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Tennis – ‘Young And Old’

February 9, 2012

Originally written for and published on The Line Of Best Fit

Rather appropriately released on Valentine’s Day, Tennis – a.k.a. Denver-based husband and wife duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley – bring us their second record Young And Old just over a year after the pair released their debut Cape Dory in January 2011. A series of songs written about their shared experience sailing around the Atlantic, Cape Dory was an album wrapped in whimsy and nostalgia, a romantic record of their days before married life. On their 10-track follow up that romanticism remains intact, even down to the album’s title – based upon Romantic poet John Keats’ work of the same name.

Awash with early ’60s syths and woozy odes to modern dream pop, Tennis inevitably draw parallels with the likes of Beach House, Summer Camp and Best Coast. Low key yet upbeat, each hum of Moore’s electric organ is wrapped in nostalgia, while her rhyming lyrics – such as ‘Travelling’’s “This must be rare ‘cos nothing else could compare, not that I’m aware of” – add further depth to the innocent poeticism present throughout the record. With its familiar melodies and vintage Beach Boys tones the album’s formula is simple yet slightly saccharine, particularly during tracks such as ‘Robin’ and ‘Take Me To Heaven’. Likewise each song is concise, all of them resting around the three-minute mark, a pattern that allows each song to slowly take shape before sinking into the next. Yet for all its passion, there’s no element of surprise during Young And Old. That’s not to say, however, that it’s a disappointment.

Album opener ‘It All Feels The Same’ is a perfect way for Tennis to submerge their listeners into the cool ripples of their lo-fi American surf-pop. Beginning with the words “Took a train to, took a train to get to you/Finally got there and I couldn’t find you anywhere”, Tennis carry their theme of travel and journeying through into album number two. While these lyrics are not exactly profound, in their own context they feel appropriate in their simple delivery, particularly when presented against the music’s soft backing tones. After ‘It All Feels The Same”s climatic ending, the record moves deftly into ‘Origins’, the record’s first single. It’s clear to see why it was selected as Young And Old’s introduction: with Moore’s arpeggioed verses and Riley’s reverberating guitar, ‘Origins’ is a euphoric clash of varying tempos and multiple instruments.

Fellow Fat Possum labelmates The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney was chosen as producer, for his own experience with self-producing, and he has successfully captured the home recorded, un-slick techniques that this record demands. This perfect pairing is most evident in tracks such as ‘High Road’ – where Moore mournfully notes: “Paradise is all around, but happiness is never found” – and ‘Dreaming’, a song that is as fanciful and hazy as its title suggests. Carney also crafts the band’s preference for flooding their melodies and vocals to the fore, unlike many of their musical counterparts who tend to wash their vocals with overpowering shoegaze synths and distorting feedback fuzz. Here, the vocals are not as densely layered as they were in previous tracks such as ‘Marathon’, Carney allowing Moore’s delicate, two-line vocal harmonies to shine through alone.

If there’s a negative to note, it’s that occasionally some songs slide a little too easily into one another, rendering it difficult to differentiate between them. As such there are moments where the momentum lags somewhat, particularly during third track ‘My Better Self’ with its slightly monotonous melody. Despite the permeating drumbeats at the song’s start, it plods along at one pace, with a minimal guitar line and barely audible organ melodies. While it’s not a bad song, compared with some of Young And Old’s other offerings – such as the ’80s infused ‘Petition’ with its high, distorted chorus, and the upbeat joviality and doo wop of ‘Travelling’ – it certainly lacks the lifting and lilting movement that the majority of the album exudes.

Of the ever-expanding wave of surf-pop bands to appear over the last few years, simply put: Beach House, with their moodier, more progressive take on the genre, do it best. Yet there’s no denying that Tennis have still come up with a joyful album, one replete with a lusciously summery vibe and a smattering of exceptional songs. With its romanticism intact, Young And Old’s lyrics echo the very promise of its title: it still has its youthful, innocent touch, yet also hints at its dedication to their musical past. During Tennis’ relatively short career the duo have clearly achieved much and crafted some sublime songs, yet you can’t escape the sense that with a little more variety their releases would go even further, both on record and in a live setting.

All images and music used with permission...

The Dø – Bush Hall, London, 26/01/2012

February 3, 2012

Originally written for and published on The Fly

It’s been over a year since Finnish-French duo The Dø released any new material, but that is not a problem for the vast audience excitedly assembled in Bush Hall tonight. Surrounded by chandeliers, multiple mirrors and red theatre curtains, tonight’s venue is the perfect backdrop for The Dø and their dramatic performance.

With no support band, and a set that lasts nearly two hours, the show is all about soaring vocalist Olivia Merilahti and the multi-instrumental Dan Levy. As the pair – and three others – take to the stage, in front of an immense array of cymbals and brass instruments, they fall into an a capella introduction, a tribal technique that is much repeated throughout the set. Meanwhile ‘Playground Hustle’ erupts, with its bluesy-bass line, before the band begin ‘Gonna Be Sick!’, which sees Merilahti repeatedly shout “I’m gonna throw up” through a fairy-light encrusted megaphone.

Choosing to play material from both ‘A Mouthful’ and ‘Both Ways Open Jaws Extended’, the set is varied and textured, both in terms of pace and volume. ‘Slippery Slope’ bears witness to saxophone solos and chanting;‘B.W.O.J’ is an explosive instrumental interlude of synths and guitar, and ‘Bohemian Dances’ contrasts brass and piano melodies with Merilahti’s tender soprano lyrics, which are echoed back by the appreciative audience. ‘Too Insistent’ is also rapturously received, and illustrates that the quintet can do ballads just as well as the booming beat-led songs that see the entire audience dancing. With its surprising explosive ending, ‘Too Insistent’ encapsulates the band’s live appeal: the fact that they completely re-invent their recordings for the stage, creating a distinctly exhilarating atmosphere.

Returning for their encore the band begin ‘At Last’, where all five suddenly stop towards its end and pose as statues, continuing the theatrics. Tonight’s final song is a powerful rendition of ‘Dust It Off’ beginning delicately before building to a euphoric end. It’s a perfect track to conclude with, one that accentuates Merilahti’s vocals – the crowning jewel in The Dø’s musical majesty – yet also the duo’s ability to contrast cascading loudness with startling softness to magical effect.

Image and music used with permission...

Kathleen Edwards – ‘Voyageur’

February 3, 2012

Originally written for and printed in the Spring Issue of DIY magazine..

‘Voyageur’ – in every sense of the title’s meaning – is a record that sees its creator, Kathleen Edwards, investigate and expand both her sonic and lyrical content with the exactitude of a valiant voyager. As the Canadian songwriter’s fourth full-length, ‘Voyageur’ manifests Edwards’ progression from her earlier records, whilst retaining her charm and personal style over its 10-track duration. Her vocals – often reminiscent of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan – remain beautiful, yet forlorn and while her music revels in quietude, replete with sombre undertones that swell beneath its cheery instrumentation, there is an innate blossoming beauty that informs every track.

Co-produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon – who also provides backing vocals and plays guitar, piano, organ, bass, banjo and xylophone on the record – vast similarities to can be made to his band’s latest eponymous record. The production is crisp, yet fluid, as each instrument and vocal shines individually, yet works harmoniously together. Recorded in the multiple surroundings of Fall Creek, Wisconsin and Toronto, ‘Voyageur’ also evokes the similar nature and place-driven imagery of Bon Iver, while also delivering on the title’s promise to take its listener on their very own journey.

This feeling of movement is evident throughout ‘Voyageur’s entirety, illustrated on opening track ‘Empty Threat’ and its chorus’ lyrics: “I’m moving to America, it’s an empty threat,” through to ‘Pink Champagne’s “Thinking the grass could be greener at last.” Meanwhile, on second track ‘Chameleon/Comedian’ Edwards’ sings: “You’re a chameleon and you hide behind your darker side,” before continuing: “I don’t need a punch line.” As a violin intertwines with electric guitar notes, these eerie lyrics weave their way to the forefront of the song, demonstrating her renewed interest in bringing to life her own autobiographical, first-person narratives rather than the tragic characters portrayed in older songs such as ‘Six O Clock News’ and ‘Alicia Ross’.

Partnership is a key component within ‘Voyageur’, and as well as featuring members of Edwards’ touring band, also present is a cast of collaborators such as Bon Iver’s Sean Carey, Norah Jones, Stornoway and Francis And The Lights. ‘A Soft Place To Land’ – a duet with Vernon – is the first track to observe vocal contribution. Through her multiple rhyming couplets, particularly, “I’m looking for a soft place to land/ The forest floor, the palms of your hands,” the pair highlight their tender twin vocals. Later, ‘House Full Of Empty Rooms’ begins quietly, almost to the point of seeming acapella, before soft piano notes and Vernon’s tenor vocals creep in once again, their dual vocals a deliciously harmonious match, and one of the album’s standout features.

Wrapped in an aura of relative tranquillity, ‘Voyageur’s first thunderous moment comes during the wonderfully uplifting ‘Change The Sheets’, a song that witnesses the record at its most joyous. Originally heard on her recently released 7” ‘Wapusk’, ‘Change The Sheets’ is a keyboard–driven powerhouse of elation, as her lyrics: “Change the feel under my feet/ Change the sheets, then change me,” welcome a hopeful sense of transformation within the record’s personal expedition.

At the album’s centre is the dual intensity of ‘Sidecar’ and ‘Mint’, both written with Edwards’ long-time collaborator Jim Bryson. ‘Mint’ and its classic rock beginnings and choral harmonies sounds akin to mid-90s Sheryl Crow, particularly as she sings: “God knows I want to/ God knows I need to/ God doesn’t know you like I do.” Meanwhile, organ-inspired seven-minute closer ‘For The Record’ negates a different path altogether. “Hang me up on your cross,” Edwards laments, “For the record, I only wanted to sing songs.” Here, Norah Jones shares vocal duties, demonstrating another high-profile collaboration that works beautifully, yet never detracts away from Edwards’ own musical creations and intricacies.

“I just hide behind the songs I write,” sings Edwards on ‘Chameleon/Comedian’. Yet with every song that she performs on ‘Voyageur’ Edwards takes a step closer to becoming the big-name she deserves. For there’s something different about Edwards’ folksy take on music – it’s soft, yet it’s also exciting; it’s occasionally sombre, yet it’s also far from gloomy. Both varied and beautifully evocative, ‘Voyageur’ is the perfect listen for merging wintery wistfulness with ethereal wonder.

All images and videos sourced with permission...

Owen – ‘Ghost Town’

February 3, 2012

Originally written for and published on The 405

As Mike Kinsella’s sixth album under his solo pseudonym Owen, ‘Ghost Town’ is a record that comes replete with layers of instrumentation, as well as tiers of contexts and meaning, each just waiting to be peeled back and explored. And as a 10-year project in the making, Owen and its newest full-length ‘Ghost Town’ appear to see Kinsella – and indeed his elusive, dual persona of Owen – exactly where he should be.

As an album written in the wake of his firstborn’s birth, it isn’t surprising that ‘Ghost Town’ is a record scattered with homely and childlike references. This is a record with a strong theme running throughout, not only of new life, but also of death. This sense of the macabre, and indeed the album’s eponymous ghostliness, sees Kinsella lyrically battle against the tempestuous relationship that he had with his late father. Lines such as “Ghosts that don’t know they’re dead” are complimented with vividly painted pictures as demonstrated through, “I’m not coming home until these demons get bored / In mirrored eyes I see kerosene / And you’ve got my matches” on ‘Too Many Moons’.

As ever, these portraits are contrasted with Kinsella’s down-to-earth, colloquial narratives and language, such as: “I guess I’m still angry/ Still punching walls that look like you/ Drop-kicked an old lady,” on ‘No Language’ and his beautifully intoned rhyming couplets, like: “Dropping excuses like dead skin/ Ignoring bruises like children.” Amongst Kinsella’s typical narrative-style lyrics are surprising expletives, particularly unexpected during moments such as, “Fuck you and your front lawn / I’d rather die with my front hands tied” on ‘There’s No Place Like Home,’ adding a sense of surprise amongst the otherwise peaceful track. As much of the album was recorded during Cap N’ Jazz’s 2010 reunion tour, some of Kinsella’s loudest moments as Owen to date rear their head, continuing the record’s unexpected nature.

As well as life and death, religion also plays a strong role in the album’s contextual output, as demonstrated on ‘An Animal’: “Maybe God will save my soul but in this world I’m an animal with clothes on/ An animal with needs.” The more obviously titled  ‘I Believe’ continues this theme, proclaiming, “I believe there is no white light, somebody’s mistaken or somebody lied,” while choral touches add contrast with its rare use of external vocal input. Yet Kinsella also turns his subject on its head, as he takes a step back from traditional religious imagery to unveil the words, “I just found Jesus / Swimming at the bottom of the bottle I keep crawling out of.”

Comprised of Kinsella’s complex acoustic finger-picking, ‘Ghost Town’ is rendered fully-fleshed alongside the addition of soft melodies and a mix and quiet and loud percussion, as after each and every listen its intricacies and lyrics progressively manifest themselves. ‘Ghost Town’ marks the transition over the years from the sparse, acoustic offerings of his self-titled debut album, through to the more string-laden present such as 2009’s ‘New Leaves’ and ‘At Home With Owen’, making it more akin to the likes of his previous band-based project American Football. Yet far from being full-band, ‘Ghost Town’ is very much the solo project you’d expect. All instrumentation is Kinsella’s own: it is his own detailed guitar work that gently picks its way beneath his inimitably raw and slightly abrasive trademark vocals, alongside the backing of faint feedback, ambling xylophones and steady drumming.

Ultimately, the album is everything you’d imagine from a record titled ‘Ghost Town’: it’s magnificently haunting, sparse, yet surprising and painfully personal to its author. While it is a record scattered with a darkness that hints at the sinister, Kinsella still retains his rawness and unfaltering fluidity that has kept fans captivated by Owen since the project’s very beginnings, while creating an album that allows his listeners to get lost in its simplicity, or delve a little deeper and face their own internal demons along the way.

All images and music used with permission...

Halls – ‘Fragile’

January 16, 2012

Originally written for and published on The Line Of Best Fit

The elusive Halls is a creator of his own blend of electronic music that is gloriously spacious, yet introspective and gripping. Almost two years in, the project finds its introverted protagonist Samuel Howard clutching an impressive self-titled and self-released EP, his double-sided single Solace/Colossus and a stash of credible remixes including those for his self-confessed objects of admiration Patten and Gold Panda.

Away from his bedroom – or indeed the university halls from which his moniker is derived – in Fragile Howard has created a series of interconnected looping cinematic soundscapes, which immediately bear witness to a newfound confidence and skill. At just 15-minutes long, with each track progressively increasing in length, Halls packs in an astonishing amount of details and textures into a short space of time. Fragile is a four-track exploration of the boundaries that Halls can push against: there’s certainly less crackle and fuzz than his previous ventures, and his vocals are more frequent and crisper, yet his lyrics remain subtle and indecipherable, a technique that feels entirely purposeful.

It is Howard’s vocals that truly add an affecting depth to music that would perhaps segue succinctly within the dubious post-dubstep genre. Fragile also succeeds in simultaneously presenting a huge growth of confidence in both Howard’s ability to construct immense instrumental compositions, but also the self-assurance to apply his voice to his recordings. Yet his vocals always appear to come secondary to the driving beats that are cast over them, heard most obviously in ‘Sanctuary’ – the record’s repetitive, synth-soaked introduction. Swelling and replete with his muted vocals, it sweeps seamlessly into second track ‘Lifeblood’ which features a classical piano, rather than electronic keyboards that Halls is accustomed to. Meanwhile the deep, displaced vocals and bouncing beat glitches sound as though it could easily have been a b-side to Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs.

As the first song to be showcased prior to the EP’s release, third track ‘I Am Not Who You Want’ fits into the record as wonderfully as it did when originally played as a singular passage of music last year. It is within this particular track that Howard’s echoing vocals really stand out, with the pitch reaching haunting higher heights than the characteristic lower register that he tends to use through the rest of the release. The sound of strings trickling through from the song’s background as the track progresses continues to further its depth and foster Halls’ foray into the cinematic.

Fragile’s final track ‘Fade To White’ begins with two minutes of repetitive eerie synth drones and faint syncopated beats, before a sole treble piano line comes into play, adding texture and contrast to the song’s backbone. Layers of throbbing percussion and jarring glitches become more apparent with each and every listen, and as the only song on the release to be entirely instrumental, it makes a fitting outro. It’s murky, but succeeds in expanding its spaciousness yet retaining its focus, and as the song ends abruptly – particularly when placed alongside the fluidity of the rest of the record – it is somewhat surprising.

You can listen to Halls’ ‘Fragile’ here:

While aesthetically, his artwork, videos and design is completely in keeping with atmospheric, earth-orientated landscapes, musically, Fragile – and indeed Halls’ previous recordings – are soundtracks to the gloomy winter elements. This uniformity of visuals alongside a complementary sound is reinforced by the similar backing drone present throughout each track, as well as the gapless transitions between songs, all which accumulate to give an enormous sense of cohesion, and a body of music that works as a cyclical, continuous piece of composition. Enchanting and intricate, trance-like and translucent: together these distinctly different elements clash and create something beautiful, for Fragile is a collision of the ambient, whilst being wholly accessible. As its title suggests, Fragile is graceful, delicate and subtle, yet harbours all the markings of Halls – past and present – and heralds a future for Howard as a British electronic mainstay.

All photographs and music used with permission...

The Line Of Best Fit Albums Of The Year: #4 Kurt Vile – ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’

December 28, 2011

Originally written for and published on The Line Of Best Fit

“I wanna change, but I wanna stay the same,” Kurt Vile sings on ‘Peeping Tomboy’, the gorgeously effortless eighth track on Smoke Ring For My Halo. As his fourth solo full-length release to date, the prolific Vile demonstrates a renewed, progressive sound without compromising his distinctive loose n’ lazy, distorted vocals, and his lingering lyrical wit.

Both time transcending, yet distinctly American, Philadelphian Vile creates guitar music at its modern best. Smoke Ring… bears witness to fuller instrumentation, particularly on the electric eccentricity that is ‘Puppet To The Man’. The occasional smattering of a harp and piano – especially effective on the rambling ‘Society Is My Friend’ and ‘On Tour’ – shows Vile’s versatility, while the repetitive marrying of percussion and strings on ‘Runner Ups’ is full-bodied and blissful.

Yet Smoke Ring… is as spacious as it is densely packed. This is Vile’s trademark finger picking acoustic song writing, yet fully fleshed and evolved, as Vile makes the transition from his previous home-recorded, crackling efforts towards a more polished collection, while losing none of the rawness that makes his music so charming and timeless.

From the haunting demise of ‘Ghost Town’, through to the astonishingly upbeat ‘Jesus Fever’, and the immense beauty of ‘Baby’s Arms’, Smoke Ring For My Halo is an album that can only be bettered in a live environment, alongside his band The Violators, and surrounded by his silent, enraptured fans.

You can discover and read the rest of The Line Of Best Fit‘s top 50 albums of 2011 here

The Line Of Best Fit Albums Of The Year: #30 Rustie – ‘Glass Swords’

December 28, 2011

Originally written for and published on The Line Of Best Fit

With four years behind him, 2011 was the year that Glasgow-based producer Rustie finally unleashed his debut album. In Glass Swords Russell Whyte – under his alias of Rustie – has created a modern dance album for people who don’t even like ‘dance music’ in its standardised form. Each track is varied and versatile, complete with epic build-ups and breakdowns, and a dizzying array of influences. Released via Warp, Glass Swords is a constant 46-minute high, demonstrated most audibly in standout tracks ‘Surph’, ‘All Nite’ and ‘After Light’. Indulgent yet effective, Glass Swords is pure euphoric escapism.

You can discover and read the rest of The Line Of Best Fit‘s top 50 albums of 2011 here