Sunday, 29 September 2019

William Tyler - Goes West

(This review first appeared in issue #87 of Shindig! magazine.)

Merge CD/LP

Listeners to Tyler's occasional It's All True podcast series will be familiar with his insightful take on music's relationship with human emotions. Equally articulate whether discussing the importance of silence, white noise or obscure indigenous folk music, it's this deep thinking that underpins his guitar playing. Goes West is the first record he's made since relocating from his home town of Nashville to the Californian coast. A ten track instrumental album of ambient Americana, it finds Tyler in a hopeful, even optimistic mood. Despite being an in-demand electric guitarist here he's restricted his own playing here to acoustic guitar but is ably backed by a hand-picked band of sympathetic players.

With an ego-less virtuosity and precise technique similar to that of Brit-picker Martin Simpson, Tyler makes melodic journeys that have roots in British and Appalachian folk, bluegrass and southern country, but mood and magic take precedence over any genre-specific stylings. Majestic.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Skarbø Skulekorps

Joyfully eclectic music to set your mind and spirit free.

The force is strong with this one. An album that has repeatedly forced its way to the top of my listening pile through its downright refusal of categorisation and, more importantly, the infectious vitality of its music. Øyvind Skarbø is a Norwegian composer, an important player in the country's improvisational music scene, and formerly best known as the drummer in 1982. Having left the band two years ago in search of new musical avenues, and following a brief period of wondering just what the hell to do next, he comes up with this. Skarbø Skulekorps is a seven-piece group of musicians he's brought together to breath life into his recent compositions.

Inspired in part by the school bands Skarbø played in during his youth, where juxtapositions of genres were given little concern, the group have made a record where all notions of fashion and styles have been thrown up in the air. The random positions where they've landed are one of the record's main strengths. Similarly the notion of coolness, always over-rated in my opinion, has been disregarded completely. As in those school bands, what matters most was/is the playing, always the pure joy of ensemble playing.

The result is an album where free-jazz meets pop, industrial, electronica, lounge, exotica and disco. At times strictly adhering to Skarbø's well-planned compositions, with occasional improvisational passages and containing experiments in rhythm, texture, harmonies and timings. Expect saxophone and trumpet solos, over a backdrop of weeping pedal steel, vibraphone, synths as well as the more traditional bass, guitar and drums.

Skarbø Skulekorps is a record that can move from sounding like the soundtrack to a psychological TV thriller to the most joyous, globally-minded pop in seemingly effortless leaps. There are parallels with recent genre-flipping records by artists such as Karl Blau, Aquaserge and Melody's Echo Chamber, but Skarbø Skulekorps has a character all of its own, and one that makes for curiously compelling listening. Check out the video below for more details as to how the album came to be.

Click here Skarbø Skulekorps' website.
Click here for Skarbø Skulekorps on Instagram.
Click here for Hubro Records.

Monday, 23 September 2019

decker. - Born To Wake Up

(This review first appeared in issue #87 of Shindig! magazine.)

Royal Potato Family CD/LP

The opening seconds of singer/songwriter Brandon Decker's new record features a sparse and lonely sound collage – footsteps, a drum pulse, chanted drone and the distant howling of wolves. It comes as little surprise to learn he takes much inspiration from his Arizona desert surroundings, coming across at times like a modern day Morricone in search of a film. This ghostly wind-through-the-cacti ambience is best invoked on 'The Garden' with its lyrical echoes of Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock', and 'The Saint', a bruised but ultimately optimistic emotional ballad.

At the core of Decker's songwriting lies an belief in redemption and the need for spiritual nourishment, but peppered among the intimate loner folk are tracks with a polished indie rock sound. His inner-Springsteen finding an outlet on 'Burnin' Grass' and 'The Matador', both tracks containing stadium-worthy vibes and melodies. Conviction, inner belief and landscape-informed outlook makes this an impressive soul-baring.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

El Valerie - IDA

DIY alt-pop from New York City.

Hello readers wherever you are! I'm constantly amazed how people stumble across this blog. When I check my daily hits ands statistics I don't always have an amazing amount of traffic but the global aspect is a very heart-warming thing. In the past month there have been views from Peru, South Korea, Israel as well as the more expected countries. Thank you. As a resident of an often overlooked region of the UK it a humbling feeling to make these connections with citizens of the wider world. Especially those, like me, who have a fondness for music made in the margins.

One musician who reached out recently and sent me their latest work is a young Queens, New York-based musician who self-releases music under the name of El Valerie. She's just released her second album IDA this summer via Bandcamp. It's a body of work that favours ideas over expert execution - its homespun, home-baked DIY quality is never going to rival the sonic sheen that a large commercial studio can offer, but that's not the point. It's part of the album's charm that the performances are in-the-moment, not always perfect but big on spirit and self-belief. These are GOOD THINGS! With short, experimental pop songs infused with an outsider's perspective, over a backdrop of basic drum machine patterns, hooky synth lines. This is pop with a pureness of intent. Throw in a smattering of punky guitar, double tracked, self-harmonised vocals and you have a collection of songs that sit in the Venn diagram where the DIY meets pop meets craft and art. Quirky, fun and worth checking out if any of those things are your bag.

Click here for El Valerie on Twitter.
Click here for El Valerie on Instagram.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

GospelbeacH - Let It Burn

Elegiac American beauty.

Oh man. Where do I start with this with this one? Just a few short days after the review copy of this album had dropped through the letterbox came the news that guitarist Neal Casal had passed away. The guy was 50 years old. I never knew him of course but as is the way with musicians they have a mysterious effect on your inner life. It's subtle, mysterious, hard to pin down, but at the same time very real and valuable. I first heard his work on the records he made with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and it was clear from those classic albums that he was a man of taste. Always serving the song, enhancing its message and bringing out each track's emotional heart. It's a style of playing that he brought to each project he worked on, whether with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood or GospelbeacH on their latest album Let It Burn, which turned out to be Casal's last recorded work. Listening with that knowledge gives the album an unintentional elegiac quality, but such is the strength of the songs, its emotional resonance would still be present had the circumstances been different.

It's the third album from the band . Their previous record, Another Summer Of Love, which came out in 2017, had a slight Anglophilic bent, even borrowing lyrics from The Jam. Aside from a reference to Winston Churchill on 'I'm So High' and the early '70s Bowie vibe on 'Unswung', Let It Burn is firmly rooted in Americana. Its mood is a winning blend of downbeat and defiant, in a way a reflection or snapshot of modern America itself. All the songs were written by vocalist/guitarist Brent Rademaker with drummer/vocalist Trevor Beld Jiminez. They deal with personal darkness but not in a forced or laboured way. There's a freshness and spontaneity to them. Ditto the arrangements - plenty of vocal harmonies and tight playing but with enough space for the songs to breath. A cliché perhaps to say it but to my ears it's the band's best album thus far, and one with a touch of Zen about it. High and low emotions are felt, then let go in order for the next ones to come. Not a bad way to live let alone make records. Apologies to anyone who's read this expecting a standard review format. No scrub that, no apologies, this one is for Neal. Thanks for the music and rest easy.

Click here for GospelbeacH on Facebook.
Click here for GospelbeacH on Twitter.
Click here for Alive Records.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Eyeball - Crawling Creatures

New track from North Carolina's astral rockers!

Eyeball are a band based in Raleigh, North Carolina who make music that challenges and delights in equal measure. They released and EP, Paradox of Eternal Limits a year or two back which I heartily recommend you check out. Especially for those of us predisposed to music with an adventurous boundary-pushing bent.

Good to know the band are still active and have recently unleashed a new track. 'Crawling Creatures' is available to download via the band's website or Bandcamp page. Combining a post-punk bass and drum groove, slashing layered sheets of metallic guitars, Bowie-esque vocals and an eerie spoken word section. Don't expect pentatonic cliches, or tired and tested tropes. DO expect to be slightly unsettled, albeit in a very welcome way. I don't know what you might call this... sci-fi-rock? Nu-goth? Nightmare-metal? That matters not, just take a moment to immerse yourself in its mind-bending world.

Click here Eyeball's website.
Click here for Eyeball on Bandcamp.
Click here for Eyeball on Facebook.
Click here for Eyeball on Twitter.

Nathan Hall and the Sinister Locals - Scattersparks

Third album syndrome? Nah. Cardiff's prolific song-smith returns with more explorations of new weird suburbia.

If you've yet to hear the work of idiosyncratic songwriter Nathan Hall, I recommend you rectify this at the nearest opportunity. As main songwriter in Cardiff-based band Soft Hearted Scientists, he's responsible for a rich seam of gently hallucinogenic, mild-mannered music. His songs take a sideways glance at the foibles of the modern world, see the absurd and comic in the everyday, and bristle with visionary imagination and expand the range of subject matter for the humble three minute pop song. Imagine if you will Robyn Hitchcock or Syd Barrett  crossed with Ivor Cutler's polyphony-obsessed Welsh cousin.

With Soft Hearted Scientists on something of a sabbatical at the moment, Hall has kept himself busy with offshoot outfit Nathan Hall and the Sinister Locals. Their third and most recent long-player Scattersparks came out at the end of July and has been one of the summer's staple soundtracks round our house, acting as a balm as the increasingly barmy backdrop of UK politics.

Across a whopping 24 tracks there's plenty of ground covered. Lyrical obsessions occupy a peculiar and distinctly British ground – the weather, history, a dislike of pomposity and pretentiousness, all tackled with humour and a sense of wonder at the everyday oddness of 21st century life. This is DIY music, though well-recorded at home using a number of vintage keyboards with a Joe Meek approach to sonic experiments and effects. Such explorations of new weird suburbia are proof that these Isles have much to offer culturally in contrast to our direly divided political landscape.

Click here for Nathan Hall and the Sinister Locals on Facebook.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Katherine Priddy - Wolf

(This review first appeared in issue #86 of Shindig! magazine.)

Self Release CD

This young Birmingham-based singer-songwriter has one of the finest voices on the current folk scene, plays neat fingerstyle guitar and on the evidence here possesses a songwriting ability beyond her tender years. 'Wolf' tells the tale of falling romantically for the wrong person. 'Ring o' Roses' leans away from trad-folk towards a darker, more acidic style. The nursery rhyme of the same name is its lyrical starting point before going on to become a remembrance to war's fallen.

On 'Fragile' we find a wistful longing for summers past. Similarly 'The Old Tree' is a masterclass in pastoral loveliness, opening over a backdrop of birdsong and though embellished with ambient electronica still honours British folk's rich heritage. It all adds up to an accomplished and promising debut with Priddy's pure voice closely mic'ed throughout. Fans of Nick Drake, Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny can be assured that British folk has a bright future.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Beautiful Freaks: Waving Our Flag High

Waving Our Freak Flag High, Wave On Wave On. Music from the original counterculture.

Anyone interested in '60 films and music, along with the cultural revolution that took place in that decade will no doubt have noted with sadness the recent passing of actor, screenwriter and activist Peter Fonda. I can't claim to be an expert on his life and I'll admit I've never actually seen Easy Rider, the film for which he's most famous. I do however own a vinyl copy of the film's soundtrack which I purchased as a teenager. The tracks I enjoyed most at the time were 'Born To Be Wild' and 'The Pusher' by Steppenwolf and 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider' and 'I Wasn't Born To Follow' by The Byrds.

One of the songs on the soundtrack that I didn't know previous to buying is 'If You Want To Be A Bird' by The Holy Modal Rounders. It's something of an anomaly sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the better known rockier tracks. The Holy Modal Rounders were originally a duo, formed in New York's Lower East Side during the early '60s folk boom. Their merging of folk, psychedelia and subversive comedy made them key players in the Greenwich Village scene. In many ways their appearance on the Easy Rider soundtrack encapsulates the film's countercultural slant more successfully than Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf combined.

Another of the group's songs 'The STP Song', appears on Beautiful Freaks, a brand new compilation expertly put together by Tony Harlow and released by Tad Records. It features a wealth of '60s underground talent, many with roots in the New York or San Francisco poetry scenes, or the politicised sections of the '60s folk boom. With detailed and insightful sleevenotes Beautiful Freaks captures the often overlooked DIY ethic adopted by acts that were too political or too quirky for the mainstream record labels.

Other bands featured include Country Joe & The Fish, David Peel & The Lower East Side, Yoko Ono, The Fugs, and Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, along with poet Allen Ginsberg and polemicist Timothy Leary. There's also a healthy quota of similarly idiosyncratic UK acts including Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, The Incredible String Band, Hawkwind and Third Ear Band. Absurdist humour, protest, civil rights, and satire are just a few of the threads that bind this eclectic and fascinating compilation together. The events of the '60s that required that musicians, poets and culture in general should rise up and say something. Truth to power if you will. And with the current political climate music and protest surely need to converge once more. Beautiful Freaks is an pointer, an early mapping of how that can be done.