Album Review: Harry George Johns – ‘Post-Breakdown Blues’

268463_387920757961387_284600032_nAll good songwriters draw from their personal experiences, often using their songs as a way of challenging the myriad demons which those experiences often can lead them to confront.   One week in December 2011 not only provided Harry George Johns with enough demons to take several lifetimes to challenge, but with enough lyrical inspiration to fill dozens of albums, never mind just this initial mini-album (as he chooses to call it).

During the time period in question, Johns lost his house, his job, his girlfriend – and, as he candidly explains himself, “pretty much my mind”:  the circumstances brought about by alcohol and drug addiction, the result saw him sitting in a bar in his hometown of Leeds, “with a bag of clothes and my skateboard trying to figure out not what went wrong, but simply where I was going to sleep that night”.  Slowly, with the help of friends, doctors and therapists, he started to rebuild his life – and now, just over a year later, Johns has released a batch of songs written during that time, and thus serving as its soundtrack.

Unsurprisingly, ‘Post-Breakdown Blues’ is a collection of deeply personal songs, mostly delivered via Johns’ voice and acoustic guitar, which is both introverted – such as the laconic, bittersweet opener ‘Drink Myself To Sleep’, which uses cello to add to its morose density – and uplifting, such as the catchy ‘Sleep Is The Cousin Of Death’, or both at the same time, such as the bluegrass-infused foot-stomp of ‘Tie Your Own Noose’.

What is surprising is that, despite their introspection, their darkness, the songs manage to avoid coming across as self-pitying:  instead of feeling sorry for himself and the situation in which he found himself, Johns uses his songwriting skills to look to the future – “OK, I’m here, and this is how I got here… now where do I go, and how do I get there?”  It’s an approach that is refreshing and honest, and makes for an all the more rewarding listen as a result.

‘Post-Breakdown Blues’ will be available as a ‘pay-what-you-want’ download from Harry’s Bandcamp page from February 11th. Go here for more info. 

Harry George Johns also plays the following live dates:

March 7 – Wakefield, The Hop

March 9 – Norwich, Olives

March 14 – Leeds, Sela Bar

March 23 – Coventry, Inspire

April 06 – Carlisle, The Royal Scot

April 20 – Edinbrough, Hendersons @ St Johns

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Album Review: Autumn Owls – Between Buildings Toward The Sea

581414_10151091301252157_799439999_nAfter five years together, and two acclaimed EPs (‘Insomnia Lodge’ and ‘On The Trail Of The Disappearing’, both released in 2008), Dublin trio Autumn Owls have finally taken time off from almost incessant live work to plunge into full-length album territory, with this debut opus, recorded in Chicago with Brian Deck, best known for his work with the likes of Califone, Modest Mouse and Iron And Wine.

‘Between Buildings Toward The Sea’ is a strange, haunting experience, inhabiting territory somewhere between ambient indie electronica and dark folk, with its strangely hypnotic rhythms and minimalist song structures.

I use the word ‘minimalist’ advisedly.  While the song construction is, by and large just that, there is also a darkness and intensity to the 12 tracks, layers of related melodies built one upon the other, such as on the dystopian psychedelia of ‘Spider’, which echoes the likes of Syd Barrett, Nick Drake and Jan Garbarek in its use of transient, almost transcendental, harmonies.

There are moments where it is very claustrophobic, such as on the thoughtful ‘Drink The Wine’ and the nihilistic ‘Patterns’ (which also has very faint echoes of Muse, especially in Gary McFarlane’s vocal patterns), and others where it just flows along on a sea of tranquil, progressive ambience, such as ‘Great Atlantic Drift’.

This is not an album which can be described, by any stretch of the imagination, as ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’:  ‘brooding’ and ‘poetic’ (in places), definitely ‘introverted’ and ‘introspective’ but avoiding the dreaded ‘shoe-gazing’.  Hard-going in places, and probably an album that I won’t revisit too quickly but rewarding and, yes, surprisingly enjoyable (especially when accompanied by a bottle of damn fine cabernet sauvignon…).

‘Between Buildings Toward The Sea’ is out now on the Epitonic imprint and can be bought on Amazon.

For more information on Autumn Owls, visit their official Facebook.

Album Review: Lumus – Bacchus’ Curse

LUMUSThis self-released debut offering from Oregon’s Lumus is a sweeping, symphonic concept album very much rooted in the tradition of the likes of Nightwish, Kamelot and Symphony X.

However, unlike most bands of their ilk, this particular quintet’s USP is that their sound is drawn primarily from extensive use of the electric violin, which features prominently throughout: but, unlike many of their European counterparts, who include said instrument merely as an additional piece of over-ornamented orchestration, it is often the violin which takes the lead in building the harmonies and melodies… it’s hardly surprising, though, given that the band take their name from the musician responsible, one Jon Lumus.

As a result of Lumus’ prominence, which brings a refreshingly haunting folk feel to much of the album, much of Dustin Behm’s guitar work is sublimated into the overall sound, rather than taking the lead as on so many European works: he is given his chances to shine, such as on the atmospheric ‘The Cave’, where his shredding work cuts through the folkiness of the main melody like a knife through melting butter, and when he does so he shows himself to be a consummate musician, with the right combination of crunching yet melodic riffs, soaring solos and necessary restraint.

Vocally, Charlotte Camp – who, despite her resonant soprano, comes from a country and jazz background – certainly stands her own against many of her counterparts, showing a range and diversity that is extremely impressive and certainly broader than many other women operating in this particular sub-genre: she may not be in the big league quite yet, but her voice is extremely pleasant and she delivers the material well.

Some of the song arrangements may be slightly off-kilter (‘Lost Child’ jumps about all over the place, with the vocals and main melody not quite matching each other), and by and large they’re nothing spectacular in overall terms of the genre – although the centrepiece four-part title track is ambitious and suitably rewarded for its vision – and the production may be a bit muddy in places, but this nevertheless a fine debut and deserves to be hunted down by fans of female-fronted melodic metal.

Follow the band on Facebook.

Album Review: The Communal Well – ‘Under A Western Sky’

1608557685-1France may not be seen as the most obvious hotbed for vintage blues – its better known for its avant-garde jazz and Gallic interpretations of torch songs – but this multi-national Parisian sextet are doing their dangest to change that conception, with a sound based that ploughs a furrow from the country delta sound of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf through Freddie King to revivalists such as Eric Clapton , Stevie Ray Vaughn and, more latterly, Jack White.

Appropriately,  ‘Under A Western Sky’ kicks off with a modern reinterpretation of Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’:  while lacking the immediate impact of earlier versions, such as the Stones’ classic re-imagining, it’s stripped back, distorted, almost trippy interpretation gives it a very Cajun feel.

The other nine compositions are all original contributions from vocalist/guitarist Roger Hoeberichts, whose style lies somewhere between the aforementioned Freddie King and Jack White, with elements of Dr John and Nick Cave.  The likes of ‘Larceny’ shows off some fine, understated slide work from the frontman, while the use of trumpet on ‘Awakening’ gives it a very Ornette Coleman / Miles Davis jazz feel, coupled with a distorted guitar riff reminiscent of Duane Allman, before tangenting off into a psychedelic trip.

As the album progresses, it takes on a very country feel, such as on ‘Scratch My Back’, while keeping its boots very firmly rooted in the blues, such as with the use of harmonica and the solo on this particular track.

While not offering up anything startlingly original – indeed, it’s a bit ‘safe’ and pedestrian in places (check out the disappointingly staid ‘Poor Boy’, which is just too clinical for its potential mournfulness to be effective) – and nothing that can’t be heard in dozens of blues clubs across the world, this is a decent enough album, played well, with some nicely constructed songs, a few really nice touches, such as the acoustic and brass interplay on ‘California Hills’.

‘Under A Western Sky’ will be released on January 20th.

Single Review: Redwood Falls – The Bold Grenadier

There’s a haunting intricacy from the very outset of the bold grenadier, a lamenting wash of plucked guitar strings and sweeping fiddles are sailed across by the truly melodic and heartfelt lyrics from Redwood Falls’ vocalist Madeleine Cooke. Hailing from Brighton, the band have created a simple yet beautiful narrative, one that could have been taken from a letter discovered in a military trunk in the depths of an Irish cellar.

Not only do Cooke’s vocals sit well in the mix of the track, they go a long way toward telling the story, singing isn’t merely hitting the correct notes, singing is acting out the emotions within the plot without the use of physical impression; something that is very well achieved in this example. The depth of sound created by band mates Edd Mann (guitar, vocals), & Phil Jones (guitar, vocals) creates a beautifully presented and very easy on the ear example of brilliant and melodic song writing. There is a fourth member of the band, Hywell Dinsdale, but being the drummer, (and as there are no drums on the track), they are we assume, absent from credit. If we are wrong to make this assumption we apologise in the safe knowledge that any influence that has been made toward the bold grenadier, must have been positive, as otherwise we wouldn’t like it so much!

This is a fine example of contemporary folk music, delivering a timeless tale of love and loss, the bold grenadier has left us wanting more, and we are confident that with the obvious ability Redwood Falls have, this will sound absolutely stunning live.

Album Review: T.J. Quinton-Sorry Business

This Brisbane artist was built for the Woodford Folk Festival with smooth, folky acoustic guitar and calm, quiet vocals. T.J. Quinton is a storyteller. A ‘yarn’ teller, similar to Xavier Rudd, John Butler and Dan Sultan in a way. With a much more simplified shape and sound that is.

Opening track The Owl begins with a twelve string acoustic guitar ringing out, with a second guitar in the background, and a very sombre beat on the drums. T.J.’s vocals have a bit of an Aussie twang, as many of the Aboriginal and Australian Right’s musicians also have, while waving a Sea Shepherd flag on stage and thanking the original owners of the land before playing. You can picture him in the Queen St Mall by himself with his guitar and a stomp box, as the music is simplistic, relaxing, and will probably never get the recognition it deserves as it is a little too dull to be popular.

During Back Here, the second song on the record, it is very similar to the first track, but featuring a strange spoken word section, where you can once more picture the hippy in him coming out during a live performance, as he, like Xavier Rudd and John Butler, would speak about saving the whales or stopping coal seam gas mining out in the bush. During the second spoken word section, he mentions our good friend Gotye as he says ‘as Wally sings Somebody That He Used To Know’. After going over that segment a number of times, it is still difficult to understand how that ties in with anything as T.J. is mumbling.

Track three is Strange To Care and sounds slightly similar to one of Newton Faulkner’s ballads as he has a soulful and strong voice (in parts) put to very soft instrumentation. However, T.J. uses a string quartet during this song, showing his diversity.

The thing that shines through on this is really his guitar playing. Unfortunately the mixing and mastering of the album sometimes shifts the levels of the guitars and the vocals, meaning you really miss out on certain things. In this reviewer’s particular opinion, if this was a full album of solely acoustic guitar playing, it would be much more effective. But if the record was done with maybe some more exciting instruments and an upbeat and stronger feel, it would also be much more effective.

That is contradictory, but T.J. Quinton just doesn’t seem to have ‘it’ on Sorry Business, his debut album, but he shows such amazing talent and sure captures your attention in a ‘it is building into something great, I can tell’ kinda way. While he never hits that moment of musical perfection that you anticipate, you see what he can do, and the very final track shows that he can craft a great pop song. This is what he needs to focus on if he wants to achieve success; more structured songs with more basic instruments like guitar, bass and drums. Sure, he can add in the violins, but humanity is too daft and stupid to appreciate some great classical instrumentation. But if he keeps the depth and intricacy, just structures it all a little better, he can do it!

Album Review: Flume-Flume

At just 21, Sydney whizz-kid Flume has crafted his debut LP, with his very signature melodic bass heavy style. Gaining notoriety by the Australian public after winning Triple J Unearthed’s competition for Field Day to start off 2012 was just the push he needed, as he received an unprecedented demand on the airwaves in both Australia and overseas.

The album begins with some bass heavy synth and some fairly tribal sounding drums, or drum machines. The vocals are pretty modified and distorted. This is the consensus for the whole album pretty much. Flume enjoys being a bit strange, and placing notes where notes generally don’t belong. He misses the beat, and sounds quite amateur at first, but on a deeper level, it is very intricate, as every note has been carefully placed in that spot for a reason.

It is a really long album with 15 tracks, going for 50 minutes, so for anyone that isn’t particularly an electronic fan, like this reviewer, it may be a bit repetitive and appears to go forever.

The best thing about the record is the diversity in the vocalists. Featuring Chet Faker, Jezzabell Doran, T.Shirt, Moon Holiday and George Maple, each one brings something different to the relaxing and ambient electronic tunes by Flume. Now the names may not be too familiar, besides the man of the moment, Chet Faker. His soulfulness on the third track Left Alone is a record highlight. He is known for his electronic ambience too, but Flume’s music doesn’t manage to bring out the potential he has shown on his EP Thinking In Textures.

The fourth track is named Sleepless and features Jezzabell Doran, although the percentage of her original recorded vocals used in the end result is quite questionable as they are so heavily edited by electronic equipment. This is the lead single off the album, and has probably been the track that has gained Flume the most notoriety in his epic rollercoaster to fame.

Track five is a hiphop song. Well, the hiphop is the vocals, but the rest is fairly typical Flume. Smooth and futuristic techno with a rapper over the top is the best way to explain On Top. The drumming is reminiscent of old school hiphop with a strong and basic rhythm.

Another highlight is track number 12 with George Maple, who has an extremely beautiful voice, and luckily it seems like her voice has not been edited too heavily, if at all. She is a very difficult lady to research. The track is called Bring You Down, and is 4 minutes and 38 seconds of ethereal bliss. It is much of a pop song, rather than a techno or electronic track. You can actually imagine this being performed live by a band, with a drummer, bass player, and two keyboards on stage, with George belting it out on the mic and Flume providing some back up vocals too, if he can actually sing.

Overall, the album is pretty good for a debut. It is twice as long as any other artists putting out a debut product, as EP’s are so common for a first release in Australia. Flume has the talent to create killer dance tracks, and can probably put out a whole new album in six months. Dance music is cheaper to record, after all. For those who aren’t big electronic fans, many of the instrumental tracks without vocals will probably make you sleepy. He uses some really cool sounds and effects and he definitely has a signature style. It is not full of obnoxious club tunes like David Guetta or Art Vs Science (sorry, thought about them recently and remembered my loathing for them), but is actually deep and full of talent and originality, that is extremely hard to find in 2012 where it appears that everything has already been done before.

Go in with an open mind and make up your own opinion. Flume is dividing, and makes you question everything you have heard before in dance music. He is one to watch.

Album Review: Surak – Space Invaders

We can understand why Danilo Fittipaldi, under the guise of Surak, has included the word Space in this project Space Invaders. There’s a lot of it, an atmosphere is created within the first minute of One which is encapsulating. It’s like it sets a platform above the night’s clouds, from which the listener can view the whole of the sky; from shooting stars mere moments away to every distant speck of light from supernovas millions of years ago. What is meant by that analogy is that Surak has developed a style of electro music that is peaceful and relaxing without being sugary sweet or without substance. Taking influence from bands such as Air and Sigor Ros, but also at points the occasional inclusion of samples and effects not dissimilar to the instrumental work by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.

This is a 13 track album, and every track effortlessly slots in to the next, to the extent that having heard the whole thing, one could easily believe that it is one long seamless piece of work. Application of music such as Surak’s is endless, this style of minimalist shoegaze would suit a trendy high street clothes store just as well as the backdrop to the astronomical department of a science museum. This is not meant in a detrimental sense whatsoever. What we mean here is that Surak seems to have figured out more or less, how to create space in the listener’s head.

The project is not all electrolysis, guitars slide in and out of tracks such as in “A comet is born” and the piano is the tour guide through most of this space tour, that already provides more worth than Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

There are a lot of references to space (both in this review and indeed the album), not just with track names such as ‘moon landing’, ‘synthetic sun’, and ‘cosmic background radiation’. The use of haunting synthesis resonates with its nothingness, and the samples of radio feedback go a long way toward making ‘Space Invaders’ the way it is.

It could be argued that some of these samples may be mixed in such a way that they can very occasionally detract from the melody of the songs and make them difficult listening. This is a shame, but should in no way put anyone off who is looking for new music to engage with, study to or impress their friends with.

Why the word ‘Invaders’ was used in the title is a mystery, as there is very little invasive about this project. The cute 8-bit style artwork however, really does compliment what Danilo has produced here though. Surak has managed to lace Space Invaders with such intricate music and emotion that it presents the listener with a beautiful dream-like sensation of falling into the unknown.

Album Review: Mika-The Origin Of Love

2007. The year the iPhone and the final harry potter book were released, when Madeleine McCann disappeared and the controversial UK smoking ban came into effect; all in all it’s fair to say that 2007 wasn’t a great year in the history of earth. But it was the year Mika’s Debut Life in cartoon motion came out, and boy did it make a fuss, if people didn’t know who grace Kelly actually was, they most certainly still don’t, however most will associate the name with the chart topping success, that was Mika.

Grace Kelly: an impressive mix of alto falsetto vocals with soft high vocals; catchy, yet actually quite intelligent lyrics, put-on top of a simple yet effective bouncy melody; starting simply but building into a fantastic over the top poppy chorus, yes, Grace Kelly is definitely the theme tune to my ‘land of chocolate.’ Filling the pop-spectrum with paced-out songs such as Relax or straight up ballads like Happy Ending, or even the hilariously thought out Billy Brown, We will happily say Life in Cartoon Motion, as much as the ‘cool kid’s will disagree, is a well thought-out, original pop album; The Origin Of Love most certainly is not that.

Anyone here like George Michael new stuff? Well if you do you’ll love this…

Because that’s what this feels like. It doesn’t feel arty and original, it doesn’t stand out and would fit very comfortably on heart radio. That’s not to say this album is necessarily bad, its more just really bland. Take the opening song, Origin of love; it doesn’t really change tempo- its terrible use of an echo effect makes it sound way too samey and with references to Adam and Eve through to Thor & Iggy Pop its hard to even know what the hell this song is even on about.

Songs written about a girl are usually terrible, track two, Lola, is no exception. The next two songs can only best be described as JLS rip offs, they’re that bad. Underwater starts nicely with a progressive soft piano medley, a soft beat providing a bit of funk overlade with Mika’s soft vocals; This is all then ruined by a terrible chorus which merely repeats ‘I can breathe underwater.’ On the whole the album seems to flip randomly between a terrible overproduced modern Rnb sound and George Michael/ Robbie Williams new stuff. In fairness Celebrate with Pharell Williams brings these sounds together in a possibly credible way, but it’s still not great. To continue the happy note I Only Love You When I’m Drunk and Popular bring us back to Mika’s original charm, with a similar feel to Big Girls, and are probably the best songs on the album, but that’s not saying much

To finish; we think it would make better use as a Frisbee than a piece of music. Mika, as lovers of cartoon motion we pray you were drunk whilst writing this.

Album Review: The Badje – Albatross And Other Delicacies.

Brighton based Alternative outfit The Badje don’t do conformity. Sounding like a rock n roll band raised in the late 50’s who don’t remember the 60’s the music is psychedelic, summery and most of all fun. Latest release Albatross And Other delicacies is a hand picked collection of tracks from their brief back catalogue. Far from being a retrospective glance over a bands progression to this point it is a cohesive showcasing of the immeasurable talent of the group, from stripped back acoustic tracks to masterfully layered harmonies situated in grandiose psychedelia.

Album opener Child of nicotine is one of the more straightforward tracks on the record and at 2:47 long it is a concise introduction to the many strengths of the group. The somewhat lo-fi production is never to the detriment of the musicianship and the slightly off kilter chorus melody is catchy enough without being formulaic or expected. The record progresses in atypical fashion, Playground boasts sitting somewhere between early Bowie and late Zepplin and Travel Suite is smart in its self awareness of its own weirdness. Musically a real feeling of fun proves a constant, easy going but more than able to stand up to closer inspection in terms of musicality. Tonally coherent and with consistently interesting composition, no sections ever drift to dreaded psychedelic obscurity, nor do the comparatively slower tracks feel less integral to the record. The rhythm section of the band deserve particular attention, providing a rock solid foundation for the more avante-garde instrumentation and haunting vocals all the while lending a solid groove and a sense of purpose to the proceedings.

The strong point of the record is in it’s variety. Each track carries a strong vibe of it’s own whilst the aforementioned rhythm section and consistent production stop them from feeling out of place. The best example of this being the largely acoustic track Letter of tricks. We all know the score, place the acoustic song as the penultimate on the album to give a real feeling of cadence before one last finale track, but such is not the case. The varied musicianship throughout the record means that an acoustic track doesn’t simply sound like a necessity it feels like a natural exploration of musical avenues and timbres. The stripped back nature of the track is also a great chance for the vocal melodies to shine whilst never losing the haunting production qualities applied to them. An impressive showing from a thoroughly impressive band.