Here's To Taking It Easy
I guess there's two ways to approach a critical analysis of this record. Firstly on its own merit and as a piece of work independent of its predecessors and then secondly in direct comparison to said predecessors. Taking the first route, Here's To Taking It Easy is blissful. Matthew Houck's fragile vocals are complemented and bolstered by a full band and swelling, rich orchestration full of horns, meaty rhythm and soaring backing vocals. It comes off the back of 2009's For Willie, an album of Willie Nelson covers, and sees Houck's writing happier, fuller and and more linear.
Now for the second route. Houck's 2007 release Pride was an exceptional piece of work. It was uncompromising and difficult, it was haunting and utterly bewitching. As track after track sprawled out over nine minutes it hypnotized you with its looped vocals and stark atmospherics. Houck's same fragility threatened to break under this weight and the tension was what kept you hanging on. There is very little of that approach in this record and so I must admit to a certain degree of disappointment. I had figured the tempo and general upbeatness of For Willie was due to it being covers. But it looks like this is the way Houck is heading. Having said that, I love it as a country record, full of heartfelt tales of sorrow and love-lost. I think I'm over-thinking this way too much.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Dream Get Together
This record is, I guess, the equivalent of a group of young London musicians getting together to re-create the "swinging sound of Carnaby Street" or something else that only existed in the minds of scriptwriters. Citay are from San Francisco, and so this painfully
retro album has its feet not exactly planted (more levitating) on the corner where Haight meets Ashbury, in like,1967.
The album art should serve as a warning - chocolate box graphics of a hot air balloon flying over a sunny coastline. Big happy vocal harmonies from the commercial end of the SF Summer of Love overlayed with Allman Brothers twin lead guitar - throughout. Baffling - exactly the sort of music the Mothers Of Invention were lampooning even back in 1967. Technically, these boys might think they sound like Allman and Betts, but the guitar sound is a whack modern equivalent played rather too accurately (it sounds more like a single pointy-headstock guitar through a harmonizer, not a couple of good ol' boys cookin' up a storm).
Well perhaps it's just too difficult for a cynical Englishman sitting at home during the coldest winter we've had in 30 years to imagine a warm Californian breeze, but I'm not going for this big bunch o' corn. The contents of this CD (songs, vocals, guitar, production) have all been done better elsewhere. 40 years ago.
Grumpy PiltonRead more 1 star reviews
This is the fourth release for On Fillmore - rhythm section duo Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray - a partnership that has gained a great deal of respect in the 10 years since they came up with the idea (at a Meltdown festival in London). Kotche's pedigree is without question, having released compositions for Nonesuch and been part of Chicago's vibrant art-music scene, it also doesn't hurt that he's a member of Wilco. Darin Gray has a great feel for the upright bass - a really beautiful player whose sound compliments Kotche's tuned percussion so perfectly.
As the album started it put me in mind of ECM records where the emphasis is on the spaces between the music, but it soon becomes apparent that those spaces are not going to be left un-filled, as each composition is overlayed with a fairly bewildering array of field recordings, and bird noises (made by Dede Sampaio). I appreciate the intent of this as an element of ambience in the composition, but the overall effect is not a good one because the ambient elements have been pushed very high in the mix - so much that they become intrusive and distracting. Conceptually this sounds like it ought to be very very soothing music - Vibraphone, Upright Bass and tropical bird sounds. In reality it sounds like they recorded this delicate textured music in an aviary at feeding time, or in a studio next to a building site where (oops!) someone forgot to close the window.
This is a real shame because the music is beautiful - if Tom Waits ever abandons his lo-fi junkyard approach and returns to clean recordings, he should get himself on a train to Chicago and have a word with these boys - but that beautiful music is obscured. Surely a much better effect could be had by having a clean version of the tracks released with the listener having the option of opening his or her windows. If you live in the country you'll get bird noises and some fantastic natural reverb. If you live in town, you'll have a symphony of swooshing cars, chatter and rumble, plus you could control the balance between the instruments and the ambience. But it would seem that it's more deliberate than that - On Fillmore want you to hear it this way, with those elements so loud and proud in the mix - in which case I have to declare this one a spoiled idea. There are moments when it sounds exactly as it should - moments where you could lie in the bath listening to this without thinking "I wish someone would shoot those fucking parrots".Read more 2.5 star reviews
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
'All my friends are funeral singers', declares the title of the new album by Califone and maybe it's me, but I don't see this as something to shout about. The prospect of 60 minutes of morbid whining seems none-too enticing and a glance through a track list which includes 'A wish made while burning onions will come true' and 'Krill' doesn't leaves me any more enthusiastic.
This is the sixth album from the American-electro-folk-pop-combo; and it sounds a lot like they've been let loose at the ironmongers. There are fiddles, banjos and plenty of drawling twang to the vocals but listen carefully and you'll note the rousing clatter of metal objects being struck in the background. I tallied up steel drums, marimbas, jangly necklaces, xylophones... and surely a hint of more cowbell.
The album delivers on its title's promise with a surrealist unease filtering through each of the songs. 'Giving away the bride' and 'Evidence', throb with brooding melancholy and although there are some HooHa! moments, for the most part '...Funeral Singers' holds to a downbeat course.
Which isn't to say that the music is as deathly as I feared. Although not as involving as 2006's 'Roots and Crowns', this new album contains music of depth and subtlety. The sound is rich and increasingly layered with electronic distortions, effects, loops and mixing. This kind of intricate production however, is sometimes at odds with the homespun simplicity of much of the songwriting.
Generally diverting, occasionally moving, often unsettling; the album's lasting impression was like being stuck in a shack in some Appalachian backwater with four bearded, funereal-folk musicians and a laptop. And maybe it's me but...
This Portland, Oregon band should count themselves very lucky that I'm going through something of a slack period in my duties for this site. Had I handed this review in last week when I should have, the score you see before you would be devoid of a star or two. Up until last week I found this record an interesting but ultimately frustrating and all too familiarly quirky statement. But then it hit me, in the space of one listen the other day the magic that is locked deep inside this record made itself known to me. The increased appreciation for something that had appeared so irritating is one thing to marvel at, but how a record as seemingly sparse and simple as this can have such delights hidden within is remarkable, there's not many places it can hide. The eery melodies that are coaxed from Aaron Chapman's otherworldly vocals stand alone among the barren sonic landscape, backed by an elementary rhythm section and distant glimmers of percussion the whole sound seems to show its cards from the start, but it's a bluff so don't be fooled, this is great stuff.
Having self released their debut back in 2007 Aaron Chapman and John Bowers have done their fair share of rambling but finally settled on Portland as their home. Picking up a third member, James Mitchell, their sound has laid down roots into the deeply dysfunctional yet joyously elegant psych-pop that makes up Apple's Acre. One way to describe it is Animal Collective on half the budget or Grizzly Bear on half the anal retention. There's an ease to which these songs seem to have been created. They appear shambolic at first with their rickety percussion and decrepit Rhodes piano and Chapman's high pitched delivery, but then out of this mess comes some of the most delightful melodies, and with such scant back-up it's Chapman alone who crafts these.
As a whole, the record swells to incorporate ever growing elements. In the early stages we get the thrifty concoction of voice and piano as in opener Technicolor, the feeling being lonely and haunting. Then slowly the vocals are layered and this is when the finest, most thrilling results occur. Manatarms starts off empty with dispersed voices circling the drums but then each voice falls in behind Chapman's squeak and the whole thing rises like an orchestra. The same can be said for Lita towards the end of the record. This is clearly the standout track here and throughout its three and a half minutes my heart reaches new joys far higher than any delicately crafted Grizzly Bear arrangement. With a trembling piano and plodding rhythm the vocal harmonies take their time to soar but soar they certainly do. But this isn't anthemic soaring we're used to in pop music. This is soaring that could collapse at any point and I guess it's somewhere in this tension that the beguiling beauty is to be found.Read more 3.5 star reviews
John Vanderslice is not the kind of artist that you’ll find gracing the front cover of Q magazine. A media hooked on hyperbole and the shock of the new is probably not going to pin any hopes on a new album from a tried and tested over 40year old singer songwriter and I doubt his record company will reach the FTSE 100 on the back of him. Roman Names could possibly end up camouflaged amongst the masses of CDs in you local charity shop, before finding itself unsought in the 50p bargain bucket and eventually becoming asphalt in a the A127 between Bedford and Luton. If this were the fate that beholds Romananian Names it would be a little unfair, because the album stand up incredibly well to repeated listening.
Romanian Names could have been easy to dislike, it could have been classically ordinary ‘singer/songwriter by numbers’ material, the kind of catchy but empty nonsense that often appears on Radio 2 and is loved by those who own ‘Friends’ box sets and are slowly losing the will to live. All the classic ingredients are there, it’s mid-paced, melodic and it has light fluffy Jose Gonzalez-esque vocals. What really redeems Roman names from AOR graveyard is the subtle experimentation, the strange overdubbed vocals, the electronic landscape lurking quietly behind many tracks. All this happens without ever coming close to indulgence, in fact one of the highlights of the album is its lack of fat; the longest track weighs in at 3min 57 and after 12 song you’ve only invested just over 37 minutes. The album doesn’t suffer from over-reach, it doesn’t suffer the pretence that it’s going to be a classic album, and while there are some pretty ordinary tracks here, Vanderslice has the confidence to keep the songs short and so maximises their impact. The better tracks are also the most quirky, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Sunken Union Boat’ wouldn’t feel out of place on an Of Montreal album - although they do lack OM’s camp weirdness. Best song on the album is ‘D.I.A.L.O.’, which sound like reigned in and cleaned up ‘Soft Bulletin’ era ‘Flaming Lips’. Worst is ‘C and O Canal”, a song so sickly melodic it sound as if it was made with the intention of appearing in an Apple Nano advert - the irony being, if this album is to eventually sell shed loads, this track will probably be the reason.
I doubt Romanian Names is going to set the world alight, but nor does it fall into the trap of being the only thing worse than being bad - which is being ordinary. It has enough confidence and invention to be well worth a listen and if you do happen to find it in the at your local charity shop. I implore you to rescue it.
Read more 3 star reviews
Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free
‘Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free’ is Akron/Family’s follow up to 2007’s well received ‘Love Is Simple’ and their first self produced album and as a three-piece, after the departure of founding member Ryan Vanderhoof.
In the past, whilst having their obvious strengths, they have been somewhat of a demanding listen, requiring a little time and patience. Not so, with ‘Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free’, which is by far their most accessible and immediate collection of songs to date.
So what has changed? Well, they seem to have markedly extended their record collection but rather than being swamped by their influences, they have breathed new life and freshness into their sound. The most notable aspect is the Ali Farka Toure-like guitar parts on ‘They Will Appear’ and the beautiful ‘River’.
Meanwhile, the excellent ‘Creatures’ bizarrely sounds like it could have come off Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’. Whilst the trippy ‘Many Ghosts’ could sit seamlessly on Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac’. The title track falls back into more conventional Neil Young-style territory, but the trick they managed to pull off brilliantly, is that it all sits together seamlessly and coherently.
The only (very minor) gripe is that when they do rock out, on ‘Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon’ and ‘MBF’, rather than being rousing it simply jars the ear.
It’s turning into a good year already: another very, very good record.Read more 4 star reviews
2007's The Broken String was a triumphant record for Brooklyn's Bishop Allen, packed full of light melodies that refused to leave your conciseness and aided by some very insightful lyrics. The followup Grrr... is more of the same, but somehow fails to rekindle the amorous feeling I felt for their debut.
The Broken String was a collection of EP's released in quick succession over the course of a year which may explain it's sense of excitement and freshness and go some way to account for what is slightly lacking here. I feel tight for even raising these complaints as Grrr... is on the most part a very worthwhile listen, but too many of these songs adopt a rather sugary sweet approach to pop causing the feel-good factor that prevailed before to seem forced and unpalatable. Songs like Oklahoma and The Ancient Commonsense Of Things with their hand clap beats and brisk rhythm skip by without a care in the world but possess none of the edge of some of the previous songs and when we hear the line "imitate the action of the tiger," on Tiger, Tiger you can almost imagine an audience of children mimicking tiger moves as if Bishop Allen were chairing the school assembly that morning. Previous comparisons to song writers like Ben Folds or Eels all but vanish on this release. The very fact that I really can't think of anything else to write here is testament to the effect this record has had on me. It means no harm and probably does what it set out to do but that's really not enough these days.Read more 2.5 star reviews
Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band
As you may or may not summise from their name, Seattle quintet TMSHVB (for, errr, short) are a mischievous bunch. Naming rights were given to then 13 year-old Marshall Verdoes, as a reward for improving his drumming sufficiently to form a band with his brother/adoptive father (depending on which blurb you read) Benjamin. With obscure name in place, TMSHVB set about creating a buzz for themselves - issuing a number of Public Service Announcements before making a sound available to the wider public.
When those sounds were set free, first in the form of self-recorded and released EP Weepy and now in their debut self-titled full length LP, the mischief remained very much front and centre. Co-produced by Scott Colburn (with Arcade Fire and Animal Collective to his name) TMSHVB walk a tidy line between slick and slapdash, playful and professional. I would guess that Marshall is no longer 13 years of age, as he spares no snare, keeping hard time with the wayward structure of most of the 11 songs that make up the album he titled. Like a more mature Spinto Band (a category which technically every single band in the world falls into) TMSHVB’s tunes are driven by fun and good times - a refusal to be limited by anything as square as traditional structure.
“Who‘s asking?” opens things up nice - with a choral ‘Oooh Oooh‘ heralding in a tune evidently about a disagreement between Ben Verdoes and an old flame. All nice and jaunty then a pair of lead guitars appear from nowhere, perform a quick Brian May-esque dual, then disappear off into the night, allowing the tune to return on its original way and pace. “Masquerade” has those May guitars starting proceedings, building a tasty riff, which this time is broken down into a Waltz after a minute. That’s not to say this is Vampire Weekend type boundary busting novelty fayre, Mt St Helens are indie and no mistake. And they do it well. With obvious talent, they keep the energy high and the mood light, sample lyric from “On a hunt“ “I’m going to spear the mighty Giant Squid, I’ll Steal it’s ink, to write you letters of my adventures.” In amongst all this hyperactivity, slower tracks such as “A Year or Too” or 7 minute string-tinged closer “On the Collar” hold their own - rounding out the album nicely.
Forget the hype. Let the music speak on their behalf.Read more 3.5 star reviews
In 1975 Willie Nelson released To Lefty, From Willie, 10 songs in which Nelson pays tribute to Lefty Frizell, picking 10 of his favorite songs and reinterpreting them in his own unique way. Well now, with To Willie, Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent returns the favour, with 11 Willie Nelson songs that have been transformed like only Houck can.
Following on from 2007's breakthrough and utterly beguiling Pride, Houck follows a relatively straightforward path with these songs. Pride was unrelenting in both mood and length with many songs passing the six minute mark. It was definitely an album dedicated to mood and would expand from its claustrophobic cage of fear and paranoia to absolute bliss and euphoria. To Willie is much more upbeat and follows the regular song format. That being said it's simply dripping with delicate beauty and fragile devotion.
Houck's live renditions of many of Pride's greatest songs were much more fleshed out and rounded. To Willie seems to be the result of those live experiments. They emerge with a new confidence and don't sound like cover versions in the slightest. They sound lived in and weathered and their gentle harmonies and tales of love are all delivered with Houck's gruff, creaking voice. This record flows with a warmth that rarely showed its face on Pride's hollow and ghostly recordings. Songs like Reasons To Quit and I Gotta Get Drunk are full of a soulful groove that one would not associate with this songwriter. The overall tempo of this record is an instant surprise but Houck's hungover vocals lace it with a narcotic lethargy that unites it perfectly with his previous work. Can I Sleep In Your Arms breathes the vast chords of gathered harmonies that haunted Pride and Heartaches Of A Fool transforms Nelsons original into a cavernous and heart-wrenching moment of arresting beauty.
To Willie is quite a departure for Houck, but showcases an ability to adapt another artists material to his utterly unique vision. His work groans with an effortless power and that is what makes this recording both a loving and honest tribute to a much revered legend and a confident, gripping and beautiful piece of new work by a talent to keep a firm eye on.Read more 3 star reviews
Living On The Other Side
Imagine if you will, some Hollywood genius decides to remake that 1977 Burt Reynolds vehicle about a vehicle; Smokey and the Bandit, except this time, it's the Dude, not the Tache behind the wheel. That's right, stoned cinematic legend that is Jeffrey Lebowski on a (not too stretching) mission to transport a cargo of Sasparillas across a not that far distance along the United States' west coast. Replace the bloodhound for Donny (we'll leave Walter out of this chilled out trip) and see how our heroes fare.
Who would you use for the soundtrack? Not so long ago, you might have gone for the relatively succesful UK bands, The Thrills or The Bees, Dublin and Isle of White residents who wished they were elsewhere (late 60's/early 70's California to be precise), but such a movie surely deserves something a bit more authentic. So, to said Hollywood genius, why not use 'Living on the Other Side' by Southern California residents, The Donkeys. Made up of four best friends, (two of which are genuine California surfers no less), The Donkey's debut album oozes laid-back chilledness. Slide guitars, brushed drums, simple solos, lazy vibes, barely awake vocals, It's a road trip; Destination: vague. Arrival time: more so. I could tell you about specific songs, but, well....
For those lazy Sundays, when you can't find that album of Whale sounds, stick it on, it will be worth it, even if you can't remember what you just listened to once it's finished.Read more 3 star reviews
Hymns For A Dark Horse
In their original incarnation, Bowerbirds were a duo consisting of guitarist and principal songwriter Phil Moore and accomplished painter Beth Tacular (great name) assuming accordion and percussion duties. Before the recording of their debut album, Hymns For A Dark Horse, they were joined by Mark Paulson who has added vital instrumental layering to their compositions, bringing piano, violin and added percussion to the band. This album was originally released in 2007 on Burly Time Records but is given a rerun this August with added tracks by the Jagjaguar affiliate Dead Oceans. Currently on tour with Bon Iver, Bowerbirds continue the gentle wave of grass-roots American folk that is warming hearts across the globe.
An unassuming Hooves nudges this record into the light as it emerges quiet and lonely. The accordion provides glimmers of warmth until the multiple vocals arrive for the chorus. All these elements are exploited to greater effect on the following track. In Our Talons assumes a brisker pace with homemade drums click-clacking in the distant background and the rising voices lifting the song to its climax of "No, you're not alone." Dark Horse's violins soar with gentle melancholic sunshine like kind words spoken to a broken heart.
It's the group harmonies that provide the essential ingredient on this album. Moore's solo vocals have an easy croon to them but it's when he is joined by what sounds like more than 2 more voices that each song is lifted from simple singer/songwriter outpourings to majestic pieces of heartfelt beauty. Musically each song relies on two main factors, the whispering accordion that faithfully accompanies each vocal journey, and secondly it's the DIY drum beats that follow behind. As if being played with sticks on the kitchen table, this makeshift beat provides the record with its earthy rawness and as they seem to come from way back in the distance they provide a hollow element to the sound. The inevitable reaction that takes place when this emptiness is filled by the gathering vocal harmonies is the ultimate success of the record.
The comparisons to the aforementioned Bon Iver come not simply through the record company they are both associated with, but from an obvious ethos that surrounds the music they create and the life they live outside of this music. Moore and Tacular live in an Airstream trailer on a quiet plot of land on the outskirts of Raleigh in North Carolina and it's this sort of organic, rural and simple way of life that permeates every second of this record. It informs its unpretentious wishes and helps deliver on its honest expression. There are differences of course: Bon Iver aims to conjure a greater sense of loneliness and does it with dazzling effect. Hymns isn't so dazzling and Moore's voice lacks the captivation of Justin Vernon's and when left alone for too long can slip into a mediocre folk sound. Album closer Matchstick Maker illustrates this tendency to tread water. With no obvious centre to the song it can drift along in an unfocused haze as if guided by Adem. But thankfully for us this seldom happens and the result is a work of real beauty. Jagjaguar and it's affiliated labels are providing the backbone to this years top releases and while Bowerbirds may not leap from the pile like some of the others, it resides near the top of the heap as a band clearly in love with their craft.Read more 3 star reviews
If there is one thing I've learnt as a deck-hand on the good ship Chimpomatic it is not to jump to hasty conclusions. The case of the Explorers Club is a perfect illustration of this truism. On hearing the opening 'be my baby'-esque beats of 'Forever' my snap assessment was 'some-one should call Phil Spector and tell him that he's been robbed'. Which would have been rather premature. From that moment onwards it was clear that it had been wise to defer judgement. It transpired that if anyone needed to be informed that their genius had been pilfered then the only person who should be called is undoubtedly Brian Wilson. The Explorers Club main man Jason Brewer appears to be on a mission to write his version of the mythical 'lost' Beach Boys' album 'Smile' seemingly unaware that Wilson himself had already re-discovered and polished it down a few years back.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then if Wilson ever hears 'Freedom Wind' he will be blushing a profuse scarlet colour. Explorer's Club are less influenced by the Beach Boys than their unofficial re-incarnation. Soaring harmonies. Tick. Orchestral arrangements. Check. Lyrics of love and innocence lost. Present and correct. It would be a wonder if Brewer didn't write his songs on a baby grand piano in a sand pit. The Explorers Club are the ultimate in tribute acts, albeit one that puts out records rather than reminiscing on a revival tours. All of which beggars the question 'what's the point?'. If you were too young to camp it up Frieda and Agnetta or sing back 'yeah yeah yeah' to John, Paul, George and Ringo then a night with Bjorn Again or the Bootleg Beatles serves a purpose. But what's the point of listening to Explorer's Club when the authentic original thing is just as easily brought or downloaded? Does anybody buy supermarket own brand cola when the 'real thing' is selling at the same price? Does the coolest kid at school ask his Mum to buy trainers with 4 stripes when the 'brand with 3 stripes' is on offer? No. And I would recommend that if you are not unfamiliar with this kind of surfing summer sound then check out Pet Sounds and Wild Honey before you even think about listening to Explorer's Club (and even then go check out the Byrds or the Mamas and Papas before you do).
Sadly the thought surfing through my mind when listening to Explorer's Club was of a sit-com I previously thought was rather forgettable. Remember when Nicholas Lyndhurst could walk back in time to the East-End during World War Two? He'd cheekily tickle the ivories of the pub Joanna with Beatles numbers passed off as his own. How we laughed as the regulars marvelled at his ear for a tune and the fresh nature of his music. It seems that Explorer's Club space-time portal has mistakenly jumped forward in time rather than turning back the clocks. Nevertheless they are still trying to palm of music from 1967 as if we'd never heard it before. Except that we have. Consequently in the 21st century these songs about 'going steady' now just sound contrived and slightly ridiculous.Read more 1.5 star reviews
White Hinterland is essentailly the work of one woman - Massachusetts based Casey Dienel. After a well recieved first album - Wind-Up Canary - Dienel has filled out the line-up of her band and returned with second album Phylactery Factory on the Dead Oceans label.
Dienel is from a singer-songwriter mould that has seen something of a resergence recently. We've seen this eclectic, quirky delivery from the likes of Taken By Trees, Feist, Emily Haines even Joanna Newsom, but it's hardly a new development. You could easily trace it back though the likes of Bjork or Stina Nordenstam and on to Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and beyond.
As is often the case with this style, Dienel's vocals do a seductive job of delivering their lines. There's a lot whispy talk of favourite trees, falling petals and old stone church's - but by her own admission the songs are rarely biographical and that distance seems to add a sense of emptiness to things that makes it a little hard to engage with.
Calliope works well, dropping the quirkiness and instead boiling down the best elements of Dienel's style to a more pure and simple sound - making the most of her voice to create an arresting track. The more jazz-orienteted sounds of brush drums, piano and double bass add some variation accross the album's incresingly familiar style and Napoleon At Waterloo offers a further attempt at shaking things up a bit, but it's too little too late.
It's not that the record doesn't get going, just more like it barely gets out of second gear and without the breathtaking originality of Joanna Newsom or the hook-laden catchiness of Feist, White Hinterland's efforts may unfortunatly blend away into the background.Read more 2.5 star reviews
The Evening Descends
If you'd never heard the Evangelicals you might make the wrong assumption from their name that they were a reggae band - but after listening to their second album The Evening Descends, that is one musical style that never attempts to surface within the eleven tracks. The four piece are white boys from Oklahoma who produce a sound that could be roughly described as psychedelic pop - with some shouting thrown in for good measure. That shouldn't put you off however, because it is neither pompous or ever too intense.
With the endless amount of instruments used throughout the album the songs often seem to clash and batter against each other with little direction or emphasis. This left me initially a little dazed as there seemed too much or too little for me to be able to get my teeth into. Eventually the structure of the songs fell into place and I found myself enjoying a band's attempt to produce large scale music without the benefit of a large production. Attention is often drawn to a raking solo or a striking xylophone but it is the melodies that tie these songs together. The best example of this is Paperback Suicide, a sweet song which allows the instruments a little room to breath, leaving you with a memorable number. The pitch of the singing on a number of tracks could prevent them gaining mass appeal, but this added intensity is infectious.
The album does begin to lose it’s momentum towards the end, as with so many time changes and the limitations of the vocals it has the negative effect of wearing you down. But the future is certainly bright for the Evangelicals as they have the enthusiasm and inventiveness to lift them up with the many left-field bands that have incorporated a populist approach. If my descriptions are vague then to make reference to the Flaming lips would probably encourage more people to take a chance on this little gem.Read more 3.5 star reviews
There's a new favourite record label at Chimpomatic HQ, or should I say labels. Secretly Canadian have been putting out quality artists like Magnolia Electric Co / Jason Molina, Richard Swift, David Vandervelde and Scout Niblett since 1996 - and found major success in the last few years with Anthony & The Johnsons and The Earlies. Although based in Indiana, there are strong Canadian connections with the label - which plays host to several bands from the world's 'third best' musical country.
Sister label Jagjaguwar also started in 1996, before the two became closely affiliated in 1999. Home to the "Black Mountain Army" collective (Black Mountain, Pink Mountaintops, Lightning Dust etc), the label also boasts Alex Delivery, Daniel Johnston, Okkervil River, Oneida and Wolf Parade side-project Sunset Rubdown.
Although based in Austin, Dead Oceans is the new third member of the family, sharing staff and facilities with the other labels and signing the highly praised Dirty Projectors, as well as Phosphorescent, Citay and Bishop Allen.
This year has seen a barrage of quality releases from the group, so we've rounded up a bunch of them here. All this coincides nicely with last night's Black Mountain concert and sets the scene for their new album In The Future, due January 2008. Our review for that will be up after Christmas, but rest assured it's likely to be your favourite record of 2008.
Black Mountain - Live at Cargo
Phosphorescent - Pride
Citay - Little Kingdom
Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala
Bobb Trimble - Iron Curtain Innocence / Harvest Of Dreams
Bishop Allen - The Broken String
Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover
Richard Youngs - Autumn Response
There must be a moment in the sleep process and indeed the death process that is akin to the waking up, a moment where the two states cross over and if this moment were to freeze it would be near impossible to tell whether the body was regaining consciousness or receding. Phosphorescent's 2nd album is cleverly placed in this moment and though it is one of the loneliest and barren records I've heard since Bonny 'Prince' Billie's I See A Darkness it is clearly frozen in a state of waking up. This is not a conclusion I've arrived at easily. Any hint at the direction this record is taking is subtle to say the least, but that is where it's success lies.
Phosphorescent is the work of Matthew Houck and though this sound is comprised of many voices and musical accompaniments it is Houck who leads this choir. Like the afore mentioned Prince Billie, Houck's voice quivers and shakes like a fragile flame. His music is stark and minimal. The production is hollow and there is very little in the way of bass to provide you with any warmth. Periphery noise is often prominent with voices and shuffling creating a sense of emptiness behind Houck's intimate whispering. These are prayers set to music, some people would call that a hymn but these are more intimate and personal than that. 2005's Aw Come Aw Wry was a different affair from Pride, full of marching bands and evangelical fervor but here Houck takes the same sentiment but expresses it in a far more subtle and mystical way. The result is a more spiritual-sounding record.
The start of the album is very different from the end. A Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise and Be Dark Night conjure up the most desolate of landscapes. As cold, dark nights loom we huddle round these saddest of Christmas carols for a glimpse of warmth. Wolves is a divine piece of work. With the help of a gently plucked ukulele Houck starts off, "Mama there's wolves in the house, mama they wont let me out." In this song we see the albums aim to ward off this approaching death. "They make for my heart as their home."
By the time you get down to My Dove, My Lamb the approach has shifted. This song and the next - Cocaine Lights - are twice the length of their predecessors and serve as a total immersion in this prayer. They stubbornly take their time in a Dylanesque repetition of verse and chorus and they are simply dazzling. Were it not for the closer Pride which is over six minutes of wailing these two songs would end the album in uncompromising beauty.
This record creates this bleak image of cold and dark and yet at its heart there is so much warmth. It shows you the world outside but subtly gathers around you and holds you close. Houck's final line on Cocaine Lights ends this truly special album perfectly and sees this vulnerable, flickering flame show encouraging signs of burning bright. "I will recover my sense of grace, and rediscover my rightful place, yes and cover my face with the morning."
Buy this album now.
Like a beachside campfire jam on the Led Zeppelin caravan holiday, Citay conjure up nostalgic memories of long lost summers or mythical acid trips ... only problem is, Robert Plant got stuck in traffic so his vocals are being filled in with little more than hushed 'ums' and 'ahs'. Perhaps strangely however, that problem's just not a problem at all and the resulting record is a timeless work that glides and shuffles along beautifully, more or less defining the mission statement for new label Dead Oceans.
Taking their cues from the unplugged side of 70's rock, Citay are a sprawling ensemble that would sit as easily on the same bill as The Byrds or CSNY as they would with more contemporary instrumentalists like Explosions In The Sky or Mogwai. The long, expansive tracks rise and fall, swirling around your headphones and soaring off in different directions. Over-the-top is not an option.
It's impossible to pick stand-out tracks form this album, which works much better as a un-interuupted single piece. Just crack open a few beers, stick it on and relax.
The Broken String
In 2006 this Brooklyn quartet released an EP every month and became self-made legends in blogs the world over. The Broken String is the bands sophomore album and is comprised of nine reworked songs from the EP's and 2 new cuts. The urgent time restrictions imposed on the EP songs shine forth here in simple, direct songwriting - but benefit greatly from the rich face-lift that The Broken String gives them.
From the slow building majesty of opening track The Monitor to the bar-room sing-along of closer The News From Your Bed, this album is simply a joy to be in the company of. The songwriting is very much in the vein of contemporary American icon Ben Folds, with it's piano driven melodies but has the quirky dark side of Eels. The 12 songs span a refreshing array of musical moods. Click, Click, Click, Click is an up-beat lesson is in joyful pop while Flight 180's string section and soaring vocals hints at the latent power this band possesses. The glorious Like Castanets hints at a feel good factor last seen in Loney, Dear's Sologne - and Choose Again's sadness makes it clear that this band aren't just here to make us feel better.
Using simple programming, banjo, piano, guitars and the good old hand clap Bishop Allen prove that good song writing is really all you need to make an album of this quality. It's hard to think of a single negative thing to say about The Broken String and after such an ambitious year last year the mind boggles at what these guys can produce when they give themselves less Sufjan-like deadlines.