I really love Harlem. Their frenetic, clumsy garage rock, all covered in barely audible, slurred-sung vocals is endlessly satisfying to me in a way I can’t really explain. It was more or less nailed-on then that I’d love the almost-certainly-ironically-named High Pop. At first glance there’s only a passing similarity – this is far more sluggish, echoey fare, but that very same feeling of unplaceable enjoyment that creeps over me when I listen to ‘Drip From the Sea’.
Whether it’s the way the first obvious moment of guitar melody slows to a crawl and picks up again seemingly at random or the way both bandmates sing every line together (but only just) or the seemingly slapdash approach to songcraft I don’t know but something in this mess of sheer, uncaring youthfulness just grabs me and makes me smile like very little other music can do to me. I love this.
I saw Other Lives at End of the Road this year, and was completely blown away. Each member played an average of 5.4 instruments (and that average was brought down significantly by their drummer, the lazy git), they silenced the room (tent) for a full hour and seemed genuinely humble despite their incredible sound. Compound that with the fact that I loved the new album (see below) and that Thom Yorke has professed his fondness for the band, and Other Lives are looking pretty exciting in my eyes. Here’s my review of their second album, Tamer Animals, originally written for For Folk’s Sake.
If you like at least some music, it seems unlikely that you could possibly dislike Other Lives. It’s just a fact. Tamer Animals, their second album under this band moniker, is a record satiated by generic influences, gracefully pirouetting from one to another whilst surreptitiously tying them all together with a single ribbon of recognisably indie-folk vocals and outlook. It’s important to emphasise that gracefulness too – this is not a hotchpotch of sounds crudely forced into a single package, but rather an artful set of ideas working seamlessly together, within and off of one another, always flowing and never jarring. The core of Other Lives, made up of pianist/vocalist Jesse Tabish, cellist Jenny Hsu and drummer Colby Owens, began as an instrumental group, and whilst only one track on Tamer Animals adheres to that particular style, it’s the knowledge of how to make instruments emote as much as vocals, so necessary in instrumental music, that lies at the heart of the album.
That knowledge has led the band to create an album with the qualities of what, nowadays, constitutes popular culture’s most self-evidently emotive instrumental music – the soundtrack. First track, ‘Dark Horse’ ripples with staccato trumpet and woodwind reminiscent of Don Davis’ self-reflexive score to The Matrix while ‘Desert’ mixes the string sweeps of the ‘60s Star Trek theme with an insistent bass drumbeat to dark effect as Tabish mumbles, ‘Desert / Reclaims the land’. It could almost be a description of the sound rather than a subject. Of course, this knowing effect could be a double-edged sword, impressing someone who cares but becoming ultimately insubstantial – what’s a soundtrack without a subject? Luckily for us, Other Lives know just how to reign it in. First single ‘For 12’ is just as partial to a grand sting strain as the rest of the album, but its acoustic rhythm guitar, country electric twangs and prominent vocals emphasise a structured song with the affects of cinematic grandeur. The album’s title track pushes this further, with a booming piano and percussion spine that nearly tips it into White Lies gloom-anthem territory.
It’s this constant interplay between the classical and the contemporary that marks Tamer Animals as a truly exciting album. In ‘Old Statues’ we hear the creepy gleam of the warped ‘50s ballad (last heard on this year’s Creep On Creepin’ On by FFS favourites, Timber Timbre) meet a gentle core of guitar and plaintive vocals, whilst ‘Weather’ melds the beat experimentation of noughties Radiohead with quivering string sections. Every track has been immaculately composed (and I use that word deliberately), creating an album of never-ending intrigue. Even the final track, ‘Heading East’, an instrumental, classically classical track is shrouded behind a wall of impenetrable production fuzz, classical lo-fi if you will – a marker to the listener indicating how nothing is truly of a single essence on Tamer Animals.
By all means treat this album as a soundtrack, let it wash over you, because even as you do every trick, nod or influence will draw you back out again. Tamer Animals sounds like everything else and nothing else, an endlessly novel, engaging and fantastic exercise in creative songwriting.
There are many disadvantages to being as lazy as I undoubtedly am when it comes to checking my inbox. You build up huge amounts of messages that you don’t want to read all at once. You miss out on being the first to talk about a great band (this matters if you’re anything like me, honest). You constantly suspect that you’re missing out on the next big thing.
There is one advantage, however. When you find an email from three months earlier, download the track within, love it, and then find out there’s a whole album more that’s been released since the initial email was sent. That’s always good.
And so we find ourselves with Wet Wings, a Wellington duo (there’s not enough New Zealand music) who with ‘Feeeel It’ have, despite some interesting vowel elongation, crafted a truly brilliant tune. I like it so much I’ve put it on this week’s radio show and written about it in one day. On the show *SPOILER* I called it cyberfolk, simply because it sounds like it should be simple, somewhat twee and a little bit lovely, but has been creatively augmented with hazed-out background ambience and some truly unexpected synth drums to transcendent effect. Then again, I have played a lot of Deus Ex this week, so it could just be folktronica (but cyberfolk sounds cooler). Not only this, but there’s a whole album more in the form of ‘Glory Glory’ which I’m very much looking forward to listening to. Although I might wait a few months.
This time I actually have a reason for not posting: I was at End of the Road, which was quite easily the best festival I’ve been to yet. A fantastic lineup, uncrowded, laid-back atmosphere and woods to walk around in. I couldn’t ask for more. But, if you weren’t there, this could all seem self-indulgent, so I’ve got a mini-treat for you. This week’s Folk Bloke was an exercise in excitement for me (it’s pre-recroded) and either consolation, jealousy, irritation or reminiscence for the listeners, given that it’s entirely End of the Road themed. Whoopee!