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We at TGTF have spent the last several months preparing for SXSW 2014, but before Mary and I get truly stuck into the festival starting today, we thought it a good idea to look back at Story Books, the Kentish quintet who made such a great impression on our intrepid editor at last year’s SXSW Festival. Story Books are set to hit the road in just a couple of weeks for a headline tour in support of their latest EP, ‘From Post to Post’, due for release on the 17th of March on Communion Records. The tour is slated to be a fairly short one, with only seven dates scheduled. The EP is likewise brief, but in the nature of a good live gig, it saves its best bits for the end.
As with their debut EP ‘Too Much A Hunter’ (reviewed by Cheryl here), the band self-recorded ‘From Post to Post’ before handing it off for mixing by Scottish producer Tony Doogan. Because I love finding connections among all the different bands and artists I listen to, I have to note that Doogan also produced ‘New Gods’, the latest album by Withered Hand, which I reviewed here. But the overall sound of the Story Books EP couldn’t be more different from the warmth and almost uncomfortable intimacy of ‘New Gods’.
Story Books’ lead singer Kris Harris has a smooth, emotionally detached vocal delivery that sounds a tiny bit like Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, and while Story Books lean more synth pop than folk, the similarity between the two bands doesn’t entirely end there. ‘From Post to Post’ has an at-arms-length sense of distance, an almost wistful feeling of looking back at a set of events after some time has passed, much like NATW’s ‘Heart of Nowhere’, yet another connection!.
Opening track ‘Floating Arks’ is both atmospheric and illustrative, the tripping drum rhythm and lilting keyboard melody perfectly symbolizing the lyric in the chorus, “I dreamt of floating arks and playing host to fugitives / I dreamt of running empty, this is how we choose to live”. The next track, ‘Damage’, continues the theme of reflection with the singularly painful lyric, “I felt the sting of regret every time I looked ahead.”
The final track on the EP is the evocative ‘White Maid’, whose expansive dramatic escalation is achieved by slowly layering instruments and sonic effects under the muted vocal lines. The keyboard melody in the lengthy bridge is particularly haunting as the electronic effects kick in and build almost to the point of white noise. The dynamic level backs off for the introspective third verse, which completes its rumination on the past with the lines: “perfection in vain / now I’m reckless and changed / you turned sober and wise / ‘cos you paused in the night / watched me make all the same mistakes you made”.
Story Books will celebrate the launch of ‘From Post To Post’ at their London show on the 25th of March. More details on that gig and the rest of the March tour can be found here. Stream ‘Floating Arks’ below for a quick glimpse into Story Books’ sonic atmosphere.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 21st February 2014 at 12:00 pm
Sydney folk duo Falls – who have evidently dropped the “The” from their name in the last couple of weeks, much to my disappointment! – have just released their debut EP in America, called ‘Into the Fire’. The title track was the song they ended their set with at the Hamilton last month supporting Bronze Radio Return. The singer/songwriter genre isn’t my usual area of expertise, but you’d have to be made of stone to not melt from Falls’ melodies. This new EP for the American market features six songs, and the quality on the songs on here is astonishing and will no doubt serve as a great first introduction to new stateside fans.
Much has been made of the fact that Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown were once a couple. But when you listen to their voices harmonising perfectly together on recording, all you will want to do is say a silent thank you that they stuck it out and together for the sake of music: sometimes destiny works in mysterious ways and dictates that holding on to a relationship, even if it’s turned into a platonic and professional one, still can lead somewhere beautiful. The EP begins ever so pleasantly with ‘Please’, the duo’s shining harmonies paired wonderfully with guitar, repeated piano notes and strings.
‘Girl That I Love’ is not actually what you might expect: Rudston-Brown takes the lead from the start and explains in the first verse that the girl on his mind “makes me mad as hell” and “makes me want to run away from it all”, and as the song continues, it tells the painful story of how it’s necessary to leave someone even if you love that person so much, because you know that person can never bring you happiness. Interestingly, the song goes from major to minor halfway through the song, as if to reflect this change from lightness to sad realisation. Following on a similar theme, EP title track ‘Into the Fire’ has the immortal lines, “I’m waiting for an answer that’s not coming / I’m running in a race that’s not worth running”: when you’re in a relationship and you aren’t getting the answers you need, it’s probably time to cut your losses and make a break. Even if it hurts like all hell as Kirwin sings about the finality, “I’m going to burn in the fires for what I’ve done, oh oh oh, can’t be undone”. Somehow though, when Falls sing this to you, it’s doesn’t hurt. As much, anyway. Below is a live performance in Sydney of the duo performing it.
But not everyone wants to be sad, yeah? For its hand-clapping sing-along likeability and therefore having the best chance for mainstream success, ‘Hey’ and ‘Home’ can’t be beat. The former is upbeat and infectiously so, which goes with its message of telling a friend that everything’s going to be okay in the end. The video for ‘Home’ that was unveiled when the song was released as a single in their native Australia 2 years ago shows the duo hanging out with the undead ‘at home’ and I think it was a brave choice to do this with the promo, something a little different to shake things up. The take home message I get from the song is the lyric, “it all comes back the moment I get home”: when you come back ‘home’, whether it is a physical place or to the people you love, all the memories you have of that time and place come flooding back. And that’s a very good thing.
As are Falls. They are ready for their spotlight on the world stage.
Falls’ debut EP in America, ‘Into the Fire’, is out on digital format now on Verve / Universal. The EP in physical format will be available on the 11th of March stateside. This timing is perfect, as the duo will be showcasing at SXSW 2014.
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 20th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
Last May in Sheffield after the Crookes‘ 90 person-capacity show at the Shakespeare, I was trying to help a fellow fan who wasn’t sure if she should buy the band’s debut album ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ or the newer ‘Hold Fast’. As she held them in her hands, I tried to explain that I viewed them as “the winter album” and “the summer album”, respectively. When I considered how I was going to describe the group’s latest effort, I decided that the best season to associate with it would be autumn, which coincidentally is both when this third album was recorded (October 2013 in an isolated, abandoned church in the mountains of Northern Italy) and my favourite time of year of all. Autumn is when the winds begin to change and the leaves change colour to follow suit, only to fall as the trees go bare in anticipation of winter. If winter is cold, hard and unyielding, autumn is then the last hurrah, the last chance to grasp the warmth before the world falls into a lonely, desolate slumber.
The title ‘Soapbox’ is very appropriate because it represents the band’s raison d’être well. You can imagine them stood at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park with their jean turn-ups and New Pop attitude, trying to persuade the masses that their way – of making music the way they want to, DIY and without compromise – is best. Their label’s press release for the album supports this, with guitarist and lyricist Daniel Hopewell saying of the album, “The most obvious theme that runs through the entire album is the idea of The Outsider. As a band that seems to suit us…never invited inside, but never wanting to be. I can empathise more with the madman standing on his soapbox, slowly gaining an audience by speaking with passion and honesty”. Going on from Hopewell’s words, it stands to reason then that track ‘Outsiders’, serving as a pep talk in song form to remind all listeners of the Crookes that we’re all outsiders in some way and that doesn’t matter as long as we take life by the horns and live life to the fullest (finishing with the words “oh ‘cos even if we die, we’ll still be / oh, nothing but outsiders, baby, you and me”), should be the centrepiece of the album, with a stellar guitar solo as well. However, this one theme of not belonging isn’t the be all and end all take home message of the LP as a whole; there is much more to discover here.
‘Soapbox’ has its jauntier, in your face moments; first single ‘Play Dumb’ as I reviewed here revealed in early January exemplifies this. But it’d be a mistake to only focus on the poppier moments. From the harder ‘Bear’s Blood’ single of May 2013, it was clear the Crookes were making a concerted effort to move away from their indie pop beginnings. Moving away from what we used to think was standard Crookes fare might have been a huge risk, but the album’s impressive fullness of sound, achieved on limited budget as the band have done for all of their releases, is a testament to their talent, as are the beautiful melodies paired with evocative lyrics, both of which have become the band’s trademarks. For this album, the group worked again with long time collaborator and Leeds-based producer Matt Peel, and I’m wondering too how much credit we should give him for making lead singer George Waite’s voice sound better than it’s ever been.
But what else will hit you hard – either through your heart or as if socked in the stomach – on this album are the heartbreak and the dysfunctional nature of relationships on display here. It sneaks up on you, all the while as your ears can’t help but be taken in by the majestic guitar chords and lines working their magic, while the driving drums don’t seem to care. Or do they? Notable number ‘When You’re Fragile’ has huge, epic chords in the chorus, as well as interesting minor, then major guitar note progressions, the former as memorable as those in the choruses of ‘Maybe in the Dark’. What is most striking about the song is the vulnerability of a man’s emotions in the lyrics, visible for all the world to see, as he admits to his lover that it’s their shared sorrow and how they bond while they try and negotiate the more difficult parts of life together that he treasures most about their relationship. “Once again, we come undone / fools like us, we don’t belong / if it don’t hurt, it ain’t worthwhile / I love you most when you’re fragile”, emotes frontman Waite in the chorus. In the bridge, it’s admitted through the deepest honesty, “but I keep what I think about truly inside my head / ‘cos if I spoke my mind, I’d have an empty bed / I lie through my teeth to get what I need”, while the song finishes with an unexpected reversal of roles, “you play the boy, I’ll play the girl / we’ll go and take on half the world”. In a somewhat heavier rock leather jacket, ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’ is brutally sincere: its anti-hero insists that he’s fine as a friend but as anything more, he’s a repeat offender of perpetual disappointment. The chord changes in the bridge and the intense stompathon at the end will restore your faith in the band though, no pun intended.
On album standout ‘Echolalia’, the overall cool coming off from the vibrations of the finger snaps and the mesmerising bass notes seem to be odds with the song’s shining moment of clarity: “I feel half sane, ’til someone goes and whispers your name”. The spare, twangy guitar notes sound pretty mournful, until the song is saved by its ever deceptively cheerful chorus and well placed, crashing guitar chords. (Hearing the whole album, you wonder if maybe the band listening to all that Springsteen in the van on the way to Italy had an effect?) ‘Echolalia’ seems to be one of many clues that the ghost of ‘Maybe in the Dark’ fame appears to be alive and well in Hopewell’s imagination.
‘She’ contributes further to both the softer, contemplative, gently gliding along ‘Howl’ nearer to the end of the album (“please leave me with my imagination, I’m talking to the mirror / staring at my own reflection / it breaks just like a fever…I heard the howl, I love you but you keep me down”), a study in abject loneliness despite being surrounded by a crowd, and the mostly acoustic instrumentally but wholly (hmm…) whispered ‘Holy Innocents’ rounding out side A of the album. ‘Holy Innocents’ is ‘The I Love You Bridge’ of ‘Soapbox’, except that instead of being a narrative, it seems like an intensely personal torch song, which would explain why the Crookes chose to release it to the public last week on Valentine’s Day. Along with guitarist Tom Dakin’s forlorn piano chords, Waite’s audible sighs provide further nonspoken emotion and his closing resignation feels quite painful: “I’ve got an awful problem, you see / you’ve ruined everyone else for me / do you remember when we were holy innocents?” In my review of ‘Play Dumb’, I mused if being in a band and the trappings of fame had affected them. Does this track also represent longing for the way things once were, for simpler times? Some food for thought.
Two songs linked by a theme of evening-timed affairs are ‘Before the Night Falls’ and ‘Marcy’, both winningly upbeat. The former sounds just like the kind of song that will have punters’ fists in the air, heads bopping to the rhythm, with Waite’s rapid-fire vocal delivery and its admirable guitar solo likely to cause mayhem at festivals this year. It’s a very carpe diem kind of song, with a driving rhythm akin to a runaway locomotive, while the lyrics speak to living in the moment and doing what you want, “just for tonight, we’ll be what we wanna be” and “let’s live out scenes on movie screens, from our cheap seats to the dance floor / we’ll hotbox old cars, drive ‘em as far as we can before the night falls to its knees”. It also features the soon to be iconic lines “let me go / I’d rather drown than just float”. Seriously, expect the phrase to appear on a t-shirt worn by a hipster near you.
‘Marcy’, on the other hand, seems on the surface a more conventional love song, which strikes me rather unusual for the Crookes. That can’t be it, then; there must be something more that my hopeless romantic ears are missing about the pretty girl with her life all figured out, her “million best friends”, her good looks being compared to the ’60s American Midwest film beauty Jean Seberg (“she acts just like the girl from Breathless / her hair cut short just like a boy”), and her acting as the protagonist’s muse while he maintains crippling self-doubt in the bridge (“yeah, you’ve always been my inspiration, so please be good to me / I’ve nothing but a charm that quickly wears thin, and I’m worn out on my knees”). The protagonist’s longing for her is causing him to go crazy, with Waite wailing repeatedly in the unforgettable chorus, “Marcy, my dear, you’ve got me strung out now”, a line I expect to be shouted at his general direction all summer. And that is how it should be. It’s the corker of the album.
It would have been enough for most music fans that this album sounds great. And it does. How the Crookes managed it on such a tight budget and so quickly in the middle of nowhere will remain one of life’s mysteries. But taken together with the emotional lyric content that transcends average ‘pop music’, you’ve got yourself a winner of an album on multiple levels. After a couple listens of ‘Soapbox’, you will begin to wonder why other bands even bother.
‘Soapbox’, the Crookes’ third album, is out on the 14th of April on Fierce Panda Records and is available for preorder from iTunes now; the trailer for the album is below and features snippets of ‘Outsiders’, ‘Marcy’ and ‘Howl’. The band begin a UK tour the day after, the 15th of April, in Nottingham, and they will also play a homecoming show at Sheffield Leadmill on the 31st of May following an extensive European tour. Before all of this though, they will be showcasing in Austin next month at this year’s SXSW 2014. Yesterday, they answered the TGTF Quickfire Questions for us ahead of the event.
Withered Hand is the stage name of Scottish folk singer/songwriter Dan Willson, whose second full length album, ‘New Gods’, is due for release in mid-March (the 10th of March, just in time for SXSW!) by Fortuna Pop! Records. According to the label’s press release for ‘New Gods’, Willson took up songwriting around age 30 when a series of life events sparked “a period of reflection” that led to the creation of his deeply introspective first album ‘Good News’. ‘New Gods’ is a variation on that theme of self-examination, equally perceptive and evocative, but with a mellow touch of wry humor to soften its blunt honesty.
Musically, the songs on ‘New Gods’ are enriched and heavily influenced by the variety of musicians collaborating with Willson on its production. A grant from Scottish arts council Creative Scotland allowed Willson to record in a proper studio for the first time, working with producer Tony Doogan as well as Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian, King Creosote, Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, and Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison.
From the very outset, the focus of ‘New Gods’ is strongly set on Willson’s lyrics. The songs are deceptively mellow and laid-back in spite of their heavy thematic material. Opening track ‘Horseshoe’ (stream it below) contains the heartrending plea, “please don’t put a shadow on her lung, so young” in its exploration of mortality and loss. First single ‘Black Tambourine’ is probably the most upbeat track on the album, with jangling guitars, warm backing vocals, and lyrics that almost lean toward optimism, including the infectious chorus of “you light me up with your smile”.
In keeping with the easygoing American West Coast sound, the next three tracks on ‘New Gods’ are actually set in California. The setting seems remarkably appropriate for songs dealing with the surreal, out-of-place feeling that traveling musicians have often remarked upon. The lyrics of ‘Love Over Desire’ are more bluntly prosaic than fluidly poetic in their talk about travel between Las Vegas and Los Angeles: “though I try and I try, it’s not real to me / this life is not what you thought it would be / I put my hand in my pocket and forgot about the travel pussy / another flower in the coffin of monogamy”. ‘King of Hollywood’ has a bluesy, almost country Americana feel, especially during the guitar riff in the bridge, and its cheeky lyrics, such as, “you say I remind you of your ex-wife like you were picking the scar”, are almost uncomfortably comical in that musical setting. The backing vocals and echoing guitars in the chorus of ‘California’ have an eerie, disorienting musical effect, and its lyrics immediately call to mind the alternate reality of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’.
The second half of ‘New Gods’ is less specific in its setting and in its musical focus. ‘Fall Apart’ is lyrically simple but catchy, especially in the repeated layers overlapping phrases at the end. The title track ‘New Gods’ resorts to a “doo-doo-doo” refrain, calling into question the line, “we can do it okay or we can do it right”, though the lyrics in the verses are somewhat stronger. ‘Between True Love and Ruin’ has a promising opening verse, “as the last rays of summer split the windshield in two / and we went for a drive, you and I, just for something to do / I was thinking of sex and you were dreaming of freedom”, but it falls into a clumsily predictable rhyme scheme that is eventually saved by the broadly uplifting brass in the background.
On ‘New Gods’, Withered Hand explores new sonic territory, finding a warmer, mellower sound to temper his often bitter lyrics. Fans of Dan Willson’s previous work will find the same uncompromising candor here, but in a slightly slightly sweeter, easier to swallow flavor than before. The release of ‘New Gods’ will immediately precede Withered Hand’s showcase performances at SXSW 2014, where the new material is sure to find an appreciative audience.
Withered Hand’s current single ‘Horseshoe’ is available now on Fortuna Pop! Records. Full album ‘New Gods’ will be out on 10th of March.
The moniker of elusive London quartet Arthur Beatrice was “formed from the notion of opposites coming together to complete perfect wholes,” according to the press release for their new album, ‘Working Out’, due for release next Monday. The bisexual band name seems singularly appropriate given the band’s juxtaposition of male and female lead vocals, alternated seamlessly between the velvety singing voices of Ella Girardot and Orlando Leopard. The instrumental sound is a cross between smooth jazz and electro dance with moments of uptempo rhythmic pacing provided by brothers Elliott and Hamish Barnes on drums and bass, respectively. Hamish Barnes’ pulsing bass is a major element of Arthur Beatrice’s sound, maintaining a constant groove throughout ‘Working Out’.
First single ‘Midland’, released back in mid-January, emphasizes the theme of opposition that runs through the album. It opens with the silky-soft murmur of Girardot’s low register, singing, “all I want is to be warm and home, and where I’m known”. She maintains her smooth vocal tone as the lyrics turn slightly more cynical in the second verse, “purge me now, cleanse my skull from all the things I’ve been told”. The faster dance pace of the music in the refrain is ironically set to the words, “I’ll never move, I’ll never move, I’ll always be so still”, and Girardot shows off some lovely high notes in the repeated section as the keyboards and guitars are layered over the bass groove. The sensual and increasingly physical video for ‘Midland’ is as dichotomous as the song itself.
‘Carter Uncut’ is the extended edition of the aptly named ‘Carter (Cut)’ from the ‘Carter’ EP, released in July 2013. The long version begins with a slow, almost clumsily discordant keyboard intro which transitions into a smoothly melodic ostinato as the pulsing, almost tribal percussion kicks in. Girardot’s voice oozes over the opening line, “I see the way we coincide and it’s nothing more than chance”. The lyrics become a little bit nonsensical, but they seem to hint at the end of a toxic relationship. Even as the music shifts to a quicker, more rhythmic dance beat and a deeper bass pulse, Girardot sings, “I’ll never roll away the weight of you, seems too much / I’ll never hate the way I wanted to, not enough”.
‘Grand Union’ was also released ahead of the album as a single in September 2013. Here, Orlando Leopard’s smooth voice starts off soft and sensual but becomes almost villainous over the lyrics of the chorus, “Dead lungs, you’re becoming someone else’s tongue, coughing up blood, skin coming off.” The ominous instrumental bridge contains some interesting, almost disorienting sound effects that remain grounded by the foundational bass line. For another interesting juxtaposition, listen to both the original version and the Open Assembly edit from the band’s Soundcloud page.
Self-produced by the band, ‘Working Out’ is surprisingly confident and purposeful despite its occasionally abstruse lyrics and overall lack of sonic variety. The fundamental bass lines bring a sense of structure to songs that are otherwise a bit amorphous, often lacking strong hooks or catchy refrains. The effect is viscerally and sonically appealing, but few moments on the album stands out as striking or particularly memorable. A vague sense of monotony, especially in the second half of the album, is exacerbated by song titles that don’t seem to connect to the lyrics in any discernable way. However, the strong dance beats and dramatically layered instrumental effects are likely to strike a chord with live audiences at the band’s upcoming performances. Arthur Beatrice will tour America in March, prior to their appearance at SXSW 2014. They are also scheduled to play The Great Escape in Brighton in May.
‘Working Out’, the debut album from Arthur Beatrice, is due for release on the 24th of February on OAR/Polydor Records.
The blues rock sphere of influence is but a single bubble on the Venn diagram that is The Family Rain’s full-length debut offering, ‘Under the Volcano’. However, a certain phrase springs to mind with bands that spread their influences so broadly: ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. The Bath-born blues brothers were described in a previous life as an “irony free Darkness with bare torsos and blonde highlights”, which fits neatly with their porous approach to soaking up contemporary musical influences. The key question when digesting this album, “does it blend like a fine wine, or jar like ethanol mixed with grape juice?”
‘Carnival’ is a frantically upbeat introduction, with an intricate interpretation of blues scales set within a powerful but regular rhythm from guitarist Ollie Walter. It’s a sound that sits somewhere between a Kings of Leon retrospective and a memory of The Strokes of Christmases past. Originally released as the band’s debut single back in November 2012, ‘Trust Me… I’m A Genius’ (video below) has a distinct whiff of Jack White‘s most recent release ‘Blunderbuss’, which grows to an overpowering funk as the band introduce enough bluegrass to induce some kind of psychotropic episode. It’s a somewhat soulful mix of staccato singing and multi-layered vocal melodies, with a swirling guitar solo that circles the plug hole and plops to an abrupt ending.
Somewhere, A Flock of Seagulls’ lawyers’ ears have pricked up on hearing ‘Feel Better (FRANK)’. In tone, it is the genetically deficient twin of ‘I Ran’, the most memorable track of the New Wave band’s self-titled 1982 debut. The track holds its own in the grand scheme, but also shows anomalous moments of questionable production. It’s a theme that perhaps blunts some of the sharper edges on later tracks too. ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’ is a whimsical ride back to early Noughties trip-hop that folds into ‘Reason to Die'; a typically mid-album attempt with the stripped back, garage-y, bass/vocal onus and ironic swagger of Arctic Monkeys more recent offerings. Right on cue, ‘Binocular’ reaches the high water mark of the album so far. It’s a ragtime shuffle with a cheeky bluegrass wiggle thrown in – a jaunty skip between classic blues scale and droning root note (for both guitar and throat) that wouldn’t look out of place on an seizure-inducing camera ad of a thousand colours.
The largely forgettable ‘On My Back’ aside, the musical landscape evolves yet again on ‘Pushing It’. The verses have airs of The White Stripes in their bare, pugnacious strut and sense of impending collapse, but the chorus (although catchy) attempts too much and creates a juxtaposition which does neither aspect any favours. ‘Together’ takes more from the American indie scene, and achieves a sense of continuity that isn’t always evident throughout the rest of the album. The lackadaisical intro uses a ‘lonely musical trill plus tinny radio voice’ technique seen on The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’, and generally follows the same upwards trajectory – albeit never to the same height and with a distinctly British aftertaste.
Tambourines and a guitar line heavily drenched in feedback give closing track ‘All the Best’ a sound that would be recognisable at regional live nights across the UK, but with a sense of bravado that lifts them high above Morrissey’s winding back alleys. William Walter’s voice possesses a neat vibrato that compliments the loose threads that hold this entire number together. It’s an honest and personal conclusion to an album that anchors itself to many poles. Ultimately, ‘Under the Volcano’ walks the tightrope of musical fusion with a wobble and occasional stumble, but never a fall.
‘Under the Volcano’ is out now on Vertigo Records / Virgin EMI.