In amongst the excitement of counting down all of the wonderful albums which were released last year, I’ve been a little slack in posting up my monthly reviews which continue to appear in the pages of fine music and style bible Clash. February is a genuine avalanche of goodness, so be warned, and it goes some way to making up for some of the slightly mediocre stuff which has come my way of late. Way to make you read on, eh? I’ll endeavour to post up my more substantial musings on the forthcoming albums from Tindersticks and Mark Lanegan in the near future but, for now, here are January’s reviews, with December’s uninspiring pairing tacked on the end.
BOY AND BEAR – ‘Moonfire‘ (V2 RECORDS)
For a band wanting their fans to “expect the unexpected on each record,” this is awfully pedestrian fare. The polished, even bland, sound here is largely shorn of the character they showed when supporting Laura Marling on her UK tour back in 2010. Having conquered their homeland of Australia off the back of such sterling live work, the record falls flat. The songs are pleasant – ‘Part Time Believer’ the best with a chugging rhythm and a good bit of folk whistling – but imagine that somebody asked you to imagine what a not-as-good Fleet Foxes might sound like. Why bother, you may ask? Well, quite.
It’s alright. I would hope that the above text conveys a mildly withering sense of ambivalence. Any yet, without really tweaking the words, it appeared in print with an amended score of 7/10, raised two from my intended 5. Quite how those words might suggest that number is beyond me but, rest assured, forget it and just buy something else.
CRAIG FINN - ‘Clear Heart Full Eyes‘ (FULL TIME HOBBY)
Beloved of those fond of denim, Finn’s home band, The Hold Steady, plough the old American rock furrow, merrily offering new takes on old sounds. Having crafted a set of songs which didn’t fit with his day job – “a little quieter and perhaps more narrative” – Finn decided to go it alone. His gruff, often spoken, singing style is not the easiest voice to warm to and the general lack of pace fails to excite. There are several lovely moments, despite this, not least ‘New Friend Jesus’: a bouncy singalong with plucked guitar and a chorus to die, if not be reborn, for. Worth judicious sifting.
I know a certain type of music fan is quite fond of The Hold Steady but they’ve never done much for me. They conjure images of Uncut editor Allan Jones in lots of denim.*Gags*This is a slightly different beast but it didn’t really excite me much, beyond the odd song. Although, from the moment I thought of the weak Second Coming themed conclusion, I was in my own little world of smug reverie.
TRAILER TRASH TRACYS – ‘Ester’ (DOUBLE SIX)
This London four-piece arrive as members of the dependably decent Domino Records offshoot, Double Six, and certainly don’t let the side down. Distortion, fuzz and more than a little Kevin Shields homage are where things are headed here, with a rather delicate twee-pop sound chiming away beneath all of the, admittedly fantastic, production effects: think The xx after a few drinks. Having released a critically lauded single in 2009 – ‘Candy Girl’, presented today in more muscular form – the band have taken their time to get from there to here and, while they still don’t quite seem to be the finished article, there’s plenty of promise.
It’s good this. One of the first releases of 2012 worthy of note and, predictably, it comes from one of the dependable indie staples – Domino. Veronica Falls, Cults and Cat’s Eyes fans should make a beeline for this. Despite the name and artwork, that is.
HUNDREDS – ‘Hundreds’ (MURI RECORDS)
A German brother and sister electronic double act who sing in English so as “to be international; we wanted to travel,” you’ll likely have no idea who Hundreds are. You might want to set about changing that, as this self-titled debut outing is a gorgeous collection of gently pulsing electro-pop. The influences of Moloko and Lamb are discernable here and there; quirky percussion, euphoric piano riffs and synth stabs are all over this album, accompanied by Eva Milner’s razor sharp vocals. Think Our Broken Garden crossed with Little Boots and you’ll be somewhere close to the sound on this massively uplifting and hugely compelling record.
Released on vinyl before Christmas and appearing on CD any day now, this is a fine listen for the (possibly, who the fuck knows anymore) cold months ahead. In print, the Little Boots reference was tweaked to qualify it as “the better bits of Little Boots” or some such. The indier-than-thou police obviously out in force for that one.
NADA SURF – ‘The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy’ (CITY SLANG)
We’ll just let the title go, yeah? After almost twenty years of pop-rock riffery, New Yorkers Nada Surf have hit form again. Excellent third album, 2002’s ‘Let Go’ – containing career-highlight ‘Hi-Speed Soul’ which you’ll be wanting to hear – was their last to really soar. A change to the way they work, trying to capture the urgency of live performance or the first rehearsal, has reinvigorated the band. Matthew Caws has one of those gorgeous indie voices – think Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard – which stretches but doesn’t quite break. Coupled to joyous tunes like ‘Looking Through’, recorded in one take, it’s hard to resist.
Nice to have them back. I find it hard to imagine that they’re anybody’s favourite band, but they have a fine knack for melodic indie and this is an intermittently cracking set of songs which demonstrate that. Nice artwork but, as I said, a woeful title.
PAPER DOLLHOUSE – ‘A Box Painted Black’ (BIRD)
An off-shoot label from the largely excellent Finders Keepers – curators of the curious – is very much the logical home for this unusual record. With a stage name based on cult horror film ‘Paperhouse‘ and apparently inspired by the primitive electronic noodlers of the 1960s, Astrud Steehouder possesses a bewitching voice. Lo-fi, distorted recordings seem a wilfully contrary way to present what is often quite special material. That said, anyone who lists “bewildering post-nuclear landscapes, bleak fields, forests, thunderstorms and archaic industrial objects in the middle of nowhere” as their influences is always at risk of taking themselves a little too seriously. Worth a patient cherry-pick.
My thanks to tramadol and paracetamol for their assistance in completing this and the next review, both of which were in the December issue and were due within days of me opting to feng shui my ankle. Short of putting it back on now, I can’t really remember much about it and, for that reason alone, I’m not going to put it back on to check. I’d move on.
JACASZEK – ‘Glimmer’ (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)
Never is the reviewer’s list of trusted clichés more likely to figure than when reviewing ambient records. However else I may try to dress it up, Polish modern classical musician Michal Jacaszek makes music which really is cinematic and ominous. It broods thunderously and it loiters claustrophobically and it successfully draws you in, avoiding being cast aside as simple background fodder. The press release describes it as “sonically challenging”, which I suppose it might be if you’re used to a diet of over-produced three minute pop songs, but ‘Glimmer’ actually covers little new ground even though Jacaszek continues to do what he does rather well.
Seriously, ambient records are a pain in the arse to describe, even if they are often lovely to listen to. Which this kind of is, in parts. Well done for lasting seven of my reviews, by the way. I should probably buy you a pint if I ever meet you.