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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Kirsty Hawkshaw – Meta-Message

This was a pleasant surprise. A compilation of singles and collaborations form the almost forgotten singer with the once almost-famous group Opus III is not sounding that earth shattering, but I can assure you it is. This is a polished, pumping piece of pure pleasure from possibly the most under-rated vocalist of her generation, which showcases her talents when working with a range of top dance music producers.

Now let’s get this out of the way straight away. Kirsty is virtually as old as me but looks at least two hundred and fifty times better. She looks the picture of health and vitality and begs the question; was rave culture really that bad for you? I’ve been eating porridge, swigging grapefruit juice and cranking out lengths of the swimming pool for years and I look twice as old as our Kirsty. Maybe she’s discovered the fountain of youth, but I’d be releasing a health and beauty DVD and my own range of life enhancing cereal bars if I was her.

Anyway back to the music, which is almost as lovely as Kirsty. It’s that voice that does it. It ranges from the high octane squeak of a mouse sucking on a helium balloon to the husky rasp of my electric sander grinding away at a teak treasure chest. ‘Walking on Clouds’ combines both vocal extremes with more mellow, honey coated tonsils in a progressive trance stormer, ‘Just Be Me’ is a slicker, smooth and silky take on life affirming lyrics and best of all is ‘All I want’; a pulsating mix of trance beats, velvety vocals on and an infectious chorus with noodle-doodly bits thrown in for good measure.

There’s something for all dance music fans and this is an excellent package well worth tracking down. I’d be interested to hear an album of Kirsty’s own work as she is both a musician and a producer in her own right and based on this collection I’d definitely buy it. Surely there’s a record label out there that would take a chance? Kirsty Hawkshaw we salute you!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Aria – Your Underling

Pick of the Week 51 – ARIA

Dismiss them as unassuming Paramore wannabes if you like, but Aria are a bit special and much better than the standard female vocalist fronted rock ensemble. This song worms its way into your mind and refused to be flushed out. It’s no nonsense rocky indie with a twist of something different and as they are so keen to keep telling us on the X-Factor ‘they’ve definitely got the likeability factor!’ It’s fun throwaway pop music and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Monday, 7 April 2014

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

Woodsy, campfire smoked folk music sung with sumptuous harmonies by two beautiful Scandinavian sisters. Sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s actually an accurate description of the gorgeous sound produced by the Soderberg sisters. Their first album ‘The Big Black and the Blue’ was a stalwart on the Into the Valley office stereo last year. So is the Lion’s Roar a suitable successor?

It’s more commercial, it’s sounds like there are greater production values and it flows with a slickness and confidence that has grown out of their blossoming talent. However the songs are weaker than on the previous album and although that lovely folksy, woodsy, countryside vibe lifts even their more mediocre offerings to a higher level, the fact remains that there are only three really memorable songs on the album.

The title track ‘The Lion’s Roar’ is the pick of the bunch with its trademark oozing harmonies and unashamed singalongability. ‘Emmylou’ is a country tinged classic that was forged in Nashville but sounds even better with the Swedish twang of Johanna and Klara’s voices and the pungent aroma of Scandinavian wood smoke in your nostrils. For once the bonus track on an album is actually a bonus, with ‘Wolf’ conjuring images of native Americans, the Jungle Book and North European forests, all wrapped up in silky intermingling vocal harmonies. Throw in the rest of the tracks that all have similar atmospheres, if not the song writing quality, and you’re onto a winner.

The Soderberg sisters show so much promise and ability that maybe we expect too much from them. By any other artist this would be a great album, but First Aid Kit are capable of more. Like Viking queens the sisters can invade the hearts of Europe and possibly discover America in the process and here’s hoping for another chapter in their saga in 2014.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

VV Brown – Samson and Delilah

It must be tough to be a soul singer from the cobbling capital of Great Britain, Northampton. And that’s in no way a derogatory view of the medium sized midlands town, as I’ve been to the Sixfields Stadium on several occasions and found the locals both friendly and enthusiastic. It’s just difficult to imagine Minnie Ripperton, Marie Wells or Aretha Franklin hailing from anywhere quite so unglamorous. Because of this, Vanessa  must have had to work even harder to become a moderately well known singer, record producer and model, and as such she’s not averse to taking the odd risk or two.

Samson and Delilah is certainly a risk. An album that harks back to eighties electronica and inspired by the likes of Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet and Erasure sounds great on paper but is so easy to get wrong. So was it a risk worth taking? Well at least partially it works.

If anything Vanessa leans to the Annie Lennox flavour of the eighties vibe when she would have been better advised to go for the more Yazoo flavoured vintage. Having said that a couple of the songs are absolute belters and worth the price of the LP on their own, and the rest are acceptable at worst. It sounds like feint praise, but the overall atmosphere and production of the album deserves better than that.

The two standout tracks are the pulsing, sophisticated Moyet-esque groove of ‘The Apple’, which incidentally sounded even better performed live on Jules Holland, and the rhythmic insistency of the Grace Jones inspired ‘Igneous’ and there’s even a cute little rap towards the end that I really enjoyed. The best of the rest is possibly the stark electro of ‘I can give you more’ but there’s not much between any of the also-rans.

It’s fun, different and classy. Possibly the best thing to come out of Northampton since Adebayo Akinfenwa, (although slightly more lightweight.) 

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Yiddish Twist Orchestra - Bei Mir Bistu Shayn

Pick of the Week 50 – The Yiddish Twist Orchestra

You just can’t help but feel more positive about life when you hear the Yiddish Twist Orchestra’s folky, twist inducing, joyous sound. They’ve got to be one of the best live acts around at the moment and if only they’d make a proper album I’d be at the front of the queue to buy it. Loving the dance moves from the singer and the cap looks very northern chic. A suitable celebration for the 50th Pick of the Week!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Pantha Du Prince – Elements of Light

I really enjoyed Pantha Du Prince’s 2010 album Black Noise. If you cast your mind back you’ll remember a techno soundscape based on a limited sonic palette of cowbells, glockenspiels and copious other pieces of tuned percussion. It was like dancing to techno high in the Swiss mountains with a heard of jovial cows dinging their bells while a buxom milk maid, resplendent with yoke, simultaneously clangs out a tune on a xylophone and jostles her two buckets of sleigh bells and chime bars. It’s either a disturbing or extremely pleasurable experience depending on your personal disposition, but I know which side I’m voting for. Throw some creamy full fat milk into the equation as well and I’d be delirious.

Anyway back to 2013’s Elements of Light. I was anticipating a diversification in the somewhat limited sound palette, but how wrong can you be? Pantha’s head honcho, Hendrik Weber, instead opted to move to an even more restricted range of instrumentation. In short…lots and lots of bells! Hendrik enlisted the guys from the infamous Bell Laboratory and made an album that should really have been called ‘Elements of Bells.’ However don’t be disheartened, the resultant album is a lush, gorgeous and satisfying mix of chilled techno and harmoniously chiming and peeling bells.

The LP centres around two epic, and needless to say, overly long tracks; ‘Photon’ and ‘Spectral Split’. Both are moving, emotional pieces of music that evoke feelings of stark loneliness, the joy of Christmas celebrations and an almost spiritual journey of enlightenment. There are moments where the bells peel and merge that literally made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Who knew that bells could be this much fun or make such a beautiful sound?

Certainly not bell ringers! Why don’t village church bell ringers play ‘Spectral Split’ instead of the usual monotonous numbers they churn out? Alternatively let the Bell Laboratory people loose in a cathedral and you’d have a capacity crowd.

In so many ways an amazing and awe inspiring album that everyone should experience. The picture in the CD case of the studio set-up effectively sums up the quality of the sounds and attention to detail of the project, with a variety of real instruments, synthesizers and a rack of thirty feet high pipe bells! With some high quality speakers and decent audio equipment this is as good as 21st Century techno gets.   

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Option Paralysis

I've always thought that the marketing on films was suspect at best, but it seems that music isn't immune from the marketers deceitful ways either. "...all killer, no filler..." - Revolver, goes the lovely little soundbite for 'Option Paralysis'. I can sense that you know what's coming even now. Yep, it's the complete opposite. 

I've got one more album by The Dillinger Escape Plan and it had its fair share of filler, but it did have at least one killer song ('Black Bubblegum'). 'Option Paralysis' has no great tracks and is severely average. As I played it through the first time, I was a tad disappointed although I gave it a chance with multiple listenings; something may have jumped out at me over time. (This happened on the also very average album 'Axe to Fall' by Converge, which managed to come good with the brilliant 'Wretched World'.) Yet the best this album can offer is 'Widower' with its mixture of the usual shouty stuff and a twinkly piano that occasionally delves into atonal horror film territory. It's got a pretty powerful ending as well, yet it's cut way too short. 

Apart from that, there's nothing new here. Some groups manage to get by on releasing albums with just one great track, and it's enough of a reason to buy the next album (Buffalo Tom, R.E.M for instance). I'm not entirely sure that I can be bothered to buy another by The Dillinger Escape Plan. I'd probably have to have a listen first. On the plus side a couple of them have got cracking beards, so that may be enough to warrant another purchase.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Annlaug – November

Is the world ready for a Scandinavian version of PJ Harvey? Scando folk music is a harsh, stark and bitter sweet experience at the best of times, but remove the jaunty fiddling aspect and things are looking very bleak indeed. Admittedly, she’s got a long way to go before she scales the dirgy heights of her heroine, but this is still a humourless and joyless album that could do with a little oomph!

I know nothing about Annlaug. Her wikipaedia entry is in Norwegian I think, but she’s a young, attractive singer, probably form Oslo. She has a beautiful, soulful voice with a distinctive wavering quality when she goes for the big notes. She should have the world at her feet, but in Scandinavian folk it’s the norm to aim for the starkest, least commercial sound in the world, then add some fiddles. Annlaug make the starkest, least commercial music in the world but forgoes the fiddles. And hence the dirge-like quality of the album.

That’s not to say it’s as harsh and cloying on the ear as a PJ offering, but it’s relentless in its low key Scandinavian murmurings and occasional waling. The only ray of hope is the moderately jaunty charm of the opening song ‘Ord Som Fell’; a quirk-some, lilting lullaby that suckers you into believing the rest of the album will follow in a similar vein. It’s a great track and worth the price of the LP on it’s own, which is a good job really.

There’s a lot of promise here, but next time; keep the stark beauty, the crystal vocals and the lack of compromise, but add a little sparkle. A jaunty fiddle, the honk of some Scandinavian bagpipes made from reindeer intestines or even the slight hint of a melody. Definitely one to watch for the future, but only time will tell if she is ultimately lured to the dark side by the queen of dirge. Let’s hope not.

 Please note this song is not on the album.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Very Truly Yours – Girls tell you secrets

Pick of the Week 49 – Very Truly Yours

Turning twee-ness into an art form, Very Truly Yours are one of the few bands that the Pocketbooks could overpower in a wrestling match. They happily skip about with their balloons, red tights and weird little dog and then unleash a song so twee that the combined twee factor of Belle & Sebastian, the Poosticks, Amelia Fletcher and the entire Sarah Records back catalogue is completely blown away. Sadly, I love its gentle harmonies and heartfelt sentiments. It’s a work of twee evil genius! I wonder if they could beat Betty and the Werewolves in a bare knuckle fist fight though? 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Amie Macdonald – Life in a Beautiful Light

My third review of the much under-rated Ms. Macdonald and nothing much has changed in Amie’s world of middle of the road, Scottish folk pop.

And that’s where the review could end. Here are twelve of Amie’s songs with her trademark sound, her trademark voice and her trademark song-writing. Imagine if the Proclaimers had not been twins, and they’d been a woman and you’re probably not a million miles away from Amie’s persona in the world of music. She’s like haggis; gorgeous, tasty and wholesome, but no-one outside Scotland could care less about it. Except I have my doubts that anyone in Scotland cares about Amie Macdonald either.

And then, as always, we come to the point in the review where I ask the question. Who actually does like Amie Mcdonald? Who does she appeal to? Too soft for the folkies, too folky for middle of the roadsters, too harsh on the ear for warbling fans, too quirky for the mainstream, too mainstream for alternatives. That’s right, no-one likes Amie Mcdonald, and I have a suspicion that she has only sold two copies of this album; one to me and one to her mum. Nevertheless, we love our Amie at the Into the Valley offices and she must be getting close to Hall of Fame status when I introduce it.   

All the songs in this collection are the standard issue Amie Macdonald stalwarts that we know and love. ‘The Green and the Blue’ possibly deserves special mention as it’s about football, but ultimately it gets sucked back into the swamp of high quality mediocrity. It’s an enjoyable album but unless you already love her, it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.