Tip for bands looking to get their EP reviewed – send us a personal hand written letter and include a picture of a rabbit drunk on tea on the cover and you’ll rise to the top of the pile. London five piece Arthur in Colour did just that, inviting us to review their debut five track EP Malatropy EP.
We are told their music has been compared to The Magnetic Fields and Belle and Sebastian and can’t argue with that. The band’s leader Arthur Sharpe’s deep throaty vocals are more than a little reminiscent of The Magnetic Fields Stephin Merrit. But while the tracks he takes lead vocal duties on are very 69 Love Song era Magnetic Fields there is a subtle and welcome difference. Perhaps its being London based that gives them an added sense of English eccentricity. This is particularly noticeable on final and best track One In A Million, which sounds like Belle and Sebastian does Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. A marvellous heart warming, sing along that warmed the cockles of my soul on the cold, winter morning this EP arrived through my door.
Elsewhere on the EP another high point is the hooky indie pop of The Ghost of the Town, in which the band’s Lizzie Owens takes lead vocal duties. Great voice and great pop song.
Back in 2009 we met up with First Aid Kit when they supported Fanfarlo at the small Hanbury Arms venue in Brighton. At the time the Sweden sisters, Johanna and Klara Söderberg, had only released one mini album and had become an unlikely Youtube hit with their outstanding cover of Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. Aged just 18 and 16 at the time, playing just acoustic guitar and keyboards they provided one of the best support slots we will ever see; confident and perfectly showcasing their sumptuous, country tinged harmonies.
First Aid Kit: Johanna (l), Klara (r)
Clearly we were not the only ones to be impressed. Since then they have become one of the most respected and popular bands treading the world’s stages and have produced two more albums, including this year’s excellent Lion’s Roar. Now the venues they play are far larger and it was with no surprise to see the 1,600 capacity Bristol O2 Academy packed out to see them.
Despite their increasing popularity and an expanded, more dramatic catalogue of songs, as well as being accompanied by drums, they proved at heart the same two young sisters we saw in front of 100 or so people three years ago.
It takes some skill to make a venue this size feel intimate but it was a trick they pulled off well, filling the gaps between songs with engaging banter, including an endearingly tongue in cheek plug for the crowd to fill their Christmas stockings with the deluxe version of Lion’s Roar.
They also daringly declared they would “abandon technology” including microphones to provide one of the high points of their set, a totally acoustic version version of Ghost Town, from their debut full length album Big Black and Blue. It was an electrifying performance with the crowd obediently joining in with the chorus and staying quiet in the verse, where only the sisters’ voices, soft guitar and the hum of the lights could be heard.
Understandably, it was Lion’s Roar that dominated the set, with tracks such as Blue, Emmy Lou and To A Poet particularly standing out as Johanna and Klara, dressed in long flowing vintage dresses, floated around the stage.
Among the surprises were the night’s two cover versions. Not Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, but instead a breathtaking version of Simon and Garfunkel’s America, which they performed in front of Paul Simon at the Polar Music Prize Ceremony in Stockholm earlier this year. Their other cover was a tender version of Fever Ray’s When I Grow Up, a great choice for Klara to take lead vocals on as she is still only 19.
It’s hard to fault the performance, but if there was one caveat to add it’s that there is now scope with their music to add more instruments to their live set. While Johanna’s keyboards fill out the sound well enough, on final track in the encore King of the World (from Lion’s Roar), the performance would have been even better with the recorded version’s trumpets and violins. Given their engaging stage presence and extraordinary vocal skills there’s no danger that such a move would destroy the sense of intimacy they created here and the far larger venues that will surely be filled on future tours.
There are bands that tour relentlessly only to implode amidst bitter in-fighting. Then there’s Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, who in the middle of a world tour takes a month out to holiday in an Albatross colony on the Falkland Islands.
Such a break clearly helps avoid complacency. As Meiburg and his band come towards the end of a 200 night plus world tour they are far from jaded. They clearly still love playing and are so delighted with the respectable crowd that’s turned out they play a mammoth half an hour encore on top of the intense hour long main set.
Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg
Tracks from their latest album, and first on Sub Pop, Animal Joy took up the bulk of the gig, showing that in both recorded and live form this Texas outfit – that started as an off shoot of Okkervil River – are among the best indie rock bands around.
Dramatic compositions, powerful lyrics, precision drumming, with the bass and Meiburg’s vocals taking the melody above a wall of noise from guitars and keyboards provides an enormous sound at times that could easily fill far larger venues.
Among the highlights from the Animal Joy tracks were the album’s centrepiece Insolence. On this track the tour’s drummer Danny Reisch, a temporary replacement for their usual stick man Thor, proves a real highlight with his military precision on the snare giving the song an even greater sense of drama than on the album.
Another highpoint was Pushing the River in which once again Reisch’s drumming shines, with more than a few nods to Joy Division and New Order’s drummer Steven Morris
After a banter-free first few songs the band really embraced the audience, with Meiberg’s stories of the Falklands and the origins of his songs pouring out.
We discover that the British South Atlantic colony is “like an elaborate reconstruction of here by a theatrical society” and how he found a sperm whale’s giant tooth on the beach. He then donated it to a Falkland’s museum, more due to not getting it through US customs than altruism. This was a nice segue into one of the handful of tracks such as Black Eyes from their 2010 album the Golden Archipelago about the plight and wonder of the world’s islands.
The extended encore gave Meiburg a chance to play solo, just electric guitar and his voice on a couple of tracks with Animal Joy’s Dread Sovereign a highlight of this segment. He was later joined by the band again to belt out some older tracks including Rook, from the band’s 2008 album of the same name.
As with Meiburg’s former band Okkervil River, who played for nearly two hours at Bristol’s Trinity Arts Centre last year, Shearwater know how to give a crowd value for money and a superb, passionate performance. Playing like that for 200 nights, and with a trip to the windswept Falkland Islands in between makes Meiburg one of the most intriguing characters in music and Shearwater one of the most exciting, hard working bands around.
Will Samson (l) and Ollie (r)
Support on the UK leg of their tour comes from Will Samson, joined tonight by keyboardist “Ollie”. Samson was as engaging as Meiburg during his short set regarding the banter but suffered from vocally sounding almost identical to For Emma, For Ever Ago era Bon Iver. Samson even strains his voice in the same way, but sadly did not have the same quality of songs such as Skinny Love to justify such a copycat performance. He even remarked how much discomfort such straining causes; perhaps a sign from his body that he should find his true voice sooner rather than later. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been there, done that and already moved on and perhaps it’s time for Samson to do the same.
North Sea Scrolls is an album that brings together two celebrated musical grumps*, Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan, along with journalist Andrew Mueller to create an alternative history of the British Isles. (*this isn’t the word that I was originally going to use but after watching Art Will Save The World last night I’m studiously avoiding the use of the “M” word).
The album is based around the information from the scrolls that have been discovered offering a new view on our history, excerpts of which are read out by Mueller between the songs. Among the concepts featured are the ritualistic sacrifice of Chris Evans, Joe meek as the Minister of Culture, Enoch Powell as Poet Laureate and Ian Ball, the kidnapper of Princess Anne, having a crisis of identity in Broadmoor about Ian Ball the singer from Gomez.
The album is split equally between songs by Haines and Coughlan, and despite having very different styles they sit nicely together across the album. The arrangements are simple, mainly guitar and vocals or piano and vocals, with some additional cello on some numbers. This lets the songs do the talking, with the distinctive vocals and off-kilter lyrics making the absurd concepts believable and amusing all at once.
The album is presented twice, once with just the songs and Mueller’s intro and outro pieces and additionally with his readings from the scrolls presented before each song. This is a wise move as it gives the album a longer lifespan for most listeners. Whilst it is very much worth listening to the full concept first, at least a few times through, you’ll find yourself just wanting to listen to the songs after a while.
2012 has already presented one of the most thoughtful concept albums that I have heard in years, Darren Hayman’s The Violence and North Sea Scrolls matches that album in terms of conceptual inventiveness. Neither album would score as highly if all they had was an interesting concept, what Haines and Coughlan have in common with Hayman is intelligent lyrics, distinctive voices and way with melody.
This is likely to be a marmite album, obscure references (I had to Google a lot of people mentioned) and acidic delivery isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. Even some of those who like Haines’ work may struggle with Coughlan’s Scott Walker style delivery and vice verse However if, like me, you see the brilliance in both you will find that November has delivered one of the best albums of the year and unquestionably one of the most unusual.
Here’s a quick guide to being a successful curator of a Late Night Tales album. Make sure you present a collection of laid back music that has a general coherence, showcases your influences, offers a couple of surprisingly good off the wall choices, a cover version, a story at the end and you’re all done.
Sounds simple enough but not everyone can make it a success. Belle and Sebastian, with their look at laid back pop over the decades and Midlake’s focus on folk rock were superb examples of a curator getting it right. But the series’ most recent effort by Metronomy failed miserably, darting all over genres and offering few tracks of interest.
After that disaster the pressure was firmly on Friendly Fires to prove that Late Night Tales is still one of the finest series of compilations around.
Fans of Friendly Fires and the series should be pleased to hear they pass with flying colours. It’s not a collection as good as say Belle and Sebastian’s but they still tick all of the aforementioned boxes, focusing on their key influences of 70s and 80s electronica and merging the genre well with the shoegaze of the Cocteau Twins and Slowdive and remarkably Olivia Newton John.
It’s John’s 1971 b-side Love Song that shines brightest here, a wonderful, forgotten slow pop track, full of the kind of guitar arrangements that are sure to have influenced a host of alternative acts, not just Friendly Fires.
Friendly Fires cover of Eberhard Schoener and Sting’s 1978 Why Don’t You Answer is another interesting moment that sticks to the Late Night Tales template well and breathes some new life into the song.
Other highlights include Bibio’s Don’t Summarise My Summer Eyes and Slowdive’s Shine, which is wonderful to hear and shows how similar the late 1980s shoegaze indie sound was to the pop electronica that preceded and followed it. The collection ends with the first part of the short story, Flat of Angles read by Sherlock Holmes actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
A lot of what you’ll read about the latest album by Guided By Voices, The Bears For Lunch, is that it is a good record but isn’t it a shame that they didn’t release less albums this year and release one really great album instead? To me these are the opinions of people who don’t understand how Robert Pollard works and are firmly missing the point of GBV 2012.
Release the Bears is an excellent record, more rocking than the two albums that have preceded it this year and shading them both as the best Guided By Voices album since the band got back together. Sure, there are a couple of underdeveloped tracks and throwaway numbers, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Jump back to the critics favourite Alien lanes in 1995 and you’ll find a few songs that don’t work, or sound like they were recorded in biscuit tin, among the 28 tracks on offer.
Personally I am glad that the band have released three albums this year and not condensed it down to the “best” tracks on one album, this way I get 61 new Guided By Voices songs in one year. In fact I wish that they’d released one sprawling triple album containing all the tracks in the middle of the year. That way I’d have one enormous eccentric, heartfelt box of tunes to put forward as my album of the year contender come December. As it is I have a fight on my hands to see if I can get more than one release into the chart when I really want to include all three.
Robert Pollard doesn’t strike me as the kind of artist that is in it for the money, and reforming Guided By Voices seems like something he wanted to do musically and not for the big pay cheque. This isn’t The Smiths after all, they are a band with a loyal following but it is a cult following and not going to see them playing five nights at the O2. He is a man who loves to write and record music, and he’ll have released close on 100 songs this year. That, for me, is to be applauded and even with a few duff moments he’ll have recorded more great tracks than any other artist this year.
Reviewers who wish they’d cut out songs need to loosen up and enjoy everything that is going on here. When Tobin Sprout can out-Kinks The Kinks as well as he does on ‘Waving At Airplanes’ and the band can release a song as good as ‘Everywhere Is Miles From Everywhere’ as their 61st track of the year it is something to be celebrated. I’m not going to spend any more time boring you with a breakdown of all the songs of the album and why I love them so much (and believe me I could) but this is some of the most joyful guitar pop you’ll hear all year and I can’t recommend it enough.
As a country dwelling, dog owning, music fan I do a lot of my music listening and reviewing while walking across the Somerset levels.
Here’s a short film I made of my recent early morning walks throughout Autumn, with Glastonbury Tor in the background and the cows, frost, sunrise and great music for company. The music featured here is You’ve Got The Trees by Alex Highton, one of the UK’s most promising singer songwriters. This track is featured on his 2012 album Woodditton Wives Club, about Alex’s own move from an urban to rural landscape. It seemed the perfect choice once I’d edited the footage together. Alex has kindly given me permission to use his song for this film.
by Joe Lepper
For more information about Alex visit his website here.
To read our 8/10 review of Woodditton Wives Club click here.
There’s a tangible ghostly quality to this first EP by The Revival Hour, the latest musical project of Asthmatic Kitty artist DM Stith and The Earlies’ samples man JM Lapham.
In borrowing heavily from the 1950s and early 1960s the pair have created music the battered spectre of James Dean would have listened to on the radio of his mashed up Porsche 550 Syder in 1955, as he fatally collided with a 1950 Ford Tutor and began his Powell and Pressburger-esque ascent to heaven.
The Revival Hour’s DM Stith (l) and JM Lapham (r)
We had an inclining the pair would produce something remarkable with the release last year of their first single Hold Back, but this EP is a far darker beast, taking the listener right into their vintage world through Stith’s haunting voice and Lapham’s soundscapes. Opener Hypergiant has no lyrics just Stith’s voice oozing through the mire before the thudding deep bass and reverb heavy guitar of second track Pyre appears as Dean, Buddy Holly and other tragic ’50s icons ascend the heavenly stairway.
Third track Beehive sounds like an absurdly beautiful blend of Roy Orbison and The Cocteau Twins and provides the most relaxing moment on the EP before the downright frightening guitar chaos of Fire Season. Final track Altercall focuses back on Stith’s voice, this time soaring above the 1950s “shoowooodooup” backing vocals as the bloody but peaceful Dean finally reaches the pearly gates.
An uneasy listen in places, joyously uplifting in others, this EP is like nothing you will hear all year. Wholly original, it serves as a powerful teaser for their debut album, which is being released next year and is set to feature contributions from Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond among others. We made this act one of our bands to watch in 2012 for good reason and this EP has more than delivered.
John Howard was once the next big thing. Signed by CBS in 1973 he was part of a wave of major record label interest in English singer songwriters. But despite having the pop sensibility to rival the likes of Paul McCartney, CBS found it hard to market his witty, intelligent lyrics and eccentric demeanour. Looking a like a cross between Peter Cook and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus record execs, who were used to handling the next Marc Bolan or David Bowie, just didn’t know how to promote him.
By the time his debut album Kid In A Big World was released in 1975, Howard found himself struggling to fit into any category as glam began its descent and punk was another year away from the wider public’s gaze.
He proved just too tough a sell to radio stations and the public, and after three years Howard left CBS; a career stalled before it had even began.
He meandered through the music industry for the next few years working with Trevor Horn and Culture Club among others but by the early 1980s he gave up recording and moved to a new career in music industry A&R. As his website says “feeling disillusioned with lack of success or recognition, John locked his piano lid and walked away from unrealised ambitions, only occasionally recording material when producer friends asked him to.”
He retired from the industry in 2000 and moved to Pembrokeshire with his partner Neil France, where it would have been all too easy to sit back grumpily in front of the TV muttering about “what a shit business it is” every time X-Factor came on. Instead though he started to write and perform again, first playing in local pubs, and even piano bars on cruise ships and in 2003, after decades of artistic obscurity, he found himself not just a man in demand but actually cool.
Arguably it was the internet that saved him, with an online buzz among music fans, journalists and bloggers created after Kid In A Big World was featured in the book In Search of The Lost Record. Suddenly there was a new audience for his music, one not clouded by 1970s ideals of what a rock star should be and used to seeing a raft of musical square pegs in round holes from Jarvis Cocker to Malkmus.
With the album’s reissue in 2003 Howard’s rebirth was nearing completion. Further reissues followed including his unfinished CBS album Technicolour Biography. With each four and five star review Howard realised that the time was right to start releasing new material.
I’d never heard his music until he was name checked, along with Bill Fay (another singer songwriter snapped up and discarded during the 1970s) in a press release for The Gift EP, the 2012 release of piano ballads by Ralegh Long, one of the UK’s current crop of emerging singer-songwriters. I feel like something of a fool now for letting Howard’s stunning, pop savvy, clever songs pass me by until now.
Better late than never, though and I now find myself working my way through his back catalogue. I’ve decided to start with one of Howard’s best comeback albums, As I was Saying, which shows just what the record industry has been missing all these years.
The song writing is just about perfect, full of McCartney-esque melodies and tongue in check lyrics as he ponders getting old, his career and the state of the modern music industry.
There are echoes of Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Elton John in his prime but all wrapped up in something wholly contemporary with enough of an edge to interest older music fans and young up and coming artists like Ralegh Long alike.
The lyrics “Time will heal things, so they say, but they lie” opens the track Taking It All To Heart, a beautiful, powerful ballad that sums up his reflections on the past perfectly. The Dilemma of a Homosapien then comes in with jaunty echoes of a raft of songwriters that emerged and disappeared from the public’s gaze during Howard’s hiatus, such as Robyn Hitchcock and Pete Shelley. Special mention goes to this track’s killer chorus; most songwriters can only dream of writing anything so catchy.
Among the most intriguing is Oh, Do Give It A Rest Love, coming in at over seven minutes it is the most obvious tale of his musical career, with almost everyone of importance over the last 40 years getting a name check from Jimi Hendrix to Simon Cowell. My favourite is the timelessly upbeat Life Is Never The Way We Want It To Be.
Next up for me as I explore Howard’s career is his latest release, You Shall Go To The Ball, sent to me out of the blue by Howard’s partner Neil from Spain, where the couple now live.
Although recorded recently the tracks are largely from Howard’s 1970s CBS days, including demos that failed to make it past the powers that be. Howard explains: “The songs are those which thirty five to forty years ago were only ever demoed and which I wished I could have recorded properly with the backings I could hear in my head.”
It’s a less accessible listen than As I Was Saying, with Howard opting for the slightly maverick idea of interweaving new interpretations of his older piano ballads and pop songs with soundscapes. This gives the album a dream like, almost Brian Wilson produced feel, with his forgotten songs shining brightly throughout. Star Through My Window is particularly good. How this track failed to become a hit in the 1970s seems bizarre when listening to it now. It sounds like a track that’s been part of the musical ether for decades rather than locked away beneath Howard’s piano lid.
Forthcoming acquisitions for me will be his 1970s reissues, with debut album Kid in a Big World and its English pop gems such as Family Man, the one I’m particularly looking forward to hearing.
As well as his music, I love the story of Howard; of a talented musician who started his career as a square peg in the music industry but has now at last found the audience that the 1970s CBS record execs failed to discover for him. Perhaps his experience has shaped him for the better. Reading this interview with him from 2005 he displays a modesty and sense of joy in knowing he has an audience that may have been lacking if he’d have been a global star since the 1970s.
Howard’s story is a lesson to all those talented musicians out there struggling to get heard. Cream always rises, even if it takes a few decades.
Wire was born in the crossfire phlegm hurricane of punk, but didn’t belong to the couldn’t give a shit brigade (The Sex Pistols, Chelsea, The Damned ) or the politically motivated, angry gang ( The Clash, The Adverts, Crass). Theirs was art school punk; not only could you pogo to it, you could think and paint at the same time, and probably do a thesis on Max Ernst while you’re at it.
Any of their first three albums are deserving of a classic album review, each magnificent and entirely lovable self-contained entities and all with the same line up of Bruce Gilbert (guitars, vocals), Robert Gotobed (drums), Graham Lewis (vocals, bass) and Colin Newman (vocals, guitar).
The debut ‘Pink Flag’ (1977) is a classic primordial three-chord, big-bang micro universe of short sharp shock guitar abuse, delivered at breath taking speed and accompanied by intelligent, surrealist poetic lyrics, the likes of which dazzle, confound and elate your soul. Rarely have three very loud chords and the English language been put to better use than by Wire.
The follow up, ‘Chairs Missing’ (1978) was not radically different, it still possessed the firepower but now they turn up with sonic atmospherics and apply the brakes on the speeding guitars, we were witnessing evolution before our very ears.
The inevitable conclusion was ‘154’ released in 1979 containing a perfect balance of lyrical intrigue, haunting melodic evasive soundscapes and the trademark gravitational pull of their punk guitarisms. Thirteen mini strokes of genius, it’s like listening in to someone’s thoughts, fragmented snippets of internal dialogue, a schizophrenic drip-drip-drip of doubt and paranoia with the ever present long black raincoat of the wire sound, a sound of coiled anger, writhing slippery rhythms and sudden rays of insight and pop sunshine.
Everything you need to know about Wire is contained in track thirteen ’40 versions’ and lyrics such as ‘I never know what version I’m going to be, I seem to have so many choices open to me’. This is typical wire, choices and options all clamouring to be heard and on this occasion decorated with a heavenly minimalist melody.
There’s room for almost a hit single with ‘Map ref 41 N 93 W’, the lyrics of which are total wordplay nirvana and remains one of their finest confections. You want kick ass punk ? try ‘Two people in a room’, over in a flash but containing everything in an angry song that you require. ‘I should have known better’ is so utterly desolate in it’s glacial beauty it could be a Joy Division out take.
‘A touching display’ shows just how far they had come from the blitzkrieg of Pink Flag, at six minutes plus, it’s the longest track on 154, and an object lesson in restrained aggression, beginning with a gentle torrent of noise, slow spoken words of desperate love ,’I’m fighting bravely, will she save me, from what or who, I do not know’, then a huge riff comes in from planet nowhere and begins to plough out an increasingly strident motif, drums enter the fray and it all climaxes in a beautiful bass heavy maelstrom of seismic proportions. Wire had become The Pink Floyd of punk (this was a good thing).
Then there’s the almost playful ‘Blessed state’, so sleek and sexy it will make you horny just listening to it. There’s more, I’ll spare you.
When people talk of no filler, there’s usually one or two tracks that don’t cut the mustard, with 154 every second of its duration is there for a reason, it will do stuff to your head, your feet and your perceptions. I’ve been listening to it for longer than I dare to admit, in that time it has lost none of its inspired never to be repeated impact. I hate mustard.