See, this is exactly what I have been talking about for years. Folk music and indie music make the perfect match, the deft and delicate delivery of the former and the cool and polished sound of the latter make an exquisite musical hook up. But a practical on too. If folk is going to stay relevant and Indie music interesting such musical marriages are essential. But this is no clumsy marriage of convenience, I Think I Saw You on the Street is the gorgeous off-spring of two good looking generic parents – the practical and solid folk father, the gracious and the charming hipster mother.
The idea of just another young female artist folk-popping her way to chart success with an acoustic guitar and a chilled and minimalist tune might have collective eyes rolling and audible sighs of “here we go again”. Maybe it is a style that has been overdone of late, perhaps but rarely has it been done this well. For every hundred such artists using the format as a short cut to celebrity status you find one that really understands the genre and Charlotte Grayson, for all her small amount of years, understands it explicitly.
Folk music has wandered down some interesting pathways of late. Like any genre it needs to move with the times and although there are always going to be the “folk police” – normally a bearded guy called Brian in a June Tabor tour shirt – trying to dictate what is and isn’t folk music, change, or at least evolution is inevitable. In recent times folk music has been seduced by the indie chic and Camden cool of the likes of Mumford and the Whale and more latterly emerging names such as Brona McVittie and Rowan Coupland have shown that there is a shimmering dream-pop inspired route for it to take.
But sometimes I miss the more fun, the more story telling, less mystical, the more lyrically accessible and often slightly wonky approach to the genre. If you feel the same, that you want to enjoy the songwriting rather than the soundscaping or how zeitgeisting, faddy or fashionable a record is then Nature Makes Amazing Shapes will be just what you are looking for. Because it deliberately isn’t trying to fit in and be on trend, it can cover a lot of ground and of course if you are never in fashion how can you ever be out of fashion?
Reverse is a strange, almost lullaby slice of innocent folk meets world pop, Jezebel is a jaunty confessional built on infectious bass grooves and This Sweet Delusion is a spacious plea whose simple lines leave McCambridge’s strident vocals the focal point. Just Said No is more in keeping with what you might expect from the folk tag, musically straight-forward, lyrically poignant and designed to have you singing along before the first chorus is even over and Hooligan reminds me of the ragged and roots musical machinations of The Violent Femmes, not a point of reference I get to break out very often but I’m always pleased when I do.
It’s a great album, on reflection it might not even really be a folk album after all. It’s more than that, its musical scope may touch base there more often than not but it also skirts world music, singer-songwriter stylings, warped post-punk and indie music. And of course anyone seeming to channel the spirit of Jonathan Richman, at least in approach and attitude, is exactly what music, not just folk music, needs right now.
Brian is going to hate it which is exactly why you should buy it!
Stock in the Bauhaus name is riding high at the moment. With one half of the band currently working as Poptone and David J undertaking an extensive world tour with Pete Murphy as we speak, it is certainly the perfect time to re-release J’s sophomore solo album, a record which he describes as “ a personal pastoral favourite” and one “that really set the tone for all my future solo endeavours.” And pastoral is indeed a great word to use even if it is hardly one that you would associate with either Bauhaus or Love and Rockets, the band that he would shortly form.
Crocodile Tears is certainly of its time, it sounds of its mid 80’s birthplace both in style and production but like any album which stays in the collective consciousness long enough to be labelled classic, iconic or influential, and this has been called all this and more, it has survived and transcended fad and fashion. Like black and white movies, favourite shirts and old photographs there is a hint of nostalgia to the songs found here from the point of the listener, how could there not be but also enough time has passed that a whole new generation can engage with it without the baggage that it carries. But you only have to listen to how ahead of its time songs such as Light and Shade are to see why it has survived. I could name 5 modern alt-country bands who would kill to have that on their resume.
Songs wander from the classic singer songwriter such as the folky Justine to the smooth soulful lines of the title track, the Lilac Time-esque fey-pop jaunt of Too Clever By Half to the shimmering sixties vibes of Slip The Rope. It is a vast departure from his earlier, darker band days but to many people, myself included, it was destined for more spins around the house than the more challenging Bauhaus back catalogue. And for those who found this an unexpected departure at the time, hindsight now tells us that a reunion with Daniel Ash in the form of Love and Rockets and all the glitz and glamour, punch and panache which that entailed was just around the corner.
Whilst there is undoubtedly an art to writing songs that are all about immediacy and hook, ones which you can find a way into as soon as the song enters your consciousness, that is only one approach. Such songs are fine for the quick hit, the short shelf life, the fickleness of the ever changing demands of the pop fashionista or the indie scenester. But when you think of the songs, the tunes, the albums that you find yourself returning to time and again, they are more usually the ones where you have invested time to understand the music, relate to the artists approach, they are less obvious but ultimately much more rewarding. One-off pop sing alongs are fine for the party moment but everyday life requires something that delivers more. Don’t Feel To Work is just such and album and Evan Jewett is just such a musician.
And as you might expect after such an introduction the album wanders some interesting paths and wonderfully connects sounds and styles that often don’t spend too much time in each others company. Pink Grout, the first single from the album to make its way out into the world, grooves with a gentle 60’s feel, is threaded through with chiming piano and simple yet prominent but effective bass lines and the end result is a song that Beck would have not only fight you for but fight dirty.
Dust Contest is part Monkees, part Flaming Lips, if you can imagine such a thing, by contrast Late Bloom is a wistful and melancholic piece in the vein of Elliot Smith, bruised and brooding like a gothic country song being played in a late night jazz bar and Clocking Out is a warped piece of psychedelic with a middle section which seems to be trying to turn back time.
As albums go its a grower, but that’s the point, something to get to know, become friends with, and not just the sort of brief chat at a party after which neither of you make the effort to keep in touch. Even from the first play you know that this is the start of a long and lasting friendship.
Maybe language gets in the way, maybe the process of sharing experiences looses something when you start to define it, describe it, nail it down. So maybe meeting a random stranger, finding that you don’t speak each others language but then spending time together on a road trip is the perfect way to explore the world. It’s what Gypsyfinger’s Victoria Coghlan did and this song is a tribute to her new found friend and fellow explorer.
It is a folk song with a pop make over, it tips its hat to 70’s stalwarts and 90’s pop alternatives (Sixpence None the Richer spring to mind here) and the commercial end of the current wave of folkies who are finding new ways and new genres to fuse their music with. It’s a deft and delicate piece, one built of chiming and clean sonic lines and euphoric energy and as tributes to friends go, it is nothing short of perfect.
Well, this is just lovely isn’t it? You can’t knock a euphoric, upbeat, summer song, one built of wonderful loud-quiet dynamic, sing-along choruses, one that just oozes fun and joyfulness, can you? It’s Our Time is all of that and more. It feels light and floaty but soon builds up those textures into something more substantial so that the end result is the equivalent of being knocked over by a whole pile of silk scarves…probably paisley patterned.
This is the end of modern indie music that I have the most hope for. Forget the identi-kit indie-rockers with their fashionable jeans and complicated hair, give me indie music that skirts the realms of dream-pop, afro-beat and folk music any day of the week. The Light The Heat are definitely ones to watch.
Tomberlin, the rising Louisville, KY-based artist, has released “I’m Not Scared,” the latest from her Saddle Creek debut album, At Weddings. DIY, who premiered the song today are calling it “deeply emotive and touching.” At Weddings is available for pre-order and due out 8/10 via Saddle Creek.
Of the song, Sarah Beth Tomberlin says “It is abrasive, heavy, but packaged delicately. I feel like many people view women as such — shrill and emotionally burdensome but responsible for consistently presenting themselves pleasantly. Gentle and affable – their warmth a tool to heal often with no regard for the state of the body and mind that warmth permeates from. Women, and especially queer, trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people, have such a capacity for pain. Physical, mental, emotional, psychological pain.
This is a hymn-like song in the way that it moves melodically. A reflection on that suffering. I didn’t realize the full meaning when I wrote it. The weight of the song didn’t hit me until I was listening to the final recording. It is kind of like leaving a person or situation that is really abusive and not realizing how much it affects your psyche until you’ve removed yourself completely. You look back and you realize you are strong, even though that is the last word you would use to describe how you feel.”
Saint Sister, the duo from the North of Ireland, are set to release their debut album on 5th October 2018. Today they share their new single You Never Call. Known for their stunning vocal harmonies and fusion of traditional Irish folk and minimalist electronica, on this track they deliver a chorus with a vocal performance much bigger than anything we’ve seen previously from the band.
Gemma Doherty and Morgan MacIntyre began making music together after meeting at University in Dublin. Their first EP “Madrid” was a breakout success. 2 million streams on Spotify in the first year as well as daytime playlisting on BBC radio 1 propelled them to a European tour with Lisa Hannigan and a single via Communion Singles Club. In September they embark on a 40 date headline world tour across North America, Australia, and Europe to promote their debut album.
The twelve tracks on Shape of Silence are steeped in a sense of longing. The band hail from different parts of Northern Ireland (Belfast and Derry), yet they both talk about growing up with a yearning for an intangible sense of ‘Irishness’ and a romanticised, idealised vision of what it might feel like to live in the cobbled streets of Dublin.
Doherty says “We both moved to Dublin at the same time. Our paths didn’t cross for a couple of years, but when they did, we both knew what it felt like to live in a place that you had dreamt up in your head, only to realise that people don’t quite understand the place where you’ve come from; and that the longing isn’t necessarily reciprocated. Although we didn’t grow up together we shared a lot of the same experiences, it felt like having a childhood friend who knows everything about your family.”
The essence of shared upbringing influences Saint Sister’s music and, more than that, their friendship. They embody an “us against the world mentality” – “The most striking thing about our relationship, which at this point is all encompassing, is that when we started making music together we were effectively strangers to each other”, MacIntyre explains. “
We jumped in head first and invested everything in each other.” With Shape of Silence Saint Sister prove how worthwhile that investment has been.“We wanted to explore the connections between people, and the conversations that are borne out of figuring yourself out in relation to another person. The beginning of the record feels very conspiratorial. But then the songs become a little darker, a little more self aware and discerning and a little lonelier. ”
The band’s first few singles and debut EP focused heavily on the harp, an instrument Doherty has been playing since childhood. She recalls a time when she thought she had to learn the guitar to write a certain type of music; the myths of “how to be a band” coupled with a self-doubt many young female musicians experience. In the end it was her Father who encouraged her to use what she had and write in a way that was natural to her.
That “you do you” mentality has seen the band explore new sonic directions on this album, as MacIntyre says “There are some very introspective songs on the record, songs in which we gave ourselves the space to experiment and use textures we hadn’t used before, but then we’ve also got a few songs that are much poppier than anything we’ve released up until now.”
In my experience the term “multi-instrumentalist” allows a musician to fall into one of two categories, there are those who become a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ because they flit from one thing to another without really grasping what their chosen instrument at that time can do, and there is the other who’s musical curiosity is so great that they decide to pick up different instruments because within their musical endeavours they struggle to find anybody who can do what they have in their minds better than themselves.
London-based singer songwriter Koichi Yamanoha sits firmly in the later and his weapon of choice changes as often as the genres he tiptoes between, he deftly sweeps through electronic music, into acoustic folk-tinged ballads, synth led instrumentals before finding a brief home in pop yet it still feels natural and connected.
It’s a brave choice to open and close the album with instrumentals but it enables the listener to hear the album on loop without it feeling like the experience has ended. Pink Floyd did something like this on ‘The Wall’, Coldplay also did this on their 2008 Brian Eno-produced ‘Viva La Vida’ which, in some ways is not totally surprising given that there are moments on Cliffhanger that Brian Eno would be proud of.
Track two is dominated by the sound of an organ, similar to one you would have heard at a fair or carnival accompanying a carousel, once you realise the track is titled ‘Take Me Down To Coney Island’ the choice of organ tone makes total sense. At around the two-minute mark the organ goes up a few keys to become almost church-like, perhaps we’re invited to pray to the Gods of carnival…
The vocal performance of Koichi Yamanoha puts me in mind of the current music of bands emerging from Norway and Iceland, particularly the avant garde band Sigur Ros. It’s wispy, ghostly but sits perfectly on tracks ‘Still Smiling’, ‘Final World War’ and, the albums shining star of a song, ‘Wheel’.
Guest female singers Charlotte Courbe and Dee Sada bring a different angle in their approach to songs ‘Cliffhanger’ and the monotone, spoken worded ‘Orange Coloured Everywhere’ that puts me in mind of Radioheads ‘Fitter Happier’ from OK Computer.
To name Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Brian Eno and Radiohead in the same review must say something about how well this album is put together, there is something within these songs that creep beneath the skin and encourages you to have a repeat listen, I’m not really doing the album justice but I don’t want to give away all of the nuances and quirks this album has, there are Asian-inspired guitar, moments of confusion where you ask yourself “where are we going now?” and plenty to keep your ears and mind happy.
This is the second album (there is also an EP released in 2014) so there is more to discover about this artist and I think it’s well worth buying a ticket and seeing where the ride takes you.
Cliffhanger is out now on Some Other Planet Records
In many ways the idea of masculinity and the male role in modern society is undergoing a lot of examination and reevaluation. As women edge closer in the direction of equality, though I am by know means saying that they are anything like close yet, what it means to be a man today is something which a lot of people are thinking about. The archaic and stereotypical roles that have been the accepted norms for millennia are blurring and crossing into each other and just as women are having to redefine what it is they can be in todays society, so are men. And this is the theme that lies at the heart of The Limits of Men.
This is Nicholas Merz’s debut album, though he has released six with Seattle’s Darto, but it is an album that has been slowly forming in his mind all the while, since his teens. As the son of country band players he admits that he has had an odd relationship with the genre, both put off by the image and the attitudes of many to be found in its orbit but secretly drawn to it sonically. And whilst you wouldn’t call this a country record in the strictest sense, there is an undeniably countryfied heart beating at its core.
But this is tempered by many other factors, a starkness and introspection, a dark folkiness and a delivery that owes as much to Nick Cave as it does to the more expected man in black, Johnny Cash. Bulled Rose is a raw, heartfelt examination of men being born into traditional physical roles, all pent up energy and violins that seem to saw through the track at right angles and Neon Figures is a hypnotic, off kilter, waltz. The Great American Tale is an examination of the racial devisions still found at the sharp end of American life, a song that seems to be built of claustrophobia and gathering storm clouds as much as it is beat and chords whilst Fashion deals with other forms of division and cultural expectations.
If ever there was a time when music and musicians should join the political, social and cultural conversation it is now. In the past movements such as folk music, hip-hop, punk and grunge have risen out of the dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement of certain sectors of society yet as the world seems heading down a dark route once again it seems only to have given us conformity and obedience via TV music contests and reality shows. Thankfully Nicholas Merz gives us much to mull over whilst listening to his often dark, deft and dulcet tunes.
Some music has the ability to sound ancient, tribal, primitive yet simultaneously modern and of the here and now. River from Talitha Rise’s debut album, the evocatively named An Abandoned Orchid House, is just such a piece. It is a clever blend of ambient electronica, modern folk, world music harmonies that in part conjure memories of Karl Jenkins musical experiments, outsider alternative pop and classical grandure. The genre and generation hopping nature of the song is reflected in the video too which features a similarly eclectic collection of cool revellers and creative rebels.
Words such as ethereal, heavenly, otherworldly might be overused cliches but they also happen to be perfect for River which seems to flow and meander between worlds real and imagined, fantasy films, folk festivals, historical re-imaginings, the past and the present. Ethereal but not fey…a very important difference as this gem bristles with confidence too.
In short if this is the calling card for the full album then I just need to know one thing…who do I give my money too to get a copy!
Names can be an important choice for any artist and, if you are one of those people who likes to read meaning into an artist’s chosen moniker, well, you can read a lot of meaning into an artist’s chosen moniker. Sailing Stones is a particularly well chosen title, named after the rocks which seem to move at a snail’s pace across California’s Death Valley of their own volition. Well chosen because like those rocks, singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lindfors makes music which also gently wanders, shimmers like the desert heat, is gauze-like and mysterious, ethereal and majestic, in an understated, unhurried sort of way.
Opening track She’s a Rose is wonderfully mercurial song, examining the transformation that happens as we grow and change to overcome life’s obstacles and indeed undergoing its own musical evolution as it plays out. From a core indie heart it adds piano lines, jazz vibes, hazy angelic choirs and sultry saxophones before exploding in a tangle of high drama and controlled cacophony.
Into Space is a gorgeous weave of textured music, dream-like and even when fuzzed out guitars build to drive the song to its final crescendos, they are simple and sleek, brooding and distant rather than dominating and obvious, wandering some Floydian landscapes and doing so with a wonderful sure footedness. Debut single, The Blazing Sun is an exercise in sheer gorgeousness, a slice of heavenly alt-folk and the perfect vehicle to show case Lindfors voice with the beautiful swan song of Sit Silent adding some gentle Americana vibes to close the e.p.
It’s a rich tapestry of sound and sentiment, it travels from the depths of the heart to the outer reaches of space and whilst it explores some big concepts along the way, it remains intimate and personal, accessible, approachable. A triumph of complex music and big ideas sounding anything but.
You can help but hear the spirit of Bob Dylan floating around in the back ground of Watch It Fall. Not so much I the sound of the song and certainly not in the vocals but there is something in the story-telling, the real-world narrative and the simple yet effective direction of travel. Not that he owned the genre, many great songwriters existed before him and many have happened since, but he typified a style and it resonates through this song to a degree.
Many song-writers would be happy with that but thankfully Joseph Eid is his own man and by the time he has threaded some country guitars and added some clever harmony vocal arrangements he has moved away from the realm of plagiarism or plunder and merely tips his cap to a certain style whilst stamping his own mark on the genre. It is proof that whilst many would argue that there is nothing new to be done to the guy with a guitar, folk style, Eid instead just cuts the genre back to its bare essentials, spends his time crafting the song rather than disguising and decorating it and whilst certainly not reinventing the wheel proves that that particular wheel does indeed have many more miles left in it.
There is some music which transcends genres. I’m not saying that in a sensationalist way or to invoke the modern trend for hyperbole, it is just that some music is built along such classic lines that it predates the contemporary need for generic labels and neat pigeon holes. Okay, there is a touch of jazz eclecticism to be found, soulful vibes abound and the balance between the neo-classic piano which forms the foundation of the e.p. and the deft designs and clever musical motifs built from rock, pop and indie that adds the sonic detail hint at the familiar. But for the most part it seems to create a genre of its own, partially because it is happy to hop generic boundaries at will but mainly because it doesn’t conform enough to any one. Eclecticism is the name of the game.
The more driven end of the music, songs such as Lethe with its sultry dance groove and Xtralarge, which rounds things off, have something of Kate Bush about them, an overused reference point I know but there is something in the singular vision, the same willingness to ignore trend and fashion and make music which conforms only the artists own musical rule book.
Higher is built on a wonderful play off of soulful lead vocals and sumptuous banks of harmonies, exquisitely show-casing Em’s sweet and sensual voice, able to whisper gently in the listeners ear to create intimacy but also able to push upwards to create dynamic and drama. La Belle Etoile is perhaps the most intriguing of songs, the natural beauty of the sound of its French lyrics blending with dreamy textures and arabesque vibes to create a wonderful blend of eastern exoticism and western pastoral chill.
It’s a stunning collection of songs, seeming not tied to culture, clime, genre or generation, a timeless, restless musical soundscape that captures all the beauty of the past and all the potential of the present. I guess that is how you build the sound of the future.
Picture courtesy of Clair Price
Music can make big, bold statements, make obvious moves and play predictable cards but it is at its finest, in my opinion at least, when it is employing subtler and more supple techniques to engage the listener. That, is exactly what Saints of Bliss do with All or Nothing. It runs between folk-pop balladry and more select indie lines but its impact is never found in the weight of the music, instead it uses emotive vocal deliveries and poignant lyricism, evocative and unexpected shifts in the chord progressions and the slow laying on of musical texture.
By the end of the song you find that you have traversed an understated piece of polished indie-pop, but the shifting of musical gears, the dynamic builds and drops are so smoothly done that you never noticed the acceleration, never felt the gradual application of pressure to the musical throttle.
Indie as a genre has been pretty well defined for a while now. Having evolved from its original political meaning within the music industry to become a genre label in its own right, it generally indicates pop aware melody and musical adroitness, that fine line between commerciality and underground cool, between accessibility and integrity, directness and deft creation. But what does the indie band of 2018 do to stand out from the pack? Well, I’m glad you asked….
One answer is to do what Saints of Bliss have done. Forget warping the genre and kicking down generic barricades, and cross-pollinating your sound with the tricks and trappings of other genres to gene-splice indie into some sort of modern musical Frankenstein’s monster isn’t the answer either. It isn’t about subverting expectations, it is about feeding them. It is about doing what the rest of the pack do but just doing it so much better. Underline – so much better. And that is exactly what All or Nothing sounds like. It sounds familiar but a vast improvement on what most other bands working in the same territory have offered so far, which I guess is the definition of a classic, or in this case a future classic.
It is an exquisite blend of folk’s soft edges and emotive connectivity, pop’s accessibility and indie’s effortless cool, neither genre trying to steal the show and the result is a wonderfully clever combination of all the best bits of each genre and a song that seems to wander easily across those sonic boundaries without even being aware it is doing so.
As someone who grew up on a mixture of tradition and progressive folk sounds, as well as a host of other musical genres from the challenging to the commercial, I’m so glad to see that a whole wave of artists are again pushing the genre to explore its potential. You Are Wolf is one of the most fascinating of these new kids on the rootsy block.
Seeped in gorgeous vocals and just as often happy to stick to traditional rules as subvert them, Keld is a masterpiece of folk for the future. Taking the theme of water (keld being an old northern English word for the “deep, still smooth part of a river) Kerry Andrew collected a mixture of folk songs with female heroes centred on water spirits, drowning boys and powerful witches. This she blended with original tales inspired by her love of wold swimming and of vengeful rivers, nymphs and naiads. At times it feels like the sonic representation of Roger Deakin’s classic book Waterlog, and if you don’t get that reference, believe me when I say that reading it with this album gently playing in the background is a perfect pairing.
Where her debut Hawk To The Hunting Gone was built heavily on vocals and loop manipulations to form its core sound, this second offering is painted from a wider ranging sonic palette, marrying old school folk with its modern counterpart, adding delicate and deft instrumentation as a frame for the vocals which are still the beating heart of the overall sound.
As I have said before, folk, like any genre needs to move forward, to evolve if it wants to stay relevant and Keld is certainly the sound of gentle evolution, a clever intertwining of the familiar and the fanciful, the exploratory and the timeless. Change is inevitable, but it is rarely this beautiful.
I have to confess that I had never heard the tag “B-Town scene” until Shaun Kelly’s latest rather excellent record landed on my desk. So a bit of googling later reveals it to be a cover all term for a host of sonically, largely unrelated bands working in, around and out of Birmingham. Like most of these sorts of terms it began as an insider joke but has gain traction with those looking to remain ahead of the jump, journalists (not this one obviously) and those looking to impress with their musical knowledge. But Birmingham has always produced great bands from The Spenser Davis Group to ELO from Johnny Foreigner to Swim Deep and a host of others. Shaun Kelly and his musical posse are just the latest torchbearers for that city’s musical heritage. The less said about Duran Duran the better!
The Boy on the Bench is a graceful and deft collection of songs, mixing folk and Indie-pop with Americana and even a few underpinning EDM grooves just to add some new sonic texture to what is essentially the classic singer-songwriter canon. And it is this clever blend of familiarity and modernity, not to mention the sheer quality of the song that makes this a real gem. Stigmata in particular sounding like a future classic, windswept rootsy indie built on elegant riffs and eloquent sonic arrangements seeming linking the West Coast to The West Midlands of two different continents.
As The Crow Flies wanders down some dusty, raggle-taggle country-folk pathways, Broken People grooves with the spirit of His Bobness…that’s Mr Zimmerman to you…embellished with some eclecticism and electronica and Dorothy is jaunty pop par excellence. It’s a great album on all levels, great songs, great musical vision, infectious, memorable and great fun. Who knew that people still made albums like this any more?
Folk music is going through some interesting changes. Perhaps in an effort to shake of the age old image off pipe-smoking traditionalism and Arran sweatered folk police pedantry, it is looking to the likes of dream-pop, indie and other commercial outlets to reinvent itself for a broader minded, modern audience. And at the risk of being beaten to a pulp with a copy of Bright Phoebus by one of the aforementioned guardians of all thing DADGAD, I have to say that in my humble opinion, things have never looked, or indeed sounded, so good for the genre. It is artists such as Katey Brooks who are helping to usher in this new golden age.
Ethereal is a much over used word, but I can’t think of a better one to encapsulate the sound of Will She. Musically it is shimmering, haunting and minimalist, the instrumentation acting only as the most gossamer of backdrops for Brooks voice. And what a voice it is, falling somewhere between classical majesty and folk’s emotive honesty, it is both strikingly beautiful and gloriously vulnerable. It is a wonderful weave of the genres traditional sounds and a more modern musical framework and if this doesn’t represent the sound of a new renaissance, I don’t know what does.
Not only a brilliant name for a band, I’m a sucker for the weird and historical so this one really works for me, but a great song too. What If runs along gentle indie-rock lines but so skilfully that it never falls into the usual traps that either genre has to offer. It blends jazzy offbeat quirk with smooth and soulful undercurrents. It beats the singer-songwriter at their own game and weaves musical motifs and instrumental intricacy through the songs heart in a way that only a full, but well edited and understated, band can.
Now I would probably be remiss in my duties as a journalist if I didn’t try to sound clever and more knowledgable than everyone else, so at this point I will offer The Liberty Horses as a comparison, a little known band which acted as a musical vehicle for the MacColl brothers in the 90’s. Last Charge of The Light Horse play with the same pristine pop, same folky vibes and the same deft songwriting. It works for me.
Ian Roland creates the sort of music which seems to make the need for journalistic labels redundant. Yes, it comes from a folky place, but seems neither overly traditional nor unnecessarily commercial, though you can imagine it making headway into more commercial waters. It is neither past not future, fashion following nor niche. It is enough to say that The Valley is just about great songwriting. Hasn’t it always been thus? Maybe not but in an ideal world it should be.
Around these three deft slices of acoustica, Simon Yapp and Brione Jackson wrap evocative fiddle leads and swathes of warm underpinning cello respectively, and to great effect and though beats and other musical peripherals join the fray, you can hear enough to know that as a live act, the buoyancy of this core three piece is all you are going to need to musically carry the day.
If this is folk, and I guess it is more than anything else, then it is the sound of modern indie-folk pushing into pop realms, commercial sounds reminding us that there are other, better, more articulate and more emotive ways of doing things than just creating a sound to chase the money. That said there is more than enough mass appeal here to mean that whilst they may not be looking for to find a way to court the mainstream music machine, Ian could very well wake up one day and find that the mainstream music machine has come to court him.
The fact that the man at the heart of StrangeJuice has earned himself the title of “The Picasso of the Australian independent music industry” actually makes a lot of sense after listening to and indeed watching the video for the brilliantly titled Fishing Line 1000 Miles Deep. His musical paints are a blend of instruments from the expected to the unusual, his visuals are challenging and odd and his lyrics are deep, strange and thought provoking. I love this guy already! Isn’t this approach the whole point of doing anything creative in the first place. Why follow what has gone before when you can call the tune? Why do what people think they want when you can subvert their expectations? Why be predictable when you can build beguiling new worlds?
If you had to nail the music down you could go for indie, pop or folk and any combination of those that you care to make up, it throws in a bit of cosmic strangeness and is a great tune. But Fishing Line is a three pronged attack…a cool song is just the start, throw in some deep and possibly ambiguous lyrics and a video which sets up a whole different tangent to the meanings and you have a package of creativity of the highest order.
It is worth noting that the song is taken from an album called Arctic Tundra, a suite of songs which seem to be based around the places and peoples, hardship and happiness, ice and intrigue to be found in those northern climes. Lyrically Fishing Line…is about exactly what the title suggests, with a bit of existential thought, star gazing wonderment and pondering on the hidden depths below thrown in for good measure.
But then the video makes us wonder how much of that is analogy and how much is to be taken at face value. Scary clowns wandering the forgotten roads and abandoned places of their former lives, seems to be at odds with the lyrics and the juxtaposition between the face value and the hidden meaning is what is going to keep you awake at night trying to make the connection.
And that is the brilliant think about Fishing Line 1000 Miles Deep and StrangeJuice in generally. The ability to wrap ideas inside other thoughts, to offer enigmatic oddities instead of giving people what they want, to explore numerous ideas simultaneously, to have music, words and visuals colliding, blending and then heading off down their own agendas again. Isn’t that what it should be about? Do you want the world explained to you or are you more intrigued by its mystery? Is contentment always better than mild confusion? Why have answers when you don’t really know what the question is? Please put your enquiries on a post card and address it them StrangeJuice!
If some music is created with the intention of being right in the listeners face and some designed to be purely background music, then Paul Littlewood’s latest release is a whole new concept, a song which somehow does both. Today is a bit like a mesmerising landscape, something which is far away yet so beguiling that it fills your consciousness, untouchable but impossible to ignore. It’s a clever balance of bucolic pop, all hazy musical swirls and blurred sonic edges, yet hangs in the air cocooning the listener, unobtrusive and yet ubiquitous.
The back story is as wonderful as that of any modern song, inspired by some found cassette tapes which turned out to be long forgotten audio letters between a New York based couple and their UK parents. It was the honesty of the idea of music as intimate conversation, of open communication between loved ones that changed the way Paul Littlewood approached song writing and explains the raw emotion and heart on sleeve approach to the song.
Musically Today is built on hazy indie-folk which toys with words like fey and twee but deftly avoids such undermining connotations by virtue of being anchored to more robust pop structures, and ends up closer to such iconic bands as Sparklehorse, Grandaddy and even Elliot Smith. It comes accompanied by Television, a more vibrant song which drives heavier on the guitar lines and pulsing bass flow but for all its energy is kept in the ball park by Paul’s understated vocal and the chiming charm that balances out the more exuberant sonic displays.
This is pop painted in watercolour rather than the heavy handed, over applied oils of the big industry way of working. There is something wonderfully heartfelt about the lyrics, a real English, tea drinking, breezy, over the garden fence chat sort of vibe, rather than the usual self-aggrandising, cooler than thou rubbish that has become the norm. Maybe it takes a lad from Yorkshire to capture all of that in two and a half minutes!
I didn’t realise people still made albums like this, but I’m damned glad that they do. Well, that John Johanna does anyway. Even before you immerse yourself in the music you encounter a mercurial air that hangs above its sonic presence, one that swirls with the sparse lo-fi technology of studios past and a feeling that this is all about the music rather than any gimmickry or unnecessary polish. I’m not saying that it is in any way scrappy or unpolished, I’m saying that it doesn’t need to be and doing so would probably detract from the purity of the music rather than bring anything useful to the table.
Musical it wanters between 60’s psyched out pop and acid folk and the modern era’s indie bands who have completed the circle and revisited those times as a reaction to the corporate commerciality of the modern industry. But apart from the music it also wanders further back in time in spirit too. If musically you can place the sound it in a small basement club in Ladbroke Grove courtesy of an enlightened but brooding promoter fed up with the hippy-dippyism of the Summer of Love going on outside, pull at its threads and it takes you back even further in time. Bound takes in remembered conversations about Promethean mythology and World Unknown is centred around 18th century theological writings. Neither does it limit itself to purely western ideas, Knowledge and Power, Nathaniel in particular grooving on an Indian raga.
It is an exploratory album, one which heads off in so many directions, into academia, non-western musicality, spirituality and any number of ideas which see east and west, occident and orient, clashing in a wonderfully creative way. Combining the folk delicacy of Nick Drake, the soaring delivery of Jeff Buckley and the outsider thought process of Tom Waits, I’m happy to report that he rarely sounds like any of those. In fact it only ever sounds like John Johanna, which is as it should be.
Ahead of his forthcoming album, Worth, due out early February, The Sad Song Co. aka Nigel Powell has released a brilliant animated lyric video for the track What You make of It, which is also available as a free download if you pre-order the album.
As part of a number of influential and original bands Frank Turner And The Sleeping Souls, Unbelievable Truth, Dive Dive, Nigel has been part of wave of cultish bands which have broken through to mainstream success but his most intimate, poignant and thought provoking creative outlet can be found in this solo musical vehicle.
And live, the sparseness and intimate nature of the songs will be on show to their full extent as The Sad Song Co. live show filters Nigel’s songs down to their core. With only himself, and occasional help from long-term collaborator Jason Moulster, each show reveals the depth of songwriting without the churning sands atop the root of the songs. It also allows us to enjoy the warm charm of their creator, who remains modest throughout.
Nigel says: “It’s always interesting playing live because while I love producing records, this strips things down and gets to the heart of the songs.The new songs especially have many layers and it’s educational to peel them back and find what’s driving it all underneath.
It’s also terrifying! I play hundreds of gigs every year as a drummer – confident in my abilities – but put me up front and it’s far more nerve-racking.”
See Nigel play at the following dates:
18th Tunbridge Wells – The Forum (supporting Frank Turner)
7th Manchester – The Castle (w/ El Morgan And The Divers)
10th Aldershot – The West End Centre
11th Southampton – Joiners
13th Nottingham – Bodega
14th Bristol – Exchange
15th London – Thousand Island
16th Devizes – The Lamb
17th Oxford – Museum Of Modern Art
18th Tunbridge Wells – The Forum Basement @ The Sussex Arms
Tickets are £6.50 adv / £7.50 on the door, except London which is £8.50 adv / £10.50 on the door.
Just as music should only really fall into two categories, good and bad, so band names also have a similar binary existence. There are some great band names, ones that tell you all you need to know before you have even heard the first note, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Dr Feelgood. Similarly their has been some atrocious ones…Spandau Ballet, Yes, 4 Non Blondes and the ridiculous Does It Offend You Yeah? which is barely even an actual sentence. Faeland sites firmly in the former category, in fact for the music contained within this debut album it is pretty much perfect.
Such a name conjures images of luscious and gentle folk music, music that wanders through the genres traditional themes of love and longing, myth and magic, the existential and the earthly. This Bristolian duo is heir to the likes of Nick Drake and Anne Briggs but theirs is not an exclusively English idyl and the New World sonic threads which also run through the album also evoke people like Joni Mitchell and more modern acts from Bon Iver to the harmonious haze of Sweden’s First Aid Kit.
The simple but effective Prayer Song is a wonderful slice of cosmic Americana, Train wanders down some dusty country tracks and the titular offering is the most wonderful slice of lilting Old World folk. There are nods to the past in The Chantress and To The Green and the wonderfully accessible pop-roots swirl of We’re Just A Love Song shows the way forward as well.
Sometimes keeping it simple makes things more powerful and although the core duo of Rebecca Nelson and Jacob Morrison have surrounded themselves with an impressive cast of musicians, they haven’t lost the art of understatement. As the other players thread majestic harp and emotive clarinet, wandering violin, dark cello washes and much more besides through the songs, each is given space to flourish, explore and gently colour the songs without dominating or showboating.
This is an album of subtleties and understatement, of deftly and lightly woven musical threads and whilst it tips its hat very openly to European folk traditions it is also worldly and often otherworldly. It is probably a bit premature to start compiling top albums of 2018, but ask me again in 12 months time and if this is not way up the list then it will have been an unimaginably spectacular year for music.
Listening to an album in a language that you are not fluent in (I’m English, most of us barely have a handle on our own language let alone those of our neighbours) is a bit like watching a subtitled film. For just as then you have the translation running along the bottom of the screen, a good songwriter can use music in the same way. I may not be able to exactly translate the meaning behind the song but the music translates it into emotions, feelings, highs and lows, energy, passion and melancholia as directed. And whereas language is limited by the number of words available, music can be used in far wider variety of ways and so when it comes to communicating with the heart, and indeed the soul, music is a much more eloquent form. And Alessio Bondi is master of that language.
Sfrado is a collection of songs exploring the artists life, both as a child growing up in Sicily and as an adult discovering the romances and relationships of his adult life. Musically it also covers a lot of ground too, wandering from funky brass driven boogies such as Vucciria to the lilting latin folk-pop of Di Cu Si to the more traditional Mediterranean guitar sounds of Wild Rosalia and the wonderfully named Un Pisci Rinta A To Panza, A Fish In Your Belly!
Sfardo is a heady blend of the personal and the universal, of local sounds and global sonic adventures, of childhood innocence and more worldly concerns. But more than that it is a beautiful album and if the music alone is enough to make me appreciate its breath-taking and heart-breaking appeal, those who are fluent with his Sicilian words and sun-kissed tales are in for a real treat.
Instead of reaching for meaningless industry jargon, labels such as alt-folk, anti-folk or the strangest of them all post-folk, Garnet Dusk could be better described as “what folk did next.” For folk is certainly what is being channelled here but it does so using an indie and occasionally even pop conduit and it seems unaware of time or fashion and works at its own pace. There is something remarkably unshowy, something intrinsically clever and something cleverly poetic roted in the DNA of the album as it slides gently from the more traditional folkiness of opener Autumn Song to the Morrisey-esque chamber pop of I Never Saw Her Again to the slightly fey Postcard Records indie of Yeasty March.
But the real charm of the record is the restraint of the music itself. Indeed where many would underline their point with musical bombast and forced crescendo, more often that not Conti prefers to underplay the hand and the record is all the better for it, light and life affirming above all. Blazing Lair has a wonderful play with dynamics, opening with a Mariarchi blast and switching between beat driven indie-pop and bucolic acoustic interludes and the fantastically named Of Nylon weaves latin grooves through a 60’s vibe.
For an album which initially seems so understated, constant re-spins, and believe me you won’t be able to help yourself, reveals a set of songs which whilst seeming happy to run along reserved and simple lines are in fact brilliantly intricate and expertly layered. Those who shout loudest usually have the least to say, I should know, I have reviewed enough rock albums in my time, but this is an album with plenty to say both lyrically and musically. As is usually the case with such artists Claudio Conti is happy to wait until the listener gets it, lets them come to him and explore those deep and rich musical waters on their own terms. He also knows that once they do so, there will be no going back.
Sitting somewhere between the relative conformity of Simon and Garfunkel and the increasingly meandering and distant haze of Nick Drake, Breathe Less is the perfect blend of minimalism and structure. There is just enough of a musical safety net in place, one built from sonorous, sweeping cellos, and gently chiming guitars, which ensures that the gossamer vocal threads don’t drift away on the breeze. It is an approach which Damien Rice used to put himself on the map and whilst, on paper at least, it seems like a simple approach, there are few other artists of recent times, except perhaps Bon Iver, who navigate such calm waters whilst creating so few ripples.
It is a song which feels as weightless in its musicality as it is heavy in its heart-aching sentiment, just the sound of a man with his guitar and his memories yet somehow sitting in the space between musical expression and private rumination, exposing regrets without relinquishing them. It is this balance between the public song and the private thought that makes this emotional exorcism even more intense for being so tentative.
Cosmic folk-pop. Is that a thing? Well, if not, let’s make it a thing, after all we need a suitable category to put The Raft in, so why not that? As Phil Wilson and his associates go about their business of making this fantastic and somehow quintessentially English music, you wonder why The Raft aren’t a bigger deal. After all in an entertainment scene which includes Robin Thicke and Storage Hunters there must be room for music this gorgeous.
And gorgeous is indeed the word, Claire O’Neil’s vocals alone would be enough to warrant it’s use but the sumptuous, shimmering music which carries it along has me thinking that there might even be a better word…it’ll come to me.
Musically this pairing of songs, (didn’t we use to call that a single?) is built on hazy indie-folk which toys with words like fey and twee but deftly avoids such undermining connotations by virtue of being anchored to more robust pop structures, and ends up closer to such iconic bands as The Sundays and even Talk Talk. It is pop painted in watercolour rather than the heavy handed, over applied oils of the big industry way of working. There is something wonderfully parochial about the lyrics, a real English, tea drinking, breezy, over the garden fence chat sort of vibe, rather than the usual self-aggrandising, cooler than thou rubbish that has become the norm.
There may be a lot going on here which reminds me of some of the glory days of my formative musical years but everything is cyclical and as a way forward for alternative pop music, I’m all in.
Transcendent, that’s the word I was looking for.