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Header photo by Angel Ceballos
Over a decade into a music career that has been largely self-propelled from day one, singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop has naturally developed a tough skin. She wholeheartedly embraces that hard-won independent streak on her latest album ‘Memories Are Now’, which dropped last week courtesy of Sub Pop Records. Hoop and producer Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Laura Marling) took the opportunity to break out on their own, recording Hoop’s fourth LP outside their familiar Zeitgeist Studios setting, where they previously worked under the watchful eye of American producer and A&R professional Tony Berg. Hoop says that on this record, Mills pushed her to streamline the musical arrangements, working without hesitation and using whole live takes where possible to maintain authenticity and momentum.
The album cuts right to the chase with eponymous lead track ‘Memories Are Now’. The song’s musical arrangement consists almost entirely of a stark guitar ostinato and Hoop’s vocal melody, with dynamic and textural interest created by means of artfully layered vocal harmonies. The austerity of the instrumentation allows Hoop to make her lyrical presence known in the unequivocal lines “I’m coming through, no matter what you say / I’ve got work to be doing, if you’re not here to help, go find some other life to ruin / let me show you the door”.
The album’s mood swiftly shifts from confrontational to reflective in ‘The Lost Sky’. We featured the haunting and beautifully-constructed lead single as our Video of the Moment #2227 at the end of last year, and it stands out as the centerpiece of the album proper. Working at the time without the benefit of a press release, our editor Mary interpreted the song and the promo video as navigating a romantic relationship with a mentally ill partner. It turns out that her instincts about emotional devastation and mental distraction weren’t completely wrong, as Hoop has since explained in her own description of the song’s obsessively repeating lyrical verses:
I have a dear friend who was in a horrific accident that left him in a coma for two weeks. We thought we had lost him. He woke up to find himself silently divorced. This was a heartbreak for all related, and I wrote this while we were waiting for him to wake up. His experience drove me to explore my own relationship with abandonment. When you don’t have any say in how a relationship plays out, when you’re cut off, there’s a relentless loop that plays again and again in your own mind of those words that you would say . . . if love was fair enough to let you speak it.
Gently plucked guitar and clicking percussion open ’Animal Kingdom Chaotic’, before Hoop’s chant-like vocals come in, creating a hypnotic pattern of call and response between the melody and the backing harmonies. The uneven rhythmic pattern of the central lines “you know you wanna but the computer says no / you know you wanna take back control” adds to the sonic interest and the thematic intrigue. The ironically sing-song quality of ‘Simon Says’ is balanced by a heavily distorted guitar line and rapid-fire pop culture references behind quaintly folky vocal harmonies and rhythms. The similarly alliterative ‘Cut Connection’ is vocally harsher and more forcefully punctuated in its visceral tribal-style rhythms, as Hoop invites “come on, be the drummer in my heart.”
Gentle and gradually modulatory, ’Pegasi’ draws inspiration from familiar Greek mythology in its romantic metaphor: “through many love lit moons / I served my rider well / I suffered the bid / and took his spur into my side.” The instrumental harmonies behind the song’s joyful opening verse are sweetly triadic, but they take a deft, finely-tuned minor key turn as doubt and despair creep into Hoop’s lyrical lines.
Hoop imagines two album tracks centering on religion as being “twins” on the album. “Religion is one of those things that wells up, and takes over, and shows itself in dangerous ways when it’s out of balance”, she explains. ‘Songs of Old’ makes use of common Christian imagery as well as some of Hoop’s most delicately beautiful singing in its thoughtful exploration of the social and cultural damage that can come from viewing one’s own religion as all-encompassing and supreme over others. Album closer ‘The Coming’ is a more overt renunciation of Christianity, with Hoop declaring in bookend lyrics “Jesus turned in his crown of thorns today . . . and the coming never came.”
‘Memories Are Now’ has its moments of lyrical elegance and traditional folk beauty, but those qualities never seem to be Hoop’s overarching concern in this collection of songs. Rather, the album leaves the distinct impression of artistic decisiveness, marked by a thematic and sonic sense of self-assurance that is often missing in the overanalysed subtleties and mildly suggestive subversions of the alt-folk genre.
Jesca Hoop’s fourth album ‘Memories Are Now’ is currently available on Sub Pop Records. TGTF’s previous coverage of Jesca Hoop is right back this way.
Header photo by Andrew Volk
Vancouver garage pop trio The Courtneys are back with a sophomore album that finds a way to combine ’80s girl-band pop and ’90s lo-fi grunge into a palatable package. I’m not a big fan of the slacker rock sub-genre, generally speaking, but new album ‘The Courtneys II’ keeps it on the brighter side with hooky guitar riffs and catchy bass grooves that are easily discernable amidst the general dampening and distortion.
Guitarist Courtney Loove leads the way in crafting a backdrop of fuzzy ambivalence overlaid with unapologetic pop-guitar melodies, followed closely by bassist Sydney Koke and drummer/lead singer Jen Twynn Payne. Twynn Payne’s singing voice is rather sullen and soporific, and her lyrics are somewhat less than profound, but her treble melodies fit nicely over the light, restrained powerpunk of the trio’s instrumental arrangements. (In case you’re curious, Courtney Loove is indeed a stage name; she’s explained it in this interview with The Stranger.)
The album’s opening track ‘Silver Velvet’ immediately displays the grungy guitars and bubblegum vocals that set the tone for the entire album. It’s infectious refrain, “and nothing you say / and nothing you do / could stop me from thinking about you”, is singsong simple, but that quality is probably what keeps it stuck in your head long after the song ends.
Current single ‘Minnesota’ is a bit darker and muddier, with clanging percussion that threatens to overtake Twynn Payne’s vocals. Its lyrics are more melancholy in tone (“not easy to pretend it’s / not hard to let you go / so I’ll see you in the winter snow”), and though the vocal melody doesn’t particularly address that mood, it is echoed in the guitar riff and pulsating bass of the instrumental ending.
The upbeat and frenetic energy of ‘Tour’ captures the anticipation and anxiety of a band preparing to go on the road. Twynn Payne’s lead vocal seems more forward in the mix here, and it plays to the song’s advantage with more positive, ebullient energy coming through. Putting aside the deliberate detachment of the vocals in some of the other tracks on the record, she makes a strong connection in the lyrical lines, “what you have and what you want the most / it takes a long, long, long, long time”.
One of the most memorable tunes on the record is ‘Lost Boys’, which longtime fans of The Courtneys might recognise from just after the band’s debut. Written as an homage to 1987 teen vampire film ‘The Lost Boys’, the song has been floating around the Internet as a single since 2014. The version presented on the LP is cleaned up a bit and extended at the end: rather than fading out to the final lines “you look just like you did in 1986 / and that’s why you’re / a vampire teenage boyfriend”, the album version of the song leads into a groovy 2-minute instrumental outro.
The album takes a slightly darker turn at the midway point, with the murky guitars and muffled drums of ‘Virgo’ and its bass-driven sister track ’25’. The former track conveys the all-encompassing haze of an early romance (“baby, when you are near / I lose all of my free time”), while the latter seems to be losing that initial excitement (“I doubt I would have tried / because I’m a Gemini / I’ll just change my mind”).
Sullen slacker anthem ‘Iron Deficiency’ is a track that probably could only have been written by an all-female band. Twynn Payne’s voice becomes a snarling, rebellious combination of speech and singing in the lines “my hair is breakin’ / my body’s achin’ / in the mirror, I look forsaken”. ‘Mars Attacks’ delves a bit into the weird with its singsong vocals and mindlessly repeated lyrics, but the instrumental bridge showcases a nifty guitar riff that’s not to be missed.
The Courtneys wisely save one of their strongest and most engaging pop anthems for the end of the album. ’Frankie’ starts with a vividly anticipatory intro and leads into an extended chorus at the end, maintaining the band’s characteristically grungy guitar work and a sense of light buoyancy at the same time.
While not overtly feminist in its lyrical content, ‘The Courtneys II’ bridges the gap between two typically male-dominated genres, ironic pop punk and lo-fi garage rock, intertwining the basic elements in a deliberately amorphous and distinctly feminine style. If you’re into deeply profound and poetic lyrics, ‘The Courtneys II” might not be the album for you, but fans of female voices and good guitar work won’t go wrong here.
‘The Courtneys II’ is out today on New Zealand indie label Flying Nun Records. The Courtneys will spend March and April on tour here in North America; you can find a list of their upcoming live dates on their official Facebook.
There’s no doubting that American singer/songwriter Ryan Adams is one of the more prolific songwriters around. ‘Prisoner’ will mark his sixteenth release, which is one hell of an output for one mind. Naturally, you would imagine that at some point there would be a lull in the quality. Having released such a career-defining debut, ‘Heartbreaker’ in 2001, the pressure has been on him from the start, and he really hasn’t helped himself because over the years he’s managed to churn out a solid body of work through various guises and forms. Lest we forget 2005 where he released three albums in 1 year, one of which was a double disc.
The modern day Ryan returned to us after his “retirement” back in 2009 with 2012’s ‘Ashes & Fire’, an acoustic, soul-baring album that proved his songwriting chops were still as fine as ever. 2014 gave us his self-titled album that brought a bit more life to the party and also gave birth to the sound he’s choosing to envelop himself in: a supremely vintage, eighties vibe with confidence and power ballad-esque potential. ‘Prisoner’ continues this while harking back to his earlier years (we missed you, harmonica).
The lead single from this effort came in the form of ‘Do You Still Love Me?’, which sticks close to the self-titled way of working, just with a bit more stopping and starting. The only trouble with the abruptness that careens throughout is it leaves you a bit dissatisfied. Like you’re constantly waiting for it all to culminate into one grand “fuck yeah” flourish. In terms of the chorus, there’s certainly a grabbing and encompassing melody to it. You can feel the heavy metal elements that he loves flowing through in the striking solo but lacking the ferocity that the genre usually shows, so it doesn’t hold as much sting.
Following this is the album’s title track that brings things down to a more reserved level. It’s a beautifully delicate number that brings out the rawness Adams is oh so adept at channelling into his music, especially considering the main inspiration for the album is his divorce from singer/actress Mandy Moore. The sparse and reverberant harmonica that kicks in during the outro is heartbreaking. Continuing with his mission to break open your emotions and spill them all over the floor, ‘Doomsday’ decides to just appear straight away with more harmonica, an instrument that when used right can cut you in two. Slightly more powerful than its predecessor, the post-chorus decides to try and pick you up slightly, but then the harmonica slinks back and pushes you back down and refuses to let go.
‘Haunted House’ doesn’t really differ from those before it, and in all in honesty, at this point in the record you wouldn’t expect any change. Adams is no stranger to musical experimentation, as shown from his back catalogue, but what he truly does best is tell his stories in a way that you can relate to. What listeners need to bear in mind when listening to ‘Prisoner’ is that while this may not be his strongest release, every artist makes records for a reason. This was one that he felt he needed to make, to those express dark and hurt feelings. No song shows this more than ‘Shiver and Shake’. A barren guitar, when twinned with Adams shaking vocals, is a dangerous thing, especially when you put those two ideas with lyrics such as “I’ve missed you so much I shiver and shake”. Thankfully, things pick up, only slightly, on ‘To Be Without You’. There’s a slight note of promise and hope, but ultimately it’s the lyrics that dash these ideas and leave you back in the gutter.
There’s a bit more life in following track ‘Anything I Say to You Now’. The reverberant and ghostly guitars still ultimately reign supreme, but the chorus has a melodic quality not seen since Adams’ 2003-era release ‘Love is Hell’. As his voice echoes and falls away from the musical backdrop, there’s a certain call back to the sound of The Smiths. Rain-soaked Manchester evenings have always been a central player in Adams’ more disparate sounds, thanks to his adoration for Morrissey and co., and that is more than highlighted across the entire album.
‘Breakdown’ is where Adams decides to go bare bones and builds the song up around the exposed skeleton he starts with. As the chorus hits, the bass has a run that you can’t help but follow, while the guitars glimmer in and out of its empty spaces. Its active moment comes from the middle chorus, which leads to everything falling as if down a set of stairs. Slowly. It’s brutal, and you truly feel Adams himself wasn’t too far off from “heading for a breakdown”. ‘Outbound Train’, ‘Broken Anyway’ and ‘Tightrope’ go for a majority acoustic offence, which is a nice break from the glimmering guitar sound of the rest of the album. It also allows Adams’ words and voice to take centre stage, which is where the true strength of this album lies. Oh, and the saxophone on ‘Tightrope’. That’s cool.
Finale ‘We Disappear’ is the weakest moment of the album. It doesn’t add to the depth of the story Adams is trying to tell. Nor does it add any variance musically, though it does have moments of madness that are likely the true meaning behind ‘Prisoner’. As a whole, the record does little to evolve Adams’ sound. In fact, it seems so annoyingly close to his previous album, but ultimately it’s a record he had to make for personal reasons. So, we thank you, Ryan Adams, for sharing your life.
‘Prisoner’, the sixteenth album from American singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, is out tomorrow, the 17th of February on PaxAm/Blue Note/Capitol. To catch up on TGTF’s past coverage on Ryan Adams, use this link.
We’re told never to judge a book by its cover, but we can sometimes get a good idea of its content simply by reading the title. Such is the case for albums of music as well. Case in point, the last two LPs from Manchester alt-rock quartet Elbow. Their 2014 studio effort was titled ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’, which very appropriately foreshadowed the general grandiosity and broadly outward-looking perspective of the songs it contained. By contrast, the title of Elbow’s new LP ‘Little Fictions’ implies a more introspective and self-conscious songwriting approach.
Opening track ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ served as a striking introduction to the album back in December of last year. Its mesmerising guitar riff and uptempo skipping rhythm in the verses are punctuated by a swelling string arrangement and forceful piano chords in the chorus. Garvey’s warm tenor is light and flexible throughout, growing almost tangibly in strength as he sings of his character’s (and his own) powerful optimism: “It’s all gonna be magnificent, she says”. But as it turns out, the magnificence of this grand gesture isn’t quite enough to sustain the album’s momentum.
Lyrically, the focus of ‘Little Fictions’ is somewhat myopic, as might be expected from a lyricist who was at the time of writing consumed by falling in love. Garvey’s recent foray into matrimony is a central theme of the album, and it has inspired some characteristically poignant lyrics, including the sensual chorus of ‘Gentle Storm’ (“gentle storm / rage my way / fall in love with me”) and the lovely small-scale vignette ‘Montparnasse’ (“don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift / why would I be missing you so violently?”).
Garvey does glance up past the end of his own nose on a couple of occasions. The murky ‘K2’ ostensibly refers to the political isolationism of Brexit (“hands up if you’ve never seen the sea / I’m from a land with an island status / makes us think that everyone hates us”). And mid-album track ‘All Disco’ takes a good-natured and self-depracating perspective on songwriting itself, with the gentle admonition, “what does it prove if you’d die for a tune / it’s really all disco”. Indeed, ’All Disco’ is this album’s true moment of brilliance, its bright, kaleidoscopic musical arrangement centered around Mark Potter’s electric guitar and backed by a lush full choir of voices.
After ‘All Disco’, the album takes a self-described “dip in tempo” with ‘Head for Supplies’. Mark Potter’s guitar melody is again pervasive, but the uneven gait of the vocal melody in the verses is awkward in a way that is unusual for the poetically-gifted Garvey. The energy picks up a bit with ‘Firebrand & Angel’, until the verbosity of the repeated lyrics in its extended coda weigh it down again.
The album’s press release describes eponymous track ‘Little Fictions’ as characteristic of the album as a whole, “an eight-minute piece that is epic without at any point feeling excessive”. To my ears, the track does seem overly indulgent, but perhaps necessarily so, as the band struggles to define a cohesive direction in the midst of its members’ diverging musical interests. (Since ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’, Garvey has released a solo album, Mark Potter has undertaken a separate blues band project, and Craig Potter has worked on albums for Steve Mason and Stornoway.)
The album closes with ‘Kindling’, where Garvey’s evocative poetic imagery makes a triumphant final appearance in warmly emotional lyrics like “I can still taste the heat of the sun on her skin in my arms”. The song fades out rather abruptly to a spontaneous clip of the band self-critiquing their take, and it’s this final impression that seems to sum up ‘Little Fictions’ most appropriately.
Elbow’s sudden self-consciousness might be attributed in part to the absence of former drummer Richard Jupp, whose subtle dexterity and dynamic sensitivity have been acknowledged by the band as impossible to replace. The remaining members have responded with a circling-the-wagons-style collaborative approach to the songwriting on this album which has filled the gap admirably well. But it has also diluted the individual strengths in the group, namely Garvey’s gift for rich vocal melody, Mark Potter’s vibrant lead guitar, Craig Potter’s sonic diversity on keys and at the production helm, and the organic momentum of Pete Turner’s bass grooves.
None of this is to say that ‘Little Fictions’ is a bad album. I’m not sure Elbow are capable of making a bad album. But neither is this a tour de force in the manner of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ or a pièce de résistance à la ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’. I’m inclined to say that ‘Little Fictions’ is a transitional album, one that gives precious little indication where the veteran Mancunians might turn next.
Elbow’s seventh studio album ‘Little Fictions’ is out now via Polydor/Concord. TGTF’s extensive back catalogue of Elbow coverage is right back here.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 7th February 2017 at 12:00 pm
Sinkane is the band of Ahmed Gallab, a Sudanese singer/songwriter whose soulful sound is rooted in the music of sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014, he released ‘Mean Love’ on City Slang. The critical acclaim this debut garnered was proof that his songwriting ability, cleverly weaving the music of his heritage into his percussive-focussed, melodically catchy tunes, resonated with music fans all over the world. This week, he releases the follow-up to ‘Mean Love’, ‘Life & Livin’ It’, driven by a powerful message of optimism, a perfect, positive way to confront the political and social upheavals we’re currently experiencing.
Was Sinkane prescient? We’ll never know, but at the very least, this LP should be taken as a fun set of tunes that will keep your toes tapping. ‘Telephone’, revealed shortly after the new year, is a disco banger to rival any of Donna Summer’s. A drubbing of a former lover attempting a booty call isn’t exactly philosophical. Later track ‘Won’t Follow’ is Gallab’s resolve that he won’t trail behind a woman who’s walked out of his life. Goodbye, and good riddance. ‘Passenger’, driven by Afrobeats and laden down with bright horn lines, is less about the words than the euphoric crescendo of sound that mimics the freedom of finding your own way, “’cos if I don’t take control / I might never make it home”.
I should probably take a step back and explain where this Sinkane album came from, produced by Gallab himself and with lyrics and help with longtime collaborator Greg Lofaro. In the intervening time between ‘Mean Love’ and the making of this new album, Gallab toured with his band as the Sinkane live experience, playing 166 shows in 20 countries. He also led The Atomic Bomb Band, a 15-strong supergroup with David Byrne, Damon Albarn and a host of other famed musicians. Taken together, the experiences as Sinkane and in his opportunity fronting a major supergroup changed Gallab’s life, guiding him towards ideas for a new record: to recount the ups and downs of a life worth lived, and lived well. On early LP taster ‘U’Huh’ unveiled last autumn, Gallab sings the uplifting verse, “to my sisters who ache / my brothers losing strength / we don’t need to be saved / we’ll make our own way.“ The chorus includes the Arabic phrase “Kulu shi tamaam!”, which roughly translates to “everything is okay!” It’s a reminder that even when you’re down and out, one day you’re going to dust yourself off and get back up.
On ‘Fire’, Gallab goes between a more usual singing voice to a beauteous falsetto and then back again. The pensive words “when I only know what I’m told, I don’t understand, oh no, at all myself”, preceded by “fire / take me higher / but don’t take me away / where I stay”, suggest the Sinkane stand that to truly be part of society, you can’t just sit there passively. You have to be taken into the whirlwind and experience life, in a way that enriches you but without losing who you are.
The album closes ‘The Way’, a wonderful showcasing of Gallab’s vocal range, framed by horns. “There’s a road inside of us / we need maps made of love / the truth lies in each of us / we need signs we can trust”, sings Gallab, stunningly capturing the human condition: the conflicts in each of us that also lead to dramatic realisations about life and the world around us. While the philosophical conclusions Gallab proffers on ‘Life and Livin’ It’ will likely go over most listeners’ heads, the Sinkane project should be given full marks in tackling weightier topics about the meaning of life not usually found on pop records. One further, he manages to back these philosophical statements with infectious rhythms ensuring Sinkane will be the life of the party.
‘Life and Livin’ It’, the new album from Sinkane, will be out on the 10th of February on City Slang. To read more on Sinkane on TGTF, go here.
“I came up to the surface, released the air”. Welcome to the first words spoken in what could be Cloud Nothings’ strongest record to date. ‘Life Without Sound’ is filled with brazen guitar pop that tackles the deeper side of life. While ensuring you remain fully invested to its real goal: to make you a massive fan of Cloud Nothings. Continuing through this opener, it reaches harmonious heights at its chorus and sets you up to believe maybe Cloud Nothings are a bit more restrained for their fourth outing. This idea is swiftly decimated by the following track, ‘Things Are Right With You’, which is a raucous and loud rocking number and gives the album its real flow and setting things up nicely.
The Cleveland, Ohio four-piece are known for their rocking ways, and you can see why. They know how to give a song a life force that engages and amazes you. ‘Things Are Right With You’ also highlight the strong lyricism frontman Dylan Baldi s capable of. Giving us the album’s title with its lyrically monumental moment “no life without a sound”, I’m sure we all as music folk can relate to this sentiment. ‘Internal World’ has a little less of a rocky edge, combining the approach of the previous two tracks, restrained but focused on its direction. On somewhat of a roller coaster ride, ‘Darkened Rings’ is a flurry of guitar lines, rhythm and distortion. It’s a little harder to understand what Baldi is trying to convey here due to the chaos, but the lyrical moments that do stand out carry enough weight for the entire song.
Taking the central place on the album, ‘Enter Entirely’ is perhaps the strongest cut too. With a supreme Nineties’ vibe given off from the Dinosaur Jr.-esque break during the pre-chorus, which soon leads rapidly into a melodic run off, it’s retro-cum-modern in the best way possible. The song finds its direction forward heading during the outro that is surrounded by more brash guitars, including a particularly satisfying guitar solo, while Baldi repeats, “moving on but I still feel it, you’re just a light in me now”. Not letting the momentum gained from here drop, the band kicks straight back in with lead single ‘Modern Act’, another standout. It’s another moment of lyrical strength: “can’t stand the modern act / whose war is this, what god is that?”, and the chorus leading line “when you feel like an ocean coming out of a creek, filling rivers to wait for you wherever you are”. The pop sense in the melody comes on strong during its central riff that carries a light touch, taking the strain off the wide-ranging lyrics.
‘Sight Unseen’ opts for more of a slow build to its reward. While it’s not as pleasing as the prior songs, the bridge is still worth the wait, featuring a savage outro that barrels into life with Baldi screaming “the world is sight unseen” over the instrumentation kicking things up into their highest gear. While all this rockin’ and rollin’ is happening, with its pop bones and rock heart, ‘Strange Year’ hits out of nowhere. A wandering and haunting track that stalks its way through, picking up pace at the half way point, it more acts as an emotional gas pedal that gives you Baldi’s state of mind and frustration. The most surprising aspect of the song is the immediacy with which it disappears, quite literally into nothingness. It’s also a precursor for the album finale, ‘Realize My Fate’. The longest cut on the album at 7 and a half minutes, it wanders and stalks just as the prior track but has far more aggression, followed by Baldi’s cries of “I believe in something bigger, but what I can’t articulate, I find it hard to realize my fate”. One of the album’s lyrically simpler songs, it does incredibly well to convey such complexities through few words. Not to mention the literal screaming Baldi undertakes at the end, power and madness rolled into one: quite like the world we’re living in.
This album serves as an important listen for anyone struggling with the idea of trying to survive the year ahead. Cloud Nothings have created a vehicle for listeners trying to understand the uncertainty and to express frustration. And the best part? It’s all soundtracked by banging guitar music.
American indie band Cloud Nothings’ newest album ‘Life Without Sound’ is out now on Carpark Records (US) / Wichita Recordings (UK). To read more of TGTF’s past coverage on Cloud Nothings, including their most recent promo video for ‘Internal World’, go here.
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