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Album Review: Django Django – Marble Skies

 
By on Monday, 22nd January 2018 at 12:00 pm
 

Django Django Marble Skies album coverBack in 2012, Edinburgh art school synth and percussion geeks Django Django were nominated for the Mercury Prize for their eponymous album. Lovably off-kilter, ‘Django Django’ was quickly and voraciously gobbled up by music lovers everywhere, including myself. No-one at the time was doing anything like ‘Default’ and ‘Love’s Dart’. Memorably for this music editor, the Django Django mania came to a crescendo in an uncomfortable, packed, sweaty Blind Tiger in Brighton to close out night 2 during The Great Escape 2012. Joined by some friends and about 6 years later, the Scots have returned with their third album, ‘Marble Skies’, which sees them stepping out of their former boxes (wait a minute, did they even have boxes?) and in a few different directions.

The title track starts the LP off in fine fashion, with synth notes hit in precision and an irrepressible drumbeat provided by Metronomy’s Anna Prior. Vincent Neff’s vocals are, as ever, catchy. “Take us as we are, we have gone too far…we are following marble skies”, he sings. It sets the stage to make us wonder what these marble skies are, and why are Django Django (and ultimately, we, too) are chasing them? Is a journey to salvation or a fool’s errand?

Speaking of a fool’s errand, in case you missed it, the promo video for early single ‘Tic Tac Toe’ (review here) sees Neff running around Hastings in search of the all-important milk needed for a cup of tea. The song, like ‘Marble Skies’ itself, reminds us that these Scots know their way around a catchy pop track. Another early teaser, the Erasure-inspired ‘In Your Beat’, is further proof of this. ‘Real Gone’ later in the tracklisting continues the New Wave feel with an even more frenetic pace. When Neff channels a Sixties-era Roger McGuinn on ‘Champagne’ and ‘Further’ – both songs showing a strange preoccupation with trees – the results are still largely successful.

‘Marble Skies’ features two collaborations that may give a clue to Django Django’s future. The buoyantly brilliant ‘Surface to Air’ features a female guest vocal from Rebecca Taylor, most famously known as the female half of Sheffield’s Slow Club. Her first single last year ‘Your Wife’ as solo artist Self Esteem was produced by the Djangos’ drummer Dave MacLean, so a collaboration now seems natural. I do wonder, though, if Taylor is so effective as a singer to Django Django’s instrumentation, does this mean a side project with her at the front going to bud off from this album? Or is this simply a one-off?

‘Sundials’ is another departure from form, this time for its cowriter Jan Hammer, the composer of the Miami Vice theme song and ‘Crockett’s Theme’. Sadly, ‘Sundials’ doesn’t throw you on a Floridian beach, as it’s a more subdued affair, more breathy and less frenetic than you might like. Still, it works as a moment to catch your breath from what is collectively an enjoyable mish-mash of styles and sounds. ‘Marble Skies’ also makes the case that Django Django’s return to the live stage will be an exciting one.

8.5/10

Django Django’s third album ‘Marble Skies’ will be out on the 26th of January on Because Music. Starting later this month, their upcoming live in-store appearances and proper shows in the UK are listed on their Facebook. Bassist Jimmy Dixon and drummer/producer Dave MacLean were in conversation with BBC 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie on the 12th of January, you can listen back to that interview on the 6 Music Web site through here (scroll forward to the 1 hour, 30 minute mark). For more on Django Django here on TGTF, follow us this way.

 

(SXSW 2018 flavoured!) Album Review: The Lost Brothers – Halfway Towards a Healing

 
By on Thursday, 18th January 2018 at 12:00 pm
 

The Lost Brothers Halfway Towards a Healing album coverRarely is there a pair like folk maestros The Lost Brothers. Despite having met and formed in Liverpool and now being based in Dublin, the influence of Americana on the songwriting of Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland is undeniable. Like their 2008 debut album ‘Trails of the Lonely’ produced in Portland, the duo returned to the land they are so indebted to. They touched down in Tucson to work with Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb on their latest album. According to the press release for ‘Halfway Towards a Healing’, he had some unconventional production techniques. Gelb would pick up the duo in the morning for their day of work, then drop them off in the middle of the desert for a walk, presumably to get their creative juices flowing while being wholly inspired by the desolate environment.

Self-described as their “most forward-thinking record” and displaying “tiny slivers of hope” and less gloom than its predecessors, The Lost Brothers’ latest is a tidy collection of beautiful tunes worthy of inclusion in Leech and McCausland’s growing oeuvre. This album also sees the Lost Brothers collaborating with their friend, tourmate and fellow Irish troubadour Glen Hansard, who cowrote three songs on the LP. One of these, ‘More Than I Can Comprehend’, is a catchy little ditty does its best to describe the wonderment of love. In a span of just over 2 minutes, the song manages to be both tender and droll about the most powerful of human emotions: “Why draw a line through what matters most? / Darling, this love might just kill us both.” Another relatively uptempo number is ‘Cry for a Sparrow’, where the duo use the idea of a bird in flight, either soaring or diving, as a metaphor for the ups and downs of life.

But the slower, more pensive moments are where The Lost Brothers shine here. LP standout ‘Where the Shadows Go’ places you in a land created in the pair’s collective mind. Standing with them on a bluff, you can look over their beautiful domain while a forlorn horn section plays alongside their peerless harmonies. Previously revealed single ‘Echoes in the Wind’, reviewed by me here, brilliantly captures the ephemeral, yet beautiful nature of life.

Later in the tracklisting, the lyrics “I’ll get through somehow / slowing down on a poison ground” in ‘Nothing’s Going to Change Me Now’ seems tailor-made for these difficult times. A lonesome violin accompanies the words of a man jaded by his broken heart. The instrumental ‘Reigns of Ruin’ has a Mexican feel, no doubt a product of the location where they chose to create this record. Closing out the first half of the album if you’re partial to vinyl, it’s a truly evocative moment, transporting you to a different place and a different time. Things are slower here in the land of The Lost Brothers. And that’s quite all right.

The Lost Brothers only recently caught the ears of another songwriter well versed in beautiful vocals and equally beautiful songs, Richard Hawley, who compared their “tender close harmony singing” to that ‘50s legends The Everly Brothers. Given the mastery of their vocal and instrumental gifts, it’s only a matter of time for the rest of the world to catch up with this great Irish songwriting partnership.

8/10

‘Halfway Towards a Healing’, the new album from Irish folk duo The Lost Brothers, is scheduled for release on the 26th of January on Bird Dog Records. Watch the promo video for the title track below. The pair are one of several Irish acts to have been announced for SXSW 2018, taking place 13-18 March in Austin, Texas. Not going to Austin? No problem: catch them on their UK and Irish tour that will start on the 30th of January at London Lexington. To read more of our coverage on TGTF on The Lost Brothers, go here.

 

Album Review: First Aid Kit – Ruins

 
By on Tuesday, 16th January 2018 at 12:00 pm
 

FAK RuinsDespite their relative youth, Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit are slowly but surely establishing themselves in the arena of folk rock. If their 2014 album ‘Stay Gold’ was a career breakthrough for Klara and Johanna Söderberg, then new fourth album ‘Ruins’ is the work that will solidify their position as serious and dedicated musicians at the precocious respective ages of 25 and 27. The LP was produced by Tucker Martine and features contributions from Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Glenn Kotche (Wilco) and McKenzie Smith (Midlake).

The sisters Söderberg have undergone a renaissance since the heady days of ‘Stay Gold’. As detailed in the press release for ‘Ruins’, extensive touring led them to a breaking point, and for the first time in their lives, a physical separation. Johanna settled in Stockholm while Klara decamped with her fiancé to Manchester “to escape and find her own space.” But as Klara’s romantic relationship dissolved, she found her personal and professional relationship with her sister evolving in a positive way, and those events collectively inspired the songs on ‘Ruins’.

‘Ruins’, according to Klara, is “a documentary, and it’s quite sad.” It chronicles the end of Klara’s engagement without any poetic or musical equivocation. Unlike their previous albums, which leaned heavily on the pure beauty of the sisters’ seamless vocal harmonies, lyrics and authentic emotion are the main focus points on ‘Ruins’. “We don’t want it to feel perfect,” says Johanna, who served as a sort of editorial director for Klara’s songwriting on the album. “We want it to feel rough, gut-wrenching.” Opening track ‘Rebel Heart’ strikes immediately, with angular melodies and echoing vocal harmonies over a persistent, heart-thumping rhythm. The measured yodel in Klara’s vocal line, “why do I keep dreaming of you?” conveys an intense longing as she laments the self-perceived shortcomings that may have broken her romance apart.

Sweeter in tone and more country-tinged, ‘It’s a Shame’ strategically places its vocal harmonies over shuffling percussion and spare guitar chords. Here, Klara flirts with denial of the relationship’s demise, positing “maybe it’s all right / if I just spend the night” ahead of the clever harmonic modulation in the song’s anguished bridge section question “who have I become / who will I be / come tomorrow?” Current single ‘Fireworks’ poses a similar self-examination, “why do I do this to myself every time?”, but in a more muted and introspective musical context. The song’s ethereal backing voices imply a sense of detached memory, while the specific imagery in its title is expertly text-painted with muffled, distant sounding percussion.

At the heart of the album, ‘Postcard’ and ‘To Live a Life’ touch on the long-distance aspect of the central relationship, with anachronistic references to letters and phone calls rather than e-mails and text messages. But these allusions to tangible, if old-fashioned, things demonstrates both the charm and the skill in First Aid Kit’s songwriting; mentions of pop culture would certainly have felt out of place in the sonic milieu of guitar, pedal steel and high-lonesome harmonies.

The songs on the second half of ‘Ruins’ take on a more pensive tone as their themes progress to healing and acceptance. Title track ‘Ruins’ finds perspective in some of Klara Söderberg’s most profound lyrics, “I lost you, didn’t I? / but first, I think I lost myself.” Straightforward folk ballad ‘Hem of Her Dress’ alludes to the bitterness of seeing a former partner move on, and while the drunken singalong coda feels awkward, there’s no questioning its reason for being. Existential final track ‘Nothing Has to be True’ brings the album to a resolute close, declaring “we might have seen something / but we ain’t seen nothing yet” before diving headlong into a lengthy instrumental outro whose bold musical momentum clearly demonstrates First Aid Kit’s newfound conviction.

‘Ruins’ is a mature album for two women still so young, but its real strength lies in its sense of resilience. There is very little about this album that feels jaded, despite heavy thematic material and a vintage folk musical style. Instead, First Aid Kit have allowed their life experiences to revitalise their passion for making music, in the process crafting a collection of strikingly spirited and exquisitely emotional songs.

8.5/10

‘Ruins’ is due out this Friday, the 19th of January, on Columbia Records. TGTF’s previous coverage of the sisters Söderberg is collected through here.

 

Album Review: Morrissey – Low in High School

 
By on Monday, 18th December 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Morrissey Low in High School album coverSteven Patrick Morrissey is a lightning rod when it comes to bad publicity. In the vein of those groan-worthy Maybelline adverts, maybe he’s born with it? I think the answer to that would be a resounding yes. Morrissey wouldn’t be Morrissey if he wasn’t courting controversy, whether it be regarding his pretty militant attitude towards veganism and those who don’t agree with him, his searing attacks on politicians after the Manchester attack or his most recent divisive comments on sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, defending disgraced actor Kevin Spacey. The more cynical detractors of Moz say he does this on purpose, to bump up the attention paid to his current artistic pursuits.

This TGTF post is not about giving credence to or debunking that myth. If anything, this review of Morrissey’s latest album, his eleventh studio album ‘Low in High School’, proves he follows the beat of a different drummer. The drummer just happens to be the beats that are inside his own head. As we’ve seen countless times in popular music, a good dose of self-editing would have made for a much more cohesive album, if only thematically. But, as we’ve already established, no-one tells the Mozfather what to do. So what do we have her in the follow-up to 2014’s ‘World Peace is None of Your Business’? The album’s first impression in ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ heralded the uncomfortable, repeated and prominent appearance of the synthesiser, seemingly at odds with the almost 60-year old Morrissey. ‘I Wish You Lonely’ is another awkward, synth-led listen. If you examine the liner notes, things make more sense. Live keyboardist Gustavo Manzur shares songwriting credits on a third of the songs here.

The notoriously cantankerous Mancunian star shows again he isn’t shy in diving into the current political fracas. The LP begins with ‘My Love, I’d Do Anything for You’. With any other garden variety pop star, this would be a trite love song, but not with Morrissey. It’s a minor key rocker, beginning with the words “teach your kids to recognize and to despise all the propaganda”. As if an extension of his Smiths’ odes to the futility of work, he moans, “weren’t we all born to mourn and to yawn at the occupations / that control every day of our lives / we can’t live as we wish”. With a bombastic guitar line and a horn flourish, this isn’t any old pop song.

There is a storm of debate around ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’, Morrissey vehemently denying it’s about Brexit. Regardless of what it’s about, there’s no denying it’s quite catchy and you’ll want to sing along. ‘The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel’ sympathises with those in the midst of the conflicts in the Middle East, concluding, “it’s just because the land weeps oil,” with another infectious tune with a Latin beat. In grave contrast, at over 7 minutes, ‘I Bury the Living’ is an overindulgent examination inside the mind of a suicide bomber. As one might imagine, a song with the words “give me an order / I’ll blow up your daughter” isn’t exactly a comfortable listen. Album closer ‘Israel’, a lighter piano number, appears to be sung directly to the Israelis and well, the word ‘polarising’ only begins to describe where this might go.

To the pleasure and possibly relief of his longtime fans, there is one light in the darkness. On ‘Home is a Question Mark’, Morrissey can’t help himself but to indulge in his favourite mode: being the lovelorn Pope of Mope. Revisiting the theme of trying to find love in cities instead of people in the eloquent ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, like its predecessor, it’s a revelation, a sweeping ballad that only Morrissey can write and sing to. It’s just too bad there isn’t more on the LP like this. Something quite astonishing throughout, no matter what subject matter he’s broaching, is his voice. Despite major medical treatment and age, his vocal tone is beautiful and his delivery is sheer perfection.

Over the last few years, Morrissey has undergone treatment for cancer and been forced to cancel or cut short numerous concerts. In the context of cancer, his seemingly cavalier attitude to dying I suppose in hindsight in unsurprising, given his career-long referencing to death. Facing his own mortality may have fueled the desire to experiment, to do something different and off the wall, no matter who it offends, and that’s what ‘Low in High School’ is. Awkwardly paced and unapologetic in content, Morrissey as elder statesman of indie rock is making exactly the kind of music he wants to make. And that’s all that matters to him.

7.5/10

‘Low in High School’, Morrissey’s eleventh studio album, is out now on BMG. TGTF’s previous coverage on the Smiths frontman’s solo work is through here.

 

Album Review: The Staves and yMusic – The Way is Read

 
By on Wednesday, 13th December 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

The Way is Read coverIf you’re a longtime reader of TGTF, you’re surely familiar with Watford folk trio The Staves. Known offstage as Emily, Camilla and Jessica Staveley-Taylor, these close-knit sisters and their signature vocal harmonies have been featured here often over the past several years. You might be less familiar with their recent collaborators, New York instrumental ensemble yMusic, comprising violinist Rob Moose, violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Gabriel Cabezas, clarinettist Hideki Aomori, flautist Alex Sopp, and trumpeter CJ Camerieri.

yMusic have made a name for themselves by consciously overstepping the artistic boundary between classical and pop music, on projects with Ben Folds, José González and Son Lux, to name but a few. On their new album ‘The Way is Read’, The Staves and yMusic have added traditional vocal harmonies to the modern classical palette, crafting an opus beyond the simple confines of orchestrally-arranged folk songs.

Commissioned by Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival as a live performance piece, ‘The Way is Read’ was never intended to be a simple project. “Our aim from the outset was to truly collaborate with yMusic,” says Emily Staveley-Taylor. “We wanted to feel like instruments and join in with some of yMusic’s existing work, using our voices in ways we hadn’t previously explored. We chopped up compositions and put them together again in new ways. We took old folk songs and made them abstract.” yMusic’s Rob Moose continues: “It was as much a thrill to hear songs emerge organically over sections of intricate chamber music as it was satisfying to strip songs of the instrument that created them, whether guitar or piano, in order to craft new connective tissue.”

‘The Way is Read’ represents the first time an Eaux Claires collaboration has resulted in a full studio recording. The album is truly a large scale orchestral work, rather than a set of  discrete songs. Its individual tracks meld into each another without pause, continuously evolving both the musical ideas and the thematic concepts. Still, some the tracks work as standalone pieces and have been individually released. Following the kaleidoscopic harmony vocals of ‘Hopeless’ and the dramatic instrumental intro to ‘Take Me Home’, the gentle introspection of ‘Trouble on My Mind’ is more lyrically substantial, though hardly concrete in its narrative. It begins with the repeated title line and evolves to a chilling end: “and you know it when it holds you under a wave / cold and dying / moving in reverse, slow motion.”

The cinematic ‘All My Life’ evokes a crisp, cold winter scene, mingling sensory effects both in its lyrics (“never known the heaven in night / or the sound of the Northern Lights”) and in its dark harmonic twists. By contrast, ‘Silent Side’ is calmer and more tranquil, its refrain “you are my silent side” serving as a panacea to the album’s pervasive chill. ‘Courting is a Pleasure’ and ‘Sprig of Thyme’ are traditionally structured folk songs with fuller narratives. The former is dark and dirge-like, contrasting the pleasure of new love with the unstated pain of its inevitable end. The latter uses a clever play on words to illustrate the same idea: “time is a precious thing / and time it will go on / and time will bring all things to an end / and so does my thyme grow on”.

Eponymous and final track ‘The Way is Read’ takes a markedly sprightly tempo, juxtaposing vocal interplay and sharp instrumental counterpoint. It rounds off the record with reference to its established lyrical themes: “sailors on a frozen sea . . . under the starry sight / under the wayward night / under the Northern Lights.” The usually warm vocal harmonies of the Staveley-Taylor sisters take an ominous and icy tone here, in the context of yMusic’s sharp, wintry instrumental mix.

Though commissioned for a summer music festival, ‘The Way is Read’ is a perfect soundtrack for the cold winter days of December. Produced by Rob Moose and Jessica Stavely-Taylor, the album is available now on Nonesuch Records. The Staves and yMusic will perform on Minnesota Public Radio’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ on the 16th of December.

8/10

TGTF’s extensive previous coverage of The Staves is right through here, and our previous writing on yMusic can be found here.

 

Album Review: Belle and Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems (Part 1) EP

 
By on Monday, 11th December 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Belle and Sebastian How to Solve Our Human Problems Part 1 album coverTwo decades after forming, Glaswegian band Belle and Sebastian are still at it, and for their latest release, they’ve decided to turn things on its head. I should probably be referring not to release but to releases, plural. In their earliest years, Belle and Sebastian knocked out albums at a feverish pace: ‘Tigermilk’ and ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ were recorded and released in less than a year. While Stuart Murdoch says, “My capacity to be delighted by pop music has not waned”, his outlook on the music business has changed. This has led to their decision to release not an album in a traditional format but three EPs under the umbrella ‘How to Solve Our Human Problems’, each of them to be bolstered by a lead single.

In part 1 of the trilogy, ‘We Were Beautiful’ is that single, an upbeat number that continues the Scottish’s group trajectory towards synth-driven tuneage evidenced in ‘The Party Line’ from 2015’s ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’. In his semi-sung, semi-spoken words, Murdoch paints a picture of optimism and resilience despite obstacles, much needed in these downtrodden times: “I see you the way you are, I see you the scar… we were beautiful before this all went down”. ‘The Girl Doesn’t Get It’ begins simply and trite enough, with Murdoch’s pronouncement that women have been deceived by “a myth that they’re selling / that there’s one perfect fella”. The song quickly changes to a political direction, into discussion of state of fear and terror we’ve been pulled into in this uncertain world and, I guess for lack of a better parallel descriptor, Britain’s version of Make America Great Again. All the while, a bouncy, poppy, peppy synth-led rhythm reminiscent of OMD confounds.

But maybe that’s the point, to keep you off balance, to create a feeling of unease? ‘Dew Sweet Lee’, a near cloying duet between Murdoch and Stevie Jackson, opens this EP, sounding nothing like the two songs I just described. In it, Murdoch recalls a woman he once loved. But was it a fabulous love affair, or was it all in his mind and he daydreamed up the whole thing? It’s up to the listener to decide. Moving into even slower territory, ‘Fickle Season’ shines gently like stars in a night sky. A repeated tap in the backdrop sounds like the clicking of a clock or a metronome, which seems appropriate here. “Come the season, find a reason / home is anywhere you find me”, sings Sarah Martin, a honeyed yearning in her voice.

The five-track EP ends with an instrumental, ‘Everything is Now’. Sounding like a wonky Broken Bells with flute and like an attempt by a pop band who don’t really know how to jam, you’re left scratching your head after its 5 and a half minute conclusion. EPs are shorter than albums, so they’re usually easier to string together by a common theme, something that doesn’t seem to be obvious here. Maybe the other two EPs that follow will have better guidance towards the titular ‘How to Solve Our Human Problems’? Let’s hope so.

7/10

The ‘How to Solve Our Human Problems (Part 1) EP, the first of three from Belle and Sebastian, is out now on Matador Records. The Scottish group will be touring their newest music in Europe in February, the UK and Ireland in March and will even pop over to Australia in May; all their touring information current as of now is on their Facebook here. For our past coverage on Belle and Sebastian here on TGTF, come through.

 
 
 

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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.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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