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(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Album Review: Withered Hand – New Gods

 
By on Wednesday, 19th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Withered Hand New Gods coverWithered Hand is the stage name of Scottish folk singer/songwriter Dan Willson, whose second full length album, ‘New Gods’, is due for release in mid-March (the 10th of March, just in time for SXSW!) by Fortuna Pop! Records. According to the label’s press release for ‘New Gods’, Willson took up songwriting around age 30 when a series of life events sparked “a period of reflection” that led to the creation of his deeply introspective first album ‘Good News’. ‘New Gods’ is a variation on that theme of self-examination, equally perceptive and evocative, but with a mellow touch of wry humor to soften its blunt honesty.

Musically, the songs on ‘New Gods’ are enriched and heavily influenced by the variety of musicians collaborating with Willson on its production. A grant from Scottish arts council Creative Scotland allowed Willson to record in a proper studio for the first time, working with producer Tony Doogan as well as Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian, King Creosote, Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, and Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison.

From the very outset, the focus of ‘New Gods’ is strongly set on Willson’s lyrics. The songs are deceptively mellow and laid-back in spite of their heavy thematic material. Opening track ‘Horseshoe’ (stream it below) contains the heartrending plea, “please don’t put a shadow on her lung, so young” in its exploration of mortality and loss. First single ‘Black Tambourine’ is probably the most upbeat track on the album, with jangling guitars, warm backing vocals, and lyrics that almost lean toward optimism, including the infectious chorus of “you light me up with your smile”.

In keeping with the easygoing American West Coast sound, the next three tracks on ‘New Gods’ are actually set in California. The setting seems remarkably appropriate for songs dealing with the surreal, out-of-place feeling that traveling musicians have often remarked upon. The lyrics of ‘Love Over Desire’ are more bluntly prosaic than fluidly poetic in their talk about travel between Las Vegas and Los Angeles: “though I try and I try, it’s not real to me / this life is not what you thought it would be / I put my hand in my pocket and forgot about the travel pussy / another flower in the coffin of monogamy”. ‘King of Hollywood’ has a bluesy, almost country Americana feel, especially during the guitar riff in the bridge, and its cheeky lyrics, such as, “you say I remind you of your ex-wife like you were picking the scar”, are almost uncomfortably comical in that musical setting. The backing vocals and echoing guitars in the chorus of ‘California’ have an eerie, disorienting musical effect, and its lyrics immediately call to mind the alternate reality of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’.

The second half of ‘New Gods’ is less specific in its setting and in its musical focus. ‘Fall Apart’ is lyrically simple but catchy, especially in the repeated layers overlapping phrases at the end. The title track ‘New Gods’ resorts to a “doo-doo-doo” refrain, calling into question the line, “we can do it okay or we can do it right”, though the lyrics in the verses are somewhat stronger. ‘Between True Love and Ruin’ has a promising opening verse, “as the last rays of summer split the windshield in two / and we went for a drive, you and I, just for something to do / I was thinking of sex and you were dreaming of freedom”, but it falls into a clumsily predictable rhyme scheme that is eventually saved by the broadly uplifting brass in the background.

On ‘New Gods’, Withered Hand explores new sonic territory, finding a warmer, mellower sound to temper his often bitter lyrics. Fans of Dan Willson’s previous work will find the same uncompromising candor here, but in a slightly slightly sweeter, easier to swallow flavor than before. The release of ‘New Gods’ will immediately precede Withered Hand’s showcase performances at SXSW 2014, where the new material is sure to find an appreciative audience.

7/10

Withered Hand’s current single ‘Horseshoe’ is available now on Fortuna Pop! Records. Full album ‘New Gods’ will be out on 10th of March.

 

(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Album Review: Arthur Beatrice – Working Out

 
By on Tuesday, 18th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

The moniker of elusive London quartet Arthur Beatrice was “formed from the notion of opposites coming together to complete perfect wholes,” according to the press release for their new album, ‘Working Out’, due for release next Monday. The bisexual band name seems singularly appropriate given the band’s juxtaposition of male and female lead vocals, alternated seamlessly between the velvety singing voices of Ella Girardot and Orlando Leopard. The instrumental sound is a cross between smooth jazz and electro dance with moments of uptempo rhythmic pacing provided by brothers Elliott and Hamish Barnes on drums and bass, respectively. Hamish Barnes’ pulsing bass is a major element of Arthur Beatrice’s sound, maintaining a constant groove throughout ‘Working Out’.

First single ‘Midland’, released back in mid-January, emphasizes the theme of opposition that runs through the album. It opens with the silky-soft murmur of Girardot’s low register, singing, “all I want is to be warm and home, and where I’m known”. She maintains her smooth vocal tone as the lyrics turn slightly more cynical in the second verse, “purge me now, cleanse my skull from all the things I’ve been told”. The faster dance pace of the music in the refrain is ironically set to the words, “I’ll never move, I’ll never move, I’ll always be so still”, and Girardot shows off some lovely high notes in the repeated section as the keyboards and guitars are layered over the bass groove. The sensual and increasingly physical video for ‘Midland’ is as dichotomous as the song itself.

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‘Carter Uncut’ is the extended edition of the aptly named ‘Carter (Cut)’ from the ‘Carter’ EP, released in July 2013. The long version begins with a slow, almost clumsily discordant keyboard intro which transitions into a smoothly melodic ostinato as the pulsing, almost tribal percussion kicks in. Girardot’s voice oozes over the opening line, “I see the way we coincide and it’s nothing more than chance”. The lyrics become a little bit nonsensical, but they seem to hint at the end of a toxic relationship. Even as the music shifts to a quicker, more rhythmic dance beat and a deeper bass pulse, Girardot sings, “I’ll never roll away the weight of you, seems too much / I’ll never hate the way I wanted to, not enough”.

‘Grand Union’ was also released ahead of the album as a single in September 2013. Here, Orlando Leopard’s smooth voice starts off soft and sensual but becomes almost villainous over the lyrics of the chorus, “Dead lungs, you’re becoming someone else’s tongue, coughing up blood, skin coming off.” The ominous instrumental bridge contains some interesting, almost disorienting sound effects that remain grounded by the foundational bass line. For another interesting juxtaposition, listen to both the original version and the Open Assembly edit from the band’s Soundcloud page.

Self-produced by the band, ‘Working Out’ is surprisingly confident and purposeful despite its occasionally abstruse lyrics and overall lack of sonic variety. The fundamental bass lines bring a sense of structure to songs that are otherwise a bit amorphous, often lacking strong hooks or catchy refrains. The effect is viscerally and sonically appealing, but few moments on the album stands out as striking or particularly memorable. A vague sense of monotony, especially in the second half of the album, is exacerbated by song titles that don’t seem to connect to the lyrics in any discernable way. However, the strong dance beats and dramatically layered instrumental effects are likely to strike a chord with live audiences at the band’s upcoming performances. Arthur Beatrice will tour America in March, prior to their appearance at SXSW 2014. They are also scheduled to play The Great Escape in Brighton in May.

6.5/10

‘Working Out’, the debut album from Arthur Beatrice, is due for release on the 24th of February on OAR/Polydor Records.

 

Album Review: The Family Rain – Under the Volcano

 
By on Monday, 17th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

The blues rock sphere of influence is but a single bubble on the Venn diagram that is The Family Rain’s full-length debut offering, ‘Under the Volcano’. However, a certain phrase springs to mind with bands that spread their influences so broadly: ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. The Bath-born blues brothers were described in a previous life as an “irony free Darkness with bare torsos and blonde highlights”, which fits neatly with their porous approach to soaking up contemporary musical influences. The key question when digesting this album, “does it blend like a fine wine, or jar like ethanol mixed with grape juice?”

‘Carnival’ is a frantically upbeat introduction, with an intricate interpretation of blues scales set within a powerful but regular rhythm from guitarist Ollie Walter. It’s a sound that sits somewhere between a Kings of Leon retrospective and a memory of The Strokes of Christmases past. Originally released as the band’s debut single back in November 2012, ‘Trust Me… I’m A Genius’ (video below) has a distinct whiff of Jack White‘s most recent release ‘Blunderbuss’, which grows to an overpowering funk as the band introduce enough bluegrass to induce some kind of psychotropic episode. It’s a somewhat soulful mix of staccato singing and multi-layered vocal melodies, with a swirling guitar solo that circles the plug hole and plops to an abrupt ending.

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Somewhere, A Flock of Seagulls’ lawyers’ ears have pricked up on hearing ‘Feel Better (FRANK)’. In tone, it is the genetically deficient twin of ‘I Ran’, the most memorable track of the New Wave band’s self-titled 1982 debut. The track holds its own in the grand scheme, but also shows anomalous moments of questionable production. It’s a theme that perhaps blunts some of the sharper edges on later tracks too. ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’ is a whimsical ride back to early Noughties trip-hop that folds into ‘Reason to Die’; a typically mid-album attempt with the stripped back, garage-y, bass/vocal onus and ironic swagger of Arctic Monkeys more recent offerings. Right on cue, ‘Binocular’ reaches the high water mark of the album so far. It’s a ragtime shuffle with a cheeky bluegrass wiggle thrown in – a jaunty skip between classic blues scale and droning root note (for both guitar and throat) that wouldn’t look out of place on an seizure-inducing camera ad of a thousand colours.

The largely forgettable ‘On My Back’ aside, the musical landscape evolves yet again on ‘Pushing It’. The verses have airs of The White Stripes in their bare, pugnacious strut and sense of impending collapse, but the chorus (although catchy) attempts too much and creates a juxtaposition which does neither aspect any favours. ‘Together’ takes more from the American indie scene, and achieves a sense of continuity that isn’t always evident throughout the rest of the album. The lackadaisical intro uses a ‘lonely musical trill plus tinny radio voice’ technique seen on The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’, and generally follows the same upwards trajectory – albeit never to the same height and with a distinctly British aftertaste.

Tambourines and a guitar line heavily drenched in feedback give closing track ‘All the Best’ a sound that would be recognisable at regional live nights across the UK, but with a sense of bravado that lifts them high above Morrissey’s winding back alleys. William Walter’s voice possesses a neat vibrato that compliments the loose threads that hold this entire number together. It’s an honest and personal conclusion to an album that anchors itself to many poles. Ultimately, ‘Under the Volcano’ walks the tightrope of musical fusion with a wobble and occasional stumble, but never a fall.

6.5/10

‘Under the Volcano’ is out now on Vertigo Records / Virgin EMI.

 

Album Review: Frank Turner – Polaroid Picture EP

 
By on Wednesday, 12th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s a forgone conclusion that the post-‘Poetry of the Deed’ releases from Frank Turner will prove to be inexplicably successful: the man could release a track of him farting to the tune of the Egyptian national anthem, and it’d still inevitably hit the singles charts. Such is the extent of the fandom surrounding the Hampshire-born singer songwriter punk-rock troubadour and any other title that I doth give him.

I’m not talking about the kind of fan frenzy which we see with cretins like One Direction and Justin Bieber, with thousands of tweenagers reTweeting and longing on their every syllable. I’m talking about a near-fanatical following that have grown with Frank Turner, from his Million Dead days, through ‘Love, Ire and Song’ and into the arena-rocking era of Turner of 2014. People who have been through his journey and feel it’s been a trek in which they’ve joined Turner on – he’s their icon, and for good reason.

For the past 9-ish years Turner has been gigging his little English arse off, playing pub shows, festival sets and tours left, right and centre. For it to have paid off in this amount though, is surely something which Frank won’t have predicted – I mean, no matter the success he comes across as the proverbial ‘everyman’ done good. An ‘everyman’ who can force grown-up, mentally-stable women into jittering, jabbering wrecks who are only capable of tears. (I’ve seen it.)

Enter the ‘Polaroid Picture’ EP – a five song collection of classic Frank-isms – the kind of stories and songs which have become Turner’s recipe for success. In opening track ‘Polaroid Picture’, we’re treated to some archetypal Turner nostalgia, backed by a semi-mournful piano melody. We’re then introduced to ‘The Modern Leper’ and Frank’s at his old tricks again, turning the most clichéd of phrases and turning it into gut-wrenchingly yet hauntingly beautiful imagery: “Yeah, I cut off all the good stuff / I cut off my foot to spite my legs.”

That may all seem like the kind of subject matter morbid enough to make you want to lop your own leg off, but Frank still has that sense of fun and whimsy which we’ve seen throughout his career. Case in point is ‘Plea From a Cat Called Virtute’, a song largely centred on a tattoo of a cat on his arm with Frank quirkily singing we should “invite the tabby from two doors down / you can ask your sister if she doesn’t bring her Basset Hound”.

This EP doesn’t just showcase his immense creativity and songwriting, but it’s also a spectacle of how brilliant a musician and artist he has become –captured magnificently in his understated cover of Biffy Clyro’s ‘Who’s Got a Match’ – a cover that if it was performed by one of those joyless pop princesses from One Direction or jailbird Bieber would probably have done the rounds on YouTube so often we’d all be sick to death of it. Instead, we’re treated to a stripped down, Anglicised version of a top, top tune.

Altogether, it is no doubt a meagre offering from Frank, clocking in at around 17-ish minutes. But it’s crammed full of the kind of heart, majesty and immense storytelling Frank is lauded for. Plus on ‘Sweet Albion Blues’ (video below), he mentions pretty much every UK town imaginable which should do well to keep his faithful, swooning fandom alive.

Why? Because on the ‘Polaroid Picture’ EP, he continues to be OUR Frank.

9/10

Frank Turner’s latest EP ‘Polaroid Picture’ is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings. Turner is just finishing up a UK tour this week.

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(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Album Review: Temples – Sun Structures

 
By on Tuesday, 11th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Temples Sun Structures coverIn a small part of Kettering, it is forever 1969. Specifically, James Bagshaw’s home studio in the box-room of his parents’ end terrace house. Whether or not the strictures of this home-brewed recording facility have contributed to the distinctive sound of ‘Sun Structures’, there’s no doubt that the work stands as testament to the potential of a brave new world of self-production: a few microphones, a cheap computer, lots of patience and the odd spoonful of talent, and you too could create a work worthy of release on Heavenly Recordings. There’s no limit but your imagination.

Bagshaw has worked out how to recreate the sound of what are no doubt some of his favourite records from the very climax of the 1960s, when psychedelia bumped into hard rock in a beat-pop nightclub and they all decided to head home for several glasses of rough red wine, to inhale some heady incense, and pull off a through-the-night recording session. Pink Floyd’s ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’ set the bar for far-out experimentalism, combining an ear for Lear’s absurd mind-pictures with The Kinks’ pastoral songwriting. Their sound is familiar, but searching for the archives for a band that Temples have actually plagiarised proves fruitless: even though there are several stylistic touchstones, Temples are their own band.

All four of 2013’s singles are collected here. In chronological order: début ‘Shelter Song’ is as good an introduction to Temples as any: massive 12-string guitar riff, classic analogue(-sounding) ’70s-style drum production, dreamily overlaid vocal parts with cavernous reverb… and is that a tape-reverse interlude? ‘Colours to Life’ is a wider, smoother production, akin to floating gently in a giant lava lamp’s convective drift. The chorus is a veritable choir of retro fantasy. ‘Keep in the Dark’ (video below) stomps along merrily, whilst ‘Mesmerise’ builds its whole around an evocative descending riff and even manages some twinkly harp. Throughout, there’s so much 12-string guitar, one suspects Bagshaw has bought shares in a guitar string manufacturer.

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Of course with so much production one often can’t really hear what’s being sung, which encapsulates the biggest flaw of ‘Sun Structures’: the album is defined by its distinctive production. The wall-of-sound is the main course: in the manner of a catwalk model, the underlying bone structure of chord, melody and lyric are demeaned into subservience as garnish, a vector for glamourous frippery. And whilst it is clear that Bagshaw has created something distinctive and powerful in his band’s voice, the all-encompassing sameness of the sound means that there is too much album to eat in one sitting – there will be a vinyl release, and there’s little doubt that it deserves to be a proper gatefold, four-side affair. Thought of as two discs, as a brace of mini-albums, the whole becomes much more manageable – playing both discs back-to-back will be strictly a connoisseur’s treat.

For almost a year now, Noel Gallagher has been telling everyone within earshot that the future of human civilisation rests on the success of the Jagwar Ma and Temples albums. Whilst it’s open to debate as to whether the endorsement of a man whose defining musical characteristic being his magpie tendencies towards the Beatles is particularly useful to a band who take so much influence from the past themselves – the approval of a true visionary would carry far more weight – in a way Gallagher does have a point. Temples are a fine live band and they are creating complex, cerebral recorded music in a classic style that clearly deserves longevity, and in the process exposing a new generation to the sounds of the heady, optimistic days in which their parents (or indeed grandparents) grew up. In contrast to the cynical, manufactured side of the modern music business, Temples are a reminder of more innocent days, where people made music for love rather than money, and an album was a thing of beauty, to be savoured over time, rather than a quick, sugary fix. ‘Sun Structures’ is proof that music can still be made and consumed in the same way today, and for that it should be applauded.

7/10

The debut album from Temples ‘Sun Structures’ is out now on Heavenly Recordings. The band will be heading out to their first SXSW in March.

 

Album Review: The Hosts – Softly, Softly

 
By on Monday, 10th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

The Hosts Softly Softly coverThese days, we know that production and in-studio wizardry can hide a multitude of musical sins, from people who cannot sing (hello, Britney Spears, Kanye West and autotune) to people who cannot play instruments or bands who simply do not have enough people to play them (hello, drum machines and synthesisers). I was reminded of this when ‘Please Please Me’ appeared on Radcliffe and Maconie’s Tea Time Theme Time segment last month: before they became heavy drug using, psychedelic pioneers, people seem to forget that the Beatles didn’t need any help in the studio. In their earliest days working with George Martin, they relied good songwriting, their voices in perfect harmony and the tightness of their combined instrumentation to come up with excellent records. There was nowhere to hide, but nothing needed to be hidden. They were just that damn good.

Despite the manufactured pop star ‘development’ paths currently favoured by the major labels, there is a growing number of English bands that are working hard to go back to those golden years when singing and playing proficiently with limited use of technological assistance were the norm and bands took great pride in this. And I can’t really explain it why in the last couple of years, the phenomenon seems to have been most noticeable in the North, particularly in Sheffield. ‘Softly, Softly’ by Sheffield band The Hosts is the latest in a string of releases from this part of England that brings forth the innocence of the Fab Four’s earliest successes, taking that feeling and spilling it all over the unsuspecting current record-buying public, who include in their ranks the supposed indie kids who are in love with Bastille and The 1975. As I listened to ‘Softly, Softly’, it was the reaction of these people I wondered about the most. Would Tom Hogg’s voice slay them?

Because slaying is a good word to this case. When on tour with Roy Orbison (who, incidentally, inspired ‘Please Please Me’), the young Fabs were famously known to have hung out backstage watching the master at work, slaying the audience night after night. Having been described as “the missing link between Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley“, it should come as no surprise that frontman Tom Hogg’s voice has this slaying ability as well. Hogg’s voice has a distinctive timbre that can best be described as honey for the ears, and the main vocals are further supported in this aural beautification by the band’s ever harmonious backing vocals. I give to you exhibit A, my personal favourite ‘Would You Be Blue’, the opening track of the album, with verses such as, “set adrift on the star-filled skies / broken and bruised, with no reasons why / just the the waves that crash in the sea / are the waves that you should carry me free”. Accompanied with a building wall of sound that includes schmaltzy / waltzy instrumentation, it is perfection in less than 4 minutes.

In the chorus of ‘Would You Be Blue’, we are asked, “When I said I’ll be true / when I said ‘only you’ / why on earth would you be blue?” I really don’t know, Tom. I can’t answer that. I think I just expired on the floor from the loveliness of feeling like I was the apple – the sole apple – of someone’s eye. (If there was any doubt, yes, I am a hopeless romantic.) And the rest of the album serves as the blankets to envelope my emotion-aching soul. A gentle, rocking chair-type beat is underneath most of the songs on this album, serving to soothe any savage beast from within, even if said savage beast’s heart is breaking while this is happening (‘Where the Cold Wind Blows’) and we’re being told to sleep and dream of someone we once loved (‘In Dreams’, a cover of an original by, who else, Roy Orbison).

Regular 6music listeners will recognise ‘September Song’ and ‘Give Your Love to Her’ from the station’s playlist, both having been released as singles and gotten much support from the Laminator himself, Steve Lamacq. (‘September Song’ will, in fact, be re-released as part of a double A-sided single with the aforementioned ‘Would You Be Blue’ on the 17th of February.) ‘September Song’, with its flourishes of bright percussion taps, is a song about saying farewell to a lover in contrast to ‘Would You Be Blue’. I suppose it might be jarring to go from togetherness in track #1 to a tearful goodbyes in track #2, but I take it as interesting that both songs use the imagery of waves and them “crashing through” in the latter to describe being in love. In their Bands to Watch feature last summer, I alluded to the Hosts’ songwriting skill and how they don’t resort to anything uncouth in their lyrics. They don’t need those kind of words. No, they can woo any (well, intelligent, self-respecting) woman with any one of these songs.

Earlier single ‘Give Your Love to Her’ (stream above) is quicker in tempo than most of ‘Softly, Softly’ and, as a result, is more sprightly. I can see this song having a more visible response live in concert. But if this was the only Hosts song you knew and you bought this album, I think you would be disappointed. And there it is, the one complaint about this album: it’s a little slow. I suppose it should be expected, as it’s a collection of sentimental love songs, whether the ending of the story is happy or sad. The intention is to have the songs savoured, not having kids with their arms and legs flailing about at the local disco. Even though the chorus of ‘Wake Up’ has brightness and both ‘The One’ and cheeky closing track ‘Go Away’ benefit from maracas, these tracks don’t veer too far from the general formula (though these three songs would probably not be the ones I’d recommend to those not familiar with the band). And I am fine with this. These are the kind of songs I’d imagine I’d be spending my allowance on at the local dance hall’s jukebox if I’d been a teenager in the early Sixties.

I also know it is the kind of album my mother would buy. (As the mother of a music editor, it’s her cross to bear, having to hear promo CDs over and over again. As a result, she’s already a Hosts convert.) Had this album been out when my parents were dating, they’d be dancing to songs like this. The bigger question is, will the record-buying public bite? I do hope so. If you have a single romantic bone in your body, this should be a required purchase for your sweetie this week. (Guys, in case you’ve forgotten…Friday is Valentine’s Day!!!)

8/10

‘Softly, Softly’, the debut album from Sheffield band The Hosts, is out today, the 10th of February, on Fierce Panda. Double A-sided single ‘September Song’ / ‘Would You Be Blue’ will be released next week, on the 17th.

 
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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.

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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