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Album Review: Julia Jacklin – Don’t Let the Kids Win

 
By on Monday, 5th December 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Julia Jacklin Don't Let the Kids Win album coverAussie singer/songwriter Julia Jacklin, according to her Web site, found inspiration at an early age in the shape of Britney Spears, something I’m sure plenty of fellow ‘90s-born folk can relate to. This interest led to Jacklin taking singing lessons in her hometown of Blue Mountains – if you Google the place, it appears to be set in a landscape just as brilliant as the name suggests – before her interests moved on to Avril Lavigne and the edgier Evanescence. She went on to form a band with an old friend and initially as the singer, but then went on to write and play guitar too.

It’s always incredible to hear of people that work seemingly normal day jobs, and manage to create stirring and out of the ordinary music and art in their spare time. ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’ is the debut album from Jacklin, which she wrote whilst she was working in a factory. Recorded at Sitting Room Studios in New Zealand, the ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’ is a foray into the folksy and fanciful and is jam-packed with evocative and imaginative lyrics. It doesn’t actually sit comfortably into any one genre: it’s more of a melting pot of charming country rhythms, folksy storytelling and moments of bluesy indie rock.

Single ‘Pool Party’ opens with “I was shorter than my dad’s dining table / you were taller than my bedroom doorframe”. It’s just one of the tracks on the album that uses words to create quirky and playful imagery, yet is laced with a bittersweet kind of nostalgia. The rhythm of the track is slow and soulful, with old-sounding rumbles of bass and sharp drumbeats, tied together with a guitar that rolls along like it’s being played in a small town full of chequered shirt-wearing locals.

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‘Coming of Age’ is one of the heavier tracks on the album, although describing any of the LP as heavy is probably taking things a bit too far. It’s upbeat musically, with a country guitar jangling throughout. The chorus, which repeats “didn’t see it myself / my coming of age”, further adds to the wistful nature of the album. On her Web site, Jacklin tackles this topic: “When I was growing up I was so ambitious: I’m going to be this amazing social worker, save the world, a great musician, fit, an amazing writer. Then you get to mid-20s and you realise you have to focus on one thing”.

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A standout track is ‘Leadlight’, where Jacklin really shows off her melodic voice, gentle at times, then soulful and uplifting at others. It’s a stripped-back track, with just a steady drum and guitar at times, then swelling to include a choral accompaniment towards the end. Much like this is ‘Hay Plain’, which also builds up throughout the track after a soft start, but finishes just as gentle as it begins. The song has me missing a life that I haven’t even lived, as Jacklin transports you into the story she’s telling.

Similarly low-key is title track ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’, which features just Jacklin’s voice and a guitar as she sings nostalgically about valuing time with family and friends. It’s a sweet and sentimental track.

The whole album is easy listening but will also get you thinking about the carefree days of your youth if you feel like you’re already past them. Or hopefully make you appreciate them even more if you’re still living them. It can be comforting at times to realise that other people have the same doubts about getting older or, as Jacklin puts it, “yeah, we’re getting older, but it’s not so special. It’s not unique”.

8.5/10

‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’, Julia Jacklin’s debut album, is out now on Transgressive Records. Jacklin has a bunch of upcoming dates in her native Australia and New Zealand, until February where she’ll hit Europe, including dates in Germany and the UK. All dates can be found listed on her Web site, and her UK ones are listed in this previous post. For more coverage of Jacklin here on TGTF, go here.

 

Album Review: Esben and the Witch – Older Terrors

 
By on Friday, 2nd December 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by William van der Voort

Esben and the WitchAll three members of gothic rock trio Esben and the Witch, Thomas Fisher (guitar/keyboards), Daniel Copeman (electronics/guitars) and Rachel Davies (vocals), have recently relocated to Berlin from their former base in Brighton. Along with the geographic broadening of their horizons, the band appear to have expanded their musical boundaries as well. Their latest release ‘Older Terrors’ looks, on the surface, like an EP, with only four songs on its tracklisting. But its total running time of 46 minutes is actually lengthier than both of the last two albums I’ve recently reviewed. (For reference, Skinny Lister’s ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ packed 12 concise songs into 36 minutes, and Bell X1’s ‘Arms’ kept to a svelte 9 tracks and 38 minutes.)

What does this mean? Have Esben and the Witch recorded four exceptionally prolonged alt-pop songs, or have they composed four miniature symphonies? I wasn’t familiar with the band before listening to ‘Older Terrors’, and I found it difficult to answer that question without context. My ambiguous first impressions of the album were of dramatic, slowly evolving musical arrangements geared toward creating a dark, ominous ambience, and a singer whose voice is by turns ethereally beautiful and emotionally tortured, often a blend of both.

A quick virtual trip through TGTF’s archive of past coverage on Esben and the Witch served to confirm my initial thoughts. In a a 2010 Bands to Watch feature, our writer remarked that “lead singer Rachel’s voice does, at times, bear a strong similarity to that of Florence Welch”. A review of the band’s debut LP ‘Violet Cries’ talks about the “Brighton trio’s fixation with darkness . . . feelings of dread and solemnity, [and] the overriding sensuality of it all.” Editor Mary used the words “eerie”, “sinister” and “haunting” to describe videos from Esben and the Witch’s second LP ‘Wash the Sins Not Only the Face’ and the phrase “stark and forlorn” to describe ‘Dig Your Fingers In’, the first single from third album ‘A New Nature’.

Looking back upon ‘A New Nature’, we can see Esben and the Witch starting to explore longer, and more expansive musical arrangements: two songs on that record are over 10 minutes long, and three others are over 6 minutes in duration. With ‘Older Terrors’, the band has completely set aside any preconceived notions of writing songs within a 3-minute box, instead choosing to develop musical ideas in a fashion more typical of classical composers than rock musicians.

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Opening song ‘Sylvan’ is comprised of three distinct sections, Davies’ serpentine vocal melody weaving through each, loosely holding them together with a series of indistinct but strangely evocative words and phrases. The primitive drum beat and slow harmonic tempo of section one gives way through an extended guitar riff to a stark, anticipatory middle section and ultimately to a dynamic and dramatic climax in the third and final section.

The minor key Spanish guitar melody warms but doesn’t disguise the sinister undertones in ‘Marking the Heart of a Serpent’. Davies’ vocal tone is once again light and limber in the fluid melodic line, almost hypnotic in quality, and it leads the unsuspecting listener to a bit of a shock in the dynamic attack of the song’s middle section. The lyricless instrumental frenzy of section three stretches into a coda that runs out of steam rather than coming to a conclusive finish.

‘The Wolf’s Sun’ opens with the protracted growl of guitars and singularly Gothic-sounding lyrics: “so lead me through the dark / your fingers clawing at my heart / clutching me against your breast / inside your crook, I’ll lay my head”. The hypnotic initial combination of steady bass ostinato and amorphous vocal melody evolves into a surprisingly groove-based middle section, and a positively primal freak out at the song’s end.

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Closing track ‘The Reverist’ opens with a slow, hazy instrumental prelude that evokes a vague visual idea of gradually emerging from shadow into a dim and misty light. Davies’ middle section lyrics, however, twist the narrative into something more sinister with the repeated phrase “ships on fire”. The musical arrangement follows suit, growing more and more agitated before it descends into the depths of its own eventual demise.

The broadly experimental nature of ‘Older Terrors’ is to be applauded, even if the songs themselves occasionally stretch past the point of cohesion. To use a drama-related analogy, which seems appropriate for such an inherently dramatic set of songs, there are moments where the plot wears a bit thin, and its devices, in this case the instrumental arrangements, become overly convoluted. Nevertheless, ‘Older Terrors’ leaves in its wake a post-apocalyptic sense of utter stillness and of dark, delicate beauty. A massively impressive effort, and for myself, an indelible first impression.

7/10

‘Older Terrors’, the fourth album from Esben and the Witch, is available now via Season of Mist. TGTF’s complete past coverage of Esben and the Witch is collected through here.

 

Album Review: Will Varley – Kingsdown Sundown

 
By on Wednesday, 30th November 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Will Varley Kingsdown SundownDelicate but firm, Will Varley manages to create a world to lose yourself in with just his voice and some taut strings. This isn’t an especially new method of working, in fact it’s almost as old as music itself. But the artists who manage to stand out from this crowd are the souls with stories to tell, stories that survive the tests of time. Varley has said himself of this album and its content which “may not be radio friendly, or even ‘friendly’ at all”, but in all honesty it’s nice to have something that steers clear of the infinite happiness that consumes pop music. Darkened acoustic tracks offer a different side to life, the one that is all too real for all of us and gives an unrelenting relatable factor.

With Varley, his strength lies in the darker side of songcraft. It’s not an entirely happy listen – minor chords are in abundance – but there’s something utterly entrancing about his compositions. The first track, ‘To Build A Wall’, kicks things off with its ballad styling and talk of building walls that act as a defence for family, life and love. It’s a delicate first bite but it shows Varley opening himself up to prepare you for exactly where the album is heading: deep into his mind, and it’s not going to be an easy ride.

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Following this, ’Something Is Breaking’ takes the atmosphere straight into the realistic and sombre. What is presumably a look at the modern world and its haphazard way of “survival”, a constant divide that fixes nothing but “turns your past into our future”, Varley takes aim at politicians and their broken way of working. More lost lives appear in ‘When She Wakes Up’, which features entwining stories that all lead to the unconscious protective dormant mind that needs to learn of all this new information. Is it a metaphor for the naivete of the majority of the world? Probably not, but the beauty of music such as this is you can read whatever story and meaning it brings out to you and associate it to your own personal needs.

Another delicate track, ‘February Snow’, approaches more death with the title offering the instant scene setter. Varley’s guitar plucking takes on the symbolic form of a heavy snow, while his lyrics offer the ground for these flakes to fall upon and the soft string accompaniment brings it all together with such a light touch that you’d be forgiven for actually missing it. To follow such an irenic track is no easy feat, even for the creator, but on ‘Let Your Guard Down’, he does just that. Opening with the words “In a KFC, in the early hours, someone giving out threats, someone giving out flowers”, Varley somehow manages to completely juxtapose all that came before it. It takes a special kind of talent to write a track such as ‘February Snow’ and then commit “KFC” as lyrics within the track that follows. Yet Varley manages to pull both off without a single hitch and without a need to compromise in his dusk-filled world.

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Perhaps more obvious in topic, ‘We Want Our Planet Back’ sees Varley going full-on political. The simplicity of the words, not aiming for hidden meaning but going full heart-on-sleeve, offers the track as something of an anthem for the liberals and hippies. Given the current political climate of the world, that’s certainly not a bad thing. The minimal use of additional instruments throughout, from the aforementioned strings, to the spattering of jolting electric guitar here, the basis of Varley’s voice and guitar to serve as the canvas doesn’t falter or give up any of its built-up success.

At this point, over halfway, you gather that there aren’t going to be any left-field surprises and this is an album that is served as sold. ‘Too Late, Too Soon’ and ‘Wild Bird’ are both eloquent and full of picturesque lyricism and full of more of Varley’s delicate guitar work, but the album takes a turn into ‘Back Down to Hell’. Taking on a dark-folk angle, it paints a picture of a temptress in only a way that Varley can describe. One standout line in particular, “she melts the sunset with the candle in her eye”, gives both a message of futility and despair. But just in case you weren’t at that feeling yet, Varley follows it with “woke up this morning, thought I was gonna die, it’s a long way down”.

The final two tracks ‘One Last Look at the View’ and ‘We’ll Keep Making Plans’ just completely go full throttle into the quaint and heartbreaking folk tale side of Varley. What he’s managed to create with ‘Kingsdown Sundown’ is a record to swallow you whole and leave you feeling fragile, a point that is backed up by the latter track. At 1:59, ‘We’ll Keep Making Plans’ is the shortest cut, but at the same time the most open. It fades in with airy finger picking, soon to be joined by Varley’s voice, ghostly and ravaged with emotion. It carries on through until it simply fades away, leaving you distraught and lost. Listen to ‘Kingsdown Sundown’ in the dark of night whilst it’s raining, with no distractions. You might feel sad, but Varley is there with you to keep you company.

8/10

Will Varley’s ‘Kingsdown Sundown’ album is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings.

 

Album Review: Syd Arthur – Apricity

 
By on Tuesday, 29th November 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Syd Arthur Apricity album cover‘Apricity’ is apparently an obsolete word that means ‘warmth of the sun’. A band such as Syd Arthur are one of the only groups who could so easily find a word such as this to describe their new album with such perfection. ‘Apricity’ is also the fourth album from the Canterbury foursome and is the perfect counter to the forthcoming winter. From the get-go of opener ‘Coal Mine’, it becomes clear that this is a band who isn’t messing around. The song begins with a riff that hauls you in but then falls away to a delicate offering of guitar, only to then be turned into a soulful number, with dressings of jazz and psychedelia.

With so much action happening from the start, you begin to understand ‘Apricity’ wasn’t made for you to simply listen to in the background, it demands your presence for the entire listen. With so much happening all of the time, it’s easy to get lost within and to let the music consume you: from the violin that sits atop the standard instrumentation, the licks of guitar that cut through and piano that thickens the mix, it’s a full time job trying to catch everything going on and it’s never been more fun to do so.

Next up is ‘Plane Crash In Kansas’. Although its name is not a particularly happy one, the soulful summer vibes are in abundance. The chorus follows the set melody we’re greeted with in the beginnng but it takes it into minor territory, showing that melody and melancholy can indeed go hand in hand. ’No Peace’ opts for the less direct approach by having no real memorable riff, letting the track flow on its own. An urgent downward-picking guitar gives a slight edge to the repetitive chorus, and the song finally leaves us with a crescendo of swirling violin that draws the chorus back in. When ‘Sun Rays’ hits, you’re met with a couple of bars of urgent drums greet the less-than-so melody that everything else follows with complete dedication. Certainly not done in the most exciting way, but the tune has a flow that just captures you.

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Halfway point and longest cut ‘Into Eternity’ forgoes all the previous urgency or immediate atmosphere, instead letting everything build into a minor frenzy of searching guitar licks that move into an instrument-wide uniform melody. This methods is carried on until a leap into a guitar solo that doesn’t yearn so much for attention but to gracefully meet everything else around it. Not quite feeling as grandiose as it quite should, this outro could have a bit more attack to it to make the second half of the record arrive with more bite.

Nonetheless, the second half arrives and with it comes slightly more urgency. ‘Rebel Lands’ houses a mildly erratic rhythm section, while the more serene layers above use this to their advantage, occasionally meeting and surpassing it, but more or less using it to accentuate their gracefulness. It’s on ‘Seraphim’ where we’re finally given a chorus with some bite, leaving the verses to act as building blocks. The guitars once again bring the memorable melody, while the rhythm section goes for a more resolute pounding approach, sitting way below the higher sections of the musical spectrum. It’s the outro, however, where things get really interesting, falling away into a collapsing barrage of pounding drums and respectable but wantonly searing guitar.

Following this, ‘Portal’ lets the often masked electronic instrumentation take the front seat. The song truly approaches the psychedelic side of music with its falling sounds that appear from nowhere and the repetitive nature of everything else helping them along. Being the only instrumental number on the album, it does a supremely good job at holding your attention, never waning into boring or obsolete, instead going forward with aplomb and grace. Things get full-on weird with ‘Evolution’, another electronic-heavy track, experimentats with effects to create a soundscape that isn’t directly as pleasing as those that came before it, but it still manages to have an attraction of sorts.

Finale and title track, ‘Apricity’ brings things to a close with more immediate urgency, that is until it falls away just before the halfway mark. It’s here where it takes this chance to bring it all roaring back in exact repetition until it eventually runs its course and completely breaks off, leaving nothing but a shimmering melody. ‘Apricity’ the album is a listen that never feels like a chore. Syd Arthur truly are a band that bring both fun and intrigue to the music they create.

8/10

‘Apricity’, Syd Arthur’s newest album, is out now on Communion (UK) / Harvest Records (North America). You can catch up on Carrie’s interview with frontman Liam McGill back here. For much more on Syd Arthur on TGTF, follow this link.

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Album Review: Laura Welsh – See Red EP

 
By on Monday, 28th November 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Laura Welsh See Red EP coverAn initially beautifully constructed and soulful offering from Staffordshire’s Laura Welsh sees heartfelt and emotive lyrics backed by a canvas of delicate and determined instrumentation. Welsh first rose to prominence after being featured on the ’50 Shades of Grey’ soundtrack, which admittedly is the perfect place for her dark and brooding sonic atmosphere. The ‘See Red’ EP opens with ‘Red’, a track which immediately demands your attention. Atmosphere is first laid out with a carefully place soft piano line. Welsh’s voice then joins the party, a dominating presence over everything, you can see why the comparisons to Florence Welch are in abundance. Once an overbearing beat kicks in, it all leads to the pre-chorus that prepares you for the song to fully take off. Spatterings of digital instrumentation flutter in and out, decorating this dark, soulful track with a lighter edge that builds an irrefutable attraction.

‘Naive’ takes on a similar build, with a large and overtly present beat pushing everything forward, while the intricate details create a conscious intrigue. Throughout the chorus, layers of Welsh’s voice serve as backing whilst the leading Welsh sits atop the orchestration with absolute ease. As she sings about “staying naive”, the nature of Welsh’s voice sharply contrasts her lyricism.

Generally there’s not much change in the rest of the proceedings, which doesn’t quite turn into a negative as the EP is only four tracks. Were the effort any longer, this would be a potential threat to its attraction and see boredom easily set in. ‘Concrete’ has a slightly increased forward-pushing beat that offers urgency to the standing Welsh puts herself in. She emotes, “tell me something new, something bold, something true, before we hit the concrete”, describing a relationship on its last legs. Were it sung with more of a pleading tone, it would have an indisputable hook. But as she doesn’t, something feels lacking here, as her delivery doesn’t partner with the rapid base beat.

Finale ‘Numb’ has the most to offer in terms of instrumentation. The basics of atmosphere and piano make an appearance again, just as they did at the beginning of the EP. But instead of leading to an erupting chorus, it merely ebbs and flows, doing its hardest to fully create the world Welsh wants you to be in. The track goes through the motions, not quite leading to a crescendo as you’d assume it would. Instead, it peters out into an atmospheric ether.

A pleasant enough offering, but when Welsh undoubtedly returns with an LP, a bit more variety and exploration would certainly help retain interest for strength that is obviously there. The basics are all here but with a voice of such power and range like Welsh’s, it’s a disservice to not take full advantage of it.

6/10

Laura Welsh’s ‘See Red’ EP is out now on her own imprint TwentyTwoSeven Recordings / Republic of Music. For more on TGTF’s coverage on Welsh, including a review of her 2015 debut album ‘Soft Control’, follow this link.

 

Album Review: Skinny Lister – The Devil, the Heart & the Fight

 
By on Friday, 18th November 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Skinny Lister album coverGenre-bending, folk-punk sextet Skinny Lister released their new LP ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ back in September, but their current American tour in support of the album gives us occasion to circle back and give the record its due. Skinny Lister recently sold out an October UK tour on the heels of the album release, which is both a signal of their growing success and a measure of the LP’s singular merit.

Skinny Lister made a lasting impression with their saucy second album, ‘Down on Deptford Broadway’, which they previewed at SXSW 2015 ahead of its release in April of that year. They spent the remainder of 2015 on the road, opening for their labelmate Frank Turner and bringing their incorrigible, rabble-rousing spirit to new audiences both at home and abroad.

Wasting no time, the band dropped a preliminary announcement for album number three in April of this year, hit the studio in Newcastle with producer Tristan Ivemy in May, and released the new album’s first official single in July. That July single, ‘Wanted’, is also the opening track on ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’. Its cocky verses and lusty chorus immediately seem familiar, but the springy guitar riff adds an unexpected flavour, suggesting straightaway that Skinny Lister have expanded upon their usual formula.

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The bright and buoyant ‘Geordie Lad’ is one of the album’s more introspective moments, despite its warm folk rock arrangement. ‘Tragedy in A Minor’ takes a darker and more ironic turn, even as singer Daniel Heptinstall makes light of a jilted romance: “well ,who to invite, it was doin’ my head in / it’s kind of a blessing she cancelled the wedding / some day I will laugh at this, I do not doubt it / I might even write me a song all about it.” Co-frontwoman Lorna Thomas takes center stage in the trippy and decidedly pop-tinged ‘Devil in Me’.  Her normally brassy voice takes on a deceptively sweet, Taylor Swift-like edge in its chorus lines, “the devil in me will come for you and you’ll pay the price for not being very nice / the devil in me will come for you and you’ll realise that to cross me wasn’t wise.”

Many of the songs on ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ retain the signature Skinny Lister combination of pub singalong and sea shanty, generated by the band’s unique instrumentation and folk dance influence. ‘Beat it From the Chest’ sings, at first, like any of the swaggering, foot-stomping tunes from ‘Down on Deptford Broadway’, but the electric guitar arrangement takes the place of the accordion, giving the song a more anthemic rock tone. The accordion’s folk flavour is more prominently featured in ‘Hamburg Drunk’, an unapologetic drinking song that abruptly switches tempo between a fast stomp and a lurching sway.

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Following the country rock ballad ‘Grace’, Skinny Lister get back to their roots with the punk-leaning ‘Charlie’ and penultimate track ‘Fair Winds & Following Seas’. Album closer ‘Carry’ is simple and heartfelt as it gradually swells from a delicate love ballad to an uplifting and fully-realised singalong anthem.

‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ is a surprisingly concise record, given the multitude of its musical influences. The album’s 12 songs span only 36 minutes in total length, and its production is somewhat restrained in comparison to Skinny Lister’s typical boisterous roar. This slightly scaled-back dynamic reveals the band’s thoughtful and subtle musical experimentation, highlighting the truly multi-faceted and genre-defying nature of their folk-punk-pop-rock style. Though Skinny Lister’s rough-and-tumble personality is a bit subdued in this studio recording, I have a strong suspicion, based on previous experience, that these songs will only gain energy and vitality in live performance.

8/10

Skinny Lister’s third album ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings. The band’s current American tour extends through November and into the first part of December; you can find all the dates on their official Facebook. They have also announced a list of Spring 2017 headline dates in the UK, which we’ve listed back here. TGTF’s full previous coverage of Skinny Lister is collected here.

 
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