Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Album Review:Nadine Shah – Love Your Dum and Mad

(Apollo Records)

   Nadine Shah creates haunting, slow-burning songs about loss and regret, youth or life that has seeped away, adding to her penchant for sombre themes with understated piano playing. Having moved to London from the north of England years earlier, a strong Northumbrian accent finds its way into her delivery adding to the rich character of her voice. That voice is the main attraction on her debut album Love Your Dum and Mad, carrying the same heavy sorrow of Scott Walker as he started his solo career, its a voice she seems to have complete control over, the subtle vibrato that rings out on her held notes reveals her years of performing jazz standards.
   Joined by producer Ben Hillier, who in the past has worked with Depeche Mode and on Blur's Think Tank, in who Shah seems to have found a perfect partner, adding arrangements that manage to complement but never intrude, sparse enough to give lots of space for her affecting voice fill. He brings in straight forward drums amongst dark and distorted bass and warped guitars very much in the same way Nick Cave musically punctuates his similarly narrative driven songs.
   Aching Bones begins with sharp metallic hits and drum rolls. A heavy distorted bass riff underpins Shah's vocals, full of suffering and building for the chorus, as she repeats the song's title, sounding tired and pained. Its an interesting opener, showing Hillier's ear for unique sounds and Shah's more brooding vocals. Previous EP track To Be a Young Man sets a slow pace, trudging along with an acoustic strum alongside the kind of distortion that wouldn't sound out of place on a stoner metal album, all low and murky. The song is almost ready to collapse under the weight of despair as Nadine laments the loss of youth. A stomping snare led beat introduces Runaway, continuing through the whole song like an early Velvet Underground jam, relentlessly driving it forward. The half-spoken verses hide the drama and sense of desperation shown in the chorus as Shah repeats 'Runaway to your home'', bringing character to lyrics that might have looked plain on paper.
   The second half of the album sees the piano come to the forefront, Nadine’s chosen instrument alongside her voice on which most of the album was originally written. Dreary Town centres around a simple piano progression, almost drowning in huge reverb making you imagine it was recorded in a cathedral, as she tells the tale of poverty starting out with the George Orwell referencing line 'We were down and out in London/Sharing beds and sharing money'. She seems to share an affinity for characters in dire circumstances adding an emotive weight to their hard luck stories.
   Filthy Game and album closer Winter Reigns both display Shah's skill on the piano, never overly complicating but still soulful, a perfect companion for her voice and reminiscent of Nina Simone's more classical inspired moments on Little Girl Blue. Winter Reigns brings the album to an intense close, a piano melody slowly creeps along and builds as low bass rumbles and distant, crackling atmosphere fill in the few spaces Nadine's voice doesn't reach, growing to a startlingly beautiful conclusion.
   The whole album may be full of minor keys and sad tales shrouded in a dark veil, yet there is something triumphant in Nadine Shah's powerful voice, maybe a sense of hope, that hints that all the darkness can be overcome. Even the album's title, Love Your Dum and Mad, displays a playful nature behind the bleak lyrics. The album will surely be one of the year's best debuts, revealing a fully-formed sound fitting for one of the most striking voices to emerge in recent years.

Originally posted on figure8magazine.co.uk

Album Review:Grant Hart – The Argument


    Grant Hart, a central member of the seminal alternative rock group Hüsker Dü, returns with a bold expansive double album The Arguement inspired by John Milton's 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost. The poem is based on events of the Old Testament, telling the tale of the fall of man; following Adam and Eve, their temptation by Satan and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Hart has been working on his solo career over the last decade or so, following the break up of Hüsker Dü in the late eighties and Nova Mob, which he fronted through the ninties, and has been steadily releasing albums under his own name since then, including collaborations with Godspeed You! Black Emporor.
    Grant is no stranger to double albums, with Hüsker Dü's second album Zen Arcade being widely regarded as their defining work, outstripping the scope and ambition of the average hardcore punk band of the day. He also went on to release another double album, Last Days of Pompeii, with Nova Mob in the 1990s, though The Arguement might be the biggest and most ambitous concept album he has attempted to put together, suitably grandiose for its subject matter.
    Whilst still mantaining many of the rock sensibilities his last few solo albums have displayed, this is an altogether more chalenging and experimental affair. Out of Chaos starts of with disconcerting almost-meodies just about falling together as a backing for Hart to calm speak of how the 'Heaven and the Earth rose up in chaos' before the following track Morningstar, a more straight forward rock song, really kicks things off. Letting Me Out is energetic and upbeat. The optimistic line 'There's a blue sky waiting for me' rings out above a rock and roll progression strummed out on acoustic guitars over a rolling tom drum rhythm. Elsewhere, (It Was A) Most Disturbing Dream is filled with a messy glam rock swagger straight from the early seventies whilst on I Will Never See My Home Hart deploys ghostly synthesizers to underpin his bleak lyrics, 'I am looking to escape/From this desloted hellscape/to a place I've never known/I must carry on alone'.
    A classical feel is given throught the instrumentation, altough the classic band set up is at the centre, there are organs used throughout, along with a zither and string sectionsmaking certain the album never lets itself get pinned down to one style. The instrumental passages of the apocalyptic War on Heaven, feature thundering drums alongside wailing sirens noisy guitars and gunfire and military radio chatter filling in the background and the strange ukelele lead Underneath the Apple Tree, sounds more inoccent and jovial than it seems, even containing a kazoo solo, juxtaposing its innocent musicality with the point of view of the devil in the form of the tempting snake.
    There is a big sixties pop and rock influence throughout The Arguement, Golden Chain shows this not only in the songwriting, but also in the authentic production. The song is built around a simple grooving bassline and with the addition of its accompanying backing vocals and primal beat, it sounds like a leftover song from Jefferson Airplaine's Surrealistic Pillow period. The album displays Grant's understanding and admiration for this era on other tracks, from the bluesy shuffle of Sin to the retro rock beat of I Am Death, as Hart is at his most theatrical with his lyrical delivery, declaring 'I Am Death/I Am Fear' as hounds bark vicously behind him.
    Coming across as a kind of alternative rock musical, with Grant playing all the characters, taking on some of the larger than life rock 'n' roll attitude of 70's David Bowie in the process. Though it is a long record, with its twenty tracks coming in at just over 74 minutes, dealing with such hefty subject matter helps justify the length. Its the kind of record you rarely see from an artist this far into their career, you imagine he made for himself, but fans of his work will find a lot to admire on this release. You may not follow the album's wild narrative but The Argument channels a history of music through a keen ear for a simple melody and great song writing. What could've easily become an indulgent and bloated record is instead adventurous and creative, even for those that are less interested in the albums biblical allusions. 

Originally posted on figure8magazine.co.uk

Monday, 15 July 2013

Album Review:These New Puritans – Field of Reeds

(Infectious Music)

    Having already shown themselves to be one of Britain’s most interesting bands with 2010s markedly percussive and experimental album Hidden, These New Puritans continue to develop, with their latest album Fields of Reeds adopting neoclassical threads to create one of the most sonically interesting albums of the year so far. They make the transition into the classical realm with assured ease, bringing in minimalism and subtly encroaching electronics, managing to be smart but never showy in execution. Drums are used sparingly, like a string section adding weight to the emotional core, and hardly feature in the albums second half, in fact the piano seems to be the most consistent instrument, often providing the backbone for the songs.
    The first track they revealed before the albums release, Fragment Two, centres around the piano and the voice of band leader and main vocalist Jack Barnett, his imperfect delivery adds character to the track as it slowly develops allowing drums and arrangements build around him. V (Island Song) opens with sparse piano and evocative vocals. As it develops a melody forms together out of the seemingly disparate keys, as a strange warped synthesizer enters along with driving drums, providing one of the most direct moments within the albums longest track. Its a track that epitomises the band's bold composition and ear for interesting instruments as the track progresses taking unexpected diversions over its journey.
    Spiral includes multiple vocalists taking over from one another, including a choir of children, whilst Dream also uses vocals to startling effect with Portuguese jazz singer Elisa Rodrigues giving in intimate performance surrounded by spectral and spaced arrangements reminiscent of the quieter moments of the stargazing jazz of Sun-Ra. The propulsive Organ Eternal comes across as simple and complex in equal measure, with clever production and what sounds like the manipulated voice, somewhere between that of a child and a whale. You can hear the influence of the album's producer Graham Sutton, and his previous band, the pioneering post-rock group Bark Psychosis, in the way they brought in elements of jazz, ambient and minimalism into their sound.
    Despite frequent time signature changes and obscure instruments it never feels inaccessible with some of the most effective moments being when they use simple piano melodies. Proving themselves to be adventurous and bold, These New Puritans have made themselves into a genuinely unique act that defies easy classification, which is a rare thing in this day and age, and it'll be interesting to see where they go next.

Album Review: Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth


    Following up from a number of well received EPs and an album, Mount Kimbie shown themselves to be one of the more interesting acts to emerge from the end of the dubstep of the era. With their second album, and first for Warp records, their recognisable smooth organ and clipped percussion sounds are still here, incorporating more organic sounds and live vocals but removing the chopped up vocals that where a mainstay of their previous releases.
    Opener Home Recording sounds most in line with theirs first album, Crooks & Lovers, even with the additions of some jazzy instrumentation creeping in. Even the more dance floor geared material, like first single Made to Stray ends with a vocal refrain over a driven 4/4 beat, though still the track might be the most upfront material they've released. Sullen Ground contains a haunted melody that could of come from an old Sega game, featuring a steady beat and that familiar hiss alongside sharp claps and a repeated vocal that adds to the tracks sense of unease. King Krule collaborates on two tracks here and whilst his voice took a little time to click, after a few listens it has gained charm in the way he coveys both youth and weariness in equal measure, despite his age, which is especially effective on You Took Your Time, accompanied by a swaying, almost hip-hop beat before natural percussion of hi hats and cymbals takes over for the tracks second half.
    Synthesizer workout Break Well makes for an interesting departure, starting with an arpeggio that builds and transforms before opening up to allow a simple drum line and bass guitar to enter and give some weight to the ambience, whereas Blood & Form comes across as weary under its own heavy lumbering melody. Likewise, So Many Times, So Many Ways seems like a bit of a misfire, it attempt at changing up the rhythm with a 6/4 beat never really goes anywhere, its indie, jazz and electronic inspirations never quite gel together.
Through the album similarities can be heard with previous collaborator James Blake, in the marrying of acoustic an electronic elements, though where Blake always has his voice as the human core, Mount Kimbie play around with how they bring the natural and synthesized together.
    The record lacks some of the playful nature of their earlier EPs and album, here the tracks build on their ideas rather than going somewhere different mid track. They sound more improvised and spontaneous, like the result of late night jam sessions, and much of the material makes for a welcome departure but still the meticulous and creative production that has always been at the centre of the duo's work shines through.

Album Review:A Grave With No Name - Whirlpool

(Stare Records)

   Filled with major key melodies and scruffy distortion, Whirlpool looks back to the nineties to capture that gloriously difficult period of teenage youth. Moving into the studio for his third record, A Grave With No Name, the musical project of Alex Shields, utilizes this new found freedom to craft an intricate homage to youth, in what he says is the final part of a trilogy, alongside his previous two bedroom recorded albums, Mountain Debris and Lower. Fitting in with other recent acts like Yuck and A History of Apple Pie who recreate that early nineties alternative sound, taking in dream pop, grunge and lo-fi in equal measure, A Grave With No Name succeed in managing this difficult genre balancing act whilst never sounding derivative of a single style.
   Whirlpool opens with feedback and ambient guitars on the first track (Higher), dreamily pulling you into it's world. Despite lasting less than a minute it has been carefully constructed, filled with subtle sounds that might pass you by on first listen, with a similar attention to small details on display throughout the record. Second track Aurora really kicks the album of with big cavernous drums and and simple upbeat bass line. It all sounds very Jesus & Mary Chain, before soft and somewhat detached female vocals enter alongside the guitars covered in chorus and reverb.
   From the slacker vibes of the ramshackle Bored Again to the hazy dream pop of '73, A Grave With No Name look at the past like thinking back on blurry drug addled memories with an unfocused warmth. Shields seems to have relished his time in the studio, using trickery like the playful turning of a radio dial in the charming 90's grunge pop track Origami whilst Dig Me Out sounds like one of Dinosaur Jr.'s more catchy moments or an early Smashing Pumpkins track from when their sound was still rough around the edges.
Other tracks take a more subdued approach, such as the acoustic Bones, which brings in a string section, or the captivating child-like and piano-led album closer Balloons ending with the resolute line 'No more tears this year/Happy birthday'. Both feel like personal, intimate takes but lack the catchy stoner pop hooks of the more filled out tracks and the string section in Bones, whilst the arrangement is peasant enough, feels unnecessary, revealing the downsides of the freedom a studio environment brings.
   Filled with the naivety, angst and hopefulness that comes with youth, the songs are sonically detailed and well put together, but at the same time have an effortless quality to them, as if the tracks have been recorded perfectly on the first take. Though it never really breaks new ground with its take on the music of the early nineties, Shields manages to capture a feeling of growing up in what now seems like a simpler time with a sense of honesty which elevates it above a lot of the other revivalists.
Originally posted on Figure8magazine.co.uk

Album Review:Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork


    Six years since their last album, Queens of the Stone Age return to form with ...Like Clockwork, seeing them reach for the same heavily distorted hooks their delivered on the now modern rock classics Rated R and Songs for the Deaf. There is something about QOTSA's ever changing line-up that, beyond singer/guitarist Josh Homme's instantly recognisable vocal and guitar work, you never quite know what you're going to get and ...Like Clockwork throws some interesting collaborations into the mix, including Elton John, Scissor Sister’s Jake Shears and Alex Turner along side old band mates Nick Oliveri, and Dave Grohl who haven't recorded with the group since Songs for the Deaf.
    Keep Your Eyes Peeled is centred around the kind of dark and low groove the band is known for, whilst My God is the Son is the straight forward and energetic number they’ve always made to seem so effortless. Fairweather Friends stands as a highlight, with Elton John's vocals and piano adding surprisingly well to the bands sound. The band are still willing to play with their sound, with the frequent use of analogue synths, most noticeably on the dreamy, anaesthetised verses of Kalopsia, and the unexpected and downright dirty, grooving funk of Smooth Sailing.
   Despite the large list of collaborators Josh Homme is still running the show. Whilst in the past he sometimes hid behind a veil of lyrical obscurity, here he is more upfront, introspective and honest than he has been before, giving a versatile and emotive performance throughout. Much more leaner and more focused than their last few records, ...Like Clockwork is as essential as the albums they first made their name with.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Album review:Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt


   Following up her debut bedroom-recorded album American Weekend Katie Crutchfield, who records under the name Waxahatchee, has stepped up her game with her second release, Cerulean Salt. Bringing together the confessional lyrical concerns of early emo acts such as Sunny Day Real Estate with the unashamedly straightforward hooks of pop punk and the DIY approach of 90s alternative scene, with this album Waxahatchee have stepped out of the bedroom and into the garage, allowing enough room for some drums and distortion to add to her sound.
    Hollow Bedroom starts in a similar vein to the last record, with lone voice and guitar, as Katie sings 'I left like I got my way/But truly I left with nothing at all', her voice warm and approachable. From the offset she displays the strength of her voice which everything else falls around. On Peace and Quiet, big simple guitar chords underline soft vocals, before drums kick in for the chorus, using quiet loud dynamics to strong effect, and Coast to Coast sounds closer to the punk rock leanings of her first band P.S. Elliott, providing one of the most up-tempo moments on the record. Its a perfect little piece of catchy pop punk with its only real flaw being that, with a length of less than two minutes, it ends too soon. On Lively, the lyrics tell of a relationship with someone suffering with drug addiction, lost in a world of despair and depression, over clean guitars and a loose 6/4 rhythm. This frank and personal approach is most apparent here, but is displayed throughout, with her lyrics often walking a fine line between direct and obtuse, though its hard not to find something in her torn and weary delivery. Tracks like Swan Dive and Blue Part II almost sound like they could be counterparts to some of Elliott Smith's early output.
   The addition of a full band hasn't changed Katie's concerns for this project, and the additional instruments are often used in sparse and interesting ways, from the country shuffle on Lips and Limbs to the slow noise pop of Misery over Dispute, never getting in the way of the emotional core of the album. Like American Weekend before it, its biggest flaw is its length, with its runtime reaching just over half an hour, you're left wanting more. Rough around the edges and charmingly messy, listening to Waxahachee still remains an intimate, engaging experience, its simple and informal approach unobtrusively demands your attention and holds it with ease.

Originally posted on figure8magazine.co.uk