In January of this year, Irish rock trio Bell X1 completed work on their sixth studio offering, the somewhat bewilderingly titled ‘Chop Chop.’ The summer release of ‘Chop Chop’ is anxiously anticipated by Bell X1 fans, but perhaps more so by the band themselves. In advance of the release, they have made several tracks available on SoundCloud and YouTube for sneak previewing. While the individual tracks are strong enough to pique interest, their musical and emotional impact is best realized in the context of the full album. (For singer Paul Noonan’s thoughts on this subject, see our earlier interview with him here [part 1] and here [part 2]).
Bell X1 have always had an immensely underrated talent for making glorious music from the mundane. Their choices in subject matter on ‘Chop Chop’ are as unique as ever, from the murmurations of starlings and unexpected weather patterns to pensive soul-searching on both societal and personal levels. Like past albums, this one leaves an impression of slightly uncomfortable self-consciousness, with its quirky pop-culture references and often startling exposure of basic human weaknesses. While the fist-to-the-solar-plexus lyrics are kept to a restrained minimum, there are still moments of sharp wit and stinging candor. Bell X1 have never made music for the faint-of-heart; ‘Chop Chop’ is no exception to that.
Sonically, the album is much more organic than past offerings, lighter on synthesized effects and drum machines, which creates a welcome sense of intimacy. Memorable piano melodies are present on almost every track, most notably ‘Diorama’, sung in a gently introspective lilt by David Geraghty. Its hypnotically rocking piano figure is saved from sleepiness by a subtly shifting meter, while the lyrics are so understated that they almost slip by before you notice their brilliance. Especially captivating are the lines, “The woman she was before they met / he longs to meet again. / Wise is unknowing in the end,” but the whole song is elegantly and eloquently nostalgic.
In addition to their distinctive percussion, Bell X1 have experimented here with some different brass and vocal arrangements, presumably inspired by producers Peter Katis and Thomas Bartlett. Trumpeter C.J. Camerieri and “girl singer” Hannah Cohen, who have both worked with Katis and Bartlett in the past, provide ‘Chop Chop’ with a slightly lighter, warmer color than Bell X1’s past work. (Camerieri’s impressive biography can be viewed here.) Cohen’s debut album ‘Child Bride’, produced by Bartlett, was released in April 2012 on Bella Union Records.)
Bell X1 do have a tendency toward moments of jarring noise, particularly in otherwise bittersweet songs like ‘A Thousand Little Downers’. It feels almost as if they’re trying to create some distance from the tenderness in the lyrics, and, oddly, it does come as somewhat of a relief from the heart-rending melody. Stand-out track ‘Motorcades’ addresses that contradiction with a musically light-hearted take on an emotionally pregnant experience. The clever lyrics are specific enough to feel personal, while the predominantly third-person point of reference keeps the sentimentality at arms’ length: “People cry at the strangest things / Mine is the Venezuelan national anthem.” (For the record, mine is ‘Just Like Mr Benn’.)
Taken independently, the songs on ‘Chop Chop’ are an eclectic mix, ranging from ethereal grandeur to whispered sweet nothings, with a few moments of soulful hip-shaking (‘I Will Follow You’ and ‘Feint Praise’) added for good measure. It’s a delicate and carefully crafted set of songs; while short in duration, its thematic material is dense and intensely thought-provoking. It clearly required great care in the making, and it will be most appreciated by those who take the same care in listening.
‘Chop Chop’, the new album from Bell X1, is set for release on 28 June in Ireland, 1 July in the UK and Europe and 2 July in North America, via BellyUp Records. Stream first single ‘The End is Nigh’ below.
Never one to back away from a challenge, I was enthusiastic about taking a first listen to British Sea Power when editor Mary suggested I review their sixth full length album, ‘Machineries of Joy’. I’d heard of British Sea Power in passing and been warned that their sound was a lot to take in, but I didn’t even have enough background knowledge to preconceive any notions. Now, after extensive listening to the new album, I’m still not quite sure I know what to think.
My overwhelming impression of ‘Machineries of Joy’ is one of impenetrable cloudiness and fog. Its blurry, fuzzy bass lines and wailing guitars often obscure the whispered vocals, which causes the lyrics to get lost. There are some clever and even purely beautiful phrases scattered throughout the songs, but more often, the lyrics are unclear and unwieldy. The lack of distinguishable melody and the muttered, droning intonation of singer Yan (Scott Wilkinson) prevent any of them from sticking in the memory.
The album’s first single, title track ‘Machineries of Joy’ (video at the bottom of this post), draws the listener in very gently and slowly with hazy guitars and soft, husky vocals. Unfortunately, the song stretches on just a bit too long, with very little dynamic change or dramatic interest. (The album and song both take the title ‘Machineries of Joy’ from a collection of stories by Ray Bradbury. Not having read the stories myself, I can’t comment on that connection, but it’s worth looking into if you’re of a literary mind.) By contrast, the second track, ‘K Hole’, is a necessarily more upbeat number about a ketamine high. ‘K Hole’ is easily the most energetic song on the album, and its catchy chorus, ‘Staring down the cannon / We’re staring down the cannon / Of joy “ is among the album’s most memorable lyrics.
After that point, the next several songs seem to blur together indistinguishably. Even the edgy ‘Loving Animals’, with anxious opening lyric, “in for the kill / in for the kill / in for the kill”, fails to maintain its musical or dramatic tension long enough to make a lasting impression. The middle of the album seems to drift aimlessly, until final track ‘When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass’ provides a brief moment of lucidity with its mysterious, pulsating intro, its almost tribal percussion, and its echoing, chant-like vocals.
With 10 tracks coming in at just under 43 minutes, ‘Machineries of Joy’ feels like a much longer album than it really is. Its sleepy ambience drags heavily after the first two songs. Over the course of listening several times, I never felt that I gained any clarity as to the album’s intent or direction and I found it very difficult to connect emotionally with any of the songs. While I probably won’t revisit ‘Machineries of Joy” very often, I am sufficiently interested to take a look into British Sea Power’s extensive back catalog. Perhaps more context will help me put this album into clearer perspective.
‘Machineries of Joy’ is out now on Rough Trade Records. The album’s second single, ‘Loving Animals’, has just been added to BBC Radio 6 Music’s B-list. Watch the video for ‘Machineries of Joy’ below.
When you say a band has burst onto the scene, it’s usually the digging up of a worn-out old cliché. But for The Computers, there is seldom other ways to describe the Exeter-based five-piece. They arrived with a 24-minute debut album of punk rowdiness that was extremely raw and reminiscent of Pulled Apart by Horses debut record ‘Meat Balloon’.
So what did I expect from The Computers’ new album, ‘Love Triangles Hate Squares’? A bluesy, ’50s inspired quasi-homage to jazz was not the first place I was going to. In fact, it was pretty far down on my list of avenues the band would go down. It’s always worrying when a band tries to dramatically U-turn on their style, but The Computers I can confirm have done it with class, elegance and seamlessly have kerplunked themselves as a much more radio-friendly outfit altogether.
They’ve still got a raw kind of edge, and that’s blatantly obvious on the honky-tonkery of ‘Selina Chinese’. The gruff roars of ‘Group Identity’ and ‘Cinco De Mayo’ are replaced by piano grooves and a toe-tappingly catchy drum beat provided by the bands effective as ever engine room. Almost from start to finish, ‘Love Triangle Hate Squares’ is a thoroughly pleasant trip down memory lane, transporting you back to the dance halls of the ’50s, but spicing them up with a bit of 21st Century brashness. It’s an odd mix and at times, like on lovelorn lament ‘Cruel’ it all gets a bit too much.
But if you’re looking for some unashamed giggles and something which you will most definitely not bump into with any other band, then ‘Love Triangles Hate Squares’ is a solid bet, as with mainstream music at the moment, you won’t find something this original and uplifting anywhere else.
The record was mixed and recorded with producer Mark Neill, who has worked on The Black Keys‘ music, in Valdosta, Georgia, and the producer’s impact is underlying in the entire album. Whether that’s too much, could be an issue, but with the band’s new sound it seems like the band have met with Neill at the right time to produce a funky new sound for The Computers.
The Computers’ latest album ‘Love Triangles Hate Squares’ is out now on One Little Indian.
Noah and the Whale broke through their own folk pop barriers with last album ‘Last Night on Earth’, which editor Mary named her #1 album of 2011. The songs on that album were pensive and often philosophical yet musically upbeat, especially lead single ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’. The band continue that trend with their new release ‘Heart of Nowhere’, out today on Mercury. A cursory glance through the tracklist hints at a particular concern with passage of time, which is fully realised upon hearing the album.
Thematically and lyrically, ‘Heart of Nowhere’ bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘80s era-Bruce Springsteen. In ‘Lifetime’, frontman Charlie Fink sings, “we got high a thousand times / in your brother’s room / talked about how we’d break free / guess it came too soon”), which drew an immediate comparison in my mind to Springsteen’s ‘Bobby Jean’. In another nod to the band’s folk roots, ‘Silver and Gold’ opens with a reference to Neil Young (“well, I was looking for ‘Harvest’ but only found ‘Silver and Gold’”). Fink’s voice often reminds me of Tom Petty with its nasal drag and languid delivery, but Fink is deeper and less strident, much easier on the ears. His voice was well-suited to the band’s earlier folk sound, but it works equally well in this more recent pop sound, allowing for contrast and depth that could easily have been lost in the shift.
‘Heart of Nowhere’ begins with a decidedly pop-sounding instrumental piece titled simply titled ‘Introduction’. Its light percussion and floating strings flow almost seamlessly into the first full track, which shares its title with the album and includes a smouldering vocal contribution by Anna Calvi. ‘Heart of Nowhere’ the song features a distinctive string melody, and a heavy, pulsing rhythm section, both of which are characteristic of the album as a whole. Its narrative reference to a presumably fictional female character, in this case called Sarah, is another repeating motif on the album.
‘One More Night’ once again evokes the ‘80s with a softly seductive, deliberately synthetic sound, cool and crisp, but with a deep, moving bass. The wistful lyrics, about a love that might have been, are sung suggestively to ‘Jennifer’, beginning with the intensely provocative lines, “are you lying in your bed alone tonight / while he watches TV? / can you hear it coming through the floorboards / while you’re thinking of me?”
‘Still After All These Years’ is also addressed to a specific woman, this time named Lisa, who is described in the lyric as “dark and brooding, fickle and demure”. Musically, though, it is jaunty and upbeat, with a mellow rhythmic groove and some nice guitar work in the solos.
Final track ‘Not Too Late’ leans ever-so-slightly back toward folk in sound, with predominant acoustic guitar and softer percussion, especially in the introduction. That earthy feeling extends through the lyrics, about “find(ing) my own way to be a man”, and into the legato strings behind the closing melody.
At 10 tracks, including the brief ‘Introduction’, ‘Heart of Nowhere’ feels short in length, but the individual songs are earnest and strong. Unusual instrumental arrangements give the album a mild twist, saving the vibe from being overly derivative. The lyrics are emotionally evocative and often witty, easily rhythmic without becoming trite. While there isn’t a wide variety among the songs, there is a certain consistency. If you love the first track you hear, you’ll probably love them all.
Noah and the Whale’s fourth studio album, ‘Heart of Nowhere’, is out in the UK today via Mercury Records. The first video released from the album, for ‘There Will Come a Time’, was featured in this previous Video of the Moment post. There are two Sundays left in the band’s London residency; all details here.
By Mary Chang on Wednesday, 1st May 2013 at 12:00 pm
Words by Jason Graham
Suddenly Skint & Demoralised is three records old. How did that happen? Dare I suggest it comes from not yet having had that break out moment that lifts a band and shoves their wares in your face? And now their moment on a major is gone, it is time to reassemble.
Hailing from Wakefield in Yorkshire (big rugby town), Skint & Demoralised remains a duo that wears its heart and influences heavily on its sleeve. Within seconds Leeds United player Billy Bremner is referenced in a manner that will typically tickle and tantalise some listeners, while confusing and possibly losing others before their work has even started. As the album advances, it’s all quite kitchen sink and very blokey in execution. Then 6 minutes into the record somebody has broken the narrator’s nose.
It is such local reference that gives the act a solid footing being very much in the now. This is will always be celebrated by certain circles of the audience, these are the touchstones that bring an act close to their public. There is little question of their geography, the only issue is their perception of the moment. This is the sound of signing on and heading straight down to Wetherspoons afterwards.
The words arrive from Matt Abbott. It is somewhat established that he is writer first and vocalist second and that is why the heftier, spoken word workouts here are the tracks that stand out on this release (and the current music climate in general). At a time when Plan B is expressing appreciation for the trail blazed by John Cooper Clarke, Abbott makes for a pretty decent midpoint between the two. Additionally, when the poetry sinks to its bleakest points I find myself thinking of Tony Harrison and grimace he expounds.
It is ‘Breakfast At Sylvia’s’ (video below) that immediately grabs the attention, surfing a cool glide between spoken word and sung celebration. For me the scene setting storytelling echoes the great arrival of Arab Strap on ‘The First Big Weekend’ along with the early peak of The Streets that came with ‘Weak Become Heroes’. It is all about making the gesture to shine a light on some grotty existence and double up the excitement of mundane motions.
‘The Bit Between the Teeth’ is a title that suggests an animal ferocity and determination built on horsepower but too often certain tracks resemble a stagger. The fluctuation between hard narrative and chirpy indie somewhat scuppers momentum, even when the switch in style is so clearly book ended. Tracks such as ‘Plessey Road’ and ‘Lucifer’s Cardigan’ do musically remind of The Smiths (especially the latter sounding like ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’) but its not necessarily in a strong fashion while other efforts at times curiously recall Inspiral Carpets, The Pogues and even Carter USM. Was that really the intention?
My personal opinion is that the guitar tracks should go, even though such was the style of their last album ‘This Sporting Life’. Sure, the direction offers light relief but this band is not the Arctic Monkeys, it’s the beats and strings than enable these words to flourish and breathe, such as on the almost trip hop ’The Long Night That Lies Ahead’. It’s the future.
To name yourselves Skint & Demoralised is ultimately quite the grand gesture. It is the opposite of the ‘aspiration nation’ mindset the powers that be are currently attempting to coerce a generation into subscribing and thus in response we have what is something of a defiant accessible sneer attached to our stereo. But I’m just not convinced that they are fully match fit to pull it off.
Time is already running out.
‘The Bit Between the Teeth’, the new album from Skint and Demoralised, is out now on Heist or Hit.
The EP opens with ‘Simple Kids’ and a sound ever so slightly reminiscent of South Africa’s Civil Twilight, profound and evocative almost like the beginning of a really good movie. The deep piano chords characterize the tune and it crashes in a glorious wrap up with ‘stay close to your troubles don’t let them interfere/with your sense of wonder until it disappears.’ ‘Knot’ ups their game a bit with strummy guitars and a driving beat. It’s also a little more biting in its view of life: “Oh Lord, she chose / she chose the crooked path / from the start she’d never be pure enough / she could be cold as a cave / cold as a cave should be”. Meanwhile, ‘Glory and Growth’ shows off some acoustic guitar skills over an eerie palette of piano and slight distortion. Harris’ voice caresses the lyrics and teases out a story. He is quite hypnotic to listen to. ‘All Those Arrows’ winds up the album with a crashing build showing just a hint of just how good this band will be live.
Supporting such TGTF familiars as Grouplove, Kyla La Grange and most recently King Charles, Story Books is poised to make a splash in the indie alt-folk arena. Catch them at the Great Escape in Brighton 16-18 May. Editor Mary and festival liaison John Fernandez will both be there to greet you (and them) with a hearty hello.
The debut EP from Story Books, called ‘Too Much a Hunter’, is out now on Communion Records. Watch the promo video for ‘Simple Kids’ below. Mary interviewed three of the band at SXSW 2013 last month, and you can listen to the interview here; you can also read her reviews of their live show from the Wednesday and Saturday of SXSW 2013.