Saturday, 29 December 2012

Best of 2012: Menomena – Moms

Despite the much publicised departure of founding member Brent Knopf, Menomena have done an impressive job of carrying on regardless. The Portland outfit’s fifth album Moms maintains their unconventional brand of meandering, off-piste motifs. The matadorial guitars and cascading percussion are all in check, as is the soul-searching subject matter that scrapes perilously close to the bone. But Moms is much more than just standard Menomena fare. These ten cuts are charged with a current of brutal, unrelenting oppression that’s as thrilling as it is absorbing. Menomena MkII, it seems, is working out rather nicely.

First published in Under the Radar's Albums of the Year 2012

Best of 2012: Hot Chip – In Our Heads

Recapturing the wonky, synth-pop styling of 2006’s The Warning has proved to be a tough ask for Hot Chip. But with the release of In Our Heads the UK electro-poppers finally found some semblance of form. As you’d expect, the quintet’s fifth LP is an infectious melee of disco-glittered melodies and kaleidoscopic effects. Yet amidst this floor-filling lather are speckles of transient, other-worldly grooves and melancholic wig-outs that reveal a new found sense of wisdom. While it’s hardly the sound of a band growing old gracefully, In Our Heads may well signify Hot Chip’s first step into adulthood.

First published in Under the Radar's Albums of the Year 2012

A nice end to 2012...

I've recently been approached to write for Under the Radar, an American music magazine billed as "the solution to music pollution". Slightly questionable straplines aside, I'm excited by the proposition as it's (1) my favourite Stateside music publication and (2) an opportunity to get back into print writing again.

It seems like an absolute age since I last wrote long-form print journalism. Being one of the last sect of journalism students to study the mechanics of pure print hackery, it's been a steady learning process for me getting fully versed in the art of digital writing. But, now I'm there, it will be interesting to see how I cope regressing back to print.

To be honest, I can't see it being too much of a problem. The multi-platform approaches that most magazines adopt today (ie what's in print also needs to go online) means there needs to be some sort of synergy in the style of writing. There's no use in writing something that only works in print when it's also needed for a digital audience. So a basis of short paragraphs, a strong lead and a rewarding pay off should work well for both mediums.

Given my UK location, I suspect one of the most challenging aspects will be writing for an American audience. Already I'm getting my 'Zs' mixed up with 'Ss" and I'm much more conscious when proofing  words like 'colour' and 'centre', but I'm sure a few will slip under the crack. I'm hoping Under the Radar has a strong subbing desk.

As ends to 2012 go, though, it's been nicely positive. Let's hope 2013 carries on in this fashion.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Album review: Woods - Bend Beyond

Woods have never been a love on first listen sort of band for me. My relationship with the Jeremy Earl-led ensemble has always been more of a curious friendship valued at impromptu times, rather than some full-blown, heart-quivering love affair that exploded at first listen. But that’s okay. Those kind of instantaneous, depth-charged affairs never last. Something sexier always comes along, flouting fresh lughole-loving noise to steals my affections.

Woods, though, are different. Without every really being there, they never go away. They’re always lurking; patiently waiting to take their chance when fortune (or shuffle) leads me back to the arable rinse of Songs of Shame or the languid melodies that haunt At Echo Lake. And then I’m hooked. Lost to the hazy, hopeful glows that radiate from Earl’s joyous falsetto and the band’s penchant for lo-fi sun-blushed-psychedelia.

This unfaltering nature is what makes Woods such a dependable, if unspectacular, proposition on record. Yet, album number six, Bend Beyond, indicates the band isn’t necessarily happy with this state of affairs. Rather than using the same home-spun formula that worked so successfully on At Echo Lake and last year’s Sun and Shade, Woods have sought to build on the epic, sprawling dynamics of their live outings to create something thicker, bolder, and maybe even more lovable.

As curtain-raisers go, the title track is as persuasive a statement of intent as you could hope to hear. Orientating around slow, sludging guitars, its tip-toe pace gradually rises into a ferocious psych-rock wig-out akin to Grandaddy at a microdot-induced orgy. More dynamic and brazen than ever before, the track finds Earl unshackling his staple melancholia to shrill “just to see, just to know, just to bend beyond the light” while a sprawl of layered, clanging instrumentation writhes underneath.

Then, after such a triumphant opening, Woods make a strange decision: they revert to type. Suddenly, Bend Beyond's growling throes succumb to summery guitar chimes and its pulsating percussion is replaced by mallowy acoustics. After stumbling down an unfamiliar alley, it’s as if Earl and co have found their way back to the familiarity of the main street, finding comfort in ‘Cali in a Cup’s jaunty Byrds-esque melody and the alt country balladeering of ‘Back to the Stone’.

Given this descent to normality, it’s hard to get excited about a record that rarely moves from its musical comfort blanket. But there are still moments. Snaking guitars wind their way through ‘Cascade’s climatic drum thunder; ‘Find them Empty’ is a swirling totem of swamping, stomping blues; and ‘Size Meets Sounds’ valiantly attempts to reach that opening high with a bar-brawl of crashing, nuanced noise.

In hindsight, front-loading the record with 'Bend Beyond' probably wasn’t the smartest of steps for a band refashioning its image. Its formidable peak was always going to dominate handclapping toe-tappers like 'Lily'. Yet, there’s still a lot to admire here. As a whole, Bend Beyond is as full and broad as Woods have ever sounded. Sure, it lacks the adventure promised by its opening gambit, but this is a band shaping its ambitions at a gradual pace. As Jeremy Earl, himself, puts it: “It ain’t easy looking for different ways to make things stay the same”.

Album review: Andrew Bird - Hands of Glory

Back at the turn of the year, Andrew Bird’s seventh studio longplayer Break It Yourself was released to the usual clamour of praise. By resisting the urge to execute his usual repertoire of musical back-flips, pirouettes and double rolls, the Illinois-born songsmith landed an album with mass-appeal. Add to this his whistle-lipped mentorship of Kermit in the Muppets' latest box-office smash, and you could say it’s been a pretty good year for Mr Bird.

So his decision to close out 2012 with a collection of covers, outtakes and reinterpretations is, frankly, a little peculiar. Not that Hands of Glory represents anything to be alarmed about. But there’s something rather limp - half-hearted, even - about the way these eight cuts have been compiled, composed and executed. Instead of being a dimension-adding companion to Break it Yourself, all this mini-album does is close a loop that had already concluded.

Despite its failings, Hands of Glory is not without charm. The curtain opens with the delicious 'Three White Horses', a lolloping, warbling lament that finds Bird in reflective mode, commanding - “Tell me what’s so easy about coming in to say goodbye”. Musically it’s more rustic than the polished Break It Yourself, and there’s enough here lyrically to deduce this particular songsmith isn’t as comfortable toying with spotlight as he appears.

Such depth, however, never lasts. From here we trundle into a country-slash-blues melee that blends the dark, steel guitar lines of The Handsome Family’s 'When The Helicopter Comes' with Railroad Bill’s hay-bailing, dungaree-donning, fiddle-fest. If Mark Lanegan was scraping his ragged baritone it may make some semblance of sense. But this is Andrew Bird – a man of subtle and noble intonation - and he labours under the strain of this glorified barn dance.

Moments of quality do intersperse these drags. 'Spirograph' showcases Bird’s ability to compel through word play and nuanced guitar; while the minimalist styling of 'Orpheo' is a spacious refrain that bests its full-album sibling, 'Orpheo Looks Back'. Yet, as if to purposefully undo this good work, 'Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horse’s nine-minute re-interpretation of the record’s opener crashes somewhere between artistic overindulgence and cutting-room indiscipline.

As ways to close the year go, there’re probably better ways to see out 2012. But in this season of goodwill and retrospect, Andrew Bird has acquired enough credit over the last 12 months to deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

2012: 10 of the best

I realise it's been a while since I've posted here, so what better way to kick back into gear with my top 10 cuts of 2012.

Now, I wouldn't exactly say this has been a glorious year for music (well, the music that I like) but there have been a number of remarkable releases from the likes of Chromatics, Liars, Twilight Sad and Actress.

Of course, there are lists upon lists currently floating about there in the internet for you to get your lugs stuck into. So, instead of clogging up the blogosphere with another album of the year piece, I thought it better to put together my favourite ten tracks of the last 12 months.

 To be honest, I'm still debating whether these are my favourite ten. For instance, I'm convinced Andrew Bird's glorious Orpheo Looks Back probably merits a spot; while Twilight Sad's gruesome Sick was a track that rolled over and over again in between my lugswhile I was commmuting to and from London during those dark nights.

But we are where we are. And at the moment, these are my ten favourite tunes from 2012...

Now (if there is anyone left reading this) what were your favourites?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Boo hoo, back in the UK...

For the last few weeks I've been out of the country sunning and de-stressing myself in Fort Pierce, Florida. Although we were visiting family, it was as chilled out a time as I'd wished for. There's something particularly soothing about the sun's rays when you know it's baltic back at home.

For all sorts of reasons, Florida is not everyone's ideal holiday destination. And, on the whole, I'd say it isn't mine either. Yet, if you avoid the tourist trappings and spend some time in the everyday towns and beaches where the ever-friendly locals dwell, it's a pretty special place to visit.

There's little pretence or pomp to the bars and restaurants in and around Fort Pierce. The fish is good, the beer is cheap and the barmen and women make mean mojitos. I'm sure that every time I come back I say to myself I should give up the humdrum office life and spend the rest of my days making margaritas in the sun. Nice dream, huh? I'm not sure my liver agrees.

Anyway, for this holiday I decided to see how far I could get with just my camera phone and my new friend Instagram. Turns out I got pretty far: from Heathrow Airport, to Jensen Beach, down to the magnificent Key West, Hemingway's home and back to my mother in-laws backyard for more booze in the inflatable pool.  

Now, back in the UK and searching for winter jackets and fan heaters, that fortnight already feels like a million years ago.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Album review: Chilly Gonzales - Solo Piano II

At almost three centuries old and five to nine feet in length, the piano flies in the face of musical progress. In today’s world, grubby 16-year olds etch together sounds from the bowels of their bedrooms. It doesn’t matter what they play or how they play it, all they need is a knack for GarageBand and an ear for a bit-mapped beat.

There’s little room for the piano in this get-the-hits-out-quick blueprint. The music industry simply doesn’t have the time or money to create the optimum ambience for tinkling ivories. And, really, is there anyone in 2012 who has the attention it takes to coax wistful notes from this behemoth instrument?
Step forward, Jason Charles Beck. Aka, Chilly Gonzales.

Having worked his magic for Feist, Peaches, Daft Punk and, er, Steve Jobs, Gonzales’s mastery embraces a gamut of styles that runs from hip-hop to classical (sometimes at the same time). Yet, his first full length fling caressing the ebony and ivory keys, 2004’s Solo Piano, was a much-lauded revelation. Its instrumental laments took Gonzales beyond alternative audiences and hurtled him into more mature musical ears.

Eight years and one Guinness world record later, the Canadian enigma has plumped himself back on the stool, popped open the fallboard and recorded another batch of grand piano songs. Assembled from the rubble of hundreds of melodies, Solo Piano II is a natural, if more jaunty, follow up to its predecessor. These 14 cuts are classily sculpted; each delicate and nimble, entwining emotional notes and fluttering melodic jaunts.

Such meshing of ambience shapes Solo Piano II into a rewarding listen. Rather than compliment ‘Escher’s cascading keys, down-tempo numbers like ‘Minor Fantasy’ and ‘Redeaux Lunaires’ create a wave of intermingling peaks and troughs. Yet, Gonzales is streetwise enough to let his work live independently, with softer compositions like the bewitching ‘Evolving Blinds’ easing out engrossing melodic yarns.

At times this richness feels more suited to aristocratic lounge rooms, but there’s enough personality here to captivate a wider audience. Nodes of candle-lit tenderness leap from the tearful swells of ‘Othello’; a smokescreen of fidgety key strokes disguises the heart-breaking tenderness of ’Epigram in E’; while hints of charming cheek lies in ‘Nero’s Nocturine’s dainty and familiar tune.

Recorded over ten days in Paris’ Studio Pigalle, Solo Piano II’s classical leanings and modernistic execution are testament to the piano’s ever-lasting ability to dazzle the masses. And with it, Gonzales proves once again that makeshift beats and bleeps are little match for his extraordinary craft.

Album review: Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

Predicting the Dirty Projectors’ next step is a pointless task. Led by idiosyncratic frontman David Longstreth, the Brooklyn-based quintet explore rock's more challenging catacombs, often teetering on the verge of prog. But this tendency to experiment is, almost always, infused with an easy sense of melody that opens up awkward affairs like 2009’s gorgeous Bitte Orca.

In this vein, album number six  is possibly the Projectors’ most accessible. Masterful cuts like Just From Chevron and the string-bleeding About To Die are still laced with pirouetting time signatures and matadorial guitars, but there’s a creamier feel to their delivery. Built entirely to mesmerise, Gun Has No Trigger’s hypnotic mist and the shimmering chimes of Impregnable Question are symptomatic of the album’s gentile, yet intricate nature. Smooth and simple, Swing Lo Magellan has the makings of another Dirty Projectors classic. How utterly predictable.

Album review: Dan Deacon – America

America by name, America by nature. Dan Deacon's follow-up to his 2009 career high Bromst is swathed in the big, bold and sometimes graceless chutzpah of the country it was created in. But these brainbox battering beats are as much an examination of the Baltimore-based composer’s sonic progression as a delve into what motivates the United States of America's inner psyche.

On the face of it, little's changed in the land of Deacon. The hyper-driven distortion of Guildford Avenue and Crash Jam are as euphoric and ear-screeching as anything found within his extensive back catalogue. But beneath this maximalist exterior lies an understated romantic streak that weaves its way through the tingling gaze of The Great American Desert and Rails' parping trumpets, climaxing in True Thrush's melting android melody and hexagonal drum patterns. A triumph, for sure – America is perhaps more vast and complex than even Deacon had anticipated.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Shufflin' to work... #1

Over the past few weeks I’ve been setting my iPod to shuffle on my way to work. Admittedly, this doesn’t have anything to do with trying to explore my bulging and mostly unlistened to MP4 collection, it’s really because I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to pick an album out for the half hour or so journey. Shuffle just seemed the easiest solution.

Now, a few moons ago my good friend Euan (who writes this lovely little blog) did at one point document his shuffle journey to and from work. I don’t think he’s still doing it, which is a shame as it was a good insight into what’s on his stereo. So,  I thought I’d appropriate his idea (sorry) and occasionally start to lay down what randomly infiltrates my lugholes on my way to work.

The rules here are simple: write a couple of sentences about the track that appears on my shuffle before said ditty disappears back into the gaping 7,000+ song void that is my iPod. Also, I can only write about the tracks from the moment the train leaves the sattions and arrives at my destination. So, it could be a long, long article depending on Network Rail’s competency.

Now before I start - as something of a pre-emptive disclaimer for some of what's about to appear here -  I have to declar that I’ve been working as a music journo for about seven years and there is definitely a lot of shite that I’ve barely bothered to listen to still lurking in the dark, dank depths of my iPod. So, some of this tunesmithery is not there of my own accord. Although some of it is – for which I make no apologies. Well, maybe a few.

Let the shuffle begin...

Friday, 10 August 2010. 8:18am train leaves Colchester...

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp (instrumental)
 A bulbous, bouncing bass and ski-slope tumbling drums slosh together around my eardrums, while a persistent synth-line worms and wiggles across this jungle canvas. Doesn’t even miss the vocals. An ebullient, and rather hopeful start

My, my, mt, isn’t this an awkward, cranky, dirty, melancholic, lo-fi thrum? It’s like the personal score for a wind-up ballerina from the wrong side of a New York crackhouse. Eerie, is probably the word.

Hmm… this takes me back. Primal Scream’s blues-rock-schtick might have tickled my 15 year-old self, but this Hammond-heavy, funk-gunk wig out has a tame, laboured feel to it. Given the amount of pharmaceuticals Bobby G and co packed in their personage at the time, it’s a toothless, edgeless bore.

Woah. I forgot about this. What. A. Track. A buzzing, tectonic roll of synths and strings, it washes out on an ice-cool motorwaying aesthetic that nods it's head to the effortless minimalism of Pantha Du Prince.

An airy, feathering fug of 80s keyboards and echoic vocal simplicity that’s dichotomous enough to shiver spines and move feet. This is Maus at his genius best.

Blam. Blam. Brrrrrp. Brrrrrp. This is as demented, childish and jaw-droppingly ferocious as you’d expect. The only lyrics I can make out behind the din of the train seem to be “eclectic melodies, popping out our hairy bits.” I hope, hope, hope I’ve heard that right.
It’s taken me a while to “get” this Chromatics record, but “get” it I now do. Yet if this this brooding, elongated, spacious epic had been my introduction I’m not sure I would have bothered trying. Dull as fuck.

Otis Redding - A Home in Your Heart
This is gorgeous. Old-school, hip-jiving soul resplendent with parping brass, shotgun percussing and a golden guitar line, topped of by the gravelly pipes of Otis. Amazing.

I forget just how “indie” R.E.M were in the beginning. This breezy, jangle-pop number is not Stipe et al their finest, but it’s a touchstone for the jaunty, non-aggravational direction the band took in the 90s.

Just what you need on a sunny morning on the way to Chelmsford. A melting, slow-burning affair led by languid guitar chimes and bleary-eyed vocals. Reminds me of why I took such a shine to Real Estate in the first place (that second album really wasn’t up to scractch though).

Train arrives in Chelmsford at 8:50am

Monday, 30 July 2012

Colchester: A cycle-path's perspective

A few months ago I bought a bike from Colchester’s fantastic Cycle King. I made the decision, initially, to get me from A (my house) to B (the train station) with more haste than normal. In that sense it’s worked out perfectly. I’m shaving 20 minutes off my daily commute and am now incorporating a regular flow of  exercise into my life.

More interestingly, it’s allowed me to see another side to Colchester. Having no driver’s license [a decision fuelled more because of a preference for spending lesson money on booze rather than any environmental idealism in my younger days] meant my sightseeing was limited to the stretching of two legs or my other half’s compliance in exploring beyond the confines of North Hill in the car.

So far I’ve free-wheeled my way around the country paths of Cymbeline Meadows and, a very muddy, Highwoods Country Park. I’ve also zipped my way around town, weaving in and out of traffic while I make my way to the various veg stalls peppered across Colchester during the weekend.

What’s struck me since my setting out on my cycling adventures is just how impressive Colchester’s biking infrastructure is. Too many councils in the UK pay lip-service to cyclists, creating pointless cycle paths that are poorly thought out in terms of congestion and the direction of cycling traffic.

Since 2008,  Colchester Borough Council (CBC) have spent an extraordinary £4.2m on increasing the number of cycle journeys in the town by 75%. My impression is that it shows. Perhaps not in the people actively cycling in town – the ratio of bikes to cars is significant, particularly around North Station – but the number of cycle routes available is certainly above the national average (if there is such a thing) and a thousand percent beyond the options available in my home town of Edinburgh.

An article in the local newspaper the Gazette last year suggested that the funding has been wasted [I have to say the article was loaded with negative rhetoric]. But Colchester, from my initial impressions, is a transient town that has relied on gas-guzzling cars to get around for far too long. Changing mindsets is not a short-term solution and, hopefully, CBC is aware of this.

Cycling in Colchester needs to be seen by Joe Public as a viable alternative to using the car. From my perspective, as a professional communicator, CBC must actively steer the promotion of getting in the saddle from cost or health-based messages (two particularly patronising and unspecific hits). It has to set a more emotional tone, highlighting the importance of building a long-term framework for the future of the town and the people who live in it.

Steering Colchester away from the perception that it’s nothing more than a commuter’s town obscured under the shadow of London should be a primary objective of CBC. That is, of course, not easy, nor can it be done through cycling alone. But by creating a community of people who prefer to explore the town on two-wheels, rather than escape from it on four, CBC will be well on its way to creating a Colchester that’s not just cycle-friendly, but cycle-centric. A town you’d want to live in.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Out and about in England: Dedham

The purpose of my escape from the City was to spend more time with Su and finally feel like I'm living a life down south. Already, I'm starting to see the difference. I've lost - or at least am losing - the commuter bulge; I'm getting out and about on my trusty bike more; and Su and I are having much more fun than I can remember in a long time.

All in all, life is pretty good. The summer down here is significantly hotter than Scotland, so I'm even developing a curious brown - rather than red - complexion as we explore the outer echelons of England. Much of our recent adventures are stemming from a terrrific book called Room at the Inn, which pinpoints the best countryside inns and accompanying walks across England and Wales. So far it's been a revelation.

The English do pubs like no-one else. The local ales are generally exquisite and there's a refreshin, if unspoken, insistence that taverns must maintain an olde English elegance in  both ambiance and decor.  And when the sun's out, there's always - and I mean always - space in the vast beer gardens buried beyond each ale-house's lounge bar.

Last week, we visited Dedham in north-east Essex to take on a three-mile country trail that followed the River Stour. It was a breathtaking and sanguine couple of hours. The English countryside may lack trajectory, but its pancake flat walks are brushed with a rich, earthy palette of greens, yellows and browns that make for some luscious summer eye-candy.

Knackered from our two-hour walk through England's countryside, we ambled our way to the Sun Inn. Centered in the heart of  the picturesque Dedham, this is an inn that packs traditional English pub sensabilities with an intriguing mediterranean menu. Veering between Su's mammoth vegetarian pasta dish and my meaty bread board, our flavoursome, well-presented dishes were washed down with a pair of jet-black organic ales (and equally dark and black Diet Pepsi on Su's side).

Feet-flexed and bellies-filled, we made our way back to Colchester with a rejuvenated sense of the countryside. Roll on our next England adventure.