Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Hurtling - Future From Here

London's alt-rock trio hit the ground running with an epic debut album!

About a year ago it occurred to me in a quiet moment of reflection that there had been a decline in the quality and quantity of left-field guitar bands over recent times. (Yeah I know I'm a saddo but all kinds of stuff goes through your mind when you can't get to sleep at 2am after a day of too much caffeine). When I traced that thread from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream through to Television/Tom Verlaine, and on to Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, The Pixies, The Breeders, Nirvana and so on, it was difficult to think of any current bands who were pushing guitars into new sonic territory. This was before I'd heard of Hurtling, a three-piece band from London led by singer/guitarist Jen Macro. Interestingly Jen has a connection to the previously mentioned thread by being a longtime touring member of My Bloody Valentine.

If you're familiar with Hurtling's single 'Summer' from earlier in the year you'll get the gist of what they're about – they make driving indie-rock that's melodic and has an innate understanding of textures and dynamics. They make alt-rock music that draws from grunge, shoegaze and the deep wells of their own emotions. Like all great guitar bands they're not afraid of cranking up the volume, shifting some air and letting guitars do what they do best - filling the room with attitude and spirit, and being a means of expressing sentiments and rage in a manner that the human voice often can't.

None of that would work of course without a killer rhythm section and killer songs. Check on both counts – bass and drums push and pull in all the right places, helping secure that sweetspot between pleasing pop and the thrill of experimentation. Then there's the songs. 'Summer' perfectly captures the optimistic rush of the season's sunny rays, but peppered throughout the album are moments of shade, darker tracks and sentiments which Jen describes as an “exploration of loss and hope”. Check out 'Let Go', a heartfelt plea set against a backdrop of beautifully rendered guitar atmospherics, or the ominous heaviosity found on 'Don't Know Us'.

Future From Here will take you on a journey through emotional peaks and troughs, its songs are personal but sure to resonate with anyone who's prone to examining their own headspace and feelings. Wedded to that are hooky guitar lines, riffs and textures that indicate left-field guitar music does indeed have a future from here.

Hurtling are -
Jen Macro – vocals, guitar
Simon Kobayashi – bass
Jon Clayton - drums

Click here for Hurtling's website.
Click here for Hurtling on Facebook.
Click here for Hurtling on Twitter.
Click here for Onomatopoiea Records.

The Cold Spells - Interstitial

The Cold Spells' new LP captures the mood of the nation.


adjective: interstitial
of, forming, or occupying interstices.
"the interstitial space"
(of minute animals) living in the spaces between individual sand grains in the soil or aquatic sediments.
"interstitial fauna" 

noun: interstitial; plural noun: interstitials
an advertisement that appears while a chosen website or page is downloading.

The Cold Spells released their self-titled debut last year. Not only was it one of my favourites from 2018, I can honestly say it's way up the list of my all-time favourite albums. The record took around four years to make. So when a follow up was announced, only a year on, anticipation became mixed with trepidation. What if it fell flat? The history of music is littered with bands who released classic debuts only to then put out some lacklustre facsimile second time round. Or perhaps worse, they changed tack stylistically in a misguided attempt at being radical and risk-taking.

I need not have worried. Interstitial is, if anything, an even stronger record than its predecessor. There's a pleasing continuity of sound - the blending of of acoustic guitars and gentle electronics is intact, as is the Estuary English dialect and accent, but it's the songs that impress most. The Cold Spells invoke a world that's familiar but ethereal, with story songs featuring small moments with a bigger emotional resonance. You could call it 21st century folk but that would infer an optimistic sheen that's not present here. The sentiments are street-weary rather than street-wise. Sample lyric - “Half-cut as I duck in the Crown, a too regular thing. It's a shit-hole, a rough house, I know. I guess it beats staying here.”

Much like fellow Thames Estuary band The Singing Loins, The Cold Spells make Folk music that's aware of its tradition but in no way reverential. They're not trying to be Heron or Comus, or pretending to live with faeries in their local woods. They're more likely to reference Poundland or Plusnet in their lyrics, than they are Pentangle. (That said, Ezra Pound or TS Eliot might get a look in.) In short it's music that's very much on the frequency of modern Britain, with all it's faults and foibles. In twenty years time when record labels will be putting together compilations that give a sense of the music of Brexit Britain, Interstitial should be one of the first ports of call.

The Cold Spells are -
Tim Ward (songs/guitar/vocals)
Michael Farmer (keyboards/vocals)

Click here for The Cold Spells on Twitter.
Click here for The Cold Spells on Facebook
Click here for Gare du Nord Records.

Monday, 7 October 2019

James McArthur and the Head Gardeners - Intergalactic Sailor

Welsh born songwriter McArthur has forged out a singular musical path over the last decade. This is his fourth album, following 2016's Burnt Moth. It's folk record for sure but one that's focused on the here and now of the 21st century and its inherent conundrums. Lyrically its a curious blend of the ethereal and the everyday, finding poetry in the provincial. Fans of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter or Michael Head's more introspective moments will find this very much to their liking, not least the intoxicating hazy mood conjured up 'Wait For The Letter' or 'Clearing Up'.

Recorded at East Wickham Farm, Kate Bush's childhood home, the album features longtime Head Gardeners Jim Willis (violin) and Johnny 'O (pedal steel), as well brothers Liam and Joe Magill from neo-prog rock band Syd Arthur. Between them they've created a sound that perfectly soundtracks the setting sun of a pleasingly lazy day.

Click here for James McArthur's website.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Jo Berger & Ólafur Björn Ólafsson - Lanzarote

Minimal emotive improvisations from the far north.

The story as to how these two musicians based in the far north, (Berger hails from Norway, Ólafsson from Iceland), have come to title their latest work after an island situated off Africa's west coast is both moving and multi-pronged. Firstly their fascination for the island, with its beaches, mountains and volcanic desert landscape, took root during visits there to perform. There is also a literary association - the island is used by French novelist Michel Houellebecq in his 2005 book, The Possibility of an Island, as the setting for a cult dedicated to finding eternal life. Again Berger and Ólafsson's shared interest in the author's work is something that has informed their new album. The most resonant association with the island however is the most poignant. It was the last place Ólafsson saw his friend, fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, only a few months before his passing, having travelled there to play a show together in a cave.

The first piece of music on Lanzarote is 'Grain Of Sand'. It's dedicated to Jóhannsson and sets the emotional tone for much of what follows. Based around an improvised sparse notes from upright piano and double bass, there's a distinctly Nordic melancholic aspect to the piece. The fact that you can hear the creak of the piano pedals adds to the feeling of being in the room as the music is being recorded. It encourages a sense of stillness, and calm, quiet reflection.

The rest of the album similarly encourages the listener to explore their own inner head-space. The music is minimal, with unobtrusive overdubs of percussion, Farfisa organ, Moog synthesizer, and brass. There are no attention grabbing moves or motifs, no bells and whistles. This is not music that grabs you by the lapels and demand you listen. It's an altogether more delicate approach, conversely one that's is more effective. The audience for this may be a niche one, but that's in no way a measure of this music's subtle power and far-reaching emotional impact.

Click here for Hubro Records.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Story of The Band - Harvey Kubernik & Kenneth Kubernik

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


This coffee table book doesn't claim to be the definitive telling of The Band's story but it does cover their active years in a winningly enthusiastic way. Aside from it's scrapbook style layout equally balanced between words and pictures, its USP is its drawing from various interviews dating back over several decades, most conducted by the Kubernik brothers themselves. As respected LA-based music writers the pair have encountered and interviewed members of the Band several times over the years, along with producers, engineers, peer musicians and members of The Band's road crew. In addition the book contains eye-witness fan accounts, contemporary record and concert reviews, and reminisces from key journalists, DJs, promoters and other industry shakers and movers. All key moments in the Band's career are brought into sharp focus by this multiple voice and viewpoint approach.

The book's subtitle (From Big Pink To The Last Waltz) is somewhat misleading as the pre-Band era is also covered including their time as the Hawks backing Ronnie Hawkins in the clubs of Toronto. The history-making days as Bob Dylan's electric backing band on his 1966 battle-fray tour also get good coverage.

Don't expect any startling revelations, dirt-dishing or gossip but do expect a celebration and exploration of just what it was that made The Band and their music so special. As one of the era's most photogenic acts the photographs are a treat too, several of which are previously unpublished. They're accompanied by illustrations of ticket stubs, posters, handbills, set-lists and hand-written studio and stage notes.

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. 

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Colorama - Cookie Zoo

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

Banana & Louie LP

A tenth anniversary reissue and vinyl debut for an album previously only available on CD in Japan. Carwyn Ellis spent years soaking up influences as a session guitarist and a music fan, both experiences which inform this stylistically diverse outpouring. In theory it shouldn't work – an album that hops between psych-pop, funk, vaudeville, soft jazz shuffles and all points between. However, such are his strong pop sensibilities it all holds together surprisingly well.

Highlights include Welsh-language gem 'Dere Mewn', the album-closing lullaby 'Oyasumi, Baby' and the powerpop rush of 'Restless'. But there's not a duff track among them, whether singing of lesser known London Underground stations or issues surrounding gambling, it's all engaging. Lovingly packaged in a gatefold sleeve, you'll be hard pushed to find a more pleasing and melodically rich collection of tunes released this year. A delightful record that deserves a place in your record rack and your heart.