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To Kill a King are a band who believe in taking advantage of an opportune moment. At the end of 2014, after a full year of touring and with the release of their EP ‘Exit Pursued by a Bear’, the London-based group found themselves at bit of a crossroads. They begin 2015 with a new LP, the self-titled ‘To Kill a King’ that, while not a debut album, marks a new beginning for the band in more ways than one.
The band initially self-released their real debut album, 2013’s ‘Cannibals With Cutlery’, but their subsequent signing with Xtra Mile Recordings allowed both a full re-release of that album and expanded touring opportunities that spread their music to a much wider audience. As frontman Ralph Pelleymounter says in the press release for ‘To Kill a King’, the band wrote the new album with a bright future in mind. “On reflection, the first album does sound like a debut. This (new album) is the band coming into its stride.” And these are songs sound designed to be played on a bigger stage.
Their ambitions might have been thwarted by the recent departure of bass player Josh Platman, who announced on the 10th of February that he was leaving the band for personal reasons. But seemingly undaunted, the remaining members of To Kill A King (Pelleymounter, Grant McNeill on electric guitar, Ben Jackson on synth and keys and Josh Taffel on drums) have filled Platman’s slot with bassist Peter Hakola and forged ahead with the album release as well as their scheduled March headline dates in Europe and the UK. (Find a full listing of live shows on the band’s Web site.)
With a firmly established “carpe diem” mentality, the band have managed to avoid the curse of the sophomore album with ‘To Kill a King’, continuing their evolution away from the seminal folk rock sound that led to their early association with Communion Records. The songs on this album are dynamically expansive but dramatically concise, bursting at the seams with compelling choruses and striking instrumental bridges. The 11 tracks play through at a remarkably fast pace, smoothly shifting gears between anthemic refrains and quieter moments without ever losing their sense of forward momentum.
Opening track ‘Compare Scars’ moves quickly from a sparse and introspective introduction to the driving pulse and power chords of the chorus “I know it’s hard when they’re calling your name / but keep your head straight, keep your head straight”. Similarly, the LP’s lead single ‘Love Is Not Control’ belies its own title with an anxiously quick tempo and tense, repeated lyrical clips.
Pelleymounter’s expressive baritone is highlighted on standout track ‘Oh My Love’, which I described previously in my review of the ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear’ EP. He demonstrates a solid falsetto in ‘The Chancer’ (streaming below), where the relentless intensity of the album backs off for a brief moment with the distantly echoed chorus “and the beat goes on my friends / life’s endless drum”. The bass groove and guitar riff of ‘Grace at a Party’ ratchet up the drama again as Pelleymounter sings about unexpectedly running into an ex-lover.
Penultimate track ‘World of Joy (A List of Things to Do)’ and brief final clip ‘Today’ brought a surprised smile to my face with their disarmingly buoyant instrumental arrangements and light-hearted lyrics. Focusing once again on the theme of living in the present moment, To Kill a King have here, and on the album as a whole, fully realized their intention “to be more optimistic and more life-affirming”. The bold intensity and clear musicality of ‘To Kill A King’ should give them even more reason to feel optimistic about their progress as a band and the direction they’ve chosen to take.
‘To Kill A King’ is out today on Xtra Mile Recordings. Just after the release, the band will begin a run of live dates in the UK.
Los Angeles native and former Rooney lead guitarist Taylor Locke’s first solo album ‘Time Stands Still’ finds Locke somewhat at odds with his newly-appointed singer/songwriter status. After spending 10 years with Rooney and two more with his side project Taylor Locke and the Roughs, he is a bit uncomfortable working outside the context of a band, as he explains in the press release for ‘Time Stands Still’: “I think the term ‘singer/songwriter’ sadly evokes a white guy in a coffee shop strumming a fucking G-chord all day. I think this record sounds more like a band record…the band just takes occasional smoke breaks.”
True to Locke’s description, the album alternates between sparsely arranged acoustic ballads and the West Coast guitar rock sound of acts like Jackson Browne or Dawes. In fact, as I listened to ‘Time Stands Still’, I was strongly reminded of Dawes, particularly by the similarity between Locke’s singing voice and that of Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith. While not one of my favorite bands, Dawes do have their moments of brilliance, and so it is with Taylor Locke as well.
One of those brilliant moments is the opening track to ‘Time Stands Still’, ‘Burbank Woman’. It’s another one in a long and timeworn list of songs about the contradictions of the feminine mystique, but its lyrics manage to sidestep the usual clichés, as in the chorus: “she knew something that she didn’t say / deep in her heart there was a valley and no freeway to get there / never mind the miles of my persistence / she was gonna keep me at a distance”.
Unfortunately, those clichés catch up with Locke before the album progresses much further. Second track ‘The Game’ is an extended gambling metaphor, using stale poker jargon to describe a turbulent romance. Trite lyrics also plague the album’s first single ‘Running Away From Love’, whose bland musical arrangement and backing vocals would make qualify it as perfect material for the muzak in a department store.
But just when it seems like the album has taken a nosedive into the banal, Locke comes charging back with a groovy mix of guitar and synths behind the catchy chorus to ‘So Long’. Even better is the current single ‘Call Me Kuchu’, where Locke finds a rougher vocal tone to match the crunchy guitars and gritty lyrics. The call and response between voices in the chorus creates a haunting echo that lingers long after the song is over.
The second half of the album leans more heavily on Locke’s singer/songwriter abilities, and the lyrics to title track ‘Time Stands Still’ undoubtedly refer to his new venture: “it’s late in the game for fanning the flame / the wind is gonna blow out anyway / walk off the stage, turn a new page / call it what you will, time stands still”. Those words became even more meaningful recently, with the passing of the track’s co-writer Kim Fowley. Locke describes Fowley as the “Rock ‘n Roll Grandpa” who talked him into making a solo album in the first place: “The song reveals his sensitive, introspective side, that I count myself among the lucky few to have known.” With that possibly in mind, Locke allows his unadorned vocal line to take center stage over the vaguely gospel harmonies in the keyboards, which are delicately decorated by acoustic guitar and ringing percussion.
Taking a slightly different direction, ‘The Art of Moving On’ is once again purely in the singer/songwriter vein, but its cynical lyrics are contradicted by the forward momentum of the acoustic guitar melody. The finger-picked acoustic guitar rhythms and minor key harmonies in final track ‘No Dice’ are surprisingly reminiscent of Spanish art song, ending the album on a pleasantly unexpected note of newly piqued interest.
Ultimately, the singer/songwriter tracks on ‘Time Stands Still’ suffer slightly from Locke’s vocal delivery, which unfortunately isn’t one of the album’s strongest features. His singing works best in the bolder electric guitar arrangements, where the instrumental colour can take precedence over the vocals. Still, for an initial foray into solo performing, Taylor Locke has made a solid effort here, and one worth building upon.
Taylor Locke’s solo debut album ‘Time Stands Still’ is out now on Lojinx Records. Click here for a free download of its title track.
When we talk about surf pop, the mind often wonders to the heroes of the genre – The Beach Boys, Eddie and the Showmen and The Astronauts. Now in the 21st century, you turn to bespectacled teenagers looking awkward by the sea like Wavves, Best Coast and of course those kings of melancholy and tight jeans The Drums. Well, we’ve got a new addition to that triage, in the shape of Hooton Tennis Club, who come from that surfing capital of the world, Liverpool… Yeah. Not so much, unless you like bobbing around the algae off the back of the tour boats whilst trying not to catch E. coli or Ebola.
Their new single ‘Jasper’ was recorded at fellow Liverpudlian Bill Ryder-Jones’ mother’s house. So you’ve already got the image of an incredibly low budget recording effort, which makes for a very laid-back tune. That’s what ‘Jasper’ is, in a nutshell. It’s not brash, brazen or the band trying to be anything they’re not. There’s something distinctly languid and almost quintessentially English to the melancholic tones of Hooton Tennis Club. The single is a delightful slice of off-colour pop music. It’s Khal, Haz, J. Dean and Uncle Ry’s debut single and marks the band as one of the up-and-coming indie starlets for 2015. They’re not in the Royal Blood mould, but I can’t see the populist Radio 1-friendly rock market not getting on board with the four-piece.
What I can see though is the soundtrack to stoner sessions in basements in Soho, or chill-out vibes on a patio in Brighton as eight Bird’s Eye own brand burgers sizzle on the barbecue. The band have taken a leaf out of Teenage Fanclub’s books in their songwriting, to good effect. Now it remains to be seen whether after Jasper, whether Hooton Tennis Club can go and discover their own verve and sound…
Hooton Tennis Club’s debut single ‘Jasper’ is out today on Heavenly Records.
Though only in his early twenties, American singer/songwriter Luke Rathborne already has a full career’s worth of experience under his belt. Born in Brunswick, Maine, Rathborne started learning the guitar at age 12, when a stranger passing through his hometown left the instrument at his house. He is also a self-taught record producer and engineer, having recorded his first album ‘After Dark’ at age 16 after sneaking into his local college recording studio after hours and learning to use the equipment. The album was self-released in 2009 and garnered enough interest from the music industry to prompt Rathborne to relocate to New York, where he is currently based. He first made waves in the UK back in 2011, when his double EP ‘Dog Years/I Can Be One’ attracted the attention of BBC 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne.
Rathborne’s current project is a new full-length LP titled ‘SOFT’, recorded under the eponymous full band moniker Rathborne. The band Rathborne features Darren Will on bass in addition to the guitar and songwriting talents of Luke Rathborne himself. ‘SOFT’ was produced by Rathborne and Emery Dobyns (Battles, Patti Smith), with co-production by The Strokes’ Albert Hammond, Jr. and Gus Oberg, and was released in America in 2013.
This week’s UK release of ‘SOFT’ was preceded by the release of its catchy first single, ‘Last Forgiven’, back in December. You might have heard its lively rhythms on BBC Radio 1 even before that; it premiered in July 2014 as Zane Lowe’s “Next Hype”. The kitschy retro-’80s vibe of its accompanying video is at once infectiously energetic and painstakingly nonchalant.
‘Last Forgiven’ is a fair representation of ‘SOFT’ as a whole, capturing Rathborne’s singer/songwriter-meets-punk-band combination of musical energy and lyrical power. The track’s lo-fi production quality keeps the bouncy tempo and propulsive rhythm from overwhelming Rathborne’s air of mild ennui with its own eager ambition in the repeated lines “you gotta take that number, take that shot”. The lyrical phrases are concise and direct, making their impact by virtue of punchy rhythms and Luke Rathborne’s deliberately blasé vocal tone.
The album opens with the hard-edged, heavily-distorted electric guitars of innuendo-laced title track ‘Soft’, and while that sound reappears periodically throughout, the predominant musical characteristic of the album is its strong bass presence. Rathborne make use of the bass as a foundation for their variety of sonic moods, including the R.E.M.-style jangly guitar sound of ‘I’m So Tired’ and the sparsely arranged power chords of ’80s retro track ‘Eno’.
Luke Rathborne takes a ‘Little Moment’ midway through the album to show off his singer/songwriter chops in a softer guitar arrangement, accompanied by the gentle lilt of female backing vocals. But the album’s real standout songs come after this point in the tracklisting. ‘Wanna Be You’ is immediately reminiscent of the Ramones, with its perverse opening lyric “Saw you in a magazine / wanna be you / I don’t care about the way it seems / I wanna be you”, while the bluesier sound of ‘Deal’ is more like Lou Reed, whose band The Velvet Underground is counted among Rathborne’s stated musical influences.
Final track ‘So Long NYC’ is written as a farewell to the city, but also to a romantic relationship, as Luke Rathborne explains in the press release for ‘SOFT’: “I felt like love had imploded. There was no place for me to be anymore. That’s a strange thing to feel when you’re 23. Like everything had gotten out of control. I ran out of money. I ran out of time.” Rathborne expresses those complicated emotions at the end of the album in its lengthiest and most musically expansive track, with a heart-palpitating tempo and multiple instrumental layers gradually building over the heavy bass pulse.
The sheer variety of musical elements on ‘SOFT’ might at first seem to be a bit all over the shop, but the album comes together as a cohesive unit in the end, with Luke Rathborne’s inner troubadour finding a home in the punk rock ethos he and his bandmates have worked together to create.
‘SOFT’ is out now on Luke Rathborne’s record label True Believer. Rathborne and his band are scheduled to appear at SXSW 2015 next month in Austin, Texas.
A journey through The Unthanks’ back catalogue reveals work of steadily increasing maturity, and that process continues on ‘Mount the Air’, their eighth studio album. Those patiently wishing for the end of the 4-year hiatus since ‘Last’ will surely not think their wait has been in vain, for this is a truly groundbreaking record. For the first time, all five core members are involved in the writing process: astonishingly, it’s the first time the eponymous sisters have contributed to the penning of the music they portray with such sincere emotion. On a practical level, the record was self-recorded and self-released, a brave step which speaks of the confidence the group have in it. Well-placed confidence, as it turns out.
A treatise could be written about the 10-minute title track alone. A big-band folk-jazz epic, ‘Mount the Air’ is a fairytale dream of love, of shedding the restrictions of the human form in a search for one’s soul mate. It almost goes without saying that the level of musicianship is superb: there’s a piercing trumpet part throughout, various bowed and blown ensembles… and then we get to the voices. Becky Unthank is first, her dusky voice at once humble yet passionate; Rachel has a clearer, more conventional, tone, and takes the second verse. Both different, distinctive, neither superior to the other. Either could be the voice of God’s wife – or indeed God herself. Perhaps it’s too much to say that, like looking at the infinite expanse of stars in a clear night sky, one can almost perceive in their voices the meaning of the Universe. But there’s certainly something elemental going on here, which transcends notes on a page or bits on a disc.
‘Madam’ is a touching courtship which switches imperceptibly between male and female perspectives, judging neither but exposing their distinctive frailties, desires and fears. There’s a dramatic crescendo of brass, hinting of their collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick band, which vies with Niopha Keegan’s violin for emotional impact.
‘Died for Love’ concludes the opening act with a companion-piece to ‘Madam’; this time death rears its ugly head, this time as the corollary, an uneasy bedfellow to love. Before I go any further, listeners of a tender disposition should be warned: these are powerful songs, overflowing with a deep emotion rarely confronted in our daily, shallow lives. One’s own emotional response cannot be accurately predicted, but when listening to The Unthanks’ music one should always be prepared for tears. And so it is on ‘Died for Love’. Quite apart from the unbearably sad narrative, the string-laden denouement is quite spectacular.
‘Flutter’ gives welcome respite. Featuring an original lyric and melody from Becky Unthank, there are clear hints of Portishead’s electric piano and syncopated drum work, and a lightness of touch that explains its popularity on the radio. It’s a welcome respite from the emotional content of the rest of the album, and a helpful introduction to the band’s work for beginners.
Continuing the bird-related themes, ‘Magpie’ is a sparse reading of Dave Dodds’ enduring traditional tale of the eponymous egg-stealer; the fact that it’s an oblique North-East sporting reference presumably doesn’t do any harm. The expansion of the well-known “one for sorrow” refrain into a proper song performed by a trio of two Unthanks and Keegan is a minimalist triumph.
Up next is the album’s other epic, ‘Foundling’. Adrian McNally was commissioned by Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in London a couple of years before, but put it off due to time pressures, presumably due to the arrival of children. Which makes the content of this mournful waltz even more touching. The recurrent theme of delicate trumpet is present, to lift what is another 10 minutes of heart-rending folk storytelling. It segues into ‘Last Lullaby’, which appropriates a verse from The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’, then adds more lyrics which could easily have been part of the original. Lennon and McCartney surely get a writing credit here.
The Unthanks surely deserve to be considered one of the most important acts of the crossover folk scene. Their work is deeply rooted in English folk, but is simultaneously accessible to a broad audience. And a good thing too, as this collection demonstrates, this is some of the most beautiful and touching music being made today. Evoking pathos through their deeply touching storytelling, there’s more tightly-packed emotion here than many artists manage in a career. As a writer based in the North East I’m surely biased, but the region, and indeed the world, are lucky to have The Unthanks to keep alive its deep traditions of folk music and stories. Long may they endure.
Now out on their own RabbleRouser Music label, ‘Mount the Air’ is the Unthanks‘ newest album. The sisters begin a new UK tour later this month, starting Saturday the 21st of February in Southampton; all the details are this way.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 17th February 2015 at 12:00 pm
In case you’ve been living under a rock (I mean, really?) and have no idea who or what Public Service Broadcasting are, here’s the short version of their story so far: well heeled with the humourous yet ever so English pseudonyms J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth (how do those strike you?), the London-based duo have been giving new life to the voice recordings from historical newsreels. Their well-received 2012 EP ‘The War Room’ was followed a year later with their first album, 2013’s ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, which gives three verbs that accurately describe the pair’s efforts. With both releases, they were able to successfully dust off heroic tales and bloaty, floaty propanganda alike, adding to them both traditional and electronic instrumentation to produce something entirely fresh and inventive. And you have to give it to them: who would ever pair a public service announcement with a banjo and make it catchy?
On their debut LP, the subject matter Public Service Broadcasting chose to reinvent was all over the place: among other topics, their tunes paid respect to the British-made fighter jet ‘Spitfire’, the advent of colour television in ‘ROYGBIV’ and the human triumph of climbing a treacherous behemoth of a mountain in ‘Everest’. In 2015, the well-appointed men in tweed waistcoats are wearing tweed no longer. Now donning full body astronaut suits, ‘The Race for Space’ is, unequivocally, a collection of paeans to the heroics and glory but also sometimes sadness and crushing defeat that has accompanied key events in the storied history of manned spaceflight. The journey begins on a solemn but inspirational note as the words of then American President of the United States John F. Kennedy, talking about the potential future of spaceflight in September 1962, are accompanied by an angelic chorus.
‘Gagarin’, receiving its first radio play in November on Radcliffe and Maconie’s BBC 6music programme, is of course named in honour of and for Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian astronaut who successfully travelled in outer space the spring of 1961. The song for him is suitably grand, with an anticipatory drum roll flourish to begin. The single follows ‘Spitfire’ in fine fashion, being its louder, wilder brother: bright horns continuing throughout as if a nod to ’70s powerhouses like Chicago, but with an irresistible funky rhythm described as “Afrobeat-with-balalaikas tribute” sure to get some tail feathers in the air at festivals this year.
‘Sputnik’ is more atmospheric, showing remarkable restraint with a gently pulsating synth line, like a more moderate ‘Pump Up the Volume’, and chords to reflect the hopefulness yet mystery of the future of spaceflight, with the first rocket of this series having been launched 4 years prior to Gagarin’s achievement. The first woman in space, Russia’s ‘Valentina’ Tereshkova, is also honoured with a Sigur Ros-influenced song of her own. While the song is notable for the absence of obvious archival recordings, it fittingly features beautiful guest vocals from the also female Smoke Fairies. The accomplishment of ‘E.V.A.’, or extravehicular activity, also gets a nod, as does the Apollo 8 mission that saw American astronauts to see the far side of the moon, as well as that now famous shot of Earth rise. Both of these are rhythmically interesting and different, with the former sounding like it could have been an outtake from ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’.
Public Service Broadcasting would have been remiss if they did not include in this cataloguing of our endeavours to boldly go where no man has gone before a tragic moment in its history. ‘Fire in the Cockpit’ chronicles the Apollo 1 training disaster in 1967 that killed three American astronauts, and PSB pays tribute to the fallen heroes with a sombre but remarkably not heavy-handed string underscore. It’s then left to the glory of the Apollo 11 (‘Go!’) and 17 (‘Tomorrow’) missions to close out the album on two upbeat, inspiring notes. It may seem a bit strange for them to have ended here, as if the Race to Space became frozen in time from 7 December 1972, when the last manned Moon landing took place.
As a child of a NASA scientist, I reckon perhaps Public Service Broadcasting made a good choice of when to terminate their walk down memory lane. I didn’t realise until I looked it up to confirm that it’s been over 3 years since the American Space Shuttle programmed ended. Going into outer space had once been an impossible and fanciful notion. And then it was made possible. All of the risks, all of the triumphs, all of the aeronautics and aerospace research undertaken by these pioneers of our past: these are things we don’t acknowledge often enough in our daily lives. While ‘The Race for Space’ focuses primarily on the most prominent and overwhelmingly positive moments of the space age, it’s an engaging listen as well as a moving tribute. I’m sure it’s getting a thumbs-up from my dad up in heaven.
‘The Race for Space’, Public Service Broadcasting‘s sophomore album, will be released next Tuesday, the 23rd of February, on Test Card Recordings. As to not be biased towards either the Americans or the Russians, PSB has designed special packaging that will allow purchasers to choose between a vinyl gatefold sleeve with either USA or CCCP insignia. The band are scheduled to showcase next month in Austin, Texas, at SXSW 2015, then tour the UK and Ireland in April and May.