Album Reviews

August & September 2013

major arcana

Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana


Released: 8th July 2013


Speedy Ortiz are relative new kids on the block, having only evolved from singer/guitarist Sadie Dupuis's solo project in 2011, but they are rapidly becoming the leading exponents of that particular brand of indie guitar pop that is quintessentially American, and quite possibly quintessentially New English, consisting of resigned, deliberate vocals narrating often abrasive tales to the accompaniment of rummaging guitars, blasts of noise and the odd racheting solo. Last year's five-track Sports EP marked the band out as one to watch and now Dupuis, Matt Robidoux (guitar), Darl Ferm (bass) and Mike Falcone (drums) have presented their debut album proper, ten tracks over thirty-four minutes, which only serves to underline that potential. Musically, like Massachusetts predecessors The Blake Babies, the guitars leap from the simple to the forceful, with plenty of quirky touches in between from stuttering progressions and random squeals to extraordinarily detached notes that slap you round the face as they emerge from the speakers. All this provides the dressing for Dupuis's relatively unaffected vocals. There's plenty of resignation here, some obvious distaste, but not a lot of emotion; it's as if she can't be arsed to get out of the way of bad situations in spite of her disinclinations and takes life's pitfalls as they come because it's too much effort to walk around them. "Don't even care if they take my legs," she declares in 'Tiger Tank', "I've limped before, I could limp again." "I wanna be with somebody just like me," she affirms in the blistering 'Cash Cab', "Someone who laughs at a crashed car rental, someone who hurts in an accident." But it isn't all darkness here, with 'Casper' a rare beacon of positivity and light, rejoicing in how unbearable pain from the past can fade away in the warmth of new love, and adorned with a lovely, bristling guitar break just before its heartfelt conclusion. Light and dark here, then, appropriately decorated and thoroughly worth further investigation.
to the happy few

Medicine - To The Happy Few

Captured Tracks

Released: 5th August 2013


The way things have gone over the past two years, it would hardly register as a surprise if Glenn Miller flew into Croydon Aerodrome to take up a week's residency at the Fairfield Halls, so many bands having got back together after long interludes to bash out new sounds. Medicine are the latest to be dragged from the depths of history, having originally split some eighteen years ago following the release of their third album, 1995's Her Highness, and this is a welcome return in our books as the Californians had produced one of the best albums of the nineties in Shot Forth Self Living, their debut on the Creation label, and the path to their return had been neatly paved by US Shoegaze fans Captured Tracks who last year issued splendid 2CD sets of both that masterpiece and 1993's The Buried Life. With the band's sound based around the distorted visions of guitarist Brad Laner, it would be fair to say that Medicine made more impact in the UK than in their homeland, with Britain tuned in to the sonic sculpting of My Bloody Valentine and their ilk, though the recent awakening of interest in the States in that era of our musical history, aided in no little part by Captured Tracks themselves, has seen the band's profile raised considerably. With MBV finally returning to the fray with their terrific mbv album, it seemed the time was ripe for Medicine to throw their hats back into the ring and as opener 'Long As The Sun' erupts into life it appears that little has changed, a twenty-six second burst of guitar leading into a blast of drums before the lilted tones of typical Medicine number intrudes, Beth Thompson and Laner's gentle vocals submerged in seas of Laner's wildly distorted guitars. It's heart-warmingly familiar and a whole album of the same would have been just the ticket, but To The Happy Few is far more eclectic than the band's previous outings, and though the charging 'It's Not Enough' doesn't break the mould, the pulsing 'Burn It' has unmistakeable hints of a distorted Bananarama while 'Holy Crimes' sticks its fingers in so many pies, it is difficult to work out exactly what it is. Drum and bass percussion fights with a nice MBV loop, a choral break, an explosion, a bass saunter and some Bay City Rollers harmonics. Perhaps Medicine are trying too hard to be different but the result is little more than a jumbled mess. The dreamy 'The End Of The Line' gets things partially back on track, but 'Butterfly's Out Tonight' is again an amalgam of too many diverse snippets and offers up painful hints of Laner's unwelcome stabs at electronica in 2003. Thankfully, the record concludes more convincingly, 'Find Me Always' pleasingly raked and torn, 'Pull The Trigger' spitting and swaying, while closer 'Daylight' is a constant building and crashing and concludes with the same guitar burst with which the album opened. A full circle? Certainly not a perfect one. There's certainly great moments, but some fogettable ones as well. Still, it's nice to have them back.
I want you to destroy me

Ghost Outfit - I Want You To Destroy Me


Released: 12th August 2013


With Salford label Sways regarding themselves as an "independent label and cultural regenerator", then rightly much should be expected from the release of their first long player and, to give them their due, they have certainly delivered the goods with this debut collection from Ghost Outfit. The Manchester duo of Jacq Hardman (guitar, vocals, samples) and Michael Benson (drums, vocals, samples) have produced a record so refreshingly dislocated from the mean in both sound and quality that it is almost impossible to pin it down. Imagine listening through a wall to Arcade Fire playing in your back room after you had kept them there in the dark for a year fed only on salt and vinegar crisps and mescaline and you are just about there. Ghost Outfit's songs are built on some primal drum tracks which are swathed in a distorted blanket of chugging, squealing and buzzing guitars, decorated by imploring, chanting and screaming vocals and then buried alive for their own good. This is music from a different plane, and so distant does it sound that you are almost forced to reach out with your ears to drag it in before it passes you by without caring to invite any form of contact. This makes it all the more challenging and adds another tick in the box for what is turning out to be a quite fabulous year for music. The band's label declares that the album documents the "bitterness of separation and young love gone wrong" and indeed it might, but with no printed lyrics and most of the vocals drowned and distant, it is pretty difficult to tell, though sonically it certainly mirrors a mood of desperation, pain and regret. And where the vocals are more distinguishable, say in the almost punky thrash of 'What You've Got', the message seems very clear, "I hope you sit on your own at home / And think about what you've done." The band themselves insist in a Guardian interview that their "textural" approach does not mean they are necessarily writing abstract songs, merely pop songs approached in a different way, but if the intent is simple, the results are far more complex with some quite beautiful moments emerging from its dark folds of sound. This a record that forces you to listen and, on your surrender, drags you into its troubled soul to impale you on the twisted shards of its broken dreams before finally disposing of you without a second thought. And in a year of great releases, this is the most challenging, original and enchanting record we have yet heard. Quite stunning.

Drenge - Drenge


Released: 19th August 2013


Another debut album following on the back of a fine year for perhaps the most unlikely band to have risen to prominence over the past few months. Singer-guitarist Eoin Loveless and his younger brother, drummer Rory, hail from the picturesque Castleton area of Derbyshire which, for many, would be an ideal place to live, but for this musically-obsessed duo, remains a stifling prison of boredom and isolation that has inspired this twelve-track collection of abrasive blues-tinged rockers. Let's face it, boredom is a state of mind in your younger years, but thankfully it remains the driving force behind a load of great music and it has certainly spurred Drenge into making an uplifting racket that lifts them head and shoulders above most of their peers. Musically, there is no delving into the complicated: Eoin grinds out some big riffs while Rory crashes a lot of metal, but the secret of the band's appeal doesn't lie in the craftsmanship but, like the best blues music, in the feel and delivery. There's a brutal sense of melody and an instinctive nod to the right chord, the right pause, or the right word at the right time. It's blues, but with a very British feel, and the temptation to mention Blue John here is almost unbearable, but we'll resist it and settle on the Carry On Blues element that leads the duo to tamper with the legendary Willie Dixon's words to change 'I Just Want To Make Love To You' into 'I Don't Want To Make Love To You', proclaiming, "I dont want you to be my slave / Cos I don't want to see you again." It's great stuff. The terrific single tracks 'Bloodsports', 'Dogmeat' and 'Backwaters' are all included, along with new single 'Face Like A Skull' in what is pretty much the band's live set, and as such honed to ragged perfection over a year of constant touring. And who can fail to love a band who adds a little note to their artwork stating, "The album can be listened to at any desired volume. Let's Pretend is the sole exception and should be listened to at the highest volume you can possibly bear." This is the band's grand set closer, beginning deadly slow before exploding into a hail of howls and feedback before pounding its way to an abrupt full stop, all the frame for another tale of alienation, "It's the worst when I'm alone / Cos I'm always on my own / I want to be your friend / So baby, let's pretend." Great album, great cover as well.
right thoughts

Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action


Released: 26th August 2013


When Franz Ferdinand first emerged in 2003-04, their clean-edged guitar pop cut through the mainstream with razor-edged precision, exposing their rivals as cumbersome, bloated and out of touch. Like the new deco, sweeping away the over-indulgent proclivities of the recent past, they offered a sharper focus on style, no little glamour and an overriding confidence in their approach. Three top ten singles followed in short order as the band conquered all in their path, with the first three albums reaching number three, number one and number two in the UK and seriously denting the Billboard charts over the Atlantic. The problem was with the third of those, 2009's Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, which failed to hit the same heights as their previous work, having been three years in the making and intended to be "quite different sounding from everything we've ever done before", as singer Alex Kapranos related to the NME. Imbued with electronica and a heavy, reggae-influenced bass sound, the record was attacked in places for being sterile and unloveable and, in truth, when a band abandons the style which was largely responsible for their initial dramatic impact then they can only stand or fall on the quality of their latest offering and, though it was by no means a terrible record, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand was never going to be written into legend. For a while it appeared that the band had ground to a halt after this apparent own goal, but now, some four and a half years later, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action has appeared, the title an apparent message that things are now back on track, and another top ten placing in its first week of release clearly showing that Franz Ferdinand have not altogether been forgotten.

Opening with single 'Right Action', it is clear from the offset that the experimental approach of the previous album has been left behind and the the band are back in familiar territory. Indeed, the song is almost distilled essence of Franz: punchy, pointy and funky, though perhaps lacking the killer hook that made 'Take Me Out' so irresistable. The big question all this raises is where do even a reborn Franz fit into the new sonic landscape? Ten years ago the band were shining lights among a dull collection of journeymen; today we are in the middle of a glorious renaissance which has embraced the post-punk / No Wave ethos, showering the country in cascades of delectably spiky, uncompromising noise which leaves Franz Ferdinand sounding just a little bit, well, shiny. Whether or not their moment has passed, the Glasgow boys are determined here to do what they do best in the manner of nobody else and to their credit they certainly put in a decent shift. 'Stand On The Horizon', opens softly but grows into a towering jazz-disco-indie-funk gem that leaves you shaking your head in admiration, while the light pop of 'Fresh Strawberries' even succeeds in being charming, which is not an adjective often applied to this band. 'Evil Eye' pays a visit to the Ghost of Ferdinands Past, 'Love Illumination' sizzles, 'Bullet' is frantic, 'Treason! Animals.' is stylish and knows it, proclaiming, "I'm in love with a narcissist / I know for the mirror told me", and closer 'Goodbye Lovers And Friends' ebbs and flows like a modern day Sparks with all of the ugly edges smoothed to perfection. "Goodbye lovers and friends," it concludes, "You can laugh as if we're still together but this is really the end." It's probably not. Franz Ferdinand may not be trailblazers these days, but Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action shows they are still as sharp as a tack, and as long as there is substance to back it up, there's always room for style.

the nextwave sessions

Bloc Party - The Nextwave Sessions


Released: 26th August 2013


Following on from the rather excellent Four album which saw light of day in August 2012, Bloc Party conclude this phase of their somewhat turbulent existence with the release of a further five new tracks, available on either twelve-inch vinyl or on CD as a bonus disc with special editions of Four. As the retail price between the two options is very little different, this gives you the chance to snap up the two together if you somehow missed out on buying the album, which could only be due to temporary insanity as it is pretty much as essential as 2012 came. Don't expect this collection to sound much like the album, though. Whereas that release was clearly guitarist Russell Lissack's baby, The Nextwave Sessions have the mark of singer Kele Okereke all over them. This is Bloc Party at their funkiest, with the rampaging guitar attacks of Four left well in the background and keyboards brought to the fore. Okereke's vocals dominate, spilling out in wordy torrents and occasionally moving into slower territory where he is able to demonstrate his abilities with some grace as on the elegant 'Montreal' and gently simmering 'Obscene'. 'Children Of The Future' is also on the gentle side, sounding like something David Bowie may have recorded , its positive message an unmistakeable contrast to the terrors of the preceding record. The remaining tracks show the band at their spikiest, bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong excelling throughout, and with the underused Lissack adding a grating pulse to 'Ratchet' and a tumbling accompaniment to 'French Exit'. It's nice stuff, but given the choice between the Bloc Party of the album or the Bloc Party of the EP, we'll take the first every time.

Disappears - Era


Released: 26th August 2013


If Speedy Ortiz offer us a typically American sound, Chicago band Disappears have made their name by producing some spectacularly un-American sounding records, harking back to the British underground scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, their post-punk approach further embellished with healthy doses of Germanic rock and electronica. Their 2012 album, Pre Language, was quite simply a stunner: dark, foreboding and completely merciless, and with Era they now offer up something that is even more heartless and faceless, with the cutting guitars stepping more into the background as the band splits moments in time down to bare atoms. The fabulously messy, heavy and crashing opener 'Girl' may be the best thing here but offers no hint of what lies ahead as the probing 'Power' takes a completely different approach, content to move from A to A with a blinkered focus that borders on psychosis. This is developed further in the nine and half minute 'Ultra', disturbingly repetitive and monolithic, which makes the creepily stalking 'Era' almost light relief. 'Weird House' doesn't lighten the mood, with its drowned guitars making no atempts to break into the light, and 'Elite Typical' drags us through nearly eight minutes of bass-driven despondency that occasionally flickers into half-life but eventually gives up trying. Closer 'New House' taps away maliciously but fails to remember better days before its heartbeat dies into silence. It's difficult to bring to mind any records that better capture such a feeling of isolation and detachment and though Era doesn't come close to matching the jagged power of Pre Language, this is a totally different animal and a mighty fine record which warrants investigation. Catch the band live in October if you get the chance.
bolan at the bbc

Marc Bolan - At The BBC

Commercial Marketing

Released: 26th August 2013


The current series of releases from the BBC archives have been extremely impressive. The recent box set featuring The Kinks sold out quick time leading to a very limited repress which is well worth the investment, while none of the earlier outings from Siouxsie & The Banshees, SAHB, The Jam and Be Bop Deluxe amongst others failed to impress. The secret is in the care and attention to detail and the sheer comprehensive nature of the sets. These are not just random selections of BBC recordings, but complete collections of the tracks still in existence at the Corporation including sessions, live concerts and interviews. These have been gathered with love, beautifully packaged and accompanied by annotated notes that make the listening process a pure pleasure. Marc Bolan at the BBC opens with the shoddy glam of John's Children before wending its way through the hippy bollocks of the acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex, the dawning of electric enlightenment with Mickey Finn and the untouchable superstar years before concluding with songs from the stuttering post-cocaine fightback. 118 tracks, then, including numerous interviews and 'chats' and virtually the whole of the Marc Bolan story is laid out before you. There are innumerable highlights: a rare Bolan vocal contribution to John's Children's 'Hot Road Mama', nine minutes of 'The Wizard' from The Sunday Show, the 'Woodland Bop Medley' from John Peel's Sunday Concert, a terrific version of 'Jeepster' from The Bob Harris Show, and a handful of The Slider era numbers from Radio 1 With T Rex. It's all good and if you can afford the forty quid asking price, there are a lot worse ways to spend a few hours.
sequel to the prequel

Babyshambles - Sequel To The Prequel


Released: 2nd September 2013


It's such a shame that Pete Doherty has been turned by the media into some sort of comic book character. Having been caught in the vice-like grip of the vampiric tabloid press who prey on the weaknesses of talented individuals in a shameful lust for blood, it is a relief that he has managed to withstand all of the pressure and remains firmly on two feet. Pete would no doubt be the first to admit he has had his struggles with life, once stating, "I'm quite a lonely character, most of my friends are dead and have been for hundreds of years," but despite his well documented troubles, he remains quite probably the most talented artist this nation has produced in any number of years.

We'll never forget that The Libertines saved our lives. The early twenty hundreds were the worst time ever for underground music. Vinyl had disappeared, along with the record shops that used to sell it. The alternative had dissolved into DJs, dance and the hip and the hop; there were hardly any decent British independent bands and the fading music press had been forced into the adulation of little more than moderate acts from across the water to keep their flagging sales alive. The sense of belonging was gone; the values which had defined our existence for twenty years had seemingly been swept away ... and then The Libertines turned up, with a seemingly easy grasp of everything that was ever important, and with an irresistable call to arms. They were raw yet melodic, cultured yet yobbish, fiercely intelligent yet hopelessly romantic. They had no lust for fame nor glory, but knew they were of the people and for the people and they gave the people music of such staggering beauty that few have come close to touching its shadow. No, it didn't all work, but when it did, it was poetry. Four hundred years down the line, if 'Time For Heroes' isn't regarded as highly as 'King Lear' and 'Paradise Lost' then this nation will have lost its way. Bill Bones knows what I mean.

Sequel To The Prequel, then, is a welcome return to the fray for Doherty, nearly six years on from 2007's Shotter's Nation. Currently comprising of guitarist Mik Whitnell, bassist Drew McConnell and drummer Adam Falkner, Babyshambles have never yet managed to scale such heights as The Libertines once did, but they have produced some mighty fine work and the first few seconds of opener 'Fireman' is enough to raise spirits to the heavens as a typical burst of Libs' guitar paves the way to Pete's vocal, all delivered with his inimitable, drawling intonation, and crowning just over a minute and a half of pure joy. The single 'Nothing Comes To Nothing' which follows takes things to another sphere altogether, a quite gloriously commercial gem of a song opened by a single drum beat which reaches every kind of peak from its lovely rambling bass, effortless melodic weaving and brilliantly rough falsetto. "Music sways, it forays, and surges / And says I'll break your heart in two," Pete suggests and he's damn well right. It's not a stand-alone blinder either. 'Maybelline' sees the singer crooning like a modern day Steve Harley in a charmingly jagged pop cameo, while at other times the band take on a completely new direction which sees them breaking fascinating new ground. Closer 'Minefield' is a brooding, atmospheric menace, while 'Farmer's Daughter' is a far more classically structured rock number with a soaring, almost anthemic chorus and a nicely stuttering musical interlude. In between, there is plenty to enjoy from the measured jangling of 'New Pair', the country airs of 'Fall From Grace', the light reggae of 'Dr No', the see-sawing 'Penguins' and the fiddle-fest of 'Picture Me In A Hospital'. None of these will change your life, but add to an impressive whole which is certainly a pretty fine first step back into the limelight, and if the band can build upon the glory of 'Nothing Comes To Nothing' then the future is very bright indeed.

There are five extra tracks available on the limited 2CD set, including a demo of 'Dr. No', while the vinyl version comes with the standard CD as well as a poster featuring the fine artwork from Damien Hirst. That such a powerful artist should get involved with this project is no small testament to the importance of this band and their remarkable lead singer. It's great to have him back; hopefully he can now focus on what he does best and keep far from the clutches of the gutter press. Touches of brilliance here.


Splashh - Comfort

Luv Luv Luv

Released: 2nd September 2013


After the nightmare of 2011 and the gentle improvement of 2012, the sheer number of decent albums being released this year is bordering on life affirming. East London-based Splashh (an Anglo-Antipodean four-piece) are the latest to turn some promising single releases into a debut long player of note, with Comfort an excellent collection of dreamy tunes, sucking in a diverse range of influences from sixties pychedelia through indie jangle pop to the Pixies, and emerging as the perfect accompaniment to the early Autumn evenings. All three of the band's singles are included, the earnest 'Need It' chugging along to swirling synths, the dream-punk of 'Vacation' driven by a bubbling bassline as it proclaims the need for escape, and – best of all – 'All I Wanna Do' which jangles along like Pale Saints on acid with plenty of woozy rushes of blood to the head. It's a major highlight, but there are plenty of others, not the least the opener 'Headspins' which opens with a Kim Deal bassline before crashing into life with an assurance sadly lacking in the output from the current, truncated Pixies. Strangely, it borrows the riff from the Skids' 'Into The Valley' before heading off into a lightly psychedelic charge with singer Sasha Carlson's vocals kept in the background, as they are throughout, hemmed in by mighty walls of reverb. 'Feels Like You' is another high, bubbling away fiercely and taking no prisoners as it declares, "You're a danger to yourself, a danger to no one else", and the teasing 'Green & Blue' jangles for its life through a nice mess of guitars. If there is a downside to Comfort it is probably that it is a little too comfortable, never breaking bounds to charge in different directions, but it is one hell of a decent collection and offers impossible promise for the future. The vinyl version of the album offers a bonus four-track ten-inch single containing tracks not available on the CD so is well worth investigating. Great stuff.
seasons of your day

Mazzy Star - Seasons Of Your Day


Released: 23rd September 2013


With seemingly half the bands that ever existed reforming over the past couple of years, it is uncertain whether the first album from Mazzy Star in seventeen years marks a reunion or whether it has simply taken that long for them to finish their drinks and get out of their chairs. Let's face it, this band could have redefined the world languid had they the motivation, and Seasons Of Your Day shows little in the way of renewed vigour or zeal, being content to tread the same water as 1996's Among My Swan or 1993's So Tonight That I May See. This is a pity as Mazzy Star are at their best when they manage to inject a bit of life into the proceedings as witnessed on 'Blue Flower' on their 1990 debut, but since the release of She Hangs Brightly on which only two of the eleven tracks drifted over four minutes, the songs have grown longer while all vital signs of life have grown weaker. Only three tracks on the following two albums dropped beneath that mark while only one of the ten on offer here achieves that feat. Five drag on over five minutes, with one of those breaking six minutes and another seven. This would be fine and dandy if the extended time was being used to say something innovative, but when somnolence is your weapon of choice, there are only so many ways you can dust the eyelids. Not that this is altogether a bad record. Hope Sandoval still has the kind of voice that tugs at your testicles and Dave Roback occasionally consents to gaze at the stars as he embellishes 'I've Gotta Stop' and Flying Low' with some pleasing guitar work, but on the whole Seasons Of Your Day is a languorous dawdle along the road to nowhere in particular. And that's a shame.
girls like us

PINS - Girls Like Us

Bella Union

Released: 30th September 2013


Another debut album emerges from the remarkable period of creativity we are happily experiencing at the current time. Released on Bella Union, who are quickly becoming a label to treasure, this first offering from PINS is available in both vinyl and CD formats, but with the vinyl version containing a copy of the CD, this appears the one to get hold of, especially the limited-to-three hundred white version of the disc if you can find a copy. Thirteen tracks here (plus a half minute 'Interlude'), running in at just over thirty-three minutes show that PINS are not a band to over-labour the point. Only closer 'The Darkest Day' hits the four-minute mark, opening slowly to an ominous bassline before daubing palettes of bleak greys and closing with the repeated refrain, "I am here, let me disappear", and ending with the clever "...with you". It's a nice touch of maudlin obsession in a collection of songs pleasingly blackened around the edges, in the post punk tradition even if direct influences are not immediately apparent. Two other tracks scrape over three minutes and are more charged: 'Girls Like Us' is darkly anthemic with a nicely trembling bassline, while single 'Stay True' is decorated with the band's trademark backing vocal chants which add a nice depth to the chattering, spiky guitars and hollow drums. There is something tribal about PINS as there used to be with The Slits, though musically they are worlds apart. There's a paring down of fripperies, a disdain for unwelcome decoration and fabrication yet the simplicity has a cleverness that can be quite uplifting. Take the excellent 'Get With Me' where the little pause in the vocals before the word "too" leads into a short but pleasing guitar break and it's just splendid; that the band pick this up again in the song's outro and take it to even greater heights is just an added bonus. OK, not all of the tracks here are quite so accomplished, but in general this is pretty damn fine collection, with some great guitars, flowing basslines, stomping drums and primitive voices. Boy or girl, you'll struggle not to like this ... and we'll forgive the cardinal sin of a talking song. Top work.


June & July 2013 Reviews

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