April 18, 2017
THE ESSENTIAL HIP-HOP REVUE
Words: Matt Oliver
Amidst the debate whether you’re pro-playlist Drake or give a damn about Kendrick, this is the real hip-hop bombshell. To quote Chris Rock: “love rap & hip-hop – tired of defending it”.
Within the ever turning reissue market and with the bun fight of Record Store Day upon us, some re-ups you may wanna check. Slick Rick’s ‘Children’s Story’ is now logically an illustrated volume for bedtime, Blockhead’s ‘Uncle Tony’s Colouring Book’ gets a reboot on wax, and DOOM & Danger Mouse’s ‘DANGERDOOM’ goes deluxe. More bizarre (and Rapture & Verse had to check it wasn’t April 1st), is the new Raekwon album that can be worn as a backpack, where the audio kind of works as a rumble pack for your body. True story.
IAMBENJI’s instrumental righteousness summons a headbanging vision of ‘Jesus Walks’ with ‘Its You’, chopping exultant soul into pulpit pressure: a true four minute warning. Korede’s ‘Humble Beginnings’, a smart mini-expo showing what he’s made for J-Live, has got a chunky drum-n-groove jangle to it like heavy jewellery. An impressive half dozen hangout between Juga-Naut and Micall Parknsun lobs ‘Six Bricks’, with Cappo and Scorzayzee adding extra mortar to a fortress built in Nottingham and with a strict policy on the fundamentals. The highly strung Smellington Piff and Sean Peng take solace under ‘Purple Trees’ in a bid to divert jazz cat, beret and goatee vibes, and the champion sound of Mongrels’ ‘Attack the Monolith’ is now an awesome remix movement. The ‘Attack the Megalith’ EP beams a bat signal to a big time octet, including Hashfinger sliding over a cop car bonnet and Third Person Lurkin going a grim-reapin’, to transform the Yorkshire supernovas second time around.
CunninLynguists’ fine ‘The Rose’ EP gets the barricade rocking with soul-stirring open letters eloquently asking questions and patiently waiting for answers. Aiming to make a difference as much as it whispers to bask in the sun, Maurice Brown & Talib Kweli’s ‘Stand Up’ is the epitome of peaceful protest, and something of a nice dilemma to have. Killa Kyleon’s well executed ‘Killing Over Jays’ is a nifty two-way that’s both cautionary tale and industry/cultural call out, to an oxymoron of smoothed out, box fresh trap. ‘Alone by Choice’ but with plenty to offer, Jango gives you a seven track pick n mix of sharp trap and plush roll outs with the flow to match; a GQ EP pretty much pinpointing what your ears need as and when.
Should you heed the call of Raekwon’s ‘The Wild?’ It’s not a bad shout, showing something close to vintage Wu-gambinoism, open to the conceptual (‘Marvin’, a fine biopic of Marvin Gaye with Cee-Lo; some alphabet aerobics alongside P.U.R.E.), and cajoling Lil Wayne into a decent verse for ‘My Corner’. The huntsman mentality pulls the album over the line just when the glossy crossovers airing his dirty Gucci laundry in public threaten to nullify the threat.
In a way the same can be said for Joey Bada$$’ ‘All-Amerikkkan Bada$$’, whose clear and effective state of the nation addresses come presented in funk and soul pageantry aiming for Chance the Rapper’s all rounder status. The appeal of the supple, easygoing beats, polished hooks and timely gathering together of everyone is obvious (2pac comparisons come easy as well), though it’s an album that settles into a groove and perhaps at times isn’t quite as hungry as the subject matter would welcome. Nonetheless, Bada$$’ development makes him a candidate for end of year honours.
Turntable ringmasters Boca45 and DJ Woody saddle up into the sunset again on ‘Carousel’, where you must be this fly to join the ride. In a myriad of needles, spins and samples, BluRum13 threatening to steal the show as mic anchor, breaks needing another belt notch, and energetic fun (not forgetting the obligatory electro pop-n-lock), technique and entertainment takes lesser DJs to clown school when these two go back to back. BocaWoody boss the big top like Barnum.
Indiana’s irresistible force Freddie Gibbs is someone not for dislodging. Like a Bond villain who doesn’t know what a P45 is, ‘You Only Live 2wice’ does grim low riding, lord praising, quiet storming and do-or-die roulette spinning, all the while Gibbs reads the gangsta gospel slash riot act with that swerveless flow of his going all in. At eight tracks long you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s left a lot in the locker, but it’s a pretty comprehensive, fluid body of work.
Renowned rhyme brawler Apathy cuts the mic adrift and goes instrumental for ‘Dive Medicine: Chapter One’, displaying sonic skills well in tune with his usual vocal rips. Soulful but with plenty of punch, as if Apathy will look you straight in the eye before rattling your ribcage, the sleeve may suggest boom bap kitted out for submarines, but the likes of ‘Scuba Groupie’ and ‘Subterranean Meditation’ are happier chilling in a deckchair amidst a bunch of mean, street-ready flexes. Re-upping straight bat boom bap from social media’s olden days, Sraw’s ‘Beat Weeks’ is the Scandinavian timetabling instrumentals that go bump in the night, jazzy foot tappers over coffee, and wheezing whacks to the loaf. Nice enough to take some time with. The mind expansions of Frenchman Al’Tarba look at instrumentals through a prism mounted atop a plasma ball, ‘La Nuit Se Lève’ the score to a film only streaming in flashbacks you haven’t experienced yet, caught in a cold-veined tailspin with dubstep choking on its exhaust.
Wired between confessional and eccentric wisdom explaining ‘How to Fake Your Own Death’, backwater hip-hop from Ecid unfurls a slow and precise, me-against-everything scuzz of discomfort holding up a mirror to the world in a typical Midwest post-malaise. One to be passed around huddles of the disenfranchised. They should then transfer to the occult of A7PHA, Anticon messengers Doesone and Mestizo delivering a dense, walls-are-closing-in distortion of reality “releasing heat so hot it disinfects metal”, and whose silhouettes make the ponderous and rabid unnerving bedfellows, reaching a crescendo/crisis point. A collection so strictly underground it should come with its own canary, Copywrite and Planet Asia are naturally all about taking care of business with ‘Unfinished & Untitled’; forget the title, these are prizefighters in all their pomp.
With the reserved flow of an all-seeing shaman, Zaire Black stamps the passport of DJ Drez’ global trip of simmering colours on the studious ‘Aficionados’, making work a mismatch of a slight vocal reticence and rich, probing production (check ‘I Will I Want’ for its range of unlikely samples, though ‘That DJ’ goes a bit EDM loco). A collection of remixes for Lessondary’s top drawer ‘Ahead of Schedule’ will do just nicely: ‘RE:Scheduled’ has twangy funk and head nod high noons from Jamie Cooley, Donwill, Jermiside and ZFTP slipping nicely into a support role going toe-to-toe with the quality of the original. The smoothness of Brooklyn’s ScienZe orders ‘Kind of Dessert’ to go with the nightcap he’s suggesting you come up for; cosmopolitan swirls, boho brainstorming, neo-soul niceness and vibes that wake when they want before hitting the ground running. Still one of the game’s surest things when it comes to storytelling, Murs as ‘Captain California’ drops you slap bang in the middle of the action, as well as walking you through tales step by step with simple start-beginning-end structures. Buoyant beats help Murs’ Mills-n-Booning no end, and his show-n-prove still ain’t bad either.
Dishing out more mixtape pleasure, Donnie Propa goes to town on the play and record buttons for a second Masta Ace masterclass; a standard fix-up of classics, one-offs etc, ‘The Ace Tape volume 2’ won’t let a single beat, rhyme, cut or blend miss a step. A great DJ curates a great emcee.
Front and centre this month: Danny Brown’s must-see, Evidence’s latest weather report, The Last Skeptik going split-screen, and Bohze’s weekend attire.
April 13, 2017
Words: Ayfer Simms
Alasdair Roberts ‘Pangs’
We would dance around a flame to a convivial, festive and bustling horde some centuries ago, we would be amid a budding ardent party with a Celtic twist, we would have a sense of freedom, and jubilation, the kind that swept across the 60s, we would raise our hands and let the flowing, upbeat, melancholic songs of Alasdair Roberts guide us through the path of some ancient relief’s concoctions.
We would feel the pain, striking and sharp, brought upon by the fear of some eerie creatures lurking in the dark forest and we would find comfort in being hurdled together singing Alasdair’s airs.
We’d wield our hands remarkably close to the sparks of the heat, at the center of things, to signify the greatness of human bonds, we would hold some electric guitars and add an era to those ancient rhymes, we would follow the wind’s direction and let the vocal chords vibrate like Alasdair’s haunting whispers.
His music awakens some long forgotten practices, some exalted moments between individuals, such as weeping of joy and mourning together in front of the invisible great black wolves aura nagging our psyches. With this modern folk music, the world seems forever colossal and our hopes even more heightened.
NEW MUSIC REVIEWS ROUNDUP
Words: Dominic Valvona
Roll Call: The Black Angels, Anna Coogan, Cotton Wolf, Happyness, King Ayisoba, Lake, Alex Stolze, Swamp Sounds/Uncle Pop & The Dumbloods, Vassals, Andrew Wasylyk.
A mega edition of the regular tickling our fancy reviews roundup this month, before the Easter Break and the Monolith Cocktail’s week long sabbatical to Palermo, we take you on a whirlwind trip through some of the “choice” most recent and upcoming releases. Pleasantries aside. Let’s crack on…
King Ayisoba ‘1000 Can Die’
Glitterbeat Records, 31st March 2017
Sounding the klaxon call in defense of his native Ghana, and Africa at large, on his inaugural LP for Glitterbeat Records, the striking King Ayisoba, from the roots up, uses his guttural earthy howl and atavistic kologo lute to great effect in demonstrating not only a raw anger but also a deep love for a much misunderstood continent.
From the very outset Ayisoba and his contributors Wanlov da Kubolar & Big Gad – just two of the many guest appearances on this album – rap, sing and stamp a slogan sentiment on the opening Africa Needs Africa of, “Let’s fight for Africa/Africa needs us.” Covering the North African diaspora, the boat people’s sorry saga, the colonial past and umpteen other issues that more or less shape the image that those observers from outside the continent believe is the only side to Africa – between a misplaced sentimentality and outright ignorance. There is protestation and indictment, but also a lively focus on the positives too; finding solutions through the medium of music and culture.
Though Ayisoba advocates the “power of tradition” and the primal thrust of instrumentation is one passed down from generation to generation, 1000 Can Die features an eclectic and electric fusion of musical styles. The homegrown Ghanaian “hiplife” – a mix of rap, electronic beats and traditional rhythms – rubs up against ragga, dancehall and dub; a grandee doyen of which, the inimitable Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, appears postulating a herb-hazed wisdom on the album’s rustically plucked and enraged title track.
In-between the fiery, bordering on punk, clatter of guluku, dundun and Djembe drums and rambunctious electronic phasing beats there are more plaintive, yearning stripped-back moments: Grandfather Song, a toiled from the soil of tragedy lament, offers a more intimate knee-jerk from the full-on band sound, and Dapagara is sent off into a sweeping, wafting vista by the Nigerian legend Orlando Julius’ traversing, reedy accentuated saxophone.
Raw from the heart, highly evocative and rebellious, King Ayisoba’s songs of rage and vitality actually offer a kind of hope in the face of adversity. The future of Ghana’s music scene is in good hands at least.
The Black Angels ‘Death Song’
Partisan Records, 21st April 2017
If you were looking for a creative musical reaction to Trump and the anxious times we live in then The Black Angels beautiful apocalyptic melodrama, Death Song, must be one of the most anguished and daemonic of responses. The Austin psych-rocking overlords first album in four years was written and recorded during the miasma of the US elections after all: and doesn’t it show!
An emotionally charged despair and anger with moments of catharsis, carried out to a Byzantine flavored soundtrack of esoteric Amon Duul II and Far East Family Band psych, a vortex of 80s Goth inspirations – including The cult and Siouxsie and the Banshees – and the tolling chimes of doom and drone, Death Song is, as the title suggests, a heavy, but most excellent trip. It begins with one of the Angels heaviest productions yet; a dark arts pulsing bestial diatribe on the controlling influence of money, entitled Currency. From there we’re guided across choppy seas between brighter less cymbal crashing hypnotics and swaying macabre, through the metaphorical “killing fields” of the huntress (I’d Kill For Her); the enslaved intoxicant spell casting of enchantresses (Half Believing); and the upside down: the final Floyd and Amon Duul II-esque Orpheus-is-comfortably-numb-in-the-underworld opus, Life Song.
Brooding romantically in Gothic tragedy as the world continues to turn, undaunted by the prospects of universal uncertainty, The Black Angels spread their wings magnificently on what is, perhaps, one of their best albums yet. The leviathans of the psych-rock scene have learnt much and after a recording hiatus return with something sharper, refined but just as mystical and hallucinatory.
Anna Coogan ‘The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time’
28th April 2017
Not the easiest of bedfellows, difficult to love and often (rightly) condemned as indulgent and overblown, but the worlds of rock and opera do occasionally overlap in a congruous union. The unquestionably talented Anna Coogan for instance, mixes the two majestically, using her finely trained 3-octave soprano and classical background to offer fluttering siren-like arias that seem to surreptitiously manifest from, what is, an ever-changing metamorphosis of musical styles, on her latest album, The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time.
Spanning country, Ry Cooder desert meditations, Anna Calvi like trembled sensual emulations, PJ Harvey and even bubbly synth pop, Coogan together with musical collaborator Willie B – offering atmospheric Moog bass line undertones and drums – produce a wave (whether the gravitational kind, as serenaded and alluded to on the brilliant opening title track or, the metaphorical high seas kind, as referenced throughout) fixated lamenting and balletic travail.
Inspired by scientific discoveries, a “childhood listening to Puccini’s La Boheme”, the fateful poet Sylvia Plath, the tumultuous grave mistakes of intervention in the Middle East and, no surprises, the 2016 US elections Coogan’s ambitious suite of songs and instrumental evocations is far from lofty and classical. The operatic, learnt at the prestigious Mozarteum University of Salzburg, elements are transduced through a background of rifling through her father’s record collection of protest troubadours, and busking on the streets of Seattle, to leave only traces that appear naturally.
Occasionally rocking, most of the music has a cinematic more expansive touch, with three of the songs on this album originally composed to accompany the Soviet filmmaker Jakov Protazanov 1929 camp alien invasion/Russian revolution analogy Aelita, Queen Of Mars (the title track) and the French director Jean Epstein’s 1928 interruption of Poe’s classic, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (If You Were The Sun, A Wedding Vow).
Almost uninterrupted with each track flowing or bleeding over into the next, the album moves seamlessly between its musical and thematic influences. I could probably do without the romantic twinkled space helmet vocal synth pop Meteor, but overall this is an impressive performance, Coogan’s quivering wah wah and tremolo articulations matched equally by that heavenly, soaring voice.
Lake ‘Forever Or Never’
Tapete Records, April 7th 2017
Meant as anything but disingenuous, it’s surprising what the experimental pop group Lake get away with on their latest and eighth album, Forever Or Never. Remodeling an array of 70s/80s influences with a 21st century spin, they can turn some of the stalest MOR vaporous blue-eyed soul synth ballads and soft rock melodramas into something melodically enchanting but very poignant; analogies channeling the political and social maelstroms of our times, as most of the music coming out of the USA does in 2017.
Celebrating a recent tenth anniversary with perhaps the most exhaustive of performances, playing every song from their ninety-track back catalogue in an Herculean ten-hour set, Lake continue to submerge themselves in the Pacific Ocean Blue waters of nostalgia.
Finely attuned, lean and devoid of the superfluous, Forever Or Never is a mostly gentle, wistful breeze through yacht rock, Belle & Sebastian daydreaming romanticism, shoegaze and pop. Shared male/female vocals duties offer a constant variety that bears traces of Blonde Redhead, Harry Nilsson and The Pastels. And joining the betrothed founders Ashley Eriksson and Elijah Moore, and long-term band members Andrew Dorsett and Mark “Markly” Morrison before she passed away, the artist/musician Geneviève Castrée (for whom this album is dedicated) lent lush coos and backing vocals to the tumultuous Gone Against The Wind and bright, easy-going finale, Magazine.
Sometimes it’s like hearing Fleetwood Mac if they’d formed during the C86 phenomenon, and at other times, a strange transmutation of Captain & Tennille, and a vague stab at a post Sunflower Beach Boys jamming with Hall & Oates. Disarming and emotionally sophisticated throughout, with subtle, warm but diligent songwriting, Forever Or Never is a melody rich harmonious meditation on inner turmoil, forgiveness and mourning, that can’t help but also comment on the recent political landscape.
Alex Stolze ‘Mankind Animal’
Nonostar Records, 31st March 2017
Transforming the traditionally entrenched sound and indeed reputation of the violin, German composer/producer Alex Stolze attempts to reanimate the instrument, “preserving” it, as he states, “for future generations, without being a conservative classicist.”
No stranger to reinvention, recently performing radical deconstructions of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge with the Armida Quartet, at Berlin’s Radial System venue, Stolze has gained a certain exploratory reputation for his work with the electronica acts Bodi Bull and Unmap (amongst others).
Concentrating the mind, finding a certain solace, the Berlin urbane stalwart has relocated to the German/Polish borders for a more pastoral life of contemplation; spending time on rebuilding an old ruin in the countryside but focusing on the vision for his solo work. Nothing short of guiding humanity towards a less destructive, more empathetic spirituality, Stolze attempts to bridge classicism and contemporary amorphous electronic music on his debut solo record, Mankind Animal.
Less Roedelius neo-classical, or for that matter Tony Conrad Dream Syndicate, and more John Cale inspired viola distortions and that titan of the German avant-garde Stockhausen and his electronic processing of orchestral instrumentation, the five-track Mankind Animal suite is surprisingly fluid and melodic. Conceptual and avant-garde in influence certainly, but far from a grueling or challenging experience.
A chamber ensemble mix of electro-acoustics, ambient traverses and, at times, kinetic beat undulating soul, this pan-Europa soundtrack often evokes transmogrified traces of traditional scores and folkloric music from central and eastern Europe: The articulate plucks, quivers, wanes and yearnings that emanate from Stolze’s five-string custom-made violin often sounding a link back towards the past, and ghosts of an old continent. Tradition is very prominent, but an intricate bed of low synth, contained sophisticated beats and mechanics bring it into the present.
Over the top of this score, Stolze’s succinct campfire lyrics of profound prose make allusive references to the here and now though again these concerns are often age-old: from, “where to start if you want to change the system”, on the lyrical resigned meander through the universal condition The Crown, to the more personable inner sage advice of “don’t try to be someone else/otherwise who would be you”, on the opening Don’t Try To Be.
From the cinematic Eraser to the softened timpani minor-overture Stringent, Stolze and his ensemble produce a considered postmodernist suite, both experimental in merging the classical with the contemporary, and yet a pleasurable, even soulful and thoughtfully poised listening experience.
Joji Hirota & The London Taiko Drummers ‘Japanese Taiko’
ARC Music, 28th April 2017
One of Taiko drumming form’s most prestigious of stars of the last forty years, Joji Hirota cements his sizable reputation with this latest collection, simply named Japanese Taiko. Literally, as is the case with most of these direct from Japanese translations, the ancient style of Taiko itself means “big, fat drums”, (which you can’t really argue with) and on this album features a number of these drum shapes and sizes, from the smallest, a “uchiwa tom”, to the behemoth sized “oh daiko” (again, literally a “big drum” that measures 140cms in diameter).
Inspired by the volcano piqued hot springs landscape of his native Hokkaido – Japan’s most northerly of main islands – Hirota, who started training at the age of eleven, merges majestic traditions with a unique modern approach: He was after all among the first of the Taiko practitioners to bring the style to the West, and has more recently lent his music to the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s latest martyrdom, Silence. Together with his four male and eight female strong London ensemble the maestro thunderously rolls through Taiko’s folkloric, Noh theatre, Kabuki, Buddhist and Shinto religious ceremony origins with agility and at times entrancing aplomb.
Building up pattering rumble evocations of the Spring Breeze or, stroking the drum skins to an atavistic Japanese flute accompaniment in ritual to a Harvest god (Kokiriko), this dynamic, though often monotonous, chorus of drummers is surprisingly melodic. A barrage yes, but the drumming wall of sound is often elevated by poetic vocals – usually in chorus, though there is a strange mix of call and response staccato rapping on Akita – and subtle mood and tonal changes; from wood clapping to finger bells and cymbal swells.
To experience live is something else: a synchronized art form of music and theater. But this showcase of tradition and experimentation, with half the compositions written by the man himself, is a great introduction to the form.
Cotton Wolf ‘Life In Analogue’
Bubblewrap Collective, 28th April 2017
As technology’s ever-domineering progress takes over and algorithms creep into the creative process it’s a relief to see and hear that the Kraftwerkian dream of complete immersion between humans and machines, with all music created by a computerized brainiac, is still a long way off. And though by its very democratized nature and access electronic music is obviously wholly reliant on tech, which is getting ever cheaper and easier to use, there are many artists who wish to (and excuse my trite cliché) put the soul back into the machine. The Cotton Wolf Welsh duo of “super producer” Llion Robertson and classically trained composer Seb Goldfinch are among those, “living in the analogue”, who leave an indelible human mark on electronic music.
Their debut album is an often sophisticated, downtempo, merger of small, organic Leaf Label like synthetic drums and tight percussion and subtle atmospheric waves and suffused strings – part of the symphonic quality and melody the duo wish to emphasis. With guest vocals from the attentive soulful Alys Williams, on the gauzy veiled Lliwiau, and calm fluttering siren Lois Rogers, on the softened Massive Attack-esque Future Never, Cotton Wolf omit for a sense of performance and humility.
“Unapologetically” Welsh, Williams for example sings in the dialect, the duo is rightly proud of their heritage. And they are in some ways in the middle of a golden resurgence, with countless fellow Welsh electronic artists, from The Conformist to R. Seiliog and Gwenno Saunders to name just three, gaining critical attention and flying the flag. But, apart from the language, there isn’t a common identity in the music itself. There is no such thing as a “Wales sound” in the genre. Life In Analogue is if anything a global soundtrack, with traces as diverse as Kosmische, EDM, Bonobo and even mellowed South American electronica all under one roof.
More than a little classy, electronica with a human touch, Cotton Wolf weave the symphonic articulately into an album with depth but also commercial appeal.
Swamp Sounds/Uncle Pop & The Dumbloods ‘ST’
Bearsuit Records, 24th March 2017
A split offering from the Edinburgh label of idiosyncratic experimental sonics and more lo fi indie pop fare, Bearsuit Records bring us an incongruous curious pairing of, mainly, electronic music mavericks.
From further up the Scottish east coast, Dundee artist/musician Douglas Wallace, under the strange Uncle Pop & The Dumbloods appellation, has fashioned an imaginary Hondo City futuristic soundscape that bares little relation to the track titles. With a backing of trebly crisp electronic percussion, tetchy cymbals, clean crystalized synths and trans mutated guitar wails, Wallace’s science fiction travails make ephemeral references to Murcof, Bowie’s Heroes peregrinations, Ryuichi Sakamoto and the sort of 80s vapour ice-misty synth soundtrack fare you’d find on the video-nasty, Shogun Assassin. Reverent at times, primordial at others (check the lost world of Song For Broken Singers), ole Uncle Pop’s contribution is a subtle, meditative counterpoint to his album companion’s ennui flitting Casio car-crash bombardment.
Hailing from Nagoya, Japan, experimental electronic music artist and founder of Sleep Jam Records, Yuuya Kuno flirts with a number of aliases including House of Tapes but for this label and in this capacity goes under the Swamp Sounds moniker. Chopped-up into a loopy soundclash of Casio pre-set schlock and drama, Kuno’s 80s meltdown collage is both ridiculous and yet full of interesting surprises. Tracks such as Skull Disco feed Daft Punk through a dial-up connection and grinder, and Houndstooth sends Atari Teenage Riot to a laser quest showdown.
Run of the mill for Bearsuit, who constantly release such curiosities, but for us the listener these experiments prove intriguing; bringing to our attention some unique artists, working on the peripherals of sonic reinvention and cut-up mania.
Andrew Wasylyk ‘Themes From Buildings And Spaces’
Tape Club Records, 28th April 2017
The second artist in my roundup to hail from the fair city port of Dundee, musician/composer Andrew Mitchell (nee Wasylyk) pays a moving sort of homage to his home on Themes From Buildings And Spaces. With the onus on the psychogeography of the architecture in Scotland’s fourth-largest city, its history as the capital of Jute production features heavily as a recurring theme; the ghosts and lingering traces of Tayside mills and the people who worked the oppressive Industrial Revolution machinery within them making their presence known on the reflective Lower Dens Work.
Memories both haunting and meditative are made concrete, prompted by the iconic images of the late, “father of Scottish modern photography”, Joseph MacKenzie and a mix of architectural markers – only ever seen in Scotland – from across time: stoic granite beauty to hard-to-love Brutalism. The very evolution of Dundee, over eight instrumental evocations, is lent both a melancholic and romantic soundtrack of lapping piano tides, gentle swooning colliery jazz brass, synthesized choral voices and peaceable textures. Sounding unique, even pastoral at times, these suites conjure up a Caledonian Air, yet at other times errs towards the ether, conjuring up those old ghosts and spirits.
Andrew sheds a new light in many ways on Dundee with the most reflective of timeless scores.
Happyness ‘Write In’
Moshi Moshi, 7th April 2017
Ah…the sound of a band embracing the heartfelt warmth, accentuated dazed melodies and special feel of such 70s fare as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Big Star, Happyness evoke the hazy fond memories and subtle sophistication of these and other complimentary artists on their new album, Write In.
Having previously covered and absorbed tootsie roll Beach Boys idyllics and the Athens, Georgia college radio rock of the obscure Club Gaga on last year’s Tunnel Vision On Your Part EP – the title-track of which appears alongside the drowsy-sighed pop spankler Anna, Lisa Calls on this, the group’s second LP –, and often drawn favorable comparisons to Wilco and Pavement, Happyness find themselves liltingly tuning into a more eclectic array of influences for their most melodious, engaging songbook collection yet.
The opening Falling Down gambit, with its radiant phaser guitar, conjures up the Scottish indie supremos (and fellow Big Star acolytes) Teenage Fanclub, whilst the pastel-shaded saddened tone of The Reel Starts Again (Man As Ostrich) sounds like a lost, ghostly remnant of a George Harrison and Jeff Lynne malady. A touch of the Brighten The Corners era Pavement permeates the band’s weary slacker muffled Uptrend/Style Raids, but by the time we reach the halfway stage of the album the lads are back to thrashing out a languorous grunge-y grind on Bigger Glass Less Full.
Subtle and confident, Write In is a halcyon, beautifully executed album with real depth and personality. Happyness have found their flow with loose but perceptively well-crafted gentle pop songs of a timeless quality: to be played as the “credits roll forever”.
Vassals ‘Halogen Days EP’
Post Fun, 7th April 2017
You have Audio Antihero’s indefatigable Jamie Halliday to thank for dropping this EP from Brooklyn misfits Vassals onto my radar. The backing band of Audio Antihero signing Magana, the trio’s latest release bandies between, as the press release puts it, a sort of “bleak beauty” and “chaotic minimalism” that strays into “slacker-rock ambivalence” and “post-punk cynicism”. I can confirm all of that, but would like to add the following if I may.
There’s more than a touch of the new wave on Halogen Days quartet of power-pop and grungy-romanticism. The slacker and grunge elements made brighter and indolently tuneful for it.
A run through of the EP then: We have the pendulous drum and echoed vocals of the opener Sea Spells, which sounds like a young Glenn Tilbrook fronting The Yeah Yeah Yeahs; the Moonless (“night”) build up swell of crescendos that evokes the Tokyo Police Club and Wampire; and the return to the source of inspiration with traces of The Pixies and Dinosaur Jnr on the stumbling SoHo. The finale meanwhile, Ghostwood, traverses Pavement and The Strokes (when they were something), on a peaks and lulls, heavy and accentuate crafted N.Y.C. indie resigned anthem, that literally spirals and pounds away until lifting off.
Bright hopes indeed and nowhere near as petulant as you’d expect. There is amongst that cynicism and effortless sounding despondency some real thought and musicianship, the lyrics actually far more aching and heartfelt than they might admit.
Words: Dominic Valvona
Craig Finn ‘We All Want The Same Things’
Released by Partisan Records, March 24th 2017
Occupying a rich postmodern American literary landscape, channeling such celebrated chroniclers as Bruce Springsteen and Vic Chesnutt, former The Hold Steady, and prior to that Lifter Puller, front man Craig Finn has in more recent years carved out a career as a successful solo artist. In true Springsteen style, though with far less guttural bombast, Finn brings a certain levity and importance to the lives of America’s “ordinary folk”, building a highly erudite diorama to stage the unfolding, and to outsiders, the often inconsequential dramas that are acted out across the States on a daily cycle.
Continuing to pass time in philosophical angst and contemplative lament, frequenting the bars of Minneapolis, or, triggered by mourning, heading out on a road trip with no plan but finding a fleeting connection, Finn populates his latest album, We All Want The Same Things, with a cast, “all trying to help themselves, trying to move forward, and in some cases trying just to survive.” United in there, and of course our, basic needs, under the darkening clouds of a changing political landscape, the bluesy troubadour finds a poignant commonality between the characters in his songbook. Finn himself, in his most autobiographical allusion, uses his own experiences of feeling adrift in a world that “didn’t seem to have a lot of room for me” after returning to the “Twin Cities” of home from college in the mid 90s, on the melodically breezy but lived-in gnarled saloon lament, Prelude.
Subtly tapping into the “liberal” creative psyche of America, one that’s still in a state of shock, but also the so-called “blue collar” America that put Trump in the White House, Finn doesn’t so much point fingers or berate as reflect the resignation of a cast on the peripherals of society.
Enriched with the graceful subtle presence and soaring vocal harmonies of Caithlin De Marrais (former Rainer Maria vocalist) and singer/songwriter Annie Nero, the keys of Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim), swaddling and lifting horns maestro Stuart Bogie (Arcade Fire, Antibalas), and longtime contributor from The Hold Steady, guitarist Tad Kubler, the musical backdrop is a mix of rolling Warren Zevon piano psychodrama, bluesy rock’n’roll and Ashbury Park period E Street Band brass. A solid performance and assiduous edition to the modern American songbook, Finn’s third solo album shows a full-bodied, sagacious artist at his pinnacle.