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Album Review: Ed Sheeran – x

 
By on Thursday, 3rd July 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Last Sunday, Ed Sheeran captivated thousands of onlookers as he commanded the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Not bad for someone who was busking on the streets less than 5 years ago.

While he was on stage, it was officially revealed on BBC Radio 1 that the 23-year-old’s latest album ‘x’ (pronounced ‘multiply’) had topped the Official UK Albums Chart. The album sold more than 182,000 copies in the space of 7 days, making it the fastest selling album of 2014 so far. The follow-up to his debut album ‘+’ shows a darker side to Ed Sheeran, who told Buzzfeed that he wrote about “s**t that happens” and that it “sums up the last 3 years of [his] life pretty accurately”.

Judging by the album, the last 3 years can’t have been overly great for Sheeran, as the record predominantly focuses on romance and heartbreaks, and how the West Yorkshire-born singer-songwriter put his career first and made mistakes along the way. The former is particularly evident in ‘Nina’, a possible contender for Sheeran’s next single, as the powerful chorus contains the line, “And I’ve been livin’ on the road Nina, but then again you should know Nina”. Opening track ‘One’ is another strong track that also embraces this theme, as does one of the stand out songs on the album, ‘Don’t’.

Having supported Taylor Swift on her tour of America, it’s clear that her knack for shaming exes in her music rubbed off on Sheeran, as ‘Don’t’ is based on his experience with a celebrity girlfriend who cheated on him with a close friend. As well as sending the gossip magazines into overdrive, ‘Don’t’ is a dark and powerful track that sticks two fingers up to Sheeran’s ex, making it one of the highlights of ‘x’. ‘Sing’, which gave Sheeran his first #1 single earlier this year, shows a slight move away from the one man and his acoustic guitar we have come accustomed to. Heavily influenced by the pop and r&b styling of Justin Timberlake, the track was produced by and features the vocals of Pharrell Williams (who seems to be doing no wrong at the moment), so it’s no surprise that this is one of the strongest songs on the album.

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Nevertheless, Sheeran hasn’t strayed completely from his roots. The gentle tones of ‘Tenerife Sea’, ‘Photograph’ and ‘Thinking Out Loud’ feature a similar sound to the likes of ‘The A Team’, ‘U.N.I.’ and ‘Give Me Love’ from his debut album, providing a welcome change to the dark undertones of ‘x’. Something that Sheeran achieves well is tackling subjects that many mainstream artists would shy away from: for example, ‘Bloodstream’ is about the time he took MDMA and fell in love with a bean bag. However, he makes them applicable to his young fan base by populating his tracks with references to his favourite pastimes, such as playing with LEGO. It’s a clever technique that makes Ed Sheeran stand out from the other singer-songwriters that are currently dominating the charts.

Overall, ‘x’ is a brilliant album that is sure to have a lasting effect, just like his previous record did. While he hasn’t taken many risks, Ed Sheeran has delivered yet another masterpiece, which is guaranteed to be one of this year’s best musical offerings.

9/10

‘x’, the second studio album from Ed Sheeran, is out now on Warner Music.

 

Album Review: SPEAK – Pedals

 
By on Wednesday, 2nd July 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

SPEAK Pedals CoverAustin, Texas synthpop band SPEAK have just released their second full-length album ‘Pedals’, which they began working on almost the moment their first album, 2011’s ‘I Believe in Everything’, was complete. Lead singer and keyboardist Troupe Gammage describes the band as “extremely goal-oriented”, a trait that led them to consciously refine their style and self-produce their sophomore effort. ‘Pedals’ is, indeed, a very deliberate album. The general feeling is one of intentionally developed sophistication, but it’s all a bit overwrought. The intense intellectualism and musical experimentation often weighs down songs that are presumably intended to be delicately ethereal or buoyantly anthemic.

Recent single ‘Gates’ is a reasonably optimistic, uptempo opener. Gammage’s singing voice shows its colors right away here, with a low range that descends into vocal fry and teeters precariously on the edge of going flat before being redeemed by a silky smooth falsetto. The wailing guitars and keyboard riff establish a cool pop vibe that carries through ‘Mystery Lights’ and ‘Nightlight’.

A brief instrumental clip called ‘Weiss’ serves as a preliminary intro to the unexpected acoustic ballad ‘This Much I Know’. This combination of the album’s two shortest tracks is a fleeting but hypnotic moment of echoing guitars, lush backing harmonies, and a gently rocking 6/8 meter leading into the more expansive ‘Peaks’.

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‘Peaks’ was dropped as a pre-album single in April 2013, then released alongside 3 remixes as part of an eponymous EP. SPEAK have given this song a lot of attention, and while their devotion to it is admirable, I think it may also have been somewhat detrimental. It feels like the band are too far inside their own heads on this one, focusing on minute details and losing sight of the larger effect, which ends up being a bit tedious. (Sample the other arrangements of this track on the ‘Peaks’ EP here.)

The mid-album sequence of ‘Oh Lord’, ‘Modern Art’ and ‘Be Reasonable, Diane’ is the strongest grouping on the album. ‘Oh Lord’ has a distinct rhythmic groove, accented by additional percussion and fluidly emotive vocals. ‘Modern Art’ is the sonic equivalent of graphic visual art, its angular melodic lines and crisp rhythms sharply contrasting the fuzzy texture of the vocals and guitars. The moody and sullen ‘Be Reasonable, Diane’ has, ironically, the only chorus catchy enough to stick with me after my initial listen to the full record.

The remainder of the album is uneven, with the jungle soundscape of ‘Congo’ and the r&b groove of ‘The Meantime’ trying to break up the monotony of ’11 12 13’ and ‘Trials’. A bit of judicious trimming at this point might have streamlined the focus at the end of the tracklisting and on the album as a whole.

On first listen, the tracks on ‘Pedals’ completely ran together in my mind, their subtleties lost in a wash of electro-synth sound. I found it difficult to pick out anything particularly clever or inventive. It wasn’t until my 3rd full listen that I found myself humming along to choruses, nodding my head to beats and anticipating riffs and rhythms. Unfortunately, while the album has its moments of clarity, subsequent listening hasn’t fully anchored it in my mind. However, for listeners who enjoy expansive, genre-blurring post-rock, SPEAK’s experimental new sound might be worth the extra time it takes to delve into the complexity of ‘Pedals’.

6/10

‘Pedals’ is out now on Playing In Traffic Records.

 

Album Review: White Lung – Deep Fantasy

 
By on Thursday, 26th June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Need something abrasive and thoroughly obnoxious to kick you out of that post-England-being-knocked-out-of-the-World-Cup stupor? In search of a wake-up track after those 11 o’clock kick-offs?

Well, prepare yourself for a 22-minute long aural assault of epic proportions. White Lung seem to only have one mode and on their new record ‘Deep Fantasy’, and that is full-on frenetic. Should we be surprised? Well, not really, since this is the Vancouver-based trio’s third full length album – and I use the term full-length with gusto – as at 22 minutes, this is their longest outing yet.

Frontwoman Mish Way on vocals is not shy to announce her credentials as a punked up mix between Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Joan Jett. Whilst Anne-Marie Vassiliou on drums will cast away any memories of lethargic female drummers (Meg White, we’re looking at you dear) – as she’s an absolute livewire on the kit – delving into the kind of tempo you’d expect on a thrash metal record. Kenneth William has the unenviable task of keeping up with these two pace-setters on guitar, and throughout the album he achieves a breakneck pace and new addition Hether Fortune rifles along frantically on the bass.

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The record starts in ferocious form with the emotion and drama of ‘Drown with the Monster’ before we’re thrown into arguably the catchiest of this collection of 2 and a bit minute bangers, ‘Down It Goes’. The first two tracks are characteristic of the rest of the album. No time is wasted, there’s no mucking about with effects – it’s a sub-30-minute burst of feminist punk rock assaulting your ear drums in the most visceral of fashions.

Way isn’t afraid to go rampaging into – probably dropkicking them in the soft gooey parts in the process – some deep issues. ‘Snake Jaw’ is almost a lyrical assault on issues with the female body image – the stresses of matters like body dysmorphia and western obsessions with size 0 – all tuned to a thunderous mashing of power chords and heavy percussion.

The only things that trips me up on this album, is that upon each new listen, it occurs to me more and more that this record and the band in general is probably only going to be enjoyed by the journalistas of London and the hardcore punkers. It’s in vogue to be a bit edgy and crack along with the whole ‘90s women’s revolutionary rock scene, e.g., ala Hole and co. The band are obviously extremely merchandisable – this shouldn’t be viewed as a band thing – but it always makes me feel uneasy. Perhaps it’s just me being a cynical hack though? Throughout ‘Deep Fantasy’, from ‘Drown with the Monster’ to ‘In Your Home’, the album does seem incredibly genuine and heartfelt.

‘Deep Fantasy’ is a vital listen for anyone starving from a lack of primeval-punky goodness (just make sure you haven’t got weak eardrums) and with its feminist dusting, it could prove itself to be an even more vital listen.

9/10

‘Deep Fantasy’, White Lung’s third album for Domino Records, is out now.

 

Single Review: alt-J – Hunger of the Pine

 
By on Wednesday, 25th June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Several days ago, the 2012 Mercury Prize-winning alt-J unleashed the first single from their hotly anticipated sophomore album ‘This is All Yours’. Since winning the Mercury gong, the band has downgraded from a quartet to a trio: bassist Gwil Sainsbury announced in January he was leaving the group for personal reasons and from all signs, his departure was amicable. alt-J have since decided to soldier on as a three-piece and though they are one man down, the first taste of their follow-up shows no indication of any growing pains (losing pains?) caused by Sainsbury’s departure. Actually, ‘Hunger of the Pine’ might be their most accessible song to date.

As described by the band themselves in this piece by NPR’s Bob Boilen, the song’s intent is to recreate, sonically, the physical hurt and pain of missing someone (‘pining’) and the song has nothing to do with coniferous trees at all. Unfortunately, what’s been getting too much attention is the trio’s use of a Miley Cyrus sample from her song ‘4 X 4’. I think that’s truly unfortunate. Cyrus’ actual lyric of “I’m a female rebel” doesn’t add anything to the song’s meaning itself, and I actually think it’s jarring to the haiku-like exquisiteness of singer Joe Newman’s own words (“Sleeplessly embracing / Yawn yearns into me / Plenty more tears in the sea”) lost in an enticing sea of reined in electronic beats that encircle the listener.

As has been pointed out by several music fans, if no-one had pointed out the vocal sample was from Miss Cyrus, we’d probably never have known, and maybe the song would have been better for it if we’d been in the dark. As it is, the addition makes the song more of a novelty and detracts from the otherwise beautiful, otherworldly quality of ‘Hunger of the Pine’. Also of note, it appears Newman has either toned down or they’ve somehow managed to lessen the nasal sharpness of their frontman’s voice, which was the major stumbling block to me liking alt-J in the first place.

All in all, ‘Hunger of the Pine’ confirms the anticipation for ‘This is All Yours’ is well-deserved.

7.5/10

Listen to ‘Hunger of the Pine’, alt-J’s latest song, in this Video of the Moment feature. (The band have since pulled the stream of the single from their Soundcloud account.) ‘This is All Yours’, the group’s second album, will be out on the 22nd of September on Infectious Music.
Previous coverage of the band – when they were still a foursome – can be found here.

 

Album Review: Empires – How Good Does It Feel EP

 
By on Monday, 23rd June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Being miserable is the new cool, guys. Melancholy: the new hip. Dejected and depressed: the new rock ‘n’ roll.

The days of gloom-pop are upon us.

OK, so it’s not exactly a brand new concept, seeing as artists have been crooning about how wretched a life they have had. But we’ve hit a new twist – with a new indie-rock sense of pomp, we’ve got a group of doom mongers for the Game of Thrones-obsessed masses. (We’re past the Skins generation, right? That’s not a thing anymore, is it?) Recently, artists like The National, White Lies and Editors have cut a niche for themselves in this territory. Now, stepping up to have a crack at their own take on the movement is Chicago band Empires with their new EP ‘How Good Does It Feel’.

What you’ll find within is 13 minutes and 48 seconds of ’80s inspired indie rock that won’t have you reaching for the tissues, but instead have your head bobbing like a metronomic Churchill. Somehow though, any artist at the moment with a deep resonant tone to their voice, backed up by I suppose what you could call a thudding bass line reminds me of The Vaccines. Upsettingly on this EP, there are no tracks that live up to that kind of billing.

No ‘Wetsuit’s, or ‘Wrecking Ball’s.

Nada.

The concept, as alluded to earlier isn’t exactly novel or ground-breaking either. But as an EP, it still manages to be rather entertaining throughout. It’s honest and doesn’t allude to being anything other than what it is, by removing all frills and not trying to experiment.

Band members Sean Van Vleet, Tom Conrad, Max Steger and Mike Robinson have stuck to their guns and have a sound which they are comfortable with. The next step is to find that hook, that one tune which breaks the mould – their ‘Wetsuit’. When they crack it, it won’t be long at all before everyone is raving about them.

7/10

Empires’ EP ‘How Good Does It Feel’ is out now in America on Chop-Shop/Island.

 

Album Review: The Lake Poets – Honest Hearts EP

 
By on Friday, 20th June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Singer/songwriter Martin Longstaff uses the plural stage moniker The Lake Poets, though his artistic efforts seem to be of the singular variety. Presumably taking his name from the group of 19th century English Romantic poets, Longstaff has written lyrics with a distinctly poetic bent on his debut EP ‘Honest Hearts’, where his beautiful singing and multi-instrumental talents serve to accentuate the reflective and delicate imagery.

The EP opens with darkly mysterious track ‘Windowsill’, an intimate entreaty to explore uncertain, even frightening possibilities. Longstaff’s light, lilting singing voice explores its full range of dynamics on the repeated refrain, “You’re watching the world from your windowsill / You’re trying to figure it out / There’s so much world past your windowsill / But you’ve got your fears and your doubts”.

Despite its description on The Lake Poets’ Soundcloud page as “a song about going through hell, and keeping going”, the title track ‘Honest Hearts’ is warmer and brighter, with the twang of pedal steel and dulcimer. The layered vocals on its chorus “You can take my body, but you will never get my soul” grow into an expansive bridge section before pulling back to a more introspective ending. ‘Dead Horses’ has a more bluesy country sound, with aching falsetto vocals and gritty electric guitars. Once again, Longstaff expands on his own haunting refrain, “How do you fix a lost and broken lonely life?”, his voice gentle at first, then building in strength leading into the dramatic instrumental section.

Longstaff’s exquisite vocals take center stage on ‘Husks’, arranged simply for piano and voice. The keyboard melody is elegantly poignant as Longstaff sings his Romantic analogy for a past relationship, “Is there a sadder sight than a dead tree in a field / A shadow of what it used to be / Like a husk it stands lifeless in the breeze surrounded by twisted dead debris”. His graceful and delicate vocals are perfectly executed here; my breath caught in my throat as I listened to him intone the final melancholy line.

The EP closes with a brief reprise of the main musical ideas from ‘Windowsill’, extending the overall lingering effect of this collection of songs. The simple and direct nature of Longstaff’s songwriting allows his lithely flowing vocals and instrumental interludes to echo in the dynamic space he creates. ‘Honest Hearts’ is a skillful and sensitive debut effort from a musician who clearly has a wealth of potential options for artistic growth.

8.5/10

‘Honest Hearts’ is out now via Generator. A stream of the EP can be found in our earlier feature here but only for a limited time. Also check out below this stunning video clip for the Lake Poets track ‘Edinburgh’.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest tours, gigs, and music 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 idiots.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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