April 2010

Wow, uni really is a distraction from blogging. Here are two tracks that couldn’t be more different, more hyped or more brilliant.

Big Boi’s second release from his upcoming solo album, ‘Shutterbugg’, has managed to blow my mind so many times I think I’ve forgotten how to hyperbolically discuss its virtues in list form. Oh wait, here we go:

1) The talkbox beat is the best use of autotuning I’ve heard, and if played on a proper soundsystem I think it might just act like the Brown Note.
2) Big Boi’s flow is so unlike any other in mainstream hip-hop that it immediately engages me every time I hear it.
3) The unwieldy mix of glittering synths and occasional strummed guitar just works, and wonderfully at that.
4) The tiny break into ‘Back To Life’ by Soul II Soul – amazing.

Big Boi – Shutterbugg (YSI)

There seems rather a lot of young, exuberant bands plying their trade in the wilfully lo-fi world of garage rock. What with The Smith Westerns already gracing these pages and those kings of the genre, Black Lips popping up every so often, you’d think I’d have little time for more of the same, but Harlem have knocked me clean off my feet. All the hallmarks of this particular murky corner of the music industry are present: high tempo, twanging guitars, muted background drumming and a complete disregard for production aesthetics. But mixed amongst all of this there lies a little something extra in this Austen three-piece. Michael Coomers’ breathless delivery reminds me of the glory days of Kings of Leon and all the teenage nostalgia that comes with that. I love them.

Harlem – Friendly Ghost (YSI)

This is the first time in… well, a long time that I’ve posted twice in one day, but an English Literature degree allows me the time (sort of), so here we are. I don’t know about the rest of you, but every so often I’ll relisten to an old track I’ve loved in the past, and realise that it’s probably one of my favourite songs. It’s odd as I usually have a very fixed, static view of what my favourite music is and when a song sneaks up on me and I realise I know all the words, every inflection of the singer’s voice and how the instruments sound just because of the introduction it shakes things up a little.

I was in a Newcastle record shop, Steel Wheels, two days ago and as I was searching the bargain racks I came across Idlewild’s first full album, Hope Is Important. I got it (along with Die! Die! Die!’s second, Promises Promises and the Manics’ Holy Bible – all for a fiver as well!) and have only just got round to listening to it. Two things hit me during the course of its playtime: 1) Idlewild were far heavier than I ever knew – they clearly loved Pixies and their ilk, something which obviously doesn’t come across in their most recent releases. 2) Their final single from the album, ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’ is one of my favourite songs (see, that digression was necessary).

It’s not only a brilliant song, but thinking about it, it probably helped form at least part of my music taste today. I first heard it on a compilation album called ‘The Alternative Album’ which acted as a sort of pointer to someone like me who had very little access to alternative music, and it immediately became one of my favourite tracks. The mix of melodic, steely guitar, strange Scottish-American accents and the fact that it seems to have about three choruses (including the brilliant final refrain) just worked for me on a level that I’ve never been able to define. It’s taken me a long time to really get into a lot more music like Idlewild made back in the day, but even amongst all this new, brilliant stuff I listen to, this song sits pretty as one of the best examples of its style in my collection.

Idlewild – When I Argue I See Shapes (YSI)

I’ve only just heard the ‘Harrowdown Hill’ B-side, ‘The Drunkk Machine’. If you still needed proof of why Thom Yorke is probably the best person ever, this is it. That a song this creepy, insane and downright brilliant could be a B-side at all amazes me. It sounds like LCD Soundsystem on bad acid, all dancey beats and borderline industrial noise as Thom drawls laconically throughout. And the point where it all breaks down and Thom starts screeching? Icing on the cake. It certainly wouldn’t have fitted the overall tone of The Eraser, but a whole album of this would certainly not go amiss.

Thom Yorke – The Drunkk Machine (YSI)

This is very lazy (again), but a nice big live review of Laura Marling (amongst others) on her latest UK tour is up on my new favourite site, For Folk’s Sake. But, for the sake of so me original material, here are some things I didn’t include in that review:

– As Alessi played my girlfriend turned to me wide-eyed and whispered, ‘She’s adorable!’

– I now prefer theatres to regular venues; no-one talks through songs, no-one disrespects support artists (well, apart from latecomers) and it feels more like a ‘show’.

– In hindsight, I didn’t give Boy & Bear enough credit, they were pretty awesome (plus, I now have two Australian folk acts in two posts).

– I didn’t say a proper goodbye. Bye!

Boy and Bear – Mexican Mavis (YSI)
Alessi’s Ark – Shovelling (YSI)
Laura Marling – Alpha Shallows (YSI)

I do have a big ol’ post about all the brilliant folk music around at the moment, but as a stop-gap (and mainly because I’m quite lazy), this is a post about my favourite song from the new album from Antipo-folky siblings, Angus and Julia Stone, Down The Way. The album actually abandons a lot of the folk from the first album, but nearly halfway through there comes “Santa Monica Dream”.

An acoustic number with just two guitars and both the Stones’ brilliant voices as instrumentation, it manages to come across as both optimistic and unbearably sad. Full of nostalgic references and lost dreams, it could come across as superficial but the power of Julia’s quavering vocals and Angus’ almost-whispers do a fine job of making it seem incredibly personal. I’m sure eventually this will be ruined by being crowbarred into some American teen drama, but whilst it’s still fresh let’s all enjoy it for what it is – beautiful music.

My review of the whole album will be appearing on the brilliant For Folk’s Sake, who I’ve just started writing for, in the next few days – keep a weather eye out!

Angus and Julia Stone – Santa Monica Dream (YSI)

Great pop music is often danceable, consistently upbeat and always catchy, but it’s very rare that pop music can be beautiful. Beauty in music most often comes in the form of an artistically conceived, obscurely genre-d and, more often than not, downbeat song – there aren’t many instances of beauty in songs you would consider to be toe-tapping singalongs. It seems wonderful to me then that I could open my inbox to find a track from a relatively unknown band looking for some exposure, download it and find that precise experience waiting for me. I never even had to ask.

The band hail from Stockholm and are called Let’s Say We Did; their song is ‘Galaxies’. The opening drumbeat and the slow introductions of acoustic guitar and bass bode for nothing more than a the kind of (admittedly pleasing) rock-infused pop that any upstart band could make and the lyrics about drinking and the radio don’t add to that supposed sense of beauty much, but as the song progresses it becomes something far more than the sum of its parts.

This isn’t music to scream your heart out to, but you can certainly sing along. This isn’t music to run to, but it makes a walk in the sun even more pleasant. This isn’t chart-bothering fare, but I can certainly see it being pop in the truest sense of the word – it’s inherently likable. I can’t really work it out – perhaps it’s the gentle creak of Sebastian Fors’ vocals, the way his lovelorn lyrics seem ultimately redemptive but inscrutable or even the slight echo on the chorus that reminds me of classic ’70s folk-rock, but something in this song makes it truly wonderful.

Maybe that’s why I like it so much. All my favourite music can’t be pinned down exactly. I can work my way around the sounds, the lyrics, the feelings, but there will always be that inexorable essence of a song or an album that puts it head and shoulders above other music like it. Whatever it is, Let’s Say We Did have created one of the most beautiful pop songs I’ve heard in a very long time, and I think that’s all that matters.

Let’s Say We Did – Galaxies (YSI)

Their EP, Follow Me Down is out now on Nesna Records and even contains a cover of ‘Cornflake’ by the equally wonderful Withered Hand. I suggest you buy it.

It’s one of those days where I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of new music but nothing’s really jumping out at me as the subject of a major post. “So,” thought I, “why don’t I write a little bit about each one?” And here we are.

I was a little suspicious of Smith Westerns at first. They claim to be influenced primarily by ’70s glam rock but they peddle just the kind of fuzzed-out retro garage beloved by Black Lips. Add to to that the kind of purposefully badly recorded vocals that have really never done anything for me and we have the makings of a forgettable band. But on listening closer, the glam influences come through, not in the instrumentation but in their approach to songcraft. There’s a sense of disinterested cool that slows the songs down but a need to play the guitars as loud as possible and it’s in those moments of sheer abandon that this sounds less like a group of kids wanting to sound like their contemporaries and more like a band who play exactly how they want to – just as Marc Bolan did all those years ago. This is shambling, kick-drum heavy rock designed to chill out to in summer and irritate your parents, which, given the ridiculous youth of the band, is probably exactly what it was meant for.

Smith Westerns – Be My Girl (YSI)

Whenever I hear that The Futureheads are going to release a new album, I get a mixed sense of joy and trepidation. You see, I consider their debut album to be almost perfect; completely full of breakneck post-punk pop songs that grab you and refuse to let go until Barry Hyde’s wonderful vocals have finally given out. Since the halcyon days of that first album, they’ve never quite lived up to that genius again. News and Tributes was a far more self-conscious album, and one that I felt didn’t suit the band and This Is Not The World regained some their initial enthusiasm but never quite reached the heights of that first effort. But after hearing their new ‘Heartbeat Song’, I can’t help but feel that third time’s a charm. It certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on the debut album, but there’s enough of a change in tone to avoid making it a replication. Possessing the kind of youthful exuberance (and oddly, a similar guitar tone in places) that Blink-182 used to do so well, but with a British punk sensibility firmly in place, the signs for fourth album The Chaos are very good indeed.

The Futureheads – Heartbeat Song (YSI)

The Futureheads – Struck Dumb (Changed at label’s request)

This one comes courtesy of Hanan over at Music Induced Euphoria, whose sheer irrepressability about how good this band are won me over. The Morning Benders don’t disappoint – at least as far as I can tell by listening to ‘Excuses’. Built around a furiously strummed acoustic guitar and the occasional echoing drum, this possibly simplistic song is elevated into the blue skies of the stratosphere by Chris Chu’s summery vocal tones, beautifully old-school, almost barbershop, harmonies and the gorgeous string-filled crescendo of an ending. Look up the cover of their new album Big Echo and you’ll see just why they chose that image of seaside bliss as soon as you hear this song.

The Morning Benders – Excuses (YSI)

The Active Set are another one of those bands who’ve had a track sitting in my inbox for a fair old while, and made me regret it once I’ve listened to them. ‘Sea Legs’ is a slow-building beast drawing on elements of The National (epic, dark, full of drums), early Bloc Party, Echo & The Bunnymen and god knows what else. It’s a long track at over five minutes, but the band pack so much action into that time that it could easily be twice as long and still sound full. What centres it all is Matthew Stolarz’ mournful vocals that flicker between British inflections and the LA punk that he once was, saying very little, but saying it well. ‘So far I’m still looking to the land, I haven’t found my sea legs/And so far I haven’t got a plan, I’m set adrift upon these troubled waters’ is a beautiful refrain and one that frames the bulk of the song, letting it evolve into something far louder before joining in and making it seem almost transcendent. Beautiful, heartwrenching stuff.

The Active Set – Sea Legs (YSI)

It’s been a long time since I talked (read: exploded with joy) about Dark Mean. Their first EP, frankencottage (lack of capitalisation intentional, grammar fans), was a tumultuous mix of strident vocals, banjo melodies, occasional electronic beats and a whole lot of awesome. music box, their new four-track follows a similar idea, but pushes it into an altogther louder, more anthemic territory.

All the hallmarks of Dark Mean’s first effort are still present, but the eclecticism of those original songs has been ramped up once more. The title track takes a simple drumbeat and a strummed acoustic guitar as a base and adds classic rock guitar flourishes, a gentle piano accompaniment, occasional banjo plucks, outbursts of quiet synths and plaintive violin. And that’s just the opener. After that we’re treated to muted trumpeting, country slide guitar, marching drums and some quintessentially North American indie vocals. It could all get a little over the top, but it never seems like a pastiche, like the band are trying to create something purposefully too full. Instead, the feeling is one of careful consideration; each new element adds a little something more to the track, but is never allowed to outstay its welcome. And even if you were still dubious about the band’s intentions, they go ahead and prove that they can make something beautiful out of very little on “Acoustic” – an understated little number using just the classic combination of guitar and harmonica.

There’s soemthing very special about Dark Mean, something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s as if they have some grand plan for their career, like they’re planning each move in meticulous detail, and never letting on more than they want you to know. I say this because of the way their two EPs seem to answer each other by opening the first with “Happy Banjo” and ending the second with “Dark Banjo”. It’s also in the way they seem to hide their roles in the band (and even who’s in the band) without seeming irritatingly obtuse. Even their forthcoming album implies some kind of planning in its title, The Constant K Determines The Fate Of The Universe. It seems Dark Mean, for now, just want us to judge them on their music, which in itself is hard to judge. Mixing an indie-pop sensibility for melody with a wilfully experimental take on the use of instrumentation, this band have not yet ceased to amaze or confound me and I cannot wait to hear more. And more. And more.

You can download the track from below, but you might as well download both EPs for free from the band’s Bandcamp account. They’re brilliant.

Dark Mean – Music Box (YSI)