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Header photo by Noah Abrams
Summer road trip music seems to be in high demand recently, and 2016 has been a good year so far for producing it. For example, I recently reviewed the excellent new album from Bear’s Den, which is a perfect soundtrack for restless late night drives in the hallucinogenic glare of headlights on long, empty stretches of highway. But if a daytime drive in the carefree sunshine of late summer is more your speed, you’ll won’t do better than American producer and songwriter Butch Walker‘s new album ‘Stay Gold’.
The album’s upbeat title track is a perfect lead-in, with bright alt-country instrumentation and a rousing chorus that references S.E. Hinton’s classic novel ‘The Outsiders’. I’m not sure if this is “required reading” in the UK, but most Americans of a certain age will be warmly familiar with either the book or the movie adaptation from the 1980s. Like the story it refers to, the song ‘Stay Gold’ is immediately engaging from the first guitar riff, and Walker’s blue-collar, working-class lyrics are relatable without devolving into the gimmickry that often plagues mainstream country. (I can’t say the same for its promo video, which is featured below.)
Musically, the album touches on a wide variety of styles with the kind of easy proficiency that can only come from Walker’s years of experience. ‘East Coast Girl’ is an interesting combination of influences, invoking Lou Reed in the spoken prosody of the verses and pure classic Springsteen in the chorus; its repeated plea “baby, baby, baby, where are you?” fairly begs for a live singalong. The heart-racing pulse and devil-may-care chorus of New York-centered track ‘Ludlow Expectations’ are even more palpably anthemic, as Walker sings lustily of “burning down the subway / running down the alleyway / high out of our minds on love.”
By contrast, gentle duet ‘Descending’, co-written and sung with country artist Ashley Monroe, softens Walker’s rough-around-the-edges vocals with Monroe’s sweet and clear tone, providing just enough stridency to give the harmonies a sense of emotional traction. The album takes a mildly misogynist misstep in ‘Mexican Coke’, comparing an objectified love interest not to the narcotic but to the soft drink, which is sweetened with sugar rather than corn syrup in markets south of the American border. But that rather oafish moment is balanced by the clever traditional string arrangement of ‘Irish Exit’, a nimble pub rock song about escaping from the superficiality of the party scene, and the visceral emotionality of ‘Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night’.
Walker himself says of the album, “It’s been fun to listen to [‘Stay Gold’] in the car. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t play my records after I do ‘em. And it’s a blast to drive down the [Pacific Coast Highway] and listen.” After spending some quality time with ‘Stay Gold’ on my own car stereo, I might be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m seriously contemplating a road trip to hear these songs live on Walker’s current North American tour. A full listing of Walker’s upcoming live dates, along with enthusiastic recaps of his recently played shows, can be found on his official Facebook.
Butch Walker’s eighth studio album ‘Stay Gold’ is due out today, the 26th of August, on Lojinx. TGTF also reviewed his previous album ’Afraid of Ghosts’ right back here.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 24th August 2016 at 12:00 pm
A few years ago, a little EP called ‘Leaflings’ was released by a mysterious act called Glass Animals. Soon discovered by one Paul Epworth, who signed them as the first band on his record label Wolf Tone’s roster, their combination of disparate elements of rock, pop, r&b and hip hop proved not only unique but weirdly irresistible to the public. Global stardom followed their debut album ‘Zaba’, so it seems good fortune that I caught them live at Liverpool Sound City 2014, a month before its release in June. On their second album out this Friday, Glass Animals are out to prove they’re more than a one-trick pony.
Thematically, the new LP is a major departure from ‘Zaba’. Instead of fanciful stories about peanut butter vibes, twee voles and hermits lacking sex and violence that only seemed possible to have come out of a drug-addled haze, realism rules the day on ‘How to Be a Human Being’. Primary songwriter Dave Bayley admitted in early press releases that the new material had been inspired by people they’d met during their travels: “I try to sneakily record people, and I have hours and hours of these amazing rants from taxi drivers, strange people we met outside of shows, people at parties. People say the strangest shit when they don’t think they’re ever gonna see you again.” Snatches of these secretly taped conversations appear to have found their way onto this LP, acting as spoken word interludes between songs or in the case of ‘[Premade Sandwiches]’, a whole track that sounds like Darth Vader going off on Whole Foods. Let’s hope he got clearance to use these clips. This on the ground, secretive sampling is on par with what frontman Bayley’s biggest hero, Kanye West, gets up to. Err, right.
On their last album, there was a strange yet oddly intriguing juxtaposition between the world of a child and the dark existence that loomed outside of it. Because ‘How to Be a Human Being’ is placed in the real world, there’s less possibility – and room – for whimsy. In a recent interview with Consequence of Sound, Bayley explained that the new record is meant to mirror a path from birth to death, with “Everything in between is what happens in life.” Early on in the album’s ‘life’, video game sounds are incorporated into ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ and ‘Pork Soda’ to reflect the lazy days of childhood.
Bayley’s falsetto flits from track to track, singing of things that fit into Glass Animals’ slacker image. Unveiled this week, ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ mentions cereal, cola and “getting blazed”. It’s also a prime example of where the band from Oxford appear to have lost the plot. While the vocal melody is pleasant enough in a singsong, nursery rhyme fashion, the rest of the song is literally voice, video game blips, a keyboard warbling and minimal percussion. Where Glass Animals used to shine – in making something exotic, different and most importantly, groovy – has been lost. Listening to the album, I’m reminded of the ‘90s gangsta rap Bayley says was influential in his formative years in College Station, Texas. Back in the day, how minor keys were used and the menacing undercurrent to the music made sense in the context of the heavy subject matter (drug use, domestic violence, murder).
This kind of negative fog hangs off of several album tracks – ‘Mama’s Gun’ in particular – making for a less distinctive, less than memorable listen. Forgetting its unsettling human barks, ‘The Other Side of Paradise’ is an unflattering snapshot of the very “caught up in camera lustings”, image-centric industry Glass Animals now find themselves the darlings of. Bayley croons, “I feel so fucking numb”, and you’re left wondering if he’s speaking of his own confused mental state inside the machine or if the song is based on an anecdote told to him by another. Because he’s been unwilling to admit which parts of ‘How to Be a Human Being’ are autobiographical or which are stories he’s woven from the experiences of others, you’re never 100% sure of their source. [Update: Bayley revealed in a previously recorded interview with Steve Lamacq that aired on BBC 6 Music on 24/08/2016 that this song was partly based on the real life of his favourite American basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon. You can listen to the interview 2 hours and 30 minutes on BBC iPlayer here.]
On the plus side, ‘Cane Shuga’ has bouncy synths and an intriguing drum pattern from Joe Seaward that will make it fun to watch live. The sleaze of ‘Take a Slice’, with its lo-fi, fuzzy production and wigged out guitar line, tempers its shockingly frank messages, such as “I’m filthy and I like it”. Prostitution rears its ugly, real head in ‘Poplar Street’, the guitar hook intro catchy but similar to John Frusciante’s work on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Under the Bridge’.
Bayley’s self-described closing bookend to the album, ‘Agnes’, seems to mock our society’s reliance on technology, the sad sound of a mobile phone’s dying battery trilling in the background. Instrumentally, this is as uplifting as this album gets, which highlights what’s missing from this album. I suppose you could argue that while ‘Zaba’ was written from a perspective inside the jungle of a children’s book and this new one is from the concrete jungle, there were bound to be wildly major differences between the two. Because there’s much less to latch on to on ‘How to Be a Human Being’, it makes for a challenging follow-up listen.
‘How to Be a Human Being’, the sophomore album from Oxford’s Glass Animals’, will be out this Friday, the 26th of August, on Wolf Tone / Caroline International (UK) and Harvest Records (North America). Read my past review of the LP’s first single ‘Life Itself’ through here. For more on Glass Animals on TGTF, follow this link.
Since his 2011 debut album ‘Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm’, Benjamin Francis Leftwich has been on somewhat of a hiatus, releasing just the four-track EP ‘In The Open’ in 2012. Shortly after the EP’s release, his father was diagnosed with cancer, causing him to cancel a North American tour that winter. His father sadly passed in April 2013, leaving Leftwich distraught: “I just needed to live outside of music”.
Two long, hard years later, Benjamin Francis Leftwich has released his long anticipated second studio album ‘After The Rain’ this month. On the new LP, Leftwich is essentially serving up his life over the past few years on a plate, as he addresses the pain and heartache he went through as he grieved the loss of his father. As a commemoration, ‘After The Rain’ is both melancholic yet optimistic in its delicate yet grand decorum.
The album opens with the previously released ‘Tilikum’, which was also his first release in 3 years. Its meandering guitar melody intro sets the scene perfectly for Leftwich’s vocals to return in the whispering falsetto previously engraved in our minds in 2011. As he paints a picture of the times shared with his father, the track continues in a delicate, ghostly fashion, the musical equivalent to a light, late afternoon autumn breeze. Each part of the song, from the female backing vocals harmonising the topline to the light brushwork on the drums, were thoroughly thought out and perfectly executed when sculpting the overall sound of the track.
Although the same elements are used throughout, third track ‘She Will Sing’ carries more of a tribal feel. With a lot more momentum, the song shows a far more exciting side to the album. The heavy use of added percussion, together with a rhythmic vocal melody, play a huge part in creating vigour within the track. Aside from these two major elements, we continue to hear a very delicate vocal tone, Leftwich’s trademark fingerpicked guitar melody that meanders around the chords and an equally as soft and simple pad sound that weaves together with the guitar.
‘After the Rain’ can be categorized instantly with a few similar artists. Twinkly guitar lines and falsetto vocals scream Bon Iver and Ben Howard, which we hear religiously throughout. This works for Leftwich, and it works well. But when we look past the obvious, specifically in tracks like ‘Kicking Roses’ with its minimalist indie electronic vibe, and the abstract sample sound used in ‘Mayflies’, the music points towards The Postal Service and James Blake. Considering Leftwich’s similarities with singer/songwriter types, these outsider influences are like a breath of fresh air. The only downside is that they don’t appear as often as one would like. An equal blend of the two separate reference groups would be perfect in pulling the whole album together, rather than an overuse of folky, easy listening elements and an underuse of the electronic ones.
‘Mayflies’ is the only song on the album in which elements from both sets of influences are utilised cohesively. A colourful, off-beat drum groove intertwined with a simple, syncopated guitar melody form the foundations of this folk-orientated track. The vocal melody has been planned carefully to allow for downtime during the verses, with longer phrases and fewer syllables, with the change to a more rhythmic melody with much sharper projection. Intriguingly, Leftwich puts focus on the aforementioned abstract sample sound, specifically throughout the end of each chorus. The use of this sample here effectively gives the track a lot more momentum, while carefully adding one more element of interest and surprise for his listeners.
Emotionally and lyrically, this is an incredible album with great use of instrumentation. It is touching and emotional in a very direct way, a window intosome of Leftwich’s very personal matters. Sonically, I feel it could take a little more work. The broadening in sounds and experimentation with influences is a well-accepted addition to the album; however, these moments come few and far between. If executed as strongly as we hear in ‘Mayflies’ or ‘Kicking Roses’, he could be onto a very unique and individual sound, and one that could be the groundwork for something bigger.
‘After The Rain’ is out now on Dirty Hit Records. Benjamin Francis Leftwich will begin a UK tour next month on the 21st of September in Norwich. This will be followed by mainland Europe and American tours in October through December. For more on TGTF’s coverage on Leftwich, go here.
Scottish rock giants Biffy Clyro appeared as if they could do no wrong. Ever since the release of 2007’s ‘Puzzle’, they just kept on climbing up and into the stratosphere, where they sat perched on a throne made of solid rock gems. With such escalating expectations, it was inevitable there was going to be a slight slip. And ‘Ellipsis’, produced by Rich Costey, is just that.
Being the sixth release over a career that has seen their sound turn from jagged, raw and ferocious to mammoth, orchestrated and hard hitting, where they would go next was always a question hanging in the air. They have certainly decided that the future doesn’t involve regressing back to their earlier years and the grandiose sound that is now synonymous with the name Biffy Clyro is certainly here to stay.
Opening with ‘Wolves of Winter’, they show they certainly don’t mess around with the epic soundscapes. However, there is a certain lightheartedness once this all falls away and the instrumentation takes on an almost playful stance, especially pre-chorus. ‘Friends and Enemies’ continues this trend, though with much greater aplomb, but it’s on ‘Animal Style’ where the savage beasts return in full form. The pre-chorus of “why do you waste your time with me, I’m an animal, can you realise, my head’s a fucking carnival” is where Simon Neil’s songwriting is at its most raw and striking. This trend continues through to the chorus that is as large as the words he forcefully puts upon us to mark his territory.
“I am explosive and volatile, I’m on the turn”, Neil sings during the opening verse in later cut ‘Howl’, and nothing has ever been truer of this band. Though things certainly are feeling mildly stagnant in places, the experimentation doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s good to see them trying out new sounds in the hope that something helps lead to a higher level. But an album should have a flow or an air, and ‘Ellipsis’ just doesn’t.
Perhaps far more noticeable than the lyrics is how the complete and utter divergence from the record’s flow is obvious. A far cry from the introductory three tracks, ‘Re-arrange’, with an electronic beat and a glittering picked guitar line is the merging of two differing worlds that both leave a different taste, be it good or bad, in your mouth. This is a recurring feature of the album, with the Biffy sound alternating and experimenting with different flavours that the majority of the time just don’t work, Yet when they do work, the result is glorious. Case in point to the former, ‘Small Wishes’ is another strange pause on the album. It takes on a folk feel, but with a complete disdain for any kind of rhythm. It follows ‘On a Bang’, another ferocious and dark track that screams all that makes Biffy Clyro, making for a huge disconnect.
‘Medicine’ has a similar feel to ‘Machines’ from the aforementioned ‘Puzzle’. More of a carry-on from there musically, lyrically it’s definitely happier, which is saying something, considering this is a song about heartbreak. Biffy barraging us again, we then get into ‘Flammable’, another of the album’s stronger moments. A wonderfully melodic turn into the more modern day Biffy Clyro, it’s a perfect agglomeration of their sounds. Finale ‘People’ continues the acoustic stopgap trend that appears throughout, with piano and guitar marrying to create a beautiful sound that echoes Neil’s words of human relationships and the complexity that they can form. It’s the most emotive moment on the record, and it’s beautiful. It’s just a shame that we had to follow the chaotic flow of ‘Ellipsis’ to get here.
‘Ellipsis’ is certainly an experimental Biffy Clyro record, which, as mentioned previously, is definitely a good thing for the Scottish band. It’s a stepping stone to what could be a much stronger follow-up. Their arrangements can be orchestrated beautifully and filled with grandeur, but they can easily go into a completely savage and beastly realm, something Biffy have near perfected now. Some of these cuts could quite easily have been placed upon a separate collection or used as b-sides in the band’s search for the next step. But the mere fact they’ve chosen to use all of them on a fully-fledged studio album means they feel they can either do no wrong or they want to shake things up a bit. Either way, whatever follows ‘Ellipsis’ will certainly be interesting.
‘Ellipsis’ is out now via 14th Floor Records. Catch up on all the Biffy Clyro coverage (we have a huge back catalogue of the stuff) on TGTF here.
You might remember our review of Wild Beasts’ first single from ‘Boy King’, ‘Get My Bang’, which was described as sleazy, but in the best way possible. Well, it appears that they have carried this through to the entire record, and it’s a perfect execution. From the outset, they have no problem with getting the atmosphere to a point where you want wherever you are to always be dark, lowly lit and to contain some form of your desire. They’ve previously described this move as avoiding “being comforting” and see it as a way to keep the entire Wild Beasts idea fresh, away from stagnation.
‘Big Cat’ shows the album’s style early on with a slowly pulsating drum rhythm, enveloped by electronica and more generic instrumentation. The lyrics are always alluding to some form of predatory action, most obviously with the title and references to it, leading man Hayden Thorpe being top of the food chain. The overall formula doesn’t change throughout the LP, which is a good thing. It’s almost conceptual in its idea and execution. With it being a look into the more animalistic stylisation of human nature and the way we sometimes just want to get down to the most primal of instincts within our coding, it’s filled with grand and sometimes obvious statements.
Another fine example of this is ‘Tough Guy’, with the words “now I’m all fucked up and I can’t stand up, so I better suck it up like a tough guy would”. It succeeds in breaking down the barriers of supposed niceties and what is expected of gentlemen, yet we all let go sometimes and occasionally it works out for us. The chorus also has a rather obnoxious synth line that cuts across everything and mildly similar in sound to Ace of Base’s leading riff in ‘All That She Wants’. Maybe it’s coincidental, or maybe it’s a genius method of subtle referencing to the state of mind of the song’s main protagonist?
Of course, Wild Beasts aren’t ones to forget the fairer sex. ‘Alpha Female’ pays tribute to the fact that woman truly do control us men, and how we have no problem setting our steps behind you. ‘Get My Bang’ still has enough sleazes and sultriness to more than support the rest of the album. As mentioned previously, the instrumental makeup of the record really doesn’t differ too much. And it’s just a delightful walk through the more intense senses. ‘Celestial Creatures’ attests to this, with its ethereal and focused description of humanity at its most organic.
‘2BU’ uses Tom Fleming’s baritone is used to take the album’s voice down in ‘2BU’, which is interesting in that the rest of the track describes nothing but wanting to overtake someone’s life and be them because they have everything you want. ‘He The Colossus’ lives up to its name, with a powerfully sounding chorus that challenges the vocals for space in the mix, bringing though a colossally memorable sound. Taking the sound found throughout and warping it slightly, ‘Ponytail’ uses some more of Fleming’s baritone and an opposing instrumentation that collide together.
The two final tracks of the album bring the affair to a climax, with a truly egotistic look at the mind of the modern man in ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’ and a more vulnerable truth within ‘Dreamliner’, where man’s overall vulnerability is hidden by the bravado that is often used to front this in the real world. The former is the last of the power and focus, a gruelling bass line with haunting sounds swirling in the background, with the vocals laying down the law of the animal kingdom, where the stronger thrive. The latter is a much more withdrawn affair, being a mostly acoustic affair. With the strings being audibly plucked, it’s as the atmosphere behind it swells that the track gains its momentum. The momentum drops away occasionally, which brings out the vulnerability, before the grandeur makes its slow way back in.
‘Boy King’ is perhaps one of the greatest documents of modern man and his true return to the natural state. Wanting to be the powerful Adonis, he who rules the kingdom and has his queen. Wild Beasts have managed to create this world, while giving it a sound that will not only transverse generations, but also one that will also prove a strength in their discography.
‘Boy King’, the new album from Wild Beasts, is out now on Domino Records. Catch up on more of Wild Beasts’ coverage on TGTF here.
Header photo by Steve Gullick
Pop songwriter Ed Harcourt‘s new album ‘Furnaces’ packs exactly the kind of heat and intense pressure that its title might suggest. Its songs are profoundly critical of Western society and of human nature as a whole, but also profoundly personal and self-reflective. On his official Web site. Harcourt paraphrases a famous quote from John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17, “No man is an island unto himself” as a central theme of the new album before giving further insight into his creative process. “This record is from the heart of a father, brother and human. The rage that I have for these intense times has kept me burning, kept me writing; I suppose one is compelled by how the outside world reflects one’s own shortcomings; these are the mirrors that we hold up to ourselves, in the search for some kind of truth.”
For help with the sonic realisation of his weighty subject matter, Harcourt has turned to veteran producer Flood, whose production credits include work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey and Foals. Considering the tone of those previous collaborations, the overwhelmingly dark and brooding air Flood lends to Harcourt’s ‘Furnaces’ should come as no great surprise. The stark electronic intro to moody ballad ‘The World is on Fire’ pivots on the lines “I think I’m spinning out of my heart / it’s such a fitting way to die”, expanding from that point into anxious percussion and dramatic harmonies. Harcourt’s lyrics quickly take an apocalyptic turn in the song’s haunting chorus: “and as the world is on fire / I hear songs with no words / while in the grand scheme of things / it’s just the dark in the universe”.
Title track ‘Furnaces’ cuts right to the quick of corporate greed and excess, opening with the caustic observation, “no matter how much coal you shovel in the mouth of your child / these furnaces still want more”. The song’s dramatic refrain “this is junkyard love on a scrap heap of lust / keep the furnace burning lest we turn into rust” is sharply effective in the album version featured in the video above, but equally scathing in the acoustic performance just below.
The album’s overriding gloom and doom is broken up with a dose of cynical humour in ‘Occupational Hazard’, where the bass groove and deep vocals come across more like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch who stole Christmas than Harcourt probably intended. He comes back to taking himself seriously in ‘Nothing But a Bad Trip’, which schizophrenically shifts from deep, foreboding rhythms to warmer, piano-laced sounds and back again to heavy, distorted guitars and guttural vocals. Its lyrical reference to John Donne, “I knew without doubt that every man can sometimes be an island”, seethes with prior arrogance and present regret, especially in the context of the chorus lines “nothing like a bad trip to bring you down / the only bird in a fishbowl town”.
Harcourt himself describes ‘Dionysus’ as a musing on the dual nature of man and the “teetering see-saw of [his] morals”. The song’s stately piano intro quickly becomes a militant march, then veers off into a visceral morass of guitars before softening again under the hopeless plea “I know you want to help me, but I’m beyond salvation / tearing through your beauty, too lost for damnation”.
‘Last of Your Kind’ is a bit lighter and brighter than the other tracks on the album, but even here Harcourt takes a rather dire view of what might normally be seen as a positive situation. The lyrical chorus melody “there’s nothing more to do . . . there’s nothing more to say . . . there’s no one else like you / you’re the last of your kind” provides a welcome glimmer of hope among the ruins depicted in the surrounding songs. The bridge lyric “if we’re standing on the edge of existence / I don’t want this moment to end” is one of the most poignant moments on the album.
‘Furnaces’ is the kind of intellectually deep and emotionally ponderous album that won’t likely find its way onto anyone’s Sunday morning playlist, but its sharp perspective and insight are undeniable. Harcourt and Flood have joined forces to create an epic soundscape illustrating the impotent furore and frustration that so many people, including apparently Harcourt himself, seem to feel in our current trying times.
Ed Harcourt’s seventh studio album ‘Furnaces’ is due for release this Friday, the 19th of August, via Polydor Records / Caroline International. Harcourt will perform a special solo show to celebrate the album release at London’s Rough Trade East next Monday, the 22nd of August, and another one-off show at London’s Village Underground on the 21st of September.
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