Archive for 2009

Top 20 Albums of 2009

Posted in Feature, List with tags , on February 25, 2010 by David Hall

20. Julian Plenti – Julian Plenti …Is Skyscraper

A turn up for the books to begin with; indie superstar “Paul Banks of Interpol” indulges in a pretentiously-titled solo project, and makes it really rather good! Shocker!
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19. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Indie-pop hasn’t hit such solid gold paydirt with the opening of Lisztomania and 1901 in years. Banishing thoughts of disposable immediacy, the mid-album Love Like a Sunset movement is spectacular.
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18. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

Conjuring a spacey Wolf Parade-ish vibe, Two Dancers is experimental but not impenetrable, at times fluid and playful but always reverting to more surefooted tracks for grounding.
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17. The Antlers – Hospice

Heartbreaking, from the desolately romantic artwork and Bear’s affirmation of “We’re not old” to Wake’s shivering grandeur. Beautiful and poignant, full of daring and close-to-the-bone songwriting.
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16. Fanfarlo – Reservoir

A joyously ramshackle affair, the missing link between Beirut’s rickety rehearsal room atmosphere and Arcade Fire’s skyward gazing.
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15. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light

Astoundingly moving in its unexpected environmental statements – Another World and Aeon particularly are saturated with the most immense gravity – the most impressive thing about The Crying Light is that it all just sounds so effortless.
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14. The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy

Life’s simple pleasures are sometimes the best; Welcome Joy proves a case in point, its quietly and beautifully contemplative songs constituting an uncomplicatedly enjoyable album which readily gives up its unembellished charms.

13. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Another step towards the expansive Tolkienian sound of Bat For Lashes’ live sets. For the most part sweepingly panoramic (see Glass and Daniel), but Siren Song in particular is beautifully intimate.
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12. The xx – xx

“Hi there, Glasvegas. This is how cool and detached should sound; clinical simplicity is much cooler than pointless layers anyway. Kthnxbye.”
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11. Goes Cube – Another Day Has Passed

Metal-infused-hardcore-alt-punk delivered with a straightforward, head down, no-holds-barred single mindedness. By turns brutal, epic and anthemic, anyone looking for drumming performance of the year need look no further.

10. Florence + the Machine – Lungs

Ignore the dreadful and noisy Kiss with a Fist and concentrate on positively stellar moments such as Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up) and Dog Days are Over. Quite simply irresistible, Lungs is expansive enough for a mainstream audience (hello Number 1 UK Album slot in 2010) whilst remaining playfully beguiling. Unfortunately, Lungs has also been seized upon by seemingly every person in the country with a copy of Final Cut Pro in their possession. Thus cue endless trailers for every conceivable TV programme which requires key phrases anywhere from ‘moody’ to ‘uplifting’ covering being plastered with a random Flo track, negating the need to listen to said album for at least the next five years. Oh dears.

9. The Maccabees – Wall of Arms

Adventurously moody and slow-building, from the massive No Kinds Words to even the more playful William Powers, Wall of Arms perhaps didn’t get the recognition it deserved despite forging into the UK Top 20 off the back of critical plaudits. An impressive progression from a band who previously sounded on the cusp of disposability with bouncealong indie disco fare such as Precious Time. Unfortunately I suspect that – considering or despite Wall of Arms’ performance – we won’t get a third album out of The Maccabees. That said, Fiction Records have been astoundingly meek and lenient with the perennially shite Athlete, so I therefore recline and await wrong-proving.

8. Twin Atlantic – Vivarium

Alright already, strictly speaking it’s a ‘mini-album’ but its sheer awesomeness more than warrants its inclusion here. Yes Vivarium may bear striking similarities Biffy Clyro, but Twin Atlantic seem to occupy the inverse of their fellow countrymen’s excitement parabola. As soon as Sam McTrusty’s throaty Scottish brogue kicks in and is quickly swamped by distortion in Lightspeed, you know you’re in for something special. I was but a lad when Idlewild emerged, yet I can’t help imagining that listening to You’re Turning into John Wayne is like hearing Roddy Woomble’s outfit for the first time. Twin Atlantic were one of the few bands of ‘09 that really made me sit up and take notice, and they deserve eyes clamped on them for their next release; Vivarium is exhilarating stuff but its clear ‘this-is-not-our-debut-album’ status promises even greater things. If only Biffy were still making music this blistering.

7. Tubelord – Our First American Friends

There’s no other word for it, Tubelord’s full-length debut Our First American Friends was fucking class. Vital and alive with energy, Kingston-Upon-Thames hilariously sells the Americans their own brand of hyperdrive alt rock back to them with added interest. I suggest you don’t hesitate for a second and go buy it, but also check them out when they come to your town in 2010 and their star should really go supernova. Clearly mewithoutYou are a strong influence, but where are they these days? Nobody ever truly got them, however I suggest that Tubelord have what it takes to go where mwY haven’t really managed.

6. Imogen Heap – Ellipse

Like the slow-burning spacestation fire to Little Boots’ nuclear glitterbomb test and La Roux’s Master System hotwiring, Ellipse is superior to the slightly disappointing Two Suns and overly poppy Lungs, but inkeeping with their self-contained aesthetic. Heap is currently beginning to hit the big time, particularly with Hide and Seek from her debut Speak for Yourself, prominently featured in ‘The O.C.’ and ‘CSI: Miami’ and sampled on Jason Derulo’s Whatcha Say, a former Billboard Number 1 and UK Top 10 single. Lead track First Train Home sounds as slick and fluid as Heap’s work with Frou Frou, but there’s more than enough to keep indie experimentalists happy, the Bavarian stop motion apparition of Aha! for instance. Tidal is a less dentist’s drillish version of La Roux, Wait it Out gorgeously perfect indie pop, like a Nerina Pallot track composed entirely on a laptop. Wisely, nothing on Ellipse replicates the harmonizer-based lovesong for dialup modems Hide and Seek; not even the beautifully sparse closer Half Life, which American TV producers are probably lining up to be played over their wedding day car crash season finale as we speak.

5. HEALTH – Get Color

Who else in the world sounds like HEALTH? Nobody. No other band understands that we love having our heads kicked in, but in nice, considerate, 3-minute bitesize chunks. No other band has that bass sound. Hallucinatory and terrifying, music very rarely sounds as close to pylons coming to life as Get Color. Opener In Heat sounds like 65daysofstatic’s Await Rescue being played in the bowels of an abandoned oil rig, echoing blastbeats and needlepoint guitars shattering in all directions. Lead single Die Slow is the sound of a computer virus infecting a music studio console, oddly danceable with its cyberpunk synth, electroclash chorus and processed palm muted guitars. Listening to Nice Girls is like being tortured with circular saws by some terrifying floor tom-pounding crime syndicate and enjoying it. Perhaps a grander departure from their self-titled debut would’ve placed it higher on this list, but Get Color represents a fair amount of restraint on HEALTH’s part – compare Triceratops to Severin, for example – which can only be applauded.

4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

It was the glorious mashup style quality of It’s Blitz! that took me; everything about it was unexpected, sounding beautifully handpicked. It was borrowed, bespoke and crafted, an album that even without the stellar opening couplet of Zero and Heads Will Roll would remain pretty strong. Softshock – like Jimmy Tamborello remixing Radiohead’s Treefingers – is luscious and lugubrious, Skeletons like Kate Bush visiting The Cocteau Twins in their sleep. Dragon Queen sees Korn playing in A Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milkbar to a disco beat, Hysteric sounds like TV on the Radio (probably because Dave Sitek co-produces), with Karen O happening upon another lovelorn Maps-like chorus in “You suddenly complete me”. YYY’s story so far now reads: debut album eye-meltingly good, follow-up in which all of debut’s verve and sass were absent unexpectedly wayward, impressive reinvention of synthy sophistication triumphantly cool. Nice.

3. The Longcut – Open Hearts

It seems as if I’ve ended up with this list by default; I literally didn’t like any other albums enough this year. Say what you like about that, “You miserable bastard” is fair enough, and “You’re not listening to the right things then” is a moot point, but a look at Amazon’s Top 20 of the year seems to support my supposition. For every faceless pop automaton (Lady GaGa, Newton Faulkner), there’s a corresponding mouldy old act past their best (Alice in Chains, Kiss, The Prodigy) or beyond-a-joke nobody (The Raveonettes, Noah & the Whale, Editors). For the record, I personally just don’t get Animal Collective. Accordingly, Open Hearts falls agonisingly trapeze artist short of The Longcut’s debut A Call and Response. But Out at the Roots and The Last Ones Here are stirring anthems from a band with a commendable never-say-die attitude and work ethic and tracks like Evil Dance and Open Hearts are amongst The Longcut’s strongest efforts yet.

2. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

Of all the albums released in 2009, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin may not quite be the best, but it’s certainly one of the most affecting. From Charlie Darwin’s terrified gasp of “Oh my God, the water’s cold and shapeless; Oh my God, it’s all around” and To Ohio’s covered wagon roadtrip soundtrack, through The Horizon is a Beltway and Home I’ll Never Be’s earthy Springsteenish everyman evangelism and Omgcd’s communal spirit, this is accomplished, atmospheric and eminently listenable. Only a midsection in which the material’s standard fluctuates slightly keeps the album from faultlessness. Still, a poignant and compelling record full of the same stark beauty as the landscapes it evokes, picking up where Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago left off in 2008.

1. Manic Street Preachers – Journal for Plague Lovers

Anyone expecting The Holy Bible Pt. 2 will have been disappointed with Journal for Plague Lovers, abrasive flanged guitars and extensive solos notably absent. It’s nowhere near as dark or damaged as The Holy Bible, taking in some lyrical jokes and mostly composed of proper chords. The backstory is well-known, the Manic Street Preachers fleshing out lyrics left to them over a decade ago by their missing presumed dead cohort Richey Edwards. The lyrics are the obvious centre of attention, given the record’s context it’s almost too easy to read William’s Last Words as Edwards’ suicide note. It bids goodbye to his loved ones (“I’m just gonna close my eyes, think about my family, shed a little tear”), bandmates (“You’re the best friends I ever had”) and seems to seek an end to the torment he doubtlessly endured (“I’m really tired, I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy”). The title track’s Heideggerian sentiments insist “Only a god can bruise, only a god can soothe; only a god reserves the right to forgive those who revile him,” the remaining Manics take it upon themselves to also judge here. They practically edit together an album that isn’t the seismic landmark The Holy Bible remains, but bears scrutiny as part of Edwards’ unique legacy. In terms of tunes, artistic merit and emotional reaction, easily the Manics’ finest since Everything Must Go. Not indie enough for you? The remix album is more than worth a listen.

Honourable Mentions

The Horrors – Primary Colours
A slap on the back of rib-shattering magnitude to anybody who saw this coming.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
As somebody who’s never really understood the fuss about Animal Collective, Merriweather was no sudden dawning of clarity for me; it’s still baffling to the casual listener and pretentious as fuck. But it’s also more accessible, with some genuinely great tunes managing to peek through the melee.

Enter Shikari – Common Dreads
Scored me some writing work, and not a bad album to boot. Cheers, ears.

Deadmau5 – For Lack of a Better Name
Dance record of the year, hands down. Or should that be hands up? No, you’re right, hands down.

Exlovers – You Forget So Easily EP
Just look out for their album, more than worth a mention to close.

This article, aside from having been stuck in formatting hell for the past month, contains some elements from contributions to Noize Makes Enemies’ Best of 2009.

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The Silent Years – The Globe [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, November 2009.

With some bands, eclecticism is their prerogative. The Arcade Fire, Florence + the Machine, Mercury Rev, Super Furry Animals. Coincidentally, these are just some of the bands that The Silent Years sound like a watered-down version of; it’s best to get it out of the way early, there isn’t much original about their first album The Globe.

There are two main criticisms that can be levelled at this album, the second twice as significant as the first. Initially, the simple fact is that The Globe is too long to effectively hold the attention; all the places where it would’ve benefitted from being concise are overlong and overthought. At thirteen tracks (with three bonus tracks pushing the album well over the hour mark) it’s a bit ponderous and hard work to get through. The largely vague, noodling compositions on offer here will struggle to carry the casual listener all the way through. In short – words The Silent Years’ main man Josh Epstein apparently is unfamiliar with – it’s a chore rather than a pleasure to sit down and listen to this album in its entirety. We’ll return to that other criticism in due course.

Out into the Wild begins the record with cavernous distortion and galloping drums, ornate baroque piano lines skipping and pirouetting across it. Quickly getting lost in its own intricacies however, Out into the Wild eschews the direct and forceful approach of its drumming to wander, indulging itself in vocal loops. The album’s highlight comes mercifully quickly, but mercilessly rips off Fleet Foxes in the process. On Our Way Home, despite the redundancy of its repeated title lyric stops off in some gorgeous scenery, for the most part sad and acoustic. “On our way home, we buried all our photo albums; everyone we’ve ever known was in ‘em,” Epstein maligns, before the track eventually explodes in a supernova of electric guitar and cymbals, drowning the singer in a hailstorm. Climb on my Back bravely tries to offer an alternative in full-on pop, but the falsetto singing and wah-wah guitar in the chorus slips inevitably into annoyance. The lyrics are cod-philosophical, more towards the Kaiser Chiefs than the Modest Mouse end of the market. “Now I feel like I’m the Overman that Dostoevsky wrote about”; yeah, alright fella, enough of that cheers. I read books too.

Black Hole tries to reconjure the intimate atmosphere of On Our Way Home whilst mercenarily nicking the central idea from Modest Mouse’s Dark Center of the Universe. The lyrics are far too wordy, any sense of metre lost in the multisyllabic hubbub, backed by largely sparse and simple music. The drumming however is consistently excellent, and it has been procured a noticeably prominent place in the mix, sounding powerful, assured and inventive. Ryan Clancy pounds away in tribal style at the beginning of Ropes while Epstein rambles on about amputation and a single high-pitched piano key is struck repeatedly and a cartoonish breakdown comes through a tunnel previously painted on a wall. Know Your Place sees the rhythm section locked in a grim tango, Clancy and bassist Mike Majewski hurling each other around whilst the other instruments sound airy and superfluous all about them. Eventually, the layers double and treble until it eventually feels like the listener is wading through porridge to get to the end of the track.

Apart from that, there’s very little else to comment upon. The Sun is Alive is anything but lively, it’s a none-event. Goddamn You is a Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire rip-off complete with church organ. The Axiom is the clearest Mercury Rev takeoff, with the singer sounding a lot like Jonathan Donahue and the instrumentation generally aping Opus 40 from Deserter’s Songs. It must be reiterated at this point that The Globe is no Deserter’s Songs.

So anyway, the second criticism much graver than the first was actually mentioned at the outset. The Globe just isn’t very original or interesting. The bands you’d have to make a conscious effort to step over in order to pursue The Silent Years just doesn’t bear thinking about. You may view this as an unfair line of reasoning, but ask yourself; why would anybody listen to a band that sound like an inferior version of another band, precisely because they are not that second band? For a start, you could instead listen to Florence + the Machine, who sound like they’ve been found playing on toadstools on a woodland glade with autumnal sun low in the sky. Whatever Lungs’ shortcomings, it’s a bewitching listen and far less arduous than The Globe. Meanwhile The Arcade Fire are introspective despite their rousingly layered music and inhabit a novelistic world of carnivalistic inversion. The Globe is totally anonymous compared to Funeral, devoid of the personality a record of this ilk requires. Although it’d be incredibly surprising if The Silent Years have ever heard anything by them, Super Furry Animals are famously magpieish in their approach to music making. They sound like nothing else on earth, and The Silent Years can only aspire to this. Finally there’s Mercury Rev, who’ve got this trippy sub-sub-genre of music down to a fine art. The Silent Years have nowhere near the tunes of MR; there’s no Goddess On A Hiway, or even Senses On Fire. And as for the instantly-memorable The Dark is Rising… well no, there’s nothing like that here, so move along.

4 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 3 out of 6

Gift Music
The Silent Years on Myspace
The Silent Years on Last.fm

Tubelord – Our First American Friends [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, November 2009.

Tubelord are one of those bands that remind you of about a million other bands, but never lose their own uniqueness. These cultured devils release their debut album, the appropriately-titled Our First American Friends, on Hassle Records. The trio are led by singer/guitarist Joe Prendergast, backed up by fleet of foot drummer David Catmur and recently-recruited bassist Damien Gabet. If you’re new to them, imagine the fragile voice of Mew, the rickety guitar riffs and solos of Biffy Clyro, the eclectic atmosphere of Stars, minimalist approach of Grizzly Bear and the precision drumming of Reuben all gaffa-taped together and you may be getting somewhere. Then graft on a massive wad of distortion and listen through a Walkman whilst jogging until the amalgamation skips and tics like its undergoing electroshock therapy and season to taste.

Your Bed is Kind of Frightening bounces from sunny pop vocal harmonies to Biffy-esque strikes of staccato distortion and tempo changes then back again, piggybacking an excellent bassline which carries the verses along. The surrealist lyrics (“carousels, emit your fumes”) casts Prendergast as literate and enigmatic, an impression at odds with Tubelord’s largely American-influenced sound which at times verges on the bombastic and crisp production of Silversun Pickups. Synthesize is a case in point, being a dose of unashamed alt-pop with a chorus at least as massive as Living is a Problem Because Everything Dies, all frantically chopped octave slides and fluid arpeggios. In case you were in any doubt that the singer sounded like Jonas Bjerre from Mew, he lays it on with a trowel throughout the stuttering Stacey’s Left Arm, which starts like Mew or Mogwai and ends in spasm like Be Your Own Pet’s Fuuuuuun. He Awoke on a Beach in Abergavenny (not to be confused with I Woke Up on a Beach in Aberystwyth on Johnny Foreigner’s recently-released new album) begins with another atonal Biffy Clyro-endorsed riff but also recalls mid-period Nirvana in its loud-quiet-loud dynamic and powerful performances. But not the xylophone bit. Tubelord might be as heavy as you need in places, but there’s no denying that they’re also pretty twee at times. These schizoid tendencies are played off against each other to the most thrilling effect so far on this track, with xylophone quickly followed by the album’s heaviest riff before the pedal is kept firmly to the floor until Abergavenny’s conclusion. This is reiterated in I am Azerrad’s jangly intro, quickly kicked to death by the rest of the track’s ‘distortion turned all the way up’ approach.

The Wasp Factory-aping Somewhere Out There a Dog is on Fire follows Your Bed is Kind of Frightening, landing with a thud and immediately beginning to glisten brightly, with a spritely rhythm section performance and Prendergast’s voice and guitar twinkling on top. It’s loud, it’s heavy, but it certainly isn’t dumb; Tubelord seem to know instinctively when an idea is nearing the limits of its welcome. The track ends up banging on about tin men, stomping along in truly Ted Hughes or Antony Gormley-ish style. Night of Pencils is a testament to the bands musical creativity, lyrically comprising a collection of odd and awkward phrases which would sound daft in a lesser song. But more often than not they somehow come off as sounding great; coy and lovesick in the correct places, anthemic and cheerful when appropriate. A quick hammering-on intro guitar riff and we’re already in cryptic territory at early doors; “Mavis told the truth, I’m the one for you”. Later on, Night of Pencils’ main hook ends up as, “We’re bigger than Memphis, you only exist when I want you to”, which sounds suspiciously like something Fall Out Boy would come out with. But in the wider context of Our First American Friends, it clears the ‘this guy doesn’t know what he’s on about’ fence lands firmly on the ‘oblique and interesting’ side. Tubelord move from unstoppable thrashing to eventual controlled powerchord stabs without a blink, displaying this tendency most impressively here. Propeller is appropriately titled given its driving bassline, and swirls around to encompass the listener like a tropical storm, the sky darkening as Gabet’s bass coils tightly around a galloping drum roll. A mocking breakdown ushers in the tranquil eye of the storm, which is followed by a fiddly guitar riff before the track hurtles conclusion-wards, head down.

Our First American Friends seems to calm down a great deal towards its end. The quiet acoustic Cows to the East, Cities to the West may not come close in length or grandeur, but more than matches Mew’s Comforting Sounds in terms of scope. The title track rounds out the album, thrillingly attempting to reconcile the introspection of Cows to the East with Night of Pencils’ distortion-strewn, dinnerplate-eyed cinematic wonder, capturing Tubelord’s manifesto of awkward alternative rock with poppish sensibilities and pretensions amicably. No matter how many times it breaks down, it can never quite escape Prendergast’s feelgood sustained chorus notes, not even when it lulls into a 50’s melodrama, Good Night-style ending. Although Tubelord may wear their inspirations on their sleeve, an identity all their own shines through, proving them to be more than mere rip-off merchants. From its title onwards Our First American Friends discloses a thirst for exposure, and will surely gain them just that by proving more than the sum of its parts. Tastefully arranged influences are all well and good, but Tubelord have made the extra leap to crafting something truly original out of them.

9 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 5 out of 6

Night of the Pencils on Spotify
This is much cooler than the emo dorks it may remind you of in passing; sing along without guilt, “We’re bigger than Memphis…”

Hassle Records
Tubelord on Myspace
Tubelord on Last.fm

Johnny Foreigner – Grace and the Bigger Picture [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, November 2009.

If you haven’t seen hard-touring Birmingham three-piece Johnny Foreigner live yet, you may want to consider getting out more. As if they needed an excuse for another jaunt on the road, they team up with another credentialed-up producer Alex Newport to release Grace and the Bigger Picture. The acid test for this second album however is beyond the customary dizzy sugar rush, will you be inclined to dig it out for a spin this time next year?

Opener Choose Yr Side and Shut Up! acts as an appropriate metaphor for the duelling boy/girl vocals that never quite resolve themselves. With the line “And it starts like” Johnny Foreigner are off with a pop and a whizz; it starts like how it continues really, all slow bent notes, stop-start metrical foolings, widdling guitar fills et al. Security to the Promenade may be slightly more accomplished, but essentially follows the same template. Sometimes you’ll find the criticism that there are no hooks to a band’s music; if anything, JoFo are only guilty of incorporating too many hooks; Security to the Promenade for example ends up sounding like a random bunch of phrases which are intoned slightly louder or more tunefully than the backdrop. “Bath-room floor!”, “Holiday heaven!”, “Student union!” are pretty much the catcalls that define the track. Nothing much else sticks in the melee (or should that be puree?) of v-flicking guitar fills, crunching proliferations in volume and hyperspeed drumming that randomly hits brick walls. It collapses into a giant pothole only to emerge spitting a stream of water the other side for a final thrash. Great fun, but once it’s over, it’s over; a perfect indie moshpit soundtrack it might be, but it seems to evade the memory unnervingly.

The honest-to-God truth of the matter is that if you’ve heard one track on this album, then you’ve pretty much heard all of them. That being the case, it’s useless to really focus on the album track-by-track; it’s fun, but it’s repetitive and some might whisper just a little pointless. Fair enough there’s a giddy thrill to be had, and I doubt the band themselves would profess themselves to be any more than musical hedonists. Therefore, the only logical place to turn is those tracks that stand out, barging free of the stagefront scrum for a breather. Illchoosemysideandshutup, Alright begins sweet and quiet before a controlled apex of noise is reached; it’s all over a little too quickly however and is treated rather like an interlude than the proper track it probably deserved to be. More Heart, Less Tongue, beyond the ‘we’ve been to all these countries that you haven’t and didn’t like it’ sentiment, bravely tries to stick with its waltzy piano line. It’s an awful lot more restrained than most other tracks – a pair of tiny chaotic and dissonant breakdowns not withstanding – and is the most impressive thing on offer here, showing real signs of songwriting maturity. That said, the ‘sick of being homesick’-inspired “Oh! Seven! Fuck it! I’ll call tomorrow” line is infantile, bordering on genius. The Coast Was Always Clear most accurately recaptures the spirit of the still-to-be-bested-even-now Choose Yr Side and Shut Up, with Alexei Berrow quizzing “Who’s watching the coast? Who’s watching the coast? Who’s watching the coast and who’s watching you!?” ever more frantically. It unexpectedly spaces out into a resonatingly empty section of serenity before eventually working itself back into top gear to end frothing at the mouth once again.

Returning to the ‘different-sounding’ tracks, the promising moderation shown in More Tongue, Less Heart and The Coast Was Always Clear’s after-the-jump instrumental ending point to greater achievements in future from JoFo. It can be argued (and has been for the entire previous page) that they really need to get past this idea that everything must be played as quickly and hit as hard as possible. Johnny Foreigner are skilled in the art of self-reference, both with regard to Grace and indeed the bigger picture. Their little self-contained universe is hinted at in the inclusion of previous release titles (“So it started pretty, arcs across the city” goes Choose Yr Side), and recurring motifs… well, recur… throughout the album. The “some summers” refrain of Feels Like Summer crops up at The Coast Was Always Clear’s climax and question-retort relationships clearly exist between Choose Yr Side and Shut Up!/Illchoosemysideandshutup, Alright, More Heart, Less Tongue/More Tongue, Less Heart. A clear sense of the band’s identity and their little self-created microcosm is appealing. Then again, they’re difficult to like at times, often coming across as somewhere perilously close to obnoxious; the ‘woe-is-us-we-tour-hard’ songs can’t fail to grate, as astutely observed as they sometimes are.

Grace and the Bigger Picture is another one-dimensional joyride through the neon-graffitied council estate called Johnny Foreigner, a realm of blaring sirens and people shouting at you and beating you about the head with sticks. Therefore, there are complaints aplenty; it’s not very well rehearsed or produced, and more precision and polish wouldn’t have gone amiss. The quality doesn’t exactly lurch, but at least undulates noticeably at times; Kingston Called, They Want Their Lost Youth Back is ‘fuck-off-that’s-awful’ bad, for example. More time should’ve been spent on it as a project, more consideration given to the impressions the songs make upon the listener. It’s no coincidence that Criminals is the album’s first single, being its most memorable moment, with a chorus bordering on… gasp! Catchy! From the album title upwards, JoFo are focussing on the long term, but they really need to question what it is they’re providing their listeners with. It’s all very well to be the soundtrack to a drunken slam dance in a securityless venue, but quite another to be worthy of repeat listens at home. If one of those hoodies with panels from old comic books on it could make noise, they’d sound like Johnny Foreigner; all random explosions devoid of context and snippets of dialogue in disembodied speech bubbles. I guess they live and die on whether that description appeals to you or not.

6 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 4 out of 6

Choose Yr Side and Shut Up! on Spotify
A head-spinning introduction which the album never tops; arming you with no more than a pair of glowsticks, it sends you reeling into a neon-daubed indie disco never to be heard from again.

Best Before Records
Johnny Foreigner on Myspace
Johnny Foreigner on Last.fm

The Longcut – Open Hearts [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by David Hall


An edited version of this review was published at The 405, October 2009.

You’d be entirely forgiven for not recalling Manchester indie electro trio The Longcut and their excellent debut album A Call and Response. It’s been over three years since that record’s release, so to say they have considered their next move carefully is quite an understatement. This wasn’t entirely the bands fault, as they parted ways with record label Deltasonic and slipped somewhat off the radar in-between albums. That’s a shame, as A Call and Response was a fine record and their live show is quite frankly transcendent, with default frontman Stuart Ogilvie traipsing this way and that, to the mic or to trigger electronics one moment, to pound away behind his drumkit the next.

Open Hearts is an album on which The Longcut try steadfastly to reconcile the differences between their often astounding material and the record’s troublesome gestation. Lead single Repeated is a case in point; comparatively short and simple, but bridging many gaps between the dance and indie genres, experimentation and structure, words and music and so on. Repeated is also situated between two much more remarkable yet less immediate tracks, leaving it functioning similarly to A Tried and Tested Method, as a teaser to an album which contains far greater things. Beforehand, Mary Bloody Sunshine takes off from a stilted, see-sawing riff into a flurry of multitracked guitars and washing keys, happens upon a wheezing breakdown, then is off again with acoustic percussion. Afterwards, the bubbling, largely instrumental Boom demonstrates that The Longcut are perfectly happy to leave passages of the album wordless. Whilst on balance Open Hearts probably has more lyrical content than A Call and Response, there is more than enough going on to vindicate this decision.

A ‘call to arms’ might have become something of a cliché when it comes to describing album openings these days, but in Out at the Roots’ case it’s fairly accurate. “Put on those dancing boots, we’re gonna tear this place right out at the roots” Ogilvie urges amidst the flailing chorus. Whilst a lack of finesse means it isn’t the most beautifully crafted lyric of all time, this rallying cry captures and emulates a furious underdog spirit and resolve. A ferocious, razor-sharp bassline from Jon Fearon – like Muse’s Hysteria getting stuck in digital mud – slingshots the track along, free to breathlessly dip in and out of the chorus. Out at the Roots is a prickly and experimental opener, with its eventual multi-tracked run-in sounding like a significant step forward in The Longcut’s sound. Pulsating synths pummel Ogilvie’s imperfect – and slightly nasal – but well-projected voice on the much calmer Something Inside, more groove-based than Out at the Roots. A heavily processed chorus’ chopped up vocal begins to sound like Everything in its Right Place before the refrain segues into a frantic, clashingly loud climax. The droning guitar intro of Tell You So continues Lee Gale’s never-fail technique of finding an interesting chord shape and holding it for as long as humanly possible. The track peaks and troughs expertly, with saturated slabs of noise lulling into almost-vacant sections of calm, propelled along by relentless drumming.

Open Hearts really hits its stride from Evil Dance onwards, a techno keyboard intro and tinkling cymbals hewn by another strident bassline and glitching beats. After its drilling initial chant, the track knuckles down and offsets its bold bass with glacial synths into a danceable melee reminiscent of A Call and Response’s A Quiet Life. The snow from its rippling beat causes Ogilvie’s vocal to distort, as if he were singing into an electric fan. It’s an almost unintentionally good effect, akin to watching The Longcut on Channel 4 in 1989, and embellishing the album with a human, not-quite pristine atmosphere; always interesting in the relatively sterile realm of electro. Interlude You Can Always Have More picks up where the outro of Evil Dance left off, all propulsive drumming and hyperdrive tremolo picking, which crashes to the ground and Open Hearts emerges. It’s clearly, far and away the best track on the album and arguably the best thing The Longcut have done, beginning with a quiet and reserved picked guitar chime before going undergoing several thrilling stages of metamorphosis. The bass is fuzzier and looser than other tracks and is gradually caked with gently swaying keyboards in euphoric waves and pulses. Remix hi-hats and delay-soaked vocal loops become increasingly frenetic, before Open Hearts ascends into two minutes of sheer, sweaty, last-song-in-the-club, dance-with-your-eyes-closed joy before tottering off into the frosty, slo-mo night of At Any Time.

The Longcut have timed Open Hearts’ release rather well – unwittingly it would seem – as indie disco is so hawt right now, with acts such as Digitalism, Midnight Juggernauts and The Whip all doing brisk business. It’s comforting that Open Hearts as a track is their magnum opus at this point; it’ll certainly soften the blow that its parent album took a full three years from A Call and Response’s release to surface, with just a single – a morose cover of You Got the Love with Idiot Check as double-A side – and the Airtight Session EP in the intermission. Unfortunate though it may be, their star has definitely waned; the venues visited on their last tour are noticeably smaller than they’ve played in the past. Whilst the band’s sophomore album doesn’t scale the consistently immense heights of A Call and Response provided by A Last Act of Desperate Men, Gravity in Crisis and Vitamin C, anyone who enjoyed that record will welcome this release. Hopefully, The Longcut won’t take such an eye-wateringly excruciating length of time to produce a follow-up to Open Hearts and capitalise on its success.

8 out of 10.

Melodic
The Longcut on Myspace
The Longcut on Last.fm

Motion Picture Soundtrack – Departure [EP]

Posted in EP, Review with tags , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, September 2009.

There is barely a human who has ever lived that hasn’t found some sort of romance in the concept of death. And pretty much every creative writer, musician, filmmaker and so on recognises this. From Renaissance era works such as Romeo and Juliet to even the most disposable of Hollywood films, such as 300’s fearless affirmation of ‘tonight we dine in Hell’. In fact if you think about it, most major religions positively demand a morbid fascination with the end, a ‘suffer here, live in the afterlife’ approach. With modern nihilism and secular attitudes taking this promise away from us, what is there left to do other than romanticise death? So yeah, at any rate, Cultural Studies lecture notwithstanding, Motion Picture Soundtrack have a White Lies-esque lyrical fascination with death. These relatively dark sentiments fit well with the music’s sweeping, melodramatic feel to produce something alluringly uplifting. Aristotelian catharsis, fear and pity and all that, Cultural Studies bods.

Straight away Motion Picture Soundtrack sound comfortably familiar, with soundalikes obscured as if by the same veil (“The curtain has torn, fractured lights caress your form” is clearly a great line) that opener Departure’s lyrics reference. They aren’t immediately obvious, but with repeated listens it’s pretty obvious from where the Canterbury outfit draw their inspiration. Editors are the most obvious touchstone, recalled in Motion Picture Soundtrack’s soaring high-fretted, effects-soaked guitar lines, if not the singer’s high-ranging Johnny Borrell-ish tone. His mid-range also sounds a bit like Brandon Urie from Panic! At the Disco, but that isn’t a negative comment. That guy’s a decent enough singer to be fair, he just so happens to be annoying. And in an annoying band. Consequently, an American flavour comes through strongly here, as anyone who’s heard Armor For Sleep’s Somebody Else’s Arms may find themselves in familiar territory melody-wise. The blazing sections of white hot distortion also recall some of M83’s most shoegazeish moments in terms of ear-punishing volume. Upon the line “every time I rewind” the band take their cue to go stratospheric as if somebody has actually pushed a remote control button, they ascend to the skyline in effortlessly Matrix-like fashion.

Faults of a Realist (fantastic title) offers a slightly different proposition to Departure’s propulsive and momentum-filled drive with a more undulating structure. The affecting chorus is barrelled into the ghastly shadow of a 100-foot-tall wave’s hungry trough by ominous floor toms before the verse bobs out of the other side half-dead but still gasping. A genuine grasp of the philosophical issues behind the track’s title is suggested by the chorus line of “Nothing else is real, except the end”. This is precisely how poetic lyrics should work; the suggestion of an awareness of underlying issues rather than an explanation is commendable. Descending picked guitars in the chorus shimmer and shiver with the import of the lyrics’ ghoulish sentiments. We’re thrust back into a hailstorm of distortion which guitars and strings shine beacon-like out of, but we never quite see the other side before the track ends. What at first seemed like a breakdown is in fact the track’s outro, symbolically trapping the listener inside the song. Even musically, this is bleak stuff.

Mirrors is very different, as if the band seek to stray further and further from Departure’s initial manifesto with each track on this short EP. Whereas the lead track was immediate and forceful, the second slow-burning and intense, Mirrors is low-key and spooky. Strings quaver quietly in the background whilst formerly obscured keys are brought to the front of the mix in the verse, before an airy guitar joins in the chorus. The drops into feedback aren’t as fierce or as sheer here, and an icy atmosphere is reinforced by the unease associated with the title. Mirrors are uncanny things; we feel they show things as they are, but since everything is reversed in mirrors, surely they show everything as they are not. Looking in a mirror for too long is an eerie experience, a feeling captured by the tracks’ glassy texture. The mood changes along with the key coming out of the second chorus like the sun breaking cloud, serving as counterpoint to the line “I know one day we won’t be here, but I hope we’ll both be there”, which could be viewed alternately as unsettling or romantic. It’s certainly powerful, an effect only heightened by the intensifying music. Strings rise up in a case of ‘how long have they been there?’ from the ensuing melee towards the tracks crescendo, bringing the EP to a close as expansive as it began.

Whilst not particularly original, any band channelling M83, Editors and White Lies must be a winner by the law of averages. One critically-idolised plus two commercially-successful influences equals a can’t-fail sound. On first hearing White Lies’ morbid sentiments, I thought ‘These guys are going nowhere; who wants to hear songs about dying?’. Well, I was wrong about that once, and so see no reason why Motion Picture Soundtrack can’t break the mainstream and achieve Editors’ level of success. They’re definitely a band to watch out for, and have it all; record label deal, album out before the year’s close next month, beautifully-shot monochrome promo video for the vast skyscraping Departure, posterboy frontman. Checkity-check-check-check. However brief it is, the Departure EP is accomplished and highly addictive stuff; if Motion Picture Soundtrack can maintain this level of quality over an album’s length, nothing can stop them. They’re surely a safe bet for success in the next few months.

9 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 5 out of 6

Departure EP on Spotify
Impossible as it is to pick the best track from the EP, you’re duly encouraged to invest a few minutes in order to take in the whole thing.

End Game
Motion Picture Soundtrack on Myspace

Still Life Still – Girls Come Too [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by David Hall


Test review, never previously published.

When you hear the name Arts and Crafts, what immediately springs to mind? Broken Social Scene and Stars; if you think William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, you’ve been watching too much ‘Bargain Hunt’. Joining those successfully romantic Canadian indie stars are Still Life Still, releasing their debut album a full decade after forming. Girls Come Too is a typically experimental progeny from the Arts and Crafts sire, an appropriate metaphor given the record’s principle theme; sex, sex and more sex.

The album kicks off with Danse Cave, a pulsating hi-hat drive with a great ¡Forward Russia!-style guitar riff, which goes on to disintegrate into a Foals-like spacey clang. It’s great fun, immediately danceable and quirky. As a band performance it’s high energy and tuneful, with a stellar, uptempo drumming performance. The singer’s voice sounds a lot like Conor Oberst’s work with Desaparecidos; he may not be a classically ‘good’ singer, but neither is he irritating or too abrasive. After Danse Cave’s manic start the album settles into a mellower You Forgot it in People vibe with Flowers and a Wreath. It’s nowhere near as hooky as the opener, sounding polished smooth as alabaster, the chorus only marked by a proliferation in the distortion levels. Apart from the chorus in which the title is endlessly repeated, Flower and a Wreath’s lyrics are verbose and scrapbookish, with irregular rhyme patterns which slot together pretty much whenever and wherever. It’s an effective move – almost accidently so – continued in shortest track Lite-Bright Lawns which suddenly seems to stumble upon the very creepy, voyeuristic line “that third person is watching”. Lite-Bright Lawns is very Broken Social Scene, complete with clicking rim shots reminiscent of Cause = Time’s drum intro. The most noticeable element of the album so far is the vocalist’s languid singing style, offset against what is frequently multi-faceted and frenetic music.

Kid reverses this trend to a certain extent with an introspective atmosphere in which the vocals unexpectedly sound like the soft tones of Armor for Sleep’s Ben Jorgensen. It manages to stay away from the subject of sex for the most part, but finds time to reference it indirectly in the ‘fucked-up mom’ line. Another cool guitar riff supports the interesting use of metallic cymbal clashing noises which sound like steel sheets blowing in the wind. Neon Blue may be more straightforward indie-rock but is all the more enjoyable for it in a generally experimental album. It marks the beginning of an immediate-sounding section of the album, maintained on the following track. Pastel, which featured as title track to an EP earlier this year continues the album’s consistently great guitar performances with an Interpolish riff. The imploring refrain “We really need to be friends” is the song’s highlight, which is probably the best track since opener Danse Cave.

Ever noticed the way that albums sometimes have a habit of subconsciously summing themselves up in one line? Whether that’s the listener or the band’s subconscious is up for debate of course. You can find it in Kid A’s denial of a suddenly-alien Radiohead sound, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” or The Holy Bible’s nihilistic admittance in Faster’s “I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing”. Similarly, here on Pastel we find the refrain “I really wanna be serious, Don’t really wanna be serious, I’m really, really, really serious”. True to form, it’s impossible to tell whether Still Life Still want to make grown-up, textural music (Flowers and a Wreath, Kid) or make giggly classroom sexual observations. At times the album sounds a little like an episode of ‘The In-Betweeners’. That said, Pastel’s outro – an incredible blanket of white noise over which guitars spasmodically jerk along like a car stuck in first gear – is undeniably great.

It all goes a little bit Boards of Canada on Planets, recalling Dayvan Cowboy’s aquatic chimings. It’s as icy cool as the depths of space, experimentative and celestial, and once again happens upon a nice little refrain and societal comment, “It’s a family of wolves out there yeah, they bury their young”. Knives in Cartoons is broken-footed and hyper, the guitars and drums threatening to collapse in a heap on themselves at any moment but somehow flapping onwards. A raucous and dissonant breakdown somehow sorts the track out before it trips back into the former flailing groove and finally another astoundingly noisy outro. Girls Come Too still resides in the Rape Me-like land of metaphor at this point in the line “kiss your open cut”, but that quickly changes. If you thought nothing in a song could ever shock you anymore, you’re duly directed towards T-Shirts, whose chorus I doubt I should even repeat. Let’s just say it involves a rather unconventional swapping of rather unconventional bodily fluids. “It’s love, it’s love, it’s love” the singer assures us. I’m not so sure it is, mate. Sounds more like porn to me. To debunk a cliché, this album isn’t so ‘charged with sexual energy’ as it is obsessed with sex like a desperate, spotty adolescent. Girls Come Too is hornier than a Chinese pharmacy; you’re best off downloading it, the CD would probably hump your leg.

There are good songs and bad songs to do with sex. And far be it from me to give lectures, but the good ones are hard to pull off, no pun intended. Venus in Furs is successful in retaining the sleazy, damaged, transgressive sexuality of its subject matter, as does Nine Inch Nails’ Closer for instance. Thing is, apart from some notable examples (Lay Lady Lay, Wicked Game), songs about sex are very rarely sexy. Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On? Puh-lease. That song’s so clichéd and oft-used it barely retains any of its original meaning today. Years of being played in sitcoms over a soft focus, slow motion POV shot of somebody attractive has ruined it. It has surely become more funny or cringeworthy than sexy.

And therein lies the problem with Girls Come Too; it’s pretty awkward and equally silly. Let’s face it, massively rare exceptions notwithstanding, indie rock isn’t exactly sexy. Garden State lied to us, if you played The Shins to flirt with someone they’d not only neglect to call, they’d probably change their number. You could say that Girls Come Too encompasses everything about the human experience, as Kid’s childhood references are followed by Lite-Bright Lawns‘ imploring “Let’s have a baby, let’s have a baby”. Other aspects of relationships are progressively explored until Scissors Losing Weight finally pops the question, “I’ll marry you someday, we’ll grow on faultlines”. The undernourished closer Wild Bees is close-to-the-bone and very affecting, sounding suspiciously like it addresses a character on their deathbed. You could say all this, but it may be giving the album more credit than is due; it really might be as shallow as it first appears. Anyway, aside from the taboo-trampling T-Shirts, it doesn’t really say anything that new or fresh. In conclusion, I’d hesitantly recommend this. And yes, the title probably does mean what you think it means. You animal.

7 out of 10.

Pastel on Spotify
Laconic and at times lyrically uncomfortable EP track is this album’s conceptual lynchpin and whose outro provides one of the highlights.

Arts and Crafts
Still Life Still on Myspace