Sunday, 24 August 2008

Port O Brien- 'All We Could Do Was Sing' (City Slang)

The rural pursuits are currently getting a good hearing in indie music. First we had the log cabin hermitage of Bon Iver & the distinctly agrarian feel of Fleet Foxes, and now we have the fisherman antics of Port O'Brien, featuring Alaskan salmon snaffler Van Pierszalowski and friends. What's next? Farmers making breakbeat? A jazz quintet of shepherds? No answers this end, but at least it's getting quieter in the city.

The album starts with a strong contender for album opener of the year, the relentlessly perky 'I Woke Up Today'. Guitars roll along, channeling other young upstarts of the summer Born Ruffians, vocals chanted like mantras.

Following the upbeat intro, things take on a downbeat hue on the next few songs. The nautical elements of the band's origins are brought out on 'Stuck On A Boat', which wins today's 'Ronseal award' for song topic displayed in title, although it is closely run with 'Fisherman's Son', where Van declares he's “doing fine in Alaska”. The ideas of following your family trade that feature in the song take on a sad hue, with the lyrics suggesting a desire for escape, but a hatred of the city. As he declares, “I can never win”.

The more the album plays on, the more the sombre songs take over. 'Don't Take My Advice' carries on the restlessness that inflicts Van, declaring he's “not ready to settle down”. Escape from fishing, escape from the city, the touring life of a rock n roll band seems perfect.

'Alive For Nothing' continues the despair, haunted dreams and depressed minds over cellos and strums. Seratonin seems to be popped for 'Eyes Won't Shut' with chiming acoustic guitars and handclaps , but it's deceptive, with lyrics focusing on relaxing, Van finally settling to “waste this lazy afternoon”.

Then, suddenly, things get stormy. A squall of guitars thrash over the end of 'Pigeonhold', the quiet revelry of the first half of the album replaced with noise and rock. It's out of context like a polar bear in Woolworths buying pick 'n mix, but it makes a brilliant sea change. (Did you see what I did there?)

'The Rooftop Song' has a whirling country strut, before again throwing in duelling guitars before a slow calm fade out, that leads well in to the country vibes of 'In Vino Veritas', a slow burning beauty,

Put me on a boat and cut the line”, Van declares at the beginning of 'Close The Lid' as the song crescendos outwards, instruments added into the sonic blender one by one. The album fades out with the lo fi crackle of 'Valdez', leaving us with a wonderfully understated album that leaves you with a salty tear in your eye at its folky wonder.

Minotaur Shock- 'Amateur Dramatics' (4AD)

Sort of following the lauded/lambasted Radiohead concept, fans of Minotaur Shock pay a varying price for each track of this album, depending on difficulty, fun, whether it made his computer crash and how many extra musicians, amongst others. Attention grabbing. Tick. Clever. Tick. Going to stop kids downloading. Cross. Sad really, because this album deserves the money.

'Zookeeper' starts off with an out of kilter piano, adds cello and some drums, then puts more instrumentation over the top, before returning yet again to the piano run, like a dog back to its vomit. Except not, cos it's brilliant.

'Am Dram' carries on the odd electronic feel of the album. Handclaps rub along with a churning synth which rubs along with woodwind playing out the melody. The electronic elements start to take over on 'This Plane Is Going To Fall', gradually replacing the human with the machine, burbles and whirrs erasing the natural. Disembodied voices make their first and only appearance, ghosts in the machine.

The human has been completely erased by 'Jason Forrest', where clashing keyboards create the most danceable moments of the record, bass heavy and flowing. It sounds like a rave up in a club decorated with branches and leaves, a rainforest atmosphere. The pace is disorientatingly slowed on 'Two Magpies', as woozy beeps shiver into fading violins, all melancholic and cute.

Patrick Wolf is almost channeled on 'My Burr', his technicolour dress sense just visible behind the keyboard gurgle and descending strings. 'BATS' sounds the only downpoint of the record, a dirty beat meandering for far too long, with the melodies that dominate through the circuit boards forgotten temporarily.

'Snapdragon' then throws the creeps and the night horrors onto record, slightly off key pianos and spooky strings, shifting tempos and an eerie overlay of static. It's enough to make someone scared in the middle of the day, in a room full of people, let alone at night in a foggy village.

'Buzzards' does not sound like the birds of prey of its title, and more like motorway driving, Kraftwerk like. The pushing drums and trumpet stabs create a feeling of motion and isolation, and the track works brilliantly.

Album close 'Beekeeper' is slippy slidey, moving from electronics into entwining snakes of chimes and strings and trumpets before it all comes into focus, a gorgeous layered image. 'Amateur Dramatics' is great, an album that has a heart under its metal skin, strings and brass mixing with synths and computers to create deliriously danceable ditties.

Grammatics- 'New Franchise' (Dance To The Radio)

Apparently Grammatics are opening a 'New Franchise.' So says the first line anyway. What is the new franchise? Subway? Some novel Dragons Den product like cheese slippers? Shimmery complex pop songs? The latter seems the most likely, based on the evidence here.

Pieces build up, cellos layered over propulsive drumming, synth noises, vocal layers. It topples over at the end into plain vocals and then it's gone. It is brilliant in places, layers meshing together in perfect unity.

The problem is that something about this song just doesn't seem to gel to these ears. The parts are all lovely, things go tinkle in the night, pianos create a slightly eerie atmosphere, like an empty city covered in rain, but somehow it doesn't quite work together. The engine is nearly assembled, it's just missing a few pieces. It keeps switching gears when it's not quite ready. (To stretch the metaphor further) bit more time in the garage needed.

Birdpen- 'Breaking Precedent EP' (Believe)

Don't keep birds in a pen. Waste of time. Like herding cats. They'll just fly out of a pen. Unless they're emus. But who keeps emus? Wittering aside, first track 'Breaking Precedent' sounds a lot like Interpol. An awful lot like 'em. Someone probably will (not) sue, but it's good none the less. It has that slightly quivered moody vocal, and the dark guitars. It also bears hints of the National, speckled over its feathers.

'Machines Live Like Ordinary People' changes the mood. Industrial beats come in, and in a clever 'look at us we're referencing the title in the style of music' (or vice versa) way heavy synths whizz in the chorus. Sci fi doom hangs over your head. It's a bit pompous, and a little bit silly.

The seriousness returns on 'Man The Thinker', which has a rolling piano and sound effects rolling over the top. Once it gets going it has a vague funky feel, incongruous like someone in rainbow tie dye watching Editors, but it just about works. 'Implode And Fold' has a kind of lazy majesty about it, a gentle strut in its strumming, piano and whirrs.

It now comes time to make a pun about setting these birds free. But we won't (or we just did) and leave it that this EP makes promises of gradeur, and largely keeps them, bar stupid tracks about machines. Its beautifully mellow indie, like Elbow, but Elbow if they forgot to take their prozac, or saw a puppy get run over.

Micachu- 'Golden Phone' (11/8/08 Accidental Records)

Micachu is a name that cannot fail to conjure images of a small yellow furry head of a major marketing machine. (This is your 2 second weak pun alert) No, not Paris Hilton, silly! We're talking Pokemon, obviously. But that

The elements of 'Golden Phone' are simple. A few note guitar riff. Disco handclaps. Broken synth runs. A few percussion rattles. The Lego pieces build into a tower of glee, slightly twee and danceable, before toppling down in synth reverb. It's brilliant, a promising note of differentness in British music.

The B side 'Turn Me Weller' sees some Henry the Hoover abuse (which a visit to one of the groups gigs will have confirmed. Someone start a campaign. Get Judith Chalmers involved. Perfect) Besides the domestic appliance innovation, the song mixes the tired sounding vocals with the elements of the first to make a stuttering electronic pop song. Almost as cute as the namesake, but much less, much much less, annoying.

Asilentfilm- 'You Will Leave A Mark' (Xtra Mile Recordings)

The title 'You Will Leave A Mark' sounds like a squawked admonishment from a mean aunt, as you place your glass of orange squash directly onto her mahogany side table. Yet the track couldn't be further from this pettiness.

It aims at epic indie, with its rifle loaded with bullets of pianos and driving guitars. The target is missed. 'You Will Leave A Mark' (fortunately) manages the trick of sounding both happy and grand, a difficult task, admirably conquered. The epic is missed, but is replaced by a pulsing beat, the music forced forward with urgency.

The main weakness, like a rusted joint in a steel girder tower is the vocals, which, although perfectly in tune, seem incapable of emotion, a distant father. The spiralling pianos are bleating out for some passion to overlay their keenness. The production, however, is great, the texture perfectly balanced on a track that has promise spilling over the brim like champagne bubbles.


James Yuill- 'No Pins Allowed' (Moshi Moshi)

'No Pins Allowed'. Hmmm. Why the pin hatred. The little metal pin is so useful. Securing notices to trees, lost kittens can be found again, notices of your gigs, YOUR gigs James Yuill, can be pinned on top of layer upon layer of older gig notices.

On 'No Pins Allowed' goes for the Patrick Wolf route of covering a simple guitar part with a layer of synth fuzz and backing with drum machine buzz, but ends up at the more downtempo Postal Service, before spazzing away on it's own bleeps.

Is it ever a good idea to cover Radiohead? The answer still remains 'no'. When the band in question has already made the perfect version, then trying to turn the brilliant 'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box' into some kind of uplifting disco remix just does not work. That James Yuill sounds a bit like Chad Kroeger if he had a few Strepsils makes it even more off putting.

If you like your pop wrapped in fluff and pink, then 'Breathing In' will suit you. To call it boring is akin to calling a cyclone a breeze. This is a tornado of tedium, a song so gentle that it falls over with a slight nudge, its face ground into the dust and dirt. The inconsistency demonstrated is worrying- 'No Pins Allowed' is good, but the rest make you weep all over your speakers.

The Dodos- 'Visiter' (Wichita 14/7/08)

SXSW is the event that probably bears most influence over what happens in indie music for the next 6 or so months, arguably the whole year. Tastemakers suddenly discover a tour bus full of skinny white boys to spit hyperbole over. Sometimes it all comes too soon (my finger is pointing at you, Black Kids) but here the Dodos are, trying to prove that they deserve the words flung their way.

'Visiter' starts gently, with 'Walking' a simple folky song, backed by a wheeling banjo line. It bears little resemblance to the track that follows, as the Dodos channel 'Feels' era Animal Collective into 'Red and Purple' as a clatter of guitars and percussion build up. These contrast perfectly with the smooth vocals, and the plink plonk of glockenspiels that filter through. Combining inventiveness with pure melody makes for a great track, and a grand statement of intent.

'Fools' channels the zeitgeist by sounding a fair bit like Fleet Foxes, but with less of the laconic, and more energy, with a scratchy guitar solo. A melancholy note is lulled on 'Joe's Waltz', all downtempo guitars and sombre vocals about having “no more patience”. It's quietly devastating.

The inevitable weak song comes from tracklisting more than anything. Following the majesty of lost love paean 'Winter' with 'It's That Time Again' fails. Massively. The tragedy of lines like “your love was such a heavy, heavy blow” is followed by the weakly funny line of “it's that time again, you want to leave”.

'Paint The Rust' finds the band channeling some delta blues spirit, with razored guitar lines battling thumped drumbeats, with the chameleon spirit further evidenced with 'Park Song', a sparse oscillating guitar line and almost spoken vocals.

A certain guitar rhythm, uniquely of the band, dominates, and is to the fore on 'Ashley', a song of longing and dreaming of the girl of the title. The album, perhaps, goes on a little long, and would have benefited from having a surgical amputation of a few tracks. The themes of love, loss and desire that run through the album are epitomised near the end on 'Undeclared', am acoustic lament.

In summing up, do we fall into the trap of making some dodgy pun based in the extinct nature of the bird they reference, an elephant trap most have fallen through? No. 'Visiter' is a great album, flitting styles like bees from flower to flower, gathering sweet (musical) nectar. The Dodos. Are. Pretty. Darn. Good.

Sneaky Sound System- 'Pictures' (Whack)

Sneaky Sound System are the soundtrack to a thousand night clubs. The lad who's scrubbed up for the weekend, stripy shirt undone to the chest. Black shoes polished. Hair gelled into an attractive spiky arrangement. He's making his move. He's looking his intended up and down with a 'sexy' leer.

This is the sound playing in the background. Bleeps, disco guitar, some women blathering on about some extended 'picture/projector' metaphor for sex and a synth buzzing away. It is every bad dance tune ever. It is awful.

With all the exciting things going on in dance music- Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, The Knife, The Go! Team etc etc etc you would have though that this kind of rhubarb had scraped the barrel into non existence by the end of the 90s. But, here we are, with Sneaky Sound System adding their rubbish to the bonfire.

Are you a fan of I-beee-faaa? Do you like foam parties? Sex with randoms? 'Pictures' may well be the soundtrack to your summer. The best summer ever ever ever. For the rest of us, who can identify the aural abomination this is will just slowly weep into our cornflakes, soaking our faces in the orange mush.

'Boys And Girls In America' blasted the Hold Steady into stratospheric blog hype, many charmed by the Kerouac referencing lyrics and classic rock bluster. Some remained unconvinced, feeling the lacking in the music to be unduly overshadowed by the lyrics. School report says “room for improvement”.

The album gets off to an inauspicious start. 'Constructive Summer' and 'Sequestered In Memphis' both continue the boring bluster of 'Boys And Girls...' In these post modern times you'd think that the wheezing 80s dinosaurs of rock would bear no relevance any more.

Their (welcome) experimentation with different styles is finally demonstrated on 'One For The Cutters', which rolls along on its harpsichord bed, before pianos meld in. It shows where the band could go if they didn't rely on their tiresome blasting guitars. Drama fills the chords, as instruments stack up into a song that shows the progress since the last album. The more diverse instrumentation is continued on 'Navy Sheers', with synths deployed to great effect, sounding not unlike wurlitzers.

The tone is rapidly lowered with 'Lord I'm Discouraged', a track that scores a distinct 'D' for melody, a mid paced exercise in muscial sedation. The guitar solo vomits up the worst excesses of 80s fretwork. If it was a parody it would be funny. But it's not. You can imagine the guitarist pulling earnest orgasm faces in its particularly fiddly bits. It undoes all the good work done earlier in the album.

Too many of the tracks work on the 'let's build the track to a loud conclusion' principle. That's you, 'Constructive Summer'. That's you, 'Yeah Sapphire'. 'Both Crosses' creates a kind of desert blues feel, adding banjos and Bible references into the mix. It shows that when the Hold Steady reign themselves in a bit, the music can breathe properly, no longer strangled by Hammond and guitars.

Saying that, 'Stay Positive' manages to show, when they try the Hold Steady can rock, sometimes. Organ, guitar, vocals and backing come together better than they do anywhere else on the album. Another weak link in the fragile chain is added in 'Magazines', a track that goes nowhere, filler as horrible as crab paste.

Final track 'Slapped Across' also succeeds in reaching epicness without descending into power rock cheesiness. The production sounds muddy but the fade out into choral ending works well.

The problem with The Hold Steady was that, bar the lyrics, were they any more than a glorified pub rock band? The greatness of the lyrics has been overhyped, like any thing which gets the attention of over enthusiastic teenagers with internet access. Craig Finn is good, but he's no Yoni Wolf. The music, however, is much improved, a wider selection of instruments grabbed out the music cupboard. Unfortunately it doesn't always come off right on 'Stay Positive', leading to an inconsistent mixed bag of an album. Plenty of jelly babies, but the odd aniseed ball thrown in to ruin things.