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Album Review: We Are Scientists – Helter Seltzer

 
By on Tuesday, 26th April 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

We Are Scientists Helter Seltzer album coverA band’s fifth album is always a curiosity. At this point in their career, you’d assume they’d have evolved beyond the sound of their earlier works, perhaps not completely because you can’t simply forget what made people fall in love with you. But at the same time, you can’t attract a new audience or keep everyone else’s attention without shaking things up a little. We Are Scientists have followed this fact and over the course of five albums they have gone from scrappy, indie upstarts to mildly maturer experimenters of sound.

The audible evolution became most prominent on third release ‘Barbara’, where the use of electronic instruments, particularly synthesisers, became more common place. The overall sound also changed into a more rich and indulgent experience, with the compositions seemingly structured around creating a sound reminiscent of the ‘80s more and more. With the latest offering, ‘Helter Seltzer’, we find the band at a point of plateauing in the sense of having reached a peak in the evolution. The songs sound as loud as ever, with rousing choruses and cut from the heart lyrics, but there’s a depth that can only be heard after multiple listens.

For example, track two on the album, ‘In My Head’, has only a soft repetitive guitar line while the rest of the track is built around a flurry of synthesisers and rumbling bass. As you break away the layers you can hear the depth to which We Are Scientists are reaching. The in your face guitar attacks are subdued, instead replaced with orchestrations of thick synthesisers and reverb-soaked drums. The same is found on the follow-up track ‘Too Late’, which is yearning in its lyricism and harmonised vocals.

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The first insight to this new material was in the form of ‘Buckle’, which is perhaps one of the most true to form We Are Scientists track on the album. Beginning with thumping drums and a compliment of bass and guitar, once again there’s a soft littering of synthesisers but it mostly revolves around the basic instruments and their effect experimentation. It’s a powerful track that kicks things off but doesn’t necessarily signal what the rest of the album holds. ‘Classic Love’ is another track that doesn’t stray too far from the evolutionary boundaries being set, with acoustic guitar being a prominent fixture layered below the rest of the instrumentation. The song is riotous at times, with a rollicking chorus that pics up the acoustic underlay and covers it in screeching and searing guitar sounds. A similar fashion is found on ‘Want for Nothing’, another longing track that shows just where the mindset of singer/guitarist Keith Murray is at.

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Throughout the album, you can hear exactly how much We Are Scientists have matured over the years, the spritely youthfulness has been replaced by awareness of the world around them. Of course, they haven’t lost all aspects of their personalities: just watch them live, they’re hilarious, yet professional. But on the recordings there’s a depth that just keeps on growing, bringing us a new angle to the band that have survived a lot longer than any of their peers.

Experimentation is definitely doing positive for We Are Scientists: they have indulged in a profound use of effects, both on the instruments and vocals, particularly on album closer ‘Forgiveness’. This experimentation will undoubtedly lead We Are Scientists into the future, ensuring to not be left behind by the ever-changing and self-destructing industry. What comes next is anyone’s guess but whatever they do, it’ll be for themselves. We Are Scientists have reached their zen point, and it suits them just fine.

8/10

‘Helter Seltzer’ is out now via 100% Records. You can also catch We Are Scientists on tour next week, including headline slots at this bank holiday weekend’s Handmade Festival and Live at Leeds.

 

Album Review: The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect

 
By on Friday, 22nd April 2016 at 3:30 pm
 

Back in 2008, people were still using the iPhone 3, and Barack Obama wasn’t even the President of the United States yet. It was April of that year when The Last Shadow Puppets released their debut album ‘The Age of the Understatement’, and a lot has changed in that time. The Arctic Monkeys have released three albums – ‘Humbug’, ‘Suck It and See’ and ‘AM’; while Miles Kane has released two solo albums, ‘Colour of the Trap’ and ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ ,and he also parted ways with The Rascals, following the release of their debut album, also in 2008. Not only that, but both Turner and Kane have relocated to Los Angeles. It’s been a long wait. Eight years following its predecessor, ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect’ as Turner and Kane’s latest collaboration is packed to the hilt with velvet rhythms, crooning warbles and spooky organs aplenty.

The Last Shadow Puppets’ debut album was a commercial success, going straight to number one in the UK Album Charts. ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect ‘has proved to be no different, also landing a number one spot following its release. This marks Turner’s seventh consecutive number one album: no small achievement when considering he’s only just turned 30. The album, recorded in legendary producer Rick Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu, is now available on Domino Records.

James Ford, who previously worked with the pair on their debut, returns to provide drums, and they’ve added Zach Dawes on bass. The four of them also contribute all manner of instruments throughout the record, from harpsichord to saxophone. This varied mix of music is accompanied on all of the tracks by a plethora of stringed instruments conducted by Owen Pallett, who also worked on the debut album, and Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys) provides backing vocals on three of the tracks. On paper, there’s quite a lot going on. But it all comes together to create an ambitious collection of songs that sound like they’ve come from the depths of Turner and Kane’s most avant-garde dreams.

As a whole, the album is elegant and a little bit eccentric: it’s subtle and soft in places, before amping up the pair’s flair for drama in other parts. It almost feels like some of the tracks shouldn’t be on the same album together, yet work together in some sort of chaotic cohesion. It’s in the same vein as their previous stuff, but with a move towards experimentation. In other words, it sounds like the kind of album that two talented and close friends might make on the downtime between other commitments.

The first single released from the album, ‘Bad Habits’, is a bit of a stand-alone track in terms of tempo and momentum when compared to the rest of the album. It may have also misled us ahead of the album’s release as to the feel of the record itself. ‘Bad Habits’ opens with a pounding bass hook and feral screech, and from the first moment I heard the initial bars I knew I’d be listening to it again and again. The theatrical swell of strings and guitars that rise and fall throughout the track, alongside Kane’s raw vocals and the intermittent riff of a guitar, makes this feel like psychedelic pop.

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‘Aviation’, the record’s opening track and the third single released from the album, is one of the four songs on which Kane provides lead vocals. This is the song that feels most like it’s come out of the mould of what the pair has done before, with the steady rhythm of percussion and guitars, and stirrings of strings in the background. It’s an interesting opening to the album, teasing the listener into the realm of the familiar, before moving into slightly more uncharted territory than before. It’s also arguably the only song in history that has including the term “sectorial heterochromia” in the lyrics.

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Title track ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect’ is a bit like the soundtrack to a haunted fairground, with the trippy organ cavorting away in the background. The track moves along with an unhurried march, from the dramatic string arrangement and infrequent banging of drums to the distorted singing of the album title throughout the chorus. Turner’s signature ability to whip up lyrical wonder is evidenced in the track, from the ominously trivial “as I walk through the chalet of the shadow of death”’ of the chorus, to the opening “tiger eyelashes, summer wine / goosebump soup and honey pie”. It’s about as weird and oddly poetic as you could hope for.

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Standout ‘Sweet Dreams, TN’ thumps along with the steady drive of the Bolero, before building into a heartfelt croon. Occasionally, there were times when listening to the album that I heard some of the lyrics, and had to replay to check I’d heard them correctly. On ‘Pattern’, Turner sings, “I slip and I slide / like a spider on an icicle”, and I internally curled up a little at the clumsiness of it. Then the lyrics in ‘Sweet Dreams, TN’, – you’re the first day of spring / with a septum piercing’ – made me question whether or not I thought that they are borderline genius, or self-indulgent nonsense. But by the time Turner cries out “little Miss Sweet Dreams, Tennessee” followed by a wave of strings to play the track out, I was sold.

There are other great tracks on the album. ‘The Element of Surprise’ is quick tongued and lyrically witty, pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from Turner. ‘The Dream Synopsis’ is a bizarre and endearingly personal story of one of Turner’s dreams. The lyrics “and the snow was falling thick and fast / We were bombing down Los Feliz / It was you and me and Miles Kane / and some kid I went to school with” sum up the odd collection of references and moments on this unorthodox track.

Overall, the great moments of the album outweigh the less impressive points. There’s perhaps a little to be desired for some listeners. And on certain tracks, such as ‘She Does the Woods’, seem to slide by without really demanding attention. But, on the whole, I‘m glad that Turner and Kane have come together once more. I’m looking forward to seeing what the pair put together for their next effort: here’s looking at you, 2024.

8/10

The Last Shadow Puppets are currently on a tour of Europe, the USA and Japan, which is set to run until August. They are also scheduled to appear at a number of festivals, including BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Exeter in May and T in the Park in Scotland in July. Visit the band’s Web site for more details on where you can see them live this summer.

 

Album Review: Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack

 
By on Friday, 8th April 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

"FrightenedWhether Frightened Rabbit intended it or not, it seems decidedly appropriate to me that their new fifth album ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ is being released during the lively season of spring. Their previous LP, 2013’s ‘Pedestrian Verse’, was a wintertime release, and it was a solid but stodgy affair, cold and dark and without much energy, almost as if the band themselves were heading into hibernation. ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’, by contrast, has a bit of an unexpected bounce in its step, a sense of gaining momentum despite the trademark bitterness of frontman and songwriter Scott Hutchison’s lyrics.

The band’s latest line-up change switches former guitarist Gordon Skene for new guitarist/keyboardist Simon Liddell, who worked with Hutchison and guitarist Andy Monaghan on 2014’s Owl John project. But perhaps the greatest impetus behind Frightened Rabbit’s freshly energised sound is producer Aaron Dessner (The National), who hosted the band in his Brooklyn studio to record the album. His expert touch can also be heard in both the breadth and subtle depth of the album’s expanded instrumental arrangements.

The album’s opening track ‘Death Dream’ is something of a transition from the previous album to the new, but also a somber, slow-moving introduction to the synth-based soundscapes that adorn ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’. Its gently echoing vocals and piano countermelody soften Hutchison’s sharply vivid lyrics, and the haunting choral bridge section turns a common phrase on its head with the repeated line “you died in my sleep last night”. But the next track and lead single ‘Get Out’ is immediately more upbeat, with synthesised drums and keyboards behind emphatic guitar lines. Its captivating opening verse lyric “with the arch of the church between her thumb and her forefinger, I will worship her” leads into the pounding repeated chorus “get out of my heart, she won’t, she won’t”.

Standout track ‘I Wish I Was Sober’ features the combined effect of Hutchison’s finest lyrics and his best vocal deliveries, particularly in the sorrowful line “my love you should know, the best of me left hours ago”. The anxiously building intensity in that song’s outro section carries over seamlessly into the heavily synth-laden track ‘Woke Up Hurting’, whose dark and shadowy verses lead into a pulsing, anthemic chorus.

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For all its brooding thematic material, ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ does find Hutchison becoming somewhat more optimistic in his songwriting, at least relatively speaking. ‘Still Want to Be Here’ finds him employing his effective falsetto tone in a tentatively hopeful chorus that lingers in the listener’s mind long after the album is over. And while there’s no real danger of Hutchison breaking his painful habit of self-deprecation, the chorus to ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’ is as close to uplifting as he’s ever been, as he sings of burning his “long list of tepid disappointments” in a figurative funeral pyre.

‘Blood Under the Bridge’ is another stark example of Hutchison’s perverse but clever wordplay with common phrases, in this case making the implication of deep emotional damage, but also expressing a willingness, even a determination, to move on. ‘400 Bones’ is a slower and even more introspective piano-based track whose title refers to two bodies lying together in bed. It might be the closest thing to a romantic love song we’ll ever hear from Hutchison and company. It’s quickly contrasted with the harsher sonic tones and social commentary of ‘Lump Street’.

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Final track ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’ is the perfect culmination to a deftly written and deftly arranged album, its acoustic foundation gradually unfolding to a fuller arrangement in both the voices and the instrumentation. Hutchison’s insightful lyrics, inspired by his recent move to Los Angeles, come across as both gently touching and pointedly ascerbic as he intones the vocal melody under lines like “I wanna die like a rich boy diving, in a hydrocodone dream / you could die like a rich girl by me, oh how the magazines would read”.

Though Hutchison ultimately decided that Los Angeles wasn’t the city for him, it appears that some time in the Southern California sunshine might have had a positive effect on his songwriting. ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ features some of his most refined writing to date, which producer Dessner describes in the album’s press release as “a step above anything he’s written before.” Musically, the record combines the strong rhythms and countermelodies of Frightened Rabbit’s earlier albums ‘The Winter of Mixed Drinks’ and ‘Midnight Organ Fight’ with the synth-flavouring and atmospheric sound effects of the more recent ‘Pedestrian Verse’. In essence, the band have attempted to find a new sound by building on their own established strengths, and ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ is the successful result of their experiment.

8.5/10

‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ is out today, Friday the 8th of April, on Atlantic Records. Frightened Rabbit will embark on a UK tour in support of the album starting next week; you can find all the dates here. TGTF’s collected previous coverage of Frightened Rabbit is back this way.

 

Album Review: Teleman – Brilliant Sanity

 
By on Thursday, 7th April 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Teleman Brilliant Sanity album coverA few years ago, there was some question (and reasonably so) as to whether Teleman would cut the mustard. Cult rock favourite Pete and the Pirates had disbanded, with three core members moving on to start the more pop-orientated band. In their summer 2014 debut album ‘Breakfast’, they strode out in fashion, using transport as a metaphor for bad relationships and death. This was done not necessarily to soften the blow being delivered, but to showcase eloquent lyrics and smart songwriting in a series of toe-tappers. It’s an intelligent album I still listen to frequently. Similarly, in their second outing on Moshi Moshi tomorrow with ‘Brilliant Sanity’, romantic disappointments aren’t so much spelled out as terrible things that befall good people. Instead, they’re put through a filter where people who sin and do bad things (or think they are doing as much) can come out on the other side and can laugh and sing about it.

That’s right. This is an album of well-crafted pop songs about hell and the devil. Or something like that. And Teleman make sure the journey is well worthwhile, with a brand new set of infectious melodies guaranteed to get in your head and stay there for a good, long while. Lead singer and guitarist Tommy Sanders’ witticisms will also make you chuckle but more importantly, think. On production duties for the album was Dan Carey, of Speedy Wunderground and Kate Tempest superstardom collab fame, with whom they collaborated on for the 2015 limited edition Speedy single ‘Strange Combinations’. Carey’s suggestion of letting three synthesisers lead the aesthetic of the LP, giving it a futuristic feel. Already previously unveiled singles from the new release are the minor key masterpiece ‘Fall in Time’ and superb earworm ‘Düsseldorf’:

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I am suffering from the same quandary I had with ‘Breakfast’: I can’t decide if Tommy Sanders is a hopeless romantic, a cynical git, or both. In any event, driving standout ‘Glory Hallejujah’ is where you should probably start, working your way outward from Sanders’ thoughts on a “happy ever after” that never happened despite his pained “working at the coalface / digging up the love for you”. Like ‘Monday Morning’ on the previous album, it’s evident he’s got an axe to grind with an ex and is disappointed in himself “feeling very lonesome / feeling like a perfect fool” over a lover who isn’t giving him what he needs. But he’s the one with the power, resolute that whatever good or bad comes out of this and happens, he’s in control: “give me everything you’ve got / how ever do you want me / I’m never going to make this stop”. As is appropriate for a song with the word ‘Glory’ in its name, the song has a sweeping grandeur, culminating in Sanders holding an incredible note. Here and on the dark yet oh so funky ‘Drop Out’ with its bluesy keyboard chords, where he accepts that “I wouldn’t bend, so I broke the mould”, he’s cognisant that his choices in life may not been conventional or common sense, they were his choices to make and he’ll be happy to live with the consequences.

In the hardest rocking number on the LP, ‘Tangerine’, we’re confronted with a joyful Eastern melody accompanied by guitar chords begging for air guitar play. I’ve considered the woman in question who “came from overseas / just to dance that foxtrot with me” is American, as the fruit in the title are called satsumas in Britain. Hmm… Perhaps the tune came from their preoccupation with the Vietnamese restaurant across the road from Carey’s HQ in Streatham, or their decision to set the mood for each song’s recording by using coloured lighting, both noted in the press sheet?

From ‘Tangerine’, we go into the sweetly poppy ‘English Architecture’ and its bouncy, sci-fi synth notes. Sanders wistfully desires for a real relationship within a whirlwind romance, bemoaning that “maybe I’m waiting for a bell to ring, or a symphony to play” to make things more permanent, although he begs, “take my shoes away from me, and I will stay / and I could lie here and fantasise that nothing’s going to change”. That same footgear are revisited in two reflective, softer songs: ‘Canvas Shoe’ and album closer ‘Devil in My Shoe’, a reflective, softer torch song to missing out, which I’m guessing is an allusion to time marching on, getting older and taking steps in a direction that hopefully is, but might not always be wiser.

That’s the beauty of ‘Brilliant Sanity’, its overall optimism, and at a higher level than was on ‘Breakfast’. On the chugging along title track, we’re confronted with “losing everything I’ve ever had / I’ve lost everything in a house fire” and terrible things in life, yet the human trait of resiliency allows us to regroup, restart, rebuild. Sanders sings, “You can take anything you like / it’s all coming back in the end sometime”: a comforting sentiment. Brilliant? A resounding yes.

9/10

‘Brilliant Sanity’, the sophomore album from London-based Teleman, is out tomorrow (the 8th of April) on Moshi Moshi. You can listen back to a live session the band did for Marc Riley on Wednesday on BBC iPlayer here. For more coverage on Teleman on TGTF, go here.

 

Album Review: Emmy the Great – Second Love

 
By on Tuesday, 5th April 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

There’s a certain quaintness to Emmy The Great’s third album. It gently works its way into your consciousness and dances around with an abundance of air and grace, which is impressive for an album whose lyrical content primarily concerns modern life and technology. Of course, this is to be expected from an artist who is essentially the British equivalent of Zooey Deschanel.

The first glimpse into this new effort was the single ’Swimming Pool’, featuring Tom Fleming (Wild Beasts) providing a tenor accompaniment to the chorus that sits wonderfully below Emmy’s heavenly vocals. The track is dreamy in every sense of the word, from the airy instrumentation to the choral backing vocals. It all flows rather nicely into second track ‘Less Than Three’. Here, the lyrical content is darker, harking to the time where you find yourself heartbroken by an instigator who is less than apologetic. She manages to squeeze every ounce of feeling from the words, and with the most innocent of cadences. The song travels along to an almost childish nursery rhyme rhythm.

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One of the strongest weapons in Emmy’s arsenal is her voice. She can reach angelic levels without sacrificing any of the power, which is entirely supportive of her lyricism that is often sweet with hyper-emotive tinges. Most impressively, she uses her lyrical talent to take classic situations such as romance and heartbreak and entwine them with modern phrasing and subjects, such as can be found in ‘Hyperlink’. On it, she takes us through the dating process where a partner “walks me to a cafe, where drinks cost more than music” that is filled with people “tapping keys where once they would read magazines”. The way she employs a poetic rhythm to the words just makes it all the more easier to fall in love with her lyricism.

Not forgetting the instrumentation, throughout the album there is always a mildly fresh sound, something to keep you interested. ‘Constantly’ could quite easily be a cut from a Vampire Weekend record, joyful and preppy but filled with power. ‘Dance W. Me’ takes a dance approach with its electronic beat and haunting backing vocals that are takes of Emmy’s housemates laughing and repeating “dance with me”. The important factor in the latter is the approachability it adds: it creates another dimension where you’re personally involved in the social scenario while seemingly feeling left out.

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‘Second Love’ is certainly a powerful return for Emmy The Great. The emotion that is delivered is tender and raw: it almost renders you catatonic once it’s over. But then you suddenly feel glad, as if she’s sung every word you’ve never been able to convey. Only one factor that is missing from the album , and that is potentially a faster tempothat would create a roller coaster effect. Almost, where you’re complacent in your mental position when listening ‘til suddenly you’re picked up again, if but briefly, and then put back down. But then again, do we have the emotional capacity to handle it?

8/10

‘Second Love’ is out now on Bella Union. For more on Emmy the Great on TGTF, including her transformation from an anti-folk to electropop artist, go here.

 

Album Review: The Joy Formidable – Hitch

 
By on Friday, 1st April 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

It seems somehow fitting that I’m taking a quick break from TGTF’s ongoing coverage of SXSW 2016 to review the new album from Welsh alt-rockers The Joy Formidable. Our own editor Mary first introduced me to The Joy Formidable just over two years ago on the opening night of SXSW 2014, when the band played at Austin’s Clive Bar on what happened to be a rather wet and dreary evening. The rain could easily have put a damper on The Joy Formidable’s late set that night, but the venue was packed with eager fans, and Mary and I both felt fortunate to catch the band in what would be one of their last live gigs before they disappeared into the studio for a long stretch of writing and recording.

The product of that time away is The Joy Formidable’s new LP ‘Hitch’, which lead singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan says is “one of the most driving records we’ve made but also the saddest”. Recorded and produced by the band themselves in their North Wales studio The Red Brick, the album was truly a labour of love for the Welsh trio, both emotionally and musically. They’ve taken a more streamlined musical approach with ‘Hitch’, but the emotional quality of the songs is undeniably cathartic, and the band themselves have described the album as “a good purge”.

Opening track ‘A Second in White’ starts things off with Bryan’s low-register voice murmuring over an ominous ostinato of guitars and drums, but the pace picks up almost immediately with the following track ‘Radio of Lips’. The sharp, concise lyrical lines in the verses lead to an irresistably anthemic chorus, and the drawn out anticipation in the bridge section is likely to make this one a live favourite on The Joy Formidable’s upcoming UK tour in May.

The album’s provocative first single ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’, whose video edit is featured in the tour date post referenced above, sounds both sullen and sultry, and like ‘Radio of Lips’ before it, stretches over 6 minutes long in the full album recording. Indeed many of the tracks on ‘Hitch’ are quite lengthy, as if the band’s major hang-up might have been in somehow finding closure to the whatever emotional drama surrounded the making of the album.

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The first half of the album starts to drag a bit after the opening three tracks, wandering through more introspective tracks ‘Liana’ and ‘The Brook’ before regaining some momentum with the frenetic drum beat of ‘It’s Started’. Midway through the album, relatively shorter track ‘The Gift’ switches Bryan’s lead vocals for those of Dafydd, and perhaps it’s the contrast that makes Bryan’s vocals seem that much more on the album’s second half, especially as she sings the poignant line, “maybe we’re not alone after all” in ‘Fog (Black Windows)’.

‘Underneath the Petal’ is a rather gentler but still darkly dramatic affair that builds slowly in dynamic intensity and once again highlights the emotional quality of Bryan’s singing voice. ‘Blowing Fire’, by contrast, seethes intensity and spits resentment from beginning to end before the album closes with another soft, acoustic-tinged number. ‘Don’t Let Me Know’, which also happens to be the album’s longest track, spins slowly and elegantly into a climactic finale, or perhaps more accurately, into a heartfelt and bittersweet farewell.

While the songs themselves are a bit all over the shop, ‘Hitch’ makes up in variety and emotional power what it lacks in cohesion. Whatever emotional cleansing The Joy Formidable might have required was undoubtedly achieved in the album’s intense musical arrangements and lengthy instrumental interludes, but overall, the album feels dampened by the pressure of its own heavy emotional content.  Bringing the songs out of the studio and into live performance might be the impetus the band needs to complete its purge, once and for all.

7/10

The Joy Formidable’s third album ‘Hitch’ is out now on the band’s own label C’Mon Let’s Drift. TGTF’s full archive of coverage on The Joy Formidable is back this way.

 
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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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