Monday, 19 September 2011

REVIEW: Girls - 'Father, Son, Holy Ghost'

Christopher Owens, chief songwriter, vocalist and guitarist of San Fran duo Girls, revealed last year that he was learning the craft of great songwriting. Whether that was him thinking that it would eliminate the difficulty of making that notoriously tricky second album – especially after the success of Girls’ debut LP, Album in 2009 – or if it was simply for his personal development as a musician, or both, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Owens has improved as what may be regarded as a ‘classic’ songwriter, but he has destroyed the fervour and affectionate ‘let-it-grow-on-you’ aspect of his earlier material and has instead mainly churned out predictably structured, dull pop songs that hardly resonate after the first listen.

Thankfully, album opener, ‘Honey Bunny’ is not one of these lacklustre tracks. With its rolling snares, clean-cut Beach Boys vibrato, Chet ‘JR’ White’s walking bass and Owens’ glottal stops, ‘Honey Bunny’ could easily be the younger brother of ‘Heartbreaker’ (from Girls’ 2010 EP, Broken Dreams Club). Interestingly, both songs open in the same key, but the romantic, lo-fi quality of ‘Heartbreaker’ is long-gone on this polished track. “They don’t like my bony body/ They don’t like my dirty hair”, project Owens’ typical self-aggrandisement, although he should feel confident here, for this may well be the best track on the album, with a fantastic mid-song tempo twist that breaks into an incongruous, crooner-like middle eight; giving Father, Son, Holy Ghost considerable opening bite.

The following track, ‘Alex’, is equally attractive, overflowing with an assortment of 90s/00s American shoegaze/indie/pop- rock; with its gritty Pixies reverb, poppy blink-182 pre-choruses and hammering Strokes guitars. Owens’ crisp, lethargic, but ultimately charming vocals exude a likeable innocence that trickles throughout this track and the rest of the album, but unfortunately, the raw and impassioned vocals found on his past releases have disappeared. Apart from these two opening treasures, most of the ensuing tracks on the album are very run-of- the-mill.

‘How Can I Say I Love You’ and album-closer ‘Jamie Marie’, for instance, are wholly forgettable and unimaginative. Perhaps Owens has erred on the side of ‘classic’ songwriting in the standard, structural sense, with the former track being all too conventional and regurgitating horribly clich├ęd lyrics, “How can I say I love you/ Now that you’ve said I love you/How can I say I need you/ Now that you’ve said I need you” (insert related verb here). Musically, a handful of the songs on Father, Son, Holy Ghost sound like they should be theme-tunes for kids’ TV shows, like the tacky, Status-Quo rock of ‘Magic’ and the completely unoriginal prog-rock chords and accompanying pitch-bend guitar solos that are barely palatable on, ‘Die’. Most disappointingly of all is the critically-acclaimed single, ‘Vomit’, which is a spiritualised homage to heartbreak, as Owens gently whispers:  "The nights I spend alone/ I spend alone now looking for you baby”. Admittedly, the song features a liberating, organ-chiming chorus with a fully-installed gospel choir backing-up Owens’ lyrical begging, but the song drags and is littered with cheesy ‘ooh- yeahs’.

The second half of the album truly lacks the vivacity that ‘Honey Bunny’ and ‘Alex’ hold in the first, save for the exquisite, cascading flamenco guitars, edgy discordant bass notes and swelling flute patterns on the lullaby-like, ‘Just A Song.’ However, for the larger part, the song is merely what the title states and the majority of the album’s tracks could well be entitled this too.

Perhaps critical hype has jinxed this album. Perhaps an original love for Girls’ lo-fi Californian pop has overpowered the eclectic, yet mismatched jumble of blues-rock, prog-rock, surf-pop, gospel and shoegaze installed on the record. It could be all manner of things, but what is clear is that Girls have lost their identity in a forest of experimentation where one would have hoped they would have found it. Regrettably, Owens and White’s songwriting efforts have created predominantly average songs overall.


Saturday, 10 September 2011

LIVE: HEALTH @ Jericho Tavern, Oxford (1/9/11)

HEALTH live. One way to describe the experience is; mind-fuck. I don’t think that I have been more terrified of a band in my life, and that has little to do with the unsettling sounds in their experimental noise rock. The LA four-piece not only know how to write compellingly original and exciting music, but they also know how to execute it live. It is horrifying how good they are.

The moment that they began clattering drums on stage at The Jericho Tavern and screamed at each other with death rattles as repulsive as Lord Voldemort’s, the audience knew that they were in for something different. Fan-favourite, ‘Die Slow’, with its bomb drop off-beats and oscillating synth fuzzes sounded flawless live, while Jake Duzsik and Jupiter Keys had their guitars so heavily drenched in gain that it was almost as if they were arrogantly challenging one another to match the tempo of the feedback to the marching rhythms, yet both achieved it with such smooth dexterity. Paradoxically, Duzsik’s soft, effeminate vocals brought a level of harmony to the scratchy sounds of ‘Die Slow’ and it is this bitter-sweet combination that makes HEALTH so utterly fascinating to watch live. How can zoothorns, dissonant guitars, seemingly out-of-tune synths and supple vocals fit so well together on a record, let alone live? It is because their music is so intelligent, brave and bizarre in comparison to the reams of rubbish surfer rock bands that have saturated the market in recent years. You cannot help but be drawn towards something so much more diverse, and four very talented and passionate musicians happen to be creating it.

‘Death +’ is the pinnacle of that unconventional attraction. The crowd are completely sucked into what can be best described as the sound of a computer melting; with sluggish, industrial beats that build until everything cuts out abruptly and bassist, John Flamigetti, stops spinning his long hair in a hypnotic spiral. HEALTH are simply teasing the audience with ‘Death+’; they know that everyone is desperate to hear more of their strangely enthralling clamour, or to delve into Duzsik’s melancholic world of repetitive, lyrical rhetoric, “Does it matter how?/Does it matter when? /If you market yourself for blood / How do you come back?”

When the set reaches the half-way mark, HEALTH suddenly offer more conventional sounds, starting with their brand-spanking-new cover of Pictureplane’s, ‘Goth Star’. Ironically, ‘Goth Star’ samples Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Seven Wonders’ (a product of one of the most melodious bands in rock history) so it is surprising that HEALTH would pinch it – yet it completely works under their experimental panache. The track seems to turn the sceptics amongst the crowd into believers while the band relish the chance to show off their more intricate musicianship with tight guitar pickings and skillful mixing – a far cry from the seismic wall of sound that has been flooding the stage thus far.

‘USA Boys’ lifts the bar even higher with weighty hip-hop beats that force the crowd to bounce so hard that it feels as is if the Jericho is going to collapse. Duzsik’s Cobain-inspired groans and meaty power chords clap to the shutter-snaps of electro-pop synths, and soon the most astonishingly gorgeous vocal harmony blossoms between Duzsik and Keys before the set draws to a close. That’s right, I am using the word “gorgeous” to describe HEALTH, because it is something that the band can stir into their rather ugly-yet-beautiful musical broth if they want to. And, my gosh, do they serve it well.


Published for the Oxford Music Blog (9/9/11)

LIVE: Truck Festival 2011

Now in its fourteenth year, Oxfordshire’s home-grown premier music festival, set in the green pastures of Steventon Village, returned this July with an expanded site, a more diverse crowd and a solid line-up with the likes of Bellowhead, Tribes, Benjamin Francis Leftwich, The Go! Team, Gruff Rhys and Johnny Flynn.

The festival underwent quite a large redesign this year. Apart from the usual quaint tea stalls, stages and shops, the flat-bed truck stage that originally comprised the Main Stage was replaced by a ‘natural’ amphitheatre. Upon first impressions, this was a shame simply for the novelty of the unusual stage at the festival, but placing nostalgia aside, the new stage blasted out a remarkable level of sound across the sun kissed Oxfordshire countryside. More importantly, the Clash Tent (curated by independent labels, Transgressive, Heavenly and Bella Union) were among many other stages such as the Last. FM Tent and the Wood Stage, that have been added since my previous visits, meaning that an even larger variety of established and talented up-and-coming bands have been able to grace the festival this summer.

Amenities aside, one of the first Main Stage bands at the festival was Fixers, who, after receiving extensive airplay on BBC Radio One/BBC Introducing, were one of the most hotly-tipped acts of the weekend. Running out onto the main stage in crazy attire that ranged from hairy mammal faces to sailor hats, everyone could see that Fixers were out for some fun, or at least as the lead singer, Jack Goldstein, shouted, “a fantastical, an out of body experience!” Their mash-up of exciting buzzy synths, sleigh bells and multi-part harmonies, however, did not carry well live and it almost felt too early to be watching these five wild lads jump around onstage whilst toddlers interweaved the crowds.

Away from the main arena in the Last.FM Tent were some more subdued local boys: Trophy Wife and Pet Moon. Trophy Wife were well and truly suited-and-booted for their slot of disco/indie-pop, with the catchy, ‘The Quiet Earth’ and fan-favourite, ‘Microlite’, which duly prepared the crowd for an explosive performance of, ‘Take This Night.’ The latter song certainly regurgitated the most gigantic sound of the set with its pitchy guitars, walking bass and crisp tech drums. Electronic experimentalists, Pet Moon, however, got off to a very shakey start with technical difficulties and, unfortunately, they did not redeem themselves nor truly engage the crowd throughout, regardless of the former Youthmovies front man, Andrew Mears, spilling his heart out onstage. Later that evening, chillwave extraordinaire, Chad Valley, completely wowed the audience with his one man show of electronic fireworks and dozens of guest dancers to boot on his pop-tropical hit, ‘Now That I’m Real’. Tribes also gave a powerful performance the following day, with an anthemic rendition of, ‘We Were Children’ which effectively fuelled their addictive, My Bloody Valentine-meets-The Libertines grunge rock. Their carefree, rock ‘n’ roll attitude was completely refreshing in comparison to Pet Moon’s introverted performance and they were by far one of the highlights of the weekend.

Everyone was glued to Sea Of Bee's atmospheric folk music on the Saturday evening in the Clash Tent, with the band’s adorable knitted jumpers pairing beautifully with Julie Ann’s vocals – vocals as sweet as the soft rock rhythms of ‘Marmalade.’ In her closing solo performance, Bee dexterously mapped out the constellations of her story with her voice and guitar, hooking every member of the audience onto each twist and turn in the narrative. Happy-go-lucky Danes,Treefight For Sunlight, were one of the most consistent acts in the Clash Tent, let alone the entire weekend and after the trembling piano build up in their new single, ‘Time Stretcher’ and the funky, Bee-Gee like harmonies that fluttered throughout, ‘Facing the Sun’, they revealed a pitch-perfect cover of Kate Bush’s, ‘Wuthering Heights’, albeit sung by the most unassuming man imaginable.

Over on the Wood Stage, fans of the critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter, Benjamin Francis Leftwich, were treated to a wonderfully intimate performance with mats spread across the canopy floor, low-level lighting and choral to the hushed melodies of, ‘Atlas Hands’ and ‘Pictures.’ Contrastingly, The Go! Team's overly-distorted guitars on the Sunday evening drowned out any singing and while this was hugely frustrating, they nonetheless gave an incredibly energetic performance as the sun nestled itself behind a crescent-moon amphitheatre.

Truck Festival 2011 was overall a mixed bag of many delights with a few disappointments. It is fantastic to see such a boastful number of promising and established bands performing at a local festival at such a reasonable price (£100 for the 3-day adult weekend ticket) and the atmosphere remains as warm, friendly and relaxing as it was in previous years.


Published for Impact Magazine (6/9/11)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

NEWS: New Howling Bells album and UK tour.

Sydney-bred, London-based alt rockers, Howling Bells, are set to release their third studio album, The Loudest Engine, on 12th September.

Following the underrated experimental nuances of their previous album, Radio Wars (2010) and the brilliance of their Americana-tinged folk rock on their self-titled debut in 2006, it is difficult to imagine what the Australian four piece will reveal next - a return to their former grassy routes? The ambience of their later sound? A combination of the two? Or maybe a completely new sound?

Here is a preview of what it in store, with the gently psychedelic track, 'Into The Sky' (available to buy later this month):

The band are also touring the UK this month, as well as Europe with the wonderful Elbow in November.