New Music Monday – Philip Selway ‘Familial’

Forgive me if I don’t opt for a slightly shite attempt at a joke about how off-putting the idea of a solo album by ‘the drummer’ might seem. For some reason, a number of reviewers in the ‘big’ publications this month have opted for this approach, before pointing out that ‘Familial’ is actually worth your time. Did anyone, with even a vague understanding of what Phil does in Radiohead, along with his contributions to the recent 7 Worlds Collide album, really think this was going to be a weak record? Honestly? Add in the fact that it’s being released by the now freakishly unimpeachable Bella Union and there is no reason to be even slightly suspicious. Oh, and it’s really, really good.

Philip Selway Familial

You’ll likely know ‘By Some Miracle’ by now, what with it being the free download track on his website and I would imagine you’ve been as thoroughly charmed by its whispery, folksy ways as I was. The whole album is of a similar calibre, Selway’s voice actually proving to be rather affecting at times, such as on one of the best tracks, ‘A Simple Life’. A lovely soundscape builds slowly but oh-so-very meticulously to a pleading middle-eight which reveals a vocal style somewhere between a subdued Neil Finn and hints of a wistful Erlend Øye.

All Eyes On You’ is one of those tracks that reviewing clichés like ‘ethereal’ and ‘spectral’ were made for. See what I did there? I deployed both clichés, leaving you with a clear sense of what the song might sound like, whilst still maintaining credibility for not just deploying both clichés without self-awareness.  Clever that. The plucked guitar sound is a little unsettling and, at only two and a half minutes in length, it doesn’t stick around long enough to reassure you. But that, ultimately, is what makes this record so good. None of the songs outstay their welcome and many leave you wanting more.

Subtle but affecting strings serve their purpose, particularly on ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, which sounds like a vintage folk classic from the late sixties, and the sparse drum arrangements that do feature on the record are actually played by the really rather splendid Glenn Kotche from Wilco. A busman’s holiday this is not, nor does it feel like some half-hearted solo project, farted out between releases by the day job. This feels like a true labour of love and a piece of work of which Selway can be justifiably proud. ‘Familial’ doesn’t need to be sold off the back of a name or a brand, it’s good enough to stand alone and its presence on the Bella Union roster will do it no end of good.

Having said all of this, the acute ear for what will sound delicately beautiful is demonstrated throughout the record and the majestic sculpting of some of these songs belies Selway’s presence in one of the most sonically adventurous bands of a generation. ‘Falling’ was birthed for headphone listeners everywhere and will usher forth that special warm feeling you get when something hits you right in the middle of the skull. The odd track is a little too slight to stick, ‘Broken Promises’ being the prime example, but none are anything less than really rather lovely and, as quaint and frankly crap as that phrase sounds, I mean it as a compliment.

The drone-like start to ‘Don’t Look Down’, replete with abstract piano meanderings, marks another stunning headphone moment and ensures that there’s no dip in quality as the end looms into sight. One of the most hushed vocals on the record, it just about manages to stay atop the wash of sound that follows which in some way seems to be the musical equivalent of one of those deliciously melancholic days when the noise of the whistling wind and swirling rain coalesce into something oddly comforting.

The album closes with ‘The Witching Hour’ which, along with ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, will be familiar to those who purchased the aforementioned 7 Worlds Collide set and it sounds no less magnificent now than it did then, even if the repeated vocal refrain keeps reminding me of something, just out of reach. Indeed, there are a couple of moments on ‘Familial’ which seem eerily familiar. Perhaps it’s simply a case of them being such good songs they sound like tracks you should already know; either way, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m still unconvinced about the cover art, but every other aspect of this record has won me over wholeheartedly. At just under thirty three minutes in length it will dash past you at first and you will need to spend some time with it, ideally with headphones, to truly fall under its spell. But please do and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of looking for any Radiohead comparisons. It’s a thankless task. Just enjoy what is there because… (deep breath) … everything is in its right place.

Familial is released by Bella Union on August 30th.

2010 inverted

New Music Monday: Ed Harcourt ‘Lustre’

I firmly believe that he’s never released a weak album. I remember seeing him supporting Beth Orton seven years ago and wondering what exactly to make of him. The was clearly something to like going on there, but his blustering, gruff performance that night didn’t quite convince me enough. It took ‘Strangers’ to make me realise just why I should be so very fond of him. From there, I backtracked quickly through his catalogue, lapping it all up and installing ‘Apple Of My Eye’ in my favourite songs list after only half a dozen plays. There’s something truly special about his careful deployment of bombast, his phenomenally aggressive piano playing and his soaring voice. But he remains tricky to describe. Imagine someone told Tom Waits he had to sound like Paul McCartney – he’d probably be happy to compromise on this sound. Indeed, there are moments on ‘Lustre’ where Ed Harcourt unleashes his inner Waits to great effect. Despite this, the album opens with two pop/rock triumphs.

lustre ed

The title track is almost blue-eyed soul of a fashion not previously attempted by Harcourt and it is euphoric. A masterclass in bringing everything in at exactly the right time, it builds to a point where it seems almost too pleasurable. You’ll struggle to get on to the second track without at least one replay. Not that ‘Haywired’ isn’t worth your time, coming on all ‘Strawberry Fields’ before dropping in wide-panned drums of not inconsiderable heft. There’s a charming, twinkly computerised noise that almost floats about this track at times quite magically.

Church Of No Religion’ follows, proving to more in keeping with more conventional Harcourt fare, with its skulking rhythm, mid-paced insistent drumbeat and understated vocal performance. Lyrically, it offers a, not entirely unsuspected thanks to the title, critique of religious beliefs and suggests that we should all take responsibility for our own actions, rather than opting to hide behind notions of ‘God’s forgiveness’. Engaging stuff, much like the rough and tumble of ‘Heart Of A Wolf’ which features growly Ed, juxtaposed neatly with full-blooded, syrupy female backing vocals. The chorus opts for bombast, only to then drop you straight back into the rough terrain of the first verse once again for the second. By the time the full on oompah and distorted vocals are rolled out, any sense of perspective is long gone. It is, to be blunt, bloody marvellous.

All-out pop returns for ‘Do As I Say Not As I Do’, which has joyous handclaps and the angelic falsetto refrain of the title to recommend it. “To all the people I’ve offended, you probably needed it,” is a pretty sodding splendid lyric too, while we’re at it. A sensible choice for first single.

Killed By The Morning Sun’ comes on like sun-dried country soul, the incessant organ sound low in the mix, ensuring things stay absorbingly laid back. High drama soon returns, however, with ‘Lachrymosity’ (The word itself is made up, but its meaning is not difficult to guess.) Sounding not unlike Rufus Wainwright, this scabrous take on middle class angst, tear-jerking indie and the knuckle-dragging men who hunt city bars in their standard uniform of crisp white shirt and jeans every Friday night is my current favourite track on ‘Lustre’.

A Secret Society’ is what I expect an upbeat Ed Harcourt song to sound like which, while no bad thing, makes it rather less beguiling than ‘Lustre’ and ‘Lachrymosity’. ‘When The Lost Don’t Want To Be Found’ has that slow, epic drum sound the conjures the idea of shotgun going off in a cake tin. While musically it’s utterly charming, it’s the quite beautiful vocal that makes this one worth your time. Indeed, there are several points on this album where I was struck by just how good a singer he is, penultimate track ‘So I’ve Been Told’ only serving to further reinforce this. Quite simply, the way in which he sings the word ‘mind’ as if it has double the number of syllables gets me every time.

Album closer ‘Fears Of A Feather’ is an unmistakeable show stopper, replete with an emphatic, swooning chorus. It’s a fittingly upbeat end to an album that serves to underline Ed Harcourt’s desire to begin again, to have a second crack, to take on the world with freshly filled lungs. After a ‘best of’ that was the very antithesis of ‘by popular demand’, things looked a little bleak. Not so. Reenergised, revitalised and, er, really rather good, ‘Lustre’ could well be one of the albums of Summer 2010.

2010 inverted

New Music Monday: The Drums ‘The Drums’

You’ll know the opening track, ‘Best Friend’, by now, all twee and eighties with its thin guitars, plastic drum sound and what appears to be somebody repeatedly whispering “arse” during the instrumental bit just after the two minute mark. It’s a classic indie singalong that gets better with each listen and sounds ludicrously good when paired with bright sunshine. But does the whole album stack up?


Me And The Moon’ has a lovely, unassuming, diminutive ‘do-dee-do-dee-do’ bridge before the predictably enormous chorus comes along. Having said this, they need to be careful with their cheesy drum sounds, as the one that kicks off this particular track evokes fairly traumatic memories of Alphabeat’s ‘Fascination’. The unashamedly smooth pop sound is something that they carry off with admirable style but there is always the risk that it might get a little grating.

Next comes the slightly surprising presence of ‘Let’s Go Surfing’, known to all who purchased their superlative EP, ‘Summertime’, and ruthlessly recycled to keep up the early run of peppy, youthful, ludicrously invigorated tunes. It’s a marvellous track and one of the reasons I grew rather fond of them in the first place. Still, after telling everyone that the EP wasn’t representative of what the band truly sounded like now, it seems a little odd to carry both this and ‘Down By The Water’ over onto the debut album proper.

Book Of Stories’ is one of the absolute highlights of this clattering, hype-surfing, sensible-haircut eschewing album, sounding a little rougher round the edges, with the drums pushed back and a lovely childish plinky-plonky refrain floating across the verse before reaching a heavenly chorus of “I thought my life would get easier, instead it’s getting harder, instead it’s getting harder. I thought my life would get easier, instead it’s getting darker, instead it’s getting colder without you,” delivered with all the magnetic, swooning angst of a lonely indie boy. It’s magical, and if you heard it on the radio without knowing a thing about the band you would begin frantically scrapping around for a pen and a bit of paper ready to write down who it was.

Next up, ‘Skippin’ Town’ is, essentially, the first couple of tracks deconstructed and then rebuilt in a slightly different pattern. The upfront drums, frenetic jangle and wavering vocal is only half the deal. I need tunes. And by tunes, I mean different tunes. It’s far from awful, but that’s hardly the endorsement that anybody would be after. It’s like trying to pass off a particularly potent fart by pointing out that at least you didn’t shit yourself.

New single ‘Forever And Ever Amen’ sounds punchy and urgent on the radio, and rightly so. It’s another tremendous release, favouring the slightly restrained vocal style from Jonathan Pierce across the entire track to great effect. It features further deployment of the swooning chorus and a fine addition to what has gone before, but in the context of the whole album it’s slightly less potent, feeling, as it does, simply like a continuation of what has been before.

After the welcome and, let’s be absolutely fair, bloody lovely lull brought about by the eighties-power-ballad-in-skinny-jeans that is ‘Down By The River’, the accelerator is firmly applied once more. Indeed, the band are so desperate to resume the somewhat tiring pace that ‘It Will All End In Tears’ pretty much stutters into life as the last note of the previous song is struck. Another charming chorus, another fairly unremarkable musical backdrop.

We Tried’, slower, mournful and twinkly, is much more like it and comes at just the right time to stop any harrumphing becoming too pronounced. It strikes the perfect balance between the rickety, murky sound of mid-to-late eighties indie and their 21st century pop sensibilities. Across the dozen or so listens I’ve had to this album, it’s one of the songs that genuinely catches my attention every single time. And rightly so. A delight.

The Drums againGuess how ‘I Need Fun In My Life’ starts. Thumpy drum? Check. Twangy, wayward guitar part? Check. Understated verse before explosive chorus? Kind of. It’s all there apart from the enormo-refrain, opting instead for a quite deliberately one-paced chorus, offering some constant shade after far too much light. And then, just when you think it can’t possibly be safe to untense the muscles and anticipate something a little different, the next song starts with acoustic guitar. Acoustic fucking guitar. Not big drums. Not even small drums. I know, I know, it’s the name of the bloody band but it’s not a hard and fast rule otherwise the Stereophonics would be called The Interminable, One-tuned, Guitar-taunting Twats. Still, acoustic guitar, spacey synths and a beguiling anti-chorus using the song’s title as the main refrain: “I’ll Never Drop My Sword.”

Album closer, ‘The Future’, ironically enough, starts like eighties New Order, slowly layers in some lovely chiming percussion and roams around with a spectral elegance that I’d have enjoyed hearing a little more of. It matches ‘We Tried’ and ‘Book Of Stories’ for quality and sheer class and is a strong, confident way to wrap up a debut record. It doesn’t just sound like another one of their songs and it simply serves to underline the lack of variety that renders the middle chunk of this record a little underwhelming. A largely successful debut, then, but a band with much more to give, I suspect. Don’t be surprised if it receives a raft of 9/10 ratings though.

2010 inverted

New Music Monday – Teenage Fanclub ‘Shadows’

Cards on the table. To these ears, ‘Man Made’ and ‘Howdy!’ weren’t quite up to the ludicrously high standards of ‘Bandwagonesque’, ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. Both records had much to enjoy and a new Teenage Fanclub record is still a bit of an event for me, so just the chance to hear those songs was enough to sustain my interest. But then came ‘Shadows’. Get yourself a new pair of headphones, a suitably vintage alcoholic beverage of your choice and somewhere to put your aching feet because it’s time to truly get lost in the music once again.

tfc shadows

As ever, songwriting duties are shared equally between Gerry, Raymond and Norman, even though, as ever, you can’t tell that this stunning set of songs weren’t conceived together. Lyrically, there’s plenty to devour, even if they won’t win any awards for inventive deployment of the English language.  “Dark clouds are following you but they’ll drift away” is simple but hugely affecting on ‘Dark Clouds’, a track notable for its complete lack of guitars. “I recorded it with acoustic guitars and I couldn’t quite get it to work so when Euros [Childs] was there I got him to play piano on it, and we just went with piano and vocal and that saved the song. I was feeling a little down when I wrote that lyric,” says Norman. Despite the absence of soaring guitar refrains, it’s a classic example of the Fannies’ knack for comforting melancholia.

First release, ‘Baby Lee’, which you really should have heard by now, continues the band’s long lineage of quite magnificent singles, jangling along at a pace that wouldn’t render it out of place on ‘Grand Prix’, often regarded as their finest record. (It’s not, by the way, that’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, which is about as perfect as any album can ever, ever be) Meanwhile, ‘Shock And Awe’ does little to hide its subject matter: Gerry explains that “the title refers to the recent military campaign, but lyrically it’s probably about the idea of conflict, and instinct versus culture. It’s not something we normally talk about in our songs… It’s not some kind of spokesman for a generation kind of stuff, it’s dealing with a small part of life and what people take for granted. And the numbing nature of modern media. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding like Bono or something.” The rolling harmonies of old are all over the track, accompanied by an emphatic string arrangement, although the small aspect that makes it so utterly unforgettable is a small, echoing refrain that cascades across the early part of the song conjuring a sense of the song floating around in front of you. Sometimes words truly can’t do something justice – when you hear it, you’ll know what I mean.

When I Still Have Thee’ quite openly states that “it’s a modern hymn for…The Go-Betweens,” and it is a fitting reference to one of the great overlooked groups of the last thirty years. Don’t be put off by the presence of the word ‘thee’ in the title, because it’s actually one of the more lively tracks on ‘Shadows’, and rather beautiful in its simplicity. Meanwhile, ‘Live With The Seasons’ is straight out of the drawer marked ‘Slowly building, effervescent strummers’. The lyric explores our place within nature and how we so often find the weather reflecting our moods and feelings: “there’s an ocean of meaning in a lover’s tear. The wind, snow and rain make me feel you” offers a simple but heartfelt sentiment.

The warm, soulful sound of ‘Sweet Days Waiting’ wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Hawley record, representing an unusually restrained approach from Gerry. The soft pitter-patter of the drums provide an aural hug while the deliciously saccharine chimes of the lead guitar are like a pack of Love Hearts injected straight into the soul. And, while things end with ‘Today Never Ends’, an oddly sombre instruction to live life in the here and now, it’s the very beginning of this album that marks it out for greatness.

‘Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything’ is not only in possession of a fantastically ‘Holy Bible’-era Manics style name, but also a rhythmically soaring chug that simply explodes after eighty seconds into a joyous chorus, with a small but swooping string part diving around behind the repeated refrain of the song’s title. It’s what the Fannies do best: it doesn’t sound like it could seduce a stadium crowd, it won’t garner frequent plays on popular music stations but it will buff the smile of a believer, open the door for the wavering hardcore fan to welcome them back in and, to cut to the chase, offer welcome respite from the more serious business of real life.

2010 inverted