September 2010

Sometimes, the stereotypes that make my journalistic life so much easier just don’t apply – and especially not to Beach House. I finally managed to get my hands on Teen Dream last week, and I’m very glad I did (and quite annoyed I didn’t get around to it sooner). The thing is, in listening to the album, this band have managed to challenge so many of the assumptions I automatically make when listening to music.

For a start, I can categorically state that this album is not better live. I was underwhelmed at Glastonbury, but with a good pair of headphones and a nice walk ahead, the record is a far more powerful, emotive prospect. Secondly, when these songs slip into one another without you realising, it isn’t a fault of generic background music – this whole album is an undulating soundscape, constantly shifting and is only improved by listening without too much attention to where one track begins and the last ends. Similarly, the cold, emotionless feel of electronic music simply doesn’t apply to the more synth-led tracks on this album. There’s such a warm feeling throughout, and such an organic songcraft at work that even the electronic sections feel as though they’re acoustic. Finally, and most importantly, the fluidity of the album doesn’t result in songs you can’t remember once they’re done. Melodies resonate in your head long after they’ve finished and the chorus of ‘Norway’ is frankly too good to forget.

Of course, part of every album’s appreciation is subjective, and it might well be down to the fact that as I listened to ‘Walk In The Park’, I walked into a park and the clouds parted behind me and lit up my path. Then again, maybe music truly is transcendent – I’d like to think so.

Beach House – Walk In The Park (YSI)

Many of today’s more progressive thinkers have suggested that live music is the way forward for the music industry (that is, actual money-making through music), and I for one have always subscribed to that view. Today however, the sudden hysteria surrounding the delay to the opening of the XOYO club in London and a couple of tweets from Simon, the blogger supreme behind Sweeping The Nation made me start to doubt this, those tweets reading thusly:

‘…the whole XOYO thing makes me think of Leicester’s new 1000+ venue the Auditorium…’

‘…Three weeks before their first proper gig, with club nights going on, they’ve not yet raised the funds to alter the exterior signage.’

It seems to me that a venue that big in a city with, presumably, a burgeoning music scene just should not be having money trouble. If live music truly is the future of the industry and the continued profitability of music making in general for both the artist and their label, then how are venues having these problems? Of course, this is pretty open to interpretation – Leicester itself might be the problem (not enough interest from fans and bands, poor management etc.) and the sheer size of the venue obviously alienates smaller acts, who are supposedly the beneficiaries of a more live-oriented industry. However, with the problems facing XOYO – which is, from what I can tell, a pretty intensely hyped venue in a city that is famous for its sheer number of new acts – the picture looks a little bleaker. What if there just isn’t enough interest, financial and actual, to open new live venues to a profit, or even a possible one?

Perhaps it’s a target that lies further down the line and maybe it’s for the fans to realise that live music is the way forward, but right now these kinds of signs seem to point to a startling fact; music is not making enough money, and that can only spell disaster for those involved.

Radiohead – Exit Music (For A Film) (YSI)

I like folk music. I’m also beginning to like the whole woozy, dream-pop thing that seems to have taken America by storm recently. It seems that Futurebirds also like these two ideas but, unlike me, have some tangible musical talent and thought they’d combine them. What they present, ‘Johnny Utah’, is more or less what you’d expect – banjos and pedal steel form the backbone of the music, but the atmosphere is reverb-soaked and approaching psychedelic at points. It’s as relaxing as Beach House, as engagingly traditional as Fleet Foxes and the brash, feedback-heavy outro suggests that their new album Hampton’s Lullaby could contain some much louder material too. I look forward to finding out.

Futurebirds – Johnny Utah (YSI)

Aside from my horrific inner struggle not to dislike ‘my bands’ getting popular (despite my own constant promotion of them), I have to say that Mumford & Sons’ inevitable rise to Radio One glory has had a distinctly pleasing side effect – a sudden growth in the amount of new folk artists, and with that a sudden growth in the amount of new folk music I’m enjoying.

Mega-props then go to The Blue Walrus for basically discovering seemingly the only new folk band to have completely evaded any kind of exposure thus far. Then again, Bristol’s Alms are approaching their music a little differently to the current norm. The usual response to this kind of band these days is to ask how so few people make so much noise; Alms could be asked quite the opposite. The restraint in their music creates a rich atmosphere, where every pluck of a banjo or double bass string adds a little more to the mix, each song possessing a kind of gentle lilt that carries you through but refuses to rush. Even when, on ‘Shove’ they do give in to the kind of grand crescendo we’ve come to expect from these bands it seems entirely controlled – as the bittersweet message of ‘Don’t wanna jump, or be pushed off, but I’m gonna give myself the final shove’ rings out, you realise that the buildup wasn’t to carry the emotion upwards with it, but to act as a counterpoint to that softly-sung final refrain.

It’s that refusal of grandeur that makes Alms’ music so enjoyable – you won’t find any perfect four-part harmonies here, Lawrence and Ollie’s vocals overlap but always seem a little untidy in a refreshingly forthright way. This isn’t music to sing in a crowd, there’s a genuinely heartfelt emotion at work here, and this doesn’t seem like the kind of band who want to ruin that feeling by pushing it too far towards the dramatic. Alms are defined by their honesty – honestly emotional, honestly human and, honestly, they’re wonderful.

Alms – Simply (YSI)

“Singer-songwriter” has, generally speaking, become rather a derogatory term recently. It conjures images of MOR soft-rock, radio fodder – never offensive, just there, sitting in the background like beige furniture. So in describing The Widowers (aka Matthew Sigur) as a singer-songwriter, I do so in the most literal way; he sings and he writes songs, and by that I mean whole songs – lyrics, instrumentation, percussion, the lot. His debut EP, Friendly, was recorded wholly onto a single microphone hooked up to an old Mac (which is presumably what the photo above was taken from – now that’s modern living!), and it’s slowly reconfiguring my singer-songwriter prejudices.

Friendly refuses to bow to its literally singular limitations, nor the stigma attached to the genre tag it’s bound to receive (which I suppose I’m not helping to dispel – ho-hum) as it kicks up a storm of noise in its own peculiar, shambling way. Sigur possesses such a lugubrious Paul Banks drawl that it seems to actively slow down the spiky, out-of-joint indie he pairs it with. ‘Name of my Sister’ marries a regimented, snare-heavy beat with the kind of wandering, entrancing guitars that Pixies fans dream of while ‘Blurry Smile’ takes a more laid-back approach, alternating nostalgia-tinged lyricism with gradually expanding guitar melodies that could become overbearingly stadium-sized if it weren’t for the beautifully restrained production.

It doesn’t always work, as ‘Beacon Street’ becomes almost parodic in its muscular rock stomp and ‘Meltdown in the Sun’ takes the Interpol-aping style a step too far, but I’m not sure it was always meant to be a cohesive work, and my personal preferences simply reflect a talented new artist experimenting with which direction to go in (if any). I for one hope that Widowers stays on the path set by ‘Otherwise (Friends)’, the song which best represents all my favourite elements of the EP – Pixies-esque guitars, an incredibly cool set of vocals, drums at the forefront, providing as much interest as the guitars and a really, really brilliant outro.

He may not have decided quite where to go yet, but if this EP proves one thing it’s that a singer-songwriter can be just as loud and inventive as any band, and Matthew Sigur already is.

For a sample, download the track below, for the whole shebang, head to The Widowers’ Bandcamp page where you’ll find it as a free download. Imagine that.

The Widowers – Otherwise (Friends) (YSI)

‘Staring at the Sun’ is fucking brilliant, isn’t it?

TV On The Radio – Staring at the Sun (YSI)