Category: music reviews


60602588_340086049894894_5875542229027651584_oThere can’t be many musical genres which cling tighter to the nostalgic sounds of their own past than rock ’n’roll. Punk perhaps, but there is something about the golden age of rock’n’roll’s, admittedly massively influential sound, which its devotees seem to wish to protect from the ravages of time and influences of the modern age. And although it provided the shock treatment which allowed the modern musical era to be ushered in, surely it shouldn’t be required to exist in a crepe-shoed, pre-pubescent, nostalgia bubble. Evolution not revolution and all that sort of thing!

And if that be the case then Devil’s Music is the sound of evolution. For this is music with all the hallmarks of the original sound, those bluesy grooves, country licks, natural swing and rock and roll energy but it is also the sound of gentle transition. Rather than a mere plagiarising and plundering of past glories, Devil’s Music is the sound of the next chapter being written, one that continues the story into a logical next chapter. 

Opening sonic salvo Preacher lays the ground work, country-rock fifties style, hypnotic guitar grooves and a melodic bass line, one which works a bit harder than you might expect but after all this isn’t three chord rockabilly, this is something altogether more deftly wrought and dutifully delivered. The title track is full of swing and swagger, No Fury takes simple musical lines and makes them sound busier than they are, that’s what’s called doing a lot with a little, and Mama Don’t is a bundle of pent up energy which explodes, though perhaps not as dramatically as I might have hoped, into an early rock and roll groover.

And if I had any criticism I would have to say that the drums seem to be playing catch up, following the groove of the songs, rather than driving them, which means that they have missed a few opportunities to really kick the point home sonically, to awe when they instead ahh! If you know what I mean. But as a first outing it gets the job done, the songs are a neat call back whilst simultaneously proffering a new, made over take on early rock and roll. A history lesson if you like, but a history lesson that you are going to feel the urge to dance too. Music lessons were never this much fun in my day!

51femxkgujl._aa256_As opening salvo Homesick Blues punches its way out of the speakers you realise that, if there was even any doubt, True Strays have lost none of their energy. Always great at putting the rock and the swing into old school blues styles, right from the off they remind us that there are few bands who can match them for the sheer power that they inject into the music. (Metallers take note, there is much more to impact than volume and playing every note in the book.)

The blues moves and ragged Americana sounds that they play with are as authentic as ever but it takes a modern band to be able to pack it with this amount of sonic TNT. If you are as bored as the rest of us of ex-rock band rhythm guitarists reinventing themselves as bluesmen just because they have a working knowledge of the basic scales and progressions, and because they could do a passable version of what everJohn Lee Hooker tune made it to a jeans commercial, then True Strays are just what you need.

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58114951_351625428814044_3540246477286670336_n.jpgWell, that’s a practical idea, naming your e.p.to align with your given musical pigeon hole. Here it works, nicely odd, wonderfully non-conformist and slightly reminiscent of Cocteau Twins often grandiose song titles. I’m not sure that it will catch on, I’m not sure I would want it to, that would take all the fun out of such a lateral thinking approach but if the next Nickelback album is called “unimaginative, lumpy Zep-tallica rip offs” or Mumford and Sons release “Middle class thrashy crashy banjo songs” then you know where to point the finger for instigating such a titular trend.

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57311697_10156480013124387_9210045779832471552_nThere is no shortage of bands who deserve the moniker “funky.” Equally, blues bands are in no short supply, slide players are still easy to find and infectious music is two-a-penny. And you can’t throw a mandolin these days without it hitting a band revelling in descriptions such as roots or Americana. What is harder to find these days is a band which is able to mix all those qualities into one hypnotic, happening and hip (‘scuse the pun)  tune. Hard, but not impossible, as the latest sonic slice from Hip Route deftly shows.

The band have made quite a name for themselves by cleverly blending these often mutually exclusive musical traits into wonderfully energetic, easily accessible, sassy and sultry tunes. It is also a testament to their treatment of the subject matter that when you break the music down it seems built up of pieces of long lost classic blues but the end result is something new, shiny and perfectly packaged for the modern pop picker, better still, it arrives without anything in the way of compromise or cash in, or any deference made to fad or fashion. 

Rather than try to repackage the past they just act to remind us that such fervently funky grooves, such deft delta vibes, gorgeously growled vocals, pulsing bass lines and sumptuous sonics have never gone away, they just need a bit of a polish from time to time. Sinking Down is the sound of those past sounds being polished to a point of perfection

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cdreviewsIt’s funny how, once again, I find myself having to defend something that shouldn’t really need defending. The fact that I write positive and constructive music reviews (mainly these days over on Dancing About Architecture) that champion rather than criticise, seems to be an issue for some and it seems a bit strange that people feel the need to gird their literary loins and vent their spleen in the form of comments to that end. Or occasionally shout across the bar that my writing is “a joke” whilst I’m having a quiet post-gig pint.

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22814063_367569767018693_8620686301216884608_nMusical pairings often seem like odd partnerships when you look at them a bit more closely. Take Days of Thunder, a green-fingered, eco-academic and musical avant-gardener and a creature of the night, rock and roller don’t seem to be the obvious collaborators but music is all about celebrating the common ground rather than worrying about the bits that fall outside the central part of the collective Venn Diagram.

If anything is being celebrated here, it is certainly the post-punk pioneering ethic, that adventurous and questing spirit that saw ex-punks and Blitz Kids ditch the trusty guitar and rewire keyboards to their will to create a new sound, a new style and new genre. But it is no mere pastiche of the past, no nostalgic, rose tinted spectacle moment, because it sounds very much of the here and now and also looks to the future.

Most interestingly though, is given the rock drama that often swirls around Billy Jon Bingham’s Ghosts of Machines and the experimentalism of Thomas Haynes’ Grasslands(though this is a lot closer to his work with No Side Effects) there is a real understatement at work here, a grandeur built from the atmosphere and anticipation which comes from allowing space to be one of the key components. As debut singles go….okay, you have definitely got my attention.

veil-coverOne of the restrictions of working with music that is so textured, intricate and dynamically fluid as Richard’s usual musical vehicle, Karda Estra, is that when it comes to live shows, the logistics surrounding the amount of players and gear that would be required to do the music justice is generally too prohibitive. Veil, therefore, feels like his pulling together a body of work, some new songs and instrumentals and some reworked pieces from the Karda Estra canon, that can form the basis of small, intimate live shows. Shows that can range from solo performances to slightly enhanced versions of the same as space and musician availability dictates.

What is great is that you get the best of both worlds, new, stripped back sonic journeys but ones which are built on the same creative pulse, musical references and progressive world view as Karda Estra. (Progressive here is used in the broader, genre hopping, rulebook ignoring sense, rather than any connotations of people dressed as wizards, singing about epic quests…possible performed on ice!)

Last Grains has a wonderful 60’s chamber pop feel, cascading vocals and jaunty guitar work really putting a Chelsea booted spring in the song’s step and at the other extreme Unmarked on Any Map is a haunting piece of pop noir. And alongside these more song based approaches, the more fluid form classical explorations are also given room. Andromeda Variations for Guitar being, as the name would suggest, a wonderfully dexterous, short acoustic guitar piece, hints of Iberia hanging between the darker passages and Amy Fry’s spotlight moment, Chaos Theme For Clarinet, hanging between the sound of a Midtown Manhattan jazz lounge and a slightly whimsical dystopian soundtrack.

It is a collection of songs that shows that even without the usual wide array of musical trappings, the heart of Karda Estra, and Richard Wileman’s music in general, is just as wonderfully mercurial and beguiling even when stripped down to its core. It shows too that the intricacies and originality are central to the way he writes and not merely the result of hanging strange textures and off kilter layers on more conventional structures. And more than anything, if this album marks Richard as a more regular fixture on the gigging circuit, for that alone it is an important step.

0012107889_10In a bigger story The Illustrations would be that mythical band that everyone pretends they were into and trades anecdotes about in a real “Pistols play The Lesser Free Trade Hall sort of way.” If either of its main protagonists make it big, it could still happen. But for now the band are a wonderful piece of local musical history, the sound of young men learning their musical trade and creating some bedroom band, lo-fi gems along the way. I remember being impressed with the song 18th Century Romantic Poets when it was sent out into the wide world, possibly as much for the wonderfully pretentious title as anything else. I’m a big fan of knowing pretension, when done right it can be a lot of fun, not that there is anything pretentious about the music, except perhaps the tongue in cheek nod and wink of the use of the words greatest hits in the title.

I saw the band play a couple of times but sadly all the things that make this collection of songs so great seemed to be drenched in walls of indie guitar and musical trend, everything that this record is not. So it seems that the best way to experience The Illustrations and what they could have been is to listen to Two Parts. Great music normally reminds you of other music you like and the threads that spin out of The Illustrations are more about things other than music. There is a wonderfully collection of attitudes at work, the effortless, lo-fi cool of Nikki Sudden, the avant gardening of Neutral Milk Hotel, another band whose legend was much more than the sum of their actual career parts and any number of 80’s new wave/new pop explorers.

It’s great to imagine what might have become of the band had these songs found live traction but the music industry is littered with such stories, it’s a world of what ifs and maybes, that is what makes it so exciting. It could be that on the success of subsequent musical vehicles that either Sam or Matt are involved in people will look back and claim retrospective ownership, its the way of the world, but for now the songs remain our wonderful little secret.

22886264_10155118286401045_5987135782505495696_nCertain genres of music are, quite stereotypically, associated with certain themes. Punk and reggae with political issues, rock with escapist high drama, folk with history and traditions and ska, and its UK offspring two-tone, often with social commentary, civil rights and unity. So gathering the great and good of ska, rocksteady and reggae to record a series of songs with a thread of local history and trains at its heart does seem like a unique step.

But Swindon, this is Swindon as they say, and the town’s industrial past and railway history pervades every back street and building, park bench and street name, its legacy hangs in the air, so it is only natural that it should find its way into an album driven by local stalwarts The Erin Bardwell Collective. I don’t want to give the impression that this is some sort of trainspotters paradise, it is cleverer than that, much more wide-ranging and covers myriad subjects but the local connection is strong. Songs such as Night Bus to Highworth and Edith New, about the town’s suffragette hero, make obvious connections, but woven deeper into the album are threads which work in local history, the age-old perceived battle between the pre-industrial Old Town and the more recent downtown, plus personal memories and other regional connections, all of which give the album a solid sense of place.

As always the music is a subtle and supple blend of light and accessible rocksteady grooves and jaunty ska vibes, reggae resonances and retro echoes, 60’s infused music made over for a modern audience. It also features an impressive cast of musicians from not only the grassroots reggae and ska scene but also some top names such as The Selecter’s Neol Davis and Pat Powell from the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, a whole host of Pop-A-Top label’s go to players, a handful of Skansters and a host of other top musicians.

There is plenty to love about this album, even if the local references pass you by, the songs more than stand on their own two feet without that being the main feature, of course they do, look at who is involved. You also have to admire the man at the heart of the album, Erin Bardwell, someone who for years now has just got on with quietly and brilliantly creating, playing and via the aforementioned label, releasing wholly original music infused with the past sounds he has always loved. But this is anything but a rose-tinted nostalgia fest, this is the sound of a torch being carried forward into a bright future. On the strength of this wonderful collection, not to mention the string of previous releases, the genre is in very safe hands indeed.

largeIt is always difficult for musicians associated with a past name act to bring fresh music to the table without people trying to join dots and name check, extrapolate and reference, particularly if that previous act was one which rose over the years from mercurial pop outsiders to full blown national treasures. And so Colin Moulding and Terry Chamber’s first post-XTC collaboration arrives amid a flurry of speculation but I’m sure they want nothing better that to see this e.p. as a new start, a thing apart, a line drawn underneath the past rather than part of some fan envisaged ex-TC canon.

After all in many ways the sound of XTC was often defined by the guitar playoffs between Andy’s angular pop approach and Dave’s more florid musical statements so with that no longer part of the equation we get to fully appreciate Colin’s own English pop vision. And with so much to look back on from a certain point in the arc of life it is not surprising that it is a very reflective vision, Scatter Me dealing with the inevitability of returning to the mere building blocks of the universe but in doing so remaining part of the landscape you spent your life in and Greatness discussing the high aspirations of the e.p.s title.

Comrades of Pop is the track that will be most discussed by the fans and followers, probably more for lyrical content as for anything else. It is the sound of lines being very much drawn under the past, the squawk of cats amongst pigeons, the distant smell of smoke from bridges burning and a reflective overview which probably applies to any number of bands.

What Colin and Terry have created here is something tasteful, deftly wrought, restrained and wonderfully English, West Country…. Swindonian even, if you are close enough to get the references. It is in turns lyrically funny, emotive and poignant and falls into a sort of alternative pop territory that seems to be done so well in this country evoking the likes of Martin Newell and Billy Childish, perhaps not sonically but coming from a similar musical mindset. In short, triumph and hopefully merely the first chapter of a new musical novel.