Reviews
RECORD REVIEW: ATLAS SOUND - PARALLAX
Reviews
Sunday, 11 December 2011 00:00

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4AD

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You often come across people that choose to be stuck in music timewarps, adhering to a genre or a band like its been superglued to their conciousness and who complain that there's nothing around in music at present that rivals that particular 'classic' era or a particular genre or band that they themselves choose to remain glued to. It's always amazed me that one can actually choose to remain that musically static. The only possible reason I can think of is sheer laziness or lack of music nous, leading to debilitating inertia; an acute unwillingness and discomfort with committing to anything new - and sadly that often extends to life in general. Essentially then as a matter of course, they will miss or misunderstand the music of the enigmatic and confounding Bradford Cox, aka Atlas Sound, arguably one of the most important songwriters and musicians of the 21st century thus far.

Laziness nor inertia is not something though that can be attributed to the prolific Deerhunter frontman who just can't stop writing quality music, as evidenced by the release of last year's four volumes of demos, the Bedroom Databanks 1-4, all written during the 2010 calendar year. Now we have Parallax, his third solo album and without doubt his most cohesive. The continued development of Cox's vast songwriting abilityis clear for all to hear on Parallax, an album that continues to incorporate and imbibe a number of influences and approaches and at the same time manages to significantly distance itself from his previous solo releases or his band's significant output.

The important elements that make Cox the great artist that he is are distinctly important to the quality of his music. There is a real honesty to what he does coupled with a modesty that was rare to find decades ago. If fame of any sort comes knocking, you can guarantee that Cox will run the proverbial mile from it. It's clear he continues to write music for himself, the reason that Atlas Sound exists at all. While there were elements of accessibility on Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel and Logos, Parallax is without doubt the most accessible of the three in its total form, with its overwhelming nod to pop and rock. There is less reliance on ambient electronic and studio effects and more adherance to traditional instrumentation indicating that Cox is more comfortable and confident in his own abilities, something he has always struggled to come to terms with for different reasons. Vocally, he has never sounded better and there's even hints of a crooner tendency. That he alone lays himself bare and stands squarely front and centre, as intimated on the album's front cover, means that Parallax is not only his most accessible work but also, as a solo artist, undoubtedly his best.

Cox gets the ball rolling with the one-two pop/rock punch of 'The Shakes' and 'Amplifiers', two tautly catchy tracks that run under three minutes, indications that Cox is not here to mess around. That he gets straight to the point while remaining intensely organic in structure and essence, sets the scene perfectly for the looped guitar driven 'Te Amo', one of the album's standouts. Here Cox's mastery of dreamy pop comes to the fore where the detached lyrics match the slumberous nature of the music. The brief title track starts off with an innocuous keyboard hook that subtlely draws you in as Cox draws the conclusion that the gap between a helper and his helpee in the end 'is probably equal'. The languid nature of the aptly titled 'Modern Aquatic Lovesongs' has been a style that Cox has drawn on many times over the journey. The reason the slow burner works so well here is the employment of the lounge type beat. The undeniably most accessible track is 'Mona Lisa', the most pop laden and straightforward on the record. Cox veers close to Deerhunter territory in its middle section but then his solo sensibilities return and the track returns to its beginning.

The use of harmonica draws the sounds of Americana into 'Praying Man', seemingly a critique on an unthinking adherance to deity and forgiveness - the music of the 'god-fearing nation' and the lyrical brevity of the subject matter go together perfectly but is never overstated. That's one of the impressive things about Bradford Cox, nothing he does ever looms larger than it should, an example of the aforementioned modesty. He always has something to say but he isn't going to preach to you. He has high expectations of and values and respects the intelligence of his audience far too much for that. 'Doldrums' is an understated piece of genius, with its looped electronics and underscored piano complementing delicately expelled spectral like vocals creating a parallel universe type of sound. 'My Angel Is Broken' rests on a familiar pop driven guitar riff and is probably the best example of Cox's willingess to put his vocals to the fore. 'Terra Incognita' is filled with some of the most direct and heartfelt lyrical content to appear on an Atlas Sound record. As indicative of Cox's difficulty with traditional commital type relationships, the line 'I know a place called love, no-one bothered me there, no, I was all alone' is telling. However, there's also a yearning contained elsewhere, 'I want to begin'. 'Flagstaff' serves as a timely reminder of the looped electronic roots associated mostly with the first Atlas Sound album while closing track 'Lightworks' sits perfectly juxtaposed against that, perhaps pointing the way to a less introspective future.

Parallax is further evidence of Cox's growing importance to music today. Musically and vocally he has never been as forthright as this in his solo skin. However, lyrically Cox is still as cryptic as ever, leaving the listener to deciphre meanings. Who would of thought Parallax had nods to science fiction, encouraged by the late Broadcast frontwoman Trish Keenan. You certainly wouldn't know from the song titles and would even struggle to determine same from the content of them. That's part of his sub-conscious approach to songwriting, an approach that develops organically and naturally. It means that he is unlikely to make a pre-meditated, calculated record anytime soon so that immediacy in a cerebral sense is likely to further develop; what it develops into is anyone's guess. What is certain however is that watching Cox's continual growth as a songwriter will be yet another of life's modern day musical pleasures to look forward to.

James Stocker - December 11, 2011.

 

The Shakes

Atlas Sound (USA)
From the album, 'Parallax', 4AD.

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RECORD REVIEW: AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR - GANGS
Reviews
Saturday, 10 December 2011 00:00

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Richter Collective / Sargent House

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Originally released in Ireland and Europe earlier this year, Gangs, the second release from the honest, hard working Northern Irish post rock band And So I Watch You From Afar recently received a much deserved North American gong through Sargent House taking the then quartet's music to a much wider audience. Following up their heavy sounding self titled debut with an equally muscular album, albeit with more melodic sensibility, the individual virtuosity from the band is well and truly on display here as Roy Friers and the now departed Tony Wright throw out inventive twin guitar attacks ably assisted by a tight as a drum rhythm section of Johnathon Adger (bass) and Chris Wee (drums). None of the eight tracks rest on their laurels at any time as the arrangements are just as meticulous as the technical aspects of their music. Gangs marks a departure of sorts sonically and personnel wise for the band and is the last album with founding guitarist Tony Wright who recently left just before their just completed marathon tour of Europe. The fact that the band completed that tour and were as impressive as ever with touring guitarist Niall Kennedy (ex Panama Kings), if their Berlin show was any indication, not missing a beat, suggests that despite Wright's decision And So I Watch You From Afar will continue to go from strength to strength.

There is a real organic feel to And So I Watch You From Afar, a band that has either written, recorded and toured virtually incessantly since their inception in 2006, a possible reason why Wright left. The band had spent, apart from the odd few days here and there in each other's pockets, practising, refining and mastering their approach and sound. Throughout it all, a DIY aethestic has ensued more out of necessity than choice. It has meant that the band has done it tough in many ways, often organising their own gigs and doing their own promotion. The lack of a team of middle men has meant that the band are much closer to their loyal fan base than most and actually enjoy interacting with them as evidenced by their social media activities. Check out their exhaustive facebook updates here. But it wasn't all smooth sailing during the gestation period for Gangs. The band had written 25 tracks which they intended to whittle down to 10 but after much conjecture decided to scrap the entire set. The ensuing few weeks saw this collection of tracks written at frenetic pace and rather than giving off the impression of things being rushed, the eight tracks are impressively focused and taut. Despite the difficulties, the strength of relationships in general comes through loud and clear on Gangs as the band constantly push the limits of their own abilities, pulling it off every time and for their fans leave nothing in the proverbial locker room - starting the writing process from scratch says so much about what they are willing to do to put out music they are comfortable with. 

Intentions are set immediately with military like stealth of 'BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION', a tune as big as its name looks and sounds as bass and drums chug away underneath alongside an off-kilter yet disciplined duel guitar riff. 'Gang (starting never stopping)' starts of at a frenetic pace and is probably the fastest thing the band have ever done. It contains a fat riff in its mid section that focuses the song and takes things back a notch. 'Search:Party:Animal' starts in gritty fashion with a spacey like leading riff underpinned by circular rhythms before a foreboding bassline precedes a explosive cacophony of sound. There's little doubt that metal features heavily as an influence in the bands DNA and unlike other post rock bands where the creation of atmosphere is the main drive, AIWYFA rely more on riffs and melody. That's not to say they don't create atmospherics in their music as '7 Billion People All Alive At Once' attests, an almost anthem like track with shout out vocals written in the bands early years. 'Think:Breathe:Destroy' rests on a twin guitar off riff before descending into an apoclayptic frenzy. Probably the most impressive track on the record is the two part 'Homes - Go Parlour KA-6 To...' and Homes - Samara To Belfast'. The first part of the track starts off with a slow melodic bent with an almost calypso pop like beat which is further evidence of the band's willingness to explore new horizons. The second half delves into prog-rock stylings at times and consists of a mixture of lush sonic soundscapes and angular riffs which combine beauty in its most quiet moments with a harsh edge in its loudest. The tracks outro is the best thing the band has done and even contains a slight nod to electronic music.

Sure, there's little doubt that ASIWYFA's sound is not new. Familiar elements that have been incorporated by Mogwai, Boris, Russian Circles, Explosions In The Sky, This Will Destroy You, the list goes on, can be found here. But what sets this band apart is its absolutely genuine approach to all aspects of its work, including the musically indirect, and its willingness to step out of traditional post rock forms. From composition, technical detail and constant personal contact with its fan base, there is an acute honesty in what they do that is demonstrable in every note, every beat on both Gangs and their other releases. Gangs for its part puts forward a more cohesive blueprint where every riff, every melody fits together as a whole. This is all the more impressive as the band has a tendency to try and weave in a number of different rock genres from progressive and math rock, obvious nods to metal as well as some post hardcore elements. ASIWYFA's trajectory from here is hard to predict given their current circumstances but there's little doubt in Gangs that they have more than whetted the appetite of old and new fans alike that will be hanging for what comes next from the hard working trio.

James Stocker - December 10, 2011.

 

Think:Breathe:Destroy

And So I Watch You From Afar (NIR)
From the album, 'Gangs', Richter Collective/Sargent House

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RECORD REVIEW: M+A: things.yes
Reviews
Friday, 25 November 2011 00:00

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Monotreme

M+A Official Site

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Italian duo M+A have shown their adeptness at combining a myriad of genres on their latest offering, the curiously titled, things.yes. Only just into their twenties, Alessandro Degli and
Michele Ducci, in employing a layered and multi-genre approach manage to create a sound that is at once frenetic and cluttered while also managing to be languid and spacious. Pop exists in spades, with nods to past decades and is set together with doses of ambient music, folk and jazz and completed with splashes of dance music, from electronica 90s house, modern IDM, minimal drum n' bass and even small doses of dubstep (or should that be quickstep). Stilted and obscure vocal samples and sound effects and a plethora of differently timed and sounding beats also abound. It might be argued that over the course of the album's ten tracks, messrs Degli and Ducci have packed too much into things:yes. However, and quite amazingly, it's what they have put in, not what they've left out that gives the album its fresh, natural open space feel. Indeed, while things:yes is an electronic record, M+A manage to get it to sound pastoral in essence, giving nods to the Italian countryside around their Northern Italian city of Forli.

Opening track 'Yellow' kicks off that pastoral sound with a dose of flute that dominates throughout as the fast paced beat and Ducci's layered vocals enter the fray. All three combine to set the tone for what is come. Second single, 'Yes.pop is just as its name suggests, a sugar coated dose of exquisite pop beauty. Finnicky percussion is complemented with breezy unintelligible vocals and starry eyed synths to create that aforementioned space that is central to the album. The single that preceded it, 'Liko Lene Lisa' was the first track heard from the album back in October, rest on a big beat interspersed with delicate piano before gorgeous trumpet take centre stage, harking back to the lounge era of the 70s. 'sommer' sports a house feel and has a sample of a dog barking that makes up the hook that sits atop of a layer of diamond synth. There's a definite dose of late 90s house vocal sampling that appears toward the back end to great effect. Its the attention to detail in combining these disparate elements that makes the track a definite standout. 'Bam' ends side one and starts off with layered vocal samples before Ducci enters the fray with one the few vocal efforts on the album that can be almost made out.

The obscurity of the vocals throughout things.yes is certainly deliberate as M+A seem determined that no one element will outstrip another on any track. Indeed, both have said that they are not in the game to preach anything to anyone and above all wish to leave it to the individual listener to make of their music what they will. 'There's no real language, it's unnecessary for what we're trying to do', Ducci says.

There's definitely a more dance feel to the second half of the album whereas pop largely dominates the first but both elements co-exist seamlessly side by side throughout. 'Blå' with its glitchy gamey vocal beginning gives way to a big dance beat that is joined by what is seemingly a doorbell jingle played with xylophone. '(we)' dazzles, sparkles and twinkles all the way through its dreamy four minutes. 'Bergen.jpg' invokes a choppy beat that is surrounded by unsettling, warped and off pitch vocals but typical of Degli and Ducci is offset by warm synth base and flourishes of sonic optimism. 'Adidias' is a club stomper and the most danceable track on the record twinning a four to the floor beat with 90s house style wrap around before moving down a jazzy path towards its climax. Final track, 'Ly' is a glitch laden gem that sports nods to minimal techno and ambient music and combines them with pitched pop.  

M+A have produced an album that uses many elements that others have invoked in the past. But put together, nothing has ever quite sounded like things.yes. Many have mastered the approach that M+A have taken but this album more than value adds to the trajectory of that. The secret is in the arrangements. Degli and Ducci, by packing so much into one record, even into individual songs, could of easily got it so wrong as many have done before them. The fact that they don't only not get it wrong but actually get it so right by construct organic and intelligent compositions where nothing jars up against anything else and each subtle and not so subtle change works every time is suggestive of the musical talent of both. On things.yes, M+A have taken seemingly disparate and incompatible musical elements and adeptly stitched them together to produce a seamless sonic tapestry full of vitality and energy creating an end result that is as intelligent as it is accessible. No mean feat, especially when you consider how young the creators of said intelligence and accessibility are. 

James Stocker - November 25, 2011.

 

sommer

M+A (ITA)
From the album, 'things.yes', Monotreme.

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RECORD REVIEW: TWIN SISTER - IN HEAVEN
Reviews
Friday, 11 November 2011 00:00

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Long Island quintet Twin Sister hit the ground running in 2008 with their impressive debut, the EP Vampires With Dreaming Kids. The four tracks on this plus the six from last year's follow up EP, Color Your Life showcased three things; Andrea Estella's chameleon like vocal abilities allowing her to adapt her voice from hushed whispers to high pitched tension, the bands' excellent song writing skills, and the diversity of sounds and atmosphere they can create from one track to the next. With the release last month of In Heaven, all this has come cohesively together to produce a superb debut LP.

The graceful compositions are evident from the opening sounds on the opening song 'Daniel', with wistful vibraphone joined by synth before we hear Estella's sugary sweet vocals enter the mix. The track saunters along dreamily, finishing off with some Atari sounding flourishes making way for the entirely different vibe of 'Stop'. Heavy on electric guitar twangs and an R&B feel, guitarist Eric Cardona joins on vocals, "I keep telling myself to stop, to feel if I like it". The song writing is highlighted on this track, which speaks of not rushing into a steamy relationship, belying the steamy feel of the song. 'Bad Street' (video below) has an 80s inspired electro funk underlying, recalling early Blondie at times with her spoken lines, the disco groove and quirky lyrics. "Bad house, bad street, big hands, big feet, got a car, beep beep, bad boy, bad streak" stamps it with their individual style however. That's the thing one notices with Twin Sister; individual tracks hop genres and hark to different times but never rip them off completely. They have their sound, and this is found across all ten tracks. 

'Kimmi In The Rice Field' is haunting "At first the sky was empty, Kimmi's being followed", yet beautiful, Estella's high pitch sits perfectly alongside the lo-tech synth throughout the track. 'Luna's Theme' is different again, slowing things down a notch highlighting lilting harmonies between voice and keyboard, the arpeggio see-sawing atmosphere on this track is gorgeous. 'Spain' comes from leftfield, you can almost see the circles popping up across the movie screen with Bond turning to shoot at camera, it has theme song written all over it, and at just over two minutes leaves you wanting more. 'Gene Ciampi' continues this idea, making this pairing of tracks a standout on the album. It's fun and flirty, Latino flavoured and recalls cactus and tumble weed.

'Saturday and Sunday' contains more quirky lyrics of a day at the beach and a girl in bikinis lamenting her life. It's a slice of pure summer pop. 'Eastern Green' closes In Heaven, the arrangement and interplay again highlighting what Twin Sister have to offer, and is perfectly placed at the end of the album.  

Twin Sister have shown a maturity beyond their years with this LP (the whole band are in their early twenties), and after only three years together have a catalogue to be proud of. The world is their oyster and if you get a chance to see any of their upcoming shows across Europe and North America over the next few months you will see for yourself a band on the rise.  

Dave Roberts - November 11, 2011

 

Daniel

Twin Sister (USA)
From the album, 'In Heaven', Domino

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Twin Sister Official Site

 

Kimmi In A Rice Field

Twin Sister (USA)
From the album, 'In Heaven', Domino

Official Video

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Bad Street

Twin Sister (USA)
From the album, 'In Heaven', Domino

Official Video

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RECORD REVIEW: REAL ESTATE - DAYS
Reviews
Saturday, 05 November 2011 00:00

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Domino

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Real Estate are supposedly dedicated to producing simple, uncomplicated music. From the languid reverb laden sound, the honest to suburban lyrics to the chilled out song titles, Days, the bands follow up to its impressive lo-fi selt titled debut, could of easily just turned into a nice record, easy to embrace, but also easy to let slide by.  However, the sparkling and inventive guitar work on both a technical and composition level from Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney and underpinned by solid, muscular bass from Alex Bleeker turn Days into something else entirely. Sure, the album is easy to embrace but the sonic freshness, clever, yet understated arrangements and intelligent use of melody combine to ensure that Days will stay the course.

Like their contemporaries, Beach Fossils, who have also polished off their rough edges and left behind the lo-fi stylings, this is more about what the band could produce with some cash behind them than some deliberate binning of their past. There was more than a hint of what was to come when they released the astoundingly ear worthy 'Out Of Tune' last year, a track that has more than stayed the course twelve months on. Every note is meticulously structured and the duelling guitars of Mondanile and Courtney are not just evidence of their growing virtuosity; they combine to create music gold. The deliberate rhythm of Bleeker and then drummer Etienne Duguay paces the song perfectly and allows the guitars to shimmer and shine. Unlike many tracks that are released well in advance of the album they belatedly appear on, 'Out of Tune' remains essential to the continuity of the album, sitting as it does as the centrepiece.

Each song is beautifully situated. Opener, 'Easy' is a blissful beginning and the opening lines are telling in regard to what Real Estate are about, chanelling the suburban simplicities of youth, 'Back when we had it so easy, I would surrender completely'. Mondanile's beautiful guitar line and hook is resplendent with the pinings of Courtney' lyrics while rhythmically, those pinings are given free reign to breathe. The gorgeously paced ode to autumn in the suburbs 'Green Aisles' is a standout with its stunning melodic beauty and clever use of keyboard to create slide guitar musings that double up for vocal harmonies which perfectly compliment Courtney's wistful delivery. Mondanile's break is a hypnotic reverb drenched pleasure. 'It's Real' changes up the pace nicely with the band tweaking it a little from when they first played it live last year. The frenetic second half, while its lost some of its lustre due to the absence of a held note that gave it extra spark, indicates Real Estate have more to their bag than the laconic rhythms. 'Kinder Blumen' is an instrumental track of two halves, a very simple melody dominates its beginning before spaced out guitars intervene to give atmosphere.

The second half of the album begins with the familiar sounding melody of 'Municipality'. Harmonies abound as Courtney laments his subject not being able to follow his heart; 'to be by your side in a new municipality, that's not anything like my reality'. But the title is telling, Courtney's protagonist isn't speaking about a move to the inner city, simply a suburban swap. Bleeker takes the vocals on the simple little ditty, 'Wonder Years' with its do-do-do harmonies taking us back to the jangly pop of the early 90s. 'Three Blocks' has wonderful syncopation sitting underneath a slowly delivered vocal structure and noodling guitar. 'Younger Than Yesterday', a track that shares the title of the fourth album by the original kings of jangly pop and undoubted influence, The Byrds, is another standout as it ebbs and flows but never meanders, resting on a simple low tuned guitar line and sporting an almost almost Fleetwood Mac like flourish towards its end. The seven minute long final track, 'All The Same' shows no signs of being that in its beginning stages. Drums patter away as guitars jangle and sparkle during its verse before Courtney's dreamy vocals combine with a simple bass note change from Bleeker to make it the most emotive track on the record. It perfectly sets the scene for an almost psychedelic outro that leaves a lasting impression.

There is little doubt that Real Estate wear their influences outwardly and do not in any way try to hide them. Courtney has ventured his wish to sound 'timeless' and from the aforementioned The Byrds along with c. mid 70s Fleetwood Mac, The Feelies (who they recently shared the stage with), R.E.M, the more conventional side of Yo La Tengo and Pavement, four decades of pop are all nostalgically given nods. But it would be a lazy reviewer who saw Real Estate exclusively through this lens. There was a more straightforward trajectory that distinguished the above artists, Pavement aside. What sets Real Estate apart is their willingness and ability to combine complexity and simplicity simultaneously. Those duelling guitar arrangements do not just simply arise out of thin air, nor does the idea to accompany them with smart, deliberate rhythms. Real Estate may pine for the simple and uncomplicated but what they've actually created here is quite complex. A complex and affecting sound accompanied by an impressive, ever-growing virtuosity, the kind of virtuosity that never overshadows the holistic context in which it exists.

James Stocker - November 4, 2011.

 

All The Same

Real Estate (USA)
From the album, 'Days', Domino.

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RECORD REVIEW: ST. VINCENT - STRANGE MERCY
Reviews
Tuesday, 25 October 2011 00:00

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4AD

St. Vincent Official Site

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Beautifully abrasive. These two words set together best describe the third album, Strange Mercy from the extraordinarily talented American singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Annie Clark, artistically known to all of us now as St. Vincent. Strange Mercy is a strange album, strange though only though in terms of its brazen,  originality. It's determination to take traditional pop and theatrical song structures and stretch them beyong their limits is palpable, as it twists and pulls at acceptibilities and confounds expectation at every turn. Largely gone are the pastoral sounds found on Marry Me and Actor, replaced by shredded guitar, caustic synths, electronic effects and restless beats. And the lyrical stylings suit well the intense musical direction. Clark has pertinent things to say and Strange Mercy conveys them well. That's not to say that the album is all 'in your face' angry and dark, as moments of optimism, humanity and Clark's angelic voice together make it a far more complex affair than that.

Clark deals with the difficult rather than just railing against it, trying to understand and treat the pain associated with love and loss. Strange Mercy seems a catharsis of sorts. Opener 'Chloe In The Afternoon' quickly announces its intentions as Clark starts with a nice yet strange synth note before guitar splurges on to the scene. The lyrical intention is not immediately clear but soon the lines 'no kisses, no real needs' melded with 'grab my shoal, back to work' could be seen as utilising the absence of feeling in financial transactions for sex as a more targeted broadside at the casual disaffection existing in real life.

'Cruel' is less cryptic and makes its colours known against the casual inhumanity that infiltrates the modern world, 'bodies, can't you see what every body wants from you'. This is not to say that cruelty in all its over and covert forms is a modern phenomenon, it's just that those who commit to that sort of behaviour are now very conscious of what they are doing and who is watching.

In a time where it's growing painfully obvious that a new world paradigm is needed, Clark on 'Cheerleader' is more obvious in her distain for the worst elements of her country and launches a self-criticism of sorts for past affability and acceptance of its shortcomings or more to the point the shoulder shrugging of others who know better, 'I've played dumb, when I knew better', 'I know honest thieves, I call family, I've seen America, with no clothes on', 'I don't want to be a cheerleader no more'. And although an intensely personal song, the critique is continued on the exquisite closing track, 'Year Of The Tiger' where Clark seemingly metaphorically cautions against the falsities of capitalism and sings repeatedly and wryly 'Oh America, can I owe you one'.

'Surgeon' is one of the most apparent illustrations of Clark skirting between beautiful and ugly both in a lyrical and musical sense. Almost stage like theatrics abound musically in its early stages before the song builds to its prog-like freak out as Clark strangles the living daylights out of her guitar . It's like she is actually being cut open. 'Northern Lights' continues the theme of gullibility that seems to traverse the album, 'I saw the morning Northern Lights, Convinced it was the end of times', squarely aimed at the grip that end of days evangelicalism has politically in the US.

While the title track takes things down a notch sonically with it's contemplative melody and awkward beat, Clark commiserates with the victims of underlying brutality emanating from a seemingly benign system, 'if I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up, no I don't know what... I'll be with you lost boys, sneaking out where the shivers won't find you'. Written well before current events, Clark's talent seemingly extends to uncannily being able to predict the future, or is it that she has just learnt from history? The carefully measured 'Neutered Fruit' laments the flighty nature of many relationships while the balladry of 'Champagne Year' doesn't exactly let us off the hook but accepts the difficulties of feeling helpless in the face of personal and social adversity; 'It's not a perfect plan, but it's the one we've got', 'Cause I make a living telling people what they want to hear, but I tell ya, its gonna be a champagne year'. 'Dillettante' doesn't immediately reveal itself but repetition will see its outro envelop you and take you to a special place. And that is the thing with Clark, her music challenges and extends but ultimately nurtures and rewards. 'Hysterical Strength' is indie pop at its edgy best resting on a simple metronomic base as Clark and producer John Congelton skillfully add the carefully constructed embellishments.

It took me some weeks to even go near Strange Mercy let alone listen to it. I knew it would be difficult, I knew it would take effort and I knew it would confront me. I would not expect anything else from Clark. But in the end I knew it would ultimately repay and reward, even if those words seem inappropriate given the record's subject matter. But that is what you would expect from a true artist who is true to herself. Art is meant to difficult, obscure and  inpenetrable. After working at it, probing it, understanding it and intellectually processing it, great art will slowly reveal itself in an intensely personal sense but then at the same time will again in turn probe, engineer self doubt and impose questions. Clark doesn't make her art for us, she makes it for herself and makes us come to her, albeit after procrastination and hestitation in a 'what is she going to do to me' kind of way. I tell you what she did to me. She made me think. A priceless gift. Strange Mercy is a stunning work of stark music originality, elementally rich in every sense and may indeed be the most impressive thing in independent music seen for some time and perhaps for some time to come.

 
James Stocker - October 24, 2011.

 

Year Of The Tiger

St. Vincent (USA)
From the album, 'Strange Mercy', 4AD.

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RECORD REVIEW: FEIST - METALS
Reviews
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 00:00

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Cherrytree

Leslie Feist’s incredible voice is known to millions but her name maybe to not so many. Her smash hit from 2007’s ‘The Remainder’, had an immediate impact and was snapped up by one of the world’s biggest brands to hawk its wares. The song, '1234' was massive, and in production was known simply as ‘Sally’s song’ after Aussie songstress Sally Seltman (of Seeker, Lover, Keeper) who penned the tune. The album was nominated for a Grammy and the pressure was on, what was to come next? Well, the answer was nothing for four years. Having publicly stated that she might not have made the best move by leasing her music for ads and playing big arenas, Feist has made a superb comeback on her own terms with this fourth LP, Metals.

Superbly produced, and noticeably different, this album showcases her extraordinary song writing abilities and versatile vocals. From the first instance one notices an atmosphere is prevalent on Metals that has been explored in some of her previous tracks, but never fleshed out in full as we have here. Many artists seem to find that extra edge in recording and production by ostracising themselves from the world at large, whether it’s in the desert of Arizona (Hawksley Workman) or an old abandoned church in upstate NY (Women), I guess there is a purity in the beauty of immersion. Feist did the prep work in Toronto, getting the compositions together with long time producers Chille Gonzales and ‘Mocky’, then headed south to the Californian coast. Here they set up a studio in the clear air and wide open spaces of Big Sur and recorded with minimal over-dubs, the clarity and crispness is evident. Also, the location is clear and present in a literal sense with the tracks on Metals, you can almost hear the camp fire crackling and see the sunset flaming over the ocean. The F shaped tree on the cover, with Ms Feist draped seductively across the branch is real as well.  

‘The Bad In Each Other’ is the opening track, and straight away the tone is set. A song about a couple who can’t find the good in each other, “We have the same feelings, just at opposite times”, is a long way from the quirky Feist found on Apple ads four years ago.  There are no jump-out hit singles to be found here, and it feels a conscious decision. There is rich instrumentation all over this LP however, strings, brass, loads of percussion and effective backing vocals, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes Feist herself multi-tracked into a gorgeous swirl of harmonies, used effectively on the second track, ‘Graveyard’. This begins slow and steady, building up progressively and featuring a killer hook. ‘How Come You Never Go There’ is one of the catchiest tunes on the album and rolls along like an old boiler, heavy and full of momentum, the female backing vocals even recalling a steam train wailing its whistle across the open spaces . ‘A Commotion’ has the aforementioned male backups, shouting together full of energy, you can almost visualise a campfire encircled with them beating drums as they chant the title of the track.

‘The Circle Married The Line’, with one of the most poetic titles I’ve heard, is full of majestic imagery of the many beautiful sunsets seen over the Pacific Ocean while they recorded Metals, has a distinctive folky edge to it, “I’ll head out to horizon lines, get some clarity Oceanside”. ‘Anti-Pioneer’ begins in a sexy and bluesy manner, and feels beautifully produced, a sign that Feist began this track ten years ago, trying again and again to get it right. She has achieved that, it’s one of her most affecting songs, shining a bright light on her adaptable vocals while not overpowering the amazing orchestration found within this track. Toward the end of the song a mass of strings swell out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly, like a gust of wind in the wilderness. Her voice drifts in at its most gorgeous to complete it. It almost leaves you breathless.

‘The Undiscovered’ again features her multi-tracked vocals, beside stomps of percussion with brass joining in for the last couple of minutes. It conjures images of a barn dance at times. ‘Cicadas and Gulls’ is acoustic, around-the-campfire music, and that is not meant as a criticism, it’s very sweet, “The land and the sea, are distant from me, I’m in the sky”. It glides beautifully into ‘Comfort Me’ the two songs sounding like they belong together as a set, until halfway through things change abruptly as the mood gets darker and abrasive, as she sings “When you comfort me, it doesn’t bring me comfort actually”. ‘Get It Wrong, Get It Right’ is simple and yet has a lot going on, it’s best listened to with headphones, (and preferably on vinyl). Tiny bells jingling, piano, strings, it sounds like a room full of people behind her, supporting her, like there is a lot of love in the room, it comes across somehow.

Metals is the album that it seems Feist always had in her. The closing track on this LP seems perfectly positioned and titled, not that she has been ‘getting it wrong’ over her incredible career, not at all. From her beginnings in punk with Peaches under the name of ‘Bitch Lap Lap’, to her as a member of Broken Social Scene, it seems like Feist has finally brought it all together to ‘get it right’ with Metals, the album as big as nature itself and almost as perfect.

-Dave Roberts, October 19, 2011   

 

Anti-Pioneer

Feist (CAN)
From the album, 'Metals', Cherrytree

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How Come You Never Go There

Feist (CAN)
From the album, 'Metals', Cherrytree

Live on Letterman

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RECORD REVIEW: PALLERS - THE SEA OF MEMORIES
Reviews
Monday, 10 October 2011 14:13

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Labrador

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In this modern world where music is often churned out at breakneck speed with deadlines to meet and labels to please, it's refreshing to hear the results of an album whose protagonists took all the time they needed to write, record and mix the end product so it was right for them. Mind you, it does help when one of you owns the record label that will release the album. So it is with the debut album from Pallers, the three years in the making, collaborative electronic pop project of prolific Labrador Records founder/owner and member of Club 8 and Acid House Kings Johan Angergård and long time friend and collaborator, musician and photographer Henrik Mårtensson. The meticulous nature of the tracks presented on The Sea Of Memories indicates that both artists were determined to produce something that was deep artistically and emotionally. For Angergård in particular, it seems clear that Pallers deliberately strides in a different direction to his other lighter musical projects and for Mårtensson, it seems he is putting down a musical imprint that represents the blurred lines and shades of light and dark present in his photography.

While there are influences a plenty on The Sea Of Memories, from blissed out new wave and dream pop spanning three decades and more, ambient music, post-rock and krautrock in its metronomic sense as well as a whiff of eurodisco, as a package nothing quite sounds like this. Yes, one can spot a lift here and a pseudo-sample there, but in terms of approach, production and sound, there is something truly original afoot. It's the collaboration between the musical soundscapes and rhythmic discipline that assists in giving the record that 'third dimension Angergård often speaks of.

Assisting in that process is the fact its gestation involved time and extensive travel. There's a unrushed portability to the record's sound and influences and is probably representative of the three years and dozen or so places both have been to over the last couple of years, South Africa, Spain, the U.S (Miami) and at various places at home in Sweden to name a few. In fact, the attention to detail contained in the final mix rounds off and focuses the duo's penchant for timelessness and restlessness represented through hypnotic, emotivel and melancholic dispositions.

The first two tracks are indicative of the intense power, yet clever restraint that Pallers is able to unleash. 'Another Heaven' almost starts off as a tribute to Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express before heading off down an emotional vortex in directions completely unexpected. The circular synths and constant beat sit abrasively yet perfectly along side each other as delicate vocals assist with the slow creation of mood. That circular sound gets stronger and stronger and melds itself to the beat to create a full conclusion. One of the album's standouts is undoubtedly, 'Humdrum', which begins with a singular tribal beat before delightfully powerful synths increasingly take over with again the vocals sitting emotionally, yet disaffectingly underneath. As the percussion opens things up, its clear we've got quite a track on our hands. It builds and builds with vocals becoming stronger and more present before heading into a spacey hook laden outro that's the most danceable thing that Pallers have done.

Second single, the pop oriented 'Come Rain, Come Sunshine' was a perfect teaser for what the album would end up being like. Once again the construction is meticulous with layer upon layer been carefully built in complete harmony with its predecessor. It finishes with the a pop flourish and a simple synth line that positively sparkles. The duality of vocals here works a treat as well. 'Years Go, Days Pass' begins in a rather dark place as spacey synths accompany evocative vocals before widening out into a panoramic vision of mystery and otherworldliness. 'The Kiss' we first heard some eighteen months ago has lost none of its emotional lustre, as its synth laden orchestration positively shines around uncertain lyrical gems like 'if it wasn't a kiss, then I don't know what it is' and 'get out, go away now' on repeat as arpeggio synths and guitar progressions usher the song on its way.

'Wired' takes things down a notch with its dark yet hopeful beginning and consistent mood throughout. It's wistful lyrics pine to recreate memory, good and bad, which is a recurring album theme, 'We caught a glance, once before, when we were younger'. The album takes a surprising but welcome turn on the eurodisco influenced 'Wicked' featuring the vocals of Elise from obscure 90s disco outfit Zodiac - a perfect match and change up for the album. Closing track is the pensive and brooding ballad 'Nights', which despite its melancholy at times sparkles and leaves a lasting impression that there is close proximity between light and dark, a slight gap between joy and the morose, just what Angergård and Mårtensson were aiming for. Life is complex.

It's abundantly clear that Angergård and Mårtensson worked hard to create an album that gives the impression on the surface that the process was effortless, such is the smooth ambience and trajectory of each track and the tireless attention to detail in the mixing process. That's not to say they don't spin off in directions that are unexpected, it's just that the progressions are seamless and if they didn't seem natural at first, they quickly develop into such. Time and space are all over these songs allowing them simultaneously to breathe and become living organisms but at the same time the duo keep then taut and disciplined, never allowing them to escape the net of pop sensibility. Perhaps that is evidence of Angergård's third dimension he speaks of. Never backward in coming forward, it's no wonder the prolific Swede was overtly pleased with the final product. He has every right to be.

James Stocker - October 10,2011

 

Years Go, Days Pass

Pallers (SWE)
From the album, 'The Sea Of Memories', Labrador.

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RECORD REVIEW: BLITZEN TRAPPER - AMERICAN GOLDWING
Reviews
Saturday, 08 October 2011 00:00
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The atmosphere of the open road, bullet riddled signs and dusty roadside diners are the images conjured up with Blitzen Trapper's sixth studio album, American Goldwing. The title itself referring to the fat Honda cycle designed for this experience. The Portland, Oregon sextet have been active since 2000 and have a swag of musical styles that have been attached to their name over the year, with most including the suffix or prefix 'folk'. Be it country, rock, indie, alternative, whatever, they have become a band on the rise and Eric Earley has shown himself to be a talented singer songwriter in the process.
 
Hot on the heels of last years' Destroyer LP, American Goldwing continues their no frills take on the American musical past with a solid contemporary edge. The comparisons vocally to Mr Dylan will always be there but this music is capable of standing strong in its own right. 'Might Find It Cheap' thrusts forward immediately as the opening track, unapologetically country and rock fusion, and one that admittedly takes a couple of listens to take in. It is never a bad sign to have to sometimes work for your music, no doubt some of my most favourite has had this process, and the rewards, as you would well know if you love your music are well worth the effort.
 
Frontman Earley has said of the album, "When I sing, in the title track, “I know / I know / I’ll be staying if the wind don’t blow,” I’m seeking to invoke the unseen, the spirit that beckons you to saddle up that old 1980 Honda Goldwing, or your uncle’s beat up Ford Bronco, or that Jeep you somehow, and only barely, keep running and leave this lonely town behind, ‘cause that wind’s always blowing". The America of today is a far cry from the romantisiced and nostalgic look back we have here, but the way it is encapsulated on this LP, is as if looking back in time a couple of decades, when it was all much simpler.
 
'Fletcher' with its fictional hitch-hiker character "drinking whiskey from a jar through his teeth" is a free-wheelin' stomping track, before the give-away single 'Love The Way You Walk Away' comes in, with its harmonica and breezy guitar complimenting Earley's vocals. There are a few times where the word 'hoedown' has the possibility of springing to mind at certain points through this LP, and none more so at the front of 'Your Crying Eyes'. This opening soon descends into a screaming riff which gives this track balls like a Mac truck screaming down Route 66. The imagery continues into 'My Hometown' and 'Girl In A Coat' with descriptive lyrics of a bygone era and vocals at their most yearnful.  
 
'Street Fighting Sun' is an infectious rock track at its best, and in a good place at the back end of the album. 'Stranger In A Strange Land' takes it all down a notch or three, with just acoustic guitar, piano, vocals and a smattering of harmonica ending the album in a place that's just right, as he sings "The highway, which runs far but never my way, don't you know". Red tail-lights disappear and fade to black, where Blitzen Trapper travel to next is anyone's guess.       
 

Street Fighting Sun

Blitzen Trapper (USA)
From the album, 'American Goldwing', Sub Pop

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American Goldwing

Blitzen Trapper (USA)
From the album, 'American Goldwing', Sub Pop
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RECORD REVIEW: NEON INDIAN - ERA EXTRAÑA
Reviews
Friday, 30 September 2011 15:41

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Static Tongues/Mom + Pop/Transgressive/Pop Frenzy

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Era Extraña, the second release from the Alan Palomo led Neon Indian marks a definite growth in said leaders musical trajectory. Where as the first release, the EP come album Psychic Chasms was full of light psychedelic pastiche and chillwave undertones, Era Extraña is a more disciplined and contained affair despite still being full of lighter moments that contain some killer musical and vocal hooks and covert disco tendencies. There must of been a great deal of pressure on Palomo's shoulders to deliver a longer version of Psychic Chasms full of the same quirky tongue in cheek attitude but its clear from the first few moments of second single 'Polish Girl', of a determination to go in a different more expansive direction and unleash some straight, raw yet directed emotion.

Taking the gestation period off to Helsinki has proven to be a masterstroke as the four weeks in the middle of depths of the Finnish capital's winter have resulted in a harder and darker edge musically and lyrically. Artistry and thinking tend to combine well together as two of the great Northern European pastimes above the latitudes of 55 degrees in the midst of their winter. Palomo has suggested that he wanted to ensure on this album in both cases that he, unlike on Pyschic Chasms didn't use any 'pre-existing' material and certainly while his influences are there, they are not as immediate as one may think. They are circular and swirling, cerebral rather than overtly linear and obvious. In an interview with Pitchfork earlier this month, Palomo stated that he ascribes to the quote by film director Jim Jarmusch that its not where you get it from, its where you take it and Neon Indian as a project certainly takes familiar sounds in not necessarily readily identifiable places.

What's also clear from Era Extraña is Palomo's penchant for mixing music's abrasive qualities with the most sugar coated pop moments you could imagine. Witness, 'The Blindside Kiss' which has Psychocandy era Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine written all over it. But the skill is to combine that with a light, breezy pop chorus that sees Palomo's breathy vocals take centre stage. 'Hex Girlfriend' sports a edgy driving undercarriage nuanced with signature Pyschic Chasms styled blips and bleeps and sports an almost Flaming Lips type pyschedelic sheen. First single 'Fallout' muscles its way into the album at the half way point with a stomping slow beat that dominates proceedings as a mini-wall of synths coalesce around lyrical melancholy.

The second half of the album sports the optimistically sounding title track despite its dark synth undertones and the M83 inspired 'Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)' as well as the off-kilter 'Future Sick'. The album is rounded off with the upbeat Arcade Blues, where Palomo suggests that weening ourselves off the addictive essence of modern technology and 'find something else to do' is possible. While not as hook heavy and immediate as the albums first half, the tracks that round off the record do have much meat on the bones.

There is more than meets the eye, ear and grey matter on Era Extraña. Despite his young age of 23, Palomo has clearly thought about the point of making music, there's no stream of conciousness going on here from beginning to end. Indeed the first few thoughts during the writing process had him almost obsessing about why he was even doing it - a winter in Helsinki for a young person from the sun-drenched Texan suburbia of Denton can have that affect. But he soon threw caution to the wind. There is a sense of nihlistic enjoyment that comes from throwing musical things around, seeing where they land and then picking them up with real method and piecing them together in an inventive and affecting way. Era Extraña is a perfect example of what the end product can sound like when real risk is combined with real purpose.

James Stocker - September 30, 2011

 

The Blindside Kiss

Neon Indian (USA)
From the album, 'Era Extraña', Static Tongues.

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ALBUM OF THE YEAR

JULIA HOLTER (USA)

Have You In My Wilderness

Domino

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TRACK OF THE YEAR

LOWER DENS (USA)

Your Heart Still Beating

Ribbon Music

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EP OF THE YEAR

KELELA (USA)

Hallucinogen 

Cherry Coffee/Warp Records

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