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Album Review: Tom Baxendale – A Million Miles

 
By on Tuesday, 29th August 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Tom Baxendale A Million Miles coverSince we last spoke with Sheffield singer/songwriter Tom Baxendale, he’s been hard at work on a new album, the follow up to his 2016 LP ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’. Around the release of his last LP, Baxendale talked about the homemade nature of his work and his plans to shore up his home studio for the purpose of further recording. He seems to have followed through with that ambition on ‘A Million Miles’, which features a wider sonic palette influenced by his recent listening material. Baxendale describes his music consumption of late as a “weird mix” of ’80s pop, hip-hop/neo soul, krautrock, and “lots of contemporary pop stuff my kids make me listen to—I complain, but secretly like!”

It may go against the typical indie musician’s aesthetic, but that pop sensibility hasn’t diminished the authenticity of Baxendale’s high-quality songwriting. A sense of restless anxiety pervades the musical arrangement of opening track ‘Good Money’ even before Baxendale intones its first vocal lines: “friends are hard to come by at this time of the night / it’s too early to be sleeping, it’s too late to pick a fight.” Initially tucked farther back in the arrangement, subtle synths and a light keyboard melody contrast the edgy guitar lines and lead the segue into a vivid and dramatic instrumental coda.

‘Beating’ is much more directly pop-oriented, with bouncy synths and handclap rhythms behind Baxendale’s square lyrical couplets. But a low instrumental drone underscores the darker tone of his vocal lines, especially in the variable chorus, “but the heart does what it pleases, taunts and it teases, and one day just stops beating”, and a slight vulnerability sneaks into his tone as the song draws to an end.

A haunting violin descant floats behind an otherwise heavily rhythmic instrumental arrangement in ‘Trick of the Light’. Despite the more polished instrumental sounds, Baxendale has wisely left his vocals largely alone, and the depth of his lower register blends well with the musical backing. In the vein of many great songwriters including Springsteen and Dylan, Baxendale isn’t a strong technical singer, but his tone is pleasant and true to the emotional content of his songs.

Hazy, reverberant synths sneak into the instrumental repertoire in ‘Disappear Again’, conveying the sense of emotional limbo in the lyrics “you promised this was the last time / and then you disappear again for a while”. Likewise, a palette of weirdly experimental sounds channel a tangible sense of aimlessness in ‘Satellite.’ Baxendale’s singing voice isn’t as natural in these synthetic contexts as it is in his previous, more acoustic style, but his lyrics are nonetheless evocative: “white lies and lullabies / the words you use to sleep at night / echo round the corners of your mind”. Final track ‘Cruel Words’ is, on its surface, a smooth, bright love ballad, but its sharp-tongued lyrics reveal an ironic twist in the accusatory vocal lines “your lipstick smile spews bitter bile / and angers seems to seep through every pore”.

Standout track and album centerpiece ‘Worlds Apart’ is much more expansive and energetic, composed on the synthesis of the dark, edgy ’80s pop sounds mentioned above. A driving rhythm propels the vocal melody through the lines “if I seem a million miles away / it’s these dreams that hit me in the day / oh, even when I’m wide awake / I’m worlds apart” before an extended, but admirably restrained, instrumental bridge. “If I dance / a little out of time,” Baxendale lyrically elucidates, “at a glance / you’ll see it’s just that I’m / moving to the melody inside my head”.

Coming in at a brief seven tracks, ‘A Million Miles’ seems a bit truncated on the surface, but its individual songs represent a renewed sense of exploration for this fully independent artist. Baxendale is clearly pushing the limits of what he can do with only one set of hands in the confines of a home studio, and as a result, this does sound a bit more tentative and less polished than the last album. However, the wry sincerity of Baxendale’s singing is still very much a strength. He hasn’t lost his knack for a witty lyric, nor his innate sense of melody in the new cacophony of sound.

7.5/10

Tom Baxendale’s second solo album ‘A Million Miles’ is due for release on the 4th of September. TGTF’s coverage of Baxendale’s solo work can be found through here. You can read about his work with Sheffield art rock band The Payroll Union right back here.

 

Album Review: Jake Bugg – Hearts That Strain

 
By on Monday, 28th August 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Jake Bugg Hearts that Strain coverAs precocious folk rock singer Jake Bugg prepares to release his fourth studio album ‘Hearts That Strain’, it bears repeating that he is still only 23 years old. The quality and emotional depth of his songwriting have always been well beyond his years, but his musical flexibility and willingness to expand his sound are surely virtues of his youth. Departing from Bugg’s stark, often combative, earlier style, ‘Hearts that Strain’ is remarkably light and easy to listen to, with just enough punch to keep it from being bland.

Recorded in Nashville with veteran producers David Ferguson and Matt Sweeney, the album has an appealing overall warmth and a delightful emphasis on Bugg’s vocals, which are brilliant throughout. Bugg sets the tone beautifully on opening track and recent single ‘How Soon the Dawn’, with a delicate grace in his delivery that shouldn’t come as a surprise, after earlier songs like ‘Love, Hope and Misery’ from 2016 LP ‘On My One’ and ‘A Song About Love’ from 2013’s ‘Shangri-La’. Even Bugg’s self-titled debut album showed hints of this fundamental vocal ability, and his singing voice has definitively come into its own here.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/NGyL80MHtps[/youtube]

The pervasive Nashville influence is felt keenly on standout track ‘Southern Rain’. The slide guitar and shuffling rhythm establish the song’s distinct Americana feel, while a tinkling piano melody adds a hint of sunlight behind the deftly poetic chorus lyrics “southern rain is here to stay / and you know I’m thinking of a clouded judgment day”. Not to be left out of the mix, Bugg’s exquisite narrative songwriting ability shines in several places on ‘Hearts That Strain’. The album’s first hint of darkness is heard in the edgy guitar lines and ominous lyrics of ‘In the Event of My Demise’, where Bugg sings “ if you should hear my name / be a friend and please refrain / from saying we were friends / let them tell their lies / in the event of my demise”. That portentous plea precedes a clever harmonic sequence in the chorus, which highlights a sharp irony in the lines “oh no, look at them go / didn’t they love me so?”

Any remaining concern that Bugg has lost his folk-punk edge can be laid to rest with mid-album tracks ‘Hearts That Strain’ and ‘Burn Alone’. The album’s shadowy title track features gritty guitars and the pungent fire-and-brimstone imagery often found in southern Americana. Equally gritty but decidedly more blues-oriented, ‘Burn Alone’ is the fortuitious product of a collaboration with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys (who also contributed to the aforementioned ‘How Soon the Dawn’ and ‘In the Event of My Demise’).

Another collaborative track, ‘Waiting’, features guest vocals by Noah Cyrus, sister of Miley Cyrus and youngest daughter of ’90s country star Billy Ray Cyrus. While Noah’s credentials certainly aren’t lacking (her own debut album is said to be coming out later this year), her voice doesn’t mix particularly well with Bugg’s. His subtle delivery should have been perfect for this jazz-inflected duet, but it’s largely overwhelmed by the stridency in Cyrus’ tone, and he oversings in places as he tries to keep up with her sheer volume.

Following that minor glitch, ‘The Man on Stage’ is a classic and heart-rending ode to the ephemeral lifestyle of a folk troubadour, finely crafted to display both Bugg’s poetic talents and the sensitivity of his vocal delivery. The musical arrangement of piano and strings is wisely restrained, but still another very clear indication that Bugg has moved on from the do-it-yourself aesthetic of ‘On My One’. The album finishes with a broad flourish of fully expansive arrangements. Softly psychedelic in tone, ‘Indigo Blue’ harks back to 60s folk rock in its airy chorus, “from the top of this mountain / beyond the horizon / indigo blue / colouring the rest of our lives”. The gently rocking ‘Bigger Lover’ declares, quite aptly, “you got my heart on my sleeve”, ahead of the final strains of piano and slide guitar in ‘Every Colour in the World’.

One gets the feeling with ‘Hearts That Strain’ that Bugg’s own heart might have been straining a little bit, finally cracking the tough, recalcitrant exterior of his previous self-made image. The stubborn defiance of his earlier records is not entirely absent here, but it is certainly restrained, making space for his intensely spirited songwriting and vastly underrated vocal talents to take center stage.

9/10

Jake Bugg’s fourth studio album ‘Hearts That Strain’ is due for release this Friday, the 1st of September, on Virgin EMI. Bugg will embark on a tour of the UK in November; you can find the details here. TGTF’s complete past coverage of Jake Bugg, including a review of his recent Cambridge Folk Festival appearance, is back this way.

 

Album Review: Childhood – Universal High

 
By on Friday, 25th August 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Childhood Universal High album coverThe cool, sweet, soothing sounds of Childhood are back with us. From the ethereal sounding get-go of opener ‘AMD’, you know ‘Universal High’ is going to hold more than you’ve ever expected from Childhood. While it still has the cool, calm and collected sound of their debut ‘Lacuna’, there’s also a clear evolution to the sound that finds sturdier ground. That is, as if they’ve been doing this for decades rather than 7 years.

Take ‘California Light’, for instance. The second track on the album is all kinds of wonderful. One of their strongest songs to date and it’s already a fan favourite, just look at the Spotify numbers. Six digits for a band that in reality aren’t of that stature, yet. It’s got everything from the foot tapping, gently swaying introduction to the rousing chorus that puts you right in, well, the California light.

While follow-up track ‘Cameo’ doesn’t hit with the same punch, something that’s none too surprising given the weight that ‘California’ holds, it still has a groove that’s undeniably addictive. The crunching bass that moves everything along is joined perfectly by synthesisers and singer Ben Romans-Hopcraft’s voice that perfectly hits every high and low it needs to with such little effort, you wonder if he’s actually of this world.

‘Too Old for My Tears’ retains little of the factors that got us here, instead opting to go for a more rocky feel. A more confident and strutting drum line kicks things up a notch from the more relaxed grooves before, but of course they return to their mellow vibe from before‘Melody Says’ still lets you hold close that relaxed vibe, but this song has a much more experimental, indie-pop vibe. Up to this point in the album, ‘Universal High’ is a bit here, there and everywhere, not completely falling flat, though it’s quite hard to keep the momentum when one of the strongest tracks Childhood have ever written is only second on the album. Still, all good so far.

The titular track heads back to where we began on the album, which is sorely needed. Beautiful melodies, striking choruses and sweet musical sounds are where Childhood flourish. ‘Understanding’ mixes both the traditional and more experimental side of Childhood, which wanes slightly, forcing a happy feeling rather than letting it flow naturally. A similar idea comes along in ‘Don’t Have Me Back’, another faster tempo number, though it’s the use of horns here that save it. Being more upfront, barging through the ensemble rather than being a reserved companion, gives the track a little fire.

‘Nothing Ever Seems Right’ is yet another wandering song, picking up pace occasionally during the chorus where the vocals become an entity of their own, along with the chorus. Feeling like a different song entirely, the chorus is the saviour of the track – the hook in the chorus is where Childhood really know what they’re doing. Getting to that point can sometimes be a struggle, but once you’re there the payoff is more than worth it.

Finale ‘Monitor’, with its harshly picked bass and dream like vocals, is a summary of everything before it. It’s a little bit of the experimental side, with a big chunk of the soothing melodies and a whole lot of soul. The only trouble with both ‘Monitor’ and 4/5ths of ‘Universal High’ is that Childhood simply struggle to match the impact of ‘California Light’. Having a song as strong as that is a blessing for any band. The only downside is, you have to try and at least somewhat match it consistently throughout the length of a record. Still, one hell of a second album, though.

7/10

‘Universal High’, the sophomore album from Childhood, is out now on Marathon Artists. The band don’t have too many live appearances left this year; for a list, visit their official Web site.

 

Album Review: Picture This – Picture This

 
By on Thursday, 24th August 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Picture This album coverIrish rockers Ryan Hennessy and Jimmy Rainsford, known collectively as Picture This, showed up in Austin for SXSW 2017 earlier this year with an undeniable swagger about them. Their confidence bordered on cockiness when I interviewed them on-site early in the week. Their brash performance at the Thursday afternoon Full Irish Breakfast only solidified their aura of complete self-assurance.

Following a successful string of singles and an EP release, Hennessy and Rainsford had just completed the recording of their debut LP when I met with them in Austin. They chose to make the self-titled album at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios, with veteran producer Jacquire King (Foy Vance, James Bay) at the helm. Nashville was an inspired choice of venue for the Irish duo, and as it turns out, King’s deft production is a large part of what makes ‘Picture This’ a compelling listen.

Lyrically, the songs on ‘Picture This’ are a bit predictable and formulaic, but the warm, acoustic-based musical arrangements and the momentum of Rainsford’s driving rhythms save them from being overly trite. Hennessy’s lead vocals are stunning stunning throughout, even when his lyrics are slightly awkward, and his gentle Irish lilt is undeniably seductive, though perhaps exotic only to my own American ear. “Take my hand / and we can go walking / and we can talk about whatever is on your mind”, Hennessy invites in the album’s opening track ‘Take My Hand’. The song’s acoustic guitar backing grows into a sweeping chorus with the addition of Rainsford’s pounding drums, and the narrative love story plays out like the plot line of a saccharine film romance, with the protagonist declaring, “I’m no longer scared of your older brother / he said ‘we’re cool man, I know you love her’”.

The remainder of the 13-track album unfolds in largely similar fashion, with most of the songs expanding upon the tried-and-true themes of reckless love and youthful abandon. ‘You & I’ and ‘Let’s Be Young’ pack the same forceful punch on the record as they did in live performance at SXSW. Early single ‘Everything I Need’ further raises the bar with a heart-racing tempo and bright piano melody in the backing arrangement.

Hennessy tries his hand at an intimate ballad in ‘Jane’, where his graceful falsetto makes up for the rather weak chorus lyrics: “you make me feel / that love is real / so pick me up / I wanna lay you down”. His evocative vocal delivery is more effective later in the album on ‘Smell Like Him’, where he exquisitely captures the poignant sense of jealousy in the line “I don’t want you to be happy if you’re not happy with me.” Recent single ’95’ is another sweet ballad with a shuffling rhythm and a gentle piano melody behind charmingly innocent lyrics about being in love for the first time. That charming effect is unfortunately ruined in the chorus, where even Hennessy’s beautiful singing can’t save the lines “I ran down to the square / and I held back her hair / as she threw up everywhere”. Pop contemporary Ed Sheeran recently employed a similarly inelegant lyric in ‘Castle on the Hill’, ruining an otherwise lovely verse. Can we all just agree that there’s nothing romantic about vomit?

The aforementioned Ed Sheeran comparison will undoubtedly surface again for Picture This as their album begins to circulate. Its anthemic pop style is sure to appeal to young audiences looking for easily digestible, radio-friendly hits. Though mainstream pop gets a bad rap among jaded music snobs, new listeners could easily do worse. Jacquire King’s strong production aesthetic lends the album a nice sense of depth, in comparison to the recent trend of production-by-committee pop albums, and he clearly had no need to employ gratuitous studio trickery to make this music palatable. Hennessy and Rainsford are genuinely talented artists, and their emotional content is both universally relatable and undeniably authentic. Crisp, concise and brimming with confidence, ‘Picture This’ is primed to break its namesake band onto the scene in America and worldwide.

7.5/10

The self-titled debut LP ‘Picture This’ is due for release tomorrow, Friday, the 25th of August, on Republic / Universal Records . In support of the album, Picture This will play a headline tour of North America in September, followed by a list of live dates in the UK and Ireland; you can find the details on their official Facebook. TGTF’s full past coverage of Picture This can be found back here.

 

Album Review: Everything Everything – A Fever Dream

 
By on Tuesday, 15th August 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Everything Everything Fever Dream album coverEverything Everything find themselves in an envious position artistically. No matter their ever-changing sound, the Manchester-based group have a zealous and growing global fanbase who eagerly await their next move and sell out their live shows. This re-evaluation and reinvention on each go-around has led to some very interesting results, and their latest record is no exception. ‘A Fever Dream’, their fourth out this week, is surely a different animal from 2015’s ‘Get to Heaven’. The first clue came with lead single ‘Can’t Do’, when frontman and lyricist Jonathan Higgs’ asserted, “…we don’t care[,] we just want you to dance.” Following on from the confrontational and sometimes challenging listen ‘Get to Heaven’, this seems to suggest an about face and a direction towards more mainstream fare.

The idea that a one-dimensional Everything Everything album was possible didn’t seem likely to me. The early origins of ‘A Fever Dream’ were borne out of lead guitarist Alex Robertshaw’s desire to reconnect to the electronic music that soundtracked his teenage years, like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Higgs adds that it was “the electronic stuff mixed with American heavy bands of the early-mid ‘90s” that inspired his and Robertshaw’s songwriting. This tapping into adolescent feelings of excitement and spontaneity comes across in the LP. The production by James Ford is just right, too: there’s never a feeling of too much pomp or pretence interfering with or masking the band’s voice.

New electronic elements add plenty of interest to individual songs, while also never overwhelming the sonic landscapes. An anticipatory collection of synth effects, including a repetitive beat precise as a clock ticking, feel inspiring in opener ‘Night of the Long Knives’. An imposing wall of droning, compressed synths further ushers the track in, changing the mood quickly along with the repeated, regretful lyric of “shame about your neighbourhood”. A quickly spat out sarcastic, SOBBY jibe seems appropriate following the pro-Brexit vote last year. Any neighbour unlike yourself, of a different colour, religion or way of life, “the wrong kind of people”, is under suspicion. On ‘Ivory Tower’, Higgs’ anxious energy focuses on the rich and powerful, untouched by his fellow man’s struggles. His bandmates contribute a heavy frenzy of controlled chaos, as if in protest of those very people and their inaction complicit in the way things have become.

Everything Everything don’t like to stay in one place. They also like shocking you, but just enough so they’re sure to get and keep your attention. Album standout ‘Run the Numbers’ is likeable enough melodically and lyrically (“some fish swim when they don’t know the water from the air”), but it’s the punctuations of funky bass and noodley guitar notes that prove most engaging. Promising teasers ‘Can’t Do’ and ‘Desire’ (watch and listen below) are unforgettable, unabashed in their pop sensibility and full embrace of synthesisers. A nice balance of synths, percussion and vocal harmonies frame the gorgeously melodic ‘Good Shot Good Soldier’. What could be more weighty than the conflicting thoughts inside the head of those tasked to serve and protect, sometimes at cost to others?

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrLfU45Gi2w[/youtube]

Then there is the softer side to this band. ‘Big Game’ is mostly melancholic, a gentle beauty until about the 2 minute, 30 second mark, when a menacing bass line leads the charge during an oddly melodic instrumental bridge. ‘White Whale’ has a similar structure, its quieter front half arresting with Higgs’ words, “your love is like a white whale / my hand is on the third rail / I want you to be okay / I want us to be okay” and leading to a soaring, dreamy guitar trill. The song continues on in a grand cinematic fashion and is a fitting end to the album, reminiscent of ‘Get to Heaven’ closer ‘Warm Healer’. Higgs’ idea of a place where a realist concerned with the state of things and a head-in the-sand escapist can meet halfway in love is elusive and unlikely, a good analogy of where we find politics now. Given the frustration with society exhibited on ‘Get to Heaven’, the desolation of piano-driven ‘New Deep’ isn’t a surprise. And it’s beautiful.

‘A Fever Dream’ isn’t boldly confrontational as its predecessor, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be. A new album allows Everything Everything to flex their artistic muscles, while commenting on where they think things in this world have gone wrong. There’s a famous quote from Thomas Edison that goes, “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” Everything Everything aren’t afraid to try something different and think, and they make you think in the process.

8.5/10

‘A Fever Dream’, Everything Everything’s fourth studio album, will out this Friday, the 18th of August, on RCA Records. In-stores and festival appearances the group have announced for the rest of 2017 are listed here. To read through our Everything Everything archive here on TGTF, all the way back to 2009 (!), follow his link.

 

Album Review: Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface

 
By on Tuesday, 1st August 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Everything about this new offering from Manchester Orchestra screams desolation. From the artwork that features a foreboding looking tree, to the reverberant and lonely strum that signals the beginning of the musical content, ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ was created to enchant and devour you.

Before getting into what Manchester Orchestra have managed to concoct this time, let’s take a look at the track listing. Bar one track, they all begin with ‘The Gold’, which instantly signals the idea that each track could contain its own little tale forming a cinematic journey. It’s a specific idea that rings true. Opener ‘The Maze’, featuring the aforementioned echoing strum, breaks Manchester Orchestra down to what they do best: layered tracks featuring new depths of feeling. There’s no power to hook you in; instead, that’s saved for frontman Andy Hull’s delicate voice, which is quite apt, considering the first line of the entire album is “I notice you, when you’re noticing me”. The track carries on through, with the words being joined by a chorus of voices reiterating their sentiments while the instrumentation remains simple: that’s all it needs to be. This is an introduction to the journey Andy and co are going to take you on.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaeWss85_vg[/youtube]

As a flurry of whispering voices see ‘The Maze’ out, from the echo comes a familiar sound to anyone who’s head more than five rock songs in their life. The clicking of drumsticks welcomes a more uptempo and darkly cutting track in ‘The Gold’. The words “Couldn’t really love you anymore, you’ve become my ceiling” keep the emotional sentiments pushing through as the more driving drums push to the pre-chorus where everything falls away, leaving once again Hull’s voice to draw you in. Seemingly building to something even larger, follow-up ‘The Moth’ has an even more haunting fury to it. With each passing track, we appear to be nudging more toward the Manchester Orchestra we’re used too, the one that has a might only they can convey. There’s a slight White Lies-ness to the track: a synth backing, plus more basic instrumentation building towards a larger picture.

Odd-one-out track ‘Lead, SD’ gives us the location for this cinematic journey. Talking about the inspiration for the album, which stems from a photograph of a wintery South Dakota. Such a scene couldn’t feel more appropriate to its related composition. One of the more pleasing and melodically rewarding tracks, it anchors the album to a universe where we’re suppose to get lost, live lives that we wouldn’t otherwise. ‘Lead, SD’ holds more power and might to it, creating so far an album that simply goes from strength to strength.

‘The Alien’ reverts back to the more open and sparse angle of ‘The Maze’. Acoustic guitars and softly repetitive drums take centre stage, which is also the case for ‘The Sunshine’. Letting the stories tell themselves, with the instrumentation sometimes taking a back seat is no bad thing. Of course, not being able to stay away from the behemoth they are, ‘The Grocery’ steams back in. The track makes sure that while you’re lost in the stories elsewhere on the album, you’re reminded of who brought you here in the first place.

The lyrics leave no stone unturned. In the example of ‘The Wolf’, the instrumentation gives them clear context. You feel a palpable urgency when you’re supposed to while the scene plays out around you. ‘The Mistake’ shows this even more clearly. Beginning with an apparent desolate landscape, a bass line slowly goes about its business while synth sounds flirt around it, that is until the urgency kicks in like a heartbeat. When twinned with the opening line of ‘I don’t want to die alone’ – well, you get the picture – you aren’t supposed to fight what the songs are trying to convey. There’s no relation, only explanation.

The final two songs of the album, ‘The Parts’ and ‘The Silence’, both play differing roles. The former places you right back to the start of the record where you feel a strange hopelessness that you want to fight off, but it’s the building grandiosity of ‘The Silence’ that sees the complete journey come to a mildly fulfilling, albeit not a happy, end.

Enjoy this new album from Manchester Orchestra by listening closely. Turn it up loud and pay attention, for you won’t want to miss a single moment.

9/10

‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ by Manchester Orchestra is out now via Loma Vista Recordings. To catch up on more of our coverage here on TGTF on the American group, follow this link.

 
 
 

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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.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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