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Album Review: The Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast

 
By on Tuesday, 22nd April 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s summer 2011 – the Summertyne Americana Festival at the Sage, Gateshead. David Macias, the then president of the Americana Music Association, is due to make a presentation that addresses the thorny issue of: what is Americana? Those of us keener on actually watching some music in the beery sunshine rather than talking about it indoors, missed the official conclusion. But surely the answer then, and ever since, is: rather a broad church of American rock, blues, and gospel-based music, overlaid with a tang of country. Banjos feature prominently. But why stop there? Why can’t an album of grunge-tinged rock, featuring tracks which could fit straight into the great contemporary American rock songbook, qualify? Because if it could, what Afghan Whigs have delivered with ‘Do to the Beast’ would fit right in.

In their first career, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs were active for 15 years from 1986, releasing six albums on a number of independent and major labels, notably Sub Pop, home to grunge contemporaries Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. But despite fraternal connections, The Afghan Whigs have always shown influences more left-field than most of their contemporaries, with an evident enthusiasm for classic soul (cf 1992’s album of soul and R ‘n’ B covers ‘Uptown Avondale’), utilising avant-garde mutations of classic songwriting technique.

In contrast to the 16 years we’ve waited for a new release from The Afghan Whigs, now the record has arrived, it wastes no time in getting down to business. ‘Do to the Beast’ opens with ‘Parked Outside’, a swaggering, uncompromising, riff-laden dirge heavy with fuzzed guitars and Greg Dulli’s guttural roar. It’s the sound of grunge, made contemporary for 2014, by men who survived it the first time around. ‘Matamoros’ mixes an electronica-inspired insistent groove, a darkly intense chorus and some strings more Moroccan than Mexican. ‘It Kills’ reveals a delicate underbelly to the band’s sound – “It kills to watch you love another” a self-explanatory confessional matched in tenderness by the understated arrangement and Dulli’s cracked baritone. ‘Algiers’ (video below) is a great American road song, all passionately-strummed acoustic guitar and mid-tempo angst. The sort of thing that Cherry Ghost can knock off in their sleep, but no less evocative for that. ‘Lost in the Woods’ converts a maudlin intro into a unashamedly chart-bothering melodic chorus, one which could easily have come from the pen of soul-era Detroit song-factory luminaries, if they arranged for electric guitar. A curiously schizophrenic arrangement, and one which mirrors the personality of the record as a whole.

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The second half kicks off with ‘The Lottery’, a riffy, noisy thing, similar to their very earliest work. More interesting is what follows. ‘Can Rova’ is a great example of where Afghan Whigs differ from their contemporaries – the ability to execute a delicate ballad of tender beauty. This is rock in name only, the Americana label writ large – there’s even some banjo. And then there’s the final duplet. ‘I Am Fire’ is a world-weary dirge arranged for handclaps and despairing vocal. And as triumphant endings go, ‘These Sticks’ is itself a triumph. Attempting the seemingly impossible task of weaving all the disparate threads of the album into one coherent whole, it succeeds. The electric guitars are back, the drums are real, there’s a horn section for good measure.

Don’t ask about the lyrical content. Dulli is famed for his hard-hitting autobiographical style, and there’s no reason to think that ‘Do to the Beast’ disappoints in that regard. There’s simply not enough time or room in a review to properly plumb the depths of his psyche, to do justice to the self-loathing and corruption bubbling within. Suffice to say, the title itself is enough of an indication of what to expect – presumably a corrupted reference to the ancient ethic of reciprocity: “Do unto the Beast as you would have the Beast do unto you.” It could take several years of therapy to unravel what he’s on about here, and that’s just the album title. Approach with caution.

So there we have it. This is the sound of band that have no time for creative boundaries – if it sounds good, it’s in, genre be damned. So there’s the heavy guitar riffs as expected, mixed in with widescreen road songs, acoustic interludes, all given coherence by Dulli’s distinctive voice, at times reminiscent of Billy Corgan and even Rod Stewart. It’s a remarkable achievement for a band that have been away for a decade and a half – to seamlessly carry on where they left off. And ‘Do to the Beast’, in both its sound and its content, is as good as anything Afghan Whigs have ever recorded. Old fans will be delighted, and there’s doubtless a whole new generation just waiting to be inculcated as to the ways of Dulli. Poor dears.

8/10

The Afghan Whigs’ newest album ‘Do to the Beast’, the American band’s first in 16 years, is out now on Sub Pop.

 

Album Review: Darlia – Candyman EP

 
By on Monday, 21st April 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Darlia aren’t known for reinventing the wheel. In fact, they’re known for doing things by halves; half ball-busting rock riffs and husky vowels over arpeggiated melodies. And, so it is that the three boys from Blackpool return with a collection of tracks that can be defined by their relative diversity within this occasionally prescriptive spectrum. The timing of their latest EP ‘Candyman’, released last week on B-Unique Records, means that any prospective degree of success could serve as a potent fuel to the band’s festival prospects, having already signed up for the likes of Rock Am Ring, Great Escape and 2000 Trees.

‘Candyman’ (stream it below) starts bombastically; a mess of durgy power chords and high tension squeals that creates a rush of anticipation akin to the anticipation after uttering the famous title phrase 3 times in the mirror. In tried and true Darlia style, there is a significant tonal shift between the beef of the riff, and the jangling quorn of the verse.

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Think A on the likes of ‘Nothing’; it is a complex tapestry, but one that has been stitched together with some accomplishment. The chorus is a catchy cacophony of rousing choral tropes backed by more meathead chords. But it is let down somewhat by a second vocal layer thrust so high in to the mix that it detracts from the main impetus. The solo sticks flaccidly to the top end of the neck, leaning back into a classic rock groove that fits with the overall flow but will not melt your face off. The track calls time with another round of chorus, pushing the limit of vocal reverb so much that it sounds as though it is being played from the back of a truck speeding past at 100 mph.

The second number, ‘Animal Kingdom’, is an altogether sunnier affair, still tinged with a kind of ‘Black Hole Sun’ quirkiness derived from an almost aquatic secondary guitar tone. Both tracks possess a singalong quality, but in such disparate ways. ‘Animal Kingdom’ attempts to inspire emotion in it’s irreverence, but ends up being almost irritatingly non-committal. This is highlighted by the spaghetti western solo, which seems to come from nowhere but is at the same time one of the most endearing and clear elements of unique character.

A rolling bass line comes to the fore on final track ‘Blood Money’. It is a track for the rhythm section purists, with verses supported by neat flourishes by Jack Bentham on the skins, creating an original beat with a cute little skip to it. Sadly, the rest of the number veers towards a kind of self-indulgent, fractious anarchy in the mould of The Vines, that cites it as the weakest of the three.

Overall, this EP is a bit like climbing into a steaming hot shower, only for your deaf nan to go and switch on the cold tap at the kitchen sink; it leaves you wet, exposed and just a little confused. The title track bears all the hallmarks of previous releases that have hiked the band up by the belt buckle to where they now dwell. But, ‘Animal Kingdom’ and ‘Blood Money’ feel like an experiment designed to find the answer to a question that didn’t need asking. Darlia don’t do dull. If they stick to massive riffs, melodic verses and a hint of wild-eyed warbling, then they’ll do just fine.

5/10 (7 for ‘Candyman’)

Darlia’s latest EP ‘Candyman’ is out now on B-Unique Records. As described by our Martin back in February here, the band will be making high-profile appearances at Liverpool Sound City, Live at Leeds and the Great Escape in May 2014.

 

Album Review: Daniel Pearson – Escape Acts EP

 
By on Thursday, 17th April 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Escape Acts EP CoverEnglish singer/songwriter Daniel Pearson has just released a new EP, ‘Escape Acts’, leading into his appearance at Live at Leeds next month. In his recent interview with us, Pearson described ‘Escape Acts’ as an intermediate step between albums and an opportunity to fine tune a couple of his previous recordings. Along with two reworked tracks, the EP is bookended by two new tracks intended to whet the appetites of his growing audience.

The songs on ‘Escape Acts’ are somewhat varied in terms of musical style, but Pearson has pointed to the lyrical theme of “escaping or wanting to escape” as a unifying factor on the EP. Opening track ‘Lost My Way’ (video below) is a fairly straightforward rock number with a punchy “na-na-na” chorus. The lyrics in its verses reflect Pearson’s struggles as an indie artist, “Tell me I’ll never eat lunch in this town again / I need to be told everything twice / Keep your enemies closer than your friends / I got sick of taking bad advice”.

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‘Promises Promises’ is a tighter, cleaner version of the guitar-driven, blues rock-flavored track ‘Promises’, from 2012 release ‘Mercury State’. The vocals are featured more prominently in the sound mix of the new version, which I felt was a step in the right direction for a writer whose lyrics are really the distinguishing factor in his music. Pearson similarly focuses on the poignant lyrics of ‘Satellite Town’, giving it a little more space and vocal expression here than in the original version from 2011’s ‘Satellites’. New track ‘I Dug Myself a Hole’ has a bit of a country twang behind its electric guitar riff and a haunting backing vocal in the final chorus, which finally hits Pearson’s emotional mark at the very end of the EP.

‘Escape Acts’ is a solid group of songs that gives a nice taste of what Pearson is capable of as a songwriter. The simplicity and emotional value of the lyrics is appealing, but the unadorned melodies and sparse instrumental arrangements left me wanting more from Pearson’s rather detached vocal delivery. In spite of that, his lyrics do strike an emotional chord, and the raw authenticity of these songs is certainly the strong point of both the new and revised recordings.

7.5/10

‘Escape Acts’ is out now on Saint In The City Records.

 

Album Review: Various artists – Endangered: Fierce Panda 2004-2014

 
By on Monday, 14th April 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Fierce Panda Records may be famously noted by pedants of the British music business as being the label that launched the careers of Coldplay and Keane, but if that was all to the label, it wouldn’t be still standing. It’s hard for me to fathom that here we are in the year 2014, and Fierce Panda has been in business for 2 decades. The London indie label has championed the little guy and released so much great music in the last 20 years, it would take me far too long to go through their storied history than there is space on our humble Web site. Instead, I’m going to focus on a new 18-track compilation the label is offering up for free with any record purchase from their online shop.

The LP’s title ‘Endangered: Fierce Panda 2004-2014’ is innocuous enough, not at all telling of its contents when, in fact, it is a careful selection of, oddly, the saddest songs from their back catalogue of the last 10 years. I say oddly, because celebrating and (surviving) 20 years in anything these days is cause for celebration, surely? However, despite being advertised by the label themselves as “some of the weepiest tunes it has had the tragic pleasure to put out over the past ten years”, you should be more impressed by the quality of the music not to slit your wrists. Hopefully, anyway. Maybe the whole ‘sad song’ is meant to be cheeky, now that I think about it.

‘Endangered’ does not rely solely on sob story, folky singer/songwriter types and in so doing, shows the breadth of Fierce Panda’s roster. But let’s first examine the more obvious sad songs. Danish girl/boy duo The Raveonettes‘ ‘Last Dance’ is innocent and twee, and Canadians Woodpigeon‘s ‘The Saddest Music in the World’ that opens the album is similar, but with added Simon and Garfunkel influence. Los Angeles quintet Milo Greene‘s harmonies shine on the Biblical leaning ‘Son My Son’, while the voice and songwriting of Tom Hickox, already being compared to Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave’s, haunts with desolation on ‘Let Me Be Your Lover’, with sombre piano and then added strings and horns.

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The more bombastic numbers in this collection include the now-on-hiatus Walkmen and their optimistic (or delusional?) ‘In the New Year’, the slow burning Acres of Lions‘ ‘Collections’, Hatcham Social‘s rich guitars in ‘Sidewalk’ and Dingus Khan‘s whistle-filled ‘Made a List’; the latter’s inclusion in particular surprised me, but it just goes to show that even if you’re looking rough and tumble on the outside, you can still feel sadness inside. The sonic beauty of Ultrasound‘s ‘Sovereign’ is marred, presumably on purpose, by the repetition of the lyric “we are unclean” and the business of sex and sin, all wailed by singer Andrew “Tiny” Wood. The same can be said for tracks that include synths or twinkly keys: ‘They All Laughed’ by the Spinto Band sounds cheerful in a music box sort of way but it veils, not very well, the disgust he has for a former love, while the psychedelic feelings that Hey Sholay‘s ‘The Bears The Clocks The Bees’ engenders are appropriate for a song about confusion in a relationship.

It should also noted that sadness can also come out of mind games, craving someone else or the deepest regret. The industrial Nine Inch Nail-sey sound of Department M‘s ‘J-Hop’ (stream above) comes with the element of desire with its sensual lyrics, “we ply / by the logic of the reasoned minds / and one last time I’ll come to your body / what do you need?” The genius behind Art Brut‘s ‘Rusted Guns of Milan’ is Eddie Argos’ admittance, in his usual funny way, that he’s messed up in a relationship and he wants a second chance. Meanwhile, a similar request for a second chance is captured in a brilliant snapshot in ‘Last Decade’ by Goldheart Assembly (video below), showing a man’s final moments, first desperate to reconcile with a lover but then resigning to his fate: “but you know I’d go back, but there is no way…” I Like Trains‘ ‘A Rook House for Bobby’ I’m guessing is named for chess champion and famed recluse Bobby Fischer, using his hermit existence as a metaphor for how love can cause depression. The self-deprecation and admittance of weakness in the little girl voice of Melanie Pain in ‘How Bad Can It Be’ is, no pun intended, painful: “everyone knows I won’t change / everyone knows love is not my game / everyone know who I am / everyone but you.”

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Additional Panda melancholy comes courtesy of Sheffield in the form of two exemplary tracks. A man’s exasperation over his lover’s worry about losing him is made all too real in Tom Hogg’s expressive vocals with his bandmates’ gorgeously crooning backing in ‘Would You Be Blue’ by the Hosts (stream below) from this year’s debut album from them, ‘Softly, Softly’. Meanwhile, the loneliness of the protagonist of The Crookes ‘Howl’ from ‘Soapbox’ released today is haunted by the memory of another’s love, as George Waite’s voice is alternately dreamy and contemplative in the romance of song-induced candlelight: “and there’s no time, only light / no clocks, but shadows that hide the point when day becomes night / it’s hard to tell with these skies… I heard the howl, I love you but you keep me down.”

I think those two songs tell the ‘sad song story’ of Fierce Panda’s last 10 years the best, and why? Sad songs, like love songs, are often misunderstood. Emotions like sadness, loneliness and indeed, even love are like jewels. Whether they mean to or not, the people who gloss over emotion don’t seem to understand that they aren’t one-dimensional but instead multi-faceted, with dull and lifeless versus bright and sharp faces and something new to discover upon each listen. As a collection of the ‘sad song’ genre, ‘Endangered’ is a great introduction to the many wonderful artists on the Fierce Panda roster, and I can’t imagine you won’t find at least one song that will make you feel something deep in your heart.

7.5/10

You can get ‘Endangered: Fierce Panda 2004-2014′ now for free if you order any album from the Fierce Panda online shop here. For more information on the bands signed to Fierce Panda, those included in this collection and those not, visit the label’s official Web site. For a limited time, you can get another eight-track song sampler (not all sad songs!); more details in this previous MP3(s) of the Day post.

 

Album Review: Glass Animals – Gooey EP

 
By on Thursday, 10th April 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

I’ve been, shall we say, mildly obsessed with Glass Animals since seeing them at SXSW 2014 last month. They were on my peripheral radar, one of those bands I’d heard of but never really listened to, until their oozing electro sensuality captured my attention first at Harvest Records showcase and again at the the British Music Embassy. It seems appropriate that their latest EP centers around a track titled ‘Gooey,’ as their overall vibe does have a sort of thickness to it, a stickiness that grabs me and holds me in, though not entirely against my will.

I’ve discussed my feeling of disorientation regarding electronic music on several occasions, (read here and here for example), but I think I’ve connected to the Glass Animals’ take on it because they come from a more visceral and organic direction; the melding of the reverberant live instruments, the synthetic electro effects and the soulful R&B vocals is as palpable as it is audible. Bayley’s soft falsetto slithers smoothly around often nonsensical lyrics that are almost tangible themselves, including “I’d say I told you so, but you just gonna cry / You just wanna know those peanut butter vibes”.

The ‘Gooey’ EP contains the dizzyingly sensual original version of its eponymous track, as well as a reworked version with a rap overlay by Chester Watson and remixes by Chicago producer Gilligan Moss and Los Angeles DJ / producer Kingdom. The Gilligan Moss remix is a bit more crisply upbeat, the percussion a bit sharper, the electro sounds a bit edgier than the original. The purely instrumental Kingdom remix is ethereal and dark, even a bit harsh without the fluidity of Bayley’s vocals.

‘Holiest’ features responsively slinky female vocals by urban r&b singer Tei-Shi mingling with Bayley’s. Speaking of the collaborations on the EP, Bayley says, “I love collaborating. I love it when someone outside the group can bring something to a track that we can’t ourselves. Be it a crazy idea, a skill or something stylistic…we’re only four boys from Oxford and there’s only so much we can do musically.” However, this EP proves, if nothing else, that Glass Animals are more than willing to stretch their limits. [Then again, we already knew this from their covering of a Kanye West track down under last week. - Ed.]

7.5/10

Stream the entire ‘Gooey’ EP below. The EP is out now on Wolf Tone/Caroline International.

 

Album Review: High Hazels – In the Half Light EP

 
By on Thursday, 3rd April 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Sheffield band High Hazels will be releasing their debut EP on Monday. But before I dive headlong into a review of the songs themselves, I wanted to take a moment to discuss its wonderful title first. ‘In the Half Light’ is, putting it mildly, incredibly evocative. In the wilds of my imagination, my mind conjures up scenes of stirring just as the sun peeks its head over the horizon, as the beauty of dawn breaking is revealed. In the context of the songs on this EP, however, my mind goes one step further, seeing a lonesome male figure awoken by the memory of someone dear but lost to him, as the noted half light turns into day and the wistfulness -and sadness – remains.

‘In the Half Light’ may be only a small collection of a paltry four songs, but it’s an incredibly strong set of four songs. The EP begins with ‘French Rue’, a tune I fell in love with researching this Bands to Watch feature on the group back in the summer of 2013. If you read other media outlets’ impression of the band, the word “psychedelic” is bandied about. But are High Hazels’ guitars psychedelic? Not from my vantage point, and not in the trippy, multi-coloured kaleidoscope way, but perhaps more so in a nostalgic, echoey, at times drone-y fashion.

And to be perfectly frank, I wouldn’t want to be under the influence of anything while listening to High Hazels. (Just to prove to you how un-rock ‘n’ roll I am, I’m reviewing this sat with my laptop as my washing machine is chugging away with my laundry in the next room.) There’s something to be said when you’re enjoying a song with vocals clear as a bell, emotional guitars and understated drumming that holds everything together like the final piece of a puzzle. In a less talented group’s hands, this EP could have gone horribly wrong. But in hands of this band, it’s perfection, and High Hazels have set the bar high for their future.

‘French Rue’ evokes true heartbreak with the backdrop of a sympathetic setting sun; previously revealed, beautiful yet incredibly catchy ‘Summer Rain’ (my review from last month here; promo video here) moves the story into the bedroom, where dreams of a former lover and more carefree days under the same sun haunts its protagonist to the core. Though it’s not as strong as these two, frontman James Leesley’s vocals are nimble across the melody in ‘Loose Stitches’ are admirable, as the track weaves a nighttime tale of fading light, togetherness, dreams and desire.

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But I bring your attention to track 2 of the EP. We may be in the throes of the start of spring, but the tastefully plucked notes of ‘Winter Song’ brings back memories of colder days, of “ghostly roads”, icy ground and the loneliness you feel in that aforementioned half light: half awake, half asleep, in a hazy dream. I reckon that was the point of this whole EP: ‘In the Half Light’ was made to make you feel something, and something deep. With that goal in mind, High Hazels have succeeded.

8/10

‘In the Half Light’, the debut EP by High Hazels for their label Heist or Hit Records, will be released next Monday, the 7th of April. The band will be playing an EP launch party at home at the Sheffield Queens Social Club next Friday, the 11th of April. The following week, they head out on tour with their city brethren the Crookes on a 2-and-a-half week tour of the UK; all the dates are listed here.

 
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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest tours, gigs, and music we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like idiots.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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