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Album Review: Big Thief – Masterpiece

 
By on Thursday, 26th May 2016 at 3:00 pm
 

"MasterpieceWe at TGTF have had our ears on Brooklyn indie rock band Big Thief since last autumn, when I saw them open for Here We Go Magic at the Valley Bar in Phoenix. Six months on from that show, Big Thief are quickly garnering fans from across the musical spectrum with songs from their genre-stretching debut album ‘Masterpiece’. An imaginary Venn diagram of the album might depict an intersection of alt-country, indie folk and psych rock, with ‘Masterpiece’ falling squarely in the centre.

Frontwoman and songwriter Adrianne Lenker has crafted a series of songs around what she describes as “the process of harnessing pain, loss, and love, while simultaneously letting them go, looking into your own eyes through someone else’s, and being okay with the inevitability of death.” Her constantly shifting character perspective keeps the quell of emotion inherent in those themes at a measured distance, and her bandmates (Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and Jason Burger on drums) create a discordant and disorienting sonic backdrop for her hazy existentialism.

The album’s eponymous track and lead single ‘Masterpiece’ is a full sonic realisation of Lenker’s artistic vision, with bold, round guitars, heavy drums, and a catchy chorus under the blunt desperation of her verses: “you whispered to a restless ear / can you get me out of here? / this place smells like piss and beer / can you get me out?”. Lenker’s singing voice, like her lyrics, isn’t exactly pretty, but its half-whispered, half-yodeled tone is both poignantly fragile and vividly evocative.

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The album’s current single ‘Real Love’ was a live standout when I saw the band play on the Ground Control Touring showcase at SXSW 2016, and it’s a highlight on the full album as well. Lenker’s haunting vocal melody fluctuates between pure country (“mama got drunk and daddy went to prison”) and unadulterated realism (“riding in the back seat, watching my spit fly”), and her delicate singing is punctuated by gritty, strident rock guitar riffs.

The estranged father-daughter ballad ‘Interstate’ is somewhat lighter in texture but its sonic undertones are harshly discordant, particularly under the wistful line “you could go back in time”, which is underlaid by disorienting shifts in harmony. Lenker takes on the perspective of a sympathetic onlooker in the lyrics, “she is getting thin / you are going grey and white / and you don’t know how to tell her as you say good night”, but you get the sense throughout that she might in fact be the daughter, especially when the track fades to a child’s voice innocently chanting, “I like our truck”.

A pair of love contrasting love ballads sits at the heart of the album, the acoustic-flavoured ‘Lorraine’ and the bittersweet ‘Paul’. The former is a brief wisp of memory, perhaps of a fleeting romantic encounter that never developed into anything tangible, exemplified by the lyric “like we were hummingbirds screaming at ravens, you started to move me from fact into fable”. The latter is an edgier electric-flavoured track about another doomed love affair, this time from the opposite perspective: “I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whisky breath / I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death.”

‘Humans’ returns to the harder, harsher tones of the earlier tracks, with a distorted bass and guitar foundation under Lenker’s slurred, mumbled verse lines “humans in the honest light / love is a cold infection, right”, while a piercing guitar riff brings the repeated chorus lyric into sharp focus. Conversely, ‘Animals’ is fuzzy and obscure throughout, with shifting harmonies and tempo keeping the listener consistently off balance. Final track ‘Parallels’ features another brilliantly written verse, “caterpillar on the floor / can you teach me to transform . . . I can’t say I’ll miss my human form much” juxtaposed with a simple, relentlessly repeated chorus.

Appropriate to the title of its closing track, ‘Masterpiece’ is an album of parallels and juxtapositions. It never attempts to come full circle or to establish a definitive direction, but Adrianne Lenker’s uniquely crafted songs and distinctive vocal style nevertheless leave a lasting impression, both in live performance and on this studio recording.

7.5/10

Big Thief’s debut LP ‘Masterpiece’ is due out tomorrow, Friday the 27th of May, on Saddle Creek Records. Our previous coverage of the band is back this way.

 

Album Review: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

 
By on Monday, 23rd May 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Now that the hype train has (almost) stopped rolling for new Radiohead material, we can finally take a look at what we’re left with in the aftermath. The initial social network buzz that started by the band, ironically, removing themselves almost completely from the internet, soon turned into a tangible video. ‘Burn the Witch’ is a terrifying and prowling song whose main objective is to build an extreme amount of tension before simply dying. Using strings to create the initial urgency, it’s when the electronic instruments kick in that the urgency becomes a chaotic mash of analogue and digital. In short, a more than apt metaphor for Radiohead’s general modus operandi.

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The key component to Radiohead’s sound is experimentation. Truly no two of their albums sound the same, even if on the outside they may appear to. The genius behind Thom Yorke and co.’s approach is hidden within the detail. Every track on ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is expertly crafted with not only an auditory reaction but an emotional one too. Taking you from sad to terrified to elated, all within one song, Yorke is able to orchestrate our minds just as he is able to instrumentation.

Track two ‘Daydreaming’ is an vast change of pace from its predecessor, though it retains the gradual descent into madness with a crescendo that sees more strings wrapping around a haunting vocal accompaniment that turns into demonic roars. At this point, it almost feels like Radiohead are just trying to haunt every aspect of your head, ‘Decksdark’ takes on a more standard appearance with a classic drums, bass, guitar and piano compositon. Of course this doesn’t last: when the verses break, we’re met with an array of sounds that echo around the sonic spectrum. ‘Desert Island Disk’ revolves around a repeating acoustic guitar line, which marries well with the dark and brooding electronic atmosphere.

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It’s clear that the 5 years between 2011’s ‘The King of The Limbs’ and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ has not been in vain. Evolving their sound to incorporate more electronic elements than ever before has allowed them to branch into an entirely new strand of menacing alt-rock. ‘Ful Stop’ uses more of the build up approach as seen on the opening two tracks, but instead of leading to a string laden eruption, it becomes this determined and furiously thick guitar riff that once again swells with atmospheric sounds and a pace quickening drum beat. ‘Glass Eyes’ is a sombre, piano-led ballad that has Yorke’s voice sporadically drowned out by overbearing strings, it’s also the shortest cut on the record that flows nicely into ‘Identikit’. Opening with a complex drum pattern, another consistency throughout, the rhythm section is always a structure Yorke plays with the utmost respect. Building the compositions around this complex network of drums is a part of this records beauty.

Within the undertones of the album lies within love, loss and life. ‘True Love Waits’, a track that’s been in the works since 1995, is a barren and exposed track that tears away the majority atmospheric elements and instead leaves the mind play left to the lyrical content. ‘The Numbers’ concerns the state of the earth and our responsibility to rectify our mistakes before it’s too late.

With some of the tracks dating to decades before this release, what Radiohead have done is created a conglomerate of past and future. An orchestration of time and how it doesn’t dwell in one central point. In classic Radiohead fashion, they’ve given us everything we could’ve wanted and more.

8/10

‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is out now in digital form on XL Records. A physical release follows in June. Read more on Radiohead on TGTF here.

 

Album Review: Foy Vance – The Wild Swan

 
By on Friday, 13th May 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Sarah Barlow and Stephen Schofield

Foy Vance Wild Swan coverFor those unfamiliar with the music of Foy Vance, it might seem slightly odd that a singer/songwriter from Northern Ireland would write songs so fully informed by Americana, gospel and blues. But longtime fans will already know that Vance spent much of his youth in the Southern United States as the son of a traveling pastor. These are the folks who will be less surprised to hear the predominant gospel choruses and blues guitar riffs on Vance’s new album ‘The Wild Swan’. Recorded in Nashville with production by Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Norah Jones, James Bay), the songs on ‘The Wild Swan’ never stray far from Vance’s established musical roots, though they do, in the end, give a nod to his Northern Irish heritage as well.

Thematically, the album is a pastiche of topics that must weigh on Vance’s mind from time to time, including societal revolution, introspective self-examination, romantic passion, and friendship. On the topic of social progress, Vance opens the album with catchy early single ‘Noam Chomsky is a Soft Revolution’. The title refers to the famed American linguist and philosopher as well as tossing in a laundry list of other pop culture and literary references. Lyrically, this reads a bit like a new millennium version of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’. But the bluesy guitar and the uptempo, off-kilter rhythms put any further Billy Joel comparisons quickly to rest.

The song’s theme of social revolution is mirrored later in the album’s tracklisting by another previously-released track, ‘Ziggy Looked Me in the Eye’. Vance delivers the latter song’s chorus “we’re the children of a revolution / Ziggy looked me in the eye and said a revolution / never let the spirit die, revolution” with the gospel-laced passion of a preacher in the pulpit, but the subtle and thought-provoking lyrics in the bridge section, “you’ll see that all the leaves are falling / and there’s no moisture in the tree / so let’s just light a fire underneath”, make a more dramatic impact.

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Second track ‘Upbeat Feelgood’ is the simplest and most lighthearted song on the album. But it’s also the one that makes the most lasting impression, its chorus echoing back in your mind hours after listening. The tone is mellow but rhythmically infectious, and the song’s carefree bounce is sure to put a smile on even the most dour puss as Vance impulsively invites, “come and sit down by my side / darling look me in the eye / well, if you want to ask me, now’s the time / my head’s not heavy and my heart is right”.

On a more acutely personal note, Foy Vance explores the topic of friendship several times over the course of ‘The Wild Swan’. Touching on it from an unusual perspective is an ode to his friend Courteney Cox’s daughter, titled simply ‘Coco’. While the teenaged daughter of a friend might seem like a questionable muse for a man of Vance’s age, ’Coco’ is a very deliberately artless celebration of child-like innocence and inquisitiveness. It has a sweet James Taylor sort of vibe about it, with a sweetly bemused chorus leading into an unexpected harmonic modulation under the lines “but you know every girl is someone’s daughter / and your daddy must be proud / I’d be proud if you were mine”.

Recent single ‘Burden’ is musically smouldering and sensual from its very first notes, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that its lyrics are focused not on romance but on friendship in times of trouble. Its chorus fairly swells with heartfelt reassurance. But Vance saves some of his best lyrics, and probably his most useful advice, for the second verse: “let me carry your burden / when your mouth’s on fire but your mind is cold / and you’re finding flames that won’t keep you warm”.

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Moving into the realm of romantic love, Vance regales us with a quick-tempo country rock number called ‘Casanova’. It attempts to make light of a lovers’ quarrel. Another slow-burning track is aptly titled ‘She Burns’. In ‘She Burns’, Vance delves into the elusive idea of the feminine mystique, starting with a simple guitar rhythm and opening with the enigmatic lines “she is a little explosion of hope / never turns the lights down low / she can go there if you wanna, though”. Subtly propulsive drums and bass kick in under the second verse, intensifying the very physical sensuality of the song in a way that brought to mind Vance’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ from a live show in Phoenix last summer.

On a more contemplative note, Foy Vance waxes poetic in the heavily gospel-flavoured ‘Bangor Town’, a hymn dedicated to Vance’s Northern Irish home. While his sentiment here is admirable, the structure of the song itself is a bit ambiguous, as if perhaps Vance lost his focus somewhere in middle of his reverie. ‘Be Like You Belong’ is another rather ponderous spiritual number, this one passing along nuggets of rather pastoral wisdom such as “well, there is only now and the future / there’s a truth you don’t hear much, now do ya?” The backing chorus resorts to simple “aahhs” both here and in ‘Unlike Any Other’, though the latter has singalong potential for future live performance.

The album’s final two tracks, ‘Fire It Up (The Silver Spear)’ and ‘The Wild Swans on the Lake’ have a more traditionally Irish folk feel, which is somehow unexpected coming from Foy Vance, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. ‘Fire It Up’ centers around a march-like percussion rhythm that somehow evolves into a dance near the song’s ending, where the instrumentation expands to include what sounded to me like bagpipes. Even more traditional in nature, ’The Wild Swans on the Lake’ features a slow and stately harmonic rhythm with wind instruments and barely-there backing vocals creating the visual image of gauzy fog. Presumably inspired by W.B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, Vance displays his own poetic gifts in delicate and timeless verse lyrics such as “with a crown of daisies on your scented hair, as a bride thee I shall take”.

Though ‘The Wild Swan’ contains more than its fair share of these captivating moments, overall, it lacks a cohesive sense of purpose or direction. This, again, is one of Foy Vance’s peculiar idiosyncrasies and probably came as no surprise to those familiar with his earlier music. I must admit that I expected a bit more polish and refinement on this album, perhaps due to its association with Ed Sheeran’s Gingerbread Man Records and Grammy-winning producer Jacquire King. But above all else, Vance remains true to himself on this album, and his brand of authenticity is always well-received.

7.5/10

Foy Vance’s ‘The Wild Swan’ is out today on Gingerbread Man Records. Vance will play live dates in the UK and Ireland in support of the album this November and December; you can find all the details here. TGTF’s full collection of coverage on Foy Vance is right here.

 

Album Review: September Girls – Age of Indignation

 
By on Monday, 9th May 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Jeanne O’Brien

Sept Girls Age of Indignation coverIrish all-female garage rock band September Girls released their second LP ‘Age of Indignation’ back in April, following their trip to America for SXSW 2016. I had a chance to hear a few of the new songs live at the Full Irish Breakfast on Friday during TGTF’s time in Austin, and I also had a chance to chat with two of the band members about the new album ahead of its release. Just this week, September Girls unveiled the latest single from the album, the hazy and hallucinogenic ‘Jaw on the Floor’, and I was reminded that I had promised our readers a full review of ‘Age of Indignation’.

The Dublin quintet adopted their moniker from ’80s rock group The Bangles’ popular cover of the Big Star track ‘September Gurls’, and on ‘Age of Indignation’ they also take a cue from the sultry melodies, haunting vocal harmonies and heavy guitars that dominated The Bangles’ oeuvre. Album opener ‘Ghost’ is an immediate reminder of that inspiration, though from that starting point, September Girls take a darker, more psychedelic track, veering away from the pop-oriented sound that made The Bangles famous.

‘Jaw on the Floor’ is a good representation of September Girls’ own newly refined sound, which they have polished considerably since their rough-around-the-edges 2014 debut ‘Cursing the Sea’. The track features a duet between guitarist Jessie Ward O’Sullivan and Oliver Ackerman of A Place to Bury Strangers, and its accompanying video was filmed on September Girls’ recent road trip across the American Southwest, including shots from a radio session in Los Angeles. O’Sullivan explains the visual representation of the song’s weighty subject matter as a reflection of “the dark, uneasy feelings of the song, exploring early feminism, its role in the 1916 Rising and how there are still powers in place today who thrive on maintaining the status quo.”

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An undercurrent of concern for social issues runs through the entire course of ‘Age of Indignation’, including social media-induced narcissism in defiant early single ‘Love No One’, domestic violence in the fast-paced track ‘Blue Eyes’, and organised religion in ‘Catholic Guilt’ and ‘John of Gods’. (The band members discuss these themes in more detail in their track-by-track guide to the album for Clash Magazine, which you can read here.) The band’s focus on feminism has led them to a much more focused musical approach as well, and the songs on ‘Age of Indignation’ fit together as a surprisingly tight and cohesive unit. The songwriting and lead vocals on the album are shared among the five band members, but regardless of who’s doing the singing, the lead melody is given predominance in the production mix, reflecting the importance and immediacy of the lyrical subject matter.

The psychedelic haze of ‘Cursing the Sea’ is still present on ‘Age of Indignation’, but the new album has a much stronger sense of purpose and direction underlying its wash of guitars and gauzy backing vocals. September Girls’ righteous indignation at the ills of society has clearly led them to dig deep into their collective musical psyche, resulting in a much more resolute and determined sound on their second full-length release. By turns gritty and graceful, above all ‘Age of Indignation’ is above all an album that refuses to be ignored.

8/10

‘Age of Indignation’ is available now on Fortuna POP! TGTF’s past coverage of September Girls, including features from their stop in Austin for SXSW 2016, can be found right back here. September Girls are set to begin a run of UK live dates next week; you can find the details here.

 

Album Review: Tourist – U

 
By on Monday, 2nd May 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Tourist U album coverThe Tourist debut album has been a long time coming. Electronic singer/songwriter and producer William Phillips hasn’t exactly been sitting on his hands in the last few years, however. He’s been biding his time with a series of EPs – ‘Tourist’ in 2012, ‘Tonight’ in 2013 and ‘Patterns’ in 2014 – and collaborated with several of current British pop royalty such as Lianne La Havas and Years and Years. In 2015, he won a Grammy for Song of the Year for his co-writing prowess for Sam Smith’s monster hit ‘Stay with Me’, a piece of trivia that probably hasn’t been advertised enough. On the other hand, dwelling on that fact could detract from Phillips’ own preferred mode of creativity, as a smart, inventive, engaging electronic artist.

On the last day of SXSW 2014, I caught Tourist at an afternoon showcase at the now-gone Holy Mountain. It didn’t matter that it was 1 in the afternoon. Phillips was in his element, creating a wall of sound in front of us, hunched over a Macbook and a tabletop full of equipment, and that’s the image I have of him while listening to ‘U’, envisioning him in the recording studio, laying down these tracks. The allure of electronic music for many is in its ambiguity, the need for the listener to really tune into the many elements of a track to achieve full-on appreciation for the art and the mood the creator intended. (In stark contrast, most top 40 pop is obvious, with its inclusion of a chorus, a hook, and verses that usually follow the same rhythmic pattern, all fitting neatly into a 3-minute bite of music.) Throughout the album, Phillips as Tourist shows his deft hand at developing soundscapes full of texture, of contrasts through light and dark, from contemplation to euphoria.

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A great example of this is ‘Wait’. The track chugs along slowly with an insistent backbeat, with wub wubs and percussive flourishes towards a higher, smooth plateau of enjoyable consciousness for the listener. Another great moment on ‘U’ is previously released single ‘Run’, which was promoted with a NSFW video. Phillips describes it as “…a song about falling in love”, saying that he loved the Ozzie Pullin-directed video “because it’s so pure. It sums up the driving essence of what it means to be human.” After hearing his explanation of it, you hear the music and it all makes sense: at the core of the song is its pulsing heartbeat, a reminder of being alive and as an extension, the energised feeling you get when your heart is doing backflips over someone you’re attracted to.

Skittish in nature and with video game-esque blips and bloops, ‘Foolish’ is one of the more inspired moments on ‘U’. ‘Waves’ is similarly interesting: the song begins as if a casual dance stroll before it progresses to brighter, rave-worthy beats. The album ends on a wonderfully tropical note with ‘For Sarah’: gentle chords usher the track, which swells towards an expansive, shinier, lighter conclusion. Oddly, the one misstep on the record appears to be ‘Too Late’. Although the bpm is up for much of the track, the mood is largely one note, feeling like the sonic equivalent of your head being beat into a wall.

When I heard the Tourist album was going to be called ‘U’, I inwardly groaned, thinking that it was designed to appeal to a favourite text shorthand of millennials. But the more I’ve thought about it, ‘U’ represents a coolness that you yourself can embrace, by diving into this music, acknowledging it for the art it is. While it’s true that electronic music may not be for everyone, the songs contained on this album have a level of sophistication granted by Phillips’ way to putting together plenty of unique instrumental components and embellishments, and are therefore worthy of your time.

8/10

‘U’, the debut album from Tourist, is out this Friday, the 6th of May, on Monday Records. To read TGTF’s past coverage on Phillips’ work as Tourist, go here.

 

Album Review: Adam French – Face to Face EP

 
By on Friday, 29th April 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Adam French EP coverThe Communion New Faces Tour is in full swing this week, and one of the hottest artists on the lineup is Congleton singer/songwriter Adam French. Ahead of the Communion tour, French was signed to Virgin EMI and was featured by BBC Introducing from Stoke during a stop in New York City on his recent trip to America. French was travelling in America to promote his new EP ‘Face to Face’, which has already received radio play in the UK by Huw Stephens on BBC Radio 1.

French’s distinctive husky singing voice makes a forceful first impact on the EP’s title track, with the eponymous lyric in the song’s opening line “I’m face to face, telling everybody what I want to say”. A deep groove and propulsive rhythm create a strong hook under the repeated chorus “I give you that feeling / for you to embrace / so when you look at us / there’s a smile on your face”.

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‘Face to Face’ is followed by the stark guitar intro of the EP’s first single ‘Euthanasia’, which underscores the once-again evocative opening lines “I guess I never was and never will be / built to last or yours to keep”. An insistent, rolling keyboard line propels the tempo under the song’s brooding chorus, and the restrained drum beat builds a very palpable tension through the bridge and into the unresolved final repeat.

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‘The Optimist’ features some of Adam French’s most evocative, if not particularly optimistic, lyric verses, such as “I’m a flare in the sun / I’m the damage that’s been done / I’m a ghost in the night / I’m the dark that’s shading out the light”. A light underscoring of strings in the instrumental arrangement adds depth and grows to prominence as the song ends, but it feels somehow unresolved, never quite reaching the potential of its emotional intensity. Halting tribal rhythms underscore the predatory final track ‘Hunter’, as French’s lyrics become more overtly aggressive. The thick rasp of his voice is particularly effective in the savage lyric “you’re preying on the hunter / he’s coming for you”, which leads into the fast shuffle of the chilling chorus, “I get the feeling that I could tear you apart / blood will be beating away from your heart / so I sink my teeth right in”.

The ‘Face to Face’ EP, as a whole, is immediate and assertive, packing a quick and concise one-two punch with its dramatic rhythms and French’s gripping vocals. The dynamic and emotional development of the songs is somewhat truncated, leaving me with the feeling that French’s songwriting and/or production could use a bit of fine-tuning, but his passion and intensity will undoubtedly make a sharp impression in live performance, attracting attention from potential new fans as well as already interested listeners.

7/10

Adam French’s new EP ‘Face to Face’ is available now on Virgin EMI Records. TGTF’s previous coverage of French, including our Bands to Watch feature from last summer, is collected right back here.

 
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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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