Monday, 28 February 2011

Album Review: Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx - We're New Here

Most remix albums are cheap cash-ins by record labels attempting to tempt hardcore fans, but in the case of We're New Here, Jamie xx (percussionist and producer of the xx) has remixed Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here into a entirely new album. It makes logical sense: after all, much dubstep is R 'n' B vocals over electronic beats. What could go wrong?

Jamie xx's work is a strange beast: drawing equally on the minimalist dubstep of the likes of Burial and the commercial, drop-heavy stuff you'd find in Cosmic Ballroom. In the case of work within the xx it works to complement the frantic stillness of the songs, but in the case of We're New Here the listener is unsure whether to be nodding their head or swinging their hands in the air.

The problem is shown best on "NY Is Killing Me". In its vanilla (Jamie-free) form, it's a dark, sparse tune with cool hand-clapping percussion, but in the remix strips away most of this, replacing the delicate arrangement with obnoxious bouncing synths and squeaky voices.

In fact, Jamie xx is at his best when working from a relatively blank slate. 'Running' is transformed a short spoken-word piece with quiet drumming in the background to a almost-danceable electronic track, and closing track 'I'll Take Care of U' is given an xx makeover with reverb-heavy guitars and four on the floor.

When he attempts to swerve to quieter points in the album, however, Jamie falls flat on his face. 'My Cloud' may contain fashionable pitch-shifting synths but it goes nowhere - the result neither intimate nor large.

The biggest problem here is that Jamie xx isn't a great DJ. Though a fair effort, We're New Here fails to add anything to Gil Scott-Heron's excellent album beyond a few dubstep clichés and some nice beats - but in a scene overrun with great music, both commercial and less so, the album fails to stand out by anything but a recognisable name.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Late to the Party: Burial and Deadmau5

As much as we like to keep up with The Latest Developments In The Music Scene here at Quiff Pro Fro, there are sometimes artists that slip us by. Today I'd like to talk about two pioneers of electronic music who, though you've probably heard of, I have completely glossed over until recently.

First up: Burial, whose track 'Archangel' has been sitting in my iTunes library since August 2009. Yeah, seriously. I'm not entirely sure why I overlooked such a dark, moody gem for such a long time, but 'Archangel' is spooky, late-night music; the music equivalent of walking through the deserted streets of London at 5am with a head full of memories.

Dubstep is a wide and diverse genre of dance music, but Burial definitely stretches the definition of it to its limit. It's a million miles from the likes of Chase & Status and Nero, whose distorted guitars owe more to Nu-Metal than Dubstep's grime roots. Burial, on the other hand, scraps the cliched 'wobble' and big drops for a more intimate sound.

In fact, the whole album Untrue is like one walk through a post-apocalyptic, head-bobbing cityscape, with some slower tracks later in the album worthy of inclusion on Selected Ambient Works vol.2. It's spooky without being gothic, and urban without having to be aggressive. And it's absolutely fantastic.

Next up is the slightly less worthy, but certainly a lot more fun, Deadmau5. His distinctive "giant mouse head" is fairly well-known, and I suppose DJing at the MTV VMAs technically makes one of those artists who's too mainstream to be worthy of blogger coverage. (But you know what? I DON'T CARE.)

There's something both bland and distinctive about Deadmau5' work. The production, though fantastic, is also very minimalist - putting the rhythms and interesting chord sequences at the heart of the music. It's a refreshing approach.

Although 'Ghosts n Stuff' and 'I Remember' are perfect instrumental pop songs, for some reason Deadmau5 feels the need to allow Rob Swire (of Pendulum) and Cascada to karaoke over the top of them. Additionally, with five albums (and four compilation CDs) produced over the last six years, he could easily be accused of quantity over quality.

The bits that are good though are really really good. Epic ten-minute rave 'Strobe' builds to a fantastic climax, with interlocking rhythms and a massive sense of scale - worth every second of its running time. It's the kind of music you can imagine filling a stadium.

The polar opposite to Burial, in fact. It's wonderful that "dance music" can contain so much variety within a single genre, and a testament to its diversity and success.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Introducing... Mausi

Newcastle-based four-piece indie-pop outfit Mausi are currently one of the brightest names in the city's burgeoning music scene. It's a genre that's difficult to get right, with the line between well-constructed, buoyant melodies and cloying, mindless fluff being a dangerously thin one, and providing a strong distinction between the bands that do it very well, and those that do it poorly.

Luckily, Mausi find themselves on the right side of that line, blending the girl-and-guitar sound of Sky Larkin with the joyous danceability of Phoenix. Debut single 'Follow Me Home' sounds like the offspring of 'Lisztomania' and 'Beeline', with a toe-tapping beat, a blend of complementing male and female vocals, and a stubbornly catchy chorus. Well-balanced production values allow each part to shine through, without any becoming overpowering, and a softness that makes for easy, enjoyable listening (though not in the derogatory sense).

It's particularly impressive as a debut, accompanied by a video made especially endearing for its locations - Newcastle residents will recognise several Metro stations, as well as the Tynemouth market and coastline. Whilst it'll take a few more songs of this standard to cement the group as a potential Next Big Thing from the UK, it's an extremely promising start.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that it's currently free to download?

'Follow Me Home' is available to download now (see link above), and is being officially launched at Mausi's gig at The Cluny on March 3rd. Tickets cost £4, and are available here.

Monday, 21 February 2011

An Audience with Everything Everything

Photo by Briony Carlin, who is amazing

“We kind of wanted some uniformity to what we do,” Everything Everything bassist Jeremy Pritchard tells me. The band’s solution? Custom-made jumpsuits.

“We used to use our own shop-bought boiler suits for some of the videos which you may have seen. And Alex [Robertshaw, guitarist] came up with the idea for some that might look OK on us. So we got them made, and chose all the colours and the fabrics and everything.” The band seem particularly proud of this idea, so I decide not to mention the recent trend for ironic onesies.”They’re unusual to play in - they’re not jeans and a t-shirt. I’m really pleased though, the air that it lends the show is exactly what we wanted.”

Working on the atmosphere of their shows seems to be a priority to the band right now playing gigs far bigger than they’ve ever experienced. At the moment they’re on the NME Awards Tour (having been nominated for “Best New Band”) with Crystal Castles, Magnetic Man and the Vaccines.

“We were kind of finding our stride a bit at first,” Pritchard says (drummer Michael Spearman is also here, but he stays quiet for the majority of the interview). “The two nights in Manchester were quite good actually, we were getting used to all the bits and pieces we’re involved with now.”

They’ve been on one of these NME tours before - specifically the NME Radar Tour, (the “early learning tour” as Pritchard calls it) which they co-headlined just nine months ago with Hurts and Darwin Deez. It’s a big step up in a short amount of time. “Five tour buses, four bands, a big production crew who are here twenty-four hours - it’s like a big travelling circus really. At some point someone will be awake on the gypsy caravan!”

“Everything’s got bigger,” says Spearman. Pritchard continues: “Yeah, apart from the boring practical stuff we’ve had to learn how to engage large audiences and keep the people at the back of the crowd just as interested as the people at the front. Which is a skill that we’ve learnt - accidentally I suppose.”

Which is where the custom-made boiler suits fit in, presumably. “It takes the focus off what you’re wearing - like if you were in the Drums or something.”

“It’s also about not having to choose what to wear every night, too,” adds Spearman.

A year ago, Everything Everything were being tipped to be “big in 2010” - who do they see doing well in 2011? “Well, on the BBC list we were talking about Wretch 32 [a London grime MC],” says Spearman. “Warpaint. Jay Pool. James Blake.”

“Dutch Uncles. Egyptian Hip-Hop,” adds Pritchard. “There’s a lot of good bands in the North East - Vinyl Jacket. There’s a young band called We Beat The System that are quite good.”

Those who have listened to debut album Man Alive may have picked up on the references to video games scattered throughout. Are all the band gamers, I ask?

“The other two are disabled by computer games, and Mike and I are disabled by our inability to become even remotely interested in them - and therein lies the dynamic. [Lead singer] John’s just about on the right side of being engaged in reality.” “We lost Alex about a year ago,” says Spearman. “There are zombies probably being killed elsewhere on the coach as we speak. They’re supposed to be doing interviews and such right now like we are, but they’re probably shooting zombies and Nazis right now, because that’s realistic, isn’t it?”

As diplomatic as the pair are trying to appear, a there’s a clear note of frustration in Pritchard’s voice. “It’s not just about recreation. Whether or not we enjoy playing computer games or whatever is irrelevant really. Because it’s a huge part of the lives of most people in our generation,” he says through what may as well be gritted teeth. “We are very much in the minority.”

Let’s move on to nicer topics: how’s the recording of the new album coming along? Is there a new album?
“We’ve got a few starting points that we’re exciting about, but at the moment we’re so out of practice of arranging and writing that we’re stalling quicker than we will do in the future because we’re just not in that mindset. We’ve got a month between this and the European tour, and we’ve got April as well - we’re going to knuckle down. We’re trying to get ahead of ourselves, because so many bands find this stumbling block on the second record.”

So the cliche of the difficult second album is true? “The second album is, practically speaking, difficult,” says Spearman. “But then I think bands get better at writing songs, too.” Fingers crossed, then.

Finally, will Everything Everything win NME’s best new band award? “No!” laughs Pritchard. “Two Door Cinema Club will win.”

Everything Everything's debut album Man Alive is out now - listen here on Spotify, or buy from Amazon. 

Originally published in The Courier on 21st February 2011.

Gig Review - Chapel Club @ Newcastle Cluny, 12/2/11

Attending a gig has never seemed like such a gamble as it has in recent months. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what changed and when, but where once, if my memory serves, you could be fairly certain that a great band more-or-less guaranteed a great gig, that no longer seems to be the case. Whether the band plays well or not is besides the point – the atmosphere is just as important as the music when it comes to a live performance.

Therefore reviewing Chapel Club’s gig at the Cluny is quite a difficult proposition. The band were mostly on good form – their setlist on the whole served to highlight how many great tracks can be found on their recently released debut Palace, from the Smiths-esque swoon of ‘O Maybe I’ to the thunderous drums of ‘Five Trees’, passionate sing-a-long tunes in waiting.

Complicating matters was the atmosphere; was it the Saturday night crowd? Was it the amount of people who came just to see what all the fuss is about? Admittedly, many of Chapel Club’s songs aren’t obvious toe-tappers, but the sheer lack of any movement or reaction from the crowd was alarming. At points the band didn’t help themselves – the choice to centre their set upon an eight-minute EP track was a badly misjudged one. Yet the many loud conversations taking place during the more intimate moments, combined with a general lack of attention from the audience led to a sonically impressive but awkward evening.

Chapel Club's debut album Palace is out now - listen on Spotify, or buy from Amazon

Originally published in The Courier

Friday, 18 February 2011

Everything In Its Right Place: A Radiohead Retrospective (Part 2)

Alright, so Radiohead may have messed up our plans a little by releasing The King of Limbs a whole day earlier than expected (a cynic might wonder if it was released early just to drum up even more publicity for their big release), but that’s no reason to pull the plug on our big retrospective. We’ll be putting our reviews of the record up in the near future, once we’ve had a bit of time to recover from the initial shock. So without further ado...

Kid A (2000)
If OK Computer was considered revolutionary by critics in ‘97, then you can only imagine what they thought of its follow-up, Kid A. In the biggest evolutionary leap the band have taken, Radiohead more or less ditched the guitars, brought out the loops and synths, and created one of the most beautiful, challenging and downright brilliant albums of all time.

From the chilling opening synth melody of ‘Everything In It’s Right Place’, with its distorted vocals and frankly bizarre lyrics (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”), Kid A immediately marked itself as a whole world, nay, universe away from anything Radiohead had previously released. And though the initial reaction might have been one of confusion, on the whole it’s a move that most fans embraced, and for good reason. The musical complexity combined with an unflinchingly ominous mood (sample lyric, “Flies are buzzing round my head/Vultures circling the dead/Picking up every last crumb” on ‘Optimistic’) proved endlessly rewarding, every minute put into listening to and persevering with the album paying back tenfold.

From extremely low-key instrumental tracks (‘Treefingers’) and glitchy atmospherics (‘Kid A’) to an incredible horn-laden jazzy freak-out (‘The National Anthem’), Kid A is all about contrast - beauty vs. decay and destruction, controlled electronic beats vs. sporadic bursts of sound, and, of course, the album’s overtly electronic style vs. the guitar-oriented previous releases. Though that’s not to say there aren’t guitars on Kid A - ‘Optimistic’ is propelled by an overdriven riff, whilst the mournful ‘How To Disappear Completely’ contains softly-strummed acoustics beneath the mountain of strings.

With Kid A, Radiohead also bucked releasing trends for the first time, opting to release no promotional singles from the album, in a move that seems more significant than ever with the release methods of In Rainbows and The King of Limbs.

Kid A, therefore, is Radiohead’s rebellious child, one that took against musical convention in a way that few could have predicted. Whilst this departure was a surprising one, it’s inescapable that Kid A is simply an hour of truly incredible, beautiful, terrifying, intense music that demands to be listened to as a whole. It’s by no means Radiohead’s most accessible album, but it definitely ranks as one of their best and most rewarding.

Singles: None
Other recommended tracks: ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘The National Anthem’, ‘Optimistic’, ‘Idioteque’, ‘Morning Bell’
(But seriously, listen to the whole thing from beginning to end!)

Amnesiac (2001)
Whenever I listen to Amnesiac, I can’t help but be reminded of the icy mountains of Dun Morogh in World of Warcraft. Geeky I know, but it was the perfect visual accompaniment to the album: a grim, hostile and glacial landscape the player must wander.

Recorded in the same studio sessions as Kid A and released just six months later, Amnesiac shares its sibling’s flirtations with electronica and jazz, and though its guitars are considerably more noticable, ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and ‘Knives Out’ still sound nothing like the Radiohead of old.

Though forever in its predecessor’s shadow, Amnesiac is certainly not a collection of Kid A’s dregs. ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’ opens the album with a surprisingly catchy keyboard riff, followed by ‘Pyramid Song’ - a beautiful, mysterious piano-based ballad. Elsewhere, there’s more glitchy electronica in ‘Like Spinning Plates’, more ambient goodness in ‘Hunting Bears’, and a new version of ‘Morning Bell’ in a different time signature.

Essentially, Amnesiac takes the ideas of Kid A - terrifying visions of the twenty-first century packaged in dark, experimental pop songs - and has a second go, with results almost as impressive.
- Elliot

Singles: ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘I Might Be Wrong’, ‘Knives Out’
Other recommended tracks: ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’, ‘You and Whose Army?’, ‘Like Spinning Plates’

Hail To The Thief (2003)
After dividing critics with their verge into electronica, Radiohead’s sixth album was hyped as a return to the guitar-based rock of The Bends. When Hail To The Thief was released, however, those buying it on the promise of hearing something like ‘High and Dry’ must have been very disappointed. Though the album includes some guitar-based tracks, there’s also a significant amount of electronica on here too.

Compared to the introspective albums that preceded it, Hail To The Thief is globally aware and politically-conscious, with warnings of totalitarian governments and references to 1984 in ‘2+2=5’, a call to political action in ‘Go To Sleep’, and visions of humans leaving Earth in ‘Sail To The Moon’.

With fourteen tracks, however, the album is unwieldy and focused compared to Radiohead’s other work. The themes are all over the place, and the tracks don’t really follow a logical progression. That said, there are some absolute crackers on here and it’s very difficult to pick out which tracks should have been left off.

‘Where I End and You Begin’ is a terrifying, bombastic piece that combines eerie synths with a full band backing, and then supercharges them; ‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ is a similarly haunting apocalyptic rave. On a more personal note, it was ‘Go To Sleep’, that inspired me to learn guitar. Less of a great album, then, but a good album of great songs, then, rather than a great album.

Singles: ‘There There’, ‘Go To Sleep’, ‘2+2=5’
Other recommended tracks: 'Where I End and You Begin', 'Backdrifts', 'A Wolf at the Door', 'The Gloaming'

In Rainbows (2007)
Radiohead’s most recent album arrived in a storm of media hype. A four year wait between albums was the longest of the band’s career. Surely there had to be something coming soon, fans asked themselves. And there was.

When Radiohead popped up online and announced that their latest album was due for release in 10 days time and that fans could pay what they wanted for it, the internet almost collapsed on itself. Picking up where Kid A’s no-singles approach left off, Radiohead were set to change the music industry. Whether it worked or failed is in dispute - some claim that The King of Limbs’ £6 minimum price tag is a result of few people coughing up much for In Rainbows. In many ways, whilst this was a revolutionary way of releasing an album from a major music artists, as always with Radiohead the music is actually far more important.

One of the best qualities of In Rainbows is that it genuinely takes aspects from all of their previous albums and combines them into an album that is at once completely different from the others (again), and yet wholly Radiohead. ‘15 Step’ takes a 5/4 time signature and makes it catchy and danceable, with a thumping, bassy beat, jumping bassline and Thom Yorke’s signature falsetto. Combining the electronic loops of Kid A with the more traditional instrumentation of OK Computer and Hail To The Thief, it’s an amalgamation of purely distilled Radiohead. And, what’s more, it’s also upbeat! As kaleidoscopic as the album cover, there’s less doom and gloom, with choruses of children shouting ‘Yeah!’, and toe-tapping drums.

‘Bodysnatchers’ turns up the distortion with a bassline that hearkens back to Pablo Honey and The Bends, whilst ‘All I Need’ sits comfortably between the ominous gloom of OK Computer and the electronic stylings of Kid A. In Rainbows also features a studio version of ‘Nude’, which had been played live in various forms for years, and has to be one of the most spine-tinglingly beautiful, angelic pieces of music ever committed to, er, MP3.

On a personal note, ‘Reckoner’ has to be one of my very favourite Radiohead tracks of all time. The guitar playing is simple but exquisite, the vocals heavenly, with a subtle piano heightening the perfection. It has to be heard to be believed, but it’s radiant.

Despite finishing upon the downcast crawl of ‘Videotape’, In Rainbows is a refreshingly positive burst of bright, hypnotic colours. Yes, it was an amazing way to release an album, and the speed of release made (and is making again with The King of Limbs) for an incredibly exciting few weeks, but it’s the music of In Rainbows that deserves to be remembered.

Singles: ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, ‘Nude’, ‘Reckoner’
Other recommended tracks: ‘15 Step’, ‘Bodysnatchers’, ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, ‘All I Need’

So there we have it, seven incredible albums from a truly amazing band. Now, it’s online already, so what are you waiting for - get listening to The King of Limbs!

The King of Limbs (2011)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Fitter, Happier, More Productive: A Radiohead Retrospective (Part 1)

With just three days to go until the release of eagerly-awaited new album King Of Limbs as a download on Saturday, now is the perfect time for a Radiohead retrospective, taking into account every album of their career so far. Rightly regarded as one of the best and most important bands of the past 20 years, no matter how lauded they are, Radiohead’s music always somehow manages to supersede the hype.

So, if they’ve always somehow passed you by, or if you just feel like taking one last look backwards before The Future Of Music arrives, read on for the first part of our look at how the previous seven albums shape up.

Pablo Honey (1993)
It’s easy to forget that, 18 years ago, Radiohead were just another grunge band, riding the tidal wave of Nirvana’s success (in fact, Thom Yorke was labelled by the press as “the new Kurt Cobain”). It’s easy to see why - Pablo Honey is stuffed full of scuzzy, heavy rock and teenage angst, drawing upon Sonic Youth and the Pixies with middling-to-good results. Opening track ‘You’ is an early showcase of Yorke’s distinctive voice, and ‘Blow Out’ consists mostly of a wonderful, noisy crescendo - but ‘Stop Whispering’ and ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ are fairly forgettable indie anthems.

And then of course, there’s ‘Creep’, which threatened to crush Radiohead under its phenomenal success. For years, the band refused to play the song live because audience members would walk out after hearing it, and even wrote ‘My Iron Lung’ about the whole thing. It’s still the best-known Radiohead song out of their entire discography, presumably to the band’s annoyance.

Though now overshadowed by the rest of Radiohead’s output, Pablo Honey isn’t a bad album as such. Its biggest flaw is that it is a product of its time - before Radiohead developed their own distinctive sound and were simply following the latest trends - and hasn't dated particularly well.

Singles: ‘Creep’, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, ‘Stop Whispering’
Other recommended tracks: ‘You’, ‘Blow Out’

The Bends (1995)
Yet just as many had already written off Radiohead as a one-hit-wonder, The Bends emerged in 1995 with a more refined epic sheen, full of soaring melodies, more crunching guitars and spine-tingling, emotional lyrics. From the twisting bassline of opener ‘Planet Telex’ to the fretboard workout of ‘Just’, The Bends remains the album that sees Radiohead at their most outwardly Brit-rock, making it certainly one of the best starting points for new fans.

Whilst it doesn’t hint at the forthcoming experimentalism of future albums, The Bends is simply an outstanding example of its genre rather than posing anything particularly groundbreaking or new instrumentally. The album’s ballads, such as ‘High and Dry’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, are all top class, particularly the latter with its gorgeous finger-picked guitar and haunting melody; however, it’s in the no-nonsense rock epics that The Bends truly excels. ‘The Bends’, ‘Bones’, ‘Just’ and ‘Black Star’ simply sound gigantic, and have rightly become legendary anthems to be bellowed at any drunken opportunity, whilst retaining their artistic and musical credibility.

The Bends isn’t the most complex or musically accomplished Radiohead album, but its euphoric Brit-rock refrains ensure it’s one of the most straight-up enjoyable.

Singles: ‘High and Dry’/’Planet Telex’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘Just’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’
Other recommended tracks: ‘The Bends’, ‘Bones’, ‘Black Star’

OK Computer (1997) 
It was Radiohead’s third album that truly sent them into the stratosphere - and for good reason. OK Computer was a landmark release, redefining British rock music as the britpop craze collapsed in on itself. It picked up some of the themes of The Bends and ran with them, depicting a hyperdeveloped world of humans living out their lives in sanitised misery.

Though Kid A also explores themes of alienation and helplessness, OK Computer is a less personal album - more a cross-section of a world gone mad. In ‘Fitter Happier’ a robotic voice reels off a fractured list of marketing jargon and dark imagery, of “regular exercise at the gym”, “nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate” and the final, terrifying line “a pig in a cage on antibiotics”.

If it all sound a bit grim, well, that’s because it is (Radiohead don’t get their reputation for being depressing for nothing). That said, OK Computer spawned some tremendously successful singles too - ‘Karma Police’ and ‘No Surprises’ can still be heard on the radio. ‘Paranoid Android’ - an epic six-minute track that goes from intricate melodies to an arm-waving slow bit and then back to one of the greatest guitar solos of all time - somehow reached number three in the charts in a victory for challenging rock music over shallow corporate pop.

Though Radiohead may have turned at a right angle for OK Computer’s follow-up, plenty of pretenders carried on with its ideas - particularly Muse and Coldplay (the latter of whom once said they owed their “entire career” to Radiohead). It still stands tall as a groundbreaking, immensely powerful record that connected with millions.

Singles: ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’, ‘No Surprises’
Other recommended tracks: ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, ‘Airbag’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, ‘Let Down’, ‘Lucky’

To be continued...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Gig Review - Maps & Atlases @ Newcastle Other Rooms, 29/1/11

After releasing their long-awaited debut album Perch Patchwork last year, following two extremely impressive EPs, Chicago-based math-rockers Maps & Atlases brought their pleasant mix of early Foals-esque rhythms with the indie-pop stylings of Vampire Weekend to Newcastle’s Other Rooms.

Having two local acts as support was a nice touch, with the brilliantly named Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink up first. Their music showed signs of promise, sadly buried under inconsistent melodies and the sullen look of a thoroughly unimpressed bassist. Coal Train started strongly, though their final songs descended into disappointingly predictable mid-tempo fare, and so when Maps & Atlases took to the stage the audience was certainly ready for some well-crafted tunes.

And that they most definitely delivered, with all the technical precision and lively time signatures you’d expect from a math-rock group. Opening with Perch Patchwork highlight ‘Pigeon’, the delicate guitar riff kept the audience’s rapt attention. However, it soon became apparent that a poor sound mix wasn’t allowing the softly played yet exact guitar parts (often finger-tapped or finger-picked) to shine through. As the complex, toe-tapping rhythms of fan-favourite ‘Witch’ came and went, it became increasingly frustrating to see the frontman Dave and guitarist Erin displaying their practical skill, but not particularly being able to hear it.

The set highlights came with an acoustic four song encore performed on stools in front of the stage. EP title track ‘You and Me and the Mountain’ sounded absolutely gorgeous as the crowd watched in hushed awe, a truly special moment in an otherwise decent gig.

Maps & Atlases - The Ongoing Horrible, live at Newcastle Other Rooms:

Missed the pre-tour interview with the band? Click here to check it out!

Originally published on The Courier Online

Monday, 14 February 2011

Three Anti-Valentines Albums For the Lonely and Disillusioned

For many, February 14th is one of the most excruciating days in the Gregorian calendar. For lots of people it’s lovely – cards, gifts, maybe breakfast in bed, champagne, roses, flowers, candles, a meal out...

To those people I say: well done, all of you lucky people. I hope you have a nice day today; no sarcasm or resentment intended. All I ask is that you bear this in mind – for the rest of us, it can be a little bit crap.

Yes, singledom has its advantages (pretty much doing what you like, when you like, be that eating Doritos in your bedroom at 3am whilst having a marathon session of The Wire, or lounging around in your PJs all day playing Xbox). But, much as you can pretend that Bubbles and Wallace and Omar offer you all the companionship you could ever want, there’s really only a very limited amount of company that junk food, video games and TV boxsets can provide.

So if it seems to you like everyone around you is sharing cards, love letters, chocolates and ahem, bodily fluids, then join me as I recommend, in no particular order, my top three anti-Valentines albums for us lonely and disillusioned non-lovers.

Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring

Poor old Charlie Fink.

Laura Marling? What a bitch... I don’t really mean that. Well, not much anyway – both of her albums are admittedly excellent. But poor old Charlie Fink.

For those not in the know, Laura Marling used to be a part of Noah and the Whale – her backing vocals can be found littered across their debut Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, and she was in a relationship with Fink. When the two broke up, she quit the band, and Fink laid the whole thing down in the studio.

Within minutes of Noah and the Whale’s incredible second album The First Days of Spring, if you’re not welling up then you’d better get your tear-ducts checked out. As he croaks out the opening lyrics to the first track, “It’s the first day of spring/And my life is starting over again”, the sense of post-breakup crushing hopelessness is palpable. “I do believe that everyone/Has one chance to fuck up their life”, he continues. Poor old Charlie Fink.

It wouldn’t be so heartbreaking if the music itself wasn’t so damn devastating. Mournful guitars echo around vast, empty space, sorrowful strings practically slice any sense of hope in two. By the time the track has come to its heart wrenching climax, it’s more than likely you’ll be a blubbering wreck.

From that point on, it just keeps on coming. Each new heart-rending lyric bringing fresh feelings of despair (albeit in a very, very moderately uplifting way) – ‘I Have Nothing’ is almost soul crushing with its sheer desolation and soulful hummed backing vocals. For every mildly positive step taken (“You can’t break my broken heart”, Fink declares) comes another blow; following the remarkably upbeat ‘Love of an Orchestra’, arrives the shame-filled and regretful ‘Stranger’.

That such a depressing album can be so listenable is what truly makes this a perfect anti-Valentines album. If you’re feeling particularly cynical and/or thoughtful and philosophical about romance and relationships, the album will perfectly compliment your mood, but will also leave you with a slight sense of positivity at its conclusion and it’s packed with brilliant melodies and arrangements to back up the overwhelming lyrical content. Poor old Charlie Fink.

Choice Anti-Valentines Lyric: “I have nothing/I have no-one/I’ve been so quickly set free”, on ‘I Have Nothing’.

Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

Poor old Scott Hutchison.

You see it in films all the time – a couple break up. It’s messy, it’s awkward, and there’s a realisation that maybe things weren't actually so bad when they were together. So one of them hops on a plane – they go to New York in search of their ex-partner and suggest maybe they give it another go. Couldn’t it work?

In a Hollywood rom-com, of course they get back together. They reunite, have beautiful children and live happily ever after. Except what if the girl said no?

“I left the house without a fucking clue/I left New York City girl/Without you”, wails Hutchison on ‘I Feel Better’ from Frightened Rabbit’s masterpiece The Midnight Organ Fight.

Whilst Charlie Fink’s breakup album was full of terribly sparse, sonic voids, Hutchison’s account is full of bluster and overflowing emotion. The music is bigger, extremely heartfelt and truly spine-chilling in its cataclysmic anguish. His lyrics are less restrained than Fink’s, running the full spectrum of emotions:

Anger - “Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone/And we can mourn its passing and then bury it in snow/Or should we kick its c*nt in/And watch as it dies from bleeding?”

Confusion - “Poke at my Iris/Why can’t I cry about this”
(‘Poke’, again)

Self-Deprecation - “You must be a masochist/To love a modern leper/On his last leg”
(‘The Modern Leper’)

And, most distressingly – Suicidal – “Am I ready to leap?/There’s a peace beneath the roar of the Forth Road Bridge”
(‘Floating in the Forth’)

Hutchison’s impassioned Scottish vocals elevate the lyrics, which not only describe how crushing a breakup can be, but also how awkward relationships themselves can become. The sheer desperation of ‘The Twist’ as Hutchison sings “It’s the night, I can be who you like/And I’ll quietly leave before it gets like”, and “Twist and whisper the wrong name/I don’t care and nor do my ears/Twist yourself around me/I need company I need human heat”, is overt, and the primal need for any sort of human connection, even one devoid of feeling, which Hutchison describes is endlessly sad.

At times the lyrics may seem excessively crude, but their raw honesty is startling, refreshing and just plain brilliant. It’s difficult to express just how uplifting The Midnight Organ Fight is too, not only in its sincerity but the swelling, sweeping music itself. Needless to say, this is one of my favourite albums ever, an absolute classic, and definitely one for those who feel unloved on Valentines Day. Poor old Scott Hutchison.

Choice Anti-Valentines Lyric: “I’ve been working on my backwards walk/There’s nowhere else for me to go/I step back to you just one last time/Say yes before I change my mind”, on ‘My Backwards Walk’.

Weezer – Pinkerton

Poor old Rivers Cuomo.

Imagine – life is going really well. You’re in a band with your best mates, you’ve got a record deal, released a really popular debut album of fuzzy, grungey pop-rock, living the dream. What do you do next?

Write a space-rock-opera, go to Harvard, have many sexual conquests and failures, scrap the space album and release an uncomfortably personal, loud, raucous album of shame, anxiety and loneliness with epic guitar solos. Obviously.

On album opener ‘Tired of Sex’, Cuomo laments the amount of meaningless sexual encounters that arrived with Weezer’s initial fame, questioning “Why can’t I be making love come true?” to a thunderous riff that surprised many fans of the mainly light-hearted Blue Album.

In direct contrast with Noah and the Whale and Frightened Rabbit, Cuomo channels his disillusionment into 10 songs of nerdy, woe-is-me heavy pop music, with soaring melodies that rank as many of the band’s best. Pinkerton is a murky, self-deprecating listen, full of uncomfortable confessions (“I sniff and I lick your envelope/And fall to little pieces every time/I wonder what clothes you wear to school”, he recounts of a fan letter on ‘Across the Sea’), but also massive hooks underlying the squeals and buzzing distortion, making it as raw emotionally as it is sonically.

During his quest for love, Cuomo laments after various female counterparts (‘No Other One’, ‘Falling For You’, ‘El Scorcho’), eschews a meaningful relationship for, erm, masturbation (“It’s just sexual attraction/Not something real so I’d rather keep whackin’”, ‘Why Bother’), and falls in love with a lesbian (‘Pink Triangle’). It’s a funny, quirky, but none-the-less heartbreaking album that has become a staple for a whole generation of lovesick teens the world over.

The album also contains probably my favourite Weezer lyric ever on ‘Across The Sea’, as Cuomo falls in love with a Japanese girl who sends him fan-mail, once again lamenting the lack of any personal connection as he sings:

“You send me your love from all around the world/As if I could live on/Words and dreams and a million screams/Oh, how I need a hand in mine to feel.”

The musical crescendo that accompanies those lyrics leads to the emotional highpoint of Weezer’s entire career. Simply glorious.

Poor old Rivers Cuomo.

Choice Anti-Valentines Lyric: “Smell you on my hands for days/I can't wash away your scent/If I'm a dog then you're a bitch”, on 'Butterfly'

So there you have it – my top three anti-Valentines albums. They’re the perfect albums for when you feel like everyone else is having some sort of meaningful relationship when you don’t. Luckily, these aren’t just breakup albums – they’re all incredible pieces of music in their own right, but as anti-Valentines albums they really come into their own.

Now go forth, and spread the glorious misery!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Album Review: Funeral Party - The Golden Age of Knowhere

After setting the blogosphere alight last summer with the frenetic, punchy and raucous single ‘New York City Moves to the Sound of L.A.’, Funeral Party have returned with an undeniably fun debut album packed with catchy, funky guitar-pop. That track opens the album, and is without a doubt the cream of Funeral Party’s crop, sounding like a drunken punch-up between We Are Scientists and The Hives, with James Murphy egging them on from the sidelines with his cowbell.

Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, the pace rarely lets up – from ‘Car Wars’ slick, funky bassline to the pounding drums of recent single ‘Finale’. The guitars remain choppy, the vocals constantly at a strained yell, and if anything this proves to be the album’s main weakness. There are bags of energy within the forty minutes, but it’s sometimes repetitive and one-note. ‘Relics to Ruin’ refreshingly changes things up, becoming another high point.

That said, it’s obvious that Funeral Party won’t change the world, but they clearly never aimed to. It’s hard to fault …Knconstantly at a strained yell, and if anything this proves to be the album’s main weakness. There are bags of energy within the forty minutes, but owhere’s sense of fun, and there are enough great tracks here to warrant a few listens.

The Golden Age of Knowhere is out now, and available to listen to on Spotify

Originally published in The Courier

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Talkin' Bout Reformation

Within the last few years we’ve seen some pretty high-profile (and high-profit) reunions of bands once considerd long dead, and 2011 is looking to be no exception. Who would have thought we’d ever get to see The Police, The Who, Pavement, Pixies or Rage Against The Machine live again, let alone hear new material? With record sales diminishing, touring has become increasingly lucrative - though a less cynical observer might claim these revivals to be motivated by loyalty to fans or even creative urges.

The most high-profile reunion of recent years has of course been that of Take That, whose phenomenal success has even seen Robbie Williams come crawling back, and fans of boybands will be delighted to hear that Blue have reformed to nobly take on the challenge of representing the UK in the prestigious Eurovision Song Contest. After last year’s UK entry Josh Dubovie came a pathetic last, here’s hoping.

Fans of britpop will be pleased to hear that Pulp, Jarvis Cocker’s much-loved band of common people, are gearing up to play a series of festival sets after an eight-year hiatus including Hyde Park’s Wireless Festival and the Isle of Wight Festival. There are no signs of a new album yet, but if this year’s tour proves successful we may be rewarded. Fingers crossed!

After 23 years, American new wave band The Cars have announced their very first LP, with the working title Sharp Subtle Flavor. This is a genuine reunion: nothing to do with 2005’s New Cars which consisted of only two of the original members. Despite missing bassist Benjamin Orr, who passed away in 2000, the band have already released clips of two new songs, ‘Sad Song’ and ‘Free’.

Another high-profile reunion is that of noise-dance-rock-thingy pair Death From Above 1979, who originally split back in 2005 over differences in, well, pretty much everything. However, Jesse F. Keller (having messed around in MSTRKRFT a bit) and Sebastien Grainger appear to have got over their issues and are set to play Coachella later this year. If we’re extra good, maybe they’ll treat us with a follow up to their first and only album You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.

Finally, this writer’s most anticipated return is that of superstar rapper and producer Dr Dre, who is said to be close to releasing his first album in twelve years: the long-awaited Detox. After focusing on production since previous album 2001 (which, confusingly, was released in 1999) Dre has confirmed that Detox is finally complete, having been in production for almost a decade. As you might expect, Dre is to be joined by a star-studded line-up of rappers including Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Akon, Jay-Z and (er) La Roux. But after disappointing first single 'Kush' was released back in November to little fanfare, Dre still has yet to prove that the world shouldn’t forget about him.

What of these dinosaurs returning from their extinction, then? It seems inevitable that some bands will want to continue making music - and if it’s still good, why not? On the other hand, it’s easy to be cynical about overpriced reunion gigs, but the appeal of reliving one’s youth (or, for younger and newer fans, seeing a long-dead band for the first time) should never be overlooked.

Originally published in The Courier, 7th Feb 2010.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Quiff vs. 'Fro: Is there any point in physical CDs anymore?

While Quiff Pro 'Fro may be something of a two-headed beast of a blog, the two of us certainly don’t share the same brain. In fact, sometimes we find our views on music and the music industry irreconcilable, which is where our new feature Quiff vs. 'Fro comes in. In this edition, we ask - is there any point in physical CDs anymore?

Elliot: So Ben, I hear you’re very much against the digital revolution of MP3s, iPods, Spotify and the like. What do you like so much about physical media then?

Ben: Hmm, I wouldn’t say I’m against the ‘digital revolution’, per se - I own an iPod that I pretty much couldn’t live without, and I use Spotify on a daily basis (in fact I’m using it right now). But when it comes to digital downloads, I just don’t see the point.

Elliot: But what if you drop your iPod in the loo? What if Spotify shuts down? You’ll have no music collection left!

Ben: I’m not against digital music, but when it comes to distribution, I see the iTunes store and other download services as a fairly fruitless effort. I’m a stickler for having the real deal, a physical copy of an album - you have something corporeal, something tangible that’s the result of a band slaving away in the studio for months. I love having a booklet to flick through, even if the lyrics aren’t in it - after all, an album isn’t just about the music. So when it comes to buying music, why not buy a physical copy that you can then make a digital version of?