Archive for pretty girls make graves

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

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The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, August 2009.

The title Welcome Joy can be read in a variety of differing ways; a sanctimonious religious command, an open-armed embrace or a positive observation concerning happiness perhaps. The Cave Singers’ sophomore album manages to convey the latter two without pretension, providing a lush and melodic listen. Former Pretty Girls Make Graves bassist Derek Fudesco has said in previous interviews that his guitar parts with The Cave Singers are essentially just bass riffs. This rings true on Welcome Joy, whose circular guitar arrangements inhabit the groove-based repetition of the most effective bass lines.

Welcome Joy begins with the appropriately-titled Summer Light, which recalls the look and feel of the album’s cover, its summery and warm touches of organ in the unfolding verses evoking the artworks’ orange tones. The cover is a nostalgic view of the world through an aperture that banishes modern figures like keyboards to the shot’s background. Similarly, Summer Light’s keys sound analogue, with folkish guitar and vocal arrangements that are also pleasingly old-fashioned; the evocative name equally recalls the song’s sound and feel. Female vocals in the background of the chorus line, “They’re damned if they’re right and they’re damned if they’re wrong, they don’t mind” are particularly divine. Singer Pete Quirk’s lyrics frequently stand out as strongly poetic, “Dance in the doldrums of each new day” further linking the semantic use of orange palettes to the visual. Leap’s frantic pulloff-hammer on riff is great, effortlessly propulsive when coupled with Marty Lund’s urgent drum track. Quirk’s raspy countrified vocals are excellent, mixed to be less gratingly abrasive than on debut Invitation Songs. A bridge sees the track really hitting its stride with a cymbal hit as bass enters and harmonica squawks in. The song evolves enchantingly as it forges ahead into another verse more urgent than the first; The Cave Singers clearly know where their strengths lie and adhere to their formula. Shrine’s quiet droning chorus is a departure and also a welcome one, ensuring that whilst verging on being formulaic at times, Welcome Joy steers clear of being predictable. This track is a case in point that these aren’t complex songs; they’re very simple, and I doubt the band would have a problem with that observation. The riff and appropriately Eastern percussion of Shrine follow on from Summers Light’s blissful glow, easy and reassuring in its tones. A middle eight briefly presses on noisily to skilfully maintain momentum before settling back into its meandering flow and quiet rumbling bass.

The most fleshed-out song yet Hen of the Woods incorporates nice distant rim shots and a riff reminiscent of Daughters of the Soho Riots or Start a War by The National. In its outro the track quickens to a country-tinged Sleater-Kinney-style guitar solo set against a shifting drum shuffle. Again the lyrics are carefully arranged, well written, considered and thoughtful on lines such as “Evening comes, it’s a curtain and a shawl”. They’re joyfully and sincerely delivered, again evocative of the album’s aged artwork in scenes of American prairies, sunsets and romance. Quirk sounds like an American David Gray on the pleasantly primitive Beach House – yes I know, these comparisons are meant to be achingly indie and obscure, but if the boot fits – even if the “just myself/no one else” chorus couplet is desperately unoriginal. I Don’t Mind, with its gentle high-capoed acoustic strum and more strident drums, follows Hen of the Woods’ lead in sounding less like Welcome Joy’s sketchier tracks. Despite the songs with a fuller drum sound generally being that bit more immediate (most tracks settle for a sparing New Slang-esque percussion track), this is arguably one of the album’s least memorable moments. VV sounds a bit like that cute I Tried to do Handstands for You iPod advert song with its calypso acoustic chord progression. The electric guitar riff recalls that from The Postal Service’s Recycled Air, only obviously less robotic; the chord sequence’s nicely merged variation in the bridge is particularly organic-sounding.

Welcome Joy sounds a lot more expansive than Invitation Songs, which sounded strangled at times by its limited component parts. At the Cut proves a natural punkabilly progression from previous track Leap’s folkabilly drumming, its rambling jangle reminiscent of the UK’s Sons and Daughters. There’s a certain world-weary wisdom to the singers voice here, mirrored by the vintage guitar’s ‘50’s tone in its solo. At the Cut is also a bit like Franz Ferdinand’s Ulysses in places (no, seriously), perhaps providing a bit of a British connection, which should go down well at this winter’s Shred Yr Face tour. Townships is simply gorgeous, an affective highlight which is probably the best track on the album. It features the most natural sounding riff, the least metronomic and most irregular, and a great semi-acoustic guitar tone. Quirk’s vocal is also one of his most natural deliveries, charmingly imperfect and almost croaky in places. The higher timbre to his multi-tracked vocal lends the track a transcendent, skyline-surfing feel. Chiming guitars coil around a semi-chanted chorus, recalling Fleet Foxes’s earthy yet spiritual melancholy sound. Bramble closes the album with a complex fingerpicked acoustic guitar intro resembling that of Leap a tad too closely for comfort. But on the positive side, like all songs on Welcome Joy there is nothing more to Bramble than there needs to be. It’s a very stark and natural beauty that this album carries, like a beautiful model photographed without makeup or a woodland copse untouched by human hands. A natural reverb on the vocal lends it a stark and atmospheric demo-like quality.

When reviewing The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, I briefly considered whether or not to recommend it to fans of The Cave Singers. This was on the basis that both bands have a stark, unembellished and definitively American sound; they also exhibit the same rootsy, lo-fi sensibilities, which produce their latest records’ appealing personalities. However, I foolishly decided against doing so, due to my belief that Cave Singers were probably too little-known over here at this point. I anticipate being proved wrong in thinking so in the near future, after the exposure the aforementioned Shred Yr Face jaunt and this latest excellent release will gain them.

9 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 5 out of 6

Townships on Spotify
Taking the best elements of other highlights Summer Light and Hen of the Woods, Townships practically sounds like it was painted.

Matador
The Cave Singers on Myspace