Saturday, 28 December 2013

Album review: Darkside - Psychic

In their own incongruous way, Psychic’s two creators do an admirable job of defining the sound of Darkside’s debut LP. While Nicolas Jaar believed he was making an electronic record, Dave Harrington thought he was involved in a rock record. It turns they were both right. What they’ve produced is an impressive combination of the two.

In reality, it’s pushing it to suggest the duo didn’t know what they were doing. Jaar is renowned for his monochromatic swathes that teeter between avant-garde electro and flat out floor-filler. And Harrington – a member of Jaar’s live band since 2011 – is a jazz trained bass player with a track record for cinematic compositions.

So, while Psychic is more likely a pre-contrived melding of minds than a convergence of contradictory style, it shouldn’t lessen the appeal. From the first notes of 11 minute opener ‘Golden Arrow’ – a down tempo opus of astronautic effects and textures – it’s clear this is a collaboration that works, with Harrington building funk-soaked pillars of bass within Jaar’s celestial grooves.

Those expecting an extension of Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise may be left disappointed. Harrington’s influence ripples through the gnawing ‘The Only Shine I’ve Seen’ and the driving cosmic ceremony of ‘Freak Go Home’, helping to deepen the depth and scope of their arcane arrangements.

At just eight tracks long, it should be a brief encounter. But many of these cuts, such as the loose limbed ‘Paper Trails’, are bottomless troves, opening up and unravelling on every listen. And while its creators may disagree on categorisation, one thing’s for sure: whatever Psychic is, it’s fascinating.

Album review: Breathe Owl Breathe - Passage of Pegasus

It looks like Breathe Owl Breathe have finally decided to grow up. Here, on album number six, the Michigan-based trio have replaced the idiosyncrasies of past records with a tonal consistency that runs throughout these 10 folk-pop strains.

This change of tack creates a perfect platform for the rich, emotive baritone of Micah Middaugh to thrive. Each song—in particular "Ferns Move" and the gorgeous "Two Moths"—are fraught, tender tearjerkers that swoop through a fug of pert percussion and grievous strings. And while it may not be enough to win over new fans, this refreshed approach will see Breathe Owl Breathe age well with the ones they've already got.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Xiu Xiu - Nina

An entire record of Nina Simone covers is probably not how most people expected Xiu Xiu to follow last year's Always. Yet given the capricious nature of Jamie Stewart's avant-garde ensemble, it's unlikely to be a decision that surprises many.

Stewart's provocative and emotional approach is the perfect fit for Simone's own powerful sonic impingements, and the peculiar dovetail of the artists' styles starts to make even more sense in this 11-song tribute to the late great jazz chanteuse.

It is a disorienting experience to hear Simone's punctuating keys replaced with incongruous saxophone parps and almost non-existent drum rhythms. "See Line Wome
n" is stabbing and immoral; "The Other Woman" evolves into a deep swell of lovestruck hopelessness; and "Flo Me La" is a loosely-stitched jazz freak out.

Stewart's unfathomable intonations are central to the record, which does its best to emulate the muted neo-baritone of Simone while emitting its own quivering gulp of emotion. So divisive and unsettling is Stewart's delivery that it can prove as destructive as it is captivating, such as during the formless "Don't Smoke In Bed."

Much like Simone's own live performances, there's no middle ground here. What Stewart has produced is a wild, discordant plunge into the legacy of a legend; a visceral interpretation that could only emanate from his creative bowels. Nina would approve.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: 65Daysofstatic - Wild Light

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to fellow Brit noise merchants Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic is aiming for higher ground on its fifth studio album.

Combining to form an imposing skyline of layered guitar and percussive bombast, each of these drilling post-rock instrumentals is slashed with electronic skewers and an unavoidable sense that grander plans await. Promising work.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Live From KCRW

The trouble with studio albums is they don’t always capture the essence of a band in the flesh. In the case of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds it’s a point that’s amplified by their blistering outings in support of album number 15, Push The Sky Away. For a band whose integral parts have each passed a half century in years, there are few more beseeching, emotionally raw and darn right beautiful acts currently plying their trade.

It feels apt, then, that Cave and co are bookending a successful 2013 with a living, breathing document of their current vintage. Recorded at Apogee Studio in L.A., Live From KCRW doesn’t just represent the band’s here and now; it retreads and reworks a back catalogue more powerful and burgeoning than any modern day equivalent’s. In fact, so aware is Cave of this sonic goldmine, he teases the audience by taking requests, before admitting he’ll only play songs on “this very short list here”.

As a recording, Live From KCRW is the band at its most reflective. ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is smoky and brooding, weaving a seductive sense of menace through its tragic guitar creeps. The ethereal notes of ‘Push The Sky Away’ extend the melancholic pattern, somehow trumping the original recording’s meditative lament, while Cave baritones “And some people say it's just rock 'n' roll/ Aw, but it gets you right down to your soul.”

The intimacy of the recording is quite something. ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ radiate tender beauty , each underlining the deep intuitive space each musician operates within. And the remodelled majesty of ‘Mercy Seat’ - impregnated by skeletal piano and Warren Ellis’s barbed wire string work - proves that even a stone cold killer can be brought warmly to the bosom.

Ultimately, Live From KCRW is the personable side of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. And, while the appearance of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is a rip-roaring atomic bomb amidst these supple paeans, it’s a record that showcases a band comfortable at the peak of its powers. Thirty years on, they remain an astonishing

Albums of the year: My 10 of 2013

2013 was quite the year for music, wasn’t it?

Indie land’s big album comebacks, for the most part, hit the mark; numerous cherubic acts cracked the mainstream; and glitch-riddled electronica seemed to percolate every crevasse of popular culture.

For me, the most notable trend in my listening was around just how many female voices I made time for. Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter, in particular, made good with their equally ethereal and mesmerizing longplayers. While the poppier side of my tune-chomping was fed by Charli XcX, Lorde and, yes, even the omnipotent Haim.

I was probably most surprised by the quality of the new Vampire Weekend record. I’ve never been impressed by their preppy pseudo-Graceland schtick, but Modern Vampires of the City moved them into a weightier songwriting sphere that combined their ear for a ditty with a touching sense of emotional depth.

 For a long time, MOVTC was my album of the year. Then Spencer Krug turned up with Julia with Blue Jeans On. One man and his piano does not sound that earth shattering, but this evocative, brittle and downright sumptuous recording dragged me through one of the most draining periods of my life. It is, quite simply, beautiful.

So that’s been my 2013 in music. I’ve listened to a lot, old and new. And even now – at the tailend of December – I’m discovering sounds and sonics that would surely have made my final list had I a few more weeks to let them gestate.

But, time waits for no man, beast or last minute top ten contender. So… as it stands, below are my top 10 records of 2013:

1. Moonface – Julia with Blue Jeans
In one sentence: Beatific ivory tinkling majesty from an artist who finally strips out the metaphor to reveal his ear for startlingly naked songwriting.


2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City 
In one sentence: A developed, fully formed masterpiece that measures melody against compositional depth.


3. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
In one sentence: Submerged in haunting string-bound atmosphere, this is ethereal and comatose elegance at its most sublime.


4. Deptford Goth – Life after Defo 
In one sentence: Tranquilised narco-induced dub-step with a sideline in haunting, heart-melting ballads.


5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
In one sentence: Dark, luscious and brooding with menace; as consistent as Cave and co have been in years.


6. Darkside – Psychic
In one sentence: A bottomless, funk-fuelled opus of astronautic effects and textures.

7. Jon Hopkins – Immunity 
In one sentence: A twitching, high brow collection of sharp electronic clusters, visceral beats and jarring bleeps.


8. Villagers - {Awayland}
In one sentence: A true testament to the art of songwriting, {Awayland} was a complex album that managed to sound ever so simple.


9. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
In one sentence: A James Murphy-inspired regeneration, that’s brash, bold and – at times – funky as hell.


10. Factory Floor – Factory Floor 
In one sentence: Furious, impenetrable and completely deranged, Factory Floor’s debut LP is one of the year’s most barbaric sounds.


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Album review: Sébastien Tellier - Confection

Never a man to play things by the book, dream-pop iconoclast Sébastien Tellier has created a sixth album that is an almost entirely instrumental affair. But the fact that his one deviation from type—the louche piano-stroking glide of "L'Amour Naissant"—represents th
e album's unclouded apex, is a telling indication of what this 14-song LP lacks.

Like a beatific, ethereal soundtrack to a film that has yet to exist, Confection finds the impenetrably esoteric Frenchman eschewing his more disco-coated side for something a little more sophisticated. And there's certainly an element of bourgeois cultivation in the lisping keys of "Adieu Comme Un Jeu" and the equally regal "Coco Et La Labyrinthe."

Yet, despite the opulent notes and refined compositions, Tellier's smooth-talking panache is a noticeable exclusion. And when it does make that one fleeting but glorious appearance, it only emphasizes his lack of presence elsewhere. An interesting listen, sure, but one that lacks the necessary direction.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Dean Wareham - Emancipated Hearts

For a man who's been plying his trade for over 25 years, it's kind of strange that Emancipated Hearts is Dean Wareham's first solo recording. But, given the stripes he's earned as the frontman of revered dreampoppers Galaxie 500 and the lesser loved Luna, there's little chance of finding a naively coined debut record here.

Emancipated Hearts is as expertly crafted as you'd expect from someone of Wareham's heft. This mini-LP embodies the world-wearied experiences of its creator, exploring darker themes through a series of slow, winding sonic arrangements. It's not a sad album—far from it—but a deep-seated sense of vulnerability writhes through each tenderly sculpted number.

Opener "Love Is Colder Than Death" is the first indication of Wareham's step into a more fragile world. A gorgeous and warm country-flecked lament, its deft keystrokes and melancholic strings allow Wareham to dig up his emotional roots. The acoustic shiver "The Longest Bridges In the World" is just as stirring, exuding a comfort-from-the-storm aesthetic that recalls Damien Jurado at his most abyssal.

Produced by Jason Quever, the Papercuts frontman who's also had a hand in producing Beach House, this is a sublimely finished collection. Each cut has been given space to breathe under Wareham's brittle intone. Notably, "The Ticking Is the Bomb" barely stirs from its slumber of piano and strum, yet evolves as one of the record's most affecting moments.

A spacious cover of The Incredible String Band's "Air" closes the record out on a gorgeous shimmer of chiming guitar, leaving a swelling optimism cradled in the eardrums. It may have taken more than a quarter of a century to come to fruition, but this lack of hurry is exactly what makes Dean Wareham's first solo outing so stirring.

First published here for Under the Radar

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Album review: The Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley

Ten years out of the game is a long time for anyone. But for The Dismemberment Plan it may seem even longer. In the decade since the Washington-born ensemble called it a day, the hyperventilating art-punk genre they once excelled in has been pounded, pummelled, and packaged into something that sells records and everything else—from potato chips to high-end motors.

The return of the pioneering quartet, then, is surely cause to celebrate. In a time where even the most iconoclastic acts reunite to pay the tax man, it's refreshing to think this is one comeback that may actually be about the music—particularly when guitarist Jason Caddell tells us the band have "always been more abstract than sales and statistics."

Studio album number five, Uncanney Valley, certainly backs this view up. An agitated yet hook-heavy affair, these 10 cuts feel like an act reacquainting itself, slipping into a creative comfort zone that still requires a little polish. In that sense, the first few listens will always compare unfavorably against the past, with "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" and "Invisible" in particular sinking as clumsy disappointments.

Thankfully their technical excellence remains intact. The schizoid percussion of "No One's Saying Nothing" is a breathless opener; the love-stained "Lookin" is built on an intricate needlework of guitar and gorgeous synth; while "Waiting" is a jittering, pseudo-funk gem. And while it might lack the punch of old, Uncanney Valley certainly proves that, 10 years on, there's still life left in these old dogs.

First published here fore Under the Radar

Album review: Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On

A Spencer Krug piano album-it had to happen sometime. In truth, the indie rock canon Krug's been mining over the past decade always seemed ill-fitting for his spectral croon. His is a voice that demands unfettered attention; one that craves a simple canvas from which to exhale mystical, metaphorical tropes. And somehow you knew the canvas was always going to be the piano.

Julia With Blue Jeans On actualizes the inevitable. The entirety of these 10 cuts is made up of only two elements: one piano, one voice. There are no overdubs, no harmonies, no screwdriving synth lines—this is as stripped down and streamlined a record as the Wolf Parade vanguard has ever produced. But it works.
Krug's always had the ability to lock listeners down into a world of allegory concerning matters of the heart.

Here, he concentrates this technique by minimising the sonic landscape and notching up the emotional decibels. What he creates is a record that can stride to the solid keystrokes of "Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark" one minute, before floating into the title track's gushing swell of adulation the next.

This shifting cadence is the core to the record's flow. "Love the House You're In" spins a slow, mesmeric web of keys, while "Barbarian" and its sequel bleed extraordinary contemplation with every dashing stroke. But "November 2011" is the real killer. A tear-duct moistening yarn of entwined love, it's one of the most bewitching and disarming five minutes of music you'll hear this year.

Such candour is, perhaps, what's most remarkable about this recording. The piano has displaced Krug's veil of intellect and mystery. What remains is something warm, something sentimental, something beautiful. Spencer Krug has never sounded better.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Los Campesinos! - No Blues

Few British bands walk the indie walk as devotedly as Los Campesinos!. Since releasing their debut LP Hold On Now, Youngster... in 2008, the Cardiff-bred sextet have continued to roam the music industry's less resplendent echelons without feeling the need to compromise their direction of travel for commercial success (give or take appearing on a few actual commercials).

Unsurprisingly, No Blues continues Los Campesinos!' development as reliable mainstays of the U.K.'s fragmented alternative music scene. Abounding with the usual collision of love, death, sex, and football (of the spherical shaped kind), the band's fifth studio album holds no shocks for those who have followed them from the cradle.

Yet, compared with the lovestruck refrains of 2011's Hello Sadness, these 10 cuts represent a more cultivated form of songwriting. Titles such as "A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man" or "Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)" may imply an element of youthful quirk, but these are mature, fully formed compositions, built around tight structures and translucent production.

Without the usual thrust of instrument, No Blues refocuses on melody and Gareth Campesinos' vivid lyrical constructions. While his archetypal ironic wit remains, it plunges into darker depths during fizzing earworm "Avocado, Baby," where he cries "Oh it won't get any better/That doesn't mean it's gonna get any worse/You've got to draft a lifelong love letter/ Sent to the man who will be driving your hearse."

Stunning piano-stained anthem "The Time Before the Last Time," thick with splashing drum and parping brass, perhaps best symbolizes the magnificent scales Los Campesinos! could possibly reach. Yet, so strong are the band's indie roots, it's equally likely they'll never become the venerable grandstanders they should be. A pity, yes, but then again it's impossible not to love them just the way they are.

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Album review: Gary Numan - Splinter (Songs for a Broken Mind)

For a man with nearly 40 years in the game, Gary Numan still holds an impressive amount of sway. Starting out as a pioneering figure of electronic music in the '70s, the U.S.-based Londoner has straddled each decade since with a vigour that's ensured his legacy remains largely untarnished, despite the occasional clanger. And the perennial swathes of praise from today's hip young things further feed his iconic status.

Numan's 17th solo album, Splinter (Songs For a Broken Mind), continues to pedal the industrialised soundscapes and gothic structuralism that are the hallmarks of his recent material. Its contents, then, are as you'd expect; a series of dark, gloomy cuts that range from the searing machinations and piston-like percussion of "Here In the Black" to the more introspective "A Shadow Falls On Me" and the harrowingly austere "My Last Day."

 From a songwriting perspective, Numan lays down lyrics with surprising candour. During the dark, synth-driven blast "Everything Comes Down to This" he wails, "I don't know how we let love turn to pain," while over the piano-twinkling glow of "Lost" he croons, "If I had one wish/I'd wish for one more time/To see you again/Your hand in my hand once again."

 As someone more renowned for trading in utopian yarns, these are remarkably human statements. Sadly, the thrust and thunder of "Love Hurt Bleed" and "We're the Unforgiven" resemble brutally overcooked Nine Inch Nails off-cuts, but for the most part Splinter is a solid and intriguing effort from an artist comfortable with his position in life. His legacy remains intact. (

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Album review: of Montreal - Lousy With Sylvianbriar

Kevin Barnes is clearly not a man for taking a break. Over the last 16 years, of Montreal's leading light has rattled off close to a record a year. And these are never just any old long-player; each is antithetical to its predecessor, a bleeding statement of Barnes' thirst for forward-thinking pop melodies.

Of course, with such neverending productivity comes an inevitable decline in quality control. In fact, you could argue Barnes hasn't produced a truly great record since 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?—an album which remains his psych-pop masterpiece.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar doesn't quite scale such hurdy-gurdy heights, but in terms of intrigue Barnes nails his 12th of Montreal studio album with some style. Stripped down to just organic instruments, this effects-bereft affair spotlights its creator's songcraft without using any electronically-coined psychedelics.

For the most part, it works. Album opener "Fugitive Air" is typically upbeat and poppy, filled with louche guitar slides and effortlessly pithy lines like "How can I unmake someone else's mistakes?" "She Ain't Speakin' Now" is just as pulsating, contrasting its minimalist forecourt against a vibrant clang of a chorus.

But it also has the tendency to limp in places. "Amphibian Days" is a piano-centered ballad that barely breaks a sweat, while the Bob Dylan-like jaunt "Hegira Émigré" rambles along without the poise expected of of Montreal. Yet the plaintive probes of "Siren of Your Toxic Spirit" are as bare as Barnes has ever been, gliding into a flutter of heart-melting mandolin and brushing percussion.

By producing an album without electronic stimulants, Kevin Barnes continues to explore fresh musical dimensions. And while it might not always pay off, Lousy With Svlvianbriar proves once again he has a songwriting consistency few can match.

First published here for Under the Radar 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven

Someone needs to look into the damage the modern world is doing to our attention spans. Patience is no longer the virtue it once was. Today, we want everything—music, news, food, sex, technology—at our fingertips. And once we've basked in this instant gratification, we're done with it, slavering for our next quick fix.

In a time like this, you'd expect Daniel Lopatin's—aka Oneohtrix Point Never—seventh LP, R Plus Seven, to perfectly complement our inability to sit still. Every one of its 10 tracks packs in an astonishing range of sounds and textures that hopscotch from one direction to another without any obvious rhyme or reason. In theory, this should be a sugar-rushing, channel-hopping Generation Y-er's dream.

Yet for all the skittering electronics and industrial crunching of tracks like "Problem Areas" and "Inside World," it's unlikely to have any sort of mass appeal. This is the kind of record that will excite bearded experimental aficionados, who are happy to excavate the never-ending sonic crannies that punctuate this avant-garde affair.

 For this rest of us, these computerised structures are a difficult trip to enjoy. The likes of "Americans" and "Cry" aren't so much songs but artistic statements. They flicker effortlessly between scar tissue-ripping pulses, ethereal drones, and ebullient cloudburst synths to create malleable sonic shapes intent on avoiding repetition. In other words, it's as straightforward as a bowl of noodles.

 Album closer "Chrome County" is the most linear track here. Swaying to the chime of melancholic keys and angelic harmonies, it maintains a consistency that is both rare and relieving. And while there are similar moments of brilliance buried away, their fleeting existence only serves to underline what could have been. The modern world has a lot to answer for.

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Album review: Neils Children - Dimly Lit

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago Neils Children were a raging ball of angular, gnarling proto-punk that took aim at superficiality and rampant consumerism. Even today, their debut EP Change/Return/Success remains an astonishingly ferocious collection of anti-societal matter. Yet fast forward to 2013 and that edge is gone. Long gone.

Album number three, Dimly Lit, represents a disappointing calming of the soul for the London ensemble; a sad realisation that youth has passed and ageing is inevitable. The strangulating guitars have vanished, replaced by woozy, carousel dreamscapes like “Never Could be Any Other Way”; while seething hostility has been superseded by humdrum 60s psychedelia like “Trust You” and the lamentable “Warm Wave”.

We've seen this all before, of course. But the Horrors’ accession into shoegaze was always a natural next step. Sadly, Neils Children are much less durable. Their day and decade appears to be done.