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An Americana band from Sheffield? Can that be a genuine thing? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes. With the release of their second full-length album, The Payroll Union have established themselves as serious contenders in the indie folk genre as well as honing a more specific proficiency in analyzing U.S. history by using a style of music that is typically associated with America. The band’s first two EPs, ‘Underfed and Underpaid’ and ‘Your Obedient Servant’, both released in 2011, established the foundational exploration of American history that continues to inform their work, including 2013 debut LP ‘The Mule and The Elephant’ and their new album ‘Paris of America’.
The album’s title refers to the city of Philadelphia, nicknamed the “Athens of America” for its cultural and political atmosphere in the time period immediately following the American Revolution. Philadelphia’s history took a violent turn in the so-called ‘riot era’ of the 1830s and 1840s, when eruptions of hostility and aggression fed by racial, social and economic upheaval agitated the city in what might be considered aftershocks of the revolution in France some 50 years earlier. The Payroll Union’s academic and artistic endeavours in the making of ‘Paris of America’ were supported by the Arts Enterprise project at the University of Sheffield, which led the band’s lead singer and songwriter Pete David to collaborate with filmmakers, illustrators, other musicians and most notably historian Dr. Andrew Heath, on a project titled ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’.
Thematically, the songs on ‘Paris of America’ take an alternative and character-specific approach to illustrating the anguish and turmoil of the time period, telling deeply emotional stories with careful and fascinating attention to detail. Musically, there is a strong and unsettling sense of dramatic tension throughout the album. Anxiously persistent bass and percussion rhythms buttress piercing electric guitar riffs and the deep, menacing baritone of David’s vocals, which are particularly effective in the recurrent moments of fire and brimstone imagery.
The album’s opening track ‘The Ballad of George Shiffler’ takes on the passionate perspective of Nativist militants vowing revenge for the killing of one of their young members in an anti-Catholic riot. The final verse is a broad call to arms, “do not remain in mourning long, the fighting does not cease / we’ll pull down every headstone, whether commodore or priest / so sing this song for years to come, George Shiffler is his name / a gentleman, American, who fought the papists’ claim”, while the chorus, “we light the sky” is an anthemic rallying cry.
While most of the tracks on ‘Paris of America’ are forcefully immediate in their passion and fervor, ‘Winter of ‘41’ is, by necessity, a bit more introspective, though no less dramatic than the others, as it details author James Fennimore Cooper’s account of an unusually long and bitterly cold winter that brought Philadelphia to a standstill. The song’s slow 8-minute evolution starts with a delicate, ethereal keyboard melody under through-composed verses that seem somehow appropriate to the poetry of the time period: “The winter of ’41, it lasted oh so long, it lasted through the spring / we almost weakened in the frost, frozen in our fear, paralysed by loss”.
First single ‘The Mission Field’ is the jaded narrative of a Protestant minister, who points out the sin and depravity of the people he is tasked to save. The turbulent percussion tumbles through his multifaceted examination of how civil unrest has affected the city of Philadelphia, exposing personal flaws to daylight and judgment before descending into a chaotic milieu of background vocals.
After exploring the growing divide between Philadelphia’s social classes in ‘Wo Unto Sodom’ and ‘Blood or Bread’, the album looks ahead in history to an even greater period of unrest, the American Civil War. Its final track is a resigned and melancholy piano ballad called ‘The 6th’, which refers to a regiment of black soldiers who volunteered to join the fight for their freedom.
As you have probably already deduced, ‘Paris of America’ isn’t an album designed for casual Sunday afternoon listening. Though the songs fully elucidate the context of historical drama and tension all on their own, their sophisticated level of detail will likely inspire, or indeed require, a bit of background research for listeners who are unfamiliar. The Payroll Union have with this album proved a remarkably high level of dedication to both the intellectual and emotional aspects of their craft with character portrayals that are both historically accurate and, at the heart of it all, profoundly human.
The Payroll Union’s second album ‘Paris of America’ is out now via Backwater Collective.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 22nd June 2015 at 12:00 pm
When we first heard Manchester’s Everything Everything’s first single ‘MY KZ UR BF’, it was clear they were a band who weren’t going to follow anyone else’s lead. Their debut album ‘Man Alive’ was a watershed moment in indie, their percussive, off kilter sound catching the eyes and ears of the 2010 Mercury Prize nominating committee. Follow-up ‘Arc’, which followed in January 2013, continued their raison d’etre to push sonic boundaries, but maybe not with the same success. Here in June 2015, the group have returned with their third album ‘Get to Heaven’, and just as we usher in summer festival season, Everything Everything have already surfaced at their live appearances nattily dressed in matching suits, as if aping the Temptations. Hmm…
Speaking about the new album to NME, Jonathan Higgs said the effort was borne out of the uncertain, worrisome time it was written in: “I think you’d have to be blind and deaf to have lived through 2014 and not shed a tear. If you put out a record this year and it’s all smiles, then I think you’re a liar, basically.” Going on that statement, it’s not surprising at all that ‘Get to Heaven’ is both jarring to the ears and challenging. The question then is, is this an album that you’ll want to queue up start to finish again? Is it a summer must-have? Without a doubt, it definitely sounds different from ‘Arc’, much more muscular and energetic than the more dour, introspective moments we heard on the last record.
The earliest revealed singles from Everything Everything’s third album prove their continued excellence in writing a hit pop song. The bounce of ‘Distant Past’, owing much to its powerful drums, funky bass line and Higgs’ trademark staccatoed, MC-style lyrical delivery, is an earworm of the highest calibre. Going back to that mention above about their new look as a 21st century Temps, the harmonies of ‘Regret’ have a gospel feel, while Higgs leads the proceedings with his lilting falsetto in the chorus. The overall effect is mesmerising.
‘Spring / Summer / Winter / Dread’ surprised me the most on this record, as musically it’s the band’s most overtly mainstream pop effort to date. If it weren’t for the words where Higgs accuses “I know what you are / a thief and a murderer too / you stole the face that you wear / from a craven baboon”, with the kind of synth action it has, it would feel at home on a Bastille album. And the tune ends with a guitar lick Eddie Van Halen would be proud of. Where the heck did that come from? Maybe that was meant to echo the underlying sentiment of wanting rebellion. Another standout on ‘Get to Heaven’ is opening track ‘To the Blade’, which has both moments of gentleness and in your face freneticism.
Much of this album is, as alluded to earlier by Higgs’ quote to the NME, unsettling to the listener. ‘Fortune 500’ has a sinister bent towards the Royal Family, yet with a weirdly New Wave-y way, with synths more to the foreground than its percussion. ‘The Wheel (Is Turning Now)’ is rappy, buzzy, skittish, hitting out at blind politicians leading the blind. “I’m going to kill a stranger / so don’t you be a stranger / oh baby, it’s all right / it’s all right to feel / like a fat child in a pushchair / old enough to run / old enough to fire a gun” are probably going to be the defining lyrics of this album, and eerily so that the release date is just days after the Charleston Emanuel AME church massacre, but what the band was getting at writing ‘No Reptiles’ was the insanity of emotional detachment from what we should be feeling when horrors are committed against our fellow man.
And that’s the point of ‘Get to Heaven': to get you, the listener, to stand up and take notice, if not get angry, go out there and really do something about the injustices you see. While it’s admirable for its moral focus, it’s not exactly light fare for the summer lyrically. I commend Everything Everything on is having written an interesting record that on the surface is enticing rhythmically, and if one in 20 young people listening to their songs on Radio 1 is inspired by their music, then they should consider it a job well done.
Everything Everything’s third album ‘Get to Heaven’ is out on today on RCA. Catch them on tour in November in the UK. For all our past coverage of the band on TGTF, right this way.
After the 2013 release of their EP ‘Melody Calling’, fans of The Vaccines were left scratching their heads and wondering what would come next from the West London rockers. The band took a sharp left turn with the last EP, veering away from the adrenaline-fueled rock of their first two albums and more toward a psychedelic American West Coast sound. On their latest album ‘English Graffiti’, The Vaccines seem torn between the old style and the new, and while they execute both remarkably well, each new track on the album feels like a coin flip: you never know if you’re going to get fast-paced punk rock or hazy, dreamy synth pop.
I suspect that the dual nature of ‘English Graffiti’ might stem from the fact that The Vaccines chose to work with two different producers. Production credits on the album are shared between Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), who recorded the album at his own Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York last year, and Los Angeles electronic musician Cole Greif-Neill, also known as Cole MGN. While Fridmann’s elaborate sonic approach is easily heard in the more typically bombastic early singles ‘Handsome’ and ‘Dream Lover’, the album also includes an intoxicating ballad written by Greif-Neill, titled ‘(All Afternoon) In Love’, which exemplifies the other side of the album’s coin, showcasing frontman Justin Hayward-Young’s delicate falsetto in a very pleasantly unexpected fashion.
Listeners who have connected with the raw punk rock sound of ‘Handsome’ and the dramatic guitars in ‘Dream Lover’ might be taken aback by the current single ‘Minimal Affection’, whose theme of cultural detachment and impersonality is driven more by synths and bass, almost in the vein of ’80s dance pop. But those listeners will be assuaged by the hooky guitar riff of ‘20/20’ and the breakneck pace of ‘Radio Bikini’, as well as bonus track ‘Miracle’, which appears on the deluxe version of the album.
Getting back to the album proper, a pair of its songs are notable for their combination of The Vaccines’ two seemingly dichotomous styles. The echoing chorus of ‘Denial’, “please don’t turn the light out / I don’t think the conversation’s over / don’t just let your eyes close / not until I get it off my chest”, layers ’60s style vocal harmonies over aggressively gritty guitars. ‘Give Me a Sign’ grows from the pensive, introspective questioning of its verse lyrics to a powerfully anthemic pleading chorus before the album trails away into its closing instrumental track ‘Undercover’.
‘English Graffiti’ might not be exactly what any of us expected from The Vaccines, but it does mark a deliberate evolution of their style. Continuing with the sonic experimentation they began on ‘Melody Calling’, the band have clearly gained confidence in their abilities, even if they haven’t come to a definitive conclusion about which direction they want to pursue.
‘English Graffiti’ is available now on Columbia Records. The deluxe version of the album is worth a listen for the sheer number of added features, which include four bonus tracks, ‘Miracle’ and the eponymous guitar ballad ‘English Graffiti’ done acoustically among those. It also contains four ‘Reimagined’ tracks: remixes of ‘Handsome’, ‘Dream Lover’, ‘20/20’ and ‘Give Me a Sign’ engineered by Fridmann, Malcolm Zillion, and Co Co T.
Previous TGTF coverage of The Vaccines, including their scheduled November 2015 tour dates, can be found right back here.
I first encountered Johnny V as the support act for Radio 2 favourite Jon Allen at the end of last year at Newcastle Cluny 2. Mr Allen wasn’t my cup of tea, but I found Mr John E Vistic a more interesting character, and for my own benefit, if nobody else’s, it’s worth revisiting my summary of his set: “All told, Vistic does come across as a reasonably genuine article, a young-no-longer musician just trying to make an honest penny from his bare songs.”
Nothing too controversial there, you might think. However, he took enough exception to write to me and give me a six-point plan of how better to compose a music review, including the accusation of my having a “five second attention span”. Sheesh. That’s the same as a goldfish. Come 2015, he’s releasing his newest EP, ‘What Will Be’, and I’ve managed to stop sobbing into my teacup for long enough to have a listen to it. Well, 25 seconds of it anyway, given it has five tracks. Hope that’s enough for you, Johnny?
After which preamble you might forgive me for confessing to a slight irritation that ‘What Will Be’ is actually pretty decent. The title track is an end-of-the-night waltz, perfect for that whisky-soaked smooch with a new friend: an unconventional choice for opener. Slightly more upbeat is old favourite ‘Gamblin’ Man’, with a sound signature familiar from Jon Allen’s work; no surprise, as they share a producer in Tristan Longworth. If you’re partial to a flutter and want to hear the pain of losing made music by a kindred spirit, look no further. This is also an example of Vistic’s stylistic similarity to a certain (whisper it) Robert Zimmerman – his gruff vocal delivery and tooting blues harp solo see to that – but it’s a comparison he’s not very fond of, so I’d keep it under your hat.
One has the suspicion that being radio-friendly doesn’t come naturally to Vistic: in the preceding brace of songs, he’s toning down his literary pretensions and tendency towards darkness in favour of a more immediate, if less complex, reference point. The final three tracks are surely more true representations of his inner thoughts. ‘I Wait for No Man’, with its defiant lyric and big psychedelic climax, sees him unveil the full range of that careworn voice and make large with a distortion pedal and Hammond organ. That’s more like it, frankly. ‘Long Time Gone’ is in a country-tinged rocker and introduces fellow Bristolian Katey Brooks in a bittersweet tale of self-loathing. An acoustic version ‘Til My Loneliness Has Gone’ completes the collection, appropriately embellished with a darkly portentous piano.
The only shame here is that I can’t find anything naughty enough to say that might provoke another irked response from the man himself. Yes, it’s a bit safe, a bit Radio 2, but since that station continues to demonstrate a previously unsuspected fondness for heavy metal, even that particular remark has lost its sting. And a man’s gotta earn a crust somehow, after all. Ok, I give up, I’ll have to settle for being polite. As Vistic’s ‘Gamblin’ Man’ says, “the chance is in the numbers”. So whatever that means, I’m going with it.
‘What Will Be’, the new EP from John E Vistic, is out next Monday, the 22nd of June, via Black Heart Studios. Listen to EP track ‘Long Time Gone’ featuring Katey Brooks below.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 15th June 2015 at 12:00 pm
Is introverted psych pop from the late ’80s back? Possibly so, if you have a listen to the debut album from London’s Gengahr. The first couple of months of 2015 started their year off with a bang: among other things that cemented their buzzy status home in the UK, they had a coveted support slot with alt-J for their winter 2015 European tour, and they were one of six acts chosen for the BBC Introducing lineup Wednesday at the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30 at SXSW 2015, compered by BBC 6 Music presenter Steve Lamacq. What very good and quick stepping up from a band who in 2014 was offering up double A-sided single ‘Powder’/’Bathed in Light’, which was snapped up for airplay by Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, 6 Music and XFM and garnering attention from the Guardian. So to say that the industry was keen on seeing what they would do on their first full-length outing for Transgressive Records is a gross understatement.
Most recent single ‘Heroine’, currently making the rounds on radio, is a clear standout of the album. The extremely catchy chorus, memorable guitar hooks and freewheeling instrumental bridge are emphatically obvious, detracting from lead singer Felix Bushe’s falsetto vocals, which tend to run to the whiny side of things throughout this whole album. This isn’t a terrible failing for their style of music: think Temples, but with far poppier songs, and you sense that a sweeter-sounding voice actually makes sense. The album ends with ‘Trampoline’, which musically sounds so sugary sweet, one’s likely to go into insulin shock upon listening to it. But Gengahr has always been a band who have gone for the creepier side of things.
It’s just a question if you can cope with a whole album of this. ‘She’s a Witch’, the title track of their debut EP, sounds like it should be an acerbic description of a woman who’s done a man wrong but instead you get “Maybe she’ll sink / Maybe she’ll fly / I’ve got a witch that cries all the time”. Huh? I’m confused. Is “she’s a witch” a euphemism? Would it make more sense if I was stoned? Hey, this is all beginning to sound a lot like an MGMT album…
Going back to the aforementioned single ‘Powder’, the rock instrumentation is restrained until the second minute, when the band show off their fine guitar pop songwriting skills. But there’s that falsetto again… You start to wonder how different the band would sound and come across if Bushe had an edgier, growly tone to his voice to match the sound musicianship. I know I did. A similar question comes up with ‘Where I Lie': with such confident, squealing guitars, the falsetto feels out of place. If they wanted to, they could clearly rock out. But everything is so tightly held back on this album. Is the measured restraint just right, or should the reins have been loosened a little?
Contrast this with the track immediately after – the highly enjoyable, mostly instrumental ‘Dark Star’ – in which the vocals are reduced to faint whispers and the guitars and drums are front and centre. Perhaps this a group who will be most comfortable looking away from festival audiences this summer, off in their own world as they jam away? Hmm…
‘A Dream Outside’, the debut album from Gengahr, is out today on Transgressive Records.
Keston Cobblers’ Club are the latest in a series of folk-pop bands who are going above and beyond the typical recording and touring process in an attempt to create an interactive musical experience for their audiences. They follow in the footsteps of successful folk-oriented bands like Cocos Lovers, who began hosting the annual Smugglers Festival in 2011 as part of the Smugglers Records label, and Stornoway, who have recently concluded the first ever Nature Reserves Tour in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds. In the spirit of playing folk music in a naturalistic context, Keston Cobblers Club have organized an extended outdoor launch party for their new album ‘Wildfire’, in the form of an eponymously titled weekend festival called Camp Wildfire. Billed as a “bustling adventure camp” by day and a “wild forest music festival” by night, Camp Wildfire promises an eclectic mix of activities to match its namesake album’s eclectic mix of sound elements.
Following up on Keston Cobblers’ Club’s 2012 debut album ‘One, For Words’, ‘Wildfire’ avoids the dreaded sophomore slump by finding the finely-tuned balance between the Cobblers’ established strengths and the addition of a few innovative new elements to keep their sound fresh. Lead female singer Julia Lowe calls the new album more of an evolution than a change in direction. “There’s a signature Cobblers’ recipe that we’ll always follow,” she says. “That’s strong vocal harmonies, powerful drums, and hooky melodies and these are all still here. But the instrumentation has grown, that’s the biggest difference.”
The band’s updated sonic palette involves soaring string and brass arrangements and electro synth overlays, which provide a rich ornamentation for the more organic classical and folk elements. Traditional dance rhythms and complex vocal harmonies dominate the album, and the Cobblers use their expanded instrumentation to traverse a wide range of dynamic and textural values, often within the context of a single song. Lyrically, the songs all have an air of romantic tragedy about them, and the full, vibrant instrumentation lends itself well to expressing their almost operatic melodrama. Matthew Lowe’s powerfully emotional vocal delivery is exquisitely executed throughout the album, most notably in its swelling choruses.
The song styles on ‘Wildfire’ are also quite eclectic, with more purely folk sounding tracks like ‘Won’t Look Back’ sitting comfortably alongside the soulful jazz tincture of ‘Contrails’, the tribally rhythmic title track ‘Wildfire’, and the tropical, almost reggae suggestion of ‘St Tropez’. The album is appropriately bookended by the delicate piano melody of darkly evocative opening track ‘Laws’ and the acoustic guitar echo of the intensely visceral closing track ‘The Mad’.
What binds these songs together into a cohesive unit is their foundational focus on melodicism, vocal harmony, and boldly distinctive rhythms. With ‘Wildfire’, Keston Cobblers’ Club have created an album that stays true to the band’s established folk roots without ever being too tightly restricted by them. The album is both carefully crafted and enthusiastically energetic, which is always a winning combination in my book.
Keston Cobblers Club’s sophomore LP ‘Wildfire’ is due for release next Monday, the 15th of June, on Tricolour Records/Absolute via Universal. Previous TGTF coverage of Keston Cobblers’ Club, including details of their October and November 2015 tour dates, can be found here.
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