Friday, 26 October 2012

REVIEW: Singles Round-Up - Pistols At Dawn, Grass House, MAIA, Pipers, Mt.Wolf

*Originally published for For Folk's Sake (26/10/12)

Pistols At Dawn – 'Man.Wolf.Man'

The centrepiece bass on this recording-project-turned-band’s latest single is so like the brooding bass line on ‘Come Together’ it’s uncanny, but its goes far beyond its bluesy sound. The track’s scuffling brush beats, jangling acoustics and warped, wheezy vocals are dangerously addictive and, as the grooves thicken and congeal, it becomes apparent that the band also owes much to the shuffle-pop of Dark Captain. You’re absolutely dying for it to reach the 5 minute mark, but it teases you with a commendable 4:52.

Grass House – 'The Boredom Rose'

The northern bred, southern-based four-piece are masters of theatre on this playful single; their guitars plot in the background, drums bounce with heart and character and the band harmonise with a densely-layered, chatty singing-style not unlike The Suburbs-era Arcade Fire. It’s catchy, pulsating and woozes with a twisted Americana.

MAIA – 'The Grandfather Plan'

It’s very tempting to do prior research on a band before reviewing them, but not doing so allows for a truly unprejudiced perspective. In MAIA’s case, with the Mediterranean acoustics and mischievous brass found on ‘The Grandfather Plan’, it was therefore a huge surprise to discover that they’re from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire (now who’s prejudiced?) Gorgeous, falsetto vocals hover over plucked strings and driving caj√≥n drums – it’s immensely exciting.

Pipers – 'Ask Me For A Cigarette'

Pipers have clearly huddled themselves away in a lonely log cabin wearing woolly jumpers and sipping on organic cider while perusing a volume of ‘How To Write Sickly Indie-Pop.’ Of course, their primary-school piano, awkward vocals and twee acoustics might just be your cup of tea, but not mine.

Mt.Wolf - 'Life-Sized Ghosts'

'Dreamfolk'/'Folktronica' lot Mt.Wolf do exactly what it says on the tin. Ambient, dub-inflected soundscapes, breathy female vocals and alluring guitars enclose you in a euphoric dream, where the classically-trained singer Kate Sproule nurses you with her stunning chamber-choir harmonies. Like MAIA, this bunch are doing something quite different, so don’t lose sight.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

LIVE: Oxjam Oxford Takeover

Richard Walters

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (24/10/12)

It’s a chilly Autumn night in the city of dreaming spires and something strange is happening. There are no university gowns in sight, nor any scantily-clad teenagers slumped on the side of the road. Tonight isn’t about the city’s students or tourists; tonight is a whirlwind celebration of Oxford’s famous musical heritage, its cosy contemporary music scene and the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, now known globally as Oxfam. Put simply, it’s an exciting music festival that raises awareness about poverty and injustice without shaking a jar at you.

The Cellar is a welcome respite from the crisp air outside and has already been warmed by cider-drinking punters awaiting ToLiesel’s set. The band play like they’re headlining; their feet set wide apart, guitars held aloft like godly relics and lead singer Jack Olchawski glowing with confidence. New single, ‘The Light’ is a charming song that bursts open with energy, healthy Americana and swashbuckling rhythms, but ‘Whispered Half Asleep’ sees ToLiesel at their most accomplished.  Aquatic guitars quiver and heavyweight three-part harmonies boom around The Cellar’s tiny underground space. “I’m flattered so many of you are missing We Aeronauts for us,” Olchawski says wide-eyed, “try and see some of their set.” And with that, a quick walk next door to The Purple Turtle allows gig-goers to catch the end of We Aeronauts’ set.

Sweat is dripping from PT’s cavernous walls and We Aeronauts are looking suitably bemused on stage. Technical difficulties have actually postponed their performance and the seven or so twenty-somethings are beginning to share perspiration with the walls. When all things are go, their first few minutes on stage are understandably a little flustered, but lead singer Anna is a force of nature and really pulls the band forward with her Feist-like vocals. A twee accordion and trumpet nicely pepper their grounded folk-guitar, piano and drum arrangements, but ongoing complications with the sound lets them down a bit tonight.


Thanks to the hard work of the festival organisers, all the Oxjam venues are in close proximity and the clubs themselves are fitting for each act. Take Sisterland for instance, a fuzzy garage-punk who have been wholeheartedly embraced by the local Blessing Force collective. They couldn’t be better suited and booted for Modern Art Oxford, A.K.A. Oxford’s hipster haven (it’s a visual art gallery-cum-performance space that sells seasonal food and soft grain leather rucksacks, for Christ’s sake). Musings aside, Sisterland play a remarkable set. The lead vocalist’s choir-boy vocals add a sugary sweetness atop the trio’s concoction of heavily distorted guitars and thrashing drums. Their set is criminally short, but Pet Moon are on next.

Sporting a rather unconventional short back and sides, Andrew Mears of Pet Moon immediately jumps into action, strutting around the stage and bouncing his RnB vocals off Modern Art’s whitewashed walls. They’re regulars on the local circuit and have been in some form for years (Mears was one of the original founding members of Foals and the since-dissolved Youthmovies). But it’s a rather odd affair watching them tonight. Mears intermittently hits the high notes and rarely engages with the audience, which is a surprise when considering the context of his established musicianship. Perhaps it is just his style. It could also be an extended metaphor for their somewhat disjointed and unpredictable music, where synths scurry like mice, trigger-sharp rhythms cut and splice and warm vocals wash with the beat. Their sound certainly lies somewhere between ambient producer How To Dress Well and a modern Prince, especially on the rousing ‘Superposition.’ Pet Moon have some fascinating experimental sounds at their disposal, but they just need to find a way to execute them live.

Pet Moon

Shortly afterwards at The Turl Street Kitchen, Empty White Circles take over the stage like there isn’t a moment to spare. Fronted by two American brothers but seemingly rooted in Oxford, the five piece play glorious Americana and rootsy folk ballads. Lead vocalist Kevin Duggan is a young incarnation of Marcus Mumford, who projects with a wholesome country hum and ‘woahs’ like he invented it. ‘Positives’ is an infectious shuffle-pop tune played with remarkable assuredness, but it’s ‘Adventures’ that really sells the band live. All five of them flank the edge of the stage and just as the Duggan brothers lull the crowd with their honeyed harmonies, the whole band stomps in unison like a strange, sedated hoedown. It’s powerful, engaging and damn-impressive from start to finish, just like their entire set.

Empty White Circles

Lamp shades add a rather domesticated feel to the venue, perfect for headlining solo acoustic hero Richard Walters' stripped-back sound. He’s just flown in from Ireland and looks bloody knackered, grinning and bearing the first few songs but eventually warming up to the attentive crowd. Walters is a captivating performer who never once opens his eyes but completely envelopes audiences in his stories of love, loss and life. New single, ‘The Escape Artist’, proves that he doesn’t need a full band behind him to stun everyone to silence. The recorded version – although in itself a beautifully undercooked composition – features yearning strings and tumbling drum patterns, but it couldn’t be better heard than live with just Walters and his solitary guitar.

The Turl Street Kitchen is enjoying a quiet crowd that takes comfort from Walters’ aching melodies and ecclesiastical vocals. Recognising this, Walters decides to dig out a couple more songs from his back catalogue, including the mesmerising, ‘Weather Song’, in which he compares his lover with natural elements over a trickling, plucked guitar.

The fact that Walters brings Oxjam Oxford to its close with this song is not only fitting for tonight’s breezy Autumnal weather, but it nods to the city’s love for performers of all kinds – from lo-fi garage bands to sensitive one-man band balladeers. After tonight, Oxford should be extremely proud of its charitable and musical heritage.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

FEATURE: Tessera Skies

*Originally published for The Generator's Tipping Point blog (17/10/12)

It’s a strange and somewhat lucky coincidence that Tessera Skies are playing their first gig in over four years at Oxjam Newcastle this Sunday. Their existentialist single, ‘Soliloquy of an Astronaut’, has undoubtedly been granted a place on their set-list, just a week after Felix Baumgartner leapt to earth from space. We all watched last Sunday, terribly nervous for Felix who was willing to sacrifice himself for science, no guarantee of falling to earth alive. “Green and blue look very strange from out here”, breathes Tessera Skies’ vocalist on ‘Soliloquy of an Astronaut’, “Look at me. I’m dying. I’m dying.” Thank god Felix made it.

Scientific references aside, Newcastle’s Tessera Skies have very recently sprung into action following the completion of their university studies. They’ve so far enjoyed airplay from Tom Robinson at BBC 6, the folks at Amazing Radio and Nick Roberts at BBC Newcastle, and that’s no mean feat.

It feels as if the three-piece have been waiting years for this moment, especially on ‘Soliloquy for an Astronaut’, a near-faultless piece of writing that is polished but also beautifully understated. Jazz-inspired drums trip over each other, ‘No Surprises’ electronics drip in the background and earnest strings grip at the root note. It’s wonderfully tranquil and perfectly embodies what one would imagine floating through space feels like, even if the lyrics carry a heavier metaphorical (than literal!) weight.

There are uncanny Guillemots intonations, as well as some Lanterns on the Lake musical stylings, but Tessera Skies impressively retain their own sound. A very promising, and culturally relevant, bunch.

Friday, 5 October 2012


*Originally published for The Generator's 'Tipping Point' blog (3/10/12)

Well, well, well, what have we got here? Another bedroom musician using the great ploy of mystery to receive gratuitous attention? It’s not going to work, CUBS, I won’t let it. Those simmering synths and delicate wind chimes...they won’t get me...that organic lo-fi, that won’t do... those stunning, frost-bitten vocals and those surprising tempo changes? That’s it, I can’t resist. CUBS, you’ve won me over to your charming minimalist synth-pop.

There really isn’t much to tell about CUBS except that Amber Bain is the creator of the lovely sounds found on ‘Anthra.’ Imagine Bon Iver’s Emma writing back to him from a lonely English bedroom and you’re kind of there. Her sound isn’t as refined as the American melancholic’s, but it’s certainly impressive for such early material.

CUBS’ crisp-cold vocal quality and multi-layered harmonising is similar to the Scandinavian synth goddesses that have graced the blogosphere over the last two years, but she has her own style that playfully jumps across heart-tugging bass notes and dreamy reverb. 

CUBS' chilling lo-fi sound on ‘Anthra’ is surely going to cause a stir on the internet, especially with the impending winter months. Hibernating will continue to do her well. 

*The Generator tip comes courtesy of Tom Cotton (Amazing Radio).

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

REVIEW: Jonathan Boulet - We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (1/10/12)

"Oh my god, you’re dead, oh my god, you’re not dead"/"It’s all real, you’re a fake.”
These are just a few of the paradoxical lyrics etched into multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Boulet’s sophomore effort, We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart, which paint pictures of a somewhat troubled 24-year-old. But the fickle nature of Boulet’s lyrics is unfalteringly swamped with vibrant tribal percussion and choral chants that actually work to juxtapose Boulet’s oft-melancholic stories. This to-ing and fro-ing between bright music and heavy wordplay immediately presents something a bit different and perhaps worth lending your ears to.
Opener ‘You’re A Animal’ (Boulet’s grammar) acts as a one-song montage for the entire album. Ferocious primal drums, dissonant brass and cock-sure power chords make a premature statement that this album is all about relentless ENERGY. 
Not one to hush for long, Boulet leads us straight from the plummeting, ‘You’re A Animal’, into the startling marimba-pop of ‘This Song Is Called Ragged.’ Excusing the incorrect musical ethnicity, but imagine an Indonesian gamelan on steroids and you’re there. Attention has clearly been paid to penning the vast, unyielding rhythm section; it seems Boulet has hardcore in his blood or a similar high-energy rock genre.
The first few songs on the record stage a tedious saga of pounding drums, but ‘Dread Is This Place’ and ‘Hallowed Hag’ offer much deeper, and different, textures. ‘Dread Is This Place’ goes all Animal Collective with soaring multi-layered harmonies and mashed-up psychedelic melodies, but ‘Hallowed Hag’ one-ups it with goose bump-inducing melodies, flamenco rhythms and spindly guitar chords that crawl over Boulet’s rasping vocals.
‘Mangle Trang’ and ‘FM AM CB TV’ are strong examples of Boulet overdoing it on the percussion front, with trigger-sharp drums spewing all over melodies that would have, at the very most, benefited from light rhythms. Chamber-pop melodies lie at the heart of ‘Piao Voca Slung’ and album-closer ‘Cent Voix’, which thankfully deviate from Boulet’s obsession with crashes, bangs and wallops. Unfortunately, the former doesn’t promise a complete recess from drilling percussion, but he clearly is a rhythms man and lets that remain at the centre of his songwriting.
We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart is sometimes wonderful and sometimes not. Wisps of ingenuity flutter about the songs’ surfaces, penetrating intermittently into deeper, emotional depths.  The clattering of drums, however, is always thumping at the back of your head, and regardless of the Boulet’s remarkable musical talent, you begin to get a bit of a headache.