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By Mary Chang
on Monday, 2nd July 2012 at 12:00 pm
The other day, I was flipping through television stations and happened upon an old episode of Austin City Limits on American public television, watching Mumford and Sons play to a captive audience at the famed Moody Theatre. While time has marched on since the release of ‘Sigh No More’ in 2009, there seems to be no end to the trotting out of Mumford-like bands on the British music scene. Some have fared well: take, for example, previously profiled as a Bands to Watch Dry the River, who looks to be taking advantage of Mumford’s absence from the record racks. However, a new contender has appeared on the horizon, and with parentheses in their name to boot. Harry Oakwood (Millionaire) is a curious moniker; oddly, there is no-one in the band who is actually named Harry Oakwood, and further, their drummer is named Chopper. Hmmm. Going to their official Web site yields more questions than answers: the “Who is Harry?” link from the navigation bar leads you to a ‘bio’ that begins thusly:
The Millionaire, Harry Oakwood had a dream. He would build a band. A band of brothers who would serve him and act under his name. Harry Oakwood (Millionaire) are that band.
As Harry himself states, “Harry Oakwood (Millionaire) are a streamlined ocean liner of music, steering a true and steady path through an unpredictable sea of three part harmony and foot pounding beats which, combined with an ear for the alternative, enable this incredible ensemble to deliver consistently strong live performances and, most importantly, great songs.”
The ‘bio’ continues with a laudatory Tweet from comedian Tim Minchin (“If you have a chance to see @HarryOakwood play, take it. That is my directive for the day.”) and notable DJs like BBC Radio Merseyside’s Billy Butler and BBC London/Amazing Radio’s Gary Crowley stepping forward as fans of the new five piece band. But, as they like to say in many a business, the proof is in the pudding, and is this self-titled EP any good?
It begins with ‘Scared Crow’, and this song begins as a gentle, Fleet Foxes-esque number, echoing the folkier, more introspective bits of Lilac Time-era Stephen Duffy. As the song goes on, there’s a strange brass-heavy bridge, before it goes jauntier, ending with the words “I heed the call of the cruel moon rising / scared is the crow of the cruel moon rising” repeated to close the song on a joyful note. Not sure why a crow would be scared of a moonrise, but evidently, according to Harry Oakwood (Millionaire), this is something to celebrate. Second track ‘Brothers’ (performed for the Snug Sessions in the video below) has a feel like the Band’s ‘The Weight’, which probably should come as no surprise, given that the band cite Levon Helm’s band as their strongest influence, followed by Patrick Watson, Lowell George and Elliott Smith as other inspirations to their craft.
If it’s something more upbeat, then look no further than ‘Journey Song’, complete with honky tonk piano and winsome vocals. I really like the beginning of ‘Empty Chair’, reminding me fondly of the start of the Beatles‘ ‘Blackbird’, the lead singer sounding like Macca, perfect with spare instrumentation of guitar and harmonica. It’s almost a shame when the rest of the parts come in. It’s a nice song nevertheless, but I would have preferred a stripped-back version. Perhaps this will happen live one day. I hear they’re a pretty good band live, but of course, right now their live appearances are restricted to London.
All the while when you’re listening to this pack of four songs, you get this unsettling feeling that it’s all been done before. And it has. The litmus test for listeners, I think, will be whether they think this nu-folk / nu-roots rock revival is equal or better to what they’ve listened to – and loved – before.
The eponymous ‘Harry Oakwood (Millionaire)’ EP is available digitally now from Old Money Records.
The Dig, out of Brooklyn, New York, follow up their 2010 release ‘Electric Toys’ with the slow burning ‘Midnight Flowers’. I saw the Dig support Editors in early 2010 just before their first album came out and while not blown away, I was impressed enough to remember their name. So when ‘Midnight Flowers’ popped up, I was happy to give it a spin. I feel rewarded at having remembered them, but was not blown away by them yet again. The album is a collection of songs that have nothing outstanding to recommend them but would be comfortable on many playlists as ambient filler.
A fairly low tempo album, ‘Midnight Flowers’ would find a great home on a late night uni radio station. I don’t see it starting any parties, but it’s definitely the kind of album that could be played long into the night, pleasing stoners and philosophers alike with its steady, droning pace. The musicianship seems up to par with some interesting bass lines and some noticeably good riffs. The lads have paid their dues honing their music by playing relentlessly on the NYC small club scene. The weakness I find in this album is in the vocals from David Baldwin. I feel they lack a forcefulness or individuality that is needed to elevate the low-key music to something really worth paying attention to. I am also a bit bored by Mark Demiglio’s drumming. The dreamy, atmospheric tracks could have been punched up some with interesting percussion, but I feel it falls short in what could have been done with the relatively simple arrangements.
Earlier this month we gave away the album’s first two singles, ‘Red Rose in the Cold Winter Ground’and ‘I Already Forgot Everything You Said’, in this MP3(s) of the Day post. The first of these grabbed me right away with its insistent metronome-like beat and fuzzy guitars. ‘I Already Forgot Everything You Said’ is a dreamy lament on things not working out. But sadly, I did “already forget” much of the song after listening to it. ‘Hole in my Heart’, however, is a great tune, with a steady intoned voice over a bright bouncy guitar line and catchy chorus.
This is a solid, albeit subdued album from a young band still working hard to find their success.
‘Midnight Flowers’, the new album from the Dig, is available now from Buffalo Jump Records.
Hot Chip aren’t your average band. Their members appear to be cropping up everywhere (2 Bears, New Build etc) but the band are consistently putting out a record every two years. They’ve been everywhere, with everyone and gained notoriety as both a good band and exciting live band, but they’ve never stepped out of everyone elses shadows for long enough to shine at their top billings (LCD Soundsystem immediately spring to mind). Furthermore they’ve had plenty of success without ever actually having released a great album (‘Over and Over ‘and ‘Ready For The Floor’ carrying them through.) So what does album five have to show?
“Remember when the people thought the world was round, the world was round” opens Alexis Taylor on ‘Motion Sickness’. It’s light, it draws you in and then it bursts into a chilled track that just oozes summer for a whole 5:21. Then comes what sounds like a 2 Bears single in the form of ‘How Do You Do?’. Alexis’ vocals are what turn it from the kind of thing that could be dropped in a club to something that could be played almost anywhere, and that’s what makes Hot Chip the band they are; they’re likeable and inoffensive.
This doesn’t make them a great band though. Inoffensive is the stuff of Train and Eliza Doolittle. Likeable is the kind of thing that got Gary Barlow and Will Young into the dreams of middle aged Britain. Herein lays the problem for Hot Chip. “Within In Our Heads”, there’s a lot of decent music. ‘Flutes’ for example, is enjoyable, but not speciall. Those aforementioned opening two tracks; great if you want to chill out in a field all summer but by the time you get down to ‘Now There Is Nothing’ though, you’ll be iPod scrolling as you finish off that bottle of Koppaberg.
There are of course exceptions on both ends of the scale. If you’ve seen the video for ‘Night and Day’ (below), you’ll know that its full of everything that could have made Hot Chip a big band for all the right reasons. It’s borderline bombastic, in your face and huge sounding, without crossing the line to being a Calvin Harris track (minus the Justin Timberlake style “You know I’m thinking about you”). On the other hand, you’ve got the tedious “Look at Where We Are” and ‘I Have Always Been Your Love’. They’re probably intended to show the deeper side of the band, but they come off as nothing short of mind-numbing.
Hot Chip are not an average band. But if they keep on like this, they’re in danger of sounding like one.
Hot Chip’s fifth album ‘In Our Heads’ is out now on Domino Records (their first for this label).
Maxïmo Park burst onto the scene in 2005 with their Mercury-nominated Warp album A Certain Trigger, followed by an album every other year… until 2011, when this writer concluded that they were on indefinite hiatus, with Paul Smith himself declaring, “we needed to have a break.” Just enough time to record a modest solo album, eh, Paul? But only a year behind schedule, shiny long-player ‘The National Health’ is here. Ostensibly something to do with an “out of control nation”, this could be a very important throw of the dice for the ‘Park lads – with critical acclaim slowly diminishing since their debut, they really need to pull something out of the bag here.
They make a decent start: ‘When I Was Wild’ is a lovely minute-long amuse-oireilles, and then it’s into the punchy title track. ‘The National Health’ joins a growing band of recent songs reflecting disaffection within contemporary society, but in common with the rest of the album it falls short on details – the lyrics are vague enough as to avoid explaining why “England is ill and it is not alone”. Monetary crisis? Political weakness? Societal decay? Paul Smith declines to be more specific, which is a shame, as the song is a strong one, driving along at a fierce tempo, only the slightly odd middle eight (“I went down to the council today / they sent me away / my word holds no sway”) dropping hints that maybe it’s the inertia of local government that’s got him all hot under the collar.
That particular triplet also encapsulates a widespread lyrical difficulty – that of the rhyme for rhyme’s sake. They’re all over the place, and they stand out like the lazy agglomerations that they are, as they did on Smith’s solo album. They even infect a song title, “Hips and Lips”, which in this case is forgivable as it’s a decent pop song, with its mixture of electronica, hazily suggestive vocals, and powerful guitars. The video is a particular treat. ‘The Undercurrents’, a widescreen, end-of-the-pier, lighters-aloft piece, is just crying out to soundtrack a particularly poignant moment in Hollyoaks, and completes a successful first third of the album.
After such a strong start, what follows is somewhat baggy in comparison – competently executed, and on occasion downright catchy, but it’s all a little lacking in spice, consisting as it does mostly of wistful romanticisms. ‘Write This Down’ is a complaint about a girl with a diary, and I forget what comes next until ‘Banlieue’, which is found face down in a puddle, complaining “here come the animals”, evoking the burning cars and peripheral urban vice after which it is named. There’s a lovely, by which I mean screamingly dissonant, interplayed guitar/synth solo – why isn’t there more of this stuff elsewhere? Then it’s business as usual, back to the pseudo-easy-listening pop-rock of ‘This Is What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted’ et al. It’s not until the very last track ‘Waves Of Fear’ that the band pick up their skirts and dare to get angular and dangerous again. And by then it’s a bit too late, really.
Just to put things into context: there’s a bandwagon emblazoned with “State of the Nation Address” at the minute, and these guys have jumped straight on it with the “The National Health” concept. To which I say: where were you five or even ten years ago when things were starting to go pear-shaped in this country but it wasn’t too late to do something about it? I’ll stick my neck out and say these sentiments are sticking their necks out right now because the the rug has suddenly been pulled from under certain sections of client society’s cosy oblivion, and there’s currency to be made in pandering to their fears, 1984-style. Pretty cynical if you think about it, but I’m sure the band would argue that they have their audience’s best interests at heart.
In the end, for all Smith’s pronouncements of contemporary relevance, the record sounds like it could have been made at any time in the last ten, or possibly even twenty, years. Which is not necessarily a bad thing: there’s elements of early Britpop which bring back fond memories for those of a certain age, even if they serve only as impetus to break out a few old Menswear or Gene CD singles. There’s very little here that’s scary, or challenging, or specific, and there are melodies, hooks, and decent playing throughout, which means it could do very well in the CD racks of Tesco North Shields, or the Metro Centre Asda, and in the end that’s the whole point of pop music. On the same lines, a lot of these tracks could be pretty successful singles, appealing to Radio 2’s edgier side. It does have one, honest.
However, anyone hoping for a musical thesis of what’s wrong with the world, from the peculiarly slanted perspective that living on Tyneside gives, will be sorely disappointed. Either the band aren’t capable of it, or they’ve avoided the matter for another day, either of which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. In one way a missed opportunity then, but overall there’s no doubt this is a decent album, that people can take to their hearts. If the country is in as such a mess as Maxïmo Park say it is, every comfort helps.
Maximo Park’s ‘The National Health’ is out now on V2 / Co-Op in the UK and in America as a joint venture between the band’s own Daylighting Records label and brand new North American label Straight to the Sun, a part of the Musebox Label Group.
Remember nu-rave? When bands like Klaxons and Hadouken! smashed a few synths into the faces of the indie crowd who lapped it up like fluorescent puppies, who dropped it again a year later. The glow sticks ran out and the ‘Make X not Y’ tees suddenly weren’t cool any more. But no sooner had the neon paint dried on the desolate ground of Reading festival that a new breed of British electro rose from the ashes, acts that had more to their sound than whoop, whirr, splat. Artists such as LCD Soundsystem, MSTRKRFT and Simian Mobile Disco.
Forming from the remains of the much-loved Manchester electro-rock outfit Simian, Simian Mobile Disco are the solely electronic offspring of founding members James Ford and Jas Shaw. With two studio albums under their belts, the digital duo have just released their third LP entitled ‘Unpatterns’ after a three year absence. But can it still hold up to their former glory?
Clocking in at just over 50 minutes for nine tracks, it’s not a record of short dancey blasts, but a selection of carefully sculpted electro hits of five minutes or more. However despite the somewhat progressive slant that SMD take toward electronic music, there’s an unshakable sense of deja vu throughout. Opener ‘I Waited For You’ takes influence from Justice with its slow building beat and distorted/echo-effect vocals that begin with such promise of a huge pay-off that never comes. The multi-layered, semi-catchy track is more of an exercise in what you can do with electronics – not necessarily what you should do.
As well as tossing in all the keys and effects to the affray, Simian Mobile Disco love a bit of the minimal with ‘Cerulean’. It’s an almost 7-minute ditty that’s packed with delightful chimes and plinks, and even nods toward 80s new wave but it never fully escalates and fizzles out quietly. Memories of the 90s dance scene come flooding back in the wholly beige ‘Interference’ that feels like it’s trying too hard to be ‘cool’ with a slightly catchy synth line that gets duller faster than a school play about the storage of grain.
The odd tracks that do include vocals simply repeat the song title ad infinitum, except not as memorable or well-orchestrated as Daft Punk‘s ‘Around the World’. Some of the song titles are also cause for curiosity, such as the failed deathcore album ‘A Species Out of Control’ or the inexplicable ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’. The correlation between fishing and electro isn’t immediately clear, other than you won’t get anywhere in either without a decent hook – which this album severely lacks.
And that’s the main problem with ‘Unpatterns': there’s nothing to latch onto. The moments of genuine excitement are overshadowed by the repetitive, uninspired nature of the drawn out electronica that fails to start any kind of party. Despite ‘disco’ being in the name, SMD have struggled with this LP to entice any dancing, although there is the odd head-nodding beat to enjoy if you can subject yourself to it.
Simian Mobile Disco’s latest album ‘Unpatterns’ is out now on Wichita Recordings.
By Tom Mughal
on Tuesday, 12th June 2012 at 12:00 pm
It’s hard not to re-read the album cover of ‘Manifest!’ to check that you’re not listening to a new record from The Go! Team. But don’t worry, your eyes do not deceive you. Percussion-centric and bassline-heavy, Friends‘ debut album is a distorted guitar or two away from being straight from The Go! Team cutting room floor.
The New York-based 5-piece band have already gathered significant praise for their indie/funk/punk/disco/pop music, the variety in genre reflective of how different the band members’ backgrounds are; born in different parts of the United States, they came together in an apartment in Brooklyn. ‘Manifest!’ is made up of indie vocals, funk percussion, punk distortion, disco synths and the catchiness of a pop track. It’s a mix that works surprisingly well, carefully avoiding sounding like several musicians have rehearsed separately then come together for the day to record an album.
Throughout the 12 tracks, one think that becomes apparent is the talents of Connecticut-born singer Samantha Urbani. Her vocals are the thing that sets the group apart from The Go! Team. With instrumentals as strong as they are on ‘Manifest!’, Urbani does a fantastic job of keeping up with the rest of the band and doesn’t once seem overwhelmed by the percussion. I would liken her voice to Katie White’s vocals in The Tings Tings but, you know… good.
All the tracks on the album blend well together too, rather than coming across as an album of singles. Friends’ debut has definitely lived up to the massive hype that the band has accumulated in the previous months, including the lead-out track on ‘Manifest!,’ ‘Mind Control’ (previous Video of the Moment here), being named ‘The Hottest Record In The World’ by Zane Lowe. It’s a deserved title for what I believe to be the stand-out track on the album. Curiously placed at the end of the record, at nearly 5 minutes long, it is the longest song of all 12. With plenty of hand claps, “yeahs” and a beautifully repetitive bassline, ‘Mind Control’ takes its influences from ’70s funk, and it’s just a brilliant end to a great album.
‘Manifest!’ is a wonderful debut from Friends, one that lives up to the hype, and more. Listening to it gives me the same sensation I got back in 2008 when I was obsessed with Vampire Weekend‘s debut. Overall, an album full of interesting bass lines, refreshing vocals and not to mention more percussion than you can shake a vibra-slap at.
Friends’ debut ‘Manifest!’ is out now on Lucky Number.