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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.

 

Album Review: Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart

 
By on Wednesday, 17th April 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Frank Turner Tape Deck Heart coverI happened upon Frank Turner’s music when I had an opening in my “musical obsessions” dancecard. His fervor, stories, and musical ethos grabbed me at once. It dripped through every note of 2011’s ‘England Keep My Bones’ and I quickly became immersed. I saw him and the Sleeping Souls play nine times in the 12 months that followed. So what about this new album, would it do the same for me?

Next week, Turner releases ‘Tape Deck Heart’, a self-professed ‘break-up album’ and fifth studio offering. It seems uncanny that this particular album would come into my life at the precise moment when I am also navigating a situation where something I thought would be permanent turned out not to be so. I have recently experienced the most bizarre combination of love and loss, of leaving and being left that isn’t often found together. Approaching this record from both sides of the relationship coin simultaneously was quite an emotional upheaval. How do you feel bad about leaving when you were left so long ago? How do you deal with the relationship that went out with the proverbial whimper? How do you get over it and back to the person you are supposed to be? Turner tells us how he’s doing it throughout the tunes on this disc. However, despite what I’ve taken away from it personally, I believe the overarching theme to be change, not loss, as I had expected. This element of change is what holds the album together. Relationships dissolve, one gets older, and people don’t always do what you want them to. But in the end, if you embrace change, you can make it.

Opening tune ‘Recovery’ indicates that while there is a light at the end of the tunnel; it’s not an easy task getting there and sadness is always waiting at the edges: “It’s a long road up to recovery from here / a long way back to the light / A long road up to recovery from here / a long way to making it right”. It starts our descent into the self-introspection of the album. With Turner despairing that he will never realise his full potential or find lasting love, the first half of the album spirals into doubt and darkness. But the man is clever about it, referencing a French film and another of his songs in ‘Plain Sailing Weather’. Next single ‘The Way I Tend to Be’ contains one of the most poignant messages of the album, that love can save you, but only if you are careful with it. Turner disciples will be pleased to learn that the ‘Amy Trilogy’ finally concludes in ‘Telltale Signs’. He’s said that ‘Amy’ is an amalgam of people from whom he’s tried to extricate himself. With this installment, he is finally putting that bit of him to rest. ‘Anymore’ may be the most painfully honest song ever written about the slow demise of an unnurtured relationship: “Not with a bang but with a whimper / It wasn’t hard, it was kind of simple / Three short steps from your bed to your door/ Darling I can’t look you in the eyes now and tell you I’m sure / If I love you anymore”.

The album isn’t bereft of the feel good bounce that permeates Turner’s work though. Musically, it’s got quite a lot that’s bright and cheerful with upbeat music and a prevalent mandolin, so a casual listen will prevent the depression I found in many of the lyrics. Halfway through the album ‘Four Simple Words’, familiar to anyone who’s seen him live in the last year, bursts through the melancholy to spur a frenzied riff through the joys of being at a live gig.

Closing the album is Turner’s most musically experimental song thus far, ‘Broken Piano’. Identified in an interview as the song he’s most proud of, it pulls the drone from the end of ‘Oh Brother’, as Turner starts his vocal line above this hum. Carefully twining his voice with the titular piano, it drifts into a decidedly traditional English folk song feel that then has the drums cascade over the whole thing. It’s this insistent thudding that carries the last half a minute as the album closes with a sense of accomplishment if not necessarily joy.

Is anything missing from ‘Tape Deck Heart’? Heartbreak? Check. Buddy song? Yup. Lament to self-destruction? OK. Rousing punk ode? Got it. Wait – where’s the history song? ‘History is important’ Mr. Turner, remember? There is no English history lesson and I miss that. Next time, OK? This album drips with melancholy and there will surely be peripheral fans who won’t enjoy it. I do wonder what kind of new fans this album will draw. If ‘Tape Deck Heart’ had been my entry into Turner’s world, I may not have jumped in so heartily. But for those of us already enamoured, devoted, besmitten by the ‘skinny half-arsed English country singer’, there is all the more to burying him deeper into our souls.

9/10

‘Tape Deck Heart’ will be released on the 22nd of April from Xtra Mile Recordings in the UK and the next day most everywhere else.

 

Album Review: OMD – English Electric

 
By on Monday, 15th April 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

OMD English Electric coverOMD‘s triumphant return to popular music after 14 years was marked 3 years ago with 2010’s ‘History of Modern’, marked by the excellent and melodically memorable ‘New Babies, New Toys’ and ‘Sister Marie Says’. In 2013, they try their hand again with their latest LP, called ‘English Electric’. It’s an interesting and cheeky title to say the least: while NME rails on in search of the next “great British guitar band” as if to completely ignore the shift towards electronic and all the New Wave loving that has happened in recent years, the arrival of OMD’s new baby seems to herald a new age of embracing synthesisers, sequencers, the whole lot all over again. Or not?

I have always been one to be critical of the opening track of an album. Regardless of what iTunes’ agenda is, to me, the opening track sets the stage for what comes after and can be a good of a barometer as any as to how the party ahead will unfold. So if you groan as you queue up ‘Please Remain Seated’, don’t panic, you’re not the only one. There is a series of tone that are not unlike the tones you hear when the doors close on the Metro (the DC version of the tube). The first voice you hear is of a Chinese woman’s, and upon first listen, I thought, ok, something about a departing plane…surely there’s got to be more to that? I even had my other mother sit down with it to see if I’d missed anything. No, the journey is set to depart from Shanghai to Macau at a certain time… Nothing exciting there. Then there’s another, Western voice, though robotic, is clear enough for you to glean “the future that you have anticipated has been cancelled. Please remain seated and wait for further instructions”. Okay, that’s just creepy. (And later into the album, you get other weird moments with ‘Decimal’ and ‘Atomic Ranch’…)

Having been sufficiently creeped out by your introduction, you’re led into ‘Metroland’, punctuated by plinky plonky notes. The best thing about this song is Andy McCluskey’s voice, yearning in its earnestness, but not even he can really save this song. ‘Night Cafe’ suffers the same fate. The experimental ‘The Future Will Be Silent’ will excite those with less conventional tastes, with its unusual buzzings and what sounds like voices being pulled around tight corners like taffy. I think it sounds absolutely dotty. ‘Kissing the Machine’ has an affable melody you can hum to all right, but substantial it is not.

Then it all comes down to ‘Stay with Me’ to save the day. I remember reading years ago on the internet, with much interest, that it was the American market that grabbed onto the ‘If You Leave’ with its collective teeth and would not let go, pretty much ignoring the rest of OMD’s later catalogue. If that is still the case, then the Americans – and people around the world – are going to grab hold of this song this time around. With wistful lyrics (“only I’m the one to stop them falling / falling down like rain / if only I could stop those tears that knock you down again”) with a melody that is instantly recognisable, it’s the 2013 version of ‘If You Leave’ that will no doubt leave couples swaying in time at their upcoming UK shows. Mark my words.

Next track ‘Dresden’ finally speeds things up, thank goodness, and just about time. However, I don’t think is has anything to do with the German city. I don’t know about you, but when I think of synthesisers, and I think about dancing, and otherwise, ‘English Electric’ is just not the kind of album you take onto the dance floor with you. It’ s just…not. But you can count on this one being on the list being played at live shows this year. It’s the up tempo version of OMD most people love and remember.

Other moments on this album are so-so. ‘Helen of Troy’ is the ‘English Electric ‘version Joan of Arc’, going backwards in time to take the story of a courageous young woman of days gone by and paying tribute to her: “because I cannot cry / ever again”. ‘Our System’ gets points for unconventional song structure: beginning with post-industrial buzzing, it somehow ends up with an uplifting chorus…before it returns from whence it came, the whistlings of electronics.

Most confusing of all though is probably ‘Final Song’, which of course comes at the end. It has a weird ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ rhumba vibe to it, and womens’ gasps and operatic notes. Not exactly what springs to mind when you read ‘English Electric’. The lack of linearity of this album, coupled with seriously odd moments, makes this album a challenging one, even for those of us who are more likely to hug a Korg than a tree. I like Kraftwerk and Paul Humphreys makes the point in the video below that the album was made to sound “Kraftwerk-ian”, but I can’t relate. Maybe I’ll have a change of heart when I see them in Gateshead in May?

6/10

‘English Electric’, the new album from OMD, is out now on 100%. Watch the videos for ‘Metroland’ and ‘Decimal’ on this previous Video(s) of the Moment post. A video of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys explaining the album can be watched below. OMD begin a UK tour at the end of this month, starting on the 28th of April in Margate.

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Album Review: Various artists – The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver

 
By on Wednesday, 27th March 2013 at 2:17 pm
 

I grew up rural. I recently had to admit that. I have no idea why it took me so long to admit it, but I did. The evidence was there all along – my town had no gas stations or stop lights, a whiff of fresh cow manure and straw made me think of ice cream (we went to the farm to get our ice cream…) and my school was a conglomerate of eight towns. I think it was because I lived “on the town square” that I could maintain the notion that I wasn’t a country girl. Gee, the simple fact that we *had* a town square should have been a tip-off!

As a part of any good non-urban family, I grew up listening to John Denver with my parents. We didn’t live in the West Virginia of ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’, but my part of Pennsylvania was still the same kind of coal country found there. And John Denver wasn’t the kind of ‘country’ music that I professed not to like. So I looked with interested at the new John Denver tribute project ‘The Music is You’.

I’ll be honest, the first listen didn’t leave a favorable impression with me. It all sounds so foreign to the simple lilt of Denver’s music. But after a couple of listens I relented a little. Wasn’t the point of a tribute album to put your own personal twist on an artist, not to sound like them? The other interesting thing was that I was familiar with every single contributing artist except Kathleen Edwards, a Canadian songstress who was completely not on my radar at all. There were even a couple of tracks that maintained a familiar take on the tune as well, like ‘Sunshine on My Shoulder’ and ‘Back Home Again’. My favorite track on the album was covered by Northern California’s Brent Dennen and Belgian singer Milow. ‘Annie’s Song’ was treated very much like JD’s original version, but with the added joy of a ukulele.

What song would I have liked to have been included? ‘Calypso’ is a very non-country roads/tall mountains kind of tune, but I loved that one. And the song that made me smile the most? ‘The Eagle and the Hawk’ not because of Blind Pilot but because of the intensely powerful memory it elicits of my sisters spontaneously breaking out in this song at Bandolier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico on our very last ‘family trip’ before us three girls got married. “I am the eagle, I live in high country / in rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky”, I can hear it still.

I now live outside of Washington, DC, a big city. Do I like it? Yeah, I do. Am I a country girl who wants to be taken back to those roads? No, I really don’t. I’ll still listen to some old John Denver and smile, but keep me close to the music clubs I haunt now and I’ll be much happier. I am *not* rural anymore.

7.5/10

‘The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver’ will be released on 1 April on Sony Music CMG in the UK and 2 April on ATO Records everywhere else. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Wilderness Society in Denver’s name. You can get a first listen to this album on NPR here.

 

Album Review: Daughter – If You Leave

 
By on Wednesday, 20th March 2013 at 2:08 pm
 

Daughter If You Leave coverThe former solo project of Elena Tonra, London trio Daughter have released their first full length ‘If You Leave’ on 4AD. Ten tracks of pure gorgeousness, ‘If You Leave’ is reminiscent of the EPs that came before it, but shows a development and sophistication that only comes from working hard and finding your voice. While Tonra was stellar as a singer on her own, the advent of Daughter as a band was a move that cemented the unique and lustrous sound.

I hate to compare Tonra’s voice to Florence Welch, but it’s there, pre-‘Ceremonials’ when Welch was more about the music and less about the power and production. A better comparison would be to replace the electronics from Sia, take away the little girl quality from Regina Spektor, add the evocative lyricism of Evanescence’s Amy Lee and then you would have an idea of Daughter’s sound. They maintain a decidedly delicate tone. Solidly indie, it never veers close enough to singer/songwriter, alt-folk or girl rock for me to give it any of those labels. The folk references might come from an eerie similarity to long ago Suzanne Vega. Perhaps that would be true if Daughter were still a solo effort, but guitarist Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella create such a soundscape behind Tonra’s ethereal vocals that it deviates into mysticism rather than folk.

The album opens with positively haunting vocals layering and entwining with the peal of the guitar in the smashing tune ‘Winter’. Replete with the longing of loss, this track sets the tone for the rest of the sparse beauty woven throughout the album. One of the best tracks found on the earlier EPs has thankfully been included on this album. ‘Youth’ is a perfect storm of songwriting, soaring instrumentation and beauty. Despite her youth (yes, pun intended), the maturity of Tonra’s lyrics belies her age: “And if you’re still bleeding, you’re the lucky ones / ’cause most of our feelings, they are dead and they are gone / we’re setting fire to our insides for fun / collecting pictures from the flood that wrecked our home / it was a flood that wrecked this home”.

Simplicity wins out on this album; every track title is a single word. That is not to say that this is a simple album though; it has depth and complexity. I could listen to this album over and over, in fact I have, the EPs too. I think it not only stands up to repeated listening, it builds with each listen. The guitar is delicate, understated, the drumming insistent and evocative, the voice is smooth and layered. With not too much going on at once, you can really hear what they were doing with each layer, flowing and swirling and never, never boring. The build it gives you is satisfying, especially in ‘Human’, the slightly more upbeat track on the album.

This is an absolute stunner of an album. Do yourself a favour and get a hold of it soon. Daughter’s star is on the rise, even the pop luminary Katy Perry recently Tweeted about their music. This spring has Daughter touring Europe and North America, but they’ll be back on home soil for a few quick dates in April; see dates below.

9/10

Daughter’s debut effort ‘If You Leave’ is now out on 4AD.

Monday 22nd April 2013 – Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
Tuesday 23rd April 2013 – Oxford Town Hall
Wednesday 24th April 2013 – Bournemouth Old Fire Station

 
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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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