Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Spins and Needles' Albums of 2011

Oh look it's another list. Boring, I know, but it's the end of the year and us music writers have fuck all else to do apart from look back on 2011 and reflect. Being a hater of both Bon Ivor's and PJ Harvey's recent efforts, my selection this year sways away from the hive, veering between synth-addled spectacles and acoustic guitar wielding weepers.

Curiosly, I don't think there's anything in there my 15 year old self would have termed 'indie' (i.e scruffy chancers with guitars and scuzzy tunes)
. Does that mean 'indie' is dead or the 'indie' inside of me is dead? A question for another day perhaps, but given my prediliction for guitar based music a few years back it is a touch odd to see the music I've most enjoyed this year is, in every sense, synthetic. I guess I must be moving with the times. Look at me go.

1. John Maus - We Must Become The Pitless Censors of Ourselves

This is one of these albums I keep coming back to. The cold, synthsized aesthetic makes it a perfect London sountrack, but there's a interior pathos to these tracks that means their just as listenable played low on a late night. An absolute gem.

2. Rob St John - Weald
Annoyingly this came it after I had submitted my list for records of the year. Rob has always been an amazing performer and here, with this sumptious debut, he compounds his place as one of the UK's most engaging singer/songwriters.

Post-dubstep? Sigh-Fi? Who knows and, really, who cares. Aaron Jerome's debut LP is a masterclass in understated beats and glitchy effects. Admittedly, it wasn't something I was initially in to, but after a few spins while pounding the pavements to and from Liverpool Street its jarring nodes clicked like Fonzy's fingers in a 50s dancehall.

4. Tune-Yards - w h o k i l l
As much as I enjoyed Bird-Brain, w h o k i l l is a dramatic step up in both songwriting expertise and production value for the idiosyncratic Merrill Garbus. Brutal, intense and utterly compelling, it's the sort of album that you can mine for months and never quite get to the bottom of it.

5. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
In the cold depths of February Nicolas Jaars airless compositions seemed to be on continous loop. But once the days lightened its impact lessened, Jaar's weighty electronic matter sat ill at ease with the the joviality of summer. Now, with winter back in full swing, it's once again a fascinating, harrowing listen.

6. Psychedelic Horseshit - Laced
A mental, psychedelia-splattered crackpot of a record from lo-fi genius Matt Whitehurst. The magnificent I Hate The Beach is still my running tune of choice.

7. David Thomas Broughton - Outbreeding
With his odd, almost incomprehensible warble, David Thomas Broughton is one of the UK's most curious songwriters. This sublime acoustic LP is testament not only to his lunatic Anthony Hegarty-like pipes, but also his infectious ear for a tune. Mental bastard indeed.

8. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
This hits the top ten based almost purely on the frazzled fuckery of album opener Glass Jar. The rest of the album's not too shabby either - filled with bleeps, bleeps and rhythmic chants - but as a cut Glass Jar is the record's absolute zenith.

9. Conquering Animal Sound - Kammerspiel
Initially I thought Kammerspiel was far too technical to ever truly immerse in, but after a few months of prolonged listening it clicked, transforming into a mesmerising electro-beaut of a record.


10. Cat's Eyes - Cat's Eyes
Well, this was a surprise. Faris Badwan (he of Horrors fame) and Rachel Zeffira (she of opera soprano fame) joined forces to create one of 2011's most spell-binding and utterly fascinating shimmers of retro-pop brilliance.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

My pictures of the year

In the couple of years that I've been faffing around with a 'proper' camera, I think the last 12 months have shown a definite improvement in what I'm doing. Not that I'm great, mind, but I can absolutely see the difference between the types of shots I was interested in when I was learning the ropes, compared to the types of shots I'm taking now, having started to understand said ropes.

Interestingly, what I've noticed most is that my eye for every day detail has improved remarkably. These days I find myself looking at textures, patterns, people and environments and thinking "how could I turn this into a strong image?", even without a camera to hand.

As a hobby I'm finding it more and more enjoyable. Moving somewhere new was made less daunting through the eye of a lens; while the many hours I have alone at the weekends when Su is working are often taken up with myriad picture-taking escapades (which mostly include my favourite family of swans on the lake outside my flat).

So, with it being the end of the year, and the end of the year being all about 'lists', here's a list of my favourite pictures I've taken in 2011. I'm not suggesting these are in anyway amazing, or even good, but from all the various photographs I've taken in 2011 these are the ones that mean the most to me.

Dunbar harbour, Dunbar [February]

North Berwick harbour, North Berwick [March]

Roseburn Park, Edinburgh [April]

Strathy Beach, Caithness [April]

Forth Rail Bridge, North Queensferry [May]

The Crags, Edinburgh [May]

4 July barbeque in Florida [July]

Water of Leith, Edinburgh [July]

Roseburn, Edinburgh [July]

Snape Maltings, Suffolk [August]

East Feast, Suffolk [September]

Mersea Island, Essex [October]

Westminster, London [October]

Autumnal leaves in Morris Town, New York [November]

Central Park, New York [November]

Cortlandt St. subway station, New York [November]

My birthday cake, Colchester [December]

Our Christmas tree, Colchester [December]

Thanksmas, Colchester [December]

Friday, 16 December 2011

One of my records of the year: Found - Factorycraft

*First part writen by Sean Adams, DiS Editor....

Each year, DiS asks our staff to vote for their albums of the year. Our editor vaguely tots up the 'votes' and then contrasts and compares this with what's been written about, as well as what has been talked about all year on our boards. DiS then ends up compiling some sort of year-end list, which attempts to approximately sum up the year that was. And then lotsa people object and moan about their favourite record not being at number one...

However, each and every year, there are records which slip through the cracks, that individuals who write for the site absolutely adore, yet few others seem to even be aware of. To help highlight a few _lost_ records, a few years ago we invented the Lost List, and ask individuals to write some words explaining why they love the album in question. Next up, our former Drowned in Sound columnist, Billy Hamilton, shares a personal tale of a record he wishes to upgrade the 7/10 score he awarded it earlier this year...


Back in March when Factorycraft was released, it didn’t feel like a record that warranted much attention past the initial curious few listens. Found, the album’s creators, had seemingly gone from eclectic, electronically-charged path-cutters to “flat-out indie-rock”, as I soLink charmingly described their musical evolution in these pages. For a band (or arts collective, if you’d prefer) so cavalier in its pursuit of the unknown, there was a disappointing sense of regression in their efforts.

It wasn’t that Factorycraft was a bad record (for those who get into a midden over these things, 7/10 is a GOOD score) it was just a surprising one. Found, after all, were renowned - in Scotland at least - for pushing boundaries and stretching ideas, often creating astonishing, free form funks that climaxed as unidentifiable melodies. Yet, here they were as a stripped-down three-piece dishing out threadbare, straight-laced ditties. It was fine, yes, but something didn’t seem quite right.

So, I forgot about it.

Left alone to collect pixelated dust in my Apple-made MP3 shelf, I imagine Factorycraft, if it were a Cypbraphone-like machine, would have wondered what it had done to suffer the indignation of languishing with the also-rans. After all, had it not received a reasonable score? Hadn’t I commended “You’re No Vincent Gallo” and ‘Anti-Climb Paint’ with a swooning, pear-tooth grinning thumbs up? So why, that collection of compressed files would have asked, do I regularly skip past them like some sort giddy girl guide when it made an unsolicited appearance on my morning commute?

Well. The fact is Factorycraft is a solid, straight faced work of Scottish songsmanship. I had appreciated its sounds, I’d even compared them to Arab Strap - Arab Fucking Strap - but nothing kept me coming back for more. To these ears, it was an austere album for austere times. Given the chance, my fingers flicked to the wild, bestial ravage of Tune-Yards’ WHOKILL or the thrill of SBTRKT’s pavement scorching post-dubstep,. Why bother with something so… flat?

And then it all changed. In my last few days of living in Edinburgh (a town I’d called home for 11 years), Found played a miniscule indoor festival in a church just off Leith Walk. While all around them were turning out earthy, arid acoustica to a congregation of hirsute chin strokers, Found vented an itching, scratching, syncopating spleen of bug-eyed electronica that scorched through the church like the burning fires of Beelzebub.

It was a revelation. Here was a band making the most maddening, insane, futuristic sounds on stage, yet its last record had almost passed me by. The feeling didn’t fit. So off I hopped, back to my 4th generation, screen-splintered iPod handed down from my other half. Skipping past The Field, The Flaming Lips, Floatation Toy Warning and Foals, I eventually landed at Found’s doorstep; softly knocking, almost apologetically, to be let back in, because maybe I was wrong; maybe it deserved a second chance. Maybe I deserved a second chance.

And what difference a few months of space and time made. Factorycraft suddenly began to make sense. What I discovered wasn’t a straight-edged, indie-pop jamboree; instead, here was a dark, dank, slow burning cauldron of invention. Sure, guitars chimed with jingle-jangle glee across the bow of 'I’ll Wake With a Seismic Head No More', but under the surface lies a complex eco-system of rhythm that holds infinitely more brevity than I had ever imagined.

In reflection, I still stand by the review, so there’s little value in labouring the same points here when you can read it here, but what never clicked in that two week period of pre-review listening was Factorycraft’s prolonged ‘stickability’. Even now, I find myself edging back to the shimmer-pop tones of ‘Machine Age Dancing’ and the berserk post-tropicalia squall of ‘Every Hour That Passes’ in search of something new, something I’ve missed. And, y’know , 50 plus listens in I usually find some sneaky little nuance that’s gone undetected, slowly rising to the surface, demanding the attention of my piqued lugholes.

Even today, as I sit on the 7.33am to London Liverpool Street, another component of the dullard Metro-reading commuting community, the menacing throes of ‘Blendbetter’ ring right through me. At this precise moment, it sounds like my own cinematic victory, a striding two fingered salute to the anodyne life of Windsor -knotted ties and starch-ironed shirts. Eight months on from its release, Factorycratft has become my way of negotiating the travails of trains, tubes and twats who spend half their life playing Angry Birds on tablet computers. And here, at the end of 2011, this is no longer Found’s record: it’s mine.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

2011: My year in review

Trying to put the last 12 months into context is easier said than done. Quite simply, I have never had a year like it. In fact, even the year I spent wrenching myself away from my microscopically-sized hometown, teenage year friends and a (first) long term girlfriend to make the leap to a big city was a doddle in comparison.

The year started bad. Su was fanning the flames of a fledgling freelance career, which, in terms of success, seemed to peak and trough with rollercoaster-like frequency. We were, in every sense, miserable. We lived off less in a week than I now make in a day, couldn’t afford to put the heating on in the peak of an Auld Reekie winter and had to excuse ourselves from socialising in any shape with the outer world for the first half of the year.

We’d kid ourselves things were good. At least Su wasn’t working with dead bodies, we’d say. But were things good? Were we really staring at an incline in fortune? I didn’t think so. Not deep down at least. Work for me was going nowhere. A promotion never looked on the cards, despite some of the effort I’d put in, and my stuttering journalism career seemed to nosedive into a pit of pointlessness, saying nothing and meaning even less. Half the time I didn’t even want to read it, so fuck knows why anyone else would.

Add my rapidly dissolving emotional state to Su’s already diminished resolve and you had a couple of people who were unable to see enough light to figure out which way the tunnel led, never mind where it actually ended. It was a nadir. But then things started to pick up. My recently married mother sold my family home, lending us enough money to pay for spirit-lifting flights to Florida to see Su’s family. And then my dear wife got three job interviews and got three jobs. Our luck was up. Change was afoot.

Of course, it was never going to be that easy. One of the jobs required moving to Colchester. That was, of course, the job Su wanted. So we thought long and hard. Could we do it? Do we really want to up, what were admittedly rickety, sticks and leave a city we both love? I wasn’t sure, but things needed to change. Bold decisions aren’t always my wont, but even an idiot could see we weren’t able to go on like this. So we went for it.

What proceeded were the most mental three months of my life. Separated from my wife, someone I’ve fought tooth and nail for to be with, I spent my time wrangling between a life in Edinburgh and a hopeful new start in the south of England. I’m not sure just how many flights I took in that period, but I’ll definitely not be getting invited to any eco-friendly social functions this year. Finding a job was tough, being apart from my wife was tough, trying to feign interest at work was tough. It was, I’ll admit, a fucker of a time.

Then, by a stroke of LinkedIn induced luck, I got a job. Suddenly I was moving: packing up my flat, saying tearful farewells to my friends and moving away from a city I’d lived, breathed and loved for 11 years. That was the hardest part. Colchester is no Edinburgh and coming from the cultural epicentre of Scotland to one of England’s many vacuous commuting voids rang my head through a ringer. What the hell are you supposed to do here? I still don’t know. But I do know why there are so many trains to London.

Right now, I’m still adjusting to life down here. Thankfully, my homesickness has gone. A trip to New York and a few beers with some rekindled friends has put things into perspective. I’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about culture and environment. I used to think that when Scots moaned aboutnot getting any airtime down south, there was an element of justification in their parochially-borne whinging. But, really, there’s not. It’s just the thought process of people who don’t have the cajones to move on to the next step. And that step, no matter what people protest, is London. A place no-one come from, and almost all need to go to.

Down here it feels like you’re living in hyperspeed; the work, the people, the bastards on bikes that nearly scythe your feet clean off every morning, even the trains (well, only when they work). It’s cliché, but this place doesn’t have time to wait. If you want to be a part of it, you need to jump on. It won’t come to you. And it’s something I’m still learning. If you need something down here, ask for it. If you don’t, then tough titties. Proactivity is the only action these people understand.

And now the end of the year is here. Somehow, I’m almost 31 and it’s the first time I’ve felt like I’m actually shaping my own life. I’m still writing, but it’s not an overarching ambition anymore. I’ve got a career to think of. A wife to think of. The next step to think of. Those Lester Bangs ambitions have finally gone; there are others out there being better and hungrier than I am capable of being (the consistently amazing John Doran is a prime example). Instead, I’ve found my niche and my focus is to take it to all the places I want to go: London is just the starting point. That, in itself, is quite exciting. It’s not the height of my ambition, merely the beginning.

If I was my old journalism lecturer, I’d mark myself down for pretending this was a ‘review’ of the last year. There’s not really enough analysis here to masquerade as a critique. So, I apologise unreservedly for my shameless naval gazing. In some sense it was probably very useful for me to reflect on the changing shape of the previous 340+ days. And given how tumultuous 2011 has been, it would seem a little masochistic to say I hope the next year is just as berserk. But, right now, that’s exactly what I want. Bring on 2012.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

11 years on: Primal Scream's XTRMNTR

These days, it’s hard to tell where Bobby Gillespie sits in the spectrum of politicised popstars. Played through a media lens, the last decade has seen Primal Scream's foreman swing his cause between socialism and socialising. His barracking of political paradigms and societal unjust is often undercut by supermodel hob-nobbery and a tendency to scattergun red-army style rants with little rhyme or reason(although it is difficult to sympathise with the vile Theresa May). At almost 50, Gillespie may continue talk the talk, but his walk is certainly not what it once was.

Yet, venture back just 11 years and Gillespie's was a voice you wouldn’t dare to fuck with. Amidst the final parps of post-Britpop balderdash, Gillespie was busy taking global capitalism to task, penning odes to black revolutionaries and, as ever, ripping into the core of Tory idealism with pitbull brute. He was, in every sense, the archetypal angry Scot, propping up his granite argumentative streak with a cold, deadened stare.

At a time when Christina and Britney were duelling for pop’s top spot, Gillespie felt like a fully-fledged iconoclast; a ferociously read spawn of a left-wing activist who'd pontificate over politics as readily as he could get his rocks off. This wasn’t the pill-packing hedonist of Screamadelica, or the gak guzzling reprobate of Give Out But Don’t Give Up. This was Bobby Gillespie in his prime; a self-declared cultural warrior in the days before Lower Manhattan was turned to a rubble of bricks, mortar and blood.

It started with Vanishing Point, the 1997 return to form that washed away Give Out’s overbloated blues-rock. Imbued between the notes of its psychedelic whirls and speed freak fuckery was a caustic unwillingness to surrender. It was nasal, grating, alive, unrepentant. The Primals had found their scream and Gillespie, Duffy, Mounfield, et al weren’t in the mood for keeping it down. In fact, aided by a swell of narcotics and the vitriolic posturing of a world adjoined by globalisation but split by idealism, they had no choice. It was them or no-one.

And then XTRMNTR came crashing in. A vowel-less crank of post punk (not post-punk) rancour riding on a beat up trashcan of nihilistic disco, this was the masterpiece Primal Scream had been promising. All Gillepsie’s pre-album posturing had frothed with disdain towards a world disfigured by fat-catisim and western foreign policy. XTRMNTR was the Scream fighting back; the pin being pulled from one almighty hand grenade. As Gillespie put it in an interview in 2000, “It's like an attack... It's not fucking background music. It makes you stand up and take notice.”

He was right. Take notice was all you could do.

Charging out with the Chemical Brothers-tampered single 'Swastika Eyes' - a ferocious, rocket hurtling, two-fingered salutation to oppressive governments and blood-sucking conglomerations - this was the sound of a mainstream band shunting itself to the periphery in the crudest, most innocuous fashion. Realistically, XTRMNTR shouldn’t have shifted units. The record’s rapacious lyrical content, stoic, eastern-bloc production and cranked out butane jazz were light years away from the anodyne climate of chart topping boybands and pop princesses. But XTRMNTR stuck, reaching the top three in the UK album charts(when those things still actually meant something)and spinning headlong into every record of the year list going.

Listening back it’s not hard to understand why. The record rushes through the body’s orifices with psychotic purpose, ambushing you any way it can. 'Accelerator' is a thrash ‘n’ grab fuzz fuck of barbiturate guitar. Album opener ‘Kill All Hippies’’ bleeds hip hop swagger and discombobulating, cyborg synthesiser; while the serrated ‘Insect Royalty’ is a throttling spiderweb of percussion and blaring horns that finds Gillespie howling out diseased, acid-swathed entrails of the English vernacular. It's a relentlesss throng; every crevice is enveloped in white noise - even ‘Keep Your Dreams’’ narcoleptic fug has a certain sadistic terror plunged beneath the xylophone chimes and Gillespie’s cathartic crow.

Played out today, XTRMNTR's still a jagged, awkward squall. Butchered cuts like the free jazz scarred ‘MBV Arkestra’ (Kevin Shields’ unidentifiable remix of Vanishing Point’s funk-smuggling If They Move Kill ‘Em) and exhaust pipe throttling swansong ‘Shoot Speed/Kill Light’ are as oppressive and inhospitable as the ideologies Gillespie despised. And even when the lyrics sag insufferably, as they do on ‘Exterminator’ (“Everyone’s a prostitute/All jails are concentration camps/ all judges are bought”) and ‘Pills’ (Gillespie’s preposterous rap is a Scream nadir), the pounding ballast of junkyard distortion and thumping drums pulls them through like shards of shrapnel plunging into the temples.

Eleven years on and the shock and awe of XTRMNTR’s message has worn off somewhat. This is an era exhausted by war, terrorism, famine and global debt. The anger stage has, to an extent, passed. Optimists would even say we’re at the root of the problem, even if the solution keeps getting further and further away. Yet, it’s unnerving to consider just how precise XTRMNTR was. It wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it could have soundtracked any of the game changing events of the last decade: the UK riots, the Arab spring, the London bombings or even 9/11.

Just how far XTRMNTR’s anti-American sentiment would have stretched had it been released a year and a half later is a question we'll never find an answer to. Would Gillespie have dared to attack American foreign policy so vehemently? Would Creation have been brave (or stupid) enough to release such a critique? Who knows. But XTRMNTR does have an unshakably forboding feel to it. The message was simple: This can’t continue, something’s going to crack. Little did anyone know just how wide and deep that crack would run.

Coiling back from the record’s political overtones, XTRMNTR stretched far beyond its time as a musical artefact. Even today it’s still fascinating and futuristic; a dense, impermeable concoction of ear-shaking, amphetamine-shifting, thrill-seeking disco punk that shits all over the ecstacy-infused wash out of Screamadelica. And while 2011's Primal Scream are happy to retread the steps of their post-club 'classic', XTRMNTR proves this was a band that had something to say, something worth hearing even today: PRML SCRM MTHR FCKR.

Album review: Rob St John - Weald

The sheer heft of Rob St John’s voice is deceiving. The Burnley-born songsmith’s gravy-thick pipes exude a wisdom that should only come from the weathering of life; the kind of ripened warble that expresses the nuances and extraordinary experiences of someone who’s seen and done it all. As a vocal, it's many things - evocative, touching, tear-jerking, wise - but one thing it’s not is a sound you’d associate with a kid in his twenties.

But that’s exactly what Rob St John is; a cherubic troubadour without the worldly eminence or piety of Waits, Drake or Cave. Yet St John’s debut LP Weald suggests otherwise. There’s no snazzy production, no high-profile special guests to boost chart returns (unless you count the good and the great from Edinburgh’s alt-folk scene), and no gimmicky promotional smokescreens to be found here. Instead, this is something simple for a complex age: a record filled with both masterful arrangements and tender songwriting craft.

If press releases are to be believed then this is St John’s aural vision of a contour that runs between the Lancaster moors and Edinburgh’s winding paths. To help emphasise his imaginary axis, St John plots the record across three key habitations - Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford - capturing each town’s unique atmosphere via cracking reel-to-reel recordings, enveloping church acoustics and the nocturnal claustrophobia of basement flats. Yet, within this urbanised construction, there's a distinctly arid feel to Weald's narratives, with St John tending to bury heavy emotional metaphors beneath tales of topographies and oceans.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that within Weald’s nooks lurk song structures so brittle they often seem to be disintegrating inside your ears. Prime example is album opener ‘Your Phantom Limb’, a spellbinding, neck hair quivering wooze led by a guitar plucked so delicately it’s as if it’s tiptoeing over a shattered chandelier. Like-wise, ‘Vanishing Points’ is wrapped in a fragility generated by moribund strings and a despairing lyrical paean that finds St John mourning “in monochrome we are just vanishing points” with celestial coyness.

In the wrong hands Weald could seem borderline depressive, but St John’s deft songwriting emits an openness that keeps the valium at bay. In fact, acoustic creeper ‘Acid Test’ - a reworked lament from his early Edinburgh days - is positively glowing in possibility, epitomising the record’s feel for ever-changing apertures and space. This interspersing of frail melodies and silent space is one of the record’s central traits, creating concentrated tapestries filled with atmosphere and weighty emotion, even when there appears to be little happening at all.

That’s not to say St John’s afraid to dabble with instrumental intensity. Far from it. ‘Stainforth Force’ is a slow, meandering swell, menacingly composed of weeping strings and crashing cymbals that are pushed into a violent, suffocating climax by St John’s rising wails. Somehow, the mighty ‘Dominio’ goes one better. Led by a funeral pound of drum and cranky guitar, it’s a brutal, intense journey that replaces the record’s shroud of silence with a clap of instrumental thunder. It’s the sort of intense pit-of-the-gut bellow that could wouldn’t feel out of place on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ more acrid efforts.

Closing out with melancholic sweep ‘An Empty House’, Weald proves a consistently strong and challenging record. Each of its eight tracks blend emotional girth with an exquisite musical craft that stretches far beyond the reaches of many of today’s young singer-songwriters. Many of these contemporaries, of course, needn’t worry, they still have plenty of time to find their voice. But Rob St John is different, he’s already found his. A long time ago.

Rob St John "Your Phantom Limb" from rob st john on Vimeo.

Album review: Wise Blood - These Wings

In the 17 minutes it takes for Wise Blood’s These Wings EP to tornado into and out of the atmosphere, it’s possible to piece together Chris Laufman’s premonition of what the future may hold. And it aint a pretty picture.

Beneath the Pittsburgh’s songsmith’s synthesized, ear-grating, scuzz-soul melodies is a deep-seated sense of absolute hopelessness, his own pre-emptive sketch of an inhospitable world that holds no sense or reason. Lyrically, it’s perhaps not quite as obvious as it sounds - Laufman instinctively prefers to get down to more basal matters, honing in on his inability to hold down steady relationships.

Yet step aside from the emo-heavy subject matter of tracks like 'Darlin’ You’re Sweet', a trumpet-parping shuffler that finds Laufman sweetly cooing “I need someone who won’t fade when I go insane and I can’t stand, I know that you can”, and you’ll find a dark, clever off-piste pop collection fused with bleeps, beats and despair. He may be 21, but these songs have been penned with the air of kid who’s seen and heard way too much tragedy in his years.

From the off, huge skyscraping beats punctuate the record’s skyline, turning ‘Penthouse Suite’s ambient keyboard groove into a wonky android-ballad that recalls the burned-out sonic junkyard of Sublte. Less abrasive, but no less affecting, ‘The Lion’ is two minutes of parping brass cobbled over a gyrating rhythm that has Laufman spitting “Baby I ain’t no man, I’ve got to confess, I’d probably kill you just to try on your dress” with all the funk of Prince, only without the high-heels and inflated sex drive.

For all its virtues, what These Wings fails to do is map out just where Laufman goes next. Instead, what it serves up is a taster of its maker's class, crossing borders with more ease than a passport-less traveller going through UK immigration. But with cuts as essential as 'Loud Mouths' - a piano-looping, hip-hop-spitting, beatbox-blasting, body-popping contender for song of the year - it matters not; Laufman proves he's blessed with enough duality and brilliance to appeal to even the most toughened ear canals.

As premonitions go, Chris Laufman can rest assured: the future is very much Wise Blood’s.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Album Review: Loney Dear - Hall Music

If there’s one thing Loney, Dear toubadour Emil Svanängen isn’t, it’s someone you’d want playing your party. Well, actually, let’s be clear on this. If it was a hip-shaking, dance-floor packing, rug-cutting sort of shindig you were after, the Scandanavian multi-instrumentalist would be so far down the list he’d be underground. But, if you're playing host to a simple night of social hob-nobbing, peppered with slabs of stinking cheddar and guests glugging back goblets of pinot noir, then Svanangen is the man to call.

Yet, to chasten his music as background wallpaper at some bourgeois soiree does his craft a considerable disservice. The Swede is an extraordinary songwriter capable of distilling a melodic splendour so potent it could stop pulses dead. Each of his previous long-playing offerings have been scratchy affairs, filled with understated, introspective swells that slowly and steadily capture attention. It’s safe to say Svanängen's no fan of immediate impact; his whispered wares require repeated spins before they dare expose their inner beauty.

Album number six, Hall Music, continues this reticent foray, concealing its quaint charms until six or seven concentrated plays have been sucked up and digested. So far, so Svanängen then. But, this is a record that finds him venturing beyond his traditional bedroom-coined aesthetic, choosing instead to dive into an ocean of orchestral flourishes that rise above the gloomy despondency of relationships gone bad.

Thematically, Hall Music is both romantic and tragic. The record's maudlin stall is set the moment Svanängen purrs “I want your name, I want your name next to mine” over ‘Name’s crèche of dream-sequence keys. Its follow up, ‘My Heart’, doesn’t relent on the self-pity stakes, riding out on a misery-soaked a cappella that melts into stargazing effects before eventually climaxing as an oscillating peel of church bells.

A bold spiritual awakening courses the veins of this ornate and echoic affair. Soul searching numbers like ‘Maria, Is That You’ and ‘Largo’ emit a deep cathedral aura as they unfold into a flush of parping brass and parish organ. Coated with love-sick repentance that feels both pious and absolutely lost, each is a fine, intoxicating saunter that wouldn’t be out of place played out as a Sunday Service interlude. And, sure, they’re fey of heart, but these are significant steps beyond the corduroy-coated whims bleated out by fellow Swedish popstrels Suburban Kids With Biblical Names.

Given the devout subject matter, there’s a fair chunk of emotional heft lodged in between these skeletal cuts. While Svanängen’s nasal coo may evoke memories of the Bee Gees as it judders across acoustic psalm ‘D Major’, ‘Calm Down’ is a ponderous ballad that starts out tranquilly before gliding across a luscious carp of xylophone chimes, strings and dashing, deep seated percussion. This penchant for musical toploading is Svanängen’s party piece, but it's occassionally wearisome; his inability to resist the lure of a slow fruition can be as tiring as it is magnetic.

So when he charges from the blocks, as he does in the record’s final throngs, the purposefulness is refreshing. ‘Durmoll’s staccato strings thrust into thick orchestration, throwing itself from hushed lull to theatrical prangs as if scraped from the cutting floor of a Broadway musical. 'I Dreamed of You’ is equally impressive, striding along as a transient, yet utterly simple, melody that even invokes a hopeful tone from Svanängen while he croaks “I dreamt about you, I dreamt about you” on a doe-eyed loop.

Finishing on ‘What Have I Become’s velvety, synth-soaked high - a track led by the magnificent purr of Malin Stahlberg - Svanängen completes his journey from fragility to resilience with the same sense of contemplation and complexity he set out on. And, yes, Hall Music may prove he’s not a man for a party, but you suspect Emil Svanangen doesn’t mind one bit. For him, there are clearly much higher and more rewarding planes to climb.

Friday, 21 October 2011

What I’ve been listening to on the train this week

Oh look, look, look - IT’S FRIDAY (well, at least it is when I’m writing this on the 17:58 from Liverpool Street to Colchester).

Since my post about music listening as a commuter last week I’ve been thinking it might be quite nice to wheel out the old “What I’ve been listening to this week” pieces. But, seeing as my music listening tends to be done hurtling down a railway line these days I’ll change the title to “What I’ve been listening to on the train this week”. Clever, huh? I don’t work in corporate communications for nothing. Well, actually I haven’t been paid yet, so that’s completely up for debate.

So, aye, here goes the first of my weekly columns about train music listening. Can I just say now, there’s no Stone Roses in this. Firstly, because I haven’t listened to them this week (or this decade). But I have listened to a lot of people go on and on and on about how it’s going to be the best thing ever. Forever. And ever. But it’s not . Because Ian Brown can’t sing; Reni looks a little like the unhinged middle-aged dad he is; John Squire is (quite rightly) a bit embarrassed by his own acquiescence with the whole thing; Mani was in a better band; and, anyway, it’s all about the love (not the money and certainly not the music).


Sunset Rubdown
Inspired by a post on the DiS forums, I’ve been tuning into the Sunset Rubdown’s back catalogue all week. Shut up I’m Dreaming was the record I thought Spencer Krug could never top, but then along came Dragonslayer, plastered in medieval rollicks, impenetrable metaphors and massive ball-dropping crescendos, and shoved a big fat sky-crashing rocket into my lugholes. Awesome. Plus I spoke to him a few years back and he was a cantankerous grouchy sod. Which makes him infinitely better in my head. I fucking hate compliant interviewees.

What an immense find. The offshoot of Jackie O’Motherfucker, Tunnels is austere narcoleptic electronica that sounds as if it’s been brewed in the belly of some East Berlin laboratory in the early 70s. Harsh, brooding, pounding; it’s got all the anatomy of archetypal Kraut-tronica, but meshed within are stinking undertones of punk anarchy that kinda goes something like: grr....chk….grr…chk…chk…grr….grrr…crunch

Tunnels - Deux by sweatingtapes

David Byrne
The sound of 70 other people snoring and farting at six in the morning does unseemly things to the equilibrium of a man’s mind. David Byrne’s solo LP was my only sanctuary in the beat up bellows of a London hostel a few weeks back. In such a predicament Byrne’s sweet whispering melodies are the only thing that get you through unscathed. They tell you everything’s going to be okay; this isn’t going to scar you; you’ll be fine; just go to a green, grassy distant land and think pleasant, soothing things. Which is what I did.

Loney, Dear
Normally I don’t care for the whimsical bullcrap that’s all too readily churned out from Scandinavia and salivated over by oh-so twee shitbags, but having been cornered by Loney Dear’s latest LP Hall Music for the purposes of a review I have to admit it’s a record that’s slowly creeping up on me. Which sounds a bit pervy. Maybe it is. Either way, it's definitely not a record for those who hate camomile pop with a teaspoon of fey, but it’s got a bit of stick - sort of like one of those weird, gloopy stretch hand things you used to fling at a window that were fun until they were coated in pocket fluff and turned out absolutely useless and a bit manky. Not that Loney, Dear are, mind. They're just alright.

Dirty Projectors and Bjork
Collaborations are usually R.U.B.B.I.S.H. Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks this? I’m fairly sure there’s probably been a few okayish ones of late that I can’t remember while I’m sitting on this train, yet most of them have been hideous catastrophes (and the jury’s still out on that overbloated bastard of a love-in by Kanye and the Jizza). But, but, but.... Dirty Projetors and Bjork just sound right together, like they were meant to be forever and ever and ever - even if they’re crooning out some conceptual nonsense from the perspective of whales and mother ocean. Or something.

Monday, 17 October 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: Real Estate - Days

This review seems to have been a wee bit divisive amongs the DiS hoards and the doe eyed Real Estate masses, apparently for the language used. I guess it's a wee bit florid, although not that different from what I've done before. My guess is the h8rs (is that how you spell it these days?) are pretty pissed I gave it a 5/10 and venting their spleen at me any way they can. Perhaps I should have written it in less than 140 characters: "Real Estate - Days. A bit pish."


The problem with chillwave is that it’s just too chilled. No matter what those hipster kids claim, there are really only so many languid melodies one set of lugholes can take before fingers itchily reach for the off switch. And it’s this inability to surprise, to rouse for the jugular in a moment of out-of-step awe, that will render it another transient genre that passes quicker than a Usain Bolt bowel movement.

So far, Brooklyn-based ensemble Real Estate have treaded close to chillwave’s ambient contours without suffering any blemishes. The hazy-eyed surf-pop woozing of the quartet’s self-titled debut LP whiffed an air of Californian beaches and hemp-puffing sundown parties. Sure, it was complex of craft, but its brittle canticles retained a joyous listenability. This wasn’t chillwave; more a wave of tranquillity in an increasingly fraught and temporal world.

In many ways album number two, Days, evokes more of the band’s sun-basking atmospheric. The softened, almost mallowing, swells of lugubrious guitar still melt through every pore; the sloop-shouldered acoustics continue to wisp across brushing percussion; even Martin Courtney’s airy mew retains its gracious air of elegance as it weaves between each carefully tailored tapestry.

Such determination to get back on at the same station they got off has, rather ironically, left Real Estate sounding like a band that’s lost its way, a band trying so hard to replicate what it once was it can’t possibly consider what it could be. Couple this with the illuminating grace of guitarist Matthew Mondanille’s recent extra-curricular Ducktails adventures, and it’s hard not to consider _Days_ as anything other than an indigestible waste of potential.

To make matters worse, it sets off on a zesty promise. Opening number 'Easy' bears the brushstrokes of an outfit pushing hard on the accelerator, desperate to take advantage of their debut’s goodwill. Oozing orange-soda jangles and washed out vocals, it’s a radio-friendly canal that threatens to spill beyond the contrite lugholes of the Pitchfork-gorging few and out into the marrow of populist listeners. But, disappointingly, that’s where the party ends.

From here, Days plunges into a soapy lather of identikit sways and swoons, grounded out at monotone pace. Circling stale ground like a peg-legged pirate determined to uproot buried treasures of old, 'Green Aisles' is a lilting mush of underwhelming tune that’s high in production but achingly low in seduction. 'Younger Than Yesterday’s gauzy summer tones are equally dispiriting, creeping along to a dreary guitar shuffle that’s as stagnant as a mosquito infested swamp.

Curiously, much of the album’s intrigue is found in counting up the rollcall of acts with viable claims for an artistic credit. 'Municipality's bulbous chorus and jangling twangs dangle between the sweetened melodies of The Byrds and Teenage Fanclub’s more reflective moments. Hints of The Shins drift between 'It’s Real's blustery harmonies and convivial rhythm. Worse still, 'Wonder Years's softened flush runs perilously close to the Califironiaphile shimmering of _The Thrills_. Picking them out's a fun time killer, but these aren’t exactly gooseflesh inducing touchpoints, intentional or not.

With a smidgeon of increased purpose, Days does at least manage to carve out a few swabs of decency that point to what might have been. Forged upon a gloopy honeycomb hook, the tropicalia-dazed instrumental 'Kinder Blumen' builds from slow waltzing schmooze into a thick climax of Honolulu rhythm. Likewise, album closer 'All The Same' conjures up the unexpected. Palpitating with rhythm, it’s a striding, chiming slab that stretches way beyond the record’s soporific core, while retaining the band’s homely tones.

But these towering moments stretch thin across a record lost in a comatose state of traditional, if beach-bumming, rock-pop tedium. Instead of transcending the band beyond the traditional indie shagpile, Days merely sheds doubt on the their capacity, or will, to push beyond their prism of easy-riding familiarity. They might not be chillwave, but, on this account, Real Estate sure do like to act it.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A traveller's tale: music to my ears

It’s impossible to truly articulate just how important music is to daily commuters.

Newspapers, books, laptops or any other time consuming artefact can be done without, but the thought of getting through the morning grind without the blare of my iPod is, quite frankly, horrifying.

From what I can gather, music serves two purposes for us transient types. Firstly, it blocks out the hum and drum of the people around us. Even then, I am frequently astonished by the decibel levels some folk go to to make sure I can hear them over the squall of Liars.

In fact, there was a report published last week that suggests commuters who listen to music have less problem with reduced personal space, which makes sense. While all those non-music sponging sorts are flustering over their sardine like existence for an hour, I’m blissfully able to switch off from those around me, unbothered by a few stray limbs invading my personage.

Secondly, music brings the thematic of a journey to life. So if I'm having a particularly rushed morning, the howling secration of Deerhoof creates a poignant meaning to the sight of central London rushing towards me at 7.20am.

Likewise, if I’m feeling purposeful and urgent - emotions I tend to encounter during my trek back through the swarm of suits making their way to Liverpool Street Station - then the siwvelling ball-of-the-heel techno-tronica of The Knife is a perfect soundtrack.

And if it’s Friday and I’m slumped on my Network Rail hued chair with a bevy, homeward bound, then there’s few better companions than The Talking Heads’ Remain in Light to dwindle down a journey into the weekend.

Yes, for three hours of my day, music is my lifeblood; the one source of escapism that can evaporate me from the predicament of sitting still with nothing to do or no-one to talk to.

On trains, that talking thing is a no-no. People just don’t like to communicate with the others around them. Eye contact is hard enough to bear (the amount of people who choose to examine their choice of footwear rather than look a stranger in the eye is extraordinary), never mind actually involving yourself in the tedium of a conversation about the weather or the train being delayed.

I once sat next to a girl who decided to start talking to the four other people surrounding us, picking up conversation from the books they were reading or the pens they were writing.

Fortunately for me, I was plugged in. She may well have posed a question, but I never heard her. I wasn’t being rude, I was just in a world of my own. Music that day, like most others, was my saviour.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

A traveller’s tale: Hot, hot heat

Phew… it’s hot out there. All week the mercury’s been pushing 26C, a temperature we tartan-topped expats have little experience of in our luscious, sodden homeland.

These southerners, of course, love it. Draped in dresses so skimpy they bear an uncanny resemblance to cast offs from a rubber band factory or showcasing their latest pair of extraordinarily expensive and utterly ridiculous mirrored sunglasses, it’s fair to say the boys and girls of London town come prepared for an Indian Summer.

For me, I’ve caught barely a ray of the sun’s autumnal resurgence.

My morning train is engulfed in a shroud of heat-induced haar, while lunchtime in the City equates to a five minute trip to Marks & Spencer to pick up a horse-radish smothered baguette before racing back to my paper-strewn desk. By the time 6pm comes along, mister sun is busy setting in the west and I’ve become a part of the shirt and tied ant farm swarming for Liverpool Street Station.

It is amazing just how much of the day passes you by as a commuter. I spend about three hours a day scurrying to and from work. That’s two games of football (although given some of the dross I’ve seen recently on Sky missing out might not be such a bad thing) or a flight to Eastern Europe.

Those ten minute bus rides into Edinburgh seem almost laughable now. I vividly remember being incensed when my bus would stop for two minutes on the Bridges because it was ahead of time. Yesterday, we halted outside of Stratford for 20 minutes before moving. An excuse didn’t even flute out from the tannoy. It just happens and you have no choice but to grudgingly accept it.

But it’s not as bad as you might think. I’ve developed a unhealthy obsession with completing the London Evening Standard’s daily crossword (it’s a swine of a puzzle that looks easy but is devilishly difficult), while enjoying a Friday evening Hoegarden and watching the countryside whizz by while the sun retreats is an indescribable delight. I’ve quickly learned these are the small pleasures that get commuters through the tedium.

Today, however, is Saturday and I have the chance to grab a dollop of sun and spend some much needed time with my wife. No trains for me for 48 hours. Thank. The. Lord.

Here are some pictures from last weekend when my dear old mother came to visit. The first few are from a fantastic food festival in Snape Maltings and the rest are the result of a trek around Colchester.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: S.C.U.M. - Again into Eyes

Choosing a band name is like choosing a partner. Get it wrong and you’re in for a whole world of pain. So, mess them both up and, well, you might as well throw in the proverbial towel, make for a delapidated drinking den and douse your liver in acrid, stomach pit burning grog. To say Ian Cohen - better known in Daily Mail reading circles as Peaches Geldof’s other half - and the rest of his S.C.U.M. cohorts have a lot to prove, then, is something of an understatement.

Contending with an appellation that smacks of hipsteratti desperation is one thing (it’s short for Society for Cutting Up Men, a term coined by radical feminist and attempted Andy Warhol killer Valerie Solanas), but finding yourself in the middle of an awkward PR-stunt conjured up by your frontman’s flavour of the month (Geldof recently gobshited to the world that she has 'no intention' of joining her boyfriend’s band) spells S.U.I.C.I.D.E. for any outfit looking to score pretention points with the chin-stroking elite early on.

Yet, S.C.U.M.’s debut LP Again Into Eyes is a surprisingly uncompromising affair that’s made of sterner stuff than the inflated brouhaha suggests. Bound in melancholy and introspection, it’s an album that steers into hopelessly bleak terrain, clearly tailored by Sisters of Mercy-era ambience and a smearing of dirt black mascara. Yet, below the slit-wristing exterior there lurks a band with an ear for tender rolls of melody and colossal soundscapes.

The gutter-scraping thrash of ‘Summon the Sound’ offers little indication of the band’s softness. A cloying, pavement-gobbing brawler, its apoplectic percussion and gyrating guitars traipse the depths of horror-shlock rock‘n’roll. ‘Amber Hands’ is equally rancid, galloping into a blackened soup of cathedral keys that converge as a clattering, snarling psychedelic swamp.

Such proto-punk blustering inevitably draws parallels with early-days Horrors. And in the scuzzy, roughed up aesthetic of basal numbers like ‘Days Untrue’ the resemblance is unavoidable. But that’s where it gets interesting. Much like the Faris Badwin’s ensemble, S.C.U.M. are at their most intriguing when shunning razor-sharp shtick for velvety sheen, purring with nuance and subtle shifts in tempo.

With more gothic furnishing than a Victorian-era burlesque house, Again into Eyes was never going to be a futuristic masterpiece. But, congealed with Thomas Cohen’s joyless intone, the band’s creaking instrumentation is deployed impressively. Opener ‘Faith Unfolds’s warming glow is chalked with a soft complexion of synths and drums, laying bare a misty-eyed anthem of grandiose range; while 'Sentinal Bloom’s austere framework exudes a brevity that stretches beyond archetypal graveyard signatures.

More captivating still is the slow-burning opulence of ‘Paris’. Awash with despair, the mournful keys carve an arctic backdrop that freezes out Cohen’s fading wails of “I have nothing”. It’s intense, thoughtful work; an ambitious arrangement of wide-angled sound and heart-gnawing atmosphere that ribbons into the record’s most graceful swoon.

Glorious album swansong ‘Whitechapel’ flips the record into one final elated throb. Built around ministerial synths and a deep, pulsing bassline, there’s more than a hint of devoted Eighties styling to the industrial disco beat. It’s an infectious, almost irresistible affair that underlines the band’s ever-evolving capabilities while it waggles its hips with the androgynous grace of Brett Anderson in a downtown brothel.

So forget the name; forget the celebrity girlfriend; forget those meticulously fringed press shots and vacuous interviews. S.C.U.M. are a band blessed with stealth, steel and, as much as they loathe it, an overarching sense of the indie mainland. Rest assured, their world of pain is being put to good effect.

Monday, 19 September 2011

A traveller's tales: a train reaction

The worst thing about my daily commute isn’t the London Tube. In fact, it’s not even the 6am start or 7pm finish. No, it’s much more macabre than that.

So far, in the seven days (including my day trip to London on Saturday, pictures of which you can see below) that I’ve been travelling to work, three people have been hit by trains. Three fucking people.

Now, this strikes me as an inordinate number of folk being pummelled by the full force of an Intercity 125 rushing from the slumber of suburbia to crawling, be-suited anthill of central London.

Surely this sort of serendipitous scorecard totting must trigger a sniff of an inquiry in one of the Metropolitan Police Service’s many out-houses, where officers have little else to do but pick up bladder-pickled street urinators?

But, no, this is just one more inconvenience to jostle the patience of daily commuters. And the worst of it is, all you care about is getting home. Or not getting home. Or just being late getting home.

Someone might have died. A family might have lost its only child. A child might have lost its only family. And the only thing that crosses your mind is, ‘Shit, I can’t believe I’m going to miss the football.’

It’s inevitable really. You don’t see the accident, only the repercussions. So it’s not a real person that’s had his cranium smashed to smithereens, it's just another traffic report that's causing you a disruption.

And that’s my biggest irk with commuting: there’s no compassion. Life revolves around getting from A to B. Anything that falls inbetween - from the old lady who stops right in front of you at the station to the guy who’s had enough of life and chucked himself on a track - is a hindrance.

So as I sit here on the 6.30pm London Liverpool Street train to Colchester, trying to take stock of what it means to be a commuter, I should really count my blessings. This isn’t the worst predicament. I mean, I have a cushioned seat, a nice view and the opportunity to wind down from a long day at work. What more could a boy need, right?

Yes, it seems life is good. Even if it's currently running 20 minutes late.

Friday, 16 September 2011

London loves...

Well, it's almost been a week. Yep, that's right, seven whole days have passed since I moved from my safe, homely Edinburgh town to the big bad world of England. And, y'know what, it's not that bad. Well, it's not dreadful, let's put it that way.

Living in Colchester and working in London is far from ideal. The daily commute is a drag. Realising you've sat next to the same person on the same train twice in one week is foreboding. And dealing with the pressure of having to fathom out an alternative shirt/tie combo every day is darn right debilitating at 6am in the morning.

In truth, I'm a little homesick. But, I'm not quite sure what for. How much of Edinburgh I'd trade for Essex/London is impossible to say. The homeliness of Auld Reekie probably has a lot to do with it. The fact I lived there for almost 12 years is probably even more significant.

Yet, London is not without its charms. Firstly, the people I work with are exceptional. Not just in a 'wow they're great people, I can't wait to know them better' kind of way, but in a way that makes you sit up, take stock and admire their purpose. So far, it's been impossible not to sponge up.

Secondly, the city is mental for boozing. I mean, really properly mental. These people may be garbed in tailormade D&G suits, but they'll happily guzzle a few snifters of piss-pale ale by the side of Monument as the wind away the stresses of another full throttle day.

And, full throttle it is. These people, these places do not stop. Our work canteen is open from 8am - 9pm. That's breakfast through to supper. Here 9-5 isn't the way to make a living. It's much much more than that. Thank heavens no one works on overtime - the country would be bust.

So, it's exhausting. And a bit galling. Yet, it sucks you in. The place is alive: The traffic. The people. The buildings. Even the smog. This is a city that breathes energy; that seeps gusto. You can't, in all honesty, help yourself from being swept along. I'm trying desperately hard to go with the flow.