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By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 7th February 2017 at 12:00 pm
Sinkane is the band of Ahmed Gallab, a Sudanese singer/songwriter whose soulful sound is rooted in the music of sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014, he released ‘Mean Love’ on City Slang. The critical acclaim this debut garnered was proof that his songwriting ability, cleverly weaving the music of his heritage into his percussive-focussed, melodically catchy tunes, resonated with music fans all over the world. This week, he releases the follow-up to ‘Mean Love’, ‘Life & Livin’ It’, driven by a powerful message of optimism, a perfect, positive way to confront the political and social upheavals we’re currently experiencing.
Was Sinkane prescient? We’ll never know, but at the very least, this LP should be taken as a fun set of tunes that will keep your toes tapping. ‘Telephone’, revealed shortly after the new year, is a disco banger to rival any of Donna Summer’s. A drubbing of a former lover attempting a booty call isn’t exactly philosophical. Later track ‘Won’t Follow’ is Gallab’s resolve that he won’t trail behind a woman who’s walked out of his life. Goodbye, and good riddance. ‘Passenger’, driven by Afrobeats and laden down with bright horn lines, is less about the words than the euphoric crescendo of sound that mimics the freedom of finding your own way, “’cos if I don’t take control / I might never make it home”.
I should probably take a step back and explain where this Sinkane album came from, produced by Gallab himself and with lyrics and help with longtime collaborator Greg Lofaro. In the intervening time between ‘Mean Love’ and the making of this new album, Gallab toured with his band as the Sinkane live experience, playing 166 shows in 20 countries. He also led The Atomic Bomb Band, a 15-strong supergroup with David Byrne, Damon Albarn and a host of other famed musicians. Taken together, the experiences as Sinkane and in his opportunity fronting a major supergroup changed Gallab’s life, guiding him towards ideas for a new record: to recount the ups and downs of a life worth lived, and lived well. On early LP taster ‘U’Huh’ unveiled last autumn, Gallab sings the uplifting verse, “to my sisters who ache / my brothers losing strength / we don’t need to be saved / we’ll make our own way.“ The chorus includes the Arabic phrase “Kulu shi tamaam!”, which roughly translates to “everything is okay!” It’s a reminder that even when you’re down and out, one day you’re going to dust yourself off and get back up.
On ‘Fire’, Gallab goes between a more usual singing voice to a beauteous falsetto and then back again. The pensive words “when I only know what I’m told, I don’t understand, oh no, at all myself”, preceded by “fire / take me higher / but don’t take me away / where I stay”, suggest the Sinkane stand that to truly be part of society, you can’t just sit there passively. You have to be taken into the whirlwind and experience life, in a way that enriches you but without losing who you are.
The album closes ‘The Way’, a wonderful showcasing of Gallab’s vocal range, framed by horns. “There’s a road inside of us / we need maps made of love / the truth lies in each of us / we need signs we can trust”, sings Gallab, stunningly capturing the human condition: the conflicts in each of us that also lead to dramatic realisations about life and the world around us. While the philosophical conclusions Gallab proffers on ‘Life and Livin’ It’ will likely go over most listeners’ heads, the Sinkane project should be given full marks in tackling weightier topics about the meaning of life not usually found on pop records. One further, he manages to back these philosophical statements with infectious rhythms ensuring Sinkane will be the life of the party.
‘Life and Livin’ It’, the new album from Sinkane, will be out on the 10th of February on City Slang. To read more on Sinkane on TGTF, go here.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 6th February 2017 at 12:00 pm
Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel was one of those artists whose name was bandied around by loads of my mates in the industry as a must-listen. However, as I’m sure many of you have experienced yourself, time always runs away from you, and there is never enough of it. So it’s a good thing that Obel will be appearing at SXSW 2017 as part of her continuing campaign to promote her most recent album released last year, or else I might have gone on with my life and never listened to her music properly. Growing up with music and having been classically trained on the piano from a very young age certainly makes her musical background very different from most of the artists we feature here on TGTF, so it should come as no surprise that the music she makes as a thirty-something woman now living in Berlin sounds unique and like no-one else’s.
Last October saw the release of ‘Citizen of Glass’, Agnes Obel’s third studio album. It’s a few months on now, and she has released the fourth single from the LP, ‘Stretch Your Eyes’. Her longtime fans will be familiar with this one: it’s a reworking of ‘Spinet Song’, which was a live favourite during her 2014 tour. While Obel is famous for her evocative arrangements and arresting piano performances, ‘Stretch Your Eyes’ follows the artist’s past pronouncement that she wanted to eschew the piano as her primary instrument of choice on the new album, instead experimenting with a host of other vintage equipment including harpsichords, spinet, celesta and a trautonium, a metal-keyed synthesiser from the 1920s.
This opener to ‘Citizen of Glass’ is driven slowly forward by gentle percussion and the whining strings of a violin, as if a faraway siren’s call. “You can give to my heart / thousand words or more”, she intones in the chorus, and you can’t tell if this is sung out of desire or desperation. As the violin and cello play in harmony in the instrumental bridge, there is a feeling of melancholy. There is also an eerie precision when the piano comes back in with the smoky tones of Obel’s voice. For those who have not had the opportunity to spin the whole of ‘Citizen of Glass’, ‘Stretch Your Eyes’ leads the listener to anticipate what might come next. Interestingly, this album was driven by her own desire to “have this tension in there [in the music]; the feeling of something just about to break apart”, and as a musical cliffhanger, this single is extremely effective.
‘Citizen of Glass’, Agnes Obel’s third album, is available now from PIAS. Stream newest LP single ‘Stretch Your Eyes’ below. Stay tuned for my write-up on Obel as part of my best bets of the Scandinavian acts scheduled to showcase at this year’s SXSW, coming soon to TGTF.
“I came up to the surface, released the air”. Welcome to the first words spoken in what could be Cloud Nothings’ strongest record to date. ‘Life Without Sound’ is filled with brazen guitar pop that tackles the deeper side of life. While ensuring you remain fully invested to its real goal: to make you a massive fan of Cloud Nothings. Continuing through this opener, it reaches harmonious heights at its chorus and sets you up to believe maybe Cloud Nothings are a bit more restrained for their fourth outing. This idea is swiftly decimated by the following track, ‘Things Are Right With You’, which is a raucous and loud rocking number and gives the album its real flow and setting things up nicely.
The Cleveland, Ohio four-piece are known for their rocking ways, and you can see why. They know how to give a song a life force that engages and amazes you. ‘Things Are Right With You’ also highlight the strong lyricism frontman Dylan Baldi s capable of. Giving us the album’s title with its lyrically monumental moment “no life without a sound”, I’m sure we all as music folk can relate to this sentiment. ‘Internal World’ has a little less of a rocky edge, combining the approach of the previous two tracks, restrained but focused on its direction. On somewhat of a roller coaster ride, ‘Darkened Rings’ is a flurry of guitar lines, rhythm and distortion. It’s a little harder to understand what Baldi is trying to convey here due to the chaos, but the lyrical moments that do stand out carry enough weight for the entire song.
Taking the central place on the album, ‘Enter Entirely’ is perhaps the strongest cut too. With a supreme Nineties’ vibe given off from the Dinosaur Jr.-esque break during the pre-chorus, which soon leads rapidly into a melodic run off, it’s retro-cum-modern in the best way possible. The song finds its direction forward heading during the outro that is surrounded by more brash guitars, including a particularly satisfying guitar solo, while Baldi repeats, “moving on but I still feel it, you’re just a light in me now”. Not letting the momentum gained from here drop, the band kicks straight back in with lead single ‘Modern Act’, another standout. It’s another moment of lyrical strength: “can’t stand the modern act / whose war is this, what god is that?”, and the chorus leading line “when you feel like an ocean coming out of a creek, filling rivers to wait for you wherever you are”. The pop sense in the melody comes on strong during its central riff that carries a light touch, taking the strain off the wide-ranging lyrics.
‘Sight Unseen’ opts for more of a slow build to its reward. While it’s not as pleasing as the prior songs, the bridge is still worth the wait, featuring a savage outro that barrels into life with Baldi screaming “the world is sight unseen” over the instrumentation kicking things up into their highest gear. While all this rockin’ and rollin’ is happening, with its pop bones and rock heart, ‘Strange Year’ hits out of nowhere. A wandering and haunting track that stalks its way through, picking up pace at the half way point, it more acts as an emotional gas pedal that gives you Baldi’s state of mind and frustration. The most surprising aspect of the song is the immediacy with which it disappears, quite literally into nothingness. It’s also a precursor for the album finale, ‘Realize My Fate’. The longest cut on the album at 7 and a half minutes, it wanders and stalks just as the prior track but has far more aggression, followed by Baldi’s cries of “I believe in something bigger, but what I can’t articulate, I find it hard to realize my fate”. One of the album’s lyrically simpler songs, it does incredibly well to convey such complexities through few words. Not to mention the literal screaming Baldi undertakes at the end, power and madness rolled into one: quite like the world we’re living in.
This album serves as an important listen for anyone struggling with the idea of trying to survive the year ahead. Cloud Nothings have created a vehicle for listeners trying to understand the uncertainty and to express frustration. And the best part? It’s all soundtracked by banging guitar music.
American indie band Cloud Nothings’ newest album ‘Life Without Sound’ is out now on Carpark Records (US) / Wichita Recordings (UK). To read more of TGTF’s past coverage on Cloud Nothings, including their most recent promo video for ‘Internal World’, go here.
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 2nd February 2017 at 12:00 pm
It’s hard to believe that Surfer Blood’s debut single ‘Swim’ came out in 2009. You remember the song. I didn’t get the hype. I witnessed the crazy reception the band got in 2010 at the 9:30 Club when they co-headlined a tour with another hot indie American band at the time, the Drums. It was there that I started to understand that the feeling of the music and how it moved them meant more to the fans than the actual lyrics. I think. If any band in the last 10 years should be given an award for keeping the interest up in noodley guitar rock, Surfer Blood would be on the short list. Their established sound has soundtracked countless college frat parties, the relaxed, feel good guitars providing a pleasing background music that earth-shatteringly exceptional, but comfortable.
On their latest album ‘Snowdonia’, the proceedings begin with upbeat foot-stomper ‘Matter of Time’. Doesn’t conjure up images of the snowy Welsh national park for you, does it? Perhaps the name is intended to be representative of strength in rocky, rough adversity? Diplomatic negotiations are the order of the day in ‘Frozen’ – “after some concessions, the deal was done” aren’t exactly pop lyrics, are they? – but both songs seem to be confronting the problems of growing up and how life gets all the more difficult the older you get.
But don’t worry. Things don’t stay that serious for long. With a killer guitar solo, suspiciously single length ‘Dino Jay’ is a love song: “then at the pier, with the moon on your face / I knew I can love you for the rest of my days”. The added harmonising backing vocals are courtesy of current bassist Lindsey Mills, another one of Pitts’ mates from high school. Her addition to the band should be interesting going forward on Surfer Blood’s future pursuits. Even with an instrumental intro going over a minute, long title track ‘Snowdonia’ isn’t serious or pretentious either. It’s more of an experiment with some unusual guitar and percussion moments at the conclusion.
Change is inevitable in the life cycle of a band, and this is certainly true for a band like them who has soldiered on for so many years. Sadly, they’ve suffered two major losses in the 18 months. Longtime bassist Kevin Williams quit the band in October 2015. More crushing was the death of original guitarist Thomas Fekete who, after a valiant battle with cancer, sadly passed away in May 2016. Anyone including myself will acknowledge that his passing will be felt in their live performances; he was genuinely such a happy soul and it was obvious at gigs that he let himself get lost in his guitar playing. As a nice nod to his fallen bandmate, Pitts has admitted that the effects on the guitars on ‘Six Flags in F and G’ were those that Fekete himself had impressed on him. The result is an oddly cool mélange of old and new, the increasingly washy guitars towards the end giving a ‘70s psychedelic feel.
It’s often said that life gives us trials when we’re ready for them. In addition to Fekete’s cancer diagnosis, singer J.P. Pitts’ own mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer. This caused the singer/songwriter to take a step back and use music to convey his most personal thoughts to date in ‘Carrier Pigeon’. It’s another brief step back in time, as his bandmates bolster the main vocal line with Beach Boys-esque doo wop backing harmonies. Thanking his mother for everything she’s done for him and his sister, it’s a surprisingly sweet way for a surf rock band to close the record.
It’s unclear from ‘Snowdonia’ if Surfer Blood plan to stay the course in indie guitar rock, or if they’re planning on changing things up with an increased emphasis on vocal harmonies or perhaps taking a cue from the late Fekete on guitar effects. However, the cheerful sound of this record that should please longtime fans suggests Pitts and co. weren’t going to crawl up in a ball following Fekete’s death. While the band didn’t reinvent the wheel on this album, sometimes you don’t need to.
‘Snowdonia’, the fourth studio album from Florida indie surf rock band Surfer Blood, is out tomorrow, the 3rd of February, on Joyful Noise /Secretly Canadian. To catch up on all of TGTF’s coverage of Surfer Blood in the past, go here.
Songwriters are often a bit precious about telling the stories behind their songs, and it’s sometimes hard to deduce what their motivations might be. But Luke Sital-Singh is more forthcoming in sharing the bittersweet inspiration behind his latest single ‘Killing Me’. As he explains in the single’s press release, Sital-Singh’s rather unexpected muse in this case is his widowed grandmother, or more specifically, her enduring love for her late spouse. “My Grandad passed away around 10 years ago and I have grown closer to my Grandma in his absence”, he says. “I’m often moved thinking about her living without him. She misses him and talks about him everyday. Her broken heart breaks mine and this song was written about that.”
The ballad begins like a lullaby, gently rocking, with Sital-Singh’s always expressive singing voice modulated to a soothing murmur. But the emotion of his lyrics begins to break through his even vocal tone as he reaches the song’s poignant chorus, “it’s killing me that you’re not here with me / I’m living happily, but I’m feeling guilty / you won’t believe the wonders I can see / this world is changing, but I love you faithfully”. The synth backing behind the instrumental bridge is perhaps a bit of an odd addition to the instrumental arrangement, which would have been lovely enough had he left it alone, but the ultimate focus here never strays from the artistry and the genuine sentiment behind Sital-Singh’s vocals.
The single’s b-side ‘Darling’ is, thematically, a fitting companion to ‘Killing Me’, and musically, a bit more in the vein of Sital-Singh’s standard fare. Its acoustic guitar and shuffling percussion create a comfortable backdrop for the warm timbre of Sital-Singh’s voice as he waxes philosophic about how love changes a person’s perspective on life, and the dynamic momentum of the song builds behind the simple, soaring repeated chorus, “everything will change, darling.” It’s a familiar pattern and one Sital-Singh has relied upon often in the past, but, as always, it works remarkably well for him here.
Luke Sital-Singh’s new single ‘Killing Me’ is out now via Raygun Records. You can read TGTF’s coverage of his past work, including a stream of his 2015 EP ‘The Breakneck Speed of Tomorrow’ right back here.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 1st February 2017 at 12:00 pm
For a group who started out in earnest in Northamptonshire over a decade ago, the dropping out of their like-minded peers from the late Noughties, and given what has happened to the music industry in recent years, it’s heartening that Fenech-Soler are still in existence. Last year, the electropop group based in London announced bassist Daniel Soler and drummer Andrew Lindsay had amicably left the group. Continuing on as a duo, Ben and Ross Duffy have confidently written and produced a new album out this week. According to the press release and probably to the disappointment of some of you reading this, ‘ZILLA’ is named after a friend and is in fact not a cutesy homage to a fictional Japanese monster. It’s important to note that the new LP includes four tracks that starred on their September 2016 EP ‘Kaleidoscope’, which might be disappointing to those who already own the previous release.
Fenech-Soler were always the kind of band you’d ask to perform at your party to get bodies bumping. Since their eponymous debut album was released in 2010 and continuing on after 2013’s ‘Rituals’, they’ve enjoyed prominent billing at major festivals around the world, even an invite to play at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Most dance bands would kill for experiences like these, but then again, most dance bands are not creating bangers like ‘Stop and Stare’ and ‘Magnetic’. Following the departure of two band members, Fenech-Soler could have kept going on the same direction and with the same winning formula, and I’m not sure anyone would have batted an eye. They would have been too busy dancing.
However, Ben and Ross Duffy had other plans for ‘ZILLA’. While they initially demoed songs intended for the album with producer Jacknife Lee in Los Angeles, the brothers ultimately returned to Northamptonshire, where they became truly inspired by old disco and soul records. On the new LP, they mix things up, daring to be experimental in a world where experimentation in pop is widely discouraged. While they have maintained the pop sensibility that has been so important to the Fenech-Soler sound, they’ve added more light and dark to their songs, adding interest and changing the mood.
A measure of foreboding in previously unveiled single ‘Cold Light’ foreshadowed their new path. You can read my thoughts from back in December through here. They also seem to have found their soulful side, probably best exemplified by the vocalisation on almost-instrumental ‘Zilla I’. ‘Be Someone’ begins as reverently as a church hymn, Ben Duffy putting his voice beautifully through its paces alongside a vaguely Oriental, ‘80s-style guitar line. He sings, “leave me to dance all night, there’s one chance left, I’ve been waiting for all my life”, as the song chronicles every artist’s dream, to finally make it in a difficult business. In album closer ‘From Afar’, Ben Duffy favours a staccatoing, almost hip hop vocal line to follow the beat, before returning to the expansive, anthemic reach of his voice as seen on ‘Last Forever’.
Happily, ‘ZILLA’ includes some stellar tracks that fit well with the dance floor bangers already in existence in the Fenech-Soler oeurve. Previous EP title track single ‘Kaleidoscope’ that begins the album on an appropriately colorful note, like a carnival packed into one hell of a track. ‘On Top’ recalls the days of the late Noughties, when the band were in direct competition with the now-defunct Friendly Fires. With crashing synths building towards a crescendo, dropping back down for brief bridges of quieter reflection, ‘Grace’ must be intended for those all arms-in-the-air moments late night in the club. ‘Conversation’ (stream available at the end of this post) follows a similar formula to past hit ‘Demons’, starting with a seemingly unrelenting dance rhythm that soon gives away to Ben Duffy’s considered vocals.
The difference is this time around, on ‘Conversation’ and on many of the tracks on ‘ZILLA’, the brothers Duffy have chosen to let their songs breathe more. This might sound counterintuitive to what electropop is meant to do: get bodies on the dance floor. While they might not have broken the mold on dance-driven pop music on this album, they’ve stretched the mold and themselves, proving themselves entirely capable of going beyond what has worked so successfully for them in the past.
‘ZILLA’, by brothers Ben and Ross Duffy who now comprise Fenech-Soler, will be out this Friday, the 3rd of February, on SO Recordings. Following shows in New York City and Los Angeles, Fenech-Soler head out on a UK tour in late February into early March. To read more of TGTF’s none too shabby archive of articles on the act, including an interview I did with them in Brooklyn in 2014, follow this link.
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