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By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 20th October 2016 at 12:00 pm
The year I joined TGTF as its USA Editor, White Lies were on the longlist of the BBC Sound of 2009. So I feel a special kind of kinship towards the West London band. I like White Lies. I really do. I’ve seen them three times, and they’re a great live band. There’s no denying they’re a fantastic singles band: rattle off ‘To Lose My Life’, ‘Farewell to the Fairground’, ‘Bigger Than Us’, ‘There Goes Our Love Again’, all well received by fans and part of their ever enlarging oeuvre. But this is where their problems stem from. Whether purposeful or merely coincidence, they’re a band that has offered up three albums – 2009’s ‘To Lose My Life…’, 2011’s ‘Ritual’ and 2013’s ‘Big TV’ – with the highest of highs, only to leave you feeling let down with the rest of the album sounding hohum.
Unfortunately, this is the fate of their latest, ‘Friends’, released earlier this month on Fiction Records. The previously released single ‘Take It Out on Me’ begins the album at a heady height that the album never reaches again in its other nine tracks. What’s more, they’ve chosen to go in a disco direction on several songs on the LP, to varying degrees of success. Since their earlier beginnings toying with the grim fatalistic on ‘Death’ and ‘Unfinished Business’, they’ve been pegged as miserabilists, so the introduction of overly bright synths and beats seems like a massive disconnect.
As an album that primary songwriter and bassist Charles Cave has described as chronicling the spectre of getting older, of being pulled away from the mates you once felt so close to. Despite having an upbeat backbeat thanks to drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown, album track 2 ‘Morning in LA’, comes across clunky. The subject matter of ringing up a friend in Shanghai and finding it sad that it’s already morning in California may be of utmost importance to them. But as an American-based editor who corresponds daily with UK and Australian contacts out of necessity, it’s hard to be sympathetic.
‘Swing’ and ‘Come On’ are so lyrically uninspiring, as you’re listening to the album from front to back, your attention will dip way low once you’ve past ‘Summer Didn’t Change a Thing’, where Cave hides unrequited love behind a grandly anthemic façade. This song is so classic White Lies, you wonder why they can’t seem to repeat or improve on their basic winning formulas for a whole album. Do they get fidgety?
There are some great moments on ‘Friends’ that I would be remiss in not mentioning. ‘Don’t Want It Feel It All’ details the struggle of loving an unstable depressive, or possibly from the perspective of that depressive and the confusion within while trying to hold on to a relationship. It’s a brave move lyrically after the weirdness of ‘80s throwback track ‘Hold Back Your Love’ in which frontman Harry McVeigh oddly begs the object of his affection to deny love to him because he “wanna see what I feel without / every feeling is streaming out”. The excessively gay keys that accompany McVeigh’s yearning vocal are a strange juxtaposition initially, but somehow it works. The buzzing synths and big beats frame ‘Is My Love Enough?’, a rhetorical question posed by a partner to a lover, insisting that leaving is the kindest way forward, a disco version of Keane’s ‘Can’t Stop Now’.
‘Friends’ isn’t a bad album per se, but it does give one pause when considering it against the rest of White Lies’ catalogue. Charles Cave deserves props for confronting the march of time and what it does to relationships, but a disco beat may not have been the best choice to complement his often weighty topics.
‘Friends’, the fourth album from White Lies, is out now on Fiction Records. The band are in the middle of a European tour, before they return to the UK for a domestic tour beginning on the 22nd of November at London Shepherds Bush Empire. To see all of White Lies’ scheduled dates for the rest of 2016, go here. To read more of our extensive coverage here on TGTF on the West London trio, follow this link.
First impressions can be deceptive. When Irish alt-rock trio Bell X1 released the first single from their new album ‘Arms’, a gentle, optimistic ballad called ‘The Upswing’, way back in March of this year, the song’s warm lyrical tone and organic sonic timbre seemed to refer even farther backward to the band’s 2013 album ‘Chop Chop’. Indeed, around the release of ‘Chop Chop’, Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan had toyed with the idea of creating a pair of mini-albums, so it seemed fair to assume that ‘Arms’ might be a delayed realisation of that concept.
However, the second single from ‘Arms’, a quirky and upbeat number called ‘Out of Love’, immediately turned that idea on its metaphorical head. Laden with strident synths and jarring percussion, the song is musically more experimental and thematically much more cynical, with lyrics like “there’s no D minor telling us how to feel” only adding to the contextual confusion. And as an introduction to the album proper, opening track ‘Fail Again, Fail Better’ makes a deliberately disarming (pun intended) initial statement, with choppy lyrics and fragmented melodies spliced together seemingly without pattern or purpose. But like the very first glimpse of the album, these second and third impressions of ‘Arms’ are gradually revealed to be a bit misleading as well.
The true character of ‘Arms’ is elusive, fluctuating constantly over the course of its tracklisting. Even the individual songs feel indecisive at times, as in ‘Bring Me a Fire King’. The song’s catchy chorus and groovy guitar riff are thrown off kilter by a piercing synth line and an oddly placed sax solo, and Noonan delivers his sarcastic political commentary (“let’s ask what the markets would do / ‘cos markets have feelings too”) in a mild vocal tone that belies the depth of his meaning.
On the flip side of the thematic coin, multi-instrumentalist David Geraghty contributes something of a more personal nature in ‘I Go Where You Go’. His quiet reflection on life away from home is brightened by a shuffling rhythm and a piano melody that shines through the arrangement like the “glint of fool’s gold” in his own opening lines. Nestled between verses, the song’s bridge section cuts to the heart of Geraghty’s internal conflict: “the engines roar / the ground slips away / our children stir in their beds / we leave it all in our wake”.
On every previous Bell X1 album, there has been one song in particular that is so exquisitely poignant that it moves me to tears. ‘Arms’ is no exception to that precedent, ticking off the box with ‘Take Your Sweet Time’. Inspired by a video of a profoundly deaf woman hearing speech for the first time, Noonan has composed an incredibly sensitive musical interpretation, with distortions in the sonic arrangement representing the synthetic quality of electric hearing via cochlear implants, while a lyrical and melodic reference to classic Glen Campbell track ‘Wichita Lineman’ suggests the breathless emotional anticipation of eventually being able to hear music. Have a handkerchief handy when you listen to this one.
Late album tracks ‘Sons & Daughters’ and ‘Fake Memory’ return to a central thematic concern about Western culture and society, observed from a slight distance and framed within the familiarity of personal details. Noonan offers a kind of pre-emptive apology in ‘Sons & Daughters’, which situates his oddly astute pop-culture references (“there were too many distractions and too much good TV . . . there were too many cute pictures and too much in my feed”) in a call-and-response vocal pattern over a bright piano melody and tribal percussion. Recent single ‘Fake Memory’ reflects on our disingenuous tendency to use social media to portray ourselves in a positive light, asking pointedly “where’s me asleep on the table or her not kissing me back?” and warning that “if memory serves you badly, it’s right here on my phone”.
The title ‘Arms’ initially evoked the idea of emotional distance in my mind, especially after hearing the first several songs released discretely and out of context. But several considered listens to the album in its entirety brought me back around to Noonan’s observation from its press release: “As the world feels like it’s becoming a harsher place (maybe there’s just more damn noise?), we seek out the comfort of the familiar and familial . . . arms.” The album’s dual nature is about more than just the band experimenting with their own musical style. There are moments of noise and moments of comfort here, moments of awkward confusion and moments of crystalline clarity, but above all else, an always astonishing sense of musical and emotional authenticity.
Bell X1’s seventh studio album ‘Arms’ is available now via BellyUp Records. The Irish trio have a series of Irish and Northern Irish dates at the end of October into early November. They are also scheduled to play two shows at London’s Islington Assembly Hall on the 11th and 12th of November before heading down under for a tour of Australia in December. A full listing of Bell X1’s upcoming live shows can be found on their official Facebook.
Australian pop-punk duo Hockey Dad has created the perfect soundtrack for the endless summer you’ve always dreamed about with their debut album. It follows their first EP ‘Dreamin’, which received tremendous success in 2014. With a strong following in their homeland, ‘Boronia’ should prepare them for equal successes in the UK.
The album title ‘Boronia’ takes its name from the street that singer Zach Stephenson and drummer Billy Fleming spent infinite days just a few houses apart. Friends for over 15 years, the duo have taken many of the life experiences that drew them together and put them all on the one album. With an Australian invasion going on at the moment with acts such as Tame Impala, Sia and Iggy Azaelia making waves in the UK, it seems to be the right time for Hockey Dad’s moment in the spotlight.
The album begins with the track ‘Can’t Have Them ‘and instantly impresses with its distorted guitars and grabs your attention from the get-go. A build-up of teenage hormones, the song is effortless in reminding us of the longing and angst of first love, while retaining its irreverent vibe and attitude. As we go through the album, there are many recurring themes that seem to epitomise the teenage experience such staying out late, partying and falling in love.
Hockey Dad are a band that exudes youthful enthusiasm, especially on tracks such as ‘Jump the Gun’ with its pop punk vibe. Catchy lyrics such as “I don’t want to go home, I’m having too much fun” reiterate the carefree nature of the duo. With its dynamic drums and lively guitars, the song blends together to create the perfect summer sound. Even the music video pays homage to the duo’s favourite pastime with the pair seen catching some waves and hanging by the beach.
Although throughout the album there isn’t many moments of lyrical triumph, “Two Forever” hears Stephenson deliver a heartfelt message with dreamy and poignant vocals. There’s no mistaking the duo’s relationship as the ultimate bromance, and Stephenson’s honest admission of this affection to Fleming is warm and sincere. Dismissing all other women for his friend with the words “I don’t need love, I don’t need no woman, I don’t need that shit, because I got you, man“ is a lovely ode and one of the album highlights. Other tracks on the album revel in the feeling of summer love and are just as irresistible and infectious as your first summer fling. The seductive bassline of ‘Hunny Bunny’ will have this song in your head long after it has finished playing.
While generally a good album throughout, there is a distinct lack of experimentation with the duo sticking rigidly to what they know. With little progression since their EP ‘Dreamin’’ there is a monotonous feel to the album. Lacking originality, there is a possibility that the album may just be thrown to the side with many other bands coming through with a similar sound. However, Hockey Dad have never pretended to be anything other than what they are. With their enticing dose of summer nostalgia could very well see the band exceed expectations.
Australian duo Hockey Dad’s album ‘Boronia’ is out now on Kanine Records.
It’s crazy to think that it’s been over 10 years since KT Tunstall released her debut album ‘Eye to the Telescope’, which I remember playing pretty much non-stop for months on end. Shortly after its release, Tunstall was nominated for a number of BRIT Awards, bagging Best British Female in 2006, before being nominated for a Grammy in 2007. Since then, the Scottish singer/songwriter has released a further four albums, the latest of which is ‘KIN’, which Tunstall shared earlier this month.
Musically, Tunstall has explored a variety of genres since she first appeared on the scene, such as on 2013’s folk / acoustic ‘Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon’. But her latest work embraces vibrant pop sounds and feel-good hits. The album comes after Tunstall took a break from writing and recording albums to work on composing music for the film industry. Tunstall moved out to Los Angeles to work on music for movies such as Winter’s Tale and Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, before embarking on a small tour of the U.S. in 2015. She worked with Tony Hoffer (The Kooks, The Fratellis) on ‘KIN’ in a L.A. studio.
It’s inevitable that, after such swift success so young, all of Tunstall’s later musical feats would be compared to her debut album. ‘KIN’, whilst being more polished compared to the raw gritty pop of ‘Eye to the Telescope’, is still a solid fifth album for the Scot. Many tracks are much simpler lyrically than her past work, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Tunstall has gone for something different with ‘KIN’. Every artist should have the space to explore and challenge musically, and it feels that Tunstall has certainly been influenced by her move to the States. She’s compared writing ‘KIN’ to the process of writing her debut: “carefree, unselfconscious, writing music because I enjoyed it”, and being in L.A. particularly helped her to “recalibrate [her] relationship with being a musician”. There’s an ambience to ‘KIN’ that feels decidedly ‘L.A.’ I haven’t visited the City of Angels myself, but the upbeat, acoustic pop that bedecks each track on ‘KIN’ makes me feel like I could be hanging out on Venice Beach with my surfboard. There’s something about the chilled acoustic notes mixing with Tunstall’s throaty tones and buoyant drumbeats that fit with my impression of the L.A. aesthetic.
The whole album is highly accessible. ‘It Took Me So Long To Get Here, But Here I Am’ not only boasts one of the longest song title I can think of, but is one of those life-affirming and motivating songs that make you reflect on where you’re at and acknowledge that there’s always hope. Lyrics like “but it made way for something different / I could feel it in the air” and “everything I tried and all the things I dreamed of” will appeal to anyone who’s had an aspiration and felt like giving up, but somehow had the will to keep going.
Then there’s ‘Two Way’, a duet with James Bay, who also cowrote the song. The track has softly grating electric and gently strummed acoustic guitars, paired with Tunstall and Bay’s complementary vocals. It’s got a very chilled out vibe and is a nice contrast to the quicker-paced songs on the album. ‘Evil Eye’ is one of those upbeat tracks, with lyrics proclaiming self-belief: “you want me to be more like you / but you’re never gonna get your way”. Tunstall sings about self-worth on ‘Evil Eye’, refusing to let the judgment of others get her down.
Another favourite is ‘Run on Home’, a buoyant track that in 4 minutes and thirty seconds tells the story of finding self-worth and feels like a love letter to the self. The lyrics “the only thing I’ve noticed / is that I’ve been feeling happier lately” seem to sum up the sentiment of ‘KIN’, which plays like the manifesto of a woman who has cast off some baggage and finally feels alive.
‘KIN’, whilst not breaking any new ground, certainly conveys the Tunstall’s new carefree attitude. You might find yourself skipping over a couple of tracks, but for fans of Tunstall’s previous work or of easy-going pop, it’s worth a listen.
KT Tunstall’s fifth album ‘KIN’ is out now on Virgin EMI. She’s currently touring in the States until early October, before heading back to the UK in late October/ early November. For a run-down of all her live shows, visit her official Web site. http://kttunstall.com/live To read past coverage of the Scottish singer/songwriter on TGTF, use this link.
Once upon a time, journeyman singer/songwriter Tom Baxendale‘s craft called him to leave his native Sheffield to seek fame and fortune in London. Though bitter experience eventually led him to return home, his tale has since taken a few unexpected twists. If you’re an astute TGTF reader, you might have caught a quick mention of him in our coverage of Sheffield art rock band The Payroll Union back in 2015. Once The Payroll Union finished work on their second LP ‘Paris of America’, Baxendale turned his attention back to his solo work, which has now culminated in a stylistically different but remarkably refined album of his own.
Cinematically titled ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’, Baxendale’s debut solo album is a finely tuned blend of lo-fi psychedelic pop and acoustic alt-folk. Many of the songs were written during his time in London, but they were performed and recorded more recently in his home studio in Sheffield. It’s worth mentioning that the album was a complete DIY effort, with Baxendale himself providing all of the instrumental and vocal parts, because the end result is a surprisingly polished and cohesive recording.
‘In the City a Short Time Ago’ is neatly bookended by song titles related to dreams, which are presumably what prompted Tom Baxendale’s travels to London and back again. Uptempo blues rocker ‘All My Nightmares’, which we originally featured as the album’s first single back in July, starts the proceedings off on an energetic, though perhaps not particularly optimistic note, establishing a consistently shadowy overall tone. The mood shifts subtly but certainly over the course of the 10 song tracklist to the enigmatic stream-of-consciousness of closing track ‘Every Dream’, where a minor change to the final refrain reflects a deeper conflict embedded in the verses.
In between, Baxendale demonstrates stylistic versatility and a solid knack for writing a clever lyric. Most of the songs on the album are conspicuously simple in their structure, but rather than coming across as square or trite, they instead seem deliberately concise and focused. Thematically, they deal with the dark and difficult aspects of interpersonal relationships, and Baxendale slowly reveals several different emotional angles, by turns sharply sharply cynical, wistfully melancholic and tenderly pleading. Similarly, Baxendale’s singing voice doesn’t immediately stand out as special, but it makes a strong impression on introspective tracks like ‘Everything I Ever Said’, where his slight throatiness and mildly strained high notes convey a somewhat disarming sense of fragility.
Other standout moments on the album include the jangling guitars of ‘Red Rag’, the straightforward folk rock ballad ‘All I Ask’, and the raw, gritty cynicism of ‘Straight Face’. ‘All I Ask’ in particular is a striking juxtaposition of superficial musical simplicity and poignant lyrical subtlety in lines like “I will not ask you to be grateful / that I’ve wiped the slate clean / all I ask is that when you return / you don’t tell me where you’ve been”. The song reminded me very strongly of Jake Bugg‘s more pensive and vulnerable moments, especially ‘A Song About Love’ from 2013 album ‘Shangri-La’, which I singled out as “displaying a deftly written tenderness in its lyrics and a remarkably effective vocal technique”. The same can be said of ‘All I Ask’, whose undeniably memorable chorus melody is delivered in a similarly evocative vocal performance from Tom Baxendale. The live performance in the video below is an even further stripped back version of what appears on the album.
Baxendale’s travails in London might not have led to commercial music success, but they did clearly allow him to hone his songwriting skills. The songs on ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’ demonstrate a musical sensitivity and emotional depth that grows from experience. Stylistically, the retro Seventies’ vibe and minimal production of these songs comes as a welcome breath of fresh air among the smog of many modern studio recordings, and I could easily hear them fitting into the format of BBC Radio 6 Music, should that erstwhile institution be interested in offering Tom Baxendale a happily ever after.
Tom Baxendale’s excellent new album ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’ is out now on Sheffield indie label Backwater Collective. Click the highlighted links to find TGTF’s previous coverage of Tom Baxendale and The Payroll Union, respectively. If you happen to find yourself in Sheffield this autumn, you can catch Baxendale live at the following venues.
Saturday 29th October 2016 – Sheffield Hybrid Studios
Friday 4th November 2016 – Sheffield Maida Vale
Friday 11th November 2016 – Sheffield Shakespeare’s
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 12th October 2016 at 12:00 pm
2016 has been an all around tough year. In my personal life, I don’t know anyone who’s managed to get through this year with nary a scratch. However, as the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? ‘The Wave’, Tom Chaplin’s first foray into the music world without support from the band who helped make him famous, is solid proof of this. I think it’s safe to say that collectively as a group, we the media questioned whether Chaplin had it in him to pen a compelling album on his own. As the voice of the award-winning, highly commercially successful pop group Keane, no-one could touch him. But he was singing the songs of his equally (and depending who you talk to, even more so) talented bandmate, the Ivor Novello award-winning Tim Rice-Oxley.
Like many other rock stars, Chaplin has struggled with drug addiction but thankfully for us, he sought treatment before it was too late. On ‘The Wave’, he’s chosen to tackle his personal demons in song, and for all the world to see. It’s a vulnerable position to be in. And one going against what is all too familiar Englishman stoicism that he himself admitted to the Daily Mail 3 years ago that existed between him and Rice-Oxley offstage. In his audio commentary of ‘Hardened Heart’ available on ‘The Wave’ portion of his Web site, Chaplin admits confronting himself was “…an incredibly uncomfortable process for anyone, let alone a closed off, avoidant character like me…‘Hardened Heart’ documents that transition between imprisonment and liberation, and the hope that it can continue.”
While it may not make a whole lot of sense to those have never suffered depression, Chaplin’s decision to go public with his mental health battles actually has a two-fold benefit. One, by accepting and confronting his own struggles, it’s an effective way for him to see the extremes of the before and after, reminding himself of how low he was, how far he’s come and what a better place he is in now. Two, he’s an incredible, visible role model, providing hope to those who might otherwise not seek professional help but now will. The photo accompanying the story in ‘I Remember You’ reflects Chaplin’s desire to look back with compassion at the old version he used to know and he’s left behind after intensive, healing psychotherapy. Oddly, he’s chosen an all too gay saxophone solo – think of the one in Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ – to mar the opportunity of a true introspective moment. The title track closes out the LP, and in a fashion not unlike ‘Sea Fog’ concluding Keane’s ‘Strangeland’, described by producer Matt Hales as “a prayer for peace”.
‘The Wave’ opens the album with the cinematic grandeur of ‘Still Waiting’. Chaplin says, “If there is a narrative of going from dark to light through the course of my record, then ‘Still Waiting’ is firmly rooted in the darkest place”. Mournful strings and otherworldly echoes suggest a foreboding, a descent into darkness before light. In ‘Worthless Words’, Chaplin wanted to document a 3-day binge in January 2015, after which he resolved to turn around his life and fight. The title represents an addict’s repeated apologies eventually become accepted by loved ones as empty promises, and his singing at the start is calm, yet clearly regretful. Chaplin notes the lyric “a soft sweet whisper says, ‘careful where you tread’” makes him think of his young daughter and what she might have said to him before the point of no return.
Returning from the brink can’t have been easy, but this album also provides a way for Chaplin to thank the family and friends who supported him on his journey back. In the melancholic, gentle ‘Hold On to Our Love’, he offers a hand and an olive branch to his long-suffering wife who thought she was going to lose him to addiction. The calm before the storm, the momentous ‘Bring the Rain’ sees Chaplin yelling into the dark sky, determined he’s up for the challenge. On ‘See It So Clear’, he’s joined with a choir to add further oomph and bombast to this resolve.
What might strike as most surprising is that the most overt, upbeat pop songs on ‘The Wave’ seem out of place and seem unnecessary. It isn’t because of their positivity, a feeling that runs through the entire album, but on other songs with slower tempos and more weight. You get the feeling Chaplin was trying too hard to be commercial, to have to write songs that Radio 2 would be willing to play. There’s nothing wrong per se with first single ‘Quicksand’, but it’s definitely not the album’s finest hour. With indelicate, irksome lyrics like “you get up and suck it up / you keep rolling along”, it feels awkward that Tom Chaplin’s beautiful voice has been reduced to singing a song like this. An injection of staccatoing synths into the chorus of ‘The River’, too, jars the listener out of what was a sweepingly gorgeous tune.
As a reminder of just how powerful Chaplin’s expressive voice is, ‘The Wave’ is just about perfect. While some questionable moments prevent it from being entirely beyond reproach, the showcasing of his voice alongside his personal journey back from addiction is priceless. Above all, ‘The Wave’ will encourage the conversations about mental illness that need to happen. And that can only be a good thing.
‘The Wave’, Tom Chaplin’s highly anticipated debut album and his first album without Keane, will be out this Friday, the 14th of October on Island Records. Watch the trailer for the album below. He’ll be on tour starting next week in the UK to promote the new LP; all the dates are listed here. Our growing archive on Tom Chaplin’s solo doings here on TGTF, including my interview with the man last week, can be found through this link.
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