Conor Oberst and he’s certainly not branching out like Jack White. In making ‘Former Lives’, Gibbard is simply pointing us in the directions he almost went and didn’t. Whilst ‘Bigger than Love’ has the pulsating drums and guitars of an Arcade Fire hit, the story lacks in your ability to empathise with him. And even the centrepiece of the record, ‘Something’s Rattling’ lacks in anything hugely bold aside from a brief spell of mariachi.
The further into this record you delve, the more of a formality it becomes. ‘Duncan, Where Have You Gone’ has supposedly been a work in progress for a long time; but released today it sounds lost somewhere very close to Blur’s ‘Under the Westway’. (It’s even set in London.) I’d argue that if ‘Hard One to Know’ was placed second in the record, you’d be far more intrigued and who knows? The rest may sound more interesting but again, it’s a mere formality to a man you’d expect far better than a plainly listenable record from. Maybe that’s the problem, we’ll never know.
‘Former Lives’, the debut album from Death Cab for Cutie frontman Benjamin Gibbard, is out now on City Slang. The singer/songwriter will play at London Union Chapel on the 3rd of December.
I wrote a little piece about this band Shields from Newcastle a while back, backing them for big things in the future. Saying for sure that they were a band to watch over the next few months/years. Now here I am just a few months later reviewing their debut EP ‘Kaleidoscope’, a sampling of the band at their best, producing some quality work. But while my introduction to the band focussed on the fact that they were the best thing to come out of Newcastle, since everyone’s favourite goalsnatcher and TV pundit Alan Shearer. This time around it’s all about the music, as that is really what does the talking on this record. The opening track ‘Mezzanine’, well, what can I say…
It has all has all the elements of a synthpop hit. The bass is full of vigour and bounce and has the feel of a late 80s disco combined with the infectious enthusiasm of The Go Team! It’s a fantastic way to start the record and is a clear indicator of what this band is about. Sexy, fun pop music that draws a smile on your face whether you are in the mood or not, now that’s an enticing, eh? Things are slowed down a tiny bit and the percussion takes over on ‘Miserly’, with a couple of ooooooooohs and ahhhhhhhhs thrown in there for good measure. The highlights of this song though are the jingling guitars and synths that soar over the engine room of the band.
Then right away on ‘Turning Corners’, the EP ‘Kaleidoscope’ gets a bit folky and finds some segment of classic song structure. The piano’s underwriting the melody are easily my favourite piece of this song. With the subtle bass rolling in the background as the song grows into the pulsing synthpop hit it’s destined to be. Proceedings are stripped down ever so slightly for the beginning of ‘Silhouette’ before the entire band chime in with a banging bit of percussion and some seriously math-rockesque riffs that even Foals would be proud of. Their cover of SBTRKT’s ‘Pharaoh’ (video here is definitely worth a listen, even if it is just for the fact that they’ve gone in a great new direction of the track which will have SBTRKT fans scratching their heads for sure. It’s a bold effort though.
The band are clearly quite happy with the niche that they’ve found and each song on the EP stands out well as ever, it’s just whether in the age of consistent synth pop releases bludgeoning the airwaves, will Shields get noticed by the mainstream populous, or forgotten before they even have a chance. I for one hope not, as ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a right laugh to listen too and should be a staple of any indie DJ.
You heard me, Propaganda.
Listen to and download ‘Mezzanine’ below; the ‘Kaleidoscope’ EP by Shields in its entirety was released yesterday and can be downloaded for free from the band’s official Web site.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 19th November 2012 at 12:00 pm
Words by guest reviewer Carrie Clancy
I’m not into dance / club / electro / techno / hip hop / dubstep music. When my Twitter feed started buzzing about Example‘s new album, I stifled a yawn and scrolled down the page. But when I spied a Tweet from someone whose musical opinions I respect, about the album’s first single, ‘Say Nothing’ I narrowed my eyes and clicked the accompanying link. And…the single wasn’t bad. On subsequent listens, I quite liked it. I was disappointed that ‘Say Nothing’ wasn’t available for purchase in America, so I decided to seek out more information on the album proper. Thus began my virgin foray into the world of dance / club / electro / techno / hip-hop / dubstep / whatevs… via ‘The Evolution of Man’, out today on Ministry of Sound.
Except this album isn’t dance / club / electro / techno / hip-hop / dubstep. It’s a pop/rock album with a very definite electro-dance slant. In fact, the album leans more heavily toward guitar rock than I expected, with Blur’s Graham Coxon contributing guitar work to four tracks. With massive production by several well-known electronic music specialists (Feed Me, Dirty South, Tommy Trash, Skream, Benga), the dance element is still strongly present. The resulting album has a fresh, edgy sound sure to grab the attention of critics and fans alike.
I caught myself dancing along to the heavy beats, at first reluctantly but more willingly as the album went on. Example’s singing voice is pleasantly clear and melodic, with a very sexy timbre in the low register. The choruses are sharp and clever, even on the occasions when eloquence is sacrificed for the rhyme scheme. Thematically, these are mature, self-reflective songs with provocatively witty lyrics. Example and his team of musicians show admirable restraint in not obliterating the songs’ emotional effects with a battering ram of sound.
The first three singles are definite highlights on the album. Anyone familiar with Johnny McDaid’s work (Snow Patrol, Paul Van Dyk, Vega 4), will recognize his stamp on the lovelorn lyrics of ‘Say Nothing’. ‘Close Enemies’ (video below), the album’s second single, is possibly my favorite track, with its infectiously singable and danceable chorus, “keep your best friends close by / but keep your enemies closer”. Third single ‘Perfect Replacement’ is the most heavily dance-oriented track on the album.
The track sequencing is seamlessly effective from beginning to end. ‘Come Taste the Rainbow’ has a sultry, sexy chorus and uses the eponymous lyric without becoming childish or vulgar (or both). Penultimate track ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ is the most in-your-face, aggressive rock song on the album, and is probably deliberately situated next to the familiar dance sound of ‘We’ll Be Coming Back’ (by Calvin Harris and Example).
In summary, I was completely awestruck by this album; it blew away any preconceived notions I might have had. As a self-confessed music snob, I feel a bit guilty about enjoying it, but I also have the feeling that was Example’s intention. ‘The Evolution of Man’ is the most apt title I’ve ever encountered, for here, Example has undertaken the kind of artistic change-in-direction that may alienate old fans but will certainly reap new ones.
‘The Evolution of Man’, the new album from Example, is now available on Ministry of Sound. He will head out on a massive arena tour of the UK in February and March 2013; all the details are here.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 14th November 2012 at 12:00 pm
Like The Beatles, Alan R. Davison gets by with a little help from his friends. His debut album, ‘The White Eagle Lounge’, features 36 players, according to Davison’s Web site. Some of the guest musicians are well-known names, including Rick McMurray from Ash and Nathan Connolly and Tom Simpson from Snow Patrol, but most of them are independent musicians from the Edinburgh area where Davison is based.
In comparison to more familiar Scottish acts, ‘The White Eagle Lounge’ is more Belle and Sebastian than Frightened Rabbit. Despite references to dark, cold Scottish winters, the music itself is generally bright and warm. Davison’s light singing voice and his casual, conversational singing style make an appealing combination. The instrumentation is interesting throughout the album, with gently ringing percussion, lilting string and brass arrangements, and unobtrusive backing vocals strategically used to enhance the songs without overwhelming them.
The choruses and driving rhythms in the songs are catchy, and the melodies are charming singalongs. Davison is adventurous with his vocal and instrumental arrangements, but somewhat less adventurous with his lyrics. His themes include love, regret and reflections on childhood. The lyrics are a bit trite, but they are saved from banality by a few fortunate and unique turns-of-phrase, particularly in ‘Phone Calls and Favourite Things’ and ‘I Bought a Car’.
Davison experiments with a touch of electronic sound on two tracks, ‘You Were Right’ and ‘There’s Something on the Surface’. In the case of ‘There’s Something on the Surface’, the album’s final track, Davison shows a struggling songwriter’s plea for understanding, with lyrics such as, “all I ever asked for/was the chance to sing/to play my heart out to you all/despite everything.” While the electronic rhythmic effects maintain the forward momentum of the song, the lyrics lack the conviction to get beyond their own surface.
In contrast, ‘You Were Right’ employs the subtle electro effects to greater emotional effect. Davison’s sweet, heartfelt vocals match up perfectly with the depth of the guitars and keyboards, and the shimmering electronic sounds add poignancy to the simple but highly melodic chorus: “you were right / about everything you told me / last night/ it seems so simple here and now / in the daylight.”
Indeed, the real beauty in ‘The White Eagle Lounge’ lies in the middle of the album, with a surprisingly diverse and enchanting series of songs, starting with ‘You Were Right’. ‘John the Burglar’ begins as a storytelling ballad, but has an almost stream-of-consciousness feel. Its gently rocking triple meter and virtuosic piano part are definite highlights. Among the purely pretty moments on the album are ‘We Tied The Knot’, a sunny, waltz-tempo allusion to traditional wedding song, and the more melancholy ‘When We Were Small’.
My lasting impression of ‘The White Eagle Lounge’ is its sense of sonic exploration through collaboration. Davison’s willingness to experiment with instrumentation and vocal arranging, to include employing a slew of guest musicians, doesn’t override his keen musicianship or the solo nature of his work.
Alan R. Davison’s debut album ‘The Eagle White Lounge’ is available now from EmuBands.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 7th November 2012 at 12:00 pm
Words by guest reviewer Sara Oswald
Nineteen years ago, I had my first brush with the band that would transform my teen years. As a precocious (and voracious) music listener, I attended my first record fair at the age of 13. Picking up an issue of Q magazine with U2 circa the Zoo TV tour on the cover, I mindlessly flipped through the pages until I found something that caught my attention: a full-page advertisement, splashed entirely with a garishly pink joke of flesh tone. The only information given were the words ‘Manic Street Preachers’ written along the top in a typeface reminiscent of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ ‘Use Your Illusion’ album, and a floral tattoo with the banner declaring, “Generation Terrorists”.
At the time, I had no idea that this single-page advert would send me down a path fraught with near-daily trips to the post office so that I could mail letters to fellow fans of the Manics, most often with addresses found in the back of zines with names such as “Last Exit” and “Assassinated Beauty”. So much money was spent on import copies of British music weeklies that my newsstand came to know me by first name, with my packages of weeks-old NME and Melody Maker wrapped up and waiting for me to pick up. And of course, the growing stacks of CDs, cassettes, and limited edition records, all starting with this one ad for an album that isn’t even considered the best release by the band or most of their fans.
Yet ‘Generation Terrorists’ remains the definitive blueprint that Manic Street Preachers would follow throughout their history. For all its awkward, self-conscious punk-glam riffing, there remains a spirit of brazen intelligence that continues to define the band. This is the album you play when you want to confuse your musically pretentious friends. Even lesser songs like ‘Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll’, which could be mistaken for an L.A. Guns cast-off, have lyrics like “The past is so beautiful/ The future like a corpse in snow”. This is not Bon Jovi, nor is it Nirvana. ‘Generation Terrorists’ may be one of the most overstuffed debuts by any group in the last 50 years (originally 18 tracks, now 19 tracks with the reissue), but consider that this album was meant to be the only release by Manic Street Preachers. This is what an album sounds like when a band believes they only have one chance to declare everything that means anything to them.
So what does this album have to say, then? The inconsistencies between the music and lyrics are not a mistake. The politics of songs like ‘NatWest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds’ are comfortably delivered in a rock anthem with a surprisingly catchy chorus. ‘Little Baby Nothing’ starts off as a conventional glam metal ballad and surprises with a fairly conventional pop duet between James Dean Bradfield and porn legend Traci Lords, only this is not a love song, but an examination of gender politics and the sexual exploitation of women. This is also the sixth single taken from ‘Generation Terrorists’. The subject matter of these songs are Crass territory, and certainly not ‘normal’ for any major label band, especially in the cultural wasteland of the early 1990s. By wrapping ideology in a publicly acceptable musical package, ‘Generation Terrorists’ duped more listeners into contemplating avant-garde political topics better than any college protest.
But all this political philosophy doesn’t mean that ‘Generation Terrorists’ isn’t fun. This may be an overly ambitious, sometimes crudely crafted album but it still inspires some raging sing-alongs. The definitive Manic Street Preachers manifesto ‘You Love Us’ is a derisive face-slap to the establishment:
We won’t die of devotion
Understand we can never belong
Throw some acid into your face
Pollute your mineral water with a strychnine taste
This song ends with a ridiculously over-the-top guitar solo that inspires even the most staid listener to smile. Whether the smile is sarcastic or approving does not matter; you just listened to a song that blatantly tells you that your approval is not important, and that this band will do as they please.
Unfortunately, ‘Generation Terrorists’ is a debut that would not be released by any major label today. This album was an anomaly when first released in 1992, and 20 years on, it appears that ‘popular’ music has become somehow more homogenised than ever. As a fan now in her early thirties rather than early teens, I find myself pulling out other Manics albums to listen to before this one. However, I am thankful that ‘Generation Terrorists’ continues to remain popular enough to receive a 20th anniversary re-issue. ‘Generation Terrorists’ is the sort of album that can ideologically change someone’s life. Or you can just listen to it straight through and find yourself playing air guitar. Whatever you get out of this album is up to you. Just remember the proclamation of ‘Stay Beautiful’: “Now you say you know how we feel / But don’t fall in love ‘cause we hate you still.”
The 20th anniversary reissue of ‘Generation Terrorists’ by Manic Street Preachers, with bonus track ‘Suicide is Painless’, is out now on Sony. Formats available include a one CD anniversary edition, a 2 CDs and DVD version of legacy edition, a limited edition collector’s edition with 3 CDs, a DVD, book and 10″ vinyl, a 12″ 180 g double vinyl gatefold LP and of course, the ever modern download version.
The fabulous three-piece Fink have released a live album entitled ‘Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet’. Referencing a life changing moment from their song ‘Wheels’, this collection ably captures the undulating, moving, live Fink experience. Recorded at various magnificent venues like Amsterdam’s Paradiso and London’s Union Chapel, the songs span Fink’s career. With thirteen tracks, this album is packed with the best Fink has to offer. Since it is from the current tour, half of the tunes are from the most recent album ‘Perfect Darkness’, but starting off with ‘Biscuits’ from the first album, Fin Greenall, Tim Thornton and Guy Whittaker let you know they have no intention of ignoring their roots.
Having just seen Fink play live, I can attest to the authenticity of the album. Greenall and company can take these works and elevate them so that they soar without the production that surely goes into a studio effort. An absolute revelation occurred for me during ‘Sort of Revolution’. There have been times before when seeing a truly inspired live performance caused perfect clarity regarding a certain musical performance style; for example, purposely creating feedback or live looping. It was just such clarity that was afforded me on this track. But this time it was ‘playing the pedals’. The end of this track is a genius tour de force of pedal manipulation that makes it all make sense.
There are a few times when I think the original recordings shine a bit brighter than the live versions. Perhaps because it is my #1 favorite Fink song, ‘Perfect Darkness’, is a song that hits much deeper in the studio version for me. I can’t quite reconcile the deep, oozing sensuality of the song with the rather spare treatment it gets live. But the clarity in songs like ‘This is the Thing’ and ‘Warm Shadow’ shine through live in magnificent form.
However, the fundamental feelings I have about Fink’s music still hold true. The music, lead singer Greenall’s voice, and the lyrics can best be described as sex, whiskey and smoke – but slow, meaningful sex, single malt, Islay whiskey and deep, flavourful pipe smoke. This is not your average drunken encounter with a fag hanging from your lips. If you have not had the pleasure of delving into this rich, weighty music, please take a listen to this live album. It very well may inspire you to take a look at their other stuff. Because quite frankly, Barry White will have no place in your life after you listen to Fink.
‘Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet’, the new live album from Fink, is available now on Ninja Tune.