Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Jack Hayter – Abbey Wood

Intimate, poetical hinterland folk.

Gare du Nord Records seem to be developing a niche for albums that speak quietly and intimately about real places, people and history. And about change. The label released the debut LP by The Cold Spells earlier this year, (a fabulous record by my reckoning), and are set to release another top-notch album of South East English folk, this time by Jack Hayter (Ex-Hefner, Dollboy).

Half sung, half spoken and backed by small acoustic ensembles, it's his first solo album in 15 years so perhaps no surprise I'd not stumbled across his music before. That said he's been active musically as a member of Papernut Cambridge, as well as performing and recording with former Hefner frontman Darren Hayman. Like flowers blossoming in a forgotten railway siding this twelve song collection highlights the hinterlands and examines small moments and marginalised lives (both geographically and socially). Yet all the time bursts with heartening empathy.

Abbey Wood is an area of South East London currently experiencing the mixed blessing of improved transport links and ensuing gentrification. A Crossrail link will will soon mean it's only 11 minutes away from Canary Wharf. But it's not this shiny, steel and glass version which Hayter eulogises. His poetical songs speak of an older, semi-forgotten Abbey Wood. Having spent time living in an abandoned children's home in the area he's witnessed changes that sweep aside history and its impeding emotional associations. Hayter's eye for detail and sharp turn of phrase helps make the album a lyrically rich portrait of a specific place, sepia tinted yet poetically alive. Take 'Fanny On The Hill' for example, an ode to selling knock-off meat in a now-closed Bexley pub. With each listen a different sentence catches the ear. Like the best literature, it's a slow reveal but worth the investment.

Aside from the songs centred on Abbey Wood there are wider historical and war-torn stories illuminated from personal perspectives, such as 'Bendigo' and 'Arandora Star' where the stories of both Australian WWI conscripts and the sunk British warship are rescued from cold factual history and retold with a more human and ultimately more resonant perspective. The album closes with a second version of 'Arandora Star' read in Italian by Hayter's friend Sylvia De.

Rooted as most of the songs and stories are in one postcode, there's a wider emotional resonance at play here. With our cities changing at a seemingly ever faster and sometimes alarming pace, simple remembrance is more precious and important than ever before. We should be thankful that an artist as skillful as Jack Hayter can help us in this much needed act.

Click here for more on Jack Hayter.
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Click here for Gare du Nord Records.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Davey Lane - I'm Gonna Burn Out Bright

Melodic Melbournian's second solo LP. Bold 'n' brash synth pop with BIG choruses!

Remember when musicians wrote songs with memorable tunes, hooks and BIG choruses? It may seem like a long time ago but it really did used to happen kids! And occasionally it still does. Davey Lane has been guitarist in acclaimed Australian alt-rockers You Am I since 1999, proving himself adept at guitar-driven rock that both celebrates rock's rich heritage and adds an all-important edge.

His debut solo album, Atonally Young, came out in 2014, and he's just followed it up with a new album out this week. I'm Gonna Burn Out Bright contains echoes and influences from disparate sources such as ELO, OMD, REM and EMF. Lane's main instrument may be guitar but this new LP leans heavy on the synths with Lane also playing much of the bass and drums. So much for the sonics, but what really hits home on this record is the melodies. With tunes that would be worthy of McCartney, Jeff Lynne or Andy Partridge, I'm Gonna Burn Out Bright is the sort of hook-laden record not often heard these days.

My favourite track on the album is 'Bound To Break Me', a gorgeously soaring melody with a happy/sad feel, where Lane's vocal shifts in and out of his falsetto range. This is how pop music should be made - melodically memorable and full of emotion.

Melbourne music is in a pretty healthy state right now. Australian punk is hot with Amyl And The Sniffers on a meteoric rise. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard's quest for world domination continues to gathering. Their guitarist Stu Mackenzie guests on I'm Gonna Burn Out Bright, as does singer-songwriter Laura Jean. For my mind though this is the hottest thing out of Melbourne right now. If like me you can't afford the time or air fare to check out the Melbourne scene, then check out this record instead, it'll warm your heart like a ray of Australian sunshine.

Click here for more on Davey Lane.
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Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Grandpa Egg - Underneath The Willow Tree

Second storybook song suite from Ohio psych-folkers. A dark and heartbreaking odyssey. OUT NOW!

Clocking in at over 80 minutes, Underneath The Willow Tree comes in a neatly packaged 2CD set. Despite the gloriously quirky cover art, rendered in bright orange and yellows, it's an at times unsettling tale of loneliness, bullying, and pain with redemption coming via fledgling friendships. Described by its authors “mostly fictional”, UTWT is the sort of album that will appeal to those who feel themselves to be outsiders, on the margins. It's an album for anyone who identifies as an underdog, and for those for whom redemption and revenge comes via writing rather than fighting.

So who are Grandpa Egg? A little history – They began back in 2010 when singer/songwriter Jeb Morris formed a musical partnership with musician/producer Bart Morris in Kent, Ohio, USA. In 2011 they released a debut LP Songs for My Cat. The following year they grew into a four-piece with Inga Kristaponyte joining on bass/keyboards and Jordin Goff joining on drums. The first storybook album Praying Mantis came out in 2014, with Underneath The Willow Tree following late last year.

Their sound owes much to the British psych-folk of Comus and Heron but also has something of Syd Barrett's nursery rhyme melody approach. Simple child-like melodies they may have but that's just a sweetener to make the bitter pill of the dark stories easier to take. And the parallel stories on Underneath The Willow Tree are dark ones. Centred around a socially awkward youth called Nicholas (hey we can all identify there right!). Nicholas finds a mysterious box of letters hidden in his bedroom wall, as he reads through them a tragic tale unfolds. Along the way there is bullying, loneliness, and a glimpse of light as Nicholas befriends a shy Korean girl (Holly Yeong) who moves in next-door. I'm not going to give too much of the plot away so no spoiler alerts. But do check it out, it's a unique and compelling listen.

With an instrumental pallette that includes mandolin, banjo, toy pianos and dulcimer along with guitars and keyboards, it is at times quirky and twee, then switches to sections of violent and dark dialogue. They've not opted for a polished overly thought out sound but opted instead for an in-the-moment, homespun approach. It works. The performances are more human, intimate even, encouraging empathy. I read recently in a book that to be a good writer what is required above all is limbic resonance. It's something Grandpa Egg seem to understand.

Click here for more on Grandpa Egg.
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Life Pass Filter - Joseph EP

When a child is born, give the gift of music.

A recent release on the increasingly happening Gare du Nord label is this five song EP from Lille-based duo Life Pass Filter. A collaboration between composer/sound designer Antoine Boucherikha and graphic designer Anne Hélou. Their usual work is making music and sounds for video games but here they've created a suite of songs with a homespun lo-fi indie sound to mark the birth of Joseph Chevalier Poher, the first-born child among their circle of friends.

This back story is key to unlocking the songs which are imbued with heart , soul and meaning. 'Hello Little Man' opens the EP. Over a simple acoustic guitar motif the vocals are half whispered as young Joseph is welcomed into the world and offered small pieces of guidance and advice. As the EP progresses the music slowly adds sophistication and interest, in much the same way as a child finding his or her feet, gradually growing in confidence. By the time the EP reaches its closing track 'Lullaby' the sound has grown to a full band sound complete with drums while still retaining some continuity of sound. From nursery to indie disco!

The Joseph EP is a unique gift to a newborn child and one that will no doubt be treasured throughout a life not yet known and full of possibility. Heartfelt is a word much over-used when writing about music but here I can think of no better description.

Click here for more on Life Pass Filter.
Click here for Life Pass Filter on Twitter.
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Click here for Gare du Nord Records.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Various - Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star

(This review first appeared in issue #71 of Shindig! magazine.)

Omnivore CD

In any artistic medium there's a risk of embarrassment when juvenilia is available for public consumption. Not so here. This collection, culled from Ardent Studio's 1969-1971 tapes and centred on the early works of Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and an ever-rotating group of East Memphis musicians (most notably Tom Eubanks and Terry Manning) is, if anything, an embarrassment of riches. Early versions of 'My Life Is Right', 'Oh My Soul' and 'Try Again' are included along with several previously unreleased tracks.

Pre-Big Star groups Icewater and Rock City are well represented, and there's three tracks credited to The Wallabys, (albeit aided by Bell and musical compatriot Steve Rhea). It's clear the studio downtime at Ardent, primarily awarded to Bell to sharpen his skills for the nascent Big Star, was not wasted. Clever production touches and skilful arrangements abound, as does a shared sense of fun and discovery. A true joy!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Mat Treiber - Go All Around The World (7")

(This review first appeared in issue #71 of Shindig! magazine.)

Etoile 7”

Montreal-born singer guitarist Mat Treiber makes old-school rock 'n' roll using the broad strokes of rock's primary colours. Blues-based three chord tricks, hooks, catchy choruses with neat guitar solos somewhere in the middle. “So what?” you cry “we done heard it all before!” Well, yes but for one thing it still works. Added to that is Treiber's extremely likable nasal drawl and killer ways with a slide guitar solo.

Both sides of this 7” were recorded live at what sounds like a lively evening at LA's Mint Club. 'Go All Around The World' is a prime slice of punchy Transatlantic rock, kind of like Tom Petty fronting The Who, though it's the flip-side 'It's OK Today' that has more catchy melody. Brits will have a better chance of experiencing Treiber's music in a live setting as he's recently relocated from Los Angeles to the English countryside. See you down the front!

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Corridors - The Corridors

(This review first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)

Viziarmonic CD

Jason Wagers makes music as The Corridors out of his apartment in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. More of a studio-based project than a band, The Corridors came about after Wagers became jaded with the under-paid, under-attended gig circuit. His re-focusing of energies is to our benefit. Stylistically loose and varied, this seven song album is difficult to pin down genre-wise but therein lies its strength.

Each song is a mini-cinematic adventure. Whether it's the domestic drug troubles documented in 'Ghoul', the Barrett-esque melody of 'Elixir Divine' or the magnificently titled 'Granny, Put Down The Gamma Ray' complete with vocoder vocals and sci-fi feel, it all holds together.

I'd wager that Wagers is something of an Anglophile, a neat guitar player in the John Squire indie-funk mould, and a singer from the Ray Davies school of vocals. True or not he's made a record that puts bigger names and established studios in the shade.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Stag - Midtown Sizzler

(This review first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)

Self-release CD

Crunch, hook and swagger are the key words that summarise this Seattle-based quintet's latest release. Their collective listening pile may lean heavily towards the glam rock of the early to mid '70s (think Sweet, Slade & T Rex), but the gutsy rock/pop they make has been given a contemporary speaker-pushing sheen. It's an in-yer-face guitar wall of sound topped with catchy melodies.

'Come On' channels Rod and The Faces, all bluesy bar-room boogie whereas 'The Bedazzler' passes itself off as a lost Chinnichap production, a feelgood glam stomper up there with anything Giuda and Faz Waltz have made.

Vocalist Steve Mack, best known from his days with That Petrol Emotion, is in fine voice, just the right side of raspy, and is backed by a band whose joy in playing is palpable. It's the sound of a band not trying to change the world but having fun playing music they love. Ain't nothing wrong with that!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Jack Cooper

(This first appeared in issue #71 of Shindig! magazine.)

Blackpool Tower of song. Ultimate Painting's Jack Cooper explores the emotional pull and push of home on his debut solo album. Duncan Fletcher listens in.

Jack Cooper's debut solo album Sandgrown is named in reference to a “Sand Grown 'Un”, the local term for someone from Blackpool. It explores the emotional pull and push of a place that ties and binds but that can also feel small and stifling. The album also has wistful, elegiac affection for a North that's been in managed decline since the 1980's, and a speaking up for marginalised and maligned communities. Key track 'Gynn Square', captures this perfectly.

“As a teenager I worked the deckchairs on Blackpool front,” says a jet-lagged Cooper, home after a short US tour with Ultimate Painting. “There were about 30 of us, all kids. We'd get taken out in a van each morning. Gynn Square was the furthest away and you'd have to get there on your own... It was kind of below the sea wall, a weird place... Sometimes people think of the north of England as backward but Blackpool was an incredibly liberal place – a lot of gay people, immigrants because it's a port town. I went to school with black people, Muslims, Hindus, it was a really multicultural place. I remember some drag queens from Funny Girls coming down, one just sat with me all day chatting, giving an insight into their world. But Blackpool also had a high proportion of heroin addicts. There'd be needles lying around and people shooting up behind the deckchair stack. You'd meet strange people and see things you didn't want to see. Scary people would talk to you and you'd feel out of your depth. Some places just have a sense of dread about them.”

The narrative is broken up by two instrumentals, 'Sandgrown Part One' and 'Part.Two', showcasing Cooper's sparse, but layered guitar work, something like Curtis Mayfield meets The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. “That's exactly what I was going for along with the tremolo sound! I wanted it to be quite simple... I'm not fast enough to be a really good lead guitarist so I've tried to figure out my own style, kind of rhythm guitar with bits in.” The album was recorded on a Tascam 144, famously used by Bruce Springsteen on his Nebraska LP. “I'm no Springsteen fan but I've always liked the way Nebraska sounds. Wu-Tang Clan used a Tascam for 36 Chambers. That album sounds amazing! It has a kind of hazy fuzz to it. That's actually more of an inspiration sonically than Nebraska.”

For someone who has always worked collaboratively in bands, the question is why a solo record now? “I've always wanted to do, not like a song-cycle but a cohesive thing and I've always written about Blackpool, from that point of view. It would be odd to have done it within the band context just because it's so personal to me. With bands and collaborations sometimes things improve and sometimes things get diluted. This I wanted to be more of a singular vision... It's a solo album but because it has this overarching theme it's like one foot in the water of being a solo artist. It's not like 'these are my songs and these are my feelings on life'. This is just my feelings on one particular thing.”

Sandgrown is out now on Trouble In Mind.

Skeleton Key Records

(This review first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)

Duncan Fletcher talks with Neville Skelly whose label is spearheading the latest North-West musical renaissance.

Chess, Stax, Motown. All labels built on strong regional representation and deep family ties. Decades on since the inception of those powerhouse American labels, a small but dedicated team of music lovers on Merseyside are intent on building their own visionary dynasty. Skeleton Key Records is owned and run by velvet-voiced song-smith Neville Skelly and Coral main-man James Skelly. The Liverpool-based label's first release was a vinyl version of James' solo LP Love Undercover in 2013 made during Coral downtime.

“We both admired Labels like Elektra and A&M where the roster was eclectic and thought wouldn't it be great to do something like that where it's simply all about the music. We felt that at certain majors the accountants were running things so we thought we're the ones who eat, sleep and breathe music, we can either sit around moaning about how shit it is or do something about it, so we did!” says Neville when asked how the label came into being. “We run it between us and jointly decide what artists we want to sign. James produces the bands and I deal with everything connected to the releases along with bringing in the team to help promote the records.”

The family ties and talent are also evident in much of the accompanying artwork. Neville explains - “A lot of the artwork is done by Ian Skelly and his partner Anna Benson. They're so talented! Ian's done all the cover artwork for The Coral albums. So it was an easy call to make. We also encourage some of the bands to get involved with designing their own covers if they can.”

Skeleton Key's prolific string of releases include the street poetry/indie-pop mash-up of She Drew The Gun, the mixture of melody and metallic riffs made by Birmingham's Cut Glass Kings and the soulful fragile folk of Marvin Powell. Coral fans can't fail to have missed the mid-noughties “lost album” The Curse Of Love surfacing in 2014, it too bears the hallmark of quality that is the Skeleton Key logo.

Although Neville admits running a label has been a steep learning curve, 2017 has already borne two critically acclaimed LPs - Edgar Jones' The Song Of Day And Night and The Sundowners' Cut The Master. The label ethos of nurturing the artist and letting creativity find its course has certainly reaped rewards. Says Neville - “One of the reasons we set up the label is we felt bands weren't getting the opportunity to grow and develop so it's great to see Sundowners just getting better and better with each release. They are one of the best live bands in the country and it will be great to see them smashing it at Glastonbury and loads of other festivals this year.

With new music due soon from Serpent Power, Marvin Powell and all being well a new Neville Skelly LP for 2018, you get the feeling this is only the beginning. Oh and hopefully the ink will soon dry on a contract with hotly-tipped psych-folksters The Fernweh. That's one hell of a stable!

Friday, 16 February 2018

Jean-Jacques Perrey

(This first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)

The missing link between Spike Jones, Joe Meek, Kraftwerk and Fat Boy Slim? Duncan Fletcher celebrates the life of Jean-Jacques Perrey - composer, entertainer, electronic revolutionary and self-described “passenger here on planet Earth.”

Jean-Jacques Perrey's life sadly ended in November last year but he leaves behind an indelible stamp on modern music. His classically trained musicality, love of entertaining and innovative studio and tape manipulation helped make a wealth of groundbreaking music. Quirky musical jokes, sci-fi eeriness, concrete sounds and dance-floor friendly grooves are all found in his work. The Beastie Boys, Fat Boy Slim, and even The Beatles have all been influenced by, or sampled his music. A pioneer of electronic music, he helped popularise the Moog synthesizer and his music still sounds fresh on TV adverts to this day.

Perrey was born Jean Leroy in Paris in November 1929 and grew up during World War Two, an experience that affected his outlook towards life as well as music. Perrey's daughter/manager Patricia explains - “He witnessed a lot of suffering. He grew pessimistic on mankind. This is possibly why he mostly wanted to make people happy. He considered it his mission in life to bring joy and happiness through his music. His biggest reward was when he saw people smile when they heard his music.”

(Click over the jump to continue reading...)

Big Star - The Best Of

(This review first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)

Stax / Ardent CD/LP

Though commercial success evaded them in their lifespan, Big Star's influence and legacy endure. It's difficult to see who this collection is aimed at (Big Star inspiring devotion rather than casual interest), but the music remains timeless. This Best Of is released as part of Stax's 60 years retrospective campaign and draws tracks from all three of the band's studio albums. Its USP is the inclusion of rare single versions/edits including 'September Gurls' and 'Watch The Sunrise'.

Like Van Gogh's sunflowers, their studio albums are a case study in beauty, decay and fragmentation but the sequencing here favours flow over chronology. It works. From the opening guitar chime of 'In The Street' through to the soft landing of 'Thank You Friends' there's no let up in quality. Brash odes to teenage awkwardness sit easily next to ragged and frail melancholia. Argue all you like over omissions but the music here shines as brightly as ever.

Action Andy & The Hi-Tones - High And Lonesome: The Fall And Rise Of Hilo

(This review first appeared in issue #69 of Shindig! magazine.)

Relampago-go LP

It's not often in the singles-centric garage rock scene that anyone attempts a concept album but that's what we have here. Over the album's song suite the story is told of Hilo, an everyman kind of character who falls on hard times and battles the forces of darkness while searching for love in the honky tonks of South Texas.

Along the way he encounters temptation, the seedy dark underbelly of American culture, bar-room philosophers and finally redemption. It's a cautionary tale but ultimately an uplifting one, a story with more twists, turns, ups and downs than a Texas tornado, all told over a soundtrack of rockabilly, surf-rock, Tex-Mex and preacher-style spoken word passages underscored with jazzy double-bass.

This newest pressing of Action Andy's 2013 LP comes on bright red vinyl and is expanded with a rockabilly version of The Seeds' 'Pushing Too Hard' which fits neatly in with the deep-fried American noir.

Thursday, 15 February 2018


(This first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)

More simian adventures in sound! Cornelius returns after an eleven year gap. Duncan Fletcher steps in to the infinite cage with Japan's avant-electronica wizard.

In the Planet Of The Apes film from 1968 Dr. Cornelius is archaeologist and historian played by Roddy McDowell, an intelligent character with an open mind to new theories and possibilities regarding evolution. Cornelius is an apt choice of name then for a musician aiming to surprise, dazzle and entertain while taking music into new realms. Keigo Oyamada was born in Tokyo in 1969. Inspired by the original Planet Of The Apes trilogy, he chose the name Cornelius as his creative alter-ego for his solo musical projects that have made him a big name in Japan since the early '90s.

Inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Black Sabbath - “The driving riffs were great for learning and playing guitar” he says, Oyamada first came to prominence in the Shibuya-kei music scene as a member of Flipper's Guitar who made fey guitar pop in the style of Aztec Camera. Oyamada says his favourite memories of those days were “recording at AIR Studios in London and hitting all the used record shops while in the UK.”

This crate-digging gives an insight as to where his music was heading next. After Flipper's Guitar folded, Oyamada adopted his new stage name and released a string of adventurous, genre-merging albums, including 1997's Fantasma, which gained him critical recognition overseas. It's been eleven years since his last full-length release (2006's Sensuous), though he's remained active - “I've been busy with many projects - recording and touring with Yoko Ono, supporting Yellow Magic Orchestra, and producing salyu x salyu. There's also been film music for Ghost In The Shell, a kids program called Design Ah, and a few more collaborations and projects.”

The wait for a new LP is over with the release of Mellow Waves. Fantasma's holy trinity of Beck, Bossa Nova and Brian Wilson has been replaced by one comprised of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. It's a subtler piece of work, more about textures than attention grabbing shape-shifting, and will appeal as much to chin-stroking Late Junction listeners as it will to pick 'n' mix pop fans. “Its a little more grown up or middle aged compared to my other works... Musically this one has more waves or strings of melodies compared to individual sound points being placed on a grid-like formation for song structure.”

Cornelius will be touring the new album throughout Japan including a high profile appearance at the Fuji Rock Festival - “This will be a new four-piece band with new members like Yumiko from Buffalo Daughter. Although we will not be completely reproducing the songs from the album, they are arranged in a simple yet musically demanding performance from the band.”

Despite approaching fifty, Cornelius' interest in new music shows no sign of diminishing, thanks in part to his son Milo working in a record shop - “He's now my main source for finding new bands like Mind Designer and Liss.”Having worked with many respected musicians over the last few years it seems there's still one dream collaboration he'd like to happen - “I would one day like to work with my son.”

Mellow Waves is out now on Rostrum Records.

(Click over the jump for the previously unpublished Q&A)

Marvin Powell

(This first appeared in issue #68 of Shindig! magazine.)

Duncan Fletcher finds magic on Merseyside with fragile folk's rising new star.

“I always think songwriting is like getting rid of noise in my head, I never write a physical song, I won't write it down... it's just in my head and I get it out there” explains Marvin Powell when asked about 'Salt', the title track of his debut EP. In person Powell is down to earth and affable, his personality seemingly at odds with the mysterious music he makes. It's pitched somewhere between Vashti Bunyan, Devendra Banhart, Nick Drake and his formative influences of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, but with a sensitivity that's all Powell's own.

Take his song 'China Town' - “Four of us used to live in a big panoramic penthouse flat... from every view, every window there was an iconic Liverpool building - the bombed-out church, the Chinese arch, Paddy's Wigwam. That's where that song comes from, I'm looking down on this changing landscape of the city.” It's sublime songwriting, with Powell drawing parallels between the changing skyline, his inner emotions and the human condition in general.

Alongside the strong lyrics and ethereal vocals, he's also a skilled finger-style guitarist, albeit one to whom the guitar is a means to an end - “It was just something to do. I learnt by watching people. Kinesthetic, is that the word? ...I started writing songs when I learnt three chords... To me it's about the songs. I don't care about the guitar, well I do, but as long you can get your message across in the tunes. It's more about the lyrics and the poetry.”

Powell has honed his artistry playing Liverpool's coffee shops and open mic nights, along with being the “sacrificial folkie” at the city's venues, opening for local and touring bands. With a full length LP already recorded it may not be long before that running order is reversed.

The Salt EP is out now on Skeleton Key.