Thursday, 26 April 2012

REVIEW: James Yorkston And The Athletes - Moving Up Country [Reissue]

*Originally published for The 405 (25/4/12)

2002. The birth of reality TV talent contests such as Pop Idol, number one singles from Daniel Bedingfield and Girls Aloud and the untimely death of The Clash's Joe Strummer. Little did I know as an oblivious 12 year old that among these musical events there was a burgeoning micro-indie record label and group of musicians called the Fence Collective. Founded by Kenny Anderson of King Creosote in 1997, Fence Collective was to later have the likes of such great artists as Lone Pigeon, Fran├žoise And The Atlas Mountains and a quietly confident singer-songwriter, James Yorkston, nestled in its arms.

In 2002, Yorkston (with musical backing from The Athletes) released his critically-acclaimed debut album, Moving Up Country under Domino Records and this year the label are marking its 10th anniversary with a reissue of the album; replete with bonus songs and Peel session recordings as part of a double CD/vinyl package.

Time and time again, Yorkston has been affiliated with folk music. This has been accelerated no less by releases of albums like Folk Songs (2009) but truth be told, he is a more general roots man; country, blues and folk can all be quite easily picked out on Moving Up Country (not to mention splices of gospel and even some jazz). It is the album's myriad of sound that won Yorkston his die-hard fans and has been pulling in new listeners ever since.

Album opener, 'In Your Hands', is a potent example of this. Deep accordion notes sit below Yorkston's imperfect but charming vocal, and a harmonica and a light blues guitar, among other instruments, caress the narrative about a day spent giving undivided attention to a lover. '6.30 Is Just Way Too Early' is similar in its domestic story-telling, "I find myself down the stairs/Lazy dog gives me the eye/And I drag our bones around the barns/And catch the morning light," but a stuttering and spluttering organ shifts the song from comfortable acoustics to sonic gospel terrains.

There is a timeless quality to the songs in Moving Up Country, like the rich acoustic that walks in hand with the soothing vocals and scratchy fiddles in 'St Patrick', or the fast-paced jazz piano, rippling snare and early rock 'n' roll jaunt of 'I Spy Dogs' – it feels like you have heard these songs before. The talent with which Yorkston and his Athletes revisit, explore and reinvent genres is astounding.

It is then barely excusable to downplay the albums' lead single, 'Moving Up Country' – the very song that caught the eye of John Peel and convinced John Martyn to take Yorkston on his full Winter tour in 2001 – but where songs like 'The Patient Song' worm their way into your ears with warped blues keys and bouncy reverb guitars, 'Moving Up Country's' obtrusive harmonica and repetitive melody just leaves you tired. Thankfully, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority of the songs on the double album and this is what makes it so rounded and impressive.

Disc two holds demos of some of Yorkston's finest songs on Moving Up Country, but it does suffer a little for the more basic production, as can often be expected with demos. The harmonies on 'The Patient Song' are less refined and the harmonica in '6.30 Is Just Way Too Early' is quite grating here, but it is strangely wonderful to hear how the kinetic energy of 'I Spy Dogs' used to be stored before it was unleashed later in its studio version.

Some of the bonus demo tracks like 'Worthy Souls' and 'My Distance Travelled' are truly enthralling; yawning slide guitars, grumbling double-bass and tinny, roll-snap drums dancing together in unrivalled freedom. Another strong contester from the bonus tracks is 'La Magnifica' with its burgeoning acoustics and plucked violin strings tiptoeing around the track's edges, but it is the 'Tender To The Blues' Peel recording that elevates itself above the rest. The descending string progression, melancholic harmonies and sinew-yanking minor notes sound just as, if not more, extraordinary live than on the original recording. The track's multifaceted texture is a true microcosm of James Yorkston and The Athletes' remarkable musical dexterity.

Moving Up Country is the kind of album that has and will continue to introduce people to styles of music that they thought they didn't like. Yorkston has an envious and somewhat confusing ability to pen songs that transcend genres, yet still beam his style from start to finish. The reissue is a treat for anyone who appreciates the difficulty of this; wants their hands on rarer Yorkston material; or is willing to open their mind to a variety of musical styles that sound as timeless and as a fresh as they did a decade ago.


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

REVIEW: Sea Of Bees - Orangefarben

*Origininally published for the Oxford Music Blog (24/4/12)

Two songs into Orangefarben, ‘Take’ hears the sleepy acoustics and lyrics of love, lust and heartbreak that dominate the rest of the album. ‘Gone’ follows a similar pattern, albeit for an attractive phaser guitar effect, but it is not vastly different in sound from its predecessor. This gentle folk rock is part and parcel of Sea Of Bees’ sound (evident in her previous album Songs For The Raven) and there is, of course, nothing wrong with this. What is perplexing, however, is that Ms Bee has astonishing vocal drive, ability and emotional give, yet a lot of her music in Orangefarben lacks such ambition.

Thankfully, there are moments on Orangefarben that do startle. ‘Broke’, for instance, has all the ingredients to rival Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Give Out’ with it close guitars and crumbling vocals, and ‘Teeth’ is a vivid lament for falling in love with the wrong person, tinged with slick country guitars and drums that punch regrets head-on, “And I know I shouldn’t think those thoughts and I’ve gone ahead and thought those thoughts.

Further still, Ms Bee and co’s cover of John Denver’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ (shortened to ‘Leaving’) is just as emotive and rhythmically animated as ‘Teeth.’ Sampled, shuffle-pop drums loop around biting acoustics and Bee’s layered harmonies are at their most dexterous and astounding here. Stand-out track, ‘Alien’, clocks in just before the album’s close; storming ahead with whizzing keys, defiant guitars, cracking wood blocks and distant vocals that scream a lover’s betrayal. It’s surely a crowd-pleaser live and adds much-needed variety and spice to the album at a pivotal point.

This assortment of sound is what can be heard initially on ‘Give’ (earlier in the album) and in ‘Grew’ at the album’s close. The former carries a jovial bass line with unpredictable beats and muted guitars, but before long the cuddly, star-twinkling melodies that saturate the album return and strip the song of its individuality. ‘Grew’ does emit a more experimental sound with grinding electronics, ethereal synths and mournful vocals, but, unfortunately, it fades into the background and is quickly forgotten.

Orangefarben is not without its share of solid songs, nor is it spared of its mediocre ones. It is a record lyrically charged with all the emotions of a shattered relationship and Julie Ann Bee couldn’t wear her heart more on her sleeve. But musically, it lacks the spark that no one can deny she can fuse. An ambitious sophomore effort perhaps wasn’t on the agenda, but it is exasperating that Bee has primarily dotted her artistic palette with shades that do not show off her full, vibrant colours.


Friday, 20 April 2012

FEATURE: Is streaming the new buying?

Spotify Logo
*Originally published for Fresh On The Net (20/4/12)

Yesterday BBC Radio 1 released figures from the BPI and Official Charts Company that show a 25% decrease in CD sales from 20.5 million in the first three months of 2011, to 15.3 million this year. Digital sales are instead increasing and account for almost a third of all albums sales.

Regardless of the rise in digital sales, Music Week has revealed that weekly album sales have plummeted to a record 21st century low: ‘Overall album sales are 27.62% down week-on-week at 1,446,218 – that is 23.19% below same week 2011 sales of 1,882,878, and lower than in any of the 640 previous weeks that have elapsed in the 21st century.’ While music is being shared and accessed more easily via streaming platforms such as Spotify, it is not being paid for as much by fans. Streaming is essentially the new buying.

Last month, my friend treated me to a month’s premium subscription to Spotify for £10. Until then, I had been using the Spotify free package to preview albums before buying them (habitually, in CD format). I have been more than satisfied with Spotify’s allocation of five listens maximum per song and the adverts haven’t bothered me too much.

What my companion couldn’t get his head round, however, is why I do not choose to spend just a tenner a month to avoid advertisements, enjoy unlimited listening, stream music on my smartphone and listen to songs in higher audio quality. Irritated by my stubbornness, he bought me a month’s subscription to see if I could be swayed.

Sure, the unlimited streaming was great and the smartphone service was pretty slick, but something that I had previously highlighted to my friend cropped up; in that month, I did not feel as inclined to buy a new album (CD format, mp3 format, whatever) because I felt like I already owned a bunch of new ones in quasi-tangible form.

It really frustrated me that the £10 subscription had not actually resulted in me owning any new music. Yes, I had access to thousands of songs streaming on my computer and phone, but I couldn’t burn song files onto a CD for my car, nor transfer the files for the purposes of my radio show. Buying music from Spotify at an additional price would have of course enable me to do this, but with the tenner already gone on the subscription, I was strapped of the money that I would have bought a new album with that month. So, I returned to Spotify free.

What I prefer about the free version is that it limits your listening to five plays. I think it’s a fair deal considering that you are using it on a free basis. If you have listened to an album 5 times then that’s a) probably because you like it and b) if so, it’s about time you actually owned the album. Spotify free encourages me to keep doing what I have always done; pay for the privilege of owning music and enables me to do something that I couldn’t do a few years ago; preview and explore more music. The listening cap on Spotify free means that I truly realise what’s worth buying and what’s not. While the free version, paradoxically, does not save me money, at least I am the owner of something real at the end of the month.
Whether you buy CDs, buy music off iTunes/Spotify, or stick to vinyl (the latter of which has seen a 20% increase in sales according to Nielsen SoundScan – good news for Record Store Day) what is undeniably true is that people are not putting as much money towards music. The £10-a-month subscription to Spotify is some payment, but it is merely a small token in exchange for unlimited listening.

I think streaming on a premium basis is deterring a lot of people from buying music at its true value and the aforementioned decrease in album sales are likely attributed to this. Sadly, I’m sure it won’t be long before BPI and the Official Charts Company reveal another record low in album sales.

stylus on vinyl

Friday, 13 April 2012

REVIEW: Mesita - The Coyote

*Originally published for The 405 (13/4/12)

You know that tip-of-the-tongue familiarity that you get when listening to music? That teeth-grinding frustration that eats into your daily routine? This is what happens when you delve into Mesita's latest release, save for the unclenched teeth. The Coyote constantly jumps between syncopated Radiohead rhythms, darting Efterklang melodies, bluesy Black Keys riffs and airy Bon Iver falsettos, to name but a few comparisons. It seems as if all of these artists, and more, have been soaked up by James Cooley (under his moniker, Mesita) – a bedroom producer and multi-instrumentalist from Colorado, USA. Not only is Cooley a bit of a musical mastermind, but a sponge who effortlessly squeezes out perfect pop song-shaped suds.

The first few tracks are driven by infectious guitars that lock you into listening. ‘William Cannon‘ and ‘The Coyotes‘ seem to be in a race with Tunng and Hockey; with off-beat strums, glittering harmonies, puckered acoustics and Indonesian gamelan sounds that radiate a balmy joy. ‘Onward Upward‘ is bossed about by a heavy beat that stomps on Spanish guitars and Broken Bells-esque stereo vocals.

‘The Front Range‘ and ‘Out For Blood‘ introduce a more sinister sound at the album‘s core. The ringing root notes and hurtling drums in the latter thump as loudly Arcade Fire‘s ‘Ready To Start‘ and Cooley‘s sexy, unshaven vocal glides over gorgeous desert rock riffs. ‘The Front Range‘ is the sunny lovechild of Radiohead‘s ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi‘ and ‘Bloom‘, with unpredictable, swelling snare rolls and dissonant bass notes.

What is so engaging about The Coyote, apart from pin-pointing all its influences like an excited child, is its meticulous structure. Where ‘Out For Blood‘ and ‘The Front Range‘ build on the glossy sounds of the opening tracks, ‘Into The Wind‘ marks the beginning of the record‘s dark final stages. The track embodies a startlingly different sound, with muted distortion, snake-rattle drums, spliced samples, ebow bends and fuzzy electronics. Just as you are starting to adjust your ears, Cooley suddenly brings in bouncy lounge music and your eyes pop with disbelief. Does he manage to pull this dramatic song change off? Absolutely.

Cooley even makes room for some hardcore music, albeit in a skewed sense. ‘You Or The City‘ has all the ingredients for neck-thrashing and pig-snorted screams, but the pitchy guitars are too compressed and, quite disappointingly, the song doesn‘t reach the climatic point that you want it to.
It is ‘Endless Build Into Nothing‘, with its ironic title, that achieves everything that ‘You Are The City‘ fails to. Starting with a soothing guitar and hushed vocals, a colourful guitar gradually lifts Cooley‘s hook, "future distant, endless build into nothing," before gospel organs, bleating guitars, monstrous drums and ghostly vocals bellow at the peak of the crescendo.

Mesita‘s latest LP is an entrancing medley of genres from all parts of the globe, and James Cooley manages to stitch everything together with his relentless nack for melody. The Coyote is a bustling pop record that gets right to the point and doesn‘t care what influences it drags along with it, because without them it wouldn‘t be half the informed and astonishing record that it is.


Monday, 9 April 2012

LIVE: Lanterns On The Lake @ O2 Academy Oxford 4/4/12

Photo by Hannah Cordingly

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (9/4/12)

The moment that Hazel Wilde of Lanterns On The Lake places a doll-sized lamp atop of her amplifier before her band’s set tonight, you’re sure that some drama is about to happen. What soon appears in the six-member collective from Newcastle, however, is not drama but extraordinary reserve. The stage lamp isn’t acting as some radical, outward statement, but serves as a subtle group emblem. Wilde’s meekness, by traditional standards, also doesn’t ratify her position as a dramatic front man (or rather, front woman). But this doesn’t matter, because a brash and bold attitude would go against everything that makes Lanterns On The Lake so special.

In accordance with their latest release, Gracious Tide, Take Me Home, the set is awakened by the rousing, looped samples of footsteps in ‘Lungs Quicken’. Each member shuffles to mark their territory: to the right, Sarah Kemp locks her head to her violin, swaying urgently; to her right, Paul Gregory bends the neck of his guitar with playful, involuntary-like movements; and centre-stage, Wilde cements herself to the microphone, exhaling each note with a breathy calmness. It’s a strange sight to behold, because each member performs within their confined space and yet is bound to the rest of the group.

Sadly, the levels are a little unbalanced at points. Adam Sykes’ acoustic is barely audible below his warm, Geordie hum in ‘If I’ve Been Unkind’ and Kemp’s twisting violin is drowned out by the swirls of bowed guitar noises and thumping drums in ‘Tricks’, regardless of their elegant interplay.

The Geordie bunch constantly pepper their set with surprises, such as a thriving rendition of ‘You Need Better’ that swelters with a hefty southern guitar riff, off-kilter rhythms and a crystal tambourine. ‘You’re Almost There’ is the most unexpected success live: where shadows cast themselves on hollow cheeks; an asserted piano melody stands tall against jarring strings, and cinematic whooshes blanket the crowd in supernatural ambiance.

With some of the musical details drowned by the sheer multitude of instruments onstage – and what a multitude it is, with nearly all of the members swapping guitars or glockenspiels at every instant – ‘Not Going Back To The Harbour’ is a reviving set-closer with over half of the group singing in unison, projecting away from their mics. The glorious choral singing allows the band to radiate with a rare confidence right at the last minute, which, although uncharacteristic, is a brief and welcome change from their self-effacing identity.