Sunday, 9 December 2007

LIVE REVIEW: Malcolm Middleton, Edinburgh Liquid Rooms, 6 December

As the battle for Christmas Number One heats up with the ferocity of a yuletide fire, it’s surprising to find scrooge-like miser Malcolm Middleton still shovelling his coals onto the blaze. With under three weeks to the announcement of who’ll be sitting pretty on a tree decorated with the likes of Sean The Sheep, Sugababes and - more than likely - X-Factor’s very own electric-shocked operatic action-man Rhyddian, the thought of a ginger-mopped ex-Arab Strapper climbing atop such illustruously tinsled branches makes for a winter’s tale as cockle warming as Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

Now, we all know he’s got nae chance of winning - the brusque, militant marketing of Simon Cowell’s all-consuming pop behemoth ensures this coarse and timorous Falkirk-born beastie will have to make do with crumbs from the table of this festive feast - but just to witness a song laden with proclamations of loneliness and death mingle amongst the typical jovial tripe spouted out by Santa-hat adorning imbeciles is, well, a Christmas miracle in itself. Because lets face it, this time of year is full of fabricated shite and as the office party season swings into a vomit-inducing climax it’s reassuring to know that amidst an ever-present soirée of Wham and Slade records big Malcy is lurking; waiting for his moment to dim the fairy lights and pull out the knives.

Despite being ushered into a rammed - but apparently not sold out - venue like a plateful of pigs in blankets, there’s a buoyant atmosphere exuding from the punters at Liquid Rooms tonight by the time this reticent Xmas underdog takes to the stage. Backed by a four-piece band that includes the pristine purr of Strike The Colours’ immaculately presented Jenny Reeve, Middleton etches himself immediately into a triumvate of agoraphobic, acoustically led lilts that glisten to a fully blossomed frisk of percussion and keys. It’s a spellbound introduction that culminates in the brittle, hopelessness of ’Four Cigarettes’; a track where Malcolm’s laconic brogue is so awkwardly honest it’s as though he’s stripped himself bare under the bashful gaze of a room full of strangers.

What’s most apparent from his captivating performance is that for all the accusations of pessimistic lachrymosity, Middleton percolates an innate sense of sanguinity throughout his songs; juxtaposing the mournful lyrical repines of ’My Loneliness Shines’ and ’Break My Heart’ against sweeping backdrops lavished with Reeve’s scrumptious vanilla-scented harmonies and a scurrying bluster of deep-filled bass, drum and piano twinkles. Performed live, tracks like the infectiously uplifting ’A Brighter Beat’ are a bold attestation to Middleton development as a solo artist and perhaps an indication to how he’s progressed emotionally through the years. Rather than hiding coyly behind a guitar as was once his predilection, this fragile troubadour is now happy to take centre-stage while a jostling arrangement of melody swivels past his eardrums and out into the crowd below.

His new-found confidence is best exemplified during Christmas Number One-hankering new single ’We’re All Gonna Die’. Riotously received, the track ambushes the venue with a transient dash of synths directed by Malcolm’s stern proclamations of a lonely, possession-less death. On record it amounts to little more than a sprightly, if underwhelming, baptism to his more positivist third long player but here tonight its message suddenly clicks into place as Middleton piously barks out: “We’re all one in a million, we’re alive, we existed, we took part in the game”. Fuck the excruciating self-congratulating flippancy exuding from Xmas tunes of old, this is what we should be teaching the world this year – stick that in your pipe Sir Cliff, Noddy and all you other Christmas-raping mercenaries.

This boisterous and unexpectedly ebullient set is brought to a rapturous end with Jenny Reeve’s flighty vocals duelling fiercely with Malcolm’s dour-faced drawl on the mesmeric ’Fight Like The Night’ before gushing into ’A Happy Medium’’s looping choleric finale. Leaving the stage to an ardent cacophony of whoops and cheers, Malcolm Middleton may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect yuletide treat but after this performance there’s no doubting who tonight’s crowd wants to see *cough* sleigh the charts this Christmas.
Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 1 December 2007

ALBUM REVIEW: Manchester Orchestra - I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child

Admittedly, geography’s never been my strong point. I can sketchily work out the position of London on a map but ask me to identify exactly where Birmingham or Derby reside in Blighty’s rich topography and you’d be just as well blindfolding my peepers and allowing me to pin a tail on the derrière of some poor horse-like creature. So you can imagine the befuddlement stewing away within my aching cranium when I discovered Manchester Orchestra were not natives of the North-West’s most thriving musical city. Nope, apparently there’s another Manchester in another country – in fact, there’s a shit load of them. They don’t teach you that at High School that’s for sure.

Yet despite my perplexed grimaces over such locational conundrums, it’s the sound of this peaky Atlanta-based quintet’s debut LP ‘I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child’ that ruffles the frayed, alcohol ravaged nerve cells of my grey matter most. Y’see, this is a record that skates finely over the crease between conquistadorial melodic majesty and chart-teasing teen-rawk insipidity; a record that unleashes moments of sweeping cacophonous glory before swiftly precipitating into punchless riffs enveloped in a haze of seamless, sterile production. And it’s such infuriating directionless that ultimately ebbs away at the impact of this emotionally transparent affair.

Opener ‘Wolves At Night’ begins sprightly enough with its swollen harmonic bulge striding to incongruent drum lurches and jingling guitar strums before breezing into a glorious virulent chorus led by Andy Hull’s affected crow. But it’s the frontman’s penchant for displaying his vocal dexterity that eventually chaperone’s I'm Like A Virgin.. on to treacherous pathways as he shuffles irksomely into whiny Brian Molko-esque mews throughout ‘Now That You’re Home’’s stop-start evangelical throb and the laborious, grating melancholy of ‘I Can Barely Move’. The bleary-eyed coagulation of brooding synths and rhythmic pounding perspiring from ‘Where Have You Been’’s damp, insular cauldron undoubtedly compliments Hull’s scarred lung-puncturing but much of the record finds him recreating the pitiful tones of a tortured artiste who’s unwittingly found himself spearheading a disjointed Counting Crows tribute act.

Surprisingly, for an album so engulfed with ponderous rock anthems, it’s the frail, pensive laments of ‘I Can Feel Your Pain’ and ‘Don’t Let Them See You Cry' that glimmer brightest. Stirring heartstrings with the mousey breathlessness of a brusque Conor Oberst, Hull’s new found impregnated whisper crackles tenderly over ghostly landscapes of simple acoustic scratching that alleviates the snooze-driven dreariness emitting from ‘Golden Ticket’’s formulaic Hold Steady-aping. Yet such cloud-peering heights are rarely maintained and achingly obvious record closer Colly Strings draws the curtain strings back into order with a climax that’s meeker than a cumbersome knee-trembler in your in-laws’ spare room.

They may not hail from ‘The Capital Of The North’ but on the basis of I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child’s tepid offerings it seems Manchester Orchestra have the city’s gloomy skyline down to a tee.
Rating: 5/10
Released on 3 Dec through Columbia Records

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

A 2007 Mix Tape (of Sorts)

I’m nae entirely convinced these are my favourite ten tracks of the year - in fact, I’m pretty certain another ten could easily have replaced them had it been another hour, another day, another month. But each and every one of these rather luscious tunes have affected me somehow over the course of 2007. From the glitchy, floor-stumbling drum-fuckery of Battles’ stunning Atlas to the tear duct seeping memories of airport goodbyes that Aereogramme’s Barriers invokes, this is as close as I can get to my own personal soundtrack to what’s been a tumultuous sort of year.

(From Mirrored,,

Animal Collective
‘For Reverend Green’
(From Strawberry Jam,, )

(From My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go On,, )

(From The Flying Club Cup,,

Broken Records
‘Slow Parade’
(From Broken Records EP.

Malcolm Middleton
‘A Brighter Beat’
(From A Brighter Beat,

No Pussy Blues
(From Grinderman,,

‘Plaster Casts Of Everything’
(From Liars,, )

You Say Party! We Say Die!
(From Lose All Time,

The National
‘Start A War’
(From Boxer,,

* Photograph courtesy of Su Anderson of the Gwinnett Daily Post

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

ALBUM REVIEW: The Shaky Hands - The Shaky Hands

Hangovers are nae fun when your late twenties kick in. Those youthful late nights of inebriated hedonism followed by a mild mid-afternoon temple tingling are long gone. Instead, us coffin-dodging thirty-pushers have to endure an all-day deluge of crippling cranium palpitations and unsolicited gland seepage whilst cowering in front of a 'work station' praying your baw-jawed colleague doesn't catch a whiff of the reeking, caustic fumes emitting from every aching pore. But when that smarmy jobsworth finally plucks up the courage to make some disparaging remark at the expense of your sluggish booze-ravaged disposition you have no retort; every muster of energy is firmly focused on quelling the spasmodic jitters of your trembling extremities.

In more than just name, Portland quintet The Shaky Hands expertly convey this dilapidated state of morning afterness. Their self-titled debut LP is an antsy spiral of rink-a-dink melody and stuttering rhythm that, with an uncoordinated shuffling of feet, perches between the shattered glass goblets of Mountain Goats and The Decemberists’ prickly pop gems. Streaming light into bleary pupils with opener ’Whales Sing’’s soul-infused bassline, frontman Nick Delffs’ affected, withering scales stick to the eardrums with the heavenly comfort of a drool-smothered pillow as the track’s blustered percussion and sharp guitar jinks infiltrate the mind like an energising dose of aural Berocca.

This feverous wake-up call quickly subsides as ’The Sleepless’’ tentative paean teeters and trips to a bobbling disarray of drum-fumbles and peaky chords before ascending into the creaky, country quirk of ’Why & How Come’. And it’s such spirited dedication to shambling on-the-brink tunefulness that transcends this record into the realms of understated grower. Where lesser-abled vagabonds would baulk at the prospect of injecting messy acoustic arrangements with a soiree of swivelling keys and butterscotch harmonies, The Shaky Hands simply thrive; whistling carefree to the scuffling jingles of ’Sunburns’’ giddy simplicity and ’Summer Life’’s hand-clapping sprite.

Even when an insidious edge wafts its way into ’Hold It Up’’s stern-faced, Clap Your Hands–like demeanour, the group’s earthly gleam shines bright; retaining the record’s chaotic approach to structure amidst an unholy séance of deranged howls, trapezing strums and frazzling percussion. In cobbling together this daze of woozy acoustica and grin-bearing pop fidgets, The Shaky Hands have created an accomplished, triumphant debut that soothes, stimulates and arouses with its wealth of contagious melodies – a revitalising cure for any beer-weary hangover.
Rating: 8/10
Out now on Memphis Industries

Feature: Edinburgh - Scene To Be Heard

Few cities rival the vibrancy of Edinburgh in August. Illuminated by the glow of thousands of enchanted tourists, the Old Town’s cobbled pathways are annually transformed into the beating pulse of the global arts community. A jostling, multi-cultural bonanza of colour, creativity and laughter, there truly is no finer place to be than Auld Reekie during the festival.

But when the bitter chill of autumn sets in, those ebullient summer days quickly fade from memory. The city’s once bustling streets are suddenly more haunting than any spectre found lurking within the walls of Mary King’s Close, while venues, which weeks before bulged to the infectious sound of music, comedy and theatre, rest unattended, uncared, unloved. Having exposed herself to the world during four weeks of salacious cultural promiscuity, the old lady of Edinburgh tightens her chastity pants and shuts up shop for the remaining eleven months of the year.

This depressing mist of inactivity has breathed a cold, lifeless sigh into every pore of the city’s artistic grassroots, with creative hubs like The Lighthouse Studios and Roxy Arthouse departing to the sound of minimal local rabble while steadfast cultural arts trusts Out Of The Blue and Wasps have found centrally located studios replaced by more commercially viable ventures (aka profit-spinning flats). Its reputation as a forbearer of culture may be safe in the eyes of the global arts community but Edinburgh’s apathetic approach to the cultivation of local talent has been manifesting for years and nowhere more so than in that barometer of any thriving subculture - the city’s music scene.

Constantly lingering in the shadow of its much vaunted M8 cousin, Edinburgh has nonetheless produced a glittering array of esteemed, if not commercially successful, acts like The Fire Engines, Josef K, Goodbye Mr McKenzie and, more recently, Idlewild. But ask any of the city’s 100,000 or so students to name another successful local act and you’ll be met with faces as blank as daddy’s cheque book because, quite simply, very few groups slip outwith Edinburgh Castle’s watchful gaze and into the national spotlight. So, why has a city steeped in culture and rich tradition produced such a limp musical output of late?

Andrew Eaton, Arts editor of national newspaper The Scotsman and frontman for Edinburgh/Glasgow synth-pop duo Swimmer One, believes history has had a significant impact upon the city’s current plight: “I suspect a big issue in Edinburgh is the lack of what Sam Ainsley [Head of Master of Fine Arts at Glasgow School of Art] once described to me as 'a critical mass' - a generation of bands and artists moving to a city and becoming successful, but also staying in the city long enough to inspire a new wave of creative young people to move there,” he says. “Once that happens several times over, it becomes a cycle - each wave of talent replaced by another one. While the new wave keeps the city's grassroots scene vibrant, the one before becomes international ambassador, bringing new people in.”

This hypothesis has been successfully tried and tested for decades in Glasgow, with artists like Orange Juice, Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand spawning clusters of new aspiring local acts that feed off this energy and further progress the cycle of creativity. But Andrew feels it will take more than one skinny-tie adorning ensemble of indie urchins to create a thriving, industrious music scene: “People need to continuously bang on about how great Edinburgh actually is so that it becomes somewhere that people think they should be outside of the festival,” he explains. “Cities change over a long period of time and it takes a number of years; it’s about gradual shifts in perceptions and the way people view a city is not something that can change overnight.”

“There’s a sense that you need to make people [within Edinburgh] talk to each other,” Andrew continues. “There are folk doing some really interesting stuff in the city and they all vaguely know each other but I just can’t imagine there ever being a band like the Reindeer Selection [famed Scottish indie ‘supergroup’ containing members of Arab Strap, Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai to name but a few] in Edinburgh. Perhaps people aren’t drinking in the right place?”

It may seem like an obscure, almost sardonic, remark but drinking together in the right place was exactly what gave rise to Glasgow’s The Château – a renowned art-deco warehouse established by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos on the banks of the River Clyde where artists and musicians converged to create a neo-rave of sounds and images that eventually became the epicentre of the West Coast and - in the eyes of the British music press at least - Scottish music scene. Over the past decade, there have been promising, if sporadic, flurries of activity amidst the Edinburgh music community, with bands like Ballboy and Aberfeldy edging into the periphery of public consciousness, but there’s been little in the way of Glasgow’s coordination or camaraderie between artists, promoters and venues and, as a result, enthusiasm from despondent gig-goers waned.

As audience’s dwindled the city’s venues began to dissolve. The much eulogised The Venue made way for a spate of luxurious apartments and Cas Rock was replaced by an utterly soulless Latino themed bar. Even when new havens emerged they quickly folded as unmitigated disasters - Gig’s residency in the city centre was a prime example, with owners shying away from larger touring bands in favour of local acts despite having a capacity of two thousand, needless to say the venue closed after three months. Edinburgh had hit deadlock: bands wouldn’t play because crowds weren’t there, and crowds weren’t there because the band’s they wanted to see wouldn’t play.

But recently a siege mentality has formed within the city’s music community. Innovative local acts like The Magnificents, Found, Broken Records, and The Acute are making significant waves on the Scottish music scene; a sprawl of regular gig/club nights have lured back previously unreceptive audiences; and new venues with an eye for innovation are sprouting up across the city centre. As if from nowhere, a buzz has finally begun to resonate throughout the Capital’s musical underbelly.

One of the catalysts in this hive of activity is Born To Be Wide [BTBW] - a meeting place for those working within the local music business to exchange ideas, socialise and play their favourite records. Although not as anarchic as The Château, BTBW nonetheless shares a similar sense of community to that which stimulated Glasgow’s blossoming music scene. Co-founder of BTBW Olaf Furniss explains: “Born To Be Wide was born out of the frustration that most music-related launches were in Glasgow and that if you wanted to see everybody involved in the Scottish scene a trip West was required. We were sick of the clichéd articles and TV programmes pandering to the illusion that good music only comes out of one city in Scotland.”

Operating under the mission statement “Creating Some Sort Of Scene”, BTBW wears its heart firmly on its sleeve but with such staunch sloganeering it could be argued that contriving a movement rather than letting it grow naturally is the antithesis of what a scene should be. “I wouldn't read too much into the slogan,” says Olaf. “The fact is we were unaware of any place where different musicians, journalists and promoters could come together. This could have happened around a certain venue, pub or club, and to some extent it already was. However, other than providing a focal point for people to meet and hang out, everything is really organic. We don't have people walking around wearing name badges like they are at some kind of motivational seminar.”

He adds: “The big achievement [of BTBW] has been to bring together a diverse range of people who might never have met. It's great when they end up working together as a result of BTBW, for example Found's new album is being released on Fence Records after band members met [Fence Collective luminary and label co-runner] Johnny Lynch when he was a guest. Another example is [broadcaster and ex-footballer] Pat Nevin Djing the same night we had one of his musical heroes, Grant McLennan from the Go Betweens, on the bill…Since we started there’s become a stronger DIY culture emerging [in Edinburgh], with bands, promoters and labels all giving it a go.”

Club/gig night I Fly Spitfires epitomises this adoption of a more bull-headed attitude within Edinburgh’s musical community. Established by Chris McAuley and Gavin Glove in 2005 as a means of hearing the music they liked rather than the generic Libertines-led tripe that had engulfed the city’s bars and clubs, the night quickly gained a reputation as a purveyor of quality, cutting-edge music and has built-up up an ardent audience of like-minded devotees.

Gavin believes one of the major factors in I Fly Spitfires’ success lies in its refreshing approach to the provision of local acts: “We’re trying to eradicate the notion of local bands, where if you’re from a home city there’s a mentality that they don’t matter as much as touring bands,” he says. “[Local bands] get treated really poorly by promoters and there’s an obvious gap between those who are treated well and those who aren’t. What we’re trying to do is make an even playing field so that local bands don’t develop an inferiority complex.”

With a plethora of invigorating club nights like I Fly Spitfires, This Is Music and Fast, Edinburgh now has a network of promoters all working in tangent to energise it’s music scene but Chris recalls a time when the it was all very different: “When we started there was no music community here as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Now people are beginning to talk to each other. Before, it was very regimented in as far as what you could do – promoters were competing against one another instead of working together – but now there’s all these little underground nights appearing that speak to us and we speak to them. The whole improvement of Edinburgh’s music scene is grounded in that kind of communication.”

One of the acts beginning to reap the rewards of the city’s musical rejuvenation is captivating melodic spine-quiverers Broken Records. Currently self-managed, the local septet has already accosted a wealth of column inches in national music rags and websites despite having formed less than a year ago.

Band frontman Jamie Sutherland agrees Edinburgh has recently seen a dramatic shift in attitude to music in the city: “There has been a huge boost in confidence in Edinburgh’s musical community since the turn of the year,” he exclaims. “We took part in the T Break competition in the summer and managed to get through to play at T in the Park. Out of the 15 bands that got through around half were from Edinburgh and this experience has definitely bred a more professional outlook in terms of live performances and also in terms of a future playing music. The overall impression is that a lot of Edinburgh bands are starting to get their acts together a bit more.”

Somewhat paradoxically, Jamie feels the spotlight which has been firmly focused on Glasgow over the past few years has proved beneficial to this progression of the Edinburgh music scene:

“Edinburgh is a curious place to play music in. It has never really had any kind of consistent creative community to put a scene or group of bands together and thus has always been viewed as the poor relation in the East,” he explains. “However, this has just given people the time and space to create music that is utterly unself-conscious and without designs on getting signed – people tend to just make music for the love of making music. Also, because the city is turning into one giant apartment block or Standard Life building, venues are getting scarcer and this creates challenges in itself. People are having to work harder than ever to put on and promote shows and this is leading to a camaraderie between Edinburgh bands that would never be tied together through the way they sound.”

It’s this eclecticism and work ethic that singles Edinburgh’s current independent scene out from the likes of Glasgow, Sheffield or Manchester. Whereas each of these cities have their own distinctive sound, Edinburgh is transforming into a simmering melting pot of diversity stirred by the bands, promoters, labels, venues and gig-goers dwelling within its musical community. It may not have a show-stopping behemoth to call its own just yet but, with the emergence of this dynamic and creative subculture, Auld Reekie may finally have something to shout about for the eleven months of the year when the festival bandwagon’s not in town.

ALBUM REVIEW: Barzin - Barzin

It would be foolish to consider Barzin the life and soul of a party. In fact, the re-release of his 2003 self-titled debut is so engulfed with aching melancholy you suspect the Toronto-based troubadour prefers nothing more than to brood alone within a darkened, dank hovel oblivious to the torturous misgivings of everyday life. Each of the eight tracks he offers here tenderly convey the pent-up emotions of a soul on the brink of despair; a man so implausibly ill at ease with the world it’s as if he’s wallowed in a mire of misery from the moment he departed the womb’s embracive confines.

Yet trickling through the record’s sorrowful trajectory is a tender warmth of heart that plucks on the fragile strings of the conscience. Inducing moistened tear-ducts with his brittle vocal strains, Barzin creates spacious, slow-handed soundscapes bereft of hope but seeping an unmistakable passion. Opener ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ ebbs mournfully into the morosely lit alleyways of Drake and Cohen as it entangles itself in a mesh of deft acoustic shuffles and yearning country twinges. Enriching and invigorating, it’s an alluring introduction that coils earnestly around the ears while Barzin’s love-struck mew pleads for acceptance.

Such complex melodic subtlety is ingrained devoutly throughout the contemplative compositions of ‘Over My Blue’ and ‘Building A House’, but as each barren second of loneliness lingers on the effect of these harrowing nocturnal mutterings begins to wane. Without shifting in tone or tempo, moody folk-infused trinkets like ‘Morning Doubts segue aimlessly into the background; tepidly filling awkward speckles of silence instead of creating the pulse-stopping moments of beauty its trembling, rickety piano strikes and brushing percussion so rightly deserve. Even ‘Cruel Sea’s cavernous, I Am Kloot-esque growl struggles to enamour the senses as it’s smouldering jazz bar atmospherics quickly cascade into Barzin’s haze of introspection.

Graceful album highlight ‘Past All Concerns’ at least breathes a refreshing sigh of relief into this placid domain of doom - swelling to a romantic sliding guitar and sweeping drums that quiver in tandem to hushed, sorrowful purrs – but all too often this record slips into a dreary comfort zone that, although painfully sad, does little to coax the listener in to this pool of despondency. Barzin may not be a fan of socialising but he’s going to need to learn how to interact before he seduces an audience of admirers.
Rating: 6/10
Release 12 Nov on Monotreme

Thursday, 1 November 2007

INTERVIEW: Swimmer One

It doesn’t take a hydrologist to recognise there’s something stirring in Scotland’s musical waters. From the translucent dementia of The Magnificents to Frightened Rabbit’s cantankerous fuzz scuffles, 2007 has conceived a barrage of propitious Celtic acts. And leading this surge through the music industry’s tumultuous shores is Swimmer One with The Regional Variations’ majestic electro-pop spindling.

The duo of Andrew Eaton and Hamish Brown has created a bewitching slow-burning debut that ranks alongside The Twilight Sad’s Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters for tartan-clad atmospherics. Entwined in a spiral of introspection and self-doubt, it’s a record that tugs coyly at the heartstrings; twinkling to the sound of traversing, spacious synths and despondent lyrical vignettes

Yet when Spins 'n' Needles asks the Edinburgh-based pairing whether they expected such an enthusiastic reception to The Regional Variations it finds this aura of uncertainty is consigned only to record: “The arrogant but honest answer is that yes, I did expect good reviews because I think it’s a really good album,” exclaims Eaton. “So my main reaction is relief, actually, since it suggests we weren't completely deluding ourselves.”

The Regional Variations could be mistaken for yet another doom-laden Scottish decree but scattered across its bleak panorama is an escalating speckle of hope: “It’s both a dark and optimistic record, and I’m pleased that a lot of people seem to have picked up on it,” says Eaton. “The album is partly about how you get from one state of mind to the other…and I’ve always thought you can’t be truly happy unless you understand what it’s like to be utterly miserable.”

This comprehension of misery is encapsulated on tracks like Largs Hum - a brittle composition saturated in poignant notions of Scotland. But Brown is at pains to distance the band from any rose-tinted nationalism: “I don't really romanticise things in the same way a lot of tourists do but I am proud to be Scottish,” he explains. “There are lots of things about Scotland that are pretty unappealing too and I don't see us as a Scottish band at all, we just happen to be based here.”

They may be reluctant representatives of Scotland’s music scene but since establishing Biphonic Records the couplet have become immersed within it. Now home to fellow electro-mongers Luxury Car, the label was an entrepreneurial reaction to the music industry’s lack of encouragement: “Sometimes you've got to get your hands dirty if you want the job doing properly,” says Brown. “So our motives were a combination of control-freakery with an added element of 'screw you guys, we'll do it ourselves' thrown in. We remain open to offers - just not from bampots”

But with bands like Radiohead and the Charlatans beginning to bypass traditional labels in favour of the Internet's free-wheeling climes, what benefits are left in running Biophonic? “How we look and sound is entirely up to us and we get to keep more of the money we make,” says Eaton. Brown chips in: “We’ve become alarmingly good at administration. That’s really what I’m doing with a laptop on stage – managing on big fuck off spreadsheet.”

LIVE REVIEW: Broken Records - Henry's Cellar Bar, 26 October

Lately, an invisible wall has been built around Auld Reekie’s music scene; the type of impenetrable parapet where no-one wants in and no-one ever gets out. The grimey shadow from across the M8 lingers forebodingly over the city’s cobbled streets, turning heads to the tune-ridden hyperbole of jingle-smiths like Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian and the 1990s while Edinburgh’s dishelved artistes are left clenching their teeth with the bitterness of an attention-starved younger sibling. That’s not to say there’s been a lack of effort from ‘The Best Place To Live In The UK’’s natives – Found and The Magnificents slay the senses with more verve than any recent Blighty-based exponent of sonic pandemonium – but while the world transfixes it’s gaze on the smorgasbord of West-Coast delights, Scotland’s Capital sits pensively awaiting it’s call to the spotlight.

Yet tonight perhaps this elongated biding of time has come to an end: in Broken Records Edinburgh finally has a band on which hopes can be pinned and pints can be spilled. There’s no Top-Shop inspired angular-riff shenanigans going on here – the closest this unkempt septet have come to Shock Waves is surely from unwittingly extracting slices of charcoaled bread from the toaster with a knife – yet it’s this lack of self-awareness, this overwhelming sense of stuttering, introverted modesty that makes Broken Records so utterly alluring. Untarnished by the industry’s vulture-like clutches or the South’s spirit-sapping toilet circuit, for once this is a band that’s benefited from the city’s cotton wool insulated interior.

The group’s swaying, melodramatic melodies sweep feet clean from the floor with the bustling charge of keys, accordion and brass that bulges from glorious skyscraper opuses like the majestic ‘If The News Makes You Shy Don’t Watch’ and ‘Nearly Home’. With such a wealth of emotion-invoking instrumentation, inevitable Arcade Fire comparisons will never be far from the tips of scribbling pens but an eclectic urgency far beyond such staid estimations infiltrates its way throughout the set: rippling violin wafts contort into frantic Balkan-punk bedlam; scratching mandolin glides across a cacophonous sea of escalating Celtic rhythms before dispersing abruptly on a shore of crashing symbols; and tender folk-tinged acoustica drops jaws to Jamie Sutherland’s melting, virile mew. It’s bedazzling, it’s euphoric, it’s spine-tingling – really, it’s whatever the fuck these seven prodigious zealots on stage want it to be.

And the beauty is the one hundred or so punters here tonight care for absolutely nothing else. There’s no bar-room guffawing at locals rising above their station, no sneering musos exuding their bilesome putdowns; instead uncoordinated jigs commandeer the front line while synchronised heads nod spellbound at the back. As gorgeous set closer ‘Slow Parade’ ghosts its way to a climatic, captivating finale, the shuddering applause says it all: Edinburgh simply isn’t big enough to contain the sound of Broken Records for much longer. When that wall comes tumbling down, Britain can consider itself very, very lucky.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

SINGLE REVIEW: LCD Soundsytem - Someone Great

As 'Record of the Year' once again rears its ugly head, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver will no doubt be breaching the upper echelons of many a sweaty hack’s hitlist – just not this one’s. Yeah, it made all the right moves, shuffling and jittering to a gallivanting sprawl of beats and bleeps, but it never quite pulled you tooth-first onto the dancefloor with the incessant sleaze-driven dementia of !!!’s Myth Takes, nor did it set brain cells ablaze to the burning electro-gibbering that emitted from Battles’ searing, chromosome corroding Mirrored. Instead it seemed, well, a bit bland; almost feeble in comparison.

Yet, new single ’Someone Great' is undoubtedly the record’s soaring highpoint. A fluid, neck-hair quivering exchange of downtrodden rhythm and glistening synths led by James Murphy’s warm monotonic croon, the track's emotive, minimalist flickering conjures up images of David Byrne cavorting with The Human League at an Orange Juice appreciation convention. Etched in brooding disillusionment, it’s a robotically crafted chasm of deep-rooted despondency that tingles heartstrings whilst clinging longingly to the unlikely prospect of a dead lover’s return. And perhaps most impressively, ‘Someone Great’ is four minutes of such resplendent aural mastery it persuades us doubters to dust down Sound Of Silver and give LCD Soundsytem one final fling at redemption.
Rating: 8/10
Out now on DFA

Thursday, 25 October 2007

ALBUM REVIEW: Underworld - Oblivion With Bells

With wine rapidly transcending into the nation’s favourite pub-time tipple, it’s fitting that Underworld have taken on a more ambient guise. Not that the duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith (once a trio with Darren Emerson’s grey matter splitting wheel-spinnery at the helm) ever consigned themselves to the "lager, lager, lager" lairyness that evolved after 1996’s stratosphere-smashing anthem ‘Born Slippy’ – the otherworldly techno-zipping of Second Toughest In The Infants quelled any such notions – but there comes a point in every act’s life where dignity and a quiet sense of self-confidence supersedes air fisting, speaker-box shuddering euphoria. And in the release of their fifth LP, it seems Underworld’s time has finally come.

Oblivion With Bells is a comedown record crafted by the pioneers of cranium-scrambling comedowns past. Those thunderous juggernautal floor-fillers like ‘King Of Snake’ or ‘Pearl’s Girl’ are long gone, replaced with ethereal slow-building plateaus of electronic swirls and ear-clothed percussion. And where Hyde’s coarse vocal strains once transported jaw-chewing hoards into the upper-echelons of ecstasy infused utopia, his new-found monotonic mumble now guides them through a claustrophobic underpass of foreboding walls and petrifying, sensor-squirming paranoia.

Yet as ‘Crocodile’’s bass heavy groove reverberates round the eardrums it’s difficult to diagnose this mellowed atmospheric adoption. Growling and gnarling to an incessant limb-scattering rhythm, it’s the traversing, smoke-fuelled sound of post-club, all-back-to-mine-at-the-end-of-the-night elation riddled with tempered crows and surging electro-slithers. But once ‘Beautiful Bernout’’s melodica-infused hypnotism bypasses ‘Holding The Mouth’'s driving beat minimalism, Oblivion With Bells gently blends itself into the head-holding, knee-cradling break of dawn.

Shivering synths scatter across ‘Ring Road’’s ritualistic melody as Hyde unfurls himself as a loquacious, all-seeing beat-poet; weaving together prophetic verses with the unabashed devotion of a babbling shamanic street preacher. But this nocturnal aural bliss quickly dozes off into slumberous realms as tempos drop and asphyxiated trance infiltrates banal, attention-less scores like ‘Boy, Boy, Boy’ and the droning, repetitive wail of ‘Faxed Invitation’. Sluggish and littered with an ambivalent sense of uniformity, it’s as if these one-time purveyors of seismic, pulse-pushing epics have aged from distinguished tune-merchants to comatosed, flat-cap festering pensioners over the course of eleven tracks.

Album closer ‘Best Mamgu Ever’ at least proves there’s still some life left before the obligatory pipe and slippers are acquired – lifting itself into an effervescent dub-tinged spectacle of starlit effects and deep-filling bass – but after an auspicious introduction Oblivion With Bells has disappointingly descended into an irreconcilable docile abyss. Perhaps it’s about time Underworld laid off the vino and sunk a few pints of the heavy stuff?
Rating: 6/10
Out Now

ALBUM REVIEW: Jacknife Lee - Jacknife Lee

Now a decorated Grammy award winner, it’s unsurprising to find Jacknife Lee’s fifth long-playing excursion littered with self-aggrandising references and bolshy gold-plated bravado. But back in the days of Big Beat, where madcap joviality and groove heavy ‘choons’ went hand in hand, you suspect lil’ ol' Garret Lee (as he’s otherwise known) would have turned up a snow-coated nostril at such narcissistic delusions of grandeur.
So what’s transformed this one-time beat-friendly people’s champ into puffed-up egoist? Well, a list of production credits that contains snivelling mirror-hugging behemoths Kasabian, U2 and Snow Patrol may have had a modicum of champagne-sipping, Cuban-chuffing influence. But it’s much more likely the scourge of all career-minded musos reared its hideous head and fluttered those green-tinted eyelids in Lee’s direction. No, not paper-thin indie-fucker Kate Moss – the lure of the filthy, filthy lucre.

And straight from the off it’s apparent Lee’s latest release is all about the money-shot but, then again, in this age of credit-riddled superficiality, what isn’t? Yet where roguish Oxford jingle-merchants Supergrass cheekily proclaimed they were in it for the mullah before robbing you blind with barefaced hook-smithery, Lee’s intention are much more insidious. Warming up the lugholes with ‘Fear Nothing’’s lewd scuzzed-up guitars and – the aptly titled – ‘Making Me Money’’s basal electrolysis, the ex-Compulsion guitarist proves he’s lost none of his heel-screeching urgency with a barraging brace of siren-spun funk.

But with minds and limbs ripping up the dancefloor to a bombastic smattering of bass and beats, Lee slowly begins to slip lazy, incongruent lilts in to those unattended alcopops. The floating translucency of ‘I Love The Useless’ is the first indication of this non-consensual change in direction; bizarrely coming across all Killers-esque as its slouching, unguided rhythm sloops into attention-defying oblivion. And from here on in the record grabs at comatosed ears, pushing the limp acidic grooves of ‘Run Me Over’ deep inside without hesitating for an inkling of permission.

Once awoken from this aural violation by ‘What’’s skewered temple-throbbing freak-outs and the grimey palpitations of ‘Monkey In The Meat’, the record skips back to its initial hip-shuffling buzzards. Not that this is entirely uninspiring - album closer The Academy is a handclapping drizzle of jittering delight - but by creating this asymmetrical, sonic palindrome Lee loses the listener in a crevasse of uninspired deadwood long before the climatic termination.

He might have money on his mind, but Jacknife Lee’s gonna have to start thinking in pennies before he gets to the pounds.
Rating: 6/10
Out Now on Fiction

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

LIVE REVIEW: You Say Party! We Say Die!/ Los Campesinos!/Sky Larkin/ Edinburgh Cabaret Voltaire, Tue 16 Oct

Whoever said the kids are all right was wrong. Well, that’s if you’re a work-weary adult who’s ventured over to Cabaret Voltaire to catch freckle-faced upstarts Los Campesinos! over a refreshing tankard of ale. But if you’re one of the electro-shock-mop adorning, Standard Grade-sitting teens here tonight I don’t suppose you give a fuck if us grimacing old bastards are left to sweat it out at the side bar guzzling pints while you and your mates eagerly anticipate a band with more buzz than a hive of speed-freaking bees.

Aye, these over-14 affairs can be infuriating alright, and when the much vaunted Sky Larkin take to the stage while another puzzled punter yelps “Ye mean I cannae take ma pint in tae the fuckin’ gig pal?”, the Leeds-based trio must feel like they’ve infiltrated a Smash Hits party bereft of a guiding parental hand. Yet when their vivacious splurge of karate-chopping riffs and veering keys swivel through the air like a snake-bitten Elastica, the dour-pussed old yins soon drag themselves into the venue's dark chasm to find cherub-faced front-gal Katie Harkin exuding her mystical, sultry tones over the jaunty pop gleam of ‘Keepsakes’.

There’s no doubting the tightness of these tune-churning ragamuffins – the stop/start helter-skelter stutter of latest release ‘Molten’ is more infectious and infinitely more desirable than any salacious, end-of-the-eve indie-kid liaison – but, tonight, there’s a lurking feel of blunt lethargy to what should be a knife-edged visceral massacre. Luckily, Harkin’s got the gift of a lung-busting gab and as the ravenous finale’s twitching kaleidoscope of bass and drum penetrates the crowd’s virginal solar-plexus', her charm-drenched tingle pulls the set from sombre, arm-crossed ambivalence into a salivating urge for more – a desire You Say Party! We Say Die! (YSP!WSD!) is ready and able to service with electrifying ease.

Relentless on record, YSP!WSD! is a deafening, fizzing, ear-bending proposition live. Orchestrated by the spasmodic Kate Bush-isms of the ringlet cropped Becky Ninkovic, this unhinged Vancouver-based quintet of sonic-deviants ignite the booze-thirsty mob into a aural combustion of appreciation with their insatiable, acid charged post-punk throbs. Tracks like the chomping, face in the gutter stomp of ‘Monster’ and 'Poison’’s loin-burning throttle are acrobatically executed by a clutter of rapturous guitar growls and echoic synth swirls that seer through this cavernous lair with the scorching heat of a hell-dwelling pinball.

Ninkovic is the undoubted star of this surging set; writhing and thriving to every pore-seeping riff while her Patti Smith-aping volley of yelps, shrieks, barks and shrills project heaven-wards with intentions of angel-taunting deviancy. Visibly exhausted after this exhilarating eight-song offering, she musters up one last jolt of knee-knotting stage contortion for the mind-pummelling ‘Falling Out’. More raucous than a Russian victory on artificial turf, it’s a jubilant fist-clenched closer deserved of qualification to a - surely soon to be - headline slot.

But tonight it’s the twinkle-toed grandeur of Los Campesinos! that has the locals licking their lips in anticipation. Riddled with the knack of knocking out jinking sun-kissed melodies that infiltrate the heart with a love-struck sense of retrospective euphoria, it’s almost inconceivable these next 45 minutes could be anything other than stunning. Yet as the Cardiff-based septet saunter on stage with the blissful aura of unassuming, ladder-climbing youth, there’s an initial flatness to the occasion that nuzzles its way into the group’s climactic starry-eyed swoons.

The deft glockenspiel chimes and mournful viola that hypnotise so readily on record struggle to entwine themselves amidst a jerking mesh of push-pull vocals and cranking guitar riffs that resemble a cluttered Arcade Fire without the melodramatic grandiloquence. Perhaps it’s a case of fresh-faced rustiness but it takes until the hyperactive glitter frenzy of ‘We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives’ before the group conjure up a spine-tingling shower of melody befitting the gushing hyperbole. But from then on in, the ensemble transcends into a majestic sprawl of shimmering keys and tumbling percussive tomfoolery that wraps its romance-hankering paws around a luscious 'It Started With A Mixx’ before wholeheartedly embracing the virulent harmonic splendour of ‘You! Me! Dancing!’.

And as the last glistening melody slinks off into the air, us grumbling auld bastards retreat to the exit for a much deserved post-gig pint. Tonight, those Los Camp’ kids were alright but in the future there’s no doubt they can be much, much better

Sunday, 21 October 2007

SINGLE REVIEW: The Duke Spirit - Ex Voto EP

When a record arrives at the doorstep branded with exuberant proclamations of life-affirming brilliance it’s best to be sceptical. But when said recording has been crafted by perennial London peripherals The Duke Spirit that scepticism quickly subsides into lip-curling cynicism. Y’see, the Capital-dwelling quintet’s debut LP Love Is An Unfamiliar Name whetted lips but never quite managed to quench that desire for exhilarating, bollock crunching, scrotum shrivelling rock ‘n’ roll. Instead it left you parched; thirsty for a freshly squeezed sonic sensation with a little more juice and a lot more bite.

Yet in new release ’Ex Voto EP’, it seems the Leila Moss-led ensemble has finally found the right ingredients – it’s just a pity it’s come almost two years too late. Swashbuckling over ’Lassoo’’s disfigured back-drop of elated horns and feverous guitar churns, Moss’ impassioned vocal is ravenous in its incessancy; coming across like the rabid, bone-gnarling spawn of PJ Harvey and Kim Gordon before the track's rugged oscillations cascade into ’Dog Roses’’ atmospheric sweep. Gothic of heart, it’s an intelligent and harrowing juxtaposition of stumbling drums and garish piano twinkles that suggests a band maturing with TV On The Radio-esque intensity.

After such a promising beginning, 'A Wild Hope ''s guttural dirge ebbs disappointingly into the languid staidness of old but this limp descent is only fleeting as 'Masca' ’s terse lament draws the EP to an epic close. Bristling to the call of slinking percussion and Moss’ eerily morose scowl, this dramatic, escalating canter proves The Duke Spirit may just have the substance to back up their billing.
Rating: 7/10
Out 22 October through You Are Here Music

SINGLE REVIEW: Lightspeed Champion - Midnight Surprise

For one so adroit at composing virulent sonic mayhem, Dev Hynes has undergone a dramatic transformation as Lightspeed Champion. The corrosive riffs and slanted, lug-piercing beats that exuded from Test Icicles’ quivering bombast are long gone; replaced by waltzing acoustic strum-a-longs, melting doe-eyed melodies and a vanilla-scented notion of romance more in tune with the gentle mewing of a coiffeured balladeer than roguish hell-raising miscreant. And with the release of new single 'Midnight Surprise' Hynes further extends this rapid reinvention as love-struck troubadour.

A string-laden, country-tinged lament split into three saccharine-soaked subsections, this starry-eyed ten-minute orchestration flutters heart strings with trickling guitar slides and a genial agglomeration of brass and keys. Purring with a breathy laconic glint that recalls a less grandiose Martin Rossiter, Hynes pits himself amidst the mire of triumphant British song-writers and re-emerges as wistfully as Stuart Murdoch caught in a retrospective haze of graceful mid-'90s melancholy.
It’s not quite the stirring opus you suspect was intended – the four-minute radio edit sits more readily at ease as a blithesome hook-dazed bluster – but, while Hynes’ metamorphosis continues to take shape, 'Midnight Surprise' is an ear-pleasing attestation to the triumphs that surely lie ahead.
Rating: 7/10

Released 22 October on Domino Records

Thursday, 18 October 2007


Glitterbeat? Puzzle Pop? Math Rock? Choose whichever languidly contrived label irks least but there’s no escaping it – this was the year music got clever. Where 2006 herald the birth of New Rave's neon-tinged dim-wittedness, 2007 gleefully witnessed its demise. All of a sudden, the idiotic glowsticks and fluorescent melodies that zigzagged across the breadth of the UK were replaced by a spontaneous sonic intricacy bereft of structure and oozing intelligence.

Yet, at the turn of the year, this cranium bulging revival seemed unlikely. The Klaxons were emblazoned on the cover of every trend-ravenous rag and High Street stores pumped out psychedelic outfits that could only have been designed by the bedraggled love-child of Johnny Thunders and George Clinton. In short, things were bad. But then in April, as if out of nowhere, a bug-eyed, acid-freaking, mind-bending EP called Atlas landed. The tides were slowly turning; Battles had commenced.

One month later and the New York-based quartet further moistened the crusted pants of music hacks everywhere with towering long-playing beast Mirrored - a stunning, catalytic debut that propelled the band’s aural intellectualism into the spotlight. But when Spins and Needles catches up with founding member Tyondai Braxton before a show at London’s Koko it discovers Battles are still coming to terms with their new found status.

“[2007’s] been a whirlwind – completely amazing and totally unexpected,” exclaims the multi-instrumentalist and son of jazz musician Anthony Braxton. “On one hand, you have a crazy idea that if you like something then someone else will. But if you look at the track record of this type of music I guess it’s surprising when something like this crops over into the mainstream and grabs people when you wouldn’t expect it to. It’s not like the attention has been over the top but we’re all really excited by the reaction.”

This reaction has been globally unanimous, with Mirrored turning-on everyone from sour-faced British indie kids to the “absolutely manic” Japanese pop-loving public. So, how does the band feel about this newly acquired fan-base? “It’s incredible,” says Braxton. “At first we had people [at gigs] who were a little more tuned into this kind of music and then as the momentum of [Mirrored] has picked up, I’ve started to realise a whole cross section of people are interested and that’s a really encouraging thing. It doesn’t matter that there are so many people interested, the thing I’m really excited about is how different the audience is – that’s a really great feeling.”

Impossible to pin down, Battles is a band that works without constraints and it’s this ethos of malleability that Braxton attributes to Mirrored’s appeal: “Our strength is the players and the perspective of the band and the challenge is always to find room enough for everyone to be satisfied with what they are doing,” he explains. “The open-endedness of the exploration [during the recording of Mirrored] led us down fresh paths which makes the record kind of opaque. But the process of creating the record was really fresh and whether people think it’s original or not is irrelevant to us.”

Yet original is exactly what Mirrored is. Stinging nerve-ends with gnarling laser-gun electro, inter-planetary android warbling and jitterbug percussion, it’s a smorgasbord of Kraut-rock, Dance, Funk and - to a certain extent - Pop. But when The Skinny attempts to uncover the influences behind the record’s sound, Braxton’s answer is equally obtuse: “It’s something we try not to answer – it kind of marginalises us,” he smarts. “In a way, our influences are transparent – you can really hear them [on Mirrored] – and in another way they are quite obscured but, really, I would say the music itself has been pulled out of thin air.”

Right, that’s cleared that up, but with the tedious list frenzy of ‘Record of the Year’ rapidly encroaching, which spinning disc gets Battles seal of approval? “Oh…,”sighs Braxton. “The Dirty Projectors new album (Rise Above) is great but honestly I really don’t know.” Perhaps this uncertainty means he considers Mirrored the best of 2007? With a knowing intelligence that underpins the band’s musical ethos, Braxton laughs: “Only if you say so, only if you say so.”

Battles - too clever by half.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

SINGLE REVIEW: Los Campesinos! – The International Tweexcore Underground

The International Tweexcore Underground is utterly terrifying. An acrobatic, vanilla-scented waltz bustling with speaker-blotting harmonies and a gliding string-skewered melody that palpitates hearts through mouths, Los Campesinos! third single will have you weeping with fear. But it’s not entirely down to the Welsh septet's new release being quite possibly the most thrilling spectrum of xylophone chiming pop-perfection you’ll hear this year. No, it’s because The International Tweexcore’s kaleidoscopic splendour has been concocted by a cherubic bunch of sickly-sweet kids barely old enough to order a pint, nevermind write a track steeped in pure symphonic brilliance. See? Completely terrifying.
Rating: 9/10

Released on 22 October through Wichita Records

SINGLE REVIEW: Chris T-T – This Gun Is Not A Gun EP

Lauded by tatty music rags as the saviour of British song-writing, Chris T-T’s rise hasn’t exactly been meteoric. While rag-tag rapscallion Jamie T burst headlong into the mainstream, this Brighton-based trouveur was left immersed in glowing tributes without any of the coin-spinning success and judging by new EP This Gun Is Not A Gun it’s hardly surprising. Squeezing himself into a fissure between Billy Bragg and Tom Robinson, his infectious politically-fused acoustica scythes through the bones of contemporary culture without thought to chart-stardom. Refreshing as it may be, you’re left with the impression Chris T-T is never destined for commercial acclaim.
Rating: 6/10
Released on 19 November through Xtra Mile Recordings.

ALBUM REVIEW: Cruiser - Northern Electric

Six long years have passed since Cruiser first released Northern Electric. During that time a plethora of presupposed indie-saviours descended as dramatically as they rose; Canada emerged as the holy-land of exhilarating musical miscreants; and Britney Spears exchanged her pop-princess pig tails for an infinitely less cutesy combination of burgers and booze. But amidst the tectonic commotion one constant remained: Northern Electric is still a jaw-dropping slice of sonic mastery as fresh as the glistening morning dew. Swirling breathlessly through the cranium like an inter-galactic My Latest Novel, the Cowdenbeath ensemble’s re-released debut is gloriously infused with tender synth-led flourishes like Blown and the whimsical lilting of Hooligan Noise. Every swooning track tingles to a shy, elegiac pop melody that traverses into tear-duct orchestrations so honest they make Belle & Sebastian seem callous. Gorgeous and timeless, the sound of Cruiser’s Northern Electric will have the next six years flying in.
Rating: 4/5

Relased on 28 October through KFM Records

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

ALBUM REVIEW: Augie March – Moo, You Bloody Choir

Moo, You Bloody Choir’’s not a title you’d readily associate with Australia’s sun-blushed pastures. The phrase is so awash with cynicism it’s almost natural to assume this is yet another introspective release from a doom-harbingering troupe of Scots. But Melbourne quintet Augie March prove you don’t require perennially grey skies to create stirring melancholy. Threading a soulful needle through a cloak of hazy melodies and brittle country trickles, the group’s third LP appears unshapely but develops into a well-fitted shawl of sound. Burdened by the maudlin balladry of Victoria’s Secrets, the opening half is as drippy as it is forgettable but once Just Passing Through’s tigerish riff growls its way into the breezy banjo tweaks of Thin Captain Crackers what transpires is a captivating fusion of campfire laments and rich harmonic fluttering. While not quite a master-class in morbidity, ‘Moo..’ is haunting enough to engross the most sombre of hearts.

Rating 6/10

Released on 29 October through Columbia

ALBUM REVIEW: Republic Of Loose – Aaagh!

2007’s been funk-ing crazy, ain't it? From the freakoid majesty of Chromeo's Fancy Footwork to Prince's sold-out 21-night residency in the venue formerly known as the Millennium Dome, it seems every man and his velour adorning mongrel has a hankering for booty grinding, slap bass tickling grooves. But, inevitably, the new funk revival’s going to generate some unwanted dangle-berries and in Republic Of Loose’s porcelain blocking sound it’s undoubtedly dropped a stinking log. This nine-strong Celtic ensemble’s second LP ‘Aaagh!’ is an indigestible splatter of chart-slobbering sheen riddled with pantomimic misogyny and a neanderthalic sense of violence. Perpetually bulging to grinding R&B rhythms, Timbaland-aping tracks like the The Translation or the insipid flamenco shuffle of Break! could transcend Jamiroquai into the pantheon of disco legends. Thematically dubious and musically incorrigible, ‘Aaagh!’ proves that when it comes to creating hook laden floor fillers Republic Of Loose can funk right off.
Rating: 2/10

Relased 5 November on Loaded Dice Records

Saturday, 6 October 2007

ALBUM REVIEW:Beirut - The Flying Club Cup

The element of surprise was pivotal to Beirut’s exhilarating Gulag Orkestar. At a time when skinny-fit vagabonds were blurting out tedious ten-a-penny riffs, a shoulder shrugging 20-year-old was orchestrating an ambuscade of striding percussion, deft ukulele bristles and bulging horn flourishes that marched proudly to the traversing rhythms of Eastern Europe. It was a rare explosion of vibrancy in a cocoon of grey sonic insipidity; a stunning declaration of war on the aural myopia that had saturated our eardrums. And once Zach Condon staggered onto the battlefield trumpet in hand, warbling veraciously over those hypnotic Balkan soundscapes, the struggle was over – surrender was all you could do.

But the effects of such an abrupt invasion are fleeting; pretty soon attention abates and questions are posed. It’s during this time of doubt and mistrust where unequivocal, unadulterated talent ascends above the one-trick mares wheeled out as limbless talking heads on spirit-sapping Channel 4 list-umentaries. And with the release of Beirut’s second LP The Flying Club Cup, Condon’s moment of judgement has finally arrived. Make no mistake: a Gulag Orkestar Mk II would hardly render this precocious talent the gypsy-folk embodiment of Junior Senior, but to linger on the debut’s laurels would suppress the captivating aura of reformation that felt like such a juggernautal antithesis in the first place.

Luckily, Zachery’s an explorer - one completely ill at ease with stringing out a winning formula for another effortless victory - and in the sound of The Flying Club Cup we find our wily young troubadour packing up his instrument bulging nap-sack and soaring onwards in search pastures new. The ghoulish Balkansian stomps that infused every crevasse of Orkestar have vanished, replaced with charming trinkets of chanson pop melody and swaying Baroque cracknels. It’s a record that transcends beyond the swarming despondency engulfed in the likes of ‘Postcards From Italy’ or ‘After The Curtain’, lending itself more to the retrospective sky-larking that spilled out from last year’s Lon Gisland EP. But what The Flying Club Cup shares with its darkly-tinged predecessor is an overwhelming penchant to excavate uncultivated lands - and this time the setting’s decidedly more Gallic.

Yet from ‘Nantes’’ first brittle organ flicker its clear Condon’s composed equilibrium has been ruffled by this newly arrived destination. His unmistakable brazen croon is tempered with a fatigued tenderness that twists the mariachi saunter of brass and percussion into an evocative ballad, and this downtrodden sense of self-assessment entwines itself throughout the fabric of every intricately woven track. The dramatic symbol clashes and haunting choral backdrop still present themselves thrillingly in ‘Guyamas Sonora’’s climatic opus but Condon shies away from the indecipherable wail of old, becoming more statesman like in projection. And for that, The Flying Club Cup is all the more mesmerising.

Venturing out on to windswept Parisian streets, Zach’s tankard-swigging trill leads ‘A Sunday Smile’ through a weeping horn-blowing carousel to the gorgeous ukulele bluster of ‘The Penalty’ before axis-spinning onto album highlight ‘Forks And Knives (La Fete)’’s illuminated pathway. A shuffling big-band cacophony of trumpet, strings and tickling mandolin, this lamp-swinging saunter swoons to a twinkle-toed Broadway-esque rhythm that rises perkily above the heart-breaking introversion of ‘Un Dernier Verre (Pour La Route)’ or the title track’s gushing orchestration.

Speckles of Jacques Brel emanate through the spine of this touching, elegiac affair – particularly during the ornately structured ‘Cliquot’ where the twitching, convulsive tones of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallet mingle amidst breathless accordion wheezes and rat-a-tat drum stumbles – but embedded within woozy, romance-trickled laments like ‘Cherbourg’ lies the mature lyrical persuasiveness of a vaudevillian Cave or Waits. Such glowing accolades may seem impetuous considering this is but the second notch on Condon’s barely creaking musical bed-post, yet every inch is so tenderly crafted there’s little doubt more knee-trembling triumphs lie ahead for our cherub-cheeked wanderer.

Despite being the unmistakable sound of Beirut, this is not the Orkestar extension so widely expected. Rather than congesting the listener with frantic Eastern European folk shanties, a poignant nobility and romantic notion of contemporary France permeates its way into your conscience with unbridled zeal. The surprise may have eroded through the passing of time but with the spellbinding release of The Flying Club Cup young Zachery Condon proves he’s lost none of his creative sparkle.

Rating: 8/10

Out 8 October On 4AD Records

INTERVIEW: Animal Collective

It was never meant to be this way. The sequence-spangled sound of pop music should now be extinct; consigned to a long forgotten graveyard bulging with fallen soap stars, loin burning hot pants and the three most bile-invoking surnames in the English language: Stock, Aitken and Waterman. If the grunge stained, pill-popping, Kappa clad dawn of the 90s taught us anything it was that pop would eventually eat itself whole and, oh, how we would jig on its reeking worm-ridden carcass.

But here we are, almost a decade later, deep in the belly of the noughties with our ears consumed by a never ending ream of childish rhythm patterns and limb-slinking melodies. Y'see pop music never died, instead it did the one thing nobody expected – it evolved. Suddenly every hollow cheeked indie urchin was churning out music for ladies to dance to; gun-totting gangstas lured pretty-pink songstresses into the Benjamin-spinning sound of 'The Ghetto'; and Girls Aloud became, well, the most dazzling ensemble of sugar-coated chanteuses this side of Bananarama. Rather than consuming itself, pop music's become a ravenous polymorphous beast, chomping its way through every impediment that has the audacity to confront it.

Well, almost.

Because at the turn of the millennium, across the Atlantic in the seaport city of Baltimore, a group of four childhood friends were preparing to release a debut LP that would prove the antithesis to pop's relentless surge. Built around a splatter of feedback, rhythmic beatboxing and demonic yelps, it was an astonishing lug-ringing masterpiece that would catapult Avey Tare, Deakin, Geologist and Panda Bear into the spotlight; and one which would lay the foundations for two of the most spellbinding records of the past ten years - Sung Tongs and Feels. This stunning debut was Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished and the band? The mighty Animal Collective.

Seven years later and eight albums down, the unassuming quartet have just launched their latest instalment of unhinged musical mastery to a myriad of delirious whoops and cheers. Strawberry Jam is unmistakably Animal Collective; swishing vividly to the sort of heel-spinning sonic shivers that escalated their previous efforts into euphoric cranium warping triumphs. But amidst the enraptured critical mêlée has risen whispers of disillusionment, gently blowing murmurings of over-production and commercialism in to this sphere of contentment. Could the unthinkable be true - has Animal Collective finally succumbed to the trappings of pop gentrification?

Relaxing in his New York apartment, one of the band's founding members Dave Portner [aka Avey Tare] ponders the question as he speaks to Spins and Needles: "We still can't really figure out why people have been saying [Strawberry Jam's] predominantly a pop record," he says slightly bemused. "I guess the way the songs are a lot simpler makes it stand out as a little poppier but, if anything, this record is a bit less commercial because we took out the harmonies and left in a lot of the overdubs and flourishes. So really, we didn't think it was poppy or melodic – but it seems we were wrong."

Much of the hubbub over this newly supposed pop direction revolves around the group's deflection from independent label Fat Cat Records to Domino – home of multi-million selling indie pinup boys Franz Ferdinand – after the release of 2005's globally lauded Feels.
But Portner is determined to assuage fears of any record company meddling during Strawberry Jam's production: "[Domino] wanted to record us for who we are and what we have going on. They just wanted to help us progress in what were doing and that was pretty sweet. I mean, every band wants to deliver something that everybody is psyched with but it's not like they put any extra pressure on us. The only pressure we had was to do something we thought was interesting but then that's always been the way with us. We're always trying to create something that's definitely different from everything else."

It's an unarguable point – Animal Collective are certainly different. From the babbling psychedelia of Here Comes The Indian, to Sung Tongs' majestic freakoid folk, and onward through the gauzy guitar trickles of Feels; each record seems to relinquish it's grip on reality, letting unchecked, untainted emotions infect every glorious spiral of sound. Given the group's nomadic predilection to composing records, it's perhaps unsurprising their latest release is an attempt at aurally capturing the texture of its sticky sweet title.

"To be honest I think it all has to do with the fact that strawberry jam is widely available," Portner jokes. "Noah [Lennox, aka Panda Bear] saw the jam packet on a flight and we decided that's exactly what we wanted the record to sound like. The image came through working on the songs and it just seemed to make sense as it had a futuristic quality to it and at the time we wanted to make forward-thinking songs. It's very much a post-Feels record - it's a little more inward, where we were almost reassessing what was going on in our lives. This record is about finding positivity and knowing that every thing we do together is special."

Strawberry Jam is every inch the sound of a band that's wriggled its ways through a mire of good times and bad and it's in this world-weary bond where Portner believes the group's perpetual push for innovation lies, even though each member now lives in a different city or, in Panda Bear's case, continent (he relocated to Lisbon in 2004). This constant urge to progress has predictably led to the exploration of ventures outside the safe-haven of Animal Collective - with the most notable being Panda Bear's mesmerising solo LP Person Pitch - but does this constant fleeting between projects affect the group's focus?

"No, not at all. Having the freedom to record music on our own and hanging out together is what Animal Collective's all about," Portner exclaims. "It's a lot different now from how it used to be because we're all living in different places, but it makes playing music together a lot more meaningful. Now when we get together it's a really special moment for us but the space we have helps us to collect our own sounds and write our own material. It's just an extension of how we grew up, passing our own songs on to one another. I guess, for one of us to take issue with someone else's music now would be weird - we've been friends since high-school so it's always been, and probably always will be, this way."

With the virtue of friendship at the root of Animal Collective's creative ethos, Portner can never foresee a time when the group decides to make an assault on the mainstream: "We have no inclination to be a huge band," he confesses. "The joy of playing music is what matters to us over anything else – it brings out our most innovative and basic qualities. We lose ourselves in it and become really un-human - kind of like aliens."

While the all-plundering pop behemoth shows no sign of relenting its trawl through our fertile musical pastures, it may just be the genius sounds of these unaffected aliens that finally saves us all from the clutches of the manufactured machine.

LIVE REVIEW: Foals - Cabaret Voltaire, 24 September

Epileptic strobes blind enlarged pupils; beads of sweat drip tap-like from the ceiling; and a gaggle of beanpole fanboys stand fists aloft, each in awe of the latest scene-shifting sensations. Yup, the UK's 'Next Big Thing' - otherwise known as Foals - are in town and the trendy kids lap up every second. But this Oxford-based quintet conjure more than the staple riff-angles and Topshop-circa styles that so often plague naive young pretenders; there's an unexpected intellect immersed in the cyborg guitar rickets and pulsing afro-beat woodpecking it's way through Cabaret Voltaire. In this hyperactive furnace of luminous sonics, frontman Yannis Philippakis and his roguish cohorts fizz the crowd into a sprawl of flailing limbs with Mathletics' whirling laser-driven disco and the jittery psycho-babble emitting from closer Hummer. At just thirty minutes this hypnotic set is sadly short-lived, but tonight we may just have witnessed these young Foals grow into prize-winning thoroughbreds.
Rating: 8/10

ALBUM REVIEW: Swimmer One - The Regional Variations

Autumn’s a cantankerous swine of a season. One minute it’s a romantic courtyard of crumpled earth-worn leaves, where lovers sneak kisses amidst a backdrop of slowly receding greenery; the next, force ten gales are veering you headlong into the path of a Number 42 while you stagger to work, leaving you cursing the ineffectiveness of those damn greenhouse gases.

Aye, this time of year can be a bitch alright – especially for the less optimistically minded – and with the release of The Regional Variations Edinburgh/Glasgow-based electro smugglers Swimmer One have perfectly encapsulated fall’s bittersweet disposition.

Laden with doom-cast canticles, this debut LP is an understated juxtaposition of absorbing melody and scything lyricism that transcends beyond its initial coy ushering into a whooshing gem of elegiac synth-carved splendour. Exploring every imbecilic facet of modern day pop-culture – from reality TV’s inexhaustible grip on society to the trauma of a faceless internet romance – the duo of Andrew Eaton and Hamish Brown inject a stream of playful, yet caustic, asides through their minimalist digitisation; creating a record steeped in the crabit tradition of Scottish songwriters but exuding a warmth of heart akin to the ethereal excursions of Flotation Toy Warning.

The machine crafted beat of opener 'Drowning Nightmare 1' tentatively leads the ears down a winding stairwell of dank zigzagging keys and bolshy bass, lit only by the placid demure of Eaton’s soft, intelligent mew. With such a bleak exterior it’d be easy to disregard Swimmer One as yet another proponent of the rejuvenated, but utterly dreary, shoegazing scene. But for all the downcast protestations of tracks like ‘The Fakester Genocide’ and the eerie ‘Whatever You Do Don’t Go In The Basement’, an uplifting hint of optimism begins to shuffle its way onto the fore with teasing regularity.

‘But My Heart Is Broken’’s transient subtlety recalls the heart-charged hopefulness of Aereogramme’s ‘Barriers’, dampening cheeks with a symphonic sheen reminiscent of ’80s synth-poppers the Pet Shop Boys. And it’s in these moments of brittle expectancy where Swimmer One ground themselves amongst the finest luminaries on Scotland’s expansive musical landscape. Skewed by a sprawling tableau of swirling, stirring electronica, the record’s laconic narrative is converted into a euphoric vantage point; allowing the morbid despair of ‘The Balanced Company’ and ‘Regional’ to thrive as throbbing, dashing, lip-pursing slabs of cosmic regency.

Captivating to the point of hypnosis, The Regional Variations is a record of such heart-melting honesty not even the bitter autumnal chill can penetrate its innately warm interior.

Rating: 8/10

Out 3 September on Biophonic Records

ALBUM REVIEW: Plain White T’s -Every Second Counts

Athough never exactly water tight, the Jo Whiley seal of approval offered a reliable sanctuary during the storm of tracksuit-adorning guitar-clutching miscreants that flooded the mid 90s. Alongside bug-eyed Evening Session cohort Steve Lamacq, Whiley seduced a nation of reclusive ill-fitting teens with her sultry tones, seemingly unrivalled insight into all things indie and, teasingly, her refusal to wear shoes in the studio (a move which appeared both rebellious and sexy but now seems plain unhygienic). Yup this girl was a looker with immaculate taste in tunes, making her the trouser-straining wet-dream of every lank-haired fifteen year old.

But those halcyon days of bedroom bound listening eventually faded. The Evening Session slowly dissolved, Jo moved on to the tedium of daytime radio, and listeners finally grew old enough to venture into scuzzy, beer soaked dives and discover their own heroic melody-makers.

Yet, when Plain White T's fourth LP 'Every Second Counts' passed into my hands with a glowing tribute from Ms Whiley emblazoned on it's sleeve, those doe-eyed early-evening memories came gushing back. This was someone who'd shaped my musical foundations, someone who was responsible for my bulging un-choreographed CD collection funded by an emaciated bank balance, and, no matter how many years had slipped through the egg-timer of life, I knew she could be trusted.

How wrong I was.

What she hears in this shit-shifting, lug-burning, stomach-wrenching excuse of a band is beyond me. The Illinois based quintet epitomise the soulless, pitiable bile that soundtracks neanderthalic frat parties across America; the type of shindig dominated by bench-pressing jocks and mini-skirt tugging beauty pageant clones looking to touch 'third base' having guzzled their way through kegs of piss-warm ale whilst crushing beer cans on their gray matter devoid craniums.

Littered with cringing adolescent takes on the complexity of relationships, every track alludes to one of two regimented formulas: either tuneless thrashing guitar dirge built around a hushed verse and loud chorus or – the infinitely worse - crawling, candle burning strummery that drizzles out archaic couplets like the woeful "what's it like in New York City, I'm a thousand miles away but, girl, tonight you look so pretty"['Hey There Delilah] with no hint of shame.

Nothing here has the nous or audacity to arrest the mind with even a smidgen of intrigue as the band prefer to languish corpse-like in You And Me''s multi-layered post-Sum 41 jizz and the utterly dispassionate ska-punk splurge of 'Friends Don't Let Friends Dial Drunk' (surely the worst song title of the millennium?). The entire record is so skull numbingly predictable it's easy to pre-empt the video for any forthcoming single; y'know, the one where a brooding frontman is initially ponderous and morose in that oh-so-emo way before climaxing with the entire band jumping into a pool, instruments in hand, while scantily clad girls cavort joyously around them.

Perhaps I'm just too old to understand the allure but, as one slice of college rock-schlock sloops limply into another, it's questionable whether we need the Plain White T's stateside tripe at a time when our own generic batch of jingle-merchants are hovering smugly around the chart's upper echelons. Yet, with Whiley and her contingent of play list-adoring accomplices continuing to champion such purposeless pinups across the airwaves, it seems depressingly like the record buying masses have little say in the matter.

Rating: 3/10

Out 1 September on Hollywood Records