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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.
By Adam McCourt
on Wednesday, 15th February 2017 at 12:00 pm
For a band who have only been together just over a year, Orchid Collective are already making tremendous strides within the Irish music scene. Since the release of their debut EP ‘Courage’ in November 2016, the Dublin-based lads have gained a lot of mainstream media attention from the likes of Clash Magazine, Hot Press Magazine, Irish national radio station RTE 2FM and Nialler9, who recently premiered their most recent single from the EP, released last Friday.
‘Waited on the Sun’ is the second single from ‘Courage’, and it has been self-described by the band as “the perfect ode to the final days of winter.” The longing for warmer nights and brighter days is a sensation everyone can relate to, which is why the track’s anthemic opening brings familiarity, a sense of safety and warmth upon listening. The intro, which doubles as the chorus, acts as the driving force of the song. David O’Shea’s lyrics seem to work as a guiding light rather than its leading feature, leaving enough room for the instrumentation to take a leading role, something that Orchid Collective’s folk-rock predecessors failed to experiment with. This gives the track a hint of ambiguity opening its meaning up for personal interpretation by each individual listener, such as a sonic representation of that moment you notice the buds on trees opening up, indicating the first signs of spring.
The song has an overarching message of love and lust, but this is presented in a rather physical manner, less subtle than the change in seasons. Shea Tohill’s lead guitar parts take on the spotlight role, bringing a real vibrance to the track whilst highlighting the intensities of the song’s dynamics through the use of the extended range of his guitar. This leaves enough open space for Darra Doyle and Hugh O’Neill to experiment with their respective mobile bass lines and physical drum parts, creating tensions and resolutions where necessary.
With a subtle, light and breathy synth pad in the foundation of the track, plus intricate three-part vocal harmonies, ‘Waiting on the Sun’ is a song that can challenge patience and serenity, while displaying strong physicality and vitality.
‘Waiting on the Sun’, the newest single from Orchid Collective, is available now. You can also catch the band at their next headline show at Dublin Unitarian Church on the 4th of March. To read more of TGTF’s past coverage on the band, including editor Mary’s coverage of them at Hard Working Class Heroes 2016 last October, go here.
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.
The Vryll Society might just be one of Liverpool’s best-kept psychedelic secrets, although judging by the attention they’ve garnered from the likes of BBC Radio 1’s Huw Stephens and 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq, this could be about to change. The band has released a bunch of singles over the past couple of years, including the hypnotic ‘A Perfect Rhythm’ out late last year. With their debut album expected this year, things are likely to change quickly for them in 2017.
‘Sacred Flight’ is the latest single from the band; released in late January, it’s the lead single from their upcoming debut. The tune is a track full of movement that is driven along with lead singer Mike Ellis’ entrancing, laid-back vocals. Ellis reminds me of fellow psychedelic rock lead singer Harry Koisser of Peace. Having just made that comparison however, the track has got something about it that makes it feel exciting and unique. It feels experimental without being too out and feeling inaccessible to someone that isn’t a diehard fan of the psych rock genre. It’s always great to hear music from a band that is trying to do something outside of the mainstream, instead of following in the footsteps of other bands who have made it big.
The song opens with a gently warbling guitar and fluid electronic sounds, before picking up with the introduction of Ellis’ voice and an inundation of synth babbling. Lyrics “please come back / soon come back / I felt the spirit go”, speaks to the transcendental and metaphysical nature of what I imagine the sacred flight to mean: some sort of out of body experience or spiritual journey (“leave this place on a sacred flight”). Ellis describes the track as a “motoric journey into cosmic space jolting atoms of sound from one galaxy to another before finally exploding into a jewel box of guitar frenzied litany”, which probably sums it up better than I ever could!
‘Sacred Flight’ is the latest single from Liverpool psych rock band The Vryll Society, out now on Deltasonic Records. Having previously supporting Blossoms, and appearing a number of festivals in 2016, their live shows are touted to be quite something. The Vryll Society will appear at SXSW 2017 in Austin this March, before returning to the UK for a few dates. Check out their full schedule here.
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