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When I think of teenage musicians, my mind immediately conjures images of fleeting pop sensations like Justin Bieber, whose music is largely of the disposable and generic variety. As a general rule, their songs are cloying and one-dimensional, with unrelenting dance beats and tritely catchy lyrics but without emotional depth or any indication of thoughtful musicality. But there are exceptions to that rule, the ubiquitous Taylor Swift being one that immediately springs to mind. Swift’s music career, already long and storied even at her young age of 25, has endured because she has been willing to evolve from her original plainspoken acoustic country style to her current iteration as a brazenly in-your-face pop culture diva.
“Diva” is the very last word in the dictionary that one would choose to describe 19-year-old Bridie Monds-Watson, better known on stage and on record as SOAK. SOAK is about as far removed from Taylor Swift as she can possibly be, on the pop culture continuum and the music continuum as well. Where Swift successfully employs the aforementioned sick-beat-catchy-lyric technique (am I allowed to use the phrase “sick beat”?), SOAK takes a much more subtle tack on her debut album ‘Before We Forgot How To Dream’. Dressed modestly in black and armed only with an acoustic guitar and loop pedal, SOAK mesmerized her audiences at SXSW 2015 earlier this spring with the austere sincerity of her performances. And though her album features fully fleshed out instrumental arrangements of the songs we heard in Austin, its outstanding characteristic is still SOAK’s delicate singing voice, the fragile sensitivity of her delivery matching the tender honesty in her introspective lyrics.
SOAK’s skater-teen background does show itself momentarily in the youthful text-speak spellings of some of her song titles, including ‘B a noBody’, whose video is just below, and ‘Blud’, which we featured as a Video of the Moment back in April. Despite their initial appearance, these are not superficial teen pop tunes with computer-generated backbeats and lyrics about boys and fashion. ‘B a noBody’, which follows the instrumental ‘My Brain’ to open the album, lingers in the ears with the haunting, vaguely sad refrain, “come on, come on / be just like me / come on, come on / be a nobody”. ‘Blud’ is a bit grittier, as SOAK intones the line “you’re in my blood” with an affected pronunciation suggestive of the track’s spelling. This mildly irksome vocal mannerism persists throughout the album, clearly a deliberate artistic choice made to enhance the expressivity of SOAK’s singing, but the overall beauty of the songs assuages the minor annoyance.
Following the opening three-track sequence, SOAK continues to intersperse her songs with short, curiously-titled instrumental interludes, which provide moments of reprieve and reflection among the fluctuating moods of the proper songs. The more upbeat tracks like ‘Sea Creatures’ and ‘Garden’ nicely balance the darker tone of ‘24 Windowed House’ and the ethereal ‘SHUVELS’. SOAK revisits the rougher edge of her singing voice on standout track ‘Reckless Behaviour’ before closing with the piercing melancholy of ‘Oh Brother’, which contains the album’s title lyric, and starkly moving final track ‘Blind’.
‘Before We Forgot How To Dream’ is eloquently written from a truly special vantage point at the precise intersection of adolescence and adulthood. The songs are replete with SOAK’s unique combination of poignant emotionality and growing intellectual awareness, a distinctive juxtaposition she might never be able to again achieve. However, my overwhelming sense upon hearing the complete album is that SOAK has enormous potential to evolve, both musically and personally, just as her pop counterpart Taylor Swift has done. In which direction that evolution might take SOAK of course remains to be seen, but the sky will be the limit if she keeps her own dreams in sight.
SOAK’s debut album ‘Before We Forgot How To Dream’ is due out next Monday, the 1st of June, on Rough Trade Records. The album is currently streaming in full on NPR. SOAK will support the album release with live dates in the UK and Ireland; find all the details here. If you’ve missed our previous coverage of SOAK, including her appearance at SXSW 2015, you can find it all right back here.
Is there any city in the world that has shaped the content of popular culture more than Los Angeles? Sure, New York is more photogenic, London is cooler (in every sense), and Paris more romantic, but there’s something about the sprawling, palm-tree ambience of LA, where everywhere is 45 minutes by car away from everywhere else, that has made it the epicentre of the world’s film industry. Therefore how LA thinks is crucial to how we see the world – through the big screen at least.
It simply wouldn’t be possible for the city’s music scene to be as influential and lucrative as its films, but they’ve had a good go. From the country-rock days of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Eagles, through the ‘80s and ‘90s hard rock and hair metal phase, to today’s diverse offerings, whose alumni include Best Coast and Local Natives, there’s certainly a lot to commend LA’s music scene. There can be no doubt about the continent from which Northern American spring; we can add their name to the long list of LA hopefuls too.
Not that you’d really infer their city of origin from throwing on their début collection, ‘Modern Phenomena’. The first bars of opener ‘Feel Like Whatever’, with its baggyesque drumming, washy synths and trebly, languidly optimistic vocal, could have easily been recorded in Manchester any time between, say, 1992 and 2008. This most certainly is not the L.A. of sleaze and rock ‘n’ roll excess as screamingly documented by Axl Rose and Nikki Sixx. Where Northern American are concerned, Los Angeles sounds like dusty boulevards, tumbleweed, and thousand-yard-stares over the firmament into the mountains and deserts beyond. Guitars are used as watercolour backdrops rather than aggressively riffing their way into one’s skull.
As the instrumentation subtly changes throughout the set, from shimmering electric pianos to eclectic percussion, the one constant is Augusto Vega’s minimalist yet assertive bass playing. He manages to achieve the subtle trick of being solid yet melodic, creating a foundation yet pushing the music forward with admirable persistence, at times having the confidence to drop out completely for a few bars, making the impact of his reappearance all the more intense. Well done that man.
‘So Natural’ is the archetypal chilled-out ballad, complete with hazy vocal and a gently psychedelic instrumental break. The title track comes in at under 3 minutes despite its sweeping ambition: keening strings reinforce the main guitar riff, while the none-more-chilled voice can just about get it together to give a gently chiding commentary on the perils of conducting one’s life through the vector of silicon-based devices. Two minutes in there’s a big crescendo, when the band might even be breaking a sweat, but don’t worry, it’s not long before they can have a nice sit down.
As you might be guessing, if there’s one criticism to be levelled at this collection is that it’s almost too relaxed: certainly there’s nothing here that’s challenging or dangerous in a conventional sense, or that might give a more balanced documentary of the dubious virtues of their home town. Nevertheless, the side they have chosen to reflect, the hanging-out-by-the-pool-with-a-piña-Colada one, is amply and ably discharged here. For those of us lucky to have the opportunity to party in such style, there’s little more of an appropriate soundtrack than ‘Modern Phenomena’.
Northern American’s debut LP ‘Modern Phenomena’ is due for release on the 1st of June via Heist or Hit Records. Previous TGTF coverage of Northern American is right this way.
We at TGTF have featured several top-notch Swedish acts on our pages in recent months, including First Aid Kit, Amason, and Tove Styrke. We’ve also featured our share of female garage rock artists, including Aussie singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett, Manchester quartet PINS, and Scottish duo Honeyblood. So my ears might have been fatigued from overexposure to subdued female vocals juxtaposed against heavy, distorted guitar and bass lines when I had my first listen to latest Swedish sensation Pale Honey.
The Gothenburg-based duo, comprising Tuva Lodmark on guitar and vocals and Nelly Daltrey on drums, recently released their self-titled debut album, following on last year’s ‘Fiction’ EP. ‘Pale Honey’ is replete with serpentine guitar and bass lines, lightly chugging percussion, and the double-tracked echo of Lodmark’s restrained vocal delivery, which is by turns sullen and sultry, depending on the lyrical intent. Lodmark and Daltrey worked with producer Anders Lagerfors in locations ranging from Stockholm to Paris to create a emotionally distant lo-fi sound that switches between what the album’s press release calls “themes of disheartenment and melancholy, empowerment and strength”.
While the album occasionally feels monotonous and one-dimensional, its unpredictable dynamic and rhythmic shifts manage to keep it interesting, even when the songs don’t fully engage. The deep, resonant guitar line and mellow “do-do-do-do-do” melody in the opening verse of ‘Fish’ explodes without warning into a larger, more expansive dynamic. Recent single ‘Youth’ opens with a similar stripped-back texture before kicking into overdrive for the chorus “I feel fine when you’re not mine / I get around, no I’m not bound.”
The album loses traction with the slower, sultrier ‘Bandolier’, where the growling guitar riffs become a bit over-repetitive and the vocal line is overly subdued. While the guitar line takes on a noticeably brighter harmonic tone, the monotonous rhythm and relative lack of dynamic contrast make the song seem longer than its four and a half minutes. Likewise, ‘Lonesome’ maintains sonic interest with synthesized background effects, but its aloof vocal delivery and repetitive rhythmic ideas fail to make a solid connection.
‘Fiction’ sees the notable addition of brass and cowbell to the otherwise monochromatic instrumental palette, but further expansion of the synthesized effects in the second half of ‘Desert’ seem to appear from out of nowhere and don’t fit comfortably in the song’s overall texture. The laser-like sonic effects are more effective in the context of the dramatically reverberant guitars and dark harmonies of recent single ‘Tease’, which finds Lodmark experimenting very successfully with a richer, rougher vocal quality as she intones the memorable lyric “Baby, I like you better when you dress in black.”
It’s perhaps telling that ‘Pale Honey’ seems to alternate between repetitive monotony and wildly erratic shifts in mood and intensity. Pale Honey seem somewhat constrained by their own minimalist tendencies as well as by their two-woman lineup, which may have necessitated the overuse of synthesized production effects. But their sporadic forays into expanded texture and brighter harmonies are among the best moments on the album, and the potential for growth and refinement of their style is readily apparent.
‘Pale Honey’ is out now on Instant Records, but if you prefer to listen before you buy, the album is also streaming in full on Consequence of Sound. Pale Honey will play a one-off show at the London Islington on Wednesday the 20th of May.
Former punk musician PJ Bond has just released his second studio album ‘Where Were You?’ via Xtra Mile Recordings, home of fellow folk-punk crossover artists Frank Turner and Skinny Lister. Bond’s more recent Americana-folk style, which is infused with a just a hint of punk rock energy, fits in perfectly with the genre-bending mentality currently being nurtured at Xtra Mile, which we first heard described in an interview with labelmates Skinny Lister at SXSW 2015. Bond describes his own relationship with the record label in a positive way as well:
“Xtra Mile is one of the rare labels where it seems that they put out music that they truly believe in, and are not so much constrained by genre that they’ll question whether or not it is a ‘good idea’. This approach by clearly music-loving people is what drew me most to XMR, and was supported by everyone with whom I spoke about them. Honesty, respect, heart, these are the common threads. All in all, I think I’ve found a lovely home.”
That sense of contentment and belonging is at odds with the general mood of Bond’s songs on ‘Where Were You?’, which relate nostalgic tales of restlessness and regret. The album has a sentimental air of melancholy about it, each song’s reflective storyline playing out both in its lyrics and almost imperceptibly in the musical gestures between the lines. The real ingenuity in Bond’s songwriting is in the way he creates a mood, sets a scene, and then allows the stories to play out in his listeners’ imagination.
Musically, the album is centered around catchy guitar melodies and a warmly reverberant production style, which paired with Bond’s unadorned, passionate singing tone allow the lyrics to deliver their full impact. The uptempo tracks on the album, such as ’87 Broadcast’ and lead single ‘The Better Option’ gain energy from propulsive rhythms behind that lyrical and musical melodicism. Some of the slower, more pensive numbers, by contrast, tend to lose momentum, particularly mid-album track ‘Hellfire’, which, at nearly five minutes in length, stretches itself just a bit too thin.
Opening track ‘Everglades’ is the most immediate and captivating tracks on the album, with its lightly innocent guitar intro accompanying the foreboding first lyric “I came to town with nothing but a warning / everyone here hears everything”. Its lyrical narrative takes a dark turn into a dangerous tale of love, abuse and jealousy, asking “Do you think anyone would ask if he ended up missing?” before the final repeated fade-out “I could take him down into the Everglades…”
‘Calm in the Corner’ is one of the album’s more effective slow numbers, employing light percussion and ethereal backing vocals under its existential refrain: “there’s a calm in the corner, I don’t know what / but it’s staring straight at me, I can feel it in my guts”. It segues smoothly into ‘Seer’, a gentle examination of the potential risks involved with falling in love, and then into ‘Neighborhoods’, which wistfully observes the universal conflict between past and present.
The album title ‘Where Were You’ presumably refers to the initial poetic line in ‘For J.’, which is one of its most elusive and yet emotionally poignant tracks. ‘Lucknow to Birmingham’ is similarly obscure thematically, but its fuzzed out guitars give it a bit more traction leading into the gritty final track ‘We Were Just Kids’.
The overwhelming honesty and authenticity of Bond’s lyrics is certainly the most essential characteristic of ‘Where Were You’. While I might have liked to hear a bit more dynamic and emotional range in the instrumental arrangements, I was intrigued by Bond’s ability to create and convey stories that are by turns enticingly exotic and intimately relatable.
PJ Bond’s second full-length album ‘Where Were You?’ is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings.
Just ahead of the upcoming festival season, Liverpool trio Stealing Sheep have released their second studio album ‘Not Real’, which comprises a shimmering set of hazy dream-pop tracks perfect for easing into the bright sunshine of summer. Noticeably more streamlined than their 2012 debut LP ‘Into the Diamond Sun’, the new album sets the band’s ethereal three-part vocal harmonies over austere tribal-sounding percussion rhythms and glistening synth and guitar arrangements to create an overall sound that is both bright and breezily cool.
‘Not Real’ is a quick listen overall, without any rough edges or extraneous material to interrupt the concise impact of the individual songs. Opening track ‘Sequence’ starts with sparkling electro-synth keyboards over an immediately catchy bass groove and a lively melody decorated by the trio’s signature vocal harmonies. ‘Apparition’ takes a slightly heavier tone, the harmonies becoming more darkly haunting over its ominous bass line.
The album’s current single ‘Not Real’ has been featured in two previous TGTF Video of the Moment pieces, one for the song’s official video and one for a live performance at Liverpool’s Vessel studio. Aside from being the title track, ‘Not Real’ clearly wasn’t chosen by accident as the first release from the album. It catches attention instantly with the dramatic simplicity of its opening vocal line, “Don’t let the daytime fool you that you’re not real”. The stridently singsong quality of that lyric combines with a stark dance beat and bending guitar lines that are glossed over by the angular synth melodies and soft backing vocals.
Heavily beat-driven tracks ‘This Time’ and ‘Greed’ both feature visceral percussion rhythms and deep bass riffs under hazy, psychedelic vocal effects. ‘Greed’ in particular has a more muscular sound, realized in its initial lyric “The sun is tough / the ground is dry / your blood is thick / your skin is worn’. The brief but effective instrumental section at the end of the song stands out in contrast to the more straightforward arrangements of the other tracks on the album.
The most austere track on the album, ‘Evolve & Expand’, is a slow, stark acoustic ballad whose haunting harmony and angular guitar line somehow feel very much in place with the rest of the songs, despite the dramatically stripped-back instrumentation. It creates an interesting contrast, but one that perhaps could have been evolved and expanded upon a bit more.
The pace of the album slows a bit toward the end, with the simple, repeated lyrics and the singsong quality of the vocal delivery, particularly in the trite chorus of the rather unimaginatively titled track ‘Love’: “L-O-V-E / spell it out so I can see your love”. However, final track ‘She’ closes the record on a stronger note, with a slow burning introduction that gracefully evolves into a sensual rhythm and a gradually layered instrumental texture. The hazy three-part vocals lend themselves remarkably well to the allusion to the feminine mystique in the lyrics “she has gone, I feel it in the air”.
While the simplicity of the lyrics on ‘Not Real’ might at first seem to be a detriment, the vocal lines make perfect sense as part of the overarching instrumental texture, especially with the trio’s effective blend of lightly layered vocal harmonies. Focusing on their delicately psychedelic instrumentation, Stealing Sheep have created here not a sharply-defined sound, but more of a surreal, otherworldly aura.
Stealing Sheep’s sophomore album ‘Not Real’ is out now on Heavenly Recordings. The trio are currently touring in the UK and will appear at Liverpool Sound City 2015 at the end of May. They have also announced a September/October UK tour. Previous TGTF coverage of Stealing Sheep can be found here.
I was first introduced to The Wombats when I was 15. I was trying to convince my friends I was a bit emo because I liked The Black Parade, knew all the words to ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ and bought Kerrang! once or twice.
When The Wombats came along with their ‘Guide To Love Loss and Desperation’, telling me to ‘Dance To Joy Division’ and ‘Kill The Director’, it was a surprise when I found these likeable lads from Liverpool on repeat on my iPod (one of those big clunky ones). The Wombats have the ability to write instantly recognisable and likeable pop music and for a few years they continued to, before disappearing into obscurity in the way other successful bands of that time had, a la The Kooks, The Hoosiers and The Zutons. Lots of bands with ‘The’ at the start it seems…
But then, showing a remarkable resilience, to *not* stay dead. The Wombats returned with ‘This Modern Glitch’, an album that despite leading with probably the weakest single of the bunch – the melancholy ‘Anti-D’ – was crammed to the nines with incredible pop music. ‘This Modern Glitch’ remains, to this day one of the best modern pop albums released since the turn of the millennium. Don’t dispute it. Seriously, don’t bother. Can you think of a record with as many pace changes, singalong anthems and dance floor killers? Nope, don’t bother, there isn’t one.
So when the mysterious #yourbodyisaweapon emerged, you can only imagine the excitement. And to my joy, the track that followed was superb. Murph’s stingingly brilliant lyrics remained while his brilliant ability to make love and breakups sound as sordid and morbid as can be was evident throughout. It also had all the trademarks that The Wombats had honed on ‘This Modern Glitch’ and remains a tune that will bury itself inside your brain and refuse to get out.
So, my hope for ‘Glitterbug’ grew and grew, before the eventual release this month. Thinking if ‘Your Body Is a Weapon’ is the start, then this record is going to be crammed full of goodies like their last. Annoyingly, and I suppose somewhat predictably, ‘Glitterbug’ hasn’t lived up to expectations. But that’s where I’ll stop with the naysaying, as with any other band this would be a good record. Not just a passable album, but one to be proud of. Such was the weight of expectations after the heady heights of ‘This Modern Glitch’.
‘Glitterbug’ opens with the woozy ‘Emoticons’, casting a cynical gaze at the world of dating in the 21st century where” ‘all these emoticons and words, try to make it better and only make it worse”. Songs ‘Greek Tragedy’, alongside ‘Give Me a Try’ and ‘Your Body is a Weapon’, are probably the only songs with the kind of verve and catchiness seen on ‘This Modern Glitch’. The breakdown on ‘Greek Tragedy’ will have indie discos from Liverpool to Lincoln going berserk, whilst ‘Be Your Shadow’ is the kind of self-deprecating brilliance we expect from Murph.
On the flipside of the coin, I thought ‘Headspace’ was the band taking the mick ake the first time I listened to it. The lyrics are childish, the dreamy setting the melody places it in makes it sound like poor ’80s synth pop and “I feel feel feel like a disco ball” just sounds bloody stupid. ‘Pink Lemonade is a sceptical look at a night out with a pissed girl, which I’m sure any British bloke has had to deal with. It’s about as endearing as you’d expect. The record identifies a clear change from the bouncy pop goodness The Wombats have become known for. Moving from dancing jubilantly in “that bar in Tokyo” to more crass admissions like “there‘s no greater sight than you in your underwear, removing mine”. Sadly, Murph, while you’re often brilliant, there’s a line and you’ve crossed it there.
The final track ‘Curveballs’, in just name, probably sums up how I feel about ‘Glitterbug’. It’s a curveball: something The Wombats have thrown at us. I’m just still not sure whether it’s just my high expectations making me disappointed with this record, or whether it’s actually the fact ‘Glitterbug’ just isn’t all that good?
Certainly, this shouldn’t be the end of The Wombats. Not at all: Murph and co. still remain relevant, as even when they aren’t trying they can pull out fantastic pop music, a brilliant live show and a horrendously loveable mop of Liverpudlian loveliness. It just hasn’t clicked with ‘Glitterbug’. But after their last effort, I think they’re allowed to try again. Don’t you think?
The Wombats’ third studio album ‘Glitterbug’ is out now on 14th Floor Records. For more on TGTF on the band, go here. Below is an NME interview Murph did with NME about the LP.
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