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Album Review: Catfish and the Bottlemen – The Balcony

 
By on Thursday, 2nd October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

While Arctic Monkeys are busy both seducing and being seduced by America, and psychedelia is experiencing a powerful revival, the mainstream British guitar band format is arguably languishing (the efforts of a ragtag bunch of Britpop has-beens aside). Step forward Catfish and the Bottlemen, a vaguely Welsh group who specialise in big, guitar-y choruses and the occasional swear word. Considering they’ve been together for years, plugging away with local gigs whilst subsisting on nothing but dole money and dreams of stardom, the past few months must represent an unparalleled whirlwind of activity for Catfish and the Bottlemen. It all comes to a head with the release of their début album, ‘The Balcony.’

The last year or so has seen them release no less than six singles, first on the Communion label and then on Island records, which means ‘The Balcony’ is less album, more greatest hits collection of the band’s short career so far. Album tracks are outnumbered by single releases, which means it takes until track six before a previously unheard song makes an appearance. ‘Homesick’, ‘Kathleen’, ‘Cocoon’, ‘Pacifier’, ‘Rango’ and ‘Fallout’ will already be known to keen Catfish followers, and to this reviewer’s ears ‘Sidewinder’ sounds familiar, too. So the question is, by collecting their singles together and throwing in some B-sides, does ‘The Balcony’ add up to a more coherent release than the singles taken alone?

Sadly, not quite. Despite how appealing the occasional guilty pleasure of 3 minutes of chewy pop-rock is, trying to digest 11 such morsels in one sitting serves to highlight the genre’s inherent one-note dynamic. It’s a single paradigm – crunchy guitars, classically gritty British frontman vocals, big drums, loads of lead guitar flying over the top – and every song bar one is constructed from the same ingredients. Which is not to say there aren’t individual exciting moments here – McCann does have a genuine talent for delivering a hook-laden lead vocal, as heard particularly on ‘Kathleen’, and an everyman way with lyrics, generally concerning slightly tawdry, drunken liasons with the fairer sex (on ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Business’, for example), enlivened by the liberal use of F-bombs.

After the singles have come and gone, the mid-album ‘Hourglass’ starts acoustically, showcasing McCann’s ability to deliver a folky vocal style, his chugging rhythm guitar style, and fondness for swearing, and contributes a welcome, if modest, respite from the previous five songs’ walls of overdriven electric guitars. But after that it’s literally ‘Business’ as usual, as the overdrive pedals get stomped on, with five more big-hitters to come before the end. Subtle it’s not; effective – at least in the sense of getting people excited and jumping around – it certainly is.

None of these songs are likely to change anyone’s life or appear in a Desert Island Discs top 10. But what they do have the power to do is put a big, fat grin on one’s face for half an hour or so, particularly if they’re played loud and accompanied by a paper cup of slopping lager. Unlike sniffy, jaded reviewers, subtlety and complexity are clearly unimportant to a big chunk of the record-buying public. Big riffs and infectious enthusiasm go a long way, and with their first post-album tour sold out across the country (a tribute to the boisterous and powerful Catfish live show, the energy of which isn’t quite captured here), there’s no doubt that Catfish and the Bottlemen are one of the big cheeses of British guitar music right now. All they need to prove it is an offshore bank account.

6.5/10

‘The Balcony’, Catfish and the Bottlemen‘s debut album on Communion / Island Records, is available now. They are on tour in October and November 2014, as well as in March and April 2015 as recently announced.

 

Album Review: Foy Vance – Feel for Me EP

 
By on Tuesday, 30th September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Irish singer/songwriter Foy Vance’s latest EP release, ‘Feel for Me’, was timed to coincide with his appearance at the iTunes Festival on Monday the 29th of September, where he played support for his friend and musical collaborator Ed Sheeran. Vance contributed backing vocals and songwriting assistance to Sheeran’s recent album ‘X’, and Sheeran appeared on Vance’s 2013 album ‘Joy of Nothing’, from which the track ‘Feel for Me’ is taken. Sheeran says of Vance, “Every time I see Foy play, I get annoyed more people don’t know about him…inspiration just comes being in a room and guitar-jamming with him, songs just come out”.

Unfortunately, despite Sheeran’s ardent support, Vance’s new EP seems somewhat uninspired. It begins with radio edits of album tracks ‘Feel for Me’ and ‘Guiding Light’, neither of which is radically different from the previous recordings. The eponymous opening track on the EP has a fuller, warmer acoustic sound that feels much more natural for Vance than the slightly sterile production of its album counterpart. While I enjoyed the subtle changes to ‘Feel for Me’, I was a bit perplexed by ‘Guiding Light’. Often presented as Vance’s curtain call in live performance, the song is offered here without the cameo vocal appearance provided by Sheeran both on tour and on the full ‘Joy of Nothing’ LP. I can’t quite shake the odd feeling that the solo version presented on the EP would have worked better on the full album, and vice versa. The novelty of Sheeran’s duet felt a bit like a publicity stunt on ‘Joy of Nothing’ but would have fit perfectly onto this EP collection of edits and B-sides.

The EP also includes a live acoustic version of the album’s title track, ‘Joy of Nothing’, recorded live in session with BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris. This is a very subdued rendering of what was an uplifting track on the album, but the stripped back dynamic does get more at the heart of what the song is about, simplicity and appreciation of the little things in life. Vance’s singing is soft and raspy, even more rough around the edges than usual, and his improvisatory vocal at the end of the song is one of the EP’s redeeming moments.

The EP’s final track ‘Dark Horse’ is an unreleased B-side from ‘Joy of Nothing’, given away last summer as a free download via NoiseTrade leading into the album release. The deceptively simple, purely sentimental chorus “hold me close and hold me strong / hold me pure and hold me long / hold me dark and hold me light / hold me wrong, hold me right” seems tailor-made for the emotionality of live sing-alongs, but the production here is austere, highlighting instead the soulful sincerity of Vance’s vocal delivery.

The ‘Feel For Me’ EP is a bit of an awkward supplement to the full ‘Joy of Nothing’ LP. Enthusiastic Foy Vance fans will be nonplussed, if not bored to tears, by the first two tracks, while new listeners might find their interest piqued by the radio single ‘Feel for Me’. The final two tracks are less exciting for new ears but might compel longtime fans to keep listening. Vance may be hedging his bets, but we can hope that it’s in careful preparation for the release of something new in the near future.

6.5/10

The ‘Feel For Me’ EP from Foy Vance is out now on Glassnote Records.

 

Album Review: Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland

 
By on Monday, 29th September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

American alt-rock band Counting Crows have re-emerged onto the music scene with their seventh studio album, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, released on the 15th of September. This album is the band’s first release of original material since 2008’s ‘Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings’, but lead singer Adam Duritz mentioned in my interview with him the day after the album release that the new songs were predominantly inspired and informed by the band’s 2012 cover project, ‘Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation)’. Duritz credits those cover versions for the revitalized energy and focus on musicianship that he and his band display to full advantage on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’. (You can read more of Duritz’s thoughts in the full interview here.)

Rather than being a simple rehash of the introspective mood rock that made Counting Crows a staple of the ’90s, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is a streamlined exhibition of the band’s talents. There isn’t a wasted moment on the entire album, as each track makes its own unique and interesting statement. The variety of moods and styles among the 9 tracks is refreshing, even when Duritz’s familiar stream-of-consciousness lyrical pattern turns toward the morose.

The album’s opening track ‘Palisades Park’ is a strong declaration of the band’s musical intent. The extended brass introduction tells us straight away that something new is happening here, and the rest of the song doesn’t disappoint. Laced with Duritz’s imaginative characters and geographical references as well as several broadly unrestrained instrumental sections, it conjures a sense of adventure both in its lyrics and its music.

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A handful of catchy, high-energy tracks punctuate ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, including the curiously named ‘Earthquake Driver’ and current American radio single ‘Scarecrow’. ‘Earthquake Driver’ explores the “skipping and diving” thoughts of a man trying to find motivation and purpose to his life. Its opening lyric “I was born again a little north of Disneyland / somewhere under Wonderland and Hollywood” is so engaging that it even found its way into the album’s title. ‘Scarecrow’ is similarly spirited, with an infectious “do-do-do” chorus breaking up the surreal, purposefully absurd quality of the verses. Nearly 5 minutes in length, it may be more prolonged than the average radio single, but the instrumental bridge and guitar solo are undoubtedly worth the extra time.

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‘Dislocation’ is a frenetic, guitar-driven address of Duritz’s struggle with depersonalization disorder, but also with the often bizarre nature of life in the public eye. Its chorus is deceptively upbeat despite the unnerving lyrics, “I am written in the radio / I dream on my TV / I’m fading out in stereo / I don’t remember me”. ‘Elvis Went to Hollywood’ is another briskly rhythmic track with a metaphysical lyrical theme, trying to pinpoint the moment in time where pop culture went astray. In spite of that somewhat discouraging sentiment, the vigourous instrumental riffs following each chorus will renew your faith in guitar rock.

‘Cover Up the Sun’ takes a decidedly country rock turn, its upbeat rhythm and acoustic twang again belying its dark lyrics, while ‘John Appleseed’s Lament’ delves deeply into the blues. The slower paced ‘God of Ocean Tides’ provides a welcome moment of calm introspection in the middle of the album, and the album’s final song, piano ballad ‘Possibility Days’, is an elegant, ethereal contrast to the frenetic energy of the tracks immediately preceding it.

Despite the typically pessimistic feeling of the lyrics, the music on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is remarkably robust and inspired. Fans of Duritz’s signature introspective songwriting style won’t be disappointed by what he’s offered here, while new listeners will be drawn in by the singable choruses, upbeat rhythms and full-bodied guitar lines.

8.5/10

‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is available now on Virgin EMI Records. Counting Crows will tour the UK this November; you can find a listing of tour dates right here.

 

Album Review (on cassette!): PINS – Come Back EP

 
By on Monday, 22nd September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

In an ever-more-likely attempt at world domination, PINS demonstrate their impeccable taste, and perhaps betray more than a little of their idolatry, with the advent of their ‘Come Back’ EP, released on cassette to coincide with Cassette Store Day on 27th September. Gadzooks – what next? Wax Cylinder Week? Floppy Disk Fortnight?

Each of the three tracks is a cover – ‘Come Back’ is by The Belles, ‘I’m Leaving You’ by Char Vinnedge and Mary Gallagher, and ‘You Don’t Love Me’ by bluesman Willie Cobbs, which is perhaps the most instantly recognisable song – think Dawn Penn’s skanking reggae version with added “na na na”s, or perhaps, for the younger generation, Beyoncé’s brief poptastic live cover. Whichever way you cut it though, PINS deliver the definitive garage-rock version here.

More intriguing still is the origins of the title track. The Belles are a little-known Miami group from the early ‘60s, with nary an album to their name. How they can come up with something as spanking as ‘Come Back’ and thereafter sink into obscurity is unknown, and something of a shame. They did a cover of Them’s ‘Gloria’, changing the title to ‘Melvin’, with tongue-in-cheek consequences, but that’s about all we know about them. Certainly deserving of a modest revival courtesy of PINS. Cleverly, the original of ‘Come Back’ is 2 minutes, 12 seconds long; the cover is exactly the same length. Spooky coincidence or admirable attention to detail? You decide.

‘Come Back’ will be released on cassette in a limited run of 100 for Cassette Store Day on Saturday, the 27th of September, so get eBaying for those vintage Walkmans right away.

 

Album Review: Morning Parade – Pure Adulterated Joy

 
By on Friday, 19th September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

In name and in substance, my mind drifted to thoughts of Mayday Parade meets Morning Glory – a lazy amalgamation, or an apt comparison? I’m tempted (if not because I’m slightly biased, as it was my own musings) to decide upon on the latter. Morning Parade’s second album ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’ feels immediately like a new throwback on the emo records of the past decade.

Taking small influences from bands like Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional and to a lesser extent daddies of the genre, Jimmy Eat World – less cannibalistic and more like a tapas bar where Morning Parade have dined sparingly. After their grazing on what the still-cool but a bit run down tapas bar of emo had to offer – where I can only assume Gerard Way is a waiter after releasing a mediocre solo album – they’ve stopped off at that quirky throwback café where they’ve sampled the mild yet refreshing tastes of classic indie, which I can only assume is a bit like Earl Grey. Except, instead of tasting a bit lemony, it tastes a bit more like sweat and tears.

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A trip to a tapas bar and then a weak cup of herbal tea doesn’t exactly sound like, well, my cup of tea. However, bizarre metaphors aside – the influences Morning Parade have channelled on ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’ have moulded into a formidable record that leaves a delicious taste in the mouth. As an antipasti, ‘Shake the Cage’ and ‘Alienation’ provide a rough and raw introduction to the soaring choruses and frantic guitar rhythms that litter the album. ‘Alienation’ though is the standout track of the record, with a sound that could easily strut into Radio 1’s A list and sit quite comfortably next to that chirruping turnip George Ezra – we get it, all your songs are going to sound identical because of your ‘mature’ voice – rant over.

Lead vocalist Steve Sparrow (no relation to Captain Jack, I’m assured) does have a habit of going a bit Thom Yorke on ‘Kid A’ on us, getting especially warbly on ‘Car Alarms and Sleepness Nights’. On Spotify, it states the band are in the same vein as Friendly Fires, Fenech-Soler and Delphic – this is a trifle off, as it’s only ‘Seasick’ and ‘Reality Dream’ that dabble in the realms of electronica – with ‘Reality Dream’ in particular showing shades of Delphic’s breakout single ‘Doubt’. ‘Seasick’ floats errantly in the electronic, and in turn, ended up making feel a little queasy myself.

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With the flecks of emo dashing the record, I’d expected a more sombre tone to some of the songwriting, even if the title of the album is ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’. ‘Reality Dream’ is a superb glittering showcase of the championing the power of positive thinking throughout adversity: “Don’t spend your life pretending / Your happy end already passed.” However, it’s not all sun drops and lollipops of course, with ‘Culture Vulture’ providing a thorough injection of real life/reality TV satire, “there’s reason in repeating rhymes and throwing keys and swapping wives / as long as it’s within the privacy of our own private lives / stuck with no direction seeking everyone’s attention/out for his or her’s affection / fall out of cover and collection / no Viagra, no erection / no insurance, no protection / and no cure and no prevention.” Cameron’s Britain, eh?

Sparrow even delves into the comically vulgar at the end of ‘Car Alarms and Sleepless Nights’, whispering twice, “would you piss on me if I was on fire?” Hardly deep, but certainly ‘Pure Adulterated Joy’ is a breakout album for the Harlow five-piece. Their collaboration with producer Ben Allen (famed for his work with Animal Collective and Bombay Bicycle Club) on this record has paid dividends, as the end product is flawless and undoubtedly their sound has been further refined since their self-titled debut. They’re a band with the wind under their sails, where it will take them, is up to them.

8/10

‘Pure Adulterated Joy’, Morning Parade‘s sophomore album, is out now on So Recordings / Kobalt.

 

Album Review: Sir Sly – You Haunt Me

 
By on Monday, 15th September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Sir Sly is comprised of frontman Landon Jacobs (vocals, keyboards and guitar) and multi-instrumentalists Jason Suwito and Hayden Coplen, though their identities were kept well hidden until success necessitated their unmasking: earlier released track ‘Gold’ hit #1 on the Hype Machine in January 2013. But it’s taken nearly 2 years for their debut album to surface.

Their most recent single, title track ‘You Haunt Me’ released in July, sees the band at their poppiest: a sprightly drummed rhythm is at the forefront while an almost hymn-like progression of synth chords anchors the background. The lyrics are philosophical if you want to go there – the theme of recounting and regretting a past life ruined by alcohol could be taken literally or with losing a partner as a consequence – but there is no escaping the overall catchiness of the song that will no doubt be more important to the droves I expect to be gobbling up this album.

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Inevitable comparisons to the Neighbourhood have already been made, but that connection is far too dependent on the fact that both bands call Los Angeles home. We see this far too often (and unfairly) when bands from Manchester are pigeonholed by their storied history, don’t we? Yes, both groups have an underlying cool hip hop swagger, but the big difference to me between them is in the way Sir Sly are able to effortlessly weave big beats and electronics into the mix of indie pop and r&b. As evidenced by watching the crowd totally into them last Monday when they performed at Washington’s U Street Music Hall, the beguiling combination is sure to win over the indie kids, the pop kids, the hip hop kids and anyone else in between, suggesting to me that they’ll be the band to beat in 2015.

Early on in their career, Paul Lester of the Guardian was quick to point out the commercialism of Sir Sly’s sound. You do sense while you’re listening to this album that many of these tracks would feel right at home synced on tv programmes and adverts, because the songs are so damn catchy. True, the lyrics focus on the well trod on pop theme of lost love, but even in those usually suffocating confines, there are nuggets of gold to be found. Opening track and album standout ‘Where I’m Going’ has the hallmark tenets of regret – falling in love (“I went ahead and opened my heart”), getting your heart broken (“all of my love was wasted on you”), yet still wanting the other person (“you know I’m going to come for you”) – but with a unique, seemingly musician-centric twist, I’m wondering if the song was written from Jacobs’ personal experience. The first verse touches on ambitiously “climbing the rose” on the way to stardom, then unexpectedly “finding the one all of a sudden”, making the song sound similar to Glass Animalsdebut album ‘Zaba’ opener ‘Flip’ (“I was in full bloom / ’til I met you”), but slightly less vindictive.

Other previously tracks are memorable too. It makes sense that the synth lines employed in ‘Ghost’ are haunting: they’re meant to be. Except for a few lighter moments of clarity in the bridge, including a repetitive falsetto referencing the grave and home, the song is purposely made dark as Jacob wonders aloud how he chose the ‘wrong’ girl, now gone, and is literally haunted by her spirit that still comes round to remind him of what went before. The sped up, sunny Betablock3r remix of ‘Gold’ was used in an American tv advert for Cadillac this past summer but in that form, it’s virtually unrecognisable from the original, which is similarly dramatically dark like ‘Ghost’. Heavy beats, guaranteed to cause some heads near you to bop along, propel the track forward. But the song is more remarkable for its insistence that that it’s far more important to stay true to yourself and go after your dreams than be lured in by the promise of money.

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‘Found You Out’ slows things down, showing the trio’s versatility in a less electronic environment, but is likewise philosophical like ‘You Haunt Me’, referencing historical figures Judas and Brutus to point out to a former lover her traitorous, treacherous ways. A song like ‘Leave You’ makes one continue to speculate just how badly Jacob has been hurt in relationships, though with such glittery synth notes, I suppose he’s gotten over the hurt. Enough anyway to record this album. Their ballad ‘Floods’ shows a further introspective side to the band: despite a hip hop-y delivered bridge suggesting that the best way forward to is to move on and get on with your life, the mournful piano that accompanies Jacob’s wistful vocals that the song exits with seems to indicate otherwise.

This vocal dreaminess bleeds into ‘Too Far Gone’, illustrating the band is entirely capable of pulling back the potential heavy-handedness of electronic production to write a more mainstream song. But don’t worry: for those who favour more production and more of a dance beat, ‘Inferno’ starring former touring mate Lizzy Plapinger of MS MR is a tune assured to raise the roof at all of Sir Sly’s future shows. For me, if there’s any fault on ‘You Haunt Me’, it’s that the electronics don’t get their due on every track on here. The band clearly know what they’re doing with them, able to elicit emotion whenever they do appear. But I get the feeling that was Sir Sly’s point: they wanted to show they’re capable of turning on a dime, changing and bending genres to their will, writing incredible songs. (If you still have any reservations, watch the acoustic version of ‘Ghost’ below and prepared to be spellbound.) ‘You Haunt Me’ proves their talent.

9/10

Sir Sly’s debut album ‘You Haunt Me’ is out today on Interscope Records.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours 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 no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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