Saturday, 23 February 2013

What I've been listening to this month: February

February has never been my favourite month. It promises spring but almost always delivers a bone-chilling reminder that we’re still in winter’s clutches. This year has been no exception. Fortunately, I’ve spent the month writing about myriad records for Under the Radar and Drowned in Sound, while even managing to sneak in my own listening when I’ve had the chance.

It’s been a consistently good month for music, in my mind. Girls Names, !!!, and Rhye are all about to drop some fresh and highly listenable records. Cherubic London trio Theme Park’s debut LP is a welcome blast of jangling indie pop while, on the other side of the age scale, Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s 15th outing sees  them return to the statesman-like splendour of old.

But, unlike many an indie-rag, I wasn’t so sure about the new Foals record. Holy Fire, their third album, swung between up-tempo earworms and fairly mundane, mud-treading dirges. I’m not entirely convinced they’re an “album” sort of band. Likewise, I was left a little underwhelmed by the new Darkstar albumNews From Nowhere, which is still to congeal as sounds that make any sense to me. I'll keep trying on that front though.

Already a contender for record of the year, however, has to be Local Natives sophomore LP Hummingbird. A stunning sonic concoction of washed out orchestration and sparkling melodies, the LA outfit have produce a gargantuan, wonderfully engrossing record that, with any justice, should put them on par with The National as crafters of tear-stained tunes.

As for surprises, I’ve found Japanese pop maestro Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus? an infectious, smile-raising listen that’s perfectly poised for my daily (well, every other day) gym sessions, while Deptford Goth’s sublime Union is a swelling, gorgeously cut glide of tender beats and synths. And K-X-Ps maniacal II is continuing to serve up fresh surprises in my ear canals

So, all in all, this month hasn’t been that bad. Hopefully March will pick up where  February left off and maybe give us a little more sunshine.

Album review: Theme Park - Theme Park

On first impression, Theme Park seem like a pretty carefree bunch of guys. The London trio’s self-titled debut LP bounces around to the sound of elastic bass lines and tapped out guitars that flutter and flicker with kid-like excitement. Add a dollop of sugarcane production into the mix and what comes out is an innately summery affair, best suited to moments of sun-wallowing pleasure.

But there’s more to this ebullient offering than originally meets the eye. Theme Park, you see, have been doing the musical rounds for a couple of years, gestating a sound that’s seen them touted as the new Talking Head/Foals/Vampire Weekend, or any moderately successful band with a penchant for complex rhythm patterns and up-tempo melodies. It’s slightly surprising, then, to find they’ve created a record bearing very little resemblance to any of these touchpoints.

Drenched in irresistible hooks and big heady choruses, each of these 12 cuts revolve around good times, or at least the upcoming prospect of said good times. Musically, Theme Park jangle their guitars, swoon their harmonies, and shake their funky derrières in the general direction of the dancefloor. Essentially, what we’re dealing with is a shameless indie pop record created by a shameless indie pop band.

Yet beyond the honeyed goodness is an album of substance. Take opener ‘Big Flood’. Underneath its glossy veneer of elated keys and smooth, rubbery bass lurks a hardkicking percussive engine striving to maintain the song’s melodic urgency. ‘A Place They’ll Never Know’ and ‘Wax’ are equally multi-faceted, using effervescent guitar hooks to reel listening ears into a web of zig-zagging synthesizers and calypso rhythms.

For the most part it’s a successful approach, etching out real depth from twisting jaunts like the excellent ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Jamaica’. But as soon as they tread away from the angular indie pop paradigm, Theme Park begin to lose their edge. The echoing Eighties overtones of ‘Two Hours’ float depressingly close to The Killers at their most benign, while album epilogue ‘Blind’s all-for-one sentiment feels as sanctimonious as a boozed up Bono set loose at a charity fundraiser.

This stylistic drop-off implies Theme Park are still to settle on a chosen career path. On one hand, there’s enough creative flair here to suggest something special isn’t far away. Yet, they could just as well be readying for the mainstream, eager to embrace the fleeting adulation brought on by sentimental indie melodies. A debut LP this may be, but it already feels like the sound of a band at a crossroads. This carefree bunch may need to get serious soon.

First published here fore Drowned in Sound

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Album review: Ducktails - The Flower Lane

You could say Matthew Mondanile's idea of a "solo" project has become a little skewed. The Real Estate guitarist's fourth outing as Ducktails includes support from New Jersey outfit Big Troubles and contributions from Cults, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Outer Limitz (to name a few).But rather than dilute Mondanile's woozy psych-pop aesthetic, this congestion of ideas brings fresh focus to his lo-fi craft.

Notably, the shift from the bedroom-born acoustics of 2011's Arcade Dynamics to a studio environment has helped shape a richer, more voluptuous body of work. The surface-scratching lilts of old have been replaced by gorgeous multi-layered swells such as twinkling opener "Ivy Covered House" and the blissful undulation of "Sedan Magic." But The Flower Lane isn't about reinvention; Mondanile continues to produce sauntering laments that pour out like fresh orange juice on a warm summer's day.

This ethereal, if slightly languid, gaze is eagerly maintained by the Wild Nothing-like guitar chiming of "Under Cover" and the swirling, unbridled train ride of "International Date Line." Despite the familiar hallmarks, these 10 cuts are more dynamic than any of Mondanile's previous efforts.

In particular, "Planet Phrom"—a Peter Gutteridge cover—is the sort of feet-sweeping pop glide he's always threatened to unleash, while "Letter of Intent," a tussling duet between Future Shuttle's Jessa Farkas and Big Trouble's Ian Drennan, is a divine foray into synthesized dreamscapes.

 Sure, it's no masterpiece, but The Flower Lane represents Matthew Mondanile's most consistent record to date. It would appear flying solo is a lot easier when you've got friends. (

First published here for Under the Radar

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A smash hit: Delving inside the mind of Aidan Moffat

On the release of the fourth L. Pierre outing, The Island Come True, Drowned in Sound opened its 8/10 review with a question: “Who exactly is Aidan John Moffat?”. At the time it felt pertinent, yet in hindsight it was always likely to come across rhetorical. In many ways, the review’s leading line was an inquest without an inquiry; a probe without a push; a fumble without a.... you see where we’re going here.

In our heart of hearts, we knew there was no answer. Remember, we’re talking about someone with the ability to swing effortlessly between verb-spouting poet, boorish musician, Twitter-glued deviant and, Christ, even relationship-fixing agony uncle. On any given day the man who made his name as the frontman for Arab Strap, can be anyone or anything he likes.

But here at Drowned in Sound we’re a persistent bunch. And some of us also grew up in awe of the probing – if slightly irreverent- interview style of 80s pop rag Smash Hits. So, in an attempt to finally nail an answer to our unrequited question, we tracked down Aidan and put a few personal posers his way, Smash Hits style...
Aidan, how would you describe yourself in three words?
Sure. I'm. Not.

What have you got in your pockets?
I'm presently wearing pyjama trousers, so all I've got is a torch to see where I'm going because I'm not allowed to turn the lights on in the bedroom after midnight.

As a play on one of our favourite ‘Strap albums, would you rather have a hug or a pint on a Monday?
A hug, probably from my son at three in the morning after I've had to take him back to his own bed.

Which pop star did you used to pretend to be in front of the mirror as a teenager?
Leroy from Fame. I'd lay the couch cushions on the floor in front of the telly and do somersaults and stuff. I wanted to be a dancer but it didn't quite work out.

Who do you think the most annoying person in music is?
I presently find Olly Murs' success irritating – he's the embodiment of desperate, talent-show mediocrity – but he is but a tiny tear in a vast, sad sea.

What would the topic of conversation be if Aidan Moffat today met Aidan Moffat from 15 years ago?
Money, i.e. don't spend it all on drugs, booze, comics and toys because no-one's buying records in the future.

If you could change places with anyone in the world, who would you like to be?
Olly Murs - I envy his mass appeal and common touch.

What is the most embarrassing lyric you have ever written?
I don't really get embarrassed, but there's a secret Arab Strap song called 'Don't Cry, It's Only A Penis' which will never be heard. I hope.

If you were called up to fight in a war, would you (a) shave your head and join up, (c) get the next flight out of the UK, or (d) be a conscientious objector?
If we're talking early 1940s then I'd be off already, but these days I'd entertain the troops. I'm too old to fight now anyway!

Which of these activities are you most likely to be found doing: (a) making a Jamie Oliver 15 minute meal, (b) tweeting about what colour of socks you’re wearing, (c) doing the ironing, (d) putting up shelves?
Definitely tweeting, but certainly not about socks. Rhymes with it, though.

Of all the musicians you’ve worked with who would you want to have on your side in a bar room brawl?
Michael Scanlon, Arab Strap's final bass player. He's a coiled spring; a hungry tiger waiting for a weak deer. (If he reads this, I'm joking. Kind of.)

And which one would be useless in that brawl?
Me, definitely. I'd be the one hiding under the table pretending to have lost something. Dignity, I expect.

What’s your favourite record of all time?
Santo & Johnny's 'Sleepwalk' is the most beautiful piece of music in history, and it means many different things from day to day.

Who would you rather duet with: (a) Rhianna (b) Gaga (c) That girl who used to be in Pussy Cat dolls (d) Ke$ha?
Ke$ha! She'd probably be the most fun, too much baggage with the first two and Nicole Scherzinwhatever's fucking horrible.

If you were an animal what animal would you be?
I'd be a cat so I could sit about licking my cat parts, doing fuck all until I demanded some affection from the gullible tit that feeds me.

If you weren’t a pop star what would you be doing?
If I wasn't a POP STAR?! Flattery's always welcome, cheers. If you mean if I wasn't a 'little known indie moanist', then I'd probably still be at my mum's and on the dole. Qualifications and me didn't mix well, and I'm fundamentally lazy.


How many instruments can you play?
I can only play the drums with any degree of prowess, and even then I'm woefully out of practice. Anything else is just me dicking about.

What is the best thing about being Aidan Moffat?
Having a massive penis.

What's the worst thing about being Aidan Moffat?
Being a terrible liar. (Boom tiss!)

If you could have a telephone conversation with David Cameron, what would you say to him?
"David, I'd just like to start by saying I have an enormous amount of respect for you and the tough decisions you have to make every… AYE RIGHT CUNT FUCKING DIE NOBODY WANTS YOU HA HA."

What’s the best chat up line you’ve ever been on the receiving end of?
"None of the rest of the band want to shag me."

What are you most scared of?
Ice. Seriously, I'm terrified of slipping, I fucking hate the stuff.

In ten years time what are you most likely to be doing?
Interviews by email.

And with that, he’s gone. Away to do whatever it is someone like Aidan Moffat does. So what did we learn? Well, this is a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously; a man who loves his kid more than a pint; a man who’s probably never going to get an invite to an open house at number 10.

But did we get to the heart of who Aidan Moffat really is? Were any of these ripostes a key to unlocking what’s inside his soul. Unlikely. In fact, amongst all cussing and celebrity chitter chatter, we’re probably further away from pinning down an answer than ever before.

With questions like these, it’s no wonder Smash Hits went to the dogs.

First published here for Drowned in Sound

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Album review: K-X-P - II

Getting to the heart of a record can be a tricky business. Some bands create music so guarded, so locked down in metaphor and musical double-speak, it’s impossible to translate what the fuck is going on. Others, of course, go down the opposite path. Their themes and melodies are so blindingly obvious, you end up searching for some inherent, subconscious meaning that must surely – but usually doesn’t - exist beneath the layers of humdrum pedestrianism.

In a way, K-X-P’s latest longplayer lands on both sides of the coin. On first spin, II is as predictable as is it comes; a pitch black spectrum of satanic chants and chimes that straddle the more rampant throes of krautrock. Yet once the skin begins to loosen, once the flesh is revealed and the pulse starts twitching, what transpires is a rich, multi-faceted delve through a gauze of style and sounds; a record that shovels a brutal punch of techno, post-rock, free-jazz and scarring electronica straight down the ear-canals.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The Finnish quartet’s self-titled debut was a masterstroke of rhythmic, primal splurges charged with duelling drums and indecipherable vocals. Remarkably, its successor takes two steps forward, easing poppier swells within those impenetrable squalls. Ear-bleeding moments still exist – the band’s rabid dog soul finds a way to bite through the ethereal overtones of 'In The Valley' – but they’re executed at more agreeable angles.

II, however, is no gentle sail down the mainstream. Any such notions are quickly ditched in a breathless opening run. ‘Melody’ is a motorwaying drive of basslines and synthesizers that judder like Dan Deacon after a psychopathic makeover. Its follow-up, ‘Staring at the Moon’, is even more epic; rushing out as a paranoid cinematic sweep of unhinged percussion and skittering keys, while the line “and that’s the way it always is” loops into a frantic, hyperventilating mantra.

What’s perhaps most striking about II is it deep sense of ritual. Cuts like ‘Flags & Crosses’ and ‘Tears’ weave a trail of melodic twists and hymnal chants that congeal like a concentration of hypnotic, deeply animalistic urges. The depth-charged prog and complex time-signatures of ‘Magnetic North’ escalate the occultism to higher levels, with a slithering vocal gleefully reciting “for those who are bored, Satan is Lord” amidst a babble of cheering kids. Tongue in cheek it may be, but such feral narratives add a dash of drama to the ceremony.

At a production level, frontman Timo Kaukolampi has attempted to capture the band’s rampant live energy. For the most part, he nails it. Each number is frothing and wild-eyed, managing to feel free form and utterly purposeful at the same time. In fact, the sweaty disco groove of ‘Easy (Infinity Waits)' is such a crotch-rubbing orgy of sound it could have been snatched from the sticky floors of a Berlin bondage party, rather than a darkened Helsinki studio.

And that’s exactly why this album won’t appeal to everyone. II is a propulsive, unrelenting composite that doesn’t know what it is, nor does it care. What K-X-P are dealing in is label-less music; complex, iron-gripping sounds delivered with towering bombast. It should be a mess. It should be unlistenable. But it’s not – it’s extraordinary. Why? Because once you’re at the heart of this album, somehow, it only feels like the beginning.

First published here for Drowned in Sound