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SXSW 2014: secret Sofar Sounds Austin show – 13th March 2014

 
By on Tuesday, 25th March 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

On the Thursday night of SXSW 2014, Mary and I had the unique opportunity to attend a special show outside the confines of downtown Austin. After our separate early afternoon activities, we met up and drove to a farther corner of the city for a Sofar Sounds showcase held in a private home and hosted by the Sofar Sounds: Austin team, which included the evening’s emcees, Amy Langton and Joanna Jurgens, videographer Brian Ferguson and photographer Bryan Taylor.

The stated purpose of Sofar Sounds is to connect emerging artists with enthusiastic new fans via small and intimate performances. The gigs are recorded and shared later with a larger audience, but only a select number of Sofar subscribers are admitted at the live shows. Though the lineup of bands for the evening was secret, we were assured that we would hear some high quality musicianship, so we decided to take a chance and try it out. We weren’t disappointed with the bill we discovered when we arrived, which included two British bands previously covered by TGTF. We were encouraged by the event organizers to share our experiences on social media and we happily obliged, as you’ll see by the tweets we’ve shared below.

The first act of the evening played outdoors in the host family’s backyard, just as the sun was setting. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more perfect for indie rockers Cheers Elephant, who played a cozy set featuring mellow acoustic guitar melodies and sweetly blended vocal harmonies. Fans of West Coast rock bands like Dawes won’t want to miss this band, who are no doubt more energetic in a fully electric context.

After Cheers Elephant’s set, and the sunset as well, we were moved inside the house to hear the rest of the evening’s acts, who had been busy setting up in the hosts’ living room while we were outside. Next up was Lansing, Michigan’s alt-country troubadour Small Houses, known offstage as Jeremy Quentin, who now splits his time between Atlanta and Philadelphia. He was accompanied by an old friend from Austin who was able to step in at the last minute and learn the second guitar parts especially for this private gig. The true magic of SXSW lies in this type of improvisatory cooperation among musicians; we were fortunate to see several examples of musicians’ kinship during the week, and this was indeed a special one. The two men played brilliantly off of each other, trading guitar riffs and countermelodies as seamlessly as if they’d played together for years.

Following Small Houses was folk singer/songwriter Kelley McRae, who performed with her husband in yet another case of exceptional communion between musicians. McRae’s heavenly singing voice was clearly the main focus of the songs in their set, but the couple’s warmth and familiarity allowed them a level of comfort and flexibility not always seen on live stages. Their brand of Americana completely lacks the slick and superficial predictability of mainstream country music, its authenticity shining through the honest lyrics and solid musicianship. I was impressed enough to nab a copy of McRae’s CD ‘Brighter Than The Blues’ after the show was over.

There was a slight delay after McRae’s set, to allow time for British electro-pop group Dems to prepare for what would be a complete 180-degree turn in terms of musical style and mood. More dependent on electronic equipment than any other band on the docket, Dems had some technical difficulties earlier in the day, which left them borrowing an amplifier from Langton for their show. Undaunted, they played an enthusiastic if somewhat unrehearsed set, and if I hadn’t been required to remain seated due to the videography at the secret gig, I would have happily bounced along to their beats. In lieu of that, Mary let her fingers do the dancing on Twitter.

The last act of the Sofar Sounds showcase was The Crookes, whom I’ve now seen a few times, but never quite in this context. Frankly, I had trouble imagining a seated Crookes show, because I always associate this band with joyful, unfettered dancing. But I did manage to remain seated, and I was delighted to hear unusual takes on some old favorite tunes, including George Waite solo on ‘The I Love You Bridge’ and a cover of the Wreckless Eric song and their ‘Maybe in the Dark’ single’s b-side ‘Whole Wide World’. While I gather that these versions are stalwarts for The Crookes on the British side of the pond, they were new and enchanting to this American fan. I smiled through the acoustic version of ‘Afterglow’, even though it left me desperately longing for the full-on electric version; I’d have to wait until later in the week to hear that one again.

Collected donations from this Sofar Sounds Austin show were given to the SXSW Cares Fund, to help the victims of the drink driving incident at the Mohawk the night before.

 

SXSW 2014: the second half of Modern Outsider’s showcase at Parish Underground – 12th March 2014

 
By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 3:30 pm
 

Rather conveniently, my next port of call at SXSW 2014 after the Astralwerks showcase at the upstairs Parish main performance space was mere steps away. Having seen Austin art rockers the Black and White Years earlier that afternoon at Empire Control Room, I arrived just in time after their performance to catch the remaining three bands on their label Modern Outsider’s showcase directly downstairs at the aptly named Parish Underground.

The first band I caught was Austin trio Mirror Travel, who I’d been looking forward to seeing for some time. Fusing elements of the grungiest garage with vocal stylings usually associated with a genre as far from garage as possible, dream pop, their sound is best described as creatively eclectic. Physically, they’re a powerhouse to be reckoned with, with the drumming of Tiffanie Lanmon driving the songs forward as frontwoman/guitarist Lauren Green and bassist Paul Brinkley providing those dreamy vocals.

There’s also not too distant whiff of psychedelia to the overall sound. I mean, come now, think about it. Doesn’t ‘Mirror Travel’ sound like a band to drop acid to? Their October 2013 EP even has a song on it called ‘Stoner’. The UK in particular I’d think would be particularly open to their sonic whims, and surprise! They’re bucking the trend of this two-woman singer/songwriter tide that seems to be washing over us now by having a male bassist in their band. I loved watching them.

I’ll preface my review of the next band by saying I’m probably going to be nailed to a cross for what amounts to a highly unpopular opinion of them. Black Pistol Fire are a Canadian rock duo who have since decamped to Austin; I’m not sure if they made the move to Texas on their own, or they just decided to be closer to their label, as Modern Outsider is based in Austin. Upon listening to tracks of theirs online when preparing for SXSW, I heard growly reminders of both Kings of Leon and the Black Keys, the latter also a potent rock / garage duo. I’m not the only one who heard this comparison to Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney: three years ago, Popmatters even called them “the greatest Black Keys tribute band ever”. I was actually quite keen on seeing what they would be like live to see if this was actually true.

On Wednesday night, the hype surrounding Black Pistol Fire must have been enormous, as the venue quickly became rammed and stayed that way for the entirety of the band’s set. It was so badly rammed for them that Carrie was texting me furiously from outside on 6th Street, saying she was stuck in a nonmoving queue and she couldn’t get in. The good: singer and guitar Kevin McKeown and drummer Eric Owen (who was wearing nothing but a pair of track shorts from the start of their set, I might add) are quite the exciting act to watch live, as their performance is loud and animated. At one point, I must have missed how he got up there, but the next thing I knew, McKeown was dangling from the upstairs balcony railing, legs flailing as he wailed on his guitar. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

The bad: I have a real hard time taking seriously a band who has to pilfer songs from rock’s storied history for their live set. Maybe they have a good reason for doing this, like they didn’t have time to rehearse a full set of original songs for SXSW? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But as a Led Zeppelin fan, I don’t need to hear a cover of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ at SXSW, I can queue that up on my record player anytime I want. I had similar feelings when covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ and Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’ were played, albeit with extended riffage as I watched the crowd go completely mental, fists raised as if a revolution had just begun. Maybe their album ‘Hush or Howl’, getting an exclusive Spotify preview next week will change my mind, but for some reason, their set just left me cold.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of TGTF that the act I was most thrilled to see at this label showcase was the Crookes. We’ve been supporting their New Pop efforts since their single ‘Backstreet Lovers’ several years ago now, and it’s like I’ve grown up with them in a way. Arguably, the Crookes are the biggest UK success story from SXSW 2013, having signed to their first American record deal off the back of last year’s festival. Having always recorded and toured under their own terms, the fact that they got a record deal via SXSW without compromising their own principles is no small feat indeed.

When I found out weeks ago that Modern Outsider was giving them – an English band – the esteemed position of headlining their label’s showcase, it represented to me them coming quite a long way from their early beginning as a band thrown together in uni in Sheffield. Further validating was the crowd who had assembled to see them, many of whom were American like myself and who had been longtime supporters of the band. Similar to the feeling I got from watching Munich’s Claire earlier in the evening at the Parish main room, I’m sure the Crookes felt energised by the realisation that even thought they were far from home, hey, they really like us!

The set list was surprising to me. I expected ‘Outsiders’, with its ever melodic lyrics and the true voice of the album’s theme of ‘The Outsider’ as offered up by lyricist Daniel Hopewell, and ‘Marcy’, my guess for biggest hit from the new album, to both get airings. Nope. The evening’s set began like the one at Empire Control Room that afternoon with ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, probably the Crookes’ effort to emphasise straight out the gate to everyone listening that they had fully become a rock band and left the pop moniker behind. ‘Echolalia’, my favourite from their forthcoming third album ‘Soapbox’, was the bass epiphany I was waiting for, sounding fantastic.

However, they just couldn’t get away with not playing a couple of older numbers, such as the oft trotted out ‘Chorus of Fools’ with the ever melancholic words, “you and me were meant to be so damn blue”, and the rallying cry of ‘We don’t dance alone!” from ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, both of which turned the place into a frantic disco. The energy felt the same, just like the odd nine times I’d previously see them play, but at the same time, something about them has changed. They’re no longer New Pop. Gone are the days of watching them in t-shirts and jeans. Enter the smart buttoned down shirts and dress trousers: ladies and gentlemen, the Crookes are all grown up.

And yes, if you were wondering, I lost another bet to Carrie. I still owe the woman some four beers for betting her they’d play ‘Maybe in the Dark’ instead of ‘Afterglow’. Damn it! (I can hear her laughing as she reads this.)

Don’t Put Your Faith in Me
Before the Night Falls
Chorus of Fools
Echolalia
Bear’s Blood
Backstreet Lovers
Howl
Sofie
Where Did Our Love Go?
Play Dumb
Afterglow

However, for me, the best moment of the night was yet to come. I had been celebrating my 5 years in music writing that day and after we’d packed up and said our goodbyes to the band, we were ready to leave. As I zipped up the England jacket I’d bought in Covent Garden on my first trip to England in 2006, I heard a deep English voice calling my full name from within the venue. I knew it wasn’t one of the Crookes; I would have recognized their voices anywhere. I turned around. It was Steve Lamacq. We’ve known each other for years thanks to the internet, but it wasn’t until this night that we finally met in person. Lammo was the reason I’d heard about the Crookes the first place, having played their early records on his BBC radio shows, which I subsequently fell in love with. It’s like everything had come full circle for me that night.

 

SXSW 2014: 103.1 iHeart Austin afternoon showcase at Empire Control Room plus Broken Hands at Rooftop on Sixth – 12th March 2014

 
By on Thursday, 20th March 2014 at 3:00 pm
 

Something that sets SXSW apart from all other festivals is just how much afternoon programming is available if you’re raring to go and wanting to catch music even before the noon hour. Even better, most of it is free, as long as your RSVP ahead of time. For music journos like us, it gave us more opportunities to catch bands that we might not otherwise see because of evening conflicts. The iHeart Austin showcase at Empire Control Room, sponsored by local Austin radio station 103.1, was perfect timing on Wednesday afternoon, as Wednesday is the day when things really ramp up – and all day long too – at SXSW.

After getting the run-around from security who sent us to different entrances and couldn’t agree on where the Control Room was at Empire (I thought only Great Escape bouncers were rude like that! ::snort::) and after I was refused entrance into a VIP area with fake grass (how tacky), we finally made our way into the correct location to catch an afternoon of bands inside. Unfortunately for you, our faithful readers, the lighting inside wasn’t great and a rotating series of strange coloured slides were projected onto to the bands as they played, so a lot of my photos didn’t come out great.

We arrived just in time for Austin band SPEAK, who I’d previously written about years ago when they covered Daft Punk. Synth pop bands are a dime a dozen these days, American or not. Honestly, after a while, they all start to blur together. but if you’re into this genre, SPEAK are a pretty poppy and agreeable proposition. They were given a slot shortly after noon, which meant unfortunately they had a pretty paltry audience.

Carrie seemed to think she could get through the festival without earplugs, but somehow I managed to convince her this wasn’t smart. However, I questioned my own wisdom when I met the booker of the Pabst Theater in Minneapolis and had to confirm the name of the next act. I swore they were called ‘Bats on the Move’. (No-one steal that name. That’s mine for whenever I start my own band.) Turns out they were actually Max and the Moon, a trio from Los Angeles. They released an EP, ‘Crazy’, a couple weeks ago and the title track is a good example of their pop-infused synth brand of rock.

The Black and White Years are another Austin band and another synth pop band, but rhythmically they’re art rocky, with bass lines popping everywhere. After the first two bands who were good but not terribly exciting to me, I felt like I’d finally been defibrillated. Their eccentricities didn’t go unnoticed, least of all by Talking Heads alum Jerry Harrison, who produced their first album. Frontman/guitarist Scott Butler even has a David Byrne-esque voice, sometimes yelp-y, sometimes percussive. I particularly liked his hand gestures to the bright ‘Up’, even if Carrie thought it was too gimmicky.

Then the line-up moved back to SoCal – specifically Echo Park – for a motley group called NO made up of a New Zealander, a South African, a Canadian and three Americans. Their singer, Kiwi Bradley Carter has a baritone voice ala Tom Smith of Editors or Matt Berninger of The National, and with grinding synths and sinister guitar lines, the band has a melancholic yet epic post-punk sound not dissimilar to White Lies. They’re already signed to Arts and Crafts label in Canada, which seems to indicate indie greatness is just around the corner. Expect their debut album ‘El Prado’ to drop later (at least on this side of the pond) this spring.

Carrie ran off to grab Carter of NO for a quick post-gig interview (stay tuned for that) right before a band on the afternoon bill that we actually knew of. The Crookes, who were making their triumphant and what I had always thought an impossible SXSW return by appearing at the festival 2 years in a row, would be offering up new tunes from their forthcoming album out in April ‘Soapbox’ (reviewed by me here) mixed in with old favourites from their back catalogue. It seems a little strange to be using the words ‘back catalogue’, seeing that the band have only been putting out music since 2009, but ‘Soapbox’ will mark their third release with London indie Fierce Panda (no small feat) and their second with local Austin indie Modern Outsider, who also serves as The Black and White Years’ label home.

They could have been tentative, starting out with a song everyone already knew; instead, they began with ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, one of the two most growly tracks on the new LP. A surprise later in the set was ‘Howl’, a more introspective number near the end of ‘Soapbox’ that I didn’t think would work all that well live but maybe in the live setting, it’ll act as the song to which you’d catch your breath after dancing so hard, the wind is knocked out of you. Not surprisingly, they ended with the terribly catchy pop opener to 2012’s ‘Hold Fast’, ‘Afterglow’, and I lost a drink bet with Carrie over whether or not they’d play that song. (I was sure the smart money was on ‘Maybe in the Dark’ but sadly, Lady Luck was not on my side.)

After a cheeky pint of cider and a quick fish and chips for dinner at our fave B.D. Riley’s Irish pub, I was off again to the Rooftop on Sixth to catch another band who was playing the rooftop bar. I got a definite case of deja vu, as my SXSW 2013 ended at that exact spot. I showed up to see Kent band Broken Hands, who I gathered fit the genre of space rock rather well. I am pleased to report that they did not disappoint after my writing of this Bands to Watch last month.

Because it was so windy that day, aluminum foil had been hung over the ‘windows’ behind the band, I guess so that the wind wouldn’t blow the bands over. This seemed rather fitting to me as the child of a NASA scientist, as for me it had the effect that we were on a spaceship with them. A pretty damn good rocking spaceship, with wigged out synths. Just enough wind passed through those ‘windows’ such that under any other circumstances, you might have confused singer Dale Norton and his gorgeous long flowing hair undulating in the breeze like he was in a Pantene commercial. (It’s really not fair as a woman when you see a man who has hair more beautiful than yours. It’s just not on, fellas.) Up to that point, I hadn’t done any serious headbanging in Austin – I was in charge of hard rock while we were in Austin – and I nearly got whiplash as I enjoyed myself far too much getting sucked into Broken Hands’ devastatingly severe live set. Good stuff.

 

TGTF Guide to SXSW 2014: Rock UK artists showcasing at this year’s SXSW (A-M)

 
By on Tuesday, 25th February 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

Please note: all information we bring you about SXSW 2014 is to the best of our knowledge when it posts, and bands scheduled to appear may be subject to change. To learn when your favourite band is playing in Austin, we recommend you first consult the official SXSW schedule, then stop by the band’s Facebook and official Web site for details of any non-official SXSW appearances.

Oh, British rock. Its many facets will be on display at SXSW 2014, judging by the variety of acts been given a shout by the festival this year. In this first installment of the exclusive TGTF Guide to SXSW 2014, we take a closer look at bands that play rock, punk, metal and everything in between, starting alphabetically A through M. And away we go…

Band of Skulls
John writes of their latest single: “…we were treated to the anything but a ‘Sweet Sour’ follow-up to Band of Skulls’ aforementioned 2011 record, bonus single, ‘Be Mine’. It hardly starts in true, chug-a-lug-ing Band of Skulls format, with a lingering guitar solo from Russell Marsden building in to the twin harmonies of Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson, underscored by an old school piano melody. The song builds like the back drop to a love scene from a an old western, and I felt the first time that I was walking into an old saloon bar, as the two harmonised, ‘hit me with your love, be mine / all our future’s in the balance'”.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAzDWdHWAns[/youtube]

Bring Me the Horizon
John writes: “Their fourth album is undeniably the moment where BMTH came of age. It’s such a clichéd phrase, but it’s obvious Sykes and co. have a found a sound that truly epitomizes where they are as a band on this record. On ‘Antivist’, we have a trademark display of BMTH bile and vitriol, as Sykes does his best to use the F and C bombs as frequently as he can in one song. Meanwhile, ‘Shadow Moses’ is a beast of a different order, showcasing a BMTH embracing a spot of synth, while still remaining fierce in their breakdowns.”

Read more from John here.

Cage the Gods
Leather, check. Tats, check. Long hair like they just don’t care, check. Yes, this London-based band fits the stereotype of hard rockers out of Britain but here’s something you don’t hear every day: a band that has English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh members playing in perfect harmony. Or maybe the better description is rocking out in thunderous, bluesy accord. ‘Favourite Sin’? Check it out below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjr2dkyBwmw[/youtube]

Casual Sex
John writes: “Anybody looking for quintessential British indie boys will be pretty delighted by what this four-piece have to offer, as Casual Sex appear to be an indie offering cultivated from a mix of what’s doing the rounds at the moment, a la Franz Ferdinand, Royal Blood, The 1975 and Night Engine. There’s a broody, almost sullen vocalist in Smith, backed by Edward Wood providing the dreampop guitar elements, Peter Masson on bass and Chris McCrory tapping away on drums. Mixed in with some pre-1970s goodness for proper measure, they’re a taste of all things British in four-good looking blokes. Marketable and sure to be gobbled right up by the A&Rs at SXSW.”

Read more in his Bands to Watch piece here. Singer Sam Smith also answered our SXSW flavoured Quickfire Questions.

The Crookes
The Sheffield based band were recently bestowed a generous grant from the UK government for the purpose of making a go of breaking America, but there is much more this group has to be proud of. For one, they’re only the second band after Death Cab for Cutie have released three albums on their London indie label Fierce Panda, with ‘Soapbox’ due out in mid April. With a steadily harder edge since their humbler 2010 ‘Dreaming of Another Day’ beginnings, they’ll be ones to watch this year.

Read my glowing review of ‘Soapbox’ here. The band also answered our SXSW flavoured Quickfire Questions as a team here.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zmn9F9vKxzU[/youtube]

Drenge
Martin writes: “…opportunistic recommendations from politicians aside, what’s all the fuss about Drenge? With a slender lineup consisting of brothers Eoin and Rory Loveless and nobody else, the Sheffield pair conjure a mighty brick wall of distorted guitars and scarily thrashed drums.”

Read the rest of Martin’s Bands to Watch piece on Drenge here.

Et Tu Brucé
What would have happened if the Byrds got together with Stuart Murdoch? They’d probably be rocking out and sounding like Et Tu Brucé. The guitars and harmonies are effortless, and if they’re really touring with the Zombies as it says on their Web site, sorry, I think they’ll give those grandpas a run for their money. And clearly from the video below, they have a sense of humour. (Yes!)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhsHFGmMolI[/youtube]

Evans the Death
This band already has a Rolling Stone description (huh?): “This London band mixes post–Smiths jangle and early–grunge sludge, as Katherine Whitaker explores varying shades of bad romance. Her raw emotion blends with slashing, whirling guitars to inject paralysis with weird power.” When you see they’ve been signed to Slumberland Records here in America (‘Allo Darlin’ and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart‘s American home), it all seems to make sense…

Fat White Family
Ben writes: “Anarchic South London six piece Fat White Family might well be as well known for unveiling a “bitch is dead” banner at their Brixton bolthole in the immediate aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s (debatably) tragic passing, as for their debut album ‘Champagne Holocaust’. Gloriously menacing and wildly off-kilter, their unique brand of noise can be heard at British Music Embassy’s parting blow on the Saturday night of SXSW 2014.”


This London duo brings a little bit of everything: grooves, psych rock, lounge club sleaze. As such and with little out on the internet about them, they’re virtually impossible to describe. However, Ben Moorhouse and Leo Duncan have been quite active, and following on from two self releases in 2013, they’re releasing single ‘Turn Your Light On’ is part of a AA side to be released by fine North East folks and friends of ours Generator in March.

The Kooks
“Are the Kooks still going?” An actual question from a musician friend of mine who asked me who I was most keen on seeing at SXSW. Having nearly as long of a history as one of my standouts from SXSW 2012, Kaiser Chiefs, the Brighton indie rockers do have something to prove: that even though it’s been over 2 years the release of 2011’s ‘Junk of the Heart’, they’re still a viable export. Having at least two showcases at SXSW at high-profile venues (the Parish and Stubb’s), let’s see if they make the most of their opportunity.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pvHZ4ddR-4[/youtube]

Morning Parade
The Harlow boys have been around quite a while now and command big audiences back home, but they’ve yet to make a real splash stateside. Is it time for limelight beyond the UK? The dazzling indie splendour of ‘Alienation’, the title track of their 2013 Parlophone-released EP, seems tailor made for mainstream MTV in America.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcm5fJS8jZE[/youtube]

Stay tuned for more in the TGTF Guide to SXSW 2014, coming atcha soon!

 

(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Album Review: The Crookes – Soapbox

 
By on Thursday, 20th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

The Crookes Soapbox cover smLast May in Sheffield after the Crookes‘ 90 person-capacity show at the Shakespeare, I was trying to help a fellow fan who wasn’t sure if she should buy the band’s debut album ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ or the newer ‘Hold Fast’. As she held them in her hands, I tried to explain that I viewed them as “the winter album” and “the summer album”, respectively. When I considered how I was going to describe the group’s latest effort, I decided that the best season to associate with it would be autumn, which coincidentally is both when this third album was recorded (October 2013 in an isolated, abandoned church in the mountains of Northern Italy) and my favourite time of year of all. Autumn is when the winds begin to change and the leaves change colour to follow suit, only to fall as the trees go bare in anticipation of winter. If winter is cold, hard and unyielding, autumn is then the last hurrah, the last chance to grasp the warmth before the world falls into a lonely, desolate slumber.

The title ‘Soapbox’ is very appropriate because it represents the band’s raison d’être well. You can imagine them stood at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park with their jean turn-ups and New Pop attitude, trying to persuade the masses that their way – of making music the way they want to, DIY and without compromise – is best. Their label’s press release for the album supports this, with guitarist and lyricist Daniel Hopewell saying of the album, “The most obvious theme that runs through the entire album is the idea of The Outsider. As a band that seems to suit us…never invited inside, but never wanting to be. I can empathise more with the madman standing on his soapbox, slowly gaining an audience by speaking with passion and honesty”. Going on from Hopewell’s words, it stands to reason then that track ‘Outsiders’, serving as a pep talk in song form to remind all listeners of the Crookes that we’re all outsiders in some way and that doesn’t matter as long as we take life by the horns and live life to the fullest (finishing with the words “oh ‘cos even if we die, we’ll still be / oh, nothing but outsiders, baby, you and me”), should be the centrepiece of the album, with a stellar guitar solo as well. However, this one theme of not belonging isn’t the be all and end all take home message of the LP as a whole; there is much more to discover here.

‘Soapbox’ has its jauntier, in your face moments; first single ‘Play Dumb’ as I reviewed here revealed in early January exemplifies this. But it’d be a mistake to only focus on the poppier moments. From the harder ‘Bear’s Blood’ single of May 2013, it was clear the Crookes were making a concerted effort to move away from their indie pop beginnings. Moving away from what we used to think was standard Crookes fare might have been a huge risk, but the album’s impressive fullness of sound, achieved on limited budget as the band have done for all of their releases, is a testament to their talent, as are the beautiful melodies paired with evocative lyrics, both of which have become the band’s trademarks. For this album, the group worked again with long time collaborator and Leeds-based producer Matt Peel, and I’m wondering too how much credit we should give him for making lead singer George Waite’s voice sound better than it’s ever been.

But what else will hit you hard – either through your heart or as if socked in the stomach – on this album are the heartbreak and the dysfunctional nature of relationships on display here. It sneaks up on you, all the while as your ears can’t help but be taken in by the majestic guitar chords and lines working their magic, while the driving drums don’t seem to care. Or do they? Notable number ‘When You’re Fragile’ has huge, epic chords in the chorus, as well as interesting minor, then major guitar note progressions, the former as memorable as those in the choruses of ‘Maybe in the Dark’. What is most striking about the song is the vulnerability of a man’s emotions in the lyrics, visible for all the world to see, as he admits to his lover that it’s their shared sorrow and how they bond while they try and negotiate the more difficult parts of life together that he treasures most about their relationship. “Once again, we come undone / fools like us, we don’t belong / if it don’t hurt, it ain’t worthwhile / I love you most when you’re fragile”, emotes frontman Waite in the chorus. In the bridge, it’s admitted through the deepest honesty, “but I keep what I think about truly inside my head / ‘cos if I spoke my mind, I’d have an empty bed / I lie through my teeth to get what I need”, while the song finishes with an unexpected reversal of roles, “you play the boy, I’ll play the girl / we’ll go and take on half the world”. In a somewhat heavier rock leather jacket, ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’ is brutally sincere: its anti-hero insists that he’s fine as a friend but as anything more, he’s a repeat offender of perpetual disappointment. The chord changes in the bridge and the intense stompathon at the end will restore your faith in the band though, no pun intended.

On album standout ‘Echolalia’, the overall cool coming off from the vibrations of the finger snaps and the mesmerising bass notes seem to be odds with the song’s shining moment of clarity: “I feel half sane, ’til someone goes and whispers your name”. The spare, twangy guitar notes sound pretty mournful, until the song is saved by its ever deceptively cheerful chorus and well placed, crashing guitar chords. (Hearing the whole album, you wonder if maybe the band listening to all that Springsteen in the van on the way to Italy had an effect?) ‘Echolalia’ seems to be one of many clues that the ghost of ‘Maybe in the Dark’ fame appears to be alive and well in Hopewell’s imagination.

‘She’ contributes further to both the softer, contemplative, gently gliding along ‘Howl’ nearer to the end of the album (“please leave me with my imagination, I’m talking to the mirror / staring at my own reflection / it breaks just like a fever…I heard the howl, I love you but you keep me down”), a study in abject loneliness despite being surrounded by a crowd, and the mostly acoustic instrumentally but wholly (hmm…) whispered ‘Holy Innocents’ rounding out side A of the album. ‘Holy Innocents’ is ‘The I Love You Bridge’ of ‘Soapbox’, except that instead of being a narrative, it seems like an intensely personal torch song, which would explain why the Crookes chose to release it to the public last week on Valentine’s Day. Along with guitarist Tom Dakin’s forlorn piano chords, Waite’s audible sighs provide further nonspoken emotion and his closing resignation feels quite painful: “I’ve got an awful problem, you see / you’ve ruined everyone else for me / do you remember when we were holy innocents?” In my review of ‘Play Dumb’, I mused if being in a band and the trappings of fame had affected them. Does this track also represent longing for the way things once were, for simpler times? Some food for thought.

Two songs linked by a theme of evening-timed affairs are ‘Before the Night Falls’ and ‘Marcy’, both winningly upbeat. The former sounds just like the kind of song that will have punters’ fists in the air, heads bopping to the rhythm, with Waite’s rapid-fire vocal delivery and its admirable guitar solo likely to cause mayhem at festivals this year. It’s a very carpe diem kind of song, with a driving rhythm akin to a runaway locomotive, while the lyrics speak to living in the moment and doing what you want, “just for tonight, we’ll be what we wanna be” and “let’s live out scenes on movie screens, from our cheap seats to the dance floor / we’ll hotbox old cars, drive ’em as far as we can before the night falls to its knees”. It also features the soon to be iconic lines “let me go / I’d rather drown than just float”. Seriously, expect the phrase to appear on a t-shirt worn by a hipster near you.

‘Marcy’, on the other hand, seems on the surface a more conventional love song, which strikes me rather unusual for the Crookes. That can’t be it, then; there must be something more that my hopeless romantic ears are missing about the pretty girl with her life all figured out, her “million best friends”, her good looks being compared to the ’60s American Midwest film beauty Jean Seberg (“she acts just like the girl from Breathless / her hair cut short just like a boy”), and her acting as the protagonist’s muse while he maintains crippling self-doubt in the bridge (“yeah, you’ve always been my inspiration, so please be good to me / I’ve nothing but a charm that quickly wears thin, and I’m worn out on my knees”). The protagonist’s longing for her is causing him to go crazy, with Waite wailing repeatedly in the unforgettable chorus, “Marcy, my dear, you’ve got me strung out now”, a line I expect to be shouted at his general direction all summer. And that is how it should be. It’s the corker of the album.

It would have been enough for most music fans that this album sounds great. And it does. How the Crookes managed it on such a tight budget and so quickly in the middle of nowhere will remain one of life’s mysteries. But taken together with the emotional lyric content that transcends average ‘pop music’, you’ve got yourself a winner of an album on multiple levels. After a couple listens of ‘Soapbox’, you will begin to wonder why other bands even bother.

9/10

‘Soapbox’, the Crookes’ third album, is out on the 14th of April on Fierce Panda Records and is available for preorder from iTunes now; the trailer for the album is below and features snippets of ‘Outsiders’, ‘Marcy’ and ‘Howl’. The band begin a UK tour the day after, the 15th of April, in Nottingham, and they will also play a homecoming show at Sheffield Leadmill on the 31st of May following an extensive European tour. Before all of this though, they will be showcasing in Austin next month at this year’s SXSW 2014. Yesterday, they answered the TGTF Quickfire Questions for us ahead of the event.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVsY4QLyG4M[/youtube]

 

(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Quickfire Questions #66: The Crookes

 
By on Wednesday, 19th February 2014 at 11:00 am
 

For the next couple of weeks leading up to SXSW 2014, we’ll be running a special version of the TGTF Quickfire Questions, served up SXSW style with an extra couple of questions to get inside bands’ heads so they’ll tell us what they really think of the event. This is the third one of the lot, and as you might expect since Sheffield’s Crookes are essentially a guy gang and do everything together, the four of them answered our questions as a team.

Watch their latest video for new track ‘Holy Innocents’, released to the wild last week on Valentine’s Day, on this previous Video of the Moment.

SXSW-related questions:
What are you most looking forward to doing while you’re in Austin?
Daniel Hopewell (guitar, lyrics): Breakfast at South Congress Cafe.
Russell Bates (drums): ‘American Girls’.

Are there any bands that you have as must-sees on your schedule? If yes, who are they and why?
Tom Dakin (guitar, backing vocals): Definitely Kurt Vile. Every time I listen to ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’, I love it a little bit more. I want to see how he manages to get that really distinctive feel across live. Also we’re all big fans of Girls, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to see Christopher Owens too. T

Name something you’re packing in your suitcase that we might find unusual. (You are welcome to elaborate.)
Tom: Ever heard of a Fab Eggo™? It’s a special musical instrument constructed from a shaky egg and a Danelectro Fab Echo… [We have not and thought he was speaking of a stylised American waffle first – I’ve tried Googling for a photo of this but I’ve come up empty. I will have to ask Tom if I can photograph his in Austin. – Ed.]

If we happen to run into you in a bar, we’d like to buy you a drink. What is your tipple of choice?
Daniel: Bourbon. Clear alcohols are for rich women on diets.

(For bands who have done SXSW before) What advice would you give other bands who have never played at SXSW before?
Daniel: Be quick. You have no time to set up your equipment / sound check. Make sure you construct a pedal board of any sort rather than faff around for ages plugging in.

And it’s on to our usual TGTF Quickfire Questions:

What song is your earliest musical memory?
George Waite (lead vocals / bass): The Fireman Sam theme tune.
Daniel: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrTlJTAE_O4[/youtube]

What was your favourite song as a child?
Tom: Fleetwood Mac – ‘The Chain’, but only that tiny bit that they use on the Formula One coverage, not the whole song.

What song makes you laugh?
George: ‘The Queen is Dead’ by The Smiths – “…that’s nothing, you should hear me play piano”.
Tom: ‘I’m Alright’ by Loudon Wainwright III – it’s the happy blues!

What song makes you cry?
George: ‘Carnabetian Charms’ by The Crookes. It’s that bad. [Hmm. I knew there was a reason why I usually skip that track… – Ed.]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_rnWzV5g0I[/youtube]

What song reminds you of the first time you fell in love? (It’s up to you if you want this to be sweet, naughty, etc.)
George: ‘Wasted and Ready’ by Ben Kweller – “sex reminds her of eating spaghetti”.

What song makes you think of being upset / angry? (Example: maybe you heard it when you were angry with someone and it’s still with you, and/or something that calms you down when you’re upset, etc.)
Daniel: This isn’t probably what you’re after, but I have to listen to ‘My Way’ and drink a coffee before I can think about getting changed each morning.

Which song (any song written in the last century / 100 years or so) do you wish you’d written yourself?
George: ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ by Bruno Mars.
Daniel: ‘Love On Top’ by Beyonce.

Who is your favourite writer? (This can be a songwriter or ANY kind of writer.)
George: Charles Bukowski.
Daniel: Marquez.

If you hadn’t become a singer/musician/songwriter/etc., what job do you think you’d be doing right now?
George: Male prostitute.
Daniel: I’d be dead.

If God said you were allowed to bring only one album with you to Heaven, which would it be and why? (Sorry, but double albums do not count.)
George: ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’, Bright Eyes.
Daniel: I’d probably say the same as George, which is really fuckin’ boring. I’d say I’d bring another and we could swap, but it’s unlikely we’ll both make it to heaven.

Thanks guys for humouring us and answering these questions.

 
 
 

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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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