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American folk artist Nathaniel Rateliff is currently in the midst of a tour of the UK and Ireland in support of his second studio album, ‘Falling Faster Than You Can Run’, which was released on the 20th of January. Folk-tinged rock and pop are certainly all the rage thanks to artists like Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling, but Rateliff’s brand of folk music is purer than most, not merely rough around the edges, but coarse and gritty straight to the core.
‘Falling Faster Than You Can Run’ is a soulfully dark collection of songs written from the perspective of a man who has hit rock bottom and lived to tell the tale, but he hasn’t quite pulled himself out of the mire. As a whole, the album reminded me very much of the overwhelming despair in Frightened Rabbit’s most recent full-length record ‘Pedestrian Verse’. With his stocky build and scruffy beard, Rateliff even bears a mild physical resemblance to Scott Hutchison. But instead of a Scottish accent, Rateliff’s music has a distinctly American inflection, with the use of coarse vernacular language, jazz harmonies and heavy acoustic guitar. And while ‘Pedestrian Verse’ is the most extrospective of Frightened Rabbit’s repertoire, ‘Falling Faster Than You Can Run’ feels acutely and painfully personal.
Opening track ‘Still Trying’ immediately represents the main characteristics of the album. Rateliff’s rough gravelly voice sounds like that of a much older man, and his slurred delivery often makes his lyrics difficult to understand. This is particularly unfortunate, as the lyrics I was able to decipher were emotionally powerful if not always elegant, for example, “And if you’re rolling in it long enough your shit won’t even smell” and the roaring repetition of “I don’t know a goddamn thing”.
Vigorous tracks ‘Laborman’ and ‘Nothing to Show For’ save the album from becoming completely entrenched in its own anguished misery. ‘Laborman’ is a Springsteen-esque working man’s tune whose quick tempo and musical energy has the added benefit of clarifying Rateliff’s vocal delivery for one of the album’s best lyrics: “You’ll have to choke down the dust of me left in your mouth. You got the harness, so where you gonna drag me now?”
‘Nothing to Show For’ is resigned to its own despondence, but the pounding four-to-the-floor rhythm between the verses hints at a forward motion also suggested in the lyrics, “You don’t listen, you just talk / Well, leave me in the dark / I don’t wanna know.” The live video version below is, in my opinion, clearer and more effective than the version on the album itself.
The main surprises on the album came in the form of jazz harmonies and expanded instrumentation on ‘How To Win” and ‘Right On’. ‘Right On’ was my immediate favorite track on the album, though its smooth warmth and intimacy didn’t quite seem to fit in with the rest. The horns, piano and backing vocals set off the ironically optimistic lyrics, “Well, say that you’re with me / We’ll leave tomorrow / And slip through the daylight / Leave all the sorrow”, with a tiny but poignant sadness, a feeling of wanting to believe the words despite knowing they can’t be true.
Eponymous track ‘Falling Faster Than You Can Run’ is a perfect conclusion to the record. Its broadly arching musical phrases and wider instrumental sound creates a dramatic feeling of inevitable tragedy. The deep, almost spoken, vocal tone Rateliff uses to deliver the line “When I hit the ground, gonna laugh out loud / gonna lay there awhile and stare at the clouds” bring to mind classic American country artists like Johnny Cash.
Fans of the late Man in Black, as well as fans of the aforementioned Laura Marling and Frightened Rabbit, will find much to like in the deep emotional quagmire of ‘Falling Faster Than You Can Run’, while those looking for more of a Mumford-esque folk rock vibe should perhaps turn and run the other way. The painful honesty and poignant sincerity in Rateliff’s performance here would no doubt translate tenfold on a live stage for a listener brave enough to bear it.
‘Falling Faster Than You Can Run’ is available now on Mod y Vi Records.
Los Feliz four-piece, synth pop band Northern American have managed to carve a unique niche in the American West Coast sound, somewhere between the hazy dream pop of bands like Mazzy Star or Local Natives and the frenetic energy of lo-fi garage bands like Deap Vally or FIDLAR. Their new single, ‘Wander’, was released last week on Heist or Hit Records. ‘Wander’ and its B-side ‘Record Forever’ both also feature on Northern American’s EP release ‘Happiness Hungover’.
‘Wander’ is at the same time mellow and upbeat, with ambient electronic sounds, shimmering keyboards and guitars over a resonant pulsing bass and lightly skipping drum rhythm. Lead singer and guitarist Nate Paul’s vocal tone is smoothly languid from the track’s opening lyrics, “Wander where you’ll go / I’ve been here before / We’ve waited for you / It’s all we ever do” through to the lilting closing lines, “dream all day / dance all night / dream all day / wander far away.” In the interim, the song slowly evolves into a rather surprising drum solo in the bridge before easing its way back to the familiar bass pulse and guitar riff. The song definitely wanders, but the blocked chord texture of the keyboard rhythm holds it together in the end.
The single’s B-side, ‘Record Forever’ is also loungey and laid-back, both hazy in texture and deeply reverberant. Paul’s velvety vocal tone shifts into an equally smooth high register during the rhythmically lurching chorus, “you are the record that spins inside of me / my heart / forever.” While perhaps less sophisticated than ‘Wander’, ‘Record Forever’ is certainly the catchier of the two tracks, as its uneven rhythmic pattern echoes both in the head and on the hips.
If the subject matter of ‘Wander’ and ‘Record Forever’ is a bit superficial, that naïve quality can be attributed to Northern American’s youthfully organic nature and collaborative songwriting technique. The band’s Facebook page quotes Paul: “We’re always changing. Our music is really free. We try to be as loose with it as possible; it’s the best version of all of us.” Northern American are currently in the studio working on their first full album, anticipated for release this summer.
‘Wander’, the latest single from Northern American, is available now on Heist or Hit Records. Both tracks are available to stream below.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 29th January 2014 at 12:00 pm
In the autumn of 2010, I reviewed Paul Smith’s solo album ‘Margins’ for This is Fake DIY. At the time, I questioned if him doing solo work was a sign Maximo Park were on shaky ground. 2012 brought us ‘The National Health’, which for some reason failed to move me like their earlier albums, including its predecessor, 2009’s ‘Quicken the Heart’. It made me wonder what they might do next. For fifth album ‘Too Much Information’, they collaborated with The Invisible’s Dave Okumu and their North East buddies David and Peter Brewis of Field Music, and these influences probably explain some of the risks they’ve taken on this effort that they might otherwise not have tried.
When first teaser ‘Brain Cells’ premiered in November 2013, I thought bemusedly to myself, “no way. Maximo has gone dance?!? Seriously? Have I died and gone to heaven?” The song is light on its feet and will readily appeal to both indie and dance kids the way the first Delphic album did. Maybe Maximo decided it was about bloody time they’d released something that felt more at home on their label Warp Records, known for championing and supporting pioneering electronic artists. That said, it’s with some disappointment that upon listening to ‘Too Much Information’, you learn that it’s not a dance album at all. Even more disappointing, while the first four tracks are stellar, along with a track later in the album, most of what follows plods along with nowhere the same excellence.
Let’s talked about the plusses first. ‘Leave This Island’, another track revealed ahead of the album release, is a beauteous number and showcases the band’s storytelling strengths through Smith’s dreamy vocals on top of wondrously understated synths. I know it’s early in the year, but I can sense this thoughtful, quasi-romantic offer to run away to something better is probably going to rank up there as one of my favourite tracks of 2014. It’s that good. The wonderful ‘Lydia, The Ink Will Never Dry’ reads like a love letter to Manchester, name-checking the legendary Palace Hotel and one of its main thoroughfares, Princess Street, such that anyone who has spent enough time in the city like yours truly will feel warmth in their hearts. The guitars even sound Smiths-era Johnny Marr-like. But the song’s purpose feels more like Smith is imploring the named Lydia that life isn’t as bad as it seems and “the ink” (tattooing) is used as a metaphor for changing something in your life permanently, though Lydia doesn’t want it to dry, therefore she doesn’t want things to become final.
Then the album goes downhill from here. ‘My Bloody Mind’, compared to the brilliance of ‘Leave This Island’ and ‘Lydia…’, sounds like their raucous nephew from the start. While there are some admirable chord changes, and Smith tries to save the song in the melodic bridge, you still want to lock him in the cellar. ‘I Recognise the Light’ references towns the band has probably toured in (Mexico City, Santiago?) and just sounds strange, not going anywhere. ‘Drinking Martinis’ makes you think they thought they better try to record a louder guitar track to make up for the less loud tracks on the album. It’s pretty unspectacular.
‘Is It True’ tries to continue on the same road as ‘Brain Cells’ with Depeche Mode-esque driving synths, but how can I take a song with the lines “now I’m lying in bed with you / listening to your favourite tune” sung in a sleepy way seriously? Maybe I’m expecting too much. ‘Her Name is Audre’, near the end, sounds classic Maximo Park (think ‘Our Velocity’) and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this will be the song that everyone will be dancing to like a crazy person this summer at festivals. It’s great to get to the end of an album and be on such a high, but then to end with ‘Where We’re Going’, which sounds atmospheric and epic for sure, but it sounds like it should be on a Disney soundtrack, not a Maximo Park album.
‘Too Much Information’ seems to suffer from split personality disorder: while there are some really great tracks on here that will be around for the ages, there are some real head-scratching moments when you’re baffled and ask yourself, “what they were thinking?”
‘Too Much Information’, the fifth album from Geordies Maximo Park, is out Monday the 3rd of February on Daylighting Records. Catch the band on tour in the UK in March.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 27th January 2014 at 12:00 pm
Much was made in 2013 on just how ‘groundbreaking’ new teenage pop sensation Lorde was (I’m sure you’ve heard of her, you couldn’t have missed ‘Royals’), but she did nothing for me except induce a few yawns. Her meteoric rise to global popularity had the negative effect in my mind of writing off most teenagers as too early signed, too early packaged and marketed pop idols. While I don’t know exactly how old they are (the press release I received reads “US teenagers”), young band The Districts give me some hope where there previously was little.
Their official Web site and Facebook state The Districts are from Lilitz, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. As a forever denizen of the Mid-Atlantic, Lancaster County conjures up for me merely one thing: the Pennsylvania Dutch, aka the Amish. I clearly don’t know what it’s like living in Lilitz, but I imagine the reason they started making music is for similar reasons to why Seattle and Manchester bands point to: it’s depressing living in a town with nothing to do, so you stay in and write songs with your friends. They’re new enough – or at least unjaded enough – to write things on their Web site that read, “We write honest music and are passionate about doing so”. One wonders if that is about to change with the release of their self-titled EP on Fat Possum Records, now famous for bringing to the forefront the talents of Band of Horses, the Black Keys, and more recently, Australian upstarts San Cisco. The label’s signing of The Districts last November is more proof of their direction into lo-fi releases, and lo-fi is probably the best way to describe this EP, equal parts blues, rock, and country and folk.
The soulful yet country-tinged drawls of singer and frontman Rob Grote ooze out of ‘Lyla’, bringing to mind the charisma of Janis Joplin, except in male form. Couple that voice with The Band-esque instrumentation, and you’ve got something Levon Helm would have been proud of. This is like going backwards in time in American music, but if you’ve been suffering from a hip hop / oversynthesised pop hangover, this just might be the cure. ‘Funeral Beds’ appeared on the band’s 2012 album ‘Telephone’ but was released to the wild by Fat Possum in early December. With their folky edge and him playing a harmonica, I don’t think Grote will avoid comparisons to Dylan, and not that it would be a bad thing: the Brits have kind of been kicking arse in the folk department for the last couple of years (Mumford, Laura Marling, Stornoway), so maybe it’s time some Americans showed up to the party. You can tell The Districts are going to be a good band live just from the last minute and a half of this track, when the band have at it as Grote wails, “I hate to say I love you / but oh, goddamn I love you, you know I do / but you’re gone away, gone away, gone away”.
The rest of the EP is kind of music you’d hope to find at a honky-tonk dive. Heck, EP opener ‘Rocking Chair’ has the soon to be immortal lines, “Things ain’t what they used to be, I’ve got this flickering heart set out after me / If my mind was a poem, I burned it up long before / And if I drink some more, I think I might drown / Slip into silence as my heart it burns out / I’ll find the devil inside me and I’ll nail him back down.” What brilliance. But wait, don’t get lost in a haze of Jack Daniels yet. The epic chord changes and noodling guitar of the instrumental bridge in ‘Long Distance’ are nods in the rock direction, as are Grote’s vocals channeling Joe Cocker. That’s a far better comparison than Joplin, isn’t it?
However, the most interesting track on here is closer ‘Stay Open’, which is both instrumentally and lyrically sleazy: “Stay open, stay open / To catch my fall. What a shame that I would splinter you, or hinder you at all / I won’t give my love for free / I won’t give my love for free / But please / take it from me.” Or maybe it’s not sleazy at all, but just sheer desperation from love lost and the fallout. Oh, if you could just wrap these words around you…
The Districts’ self-titled EP is out today, the 27th of January, on Fat Possum Records. After supporting White Denim on a North American tour in February and March, the band will be showcasing at their first SXSW in mid-March.
London’s electro dance producer/singer Example has yet another track for us in advance of his next album due out in June. The original version of ‘Kids Again’ was finally revealed on BBC Radio 1. In an unusual move, Example had allowed several remixes of the song to be played on air ahead of the original, but now we have the proper version. Full of tasty dance beats and throbbing synth licks, ‘Kids Again’ comes to us in original, Dimension, Zed Bias, or MOTi flavours. (For your convenience, we’ve embedded the original version of the song at the bottom of this post, but if you visit Example’s Soundcloud, you’ll get to hear all of them.) Each of the remixes has a very distinct sound. At this point, the Dimension version has edged forward for me with its vaguely 80s opening.
Riding the wave of previous single ‘All the Wrong Places’ top 20 charting, this song will likely garner Mr. Gleave another chart topper. The buzz on this tune is good and it has an appealing topic, “I don’t wanna do whatever they tell me / I wanna feel oh so young today / so let’s behave like kids again”. After all, who doesn’t want to feel like a kid again?
Hinting that the new album will feature no rapping at all, ‘Kids Again’ shows his vocal chops much like on the last album. I will admit to liking ‘All the Wrong Places’ a tad better, but I am excited by this single as well. I am very enthusiastic about the upcoming next album.
The single for ‘Kids Again’ itself will be released on the 16th of March on Epic Records and follows on from September 2013’s ‘All the Wrong Places’. Example’s yet unnamed fifth album is due out in June.
London dance pop quartet CYMBALS are set to release their third album ‘The Age of Fracture’ next week, ahead of a short list of winter tour dates and an appearance at SXSW this spring. The album is at once centrifugal (“center-fleeing”) and centripetal (“center-seeking”) in nature, with visceral rhythms and pulsating bass providing the foundation for its cerebral lyrics and slick, sophisticated production by Dreamtrak (Oli Horton).
The album title is borrowed from a 2011 book by Princeton scholar Daniel T. Rodgers called ‘Age of Fracture’, which deals with the fragmentation of twentieth-century intellectualism and the increasingly uncertain concept of a collective societal identity. Singer and guitarist Jack Cleverly wrote in the press release for the album, “It hit me that I often feel paralysed by the feeling that everything is ‘too complicated’, and that many people I know feel that paralysis. I realised that this way of thinking can be traced through these songs.” Cleverly addresses that paralysis directly in ‘The 5%’, singing, “time can be erased / you’re stupid if you try to stay in place”. The track defies the overriding idea of deconstruction by merging directly to the following subordinate track, ‘The Fracture of Age’.
The interpretation of such weighty subject matter is demanding for an album that is intended for club play, but despite the oppressive academic influence, Cleverly says the band strove for a lighter musical approach. “With this album I really wanted to get away from that and make music that makes people want to dance and feel joy. Neil’s kick drum is the most important thing we have to say as a band. Is this all ‘fun’? Yes, of course, but at the same time, not just that.”
‘The Natural World’, released as a single back in January 2013, plays more into that effortless pop feeling. Its nimble rhythms and light texture highlight the catchy chorus, “I don’t know enough about you / to be kind, to be kind to you / don’t you even think about me / just forget what you did, you see”. The accompanying video features the interpretation of French dancer Jaime Flor, with whom Cleverly became acquainted while growing up in Paris.
The sensual French influence is felt throughout the album, with lyrics en français on opening track ‘Winter ‘98’ and penultimate track ‘The End’. ‘Winter ‘98’ is a glacial synth-driven track which slowly expands into a crisp dance beat, immediately defining this album’s cleaner, brighter sound, as compared to CYMBALS’ previous LP’s ‘Sideways, Sometimes’ (2012) and ‘Unlearn’ (2011).
Standout track ‘This City’ returns somewhat to that earlier sound, depending more on guitars and organic percussion as it ponders “the whole ‘serious earnest-singer-songwriter thing’” that Cleverly has deliberately tried to avoid on ‘The Age of Fracture’. His boredom with the idea has, ironically, inspired some of the best lyrics on the album, including the opening hook, “ink-covered fingers, you’ve been hiding at your desk too long / hand over mouth, brandy in your tea / the afternoon’s all emptiness, the morning possibility.”
In what could have been the album’s final track, ‘The End’, CYMBALS come back around to the disco feel. Despite the purposefully detached lyric, “I don’t know the first thing about you / I don’t really know you that way / I just get this feeling from dancing / I don’t care about the display”, the track is followed by an plaintive instrumental plea entitled ‘Call Me.’
‘The Age of Fracture’ is, both lyrically and musically, centered around contradiction and fragmentation, but it manages to hold together as a cohesive and thought-provoking unit. The physical sensuality of the dance element is balanced by the “elegance and love in the language” of the vocal lines. (Have a listen below to the carnal pièce de résistance ‘Like An Animal’ for that lyrical gem.)
‘The Age of Fracture’, CYMBALS’ new album on Tough Love Records, will be out next Monday, the 27th of January. They have a short English/Irish tour lined up for February; all the details are here. The band will also be showcasing this year’s SXSW.