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Album Review: Big Thief – Masterpiece

 
By on Thursday, 26th May 2016 at 3:00 pm
 

"MasterpieceWe at TGTF have had our ears on Brooklyn indie rock band Big Thief since last autumn, when I saw them open for Here We Go Magic at the Valley Bar in Phoenix. Six months on from that show, Big Thief are quickly garnering fans from across the musical spectrum with songs from their genre-stretching debut album ‘Masterpiece’. An imaginary Venn diagram of the album might depict an intersection of alt-country, indie folk and psych rock, with ‘Masterpiece’ falling squarely in the centre.

Frontwoman and songwriter Adrianne Lenker has crafted a series of songs around what she describes as “the process of harnessing pain, loss, and love, while simultaneously letting them go, looking into your own eyes through someone else’s, and being okay with the inevitability of death.” Her constantly shifting character perspective keeps the quell of emotion inherent in those themes at a measured distance, and her bandmates (Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and Jason Burger on drums) create a discordant and disorienting sonic backdrop for her hazy existentialism.

The album’s eponymous track and lead single ‘Masterpiece’ is a full sonic realisation of Lenker’s artistic vision, with bold, round guitars, heavy drums, and a catchy chorus under the blunt desperation of her verses: “you whispered to a restless ear / can you get me out of here? / this place smells like piss and beer / can you get me out?”. Lenker’s singing voice, like her lyrics, isn’t exactly pretty, but its half-whispered, half-yodeled tone is both poignantly fragile and vividly evocative.

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The album’s current single ‘Real Love’ was a live standout when I saw the band play on the Ground Control Touring showcase at SXSW 2016, and it’s a highlight on the full album as well. Lenker’s haunting vocal melody fluctuates between pure country (“mama got drunk and daddy went to prison”) and unadulterated realism (“riding in the back seat, watching my spit fly”), and her delicate singing is punctuated by gritty, strident rock guitar riffs.

The estranged father-daughter ballad ‘Interstate’ is somewhat lighter in texture but its sonic undertones are harshly discordant, particularly under the wistful line “you could go back in time”, which is underlaid by disorienting shifts in harmony. Lenker takes on the perspective of a sympathetic onlooker in the lyrics, “she is getting thin / you are going grey and white / and you don’t know how to tell her as you say good night”, but you get the sense throughout that she might in fact be the daughter, especially when the track fades to a child’s voice innocently chanting, “I like our truck”.

A pair of love contrasting love ballads sits at the heart of the album, the acoustic-flavoured ‘Lorraine’ and the bittersweet ‘Paul’. The former is a brief wisp of memory, perhaps of a fleeting romantic encounter that never developed into anything tangible, exemplified by the lyric “like we were hummingbirds screaming at ravens, you started to move me from fact into fable”. The latter is an edgier electric-flavoured track about another doomed love affair, this time from the opposite perspective: “I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whisky breath / I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death.”

‘Humans’ returns to the harder, harsher tones of the earlier tracks, with a distorted bass and guitar foundation under Lenker’s slurred, mumbled verse lines “humans in the honest light / love is a cold infection, right”, while a piercing guitar riff brings the repeated chorus lyric into sharp focus. Conversely, ‘Animals’ is fuzzy and obscure throughout, with shifting harmonies and tempo keeping the listener consistently off balance. Final track ‘Parallels’ features another brilliantly written verse, “caterpillar on the floor / can you teach me to transform . . . I can’t say I’ll miss my human form much” juxtaposed with a simple, relentlessly repeated chorus.

Appropriate to the title of its closing track, ‘Masterpiece’ is an album of parallels and juxtapositions. It never attempts to come full circle or to establish a definitive direction, but Adrianne Lenker’s uniquely crafted songs and distinctive vocal style nevertheless leave a lasting impression, both in live performance and on this studio recording.

7.5/10

Big Thief’s debut LP ‘Masterpiece’ is due out tomorrow, Friday the 27th of May, on Saddle Creek Records. Our previous coverage of the band is back this way.

 

CMW 2016: Music is Great Britain UK Trade and Investment showcase Saturday night – 7th May 2016

 
By on Thursday, 26th May 2016 at 2:00 pm
 

You know that phrase, “loud enough to wake the dead”? Saturday night at Canadian Music Week 2016 may not have been all that loud, but it was definitely the most crowded night out in town, with plenty of locals out and about to lend a party atmosphere. It sure was very cold and windy, making me wonder whilst wearing my hat and gloves if the dearly departed residents of St. James’ church cemetery near my accommodation for the week were rattling around in their graves.

When it comes to the elements, I consider myself reasonably hearty stock if dressed appropriately, having faced wind and driving rain in my face on many occasions in the UK. However, following along in a theme that has repeated in most everywhere in North America this spring, it was just too damn cold Saturday night. In stark contrast, I saw The Spook School play an early set at the Garrison that afternoon when it was sunny and bright, and I had wished we could have bottled that poppy sunniness and used an atomizer over the entire chilly week of CMW 2016.

The Spook School CMW 2016 Garrison Saturday

My plans for the last night of CMW 2016 would take place solely and in one of the nicer clubs in all of Toronto. Velvet Underground on Queen Street would be seeing out the festival in style, thanks to a ‘Music is Great Britain’-branded showcase put on by UK Trade and Investment. The first two bands on the bill are friends of TGTF; the other two, well, you’ll have to read on.

As a rule, TGTF does not condone skipping school for the sake of music. However, we’re going to give The Orielles a wide berth, as they arrived in Toronto as close as humanly possible to play their first show during CMW while catching as much school as they could before they left. I understand they had finals to return to after; I hope the adrenaline off their first North American music festival saw the band through them.

The Orielles CMW 2016 Velvet Underground Saturday UK Trade and Investment

While they played, excited whispers abounded all around me. “They’re how old?” “And they can play *that* well?” “When did you discover them?” “Liverpool Sound City?” “No, 2013?” “Seriously???” “How old are they again???” Opening the UKTI showcase might well have been ample cause for anxiety, but the young yet experienced in gigs trio from Halifax came out with tune after tune. The Orielles’ first North American appearance was a triumph in every sense of the word, impressing industry and punters alike with their energetic garage and surf-tinged performance.

The People The Poet CMW 2016 Velvet Underground Saturday UK Trade and Investment

The People The Poet, now SXSW veterans after showcasing back to back in 2015 and 2016, were up next. From the surfy, psych vibe created by the Orielles, the Welsh band brought things back squarely to good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. The vocals of frontman Leon Stanford – growly, emphatic and Joe Cocker-esque – are a force to be reckoned with on their own. But accompanied by the band’s driving instrumentation with the anthemic glow of any Springsteen number worth its salt, the complete package of The People The Poet provide a formidable punch. Check out recent single ‘Club 27’ below.

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Very early on in my CMW 2016 schedule preparation, I’d pencilled in The Undivided for my last night in Toronto. I’d gone through the profiles of all the UK bands headed out to the festival, and I had been most impressed with the oomph of ‘Invincible’. I fully felt the emotions of this band, displayed on their sleeve for all to see. It was a feeling I’d experienced 2 years ago at Liverpool Sound City when faced with Geordies Boy Jumps Ship for the first time. (They’ve just released their debut album this month, and I couldn’t have been prouder of and happier for them.) When you listen to the power of their music and lyrics together, you just know this means an awful lot to every member of the band. Even more weirdly coincidental, both of these bands’ names suggest an inclusionary, “all for one, one for all” mentality that is comforting in this crazy world we live in.

The Undivided CMW 2016 Velvet Underground Saturday UK Trade and Investment

The Welsh band released their latest EP ‘Satellites’ on the 6th of May when we were all out in Toronto, so I hadn’t had a chance to listen to it. It’s on Spotify now, and it’s good stuff. This is loud, fast-paced rock with plenty of heart, and you should do yourself the favour of checking them out now. You know, before they hit it big and I say in a smug tone “I told you so” to your face.

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I have gotten onboard with Slaves and have been known to sing along – loudly – to ‘Where’s Your Car Debbie’. However, I have to admit that I still haven’t quite figured out the appeal of Fat White Family. Is it the camp posturing of Lias Saoudi that gets people hot and bothered? Is it the spitting? Is it the sleaze of ‘Touch the Leather’? Or is it just the anarchic feel of their brand of punk? Of all the bands at the UKTI showcase, they brought in the biggest crowd of the night. Is that a commentary on the music lovers of Toronto? Let’s hope not.

Fat White Family CMW 2016 Velvet Underground Saturday UK Trade and Investment

I left Velvet Underground with the same feeling I had closing out what will probably be my final Sound City in 2014. What was I missing about this hugely hyped band? A few weeks out now from my first CMW, I have come to the acceptance yet again that as they say, there’s no accounting for taste. TGTF will continue to do what we’ve always done: champion the little guy and the music that moves us. And we appreciate you all – bands and fans alike – being along with us for the ride.

 

CMW 2016: electropop at Studio Bar and more from the Music from Ireland showcase at Rivoli Thursday – 5th May 2016

 
By on Tuesday, 24th May 2016 at 2:00 pm
 

So that I would not miss one of my must-see bands a good 20-minute walk away, I left the Music from Ireland showcase at the Rivoli before Dublin grunge act Fangclub settled onstage. From what I heard from other punters, they went down a treat, so Carrie and I will need to investigate them further at some point. Walking up Spadina Avenue, then west on Dundas Street, I returned to the Studio Bar, where I’d interviewed Llanelli, Wales group Cut Ribbons earlier before dinner.

Featurette CMW 2016 Studio Bar Thursday

I understood The Studio Bar’s lineup for the evening to be entirely electronic, or at least electropop / synthpop based. So it was no surprised to see electronics at the ready when I arrived and local Toronto duo Featurette were performing. They weren’t that bad, per se, but having seen my fair share of mediocre electronic acts at festivals all over the world, it was hard to be impressed. Further dampening any enthusiasm I may have had about them was singer Lexie Jay singing (er, shouting) into a megaphone a song that I’m guessing was by Drake (?), complete with lyrics that can’t be repeated on a family Web site. I give them credit for giving it their all to a handful of onlookers, but not much else.

Cut Ribbons CMW 2016 Studio Bar Thursday

Cut Ribbons, whose debut album ‘We Want to Watch Something We Loved Burn’ was among my top 5 albums of last year. After some warm-up shows in Guelph and an invigorating visit to Niagara Falls that very morning, they were raring to go, eager to show off new material they’ve been working on at home. While I enjoyed them as much as I did seeing them on the Horizons / Gorwelions stage at the Great Escape 2015, I wish there would have been more punters seeing them that night. That would be one of the cons of Canadian Music Festival: if you’re not hyped enough going out to Toronto, and you find yourself at one of the further out venues, you might not get a great turnout. However, professionals as they are, they put on a great show and I’m really looking forward to hearing their newest music – their new acoustic-based music! – when they make it available to the public. For now, check out a live session track of ‘Helen of Troy’ they shared 2 months ago.

Walking back to the Rivoli with much purpose, I was all about making sure I made it in time for Daithi, with whom I’d had a great chat with Wednesday afternoon in Toronto. On paper, a traditional Irish fiddler mixing his instrument with disparate genres of electronic, house and math rock shouldn’t work. However, live, it’s an entirely unique, lively performance. It’s my understanding that many of the punters who saw him earlier in the evening at Drake Underground walked quite a distance back east to see him play a longer set at the Rivoli. At 1:30 in the morning thousands of miles away from Ireland, Daithi succeeded in being the centre of attention at a dance party of his own creation.

Daithi CMW 2016 Rivoli Music from Ireland Showcase Thursday

While I have some friends enjoy EDM a whole lot but don’t enjoy watching an electronic master at work, I love the spectacle. Making something off the cuff, from general guidelines the artist has set but otherwise allowed himself to improvise up and away from, and being present while that ephemeral art is being made is an amazing honour in itself. For more on this exciting musical alchemist, have a listen to my chat with him in Toronto here. Want a feel for his music and with a very happy tabletop cat? You’re welcome.

 

Single Review: Isaac Gracie – Terrified

 
By on Tuesday, 24th May 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

West London singer/songwriter Isaac Gracie released his debut EP ‘Songs from My Bedroom’ at the end of March, just after his appearance at SXSW 2016. Gracie impressed me in Austin with the tender vulnerability of his singing voice and the insightful emotional honesty of his song lyrics. As you might expect, songs like Gracie’s are most effectively presented in their raw acoustic form, and that is exactly the presentation Gracie has arranged for them on ‘Songs from My Bedroom’.

The EP’s lead track ‘Terrified’ was released as a single on the 13th of May on Virgin EMI, and it epitomises the overall sound of ‘Songs from My Bedroom’. The lo-fi recording (which actually took place in Gracie’s bedroom, according to the man himself in my interview with him at SXSW) results in a warm but distant quality, almost as if Gracie were singing to himself. His sweet voice is backed at first only by a single guitar, and the slight warble in his tone only emphasises the stark melancholy of his opening lines, “well, I sleep all day / drink all night / just give me one reason / and I’ll turn off my light”.

The song expands with the addition of backing vocals as it moves into the refrain, and Gracie displays the full strength of his own lead vocal in its opening line “I don’t wanna be your boy, I wanna be a man” before he executes a graceful decrescendo into the key lyric “I’m terrified that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this”. The recording style emphasises simplicity and spontaneous musicality over technical precision, and as a result there are a few rough vocal moments in the performance. But rather than distracting from the overall mood or effect, these only serve to enhance the genuine emotional quality of the song.

8.5/10

The five-song tracklisting for the UK version of ‘Songs from My Bedroom’ contains ‘Terrified’, along with ‘Hollow Crown’, ‘We’re So Very Lost’, ‘All The Burning Lovers’ and ‘Darkness Of The Day’. The American version has only four songs, starting with Gracie’s early single ‘Last Words’ and includes ‘Terrified’, ‘Hollow Crown’ and ‘Darkness of the Day’. Both are available now on Buried Crowns / Virgin EMI.

Isaac Gracie is scheduled to appear at the Dot to Dot Festival in Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham over the upcoming second May bank holiday weekend. He has just announced an American tour for June, after which he’ll return to the UK for more festival appearances at Barn on the Farm, Latitude, and Reading and Leeds. You can find a full listing of Isaac Gracie’s upcoming live dates on his official Facebook. TGTF’s previous coverage of Isaac Gracie is back this way.

 

CMW 2016: the first half of Music from Ireland showcase Thursday night at the Rivoli – 5th May 2016

 
By on Monday, 23rd May 2016 at 2:00 pm
 

If you recall reading in my introductory post about Canadian Music Week 2016, this year’s festival had a Focus on Ireland, which meant there was a great turnout of acts from the Emerald Isle. All said and done after the event was over on Saturday the 7th of May, I managed to catch nearly every single Irish band who had come to Toronto, save one. It helped that most of the Irish bands and the many Irish who had emigrated to and were now resident in the city descended on the Rivoli pool hall on Queen Street Thursday night for a full night of bands as part of Music from Ireland’s brilliant showcase during CMW. Counterintuitively, I did not eat anything remotely Irish for dinner, instead downing a massive, entirely from scratch chorizo arepa in Kensington Market to keep me full until I returned to my bed that evening.

I knew that many Irish bands successful enough to cross the Atlantic for our continents music festivals would naturally take to one another. But it was at CMW 2016 that I felt the incredible strength of bands and artists’ ties to each other, bonded together by the fact that they are Irish and they are all about making meaningful music. They showed up to each other’s shows to cheer them on and to hug and high-five them after their gigs, and I started to get emotional. It occurred to me that we have supported so many Irish bands over the years, starting with Two Door Cinema Club in my early blogging days, through to all the Music from Ireland showcases at SXSW and The Great Escape. So I am now on the hunt for an Irish contributor or two to join us at TGTF. If you or someone you know lives in Ireland (north or south), is keen on independent music and would like to write for us, please contact us / me on Twitter with your interest.

Bagels Search Party Animal CMW 2016 Rivoli Music from Ireland showcase Thursday

Young lads Bagels (now rebranded as Search Party Animal) were first up on the bill, starting things off at the 8 o’clock hour with plenty of energy. If you hadn’t heard his accent, you’d have no way of knowing frontman Adam Redmond wasn’t a surfer dude from the West Coast, which is a roundabout way of saying he’s got the boy next door good looks that I expect young girls all over the world to swoon over in due course. But let’s get back to the music. They’ve got that bouncy guitar liveliness that Northern Irish trio Two Door Cinema Club made their name with. You know, remember that sunniness that Two Door used to bring into venues that would light up the room? There’s even a bit of pounding rhythm with jangly guitar that Foals have made famous. If you’re going to sound vaguely similar to other bands, you could do worse, right?

However, the night belonged to MKAI, a band of brothers (literally, not figuratively) from Cork. Evidently, their reputation preceded them, as even before the tall, dark and handsome figures of Cian, Conor, Eoghan and Colm MacSweeny took the stage, there was an excited mass of fans down the front, patiently waiting for them. They have a debut EP out now, ‘Waiting’, which was released last autumn and led to the selling out of their hometown venue Crane Lane Theatre for the EP’s launch party.

MKAI CMW 2016 Rivoli Music from Ireland showcase Thursday

Just a wild guess, but I’m pretty sure every one of those excited fans already have it, as I haven’t seen people jumping up, down and sideways so enthusiastically at a show in a very long time. I’m being serious. My impression of them was as a folk-less Kodaline, with a pop sensibility and massive anthemic builds featuring synth swells and memorable guitar hooks. I (well, we) were not left disappointed. Their new single ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is out this Friday, and you can read Carrie’s review of it from earlier in the month here.

As I was busy watching Icelandic singer/songwriter Axel Flovent at Drake One Fifty early Wednesday afternoon, I missed Elm’s performance at the opening Canadian Music Week party at Google’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto. No big deal, as they were part of the Music from Ireland lineup. They describe themselves as an alternative baroque-pop band, but that would seem to suggest they sound like Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy. Which they do not.

Elm CMW 2016 Rivoli Music from Ireland showcase Thursday

Truth be told, while I find some things in common with this band with other bands that have a cellist, like Wooden Arms or Passport to Stockholm, I actually found singer Dylan Walsh having an Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe-like presence, except with a lighter touch. The main concern with a less bombastic vocal is having it get lost in the instrumentation, yet Elm manage to avoid that with thoughtful composition. I will say that Elm are a much more visceral proposition live, as when I saw them this night, they were much louder than I expected them to be, which I wonder if it has to do with the venue’s sound mix for the night. I saw them in conversation with some important looking folk on Saturday at the Sheraton, so I hope that means they have some kind of signed deal in place.

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Stay tuned for the rest of my Thursday night at CMW 2016, which includes more from the Music from Ireland showcase, following tomorrow on TGTF.

 

Album Review: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

 
By on Monday, 23rd May 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Now that the hype train has (almost) stopped rolling for new Radiohead material, we can finally take a look at what we’re left with in the aftermath. The initial social network buzz that started by the band, ironically, removing themselves almost completely from the internet, soon turned into a tangible video. ‘Burn the Witch’ is a terrifying and prowling song whose main objective is to build an extreme amount of tension before simply dying. Using strings to create the initial urgency, it’s when the electronic instruments kick in that the urgency becomes a chaotic mash of analogue and digital. In short, a more than apt metaphor for Radiohead’s general modus operandi.

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The key component to Radiohead’s sound is experimentation. Truly no two of their albums sound the same, even if on the outside they may appear to. The genius behind Thom Yorke and co.’s approach is hidden within the detail. Every track on ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is expertly crafted with not only an auditory reaction but an emotional one too. Taking you from sad to terrified to elated, all within one song, Yorke is able to orchestrate our minds just as he is able to instrumentation.

Track two ‘Daydreaming’ is an vast change of pace from its predecessor, though it retains the gradual descent into madness with a crescendo that sees more strings wrapping around a haunting vocal accompaniment that turns into demonic roars. At this point, it almost feels like Radiohead are just trying to haunt every aspect of your head, ‘Decksdark’ takes on a more standard appearance with a classic drums, bass, guitar and piano compositon. Of course this doesn’t last: when the verses break, we’re met with an array of sounds that echo around the sonic spectrum. ‘Desert Island Disk’ revolves around a repeating acoustic guitar line, which marries well with the dark and brooding electronic atmosphere.

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It’s clear that the 5 years between 2011’s ‘The King of The Limbs’ and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ has not been in vain. Evolving their sound to incorporate more electronic elements than ever before has allowed them to branch into an entirely new strand of menacing alt-rock. ‘Ful Stop’ uses more of the build up approach as seen on the opening two tracks, but instead of leading to a string laden eruption, it becomes this determined and furiously thick guitar riff that once again swells with atmospheric sounds and a pace quickening drum beat. ‘Glass Eyes’ is a sombre, piano-led ballad that has Yorke’s voice sporadically drowned out by overbearing strings, it’s also the shortest cut on the record that flows nicely into ‘Identikit’. Opening with a complex drum pattern, another consistency throughout, the rhythm section is always a structure Yorke plays with the utmost respect. Building the compositions around this complex network of drums is a part of this records beauty.

Within the undertones of the album lies within love, loss and life. ‘True Love Waits’, a track that’s been in the works since 1995, is a barren and exposed track that tears away the majority atmospheric elements and instead leaves the mind play left to the lyrical content. ‘The Numbers’ concerns the state of the earth and our responsibility to rectify our mistakes before it’s too late.

With some of the tracks dating to decades before this release, what Radiohead have done is created a conglomerate of past and future. An orchestration of time and how it doesn’t dwell in one central point. In classic Radiohead fashion, they’ve given us everything we could’ve wanted and more.

8/10

‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is out now in digital form on XL Records. A physical release follows in June. Read more on Radiohead on TGTF here.

 
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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

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

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