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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.
The difficulty with New Desert Blues I’m facing is how five boys, with such youth about them, are able to weave such mesmerising tapestries through their songs. At their age, I was firmly focussed on exploits of chasing girls and seeing how many alcopops I could pilfer before my parents found out. However, at such young ages they’re already showing a maturity far beyond their years.
On their debut EP ‘Devil’s Rope’, we’re introduced to’ Zachary’, ‘Matthew’, ‘Christoph’ and ‘Eli’, four men I’m delighted to welcome into my life, along with their finely-woven stories of affliction and woe. If you’re lost, allow me to clarify: New Desert Blues name all of their songs with boys’ names. Why though? Well, after facing a bombardment of questions on the issue, the boys admitted the songs are named after characters in a story, in a world within which these stories intertwine. On their site they describe it as “creating the soundtrack to films yet to be written, each song a different tale named after the main characters and protagonists”.
This goes some way to showing the immense emphasis put by the band, on the process of creating a deep, spectacularly visual story. It’s a process in which the Hampshire-based five-piece succeed in wholeheartedly throughout the debut EP. The poppiest, most easily accesisble offering on the four-song EP is served up through opener ‘Zachary’, the second part of what began in ‘Adam’, which I reviewed last summer. In its video, stunningly shot and edited by the band themselves, we follow our wounded centrepoint stagger through the desert. Effectively, that’s what the song is about too: a struggle to move on, brought by the band by vessel their trademark five-piece harmonies, led by the soaring tones of James Cullen and underpinned by a powerful Coldplay-esque guitar twang.
‘Devil’s Rope’ transports you from the dry, dank setting in which the record was recorded in Britain, all the way to the loneliest stretch of American desert you can picture, while holding your hand as you stagger through a ghost town in New Mexico where these four characters are mourning their shattered, broken lives. ‘Matthew’ is an adventure through the Wild West, with Cullen almost screaming, “this is hallowed ground, my friend”, while ‘Christoph’ (video at the bottom of this post) conjures up images of a bank in the Old West with its mournful tale of a rogue being robbed by a reluctant scoundrel taking to crime as almost a form of escapism.
All these stories, these tales of woe and almost faux-misery are all played out in ‘Devil’s Rope’, brilliantly captured through Cullen’s warm, gripping lyrics. It’s no wonder ‘Zachary’ has seen big hitters Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens come sniffing around the deserted saloons of the old West for New Desert Blues. Through four songs, they’ve encapsulated images of majesty, of trauma on a scale that somehow feels exorbitant epic, without sounding pompous or over-egged.
In about 13 minutes, ‘Devils Rope’ does what many indie albums will fail to do in an hour. It transports you to an different time, a new setting, and leaves you thoroughly stricken with awe at the end.
‘Devil’s Rope’, the debut EP from New Desert Blues, will be released next Monday (the 20th of January) on their own label Whiteley Records.
Several months ago, I reviewed the teaser single from the eponymous sophomore effort from Los Angeles’s four ladies of Warpaint. ‘Love Is To Die’ is still a standout track on the album but the band has taken a self-proclaimed different direction, making the sound less full and more understated than what was found on 2011’s ‘The Fool’. The modification is subtle, and the casual listener may not detect a massive change. They have lost none of their subdued, throbbing melancholy and continue to weave interesting beats in with ethereal vocals. The whole thing has an eerie sexiness about it: Twin Peaks eerie sexiness.
The first track, the simply named instrumental ‘Intro’, does a great job of letting you into their world since it starts out fuzzy and friendly with a laughed “oh, sorry” before counting out the beat again. Right from the beginning you feel like these woman are singing with you in your living room. I don’t know where they recorded, but the room seemed a little dry (like my living room would be!) and I marveled that this trippy, psychedelic sound is probably not over produced and quite genuine and organic. And any band who claims Talking Heads as a major influence, ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ identified as ‘the perfect song’, is all right with me.
In general, eschewing the traditional verse chorus verse structure, the individual tracks wander and drift. The album is lightly painted in distortion throughout, sometimes to better effect than others. There is much to enjoy, but little to dig your claws into. I think it is an interesting listen and I am happy to have it on in the background, but there really isn’t anything that could be considered a hit. ‘Hi’ gives us a high, floaty, wavering wail over an electronic beat providing a compelling juxtaposition and again highlights my pleasure with the percussion choices throughout the album. This song deepens and travels to a comfortable place. ‘Teese’ starts simpler, opening with an unassuming guitar line and a vocal that’s a bit wider to compensate. The one song I have a hard time accepting is ‘Disco//Very’. A little chant-like, a touch atonal and rounded out with squeaks and squeals, it’s just a little too cheerleader-like for my taste. It’s different and quite a chance for them, breaking up the flow of the album but perhaps that was their aim.
No wimpy eight-song, second effort from these ladies here. This is a juicy, hour-long trek through the glorious wanderings of Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal’s imaginations. Sharing both lead vocal and guitar duties, they are the origins of the band. Jenny Lee Lindberg fills in the sound on bass and I have to admit to a tiny girl crush on Stella Mozgawa since her drumming had me mesmerized throughout the album. ‘Warpaint’ will be available 21 January on Rough Trade.
Warpaint’s second and self-titled album is out today (the 20th of January) on Rough Trade.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 14th January 2014 at 12:00 pm
Anyone who’s been following The Crookes for any length (pardon the pun) of time is aware that the trademark of Crookes’ frontman George Waite has always been his long, floppy, ginger hair. But before they headed out to an isolated church in the mountains of Northern Italy to record their third album ‘Soapbox’, Waite’s locks were shorn and left forgotten on the floor, and away they went. This drastic event indicated to me that major changes were afoot. I have been pondering the motive for this haircut for a long time. My own brother, who is probably about George’s height, cuts his hair like that often because he’s simply too lazy to deal with it on a regular basis. And yes, my brother can be quite lazy.
Somehow though, I don’t think this radical new do of Waite’s came out of sheer laziness, nor was it simply cosmetic. Interestingly, the relative lack of hair on Waite’s head no doubt assisted in the filming of the band’s first video from the album, for brand new single ‘Play Dumb’. It’s the first single from the Sheffield band since the double A-sided ‘Bear’s Blood’ / ‘Dance in Colour’ single that was released in May 2013, the former of which represented a much harder, louder, uncompromising sound than had been previously proffered on their earlier releases. Post-‘Bear’s Blood’, I’d decided it was safe to say that their days of tracks with contemplative whistling were behind them, and the reveal of ‘Play Dumb’ supports this.
The first clue that ‘Play Dumb’ is something different shows up at the start of the video. Waite is sat at a table, looking at the camera, initially nervously so, playing with his hands, until the song begins with a discordant squeal of guitar and pounding drums. As the camera focuses in on him, you can sense something has changed. He’s ready for his close-up, and in this new close-up, he wants to show everyone he’s not the same boy we used to know. Even the half-smile he gives us isn’t 100% true, with what seems to me like a bit of an evil glint in his eye. And he is about to tell us a story.
The song begins with, “I’ve had my mid-life crisis by the age of 25 / you say my head ain’t right / I’m tired of myself but don’t know why”: the protagonist of the story is unhappy with the way his life is going but doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. The intriguing, important next line includes the song title, and the line is repeated later in the song: “I’m dirt under your thumb, not pretty enough to play dumb”. As the video goes on, we’re watching Waite being transformed with makeup, a dress, pearls and a wig into, dare I say it, a damn fine-looking woman. What this made me think of first is what terrible things us women go through, trying to make ourselves prettier to impress men. But the sentiment could also be applied to men too, if you consider that while women are supposed to be soft, pretty things, in contrast, men are supposed to be tough and hard as nails, and some men aren’t made to be like that. Either ideal created by our society is hard, sometimes impossible, to live up to.
In lyricist Daniel Hopewell’s world, where if you are very pretty (or handsome for a man), you have the option of acting or playing dumb, because your prettiness leads to you not to have to worry about the mundane things everyone else has to. Isn’t this what image-conscious Hollywood tells us? If you’re gorgeous, man or woman, you don’t necessarily need a brain, and your career is more or less made. However, if you aren’t pretty enough and rather the “dirt under your thumb”, forget it, you don’t get the same concessions. By the time we get to verse two, there is no question that Hopewell is talking about the band’s own “poster boys” image. Like it or not, the Crookes are a very good-looking group of guys, which I’m sure has had its advantages and disadvantages for their career trajectory. “I’d rather you despise my every move” is an aggressive line and not something I would have ever imagined Waite singing back in the ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ era or even the latest ‘Hold Fast’ one: it’s indicative of a self-informed realisation that it’s better to be feared (or hated) than loved. Judging from the reactions I’ve seen from the boys playing live, there are an awful lot of people out there who absolutely adore them, but maybe that adoration comes at a cost?
You’re probably wondering why I’ve avoided the chorus up until now. I’m not a fan of it. The subtext of the song appears to be that the voice of the song is not living up to his woman’s expectations. Something has gone awry in their relationship, because he doesn’t need her anymore, and he’s bored with her. He wants her to “wake up” and take stock of the situation, while at the same time he refuses and “won’t change to get you off”. The line comes across as a clumsy way of saying “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam” like Popeye, and it’s so crass – it wouldn’t be a surprise, since the song seems to be sung with such a sneer to the world – truth be told, it makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that was the point: the press release for the new single has Hopewell saying ‘Soapbox’ “…certainly isn’t a happy, carefree album”.
‘Play Dumb’ is catchy for sure, but its melody and hook aren’t as bright when stacked up against those of the first single of ‘Hold Fast’, ‘Afterglow’. The timing of this release seems particularly apt: the single drops the week before the band are due back in the States for SXSW, so we’ll have to see what the Americans make of it. Overall, this song seems to indicate the Crookes have taken off in a new direction, so the real question is, what will the rest of the album sound like? We shall be waiting.
The first single from the Crookes’ third album ‘Soapbox’, ‘Play Dumb’, will be released on the 3rd of March on Fierce Panda Records; ‘Soapbox’ will follow on the 14th of April. The band are scheduled to appear at SXSW 2014 in Austin in March.