Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Album Review - I Want That You Are Always Happy, The Middle East

Written for and published by The 405.

In places this album hints at a change of track for Australian band The Middle East, and certainly there are more experimental sounds and sometimes just the bare bones of songs on I Want That You Are Always Happy, but just beneath the surface is a collection of achingly beautiful tracks. The sound might be simpler than their debut The Recordings of the Middle East, but this album will not disappoint fans of their previously more intricate acoustic sound.

First up and Black Death 1349 is a downbeat start but it’s a perfect introduction to Jordan Ireland’s voice, which is as bewitching a voice as I’ve heard in a long time and it’s this voice that still draws me to listen to Blood, perhaps their most well-known track to date, again and again.

The decidedly more chart-friendly Jesus Came To My Birthday Party is a standard in indie pop. I don’t know if the inclusion of songs like Jesus is a deliberate attempt at creating something more commercial or just a new direction the band wanted to explore? But it works – the song topped the charts in Australia as soon as it was released.

However, this is one of those albums that takes a few listens, perhaps because listened to together the tracks appear bitty and disconnected. At 14 songs, it’s quite a long album, which makes me think we could do without the more experimental tracks on the album – Mount Morgan and Sydney to Newcastle – that detract from the wonderful simplicity of the other tracks.

For those who are gagging for more of the pretty ditties that we heard on the first record, and it can’t be denied that this band can come up with the prettiest of ditties, there are plenty to choose from, including Land Of The Bloody Unknown, Dan’s Silverleaf, Months and the countrified Hunger Song and As I Go To See Janey.

The move away from the more complex, multi-instrumental arrangements of their first album has definitely landed The Middle East with more of a country vibe and they pull it off well. Americana is a common thread – Deep Water with its slide guitar and Ninth Avenue Revenue brings to mind the bluesy Ray LaMontagne – with their lyrics, “You say you can’t stop crying/ it’s just the power of the song/ riding along the midnight grass again”, it’s a potent combination and may well move you with the power of the song.

I hope The Middle East will find new fans with this release. Afterall since their debut in 2008 the folk scene has really exploded worldwide and anyone who is a fan of the likes of Fleet Foxes and their banjo touting and ethereal-voiced contemporaries should certainly feel happy that they’ve discovered The Middle East.

I Want That You Are Always Happy is released on May 30.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ear worms

Here's a little post that I'm writing for no real reason, other than wanting to share what have been my latest musical addictions. I guess that's what so-called music blogs do, right? Well here we go.

Bon Iver needs no real introduction, but this is the single from his latest record and it makes me desperate to see him play live again. He reduced a whole field of people to tears at Glastonbury a couple of years ago. This clip of him and his buddies singing a beautiful a cappella rendition of For Emma will give you an idea of how.

I've recently discovered Jon Ronson's (writer of fabulous The Men Who Stared At Goats) programme for Radio 4 called Jon Ronson On. I only really discovered the show because Adam Buxton of Adam and Joe recommended it and now I've discovered this track by Husky Rescue. I'm basically like some kind of cultural magpie. But do listen to Jon Ronson On, it's really fantastic, especially the one on Voices In Your Head, you can listen to them all, here.

I just found this version of Alela Diane's wonderful Tatted Lace, I think it probably speaks for itself. It makes me wish I was better at better playing guitar.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Album Review - Screaming Is Something, The Travelling Band

Written for and published on Amelia's Magazine.

The brand new album from The Travelling Band features all the trademarks of a good folk pop album, including introspective lyrics, fantastic harmonies and, as no self-respecting nu-folk band would be without, banjos a-plenty. With their sound deeply rooted in rock, folk and country The Travelling Band’s second offering Screaming Is Something will please the ears of acoustic music lovers everywhere.

Illustration by Natasha Thompson, you can see her blog, here.

The Travelling Band hail from Manchester, so the group are joining the ranks of some pretty impressive acts including Oasis, Elbow and Doves – although they much more closely resemble the latter two of that particular group. The first single from the record, Fairweather Friends could well have been inspired by their fellow Mancunians, the layering of instruments, shimmering guitars and affecting harmonies create a ‘big’ sound a la Elbow, perhaps even X&Y era Coldplay.

You’re reminded of their heritage every now and then too, when a Manc accent sneaks in, such as on Horizon Me And You. This is a fantastic folk pop song and shows real promise in their ability to create a catchy tune and yet make it their own.

It’s Sundial that claims the prize for best track on the album though, and it’s a real highlight – anthemic but all the while remaining sweet, “If I had a home to call my own/ then I wouldn’t need a sun dial/ to stop me roaming around” – it’s calling out for a sunny afternoon at a music festival one day this summer, and it stayed on repeat for a long while before my housemates and neighbours tired of it. Just give it a listen and see how long you can go without humming the chorus.

Indeed the band are no strangers to music festivals and actually got their break by winning the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition in 2008 where they then performed – I for one, am sorry to have missed them. A homemade video shows the boys hanging out, enjoying the sunshine, and performing Horizon Me and You at The Park at Glastonbury last year (above). And what an idyllic scene, boys performing their pretty music in the pretty countryside, makes you proud to be British.

Tracks Under the Pavement and Hindsight are perhaps a bit confused – the folksier sound definitely suits this band more than rocking out to guitars, but perhaps live this would actually work better. All-in-all this album passes in a hazy stream of sunny guitars and lilting harmonies, the slower songs are perhaps slightly less successful than the more upbeat tunes, which is where the band appear to really flourish, but if you’re looking for a soundtrack to kick off your summer then The Travelling Band’s new album Screaming Is Something could very well be the record you’re looking for.

Illustration by Melissa Dow, you can see her website, here.

The album is released on the 30th May 2011 on Cooking Vinyl. The band kicked off a UK wide tour this summer with a gig last night at The Nest in London. Details of further dates can be found here.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Album Review - In Love With Oblivion, Crystal Stilts

Written for and published on the ever so amazing Amelia's Magazine.

The new album from Brooklyn based Crystal Stilts is out now on Fortuna POP! The Joy Division comparisons are impossible to shake off, but we're still impressed by this second outing.

I was hoping to be able to stay away from the Joy Division comparisons while writing this review of New York band Crystal Stilt’s new album In Love With Oblivion, but like many before me I’ve found it basically impossible – the influence of Ian Curtis flows through the band’s second album like a vein of precious metal. It’s singer Brad Hargett’s drone-like vocal that does it, strongly recalling Curtis as well as the similarly enigmatic Jim Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain. (And now I won’t mention the J D words ever again…promise.)

In fact quite a lot has been written about Hargett’s singing style, sometimes scathingly, and his vocals are a little monotonous. There are points on this record when I really wanted him to surprise me by stepping out of the echo chamber to give some these songs a bit of extra punch. On Silver Sun for instance, the whole band are doing some pretty great stuff – the guitars and the organs and the jangle of the tambourine but Hargett maintains his monotonal drawl. There are few upbeat tracks on this record and if Hargett switched his style up a bit on some of them, it would lift the whole album.

But perhaps I’m missing the point, this appears to be an album that is more concerned with creating atmospheres or feelings than totally nailing each individual track. Hargett’s obvious attachment to the echo effect and the whole lo-fi approach towards recording and production makes this album sound dreamlike, almost as if you could be listening to it underwater, and to over-produce or clean up the sound would mean losing some of this otherworldly charm.

There’s also a kind of filmic side to the album, thanks to the murky sound and doom-laden lyrics, not forgetting the use of sound effects. Songs open and end with gusts of wind, car crashes, and crickets – it’s totally atmospheric and a big hint that Crystal Stilts aren’t your average Brooklyn-based hipster garage band.

Illustration by Stephanie Thieullent, see more of her amazing work on her blog, here.

The band clearly includes some skilful musicians, the Johnny Cash-inspired guitar licks of opening track Sycamore Tree provides as good an introduction as any – this is a track that sounds like it’s been around for the last 50 years. In fact there are clear 1960s influences throughout and pretty convincing in places, like the band went to sleep in 1964 and woke up in 2011 and continued making music like nothing had changed, which for someone like me, who happens to love the music of the 1960s, makes this album a really interesting prospect.

There are peaks and troughs with this record though, the seven minute Alien Rivers is a needless addition but those that follow like stand-out track Flying Into the Sun is a fantastic listen and includes the inspired lyrics “There’s a black hole/ behind these eyes/ takes everything with it/ when it dies.” Like the album title suggests there is a bit of an emo vibe running through much of Hargett’s songwriting.

This is the kind of album then, that may well find itself providing the soundtrack to a whole host of late night gatherings and post-party hangouts, and I suspect could sound even better when you’re burnt out but not ready to go to bed just yet.

Crystal Stilts are playing in XOYO in London on June 21 – their only UK date and by the sounds of it, well worth getting down to.