Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Review: Mikal Cronin - MCIII (The 405)

Across his remarkably consistent discography, Mikal Cronin has explored the darkest depths of heartbreak, paranoia, and insecurity in a way that removes any distance between himself and the listener. And musically, Cronin has always aimed straight for the senses, as if the quickest route to our ears, minds and hearts can also be the most affecting. There’s little innovation here when it comes to form or song structure. Instead, these songs focus around expression and music’s ability to stir these tiny neurones in our heads in the most primal and natural way there is.    

Cronin has never shied away from the histrionic or the emotional. And the songs on ‘MCIII’ are still the same open, honest confessions of his hopes and fears, but there is an added sentimentality here. The production value is turned up; there’s full string and brass sections. And even if Cronin’s fragile vocal is still saying the same things, ‘MCIII’ feels like the closest we’ve ever got to the man behind the name. This is even reflected in the cover art, too: ‘MCII’ had an image of a non-descript landscape through a thick sepia filter. Now though there is a full headshot, front and centre, as if to bring the focus firmly on himself.

When explaining the added sonic grandiosity to ‘MCIII’, Cronin has said that it was a conscious effort to make this album sound bigger and more ambitious from the earliest stages of songwriting. And it’s true, even if there is a lot going on here, none of it ever sounds decadent or unnecessary. You can hear Cronin the arranger as well as the songwriter throughout the record. The violin that twists and leaps around the dense layers of guitars and drums on the excellent ‘Turn Around’, as he laments a relationship lost amongst the noise and technology of modern life, helps balances it. Take it away and the song’s vulnerable core might stay hidden. Similarly, the cello that hums beneath ‘I’ve Been Loved’ almost plays like a counterpoint to his vocal, attempting to respond to his cries of heartbreak.

This is a sprawling album in terms of emotions and heart, too. Cronin’s approach to confessional songwriting has always been scattered, moving between painful moments of introspection and self-doubt, to confident statements of intent with complete abandon. Just look at the song titles: the positive, assured ‘Turn Around’, ‘vi) Ready’ and ‘Say’, the vulnerable ‘i) Alone’ and ‘Feel Like’, to the more reflective, insular ‘I’ve Been Loved’ and ‘Made My Mind Up’. If these were chapter titles from a teenager’s diary you’d have to question their stability. This is never clearer than on the stirring, memorable ‘i) Alone’, which opens with a full string section, brass and the powerful chords of a grand piano. It would feel wildly out of place in less capable hands. After a minute or so though, the dull thud of his acoustic guitar creeps slowly into focus, until we’re left with Cronin whispering ‘I’m not alone / In these walls / And I can’t sleep’. It’s a strange transition, moving from this huge, grandiose gesture of orchestras and concert halls to this very private reflection about the demons that can invade your mind when you are emptying it for sleep. The same thing happens on ‘v) Different’, where Cronin’s softly talks about a ‘different kind of lonesome’ between the soft, warm drone of cellos, violins and even some horns for good measure.

Like its predecessors, MCIII relies on its familiarity. These songs aren't designed to challenge or experiment, rather than exist purely for that emotional connection. For those moments where a couplet can stir a memory or a chorus can inspire belief. It revels in its immediacy, and with indie music moving further towards the conceptual and becoming increasingly self-conscious, this feels like a rare, but welcome moment of indulgence. MCIII is a great record because it gives us a scattered, messy, but uncompromisingly honest portrait of Cronin himself. Nothing is overthought, nothing is too considered - because ultimately, beneath all the production value and instrumental flourishes - this is still just some dude with a guitar singing about the way he feels.


Friday, 17 April 2015

New Music: Ross From Friends - .Biz (The 405)

The votes have been counted, please stop submitting your entries, thank you all for your participation - the competition for the best DJ name of 2015 is over.

.Biz is the debut tune from South London producer Ross From Friends. Taken from his Alex Brown EP, brittle synths throb under an assortment of indiscriminate, broken samples, stuttering forward like a car about to run out of gas. There’s a groove here, but you couldn’t exactly dance to it, as it teases at a payoff that never quite arrives. Instead we are left with this innocuous piano loop, like we’re listening to a concert hall cleaner fiddling with the keys before he turns the lights off.

Released through London’s Breaker Breaker Recordings, Alex Brown is currently only available on Vinyl. Head to Phonica, Rough Trade, or Manchester’s Piccadilly Records to get your hands on it, and catch Ross DJ’ing at one of Breaker Breaker’s residencies at The Amersham Arms in New Cross soon.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Review: Cuushe - Night Lines EP (The 405)

Recently, western electronic music has started to overlap with the sounds coming out of Japan and Korea. Take PC Music, whose sugary melodies and notion of this synthetic pop star borrows heavily from K-pop. And even more notably, North American and European producers like Ryan Hemsworth and Gold Panda have both musically and vocally expressed their affection for the sounds of the Orient, with the former collaborating with Japanese singers Tomggg and Qrion.

Cuushe, the production and vocal project of Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, has followed up 2013’s Butterfly Case with Night Lines. Written and recorded mostly in Tokyo, the EP acts as a little storybook for the busy, nocturnal lifestyle of a city that she loves, as much as fears. ‘Many parties are held, where people are connected but unconnected. It’s easy to feel alone, [but] feeling lonely makes me stronger. Night Lines tells a story of loneliness, instability and strength’ –she told Dazed. So in many ways this is an autobiographical EP, projecting her owns sense of self and identity through the sights and sounds of the city that shaped them.

Hitotsuyanagi is a producer before she is a singer. It’s not that she isn’t a pleasant vocalist, but more the way she treats these vocals, bending them into the backdrop of the song at times as if they are an extra instrument. The refrain on ‘Tie’ is so muffled that it could easily be played by a synthesiser, whilst on ‘Daze’, its used as much as rhythmic tool as it is melodic, like we’re listening to the chopped, uneven sounds of a sequencer. And despite the glossy sheen that covers these songs, they are still busy, complex productions. Hitotsuyanagi is excellent at building these intense, rich textures that feel fully formed and filled with character, without ever really striving to be so. The recurring synth motif that runs throughout the steady ‘Shadow’ is almost hypnotic like some kind of tuneful metronome that’s catchy, but you couldn’t exactly hum the tune. ‘Daze’ is the closest Night Lines gets to danceable, with the dull thud of a kick drum barely escaping out of this thick layer of scattered synths. It’s the sort of song you’d listen to a few days after a heavy night, where the memory of the club is still too raw to face, but too cherished to completely let go. These songs are complicated without ever really sounding complicated, and this illusion of simplicity allows these songs to twist, unfold and move around in your mind and heart naturally and of their own accord.

These kind of woozy, ambient soundscapes create this impression of a dream-like state where the synths, vocals and percussion can be some kind of protective barrier between you and reality. Hitotsuyanagi has often related her music to dreams, speaking about it as this powerful, ethereal agent capable of not only moving her listeners, but actually transporting them into these profound states of otherworldliness. On face value, you’d be forgiven to thinking these songs were nothing more than mood setters - songs to accompany the thoughts and emotions you’re already feeling, rather than provoke any on their own. ‘I just want to close my eyes’, she repeats on ‘Shadow’, ‘we just can’t keep going’ she sings on ‘We Can’t Stop’, her voicing cracking and straining just out of tune. She sings with the kind of weariness reserved for the jaded and the exhausted, as if the only thing more painful than the tensions and complexities of her circumstances is the knowledge that she can’t do anything about it. There are times where Hitotsuyanagi’s voice barely resembles a whisper, almost as if the notes and tones coming out of her mouth are just a natural, semi-conscious exhale. It results in this kind of accidental intimacy, like the movements and processes of her mind have involuntarily been turned into sounds.

Cuushe is a project that is rich in identity. Whether it’s her candid interviews, or collaborations with artists to create visual companions to her songs, or more simply; the unique way she writes, records and performs, you still feel like you know her through her music. So even if the lyrics are unintelligible, or the vocals so ambient that you can’t distinguish them from a synth or a guitar, you still feel like you know exactly what she’s saying.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Live Review: Maribou State (The Line of Best Fit)

Photo by by William Cooper Mitchel

Oslo, Hackney
26th March, 2015

After several years on the periphery, London production two-piece Maribou State are edging closer towards the nerve-centre of UK electronic music, as they prepare to Release their debut album ‘Portraits’, in June. Tonight is their debut live show, and this notion of blending their identity as producers and as DJs into a single entity is a familiar one, as acts look for ways to translate the complexities of programming into the raw passion of performance. Regular selectors on the festival and club scenes for several years now, Maribou State have never strayed too far from their productions, leaning towards the warmer, synth-heavy house sounds that come with an Ibiza sunrise or mid-afternoon. This experience will no doubt have seeped into their songwriting, using the ebbs and flows of the dancefloor to create songs that centre around atmosphere and mood as much as they do melody and tone.

There is a full band set up tonight, with Davids and Ivory taking guitar, synth and programming duties, and Johnny Cade and Holly Walker on drums and vocals respectively. When electronic music like this is played on live instruments, there’s a danger that it can land in the middle of the authentic sounds of say a guitar or a drum kit, and the synthetic, digitised aesthetic of the productions but falling short on both counts. Walker’s vocals are so perfect in terms of pitch that they could easily be emerging from a sequencer, whilst Cade manages to keep the beat so precisely that we could be listening to a drum loop.  So it’s a testament to their ability as sound engineers and players that tonight still feels like a club show, with every crescendo or every pause keeping the audience obediently in time.

Davids and Ivory are excellent at building these inviting, all-encompassing soundscapes in a way that commands, but never smothers. And despite Walker’s excellent vocals, Maribou State are still at their best during the instrumental moments, carefully layering a diverse range of sonics until they become these grand, rich walls of sound. The slow, measured synths at the end of new single ‘Rituals’ come in like water filling up the room, creating these gorgeous emotional swells that intertwine seamlessly between the grandiose and the tranquil. There’s a genuine sense of human feeling bleeding into each of these tracks, like the twinkling piano on opener ‘Moon Circles’, or the affected vocal on ‘Midas’. And despite the largely synthetic pallet of sounds on offer tonight, you can still feel the weight of emotional context being fed through every note.

Maribou State have always been excellent producers. Tonight though, there is evidence that they are prepared to move away from the more immediate gratification of UK club culture in favour of something altogether more considered, slowly nudging their listeners towards these moments of bliss instead of arriving there fully formed. This is music to listen to on a bus with your eyes closed or at your desk whilst your mind wanders as much as it is within a club at four in the morning. These are complicated songs without ever really sounding complicated, which allows them to twist, turn and unfold completely naturally and of their own accord.

It’s been over four years since their first single, so this album has been a long time in the making. UK electronic music has changed and mutated countless times between, and even with this brief rendition of ‘Portraits’ tonight, it feels like Maribou State are finally able to express what electronic music means to them in a way that they’re comfortable with. It’s a remarkably assured performance, striking the balance between club and live music culture with surgeon like precision.

Mike Townsend

Set List
Moon Circles 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Review: Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - After (The 405)

Despite the flowing, stream-of-consciousness style she sings in, Ally Spaltro, or Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, has remained resolutely quiet when it comes to any press interaction around her new album After. It’s as if the uncompromising honesty displayed on record has left no room for the kind of arbitrary, arm’s length conversations that come with interviews. Spaltro has always been a fiercely candid songwriter, incorporating the kind of disturbing imagery in her lyrics that can make you wince, groan, but spin round and round in your mind, making you feel every syllable.

‘After’ follows her debut Ripley Pine; an ambitious, frantic first album that had all the raw, insecure kind of energy that you’d expect when you consider she wrote most of it as a teenager. It sounded imperfect and uncensored, like she had dotted the last ‘i’ on her lyric sheet and ran straight into the studio. This was mirrored musically as well, with frequent time signature changes and rash instrumental breakdowns contributing to a feeling of restlessness and agitation. Spaltro is 23 now, and whilst these issues might not have gone away, she is tackling them from an older, wiser perspective.

Opener ‘Vena Cava’ focuses further on the kind of visceral, bloodied imagery that she explored previously. ‘I still need your teeth round my organs’ she sang on Ripley Pine track You Are The Apple, and here she sings ‘the vena cava… / bringing blood into the chamber’, using the physical functions of the human body as tangible symbols of emotional movements and trauma. Spaltro’s voice is blessed with these natural dramatic properties, where every crack can be a moment of vulnerability and every grunt a statement of defiance. It can veer out of tune, like as it does in the sweeping finale of ‘Arkansas Daughter’, but these small imperfections and idiosyncrasies are all part of the story, providing colour to every line and heart to every note. ‘You build a nest of yellow yarn / you hope to God the yellow yarn / is soft enough to break your fall’ she sings on ‘Violet Clementine’, repeating it over and over again, her voice slowing turning into this venomous growl as it stops sounding like a warning and starts sounding like a threat.

There’s an unpredictability to these songs, as she interchanges even the most disturbing lyrical phrases with the mundane and the ordinary. ‘Now I’m sitting on a train / and I’m peeling an orange’ she starts on ‘Spat Out Spit’, before continuing ‘Will I awake to find I’m deep in the woods / And I’m snarling on all fours’. Even when she’s tackling these complex, existential issues, she sounds resolutely calm, as if a lifetime of answering the same question has desensitised her to their effect. And it’s this juxtaposition between the fragile and the aggressive that underpins Spaltro’s writing and delivery, creating these images and stories within her songs before pulling the rug out from the listener at expertly timed moments.     

There’s a moment in opener ‘Violet Clementine’ where the song suddenly changes key. It’s innocuous enough, as a solo bass guitar slightly bends out of place before reintroducing the second phase of the tune at just a step down, like Spaltro and her band have quickly changed their minds but can’t bring themselves to start the song again. There’s a point being made here, that we are listening them in the purest and most primal stages of musical expression, playing as if every note and chord is pumping directly from their bloodstreams. And throughout the album, Spaltro regularly dodges convention when it comes to structure and form, creating these long, sprawling opuses that can change between jangly folk intros into Paranoid Android style breakdowns. The excellent ‘Penny Licks’ starts as a sparse folk number as she sings ‘Maybe when we’re gone / you can have our bedroom’, before erupting into this rousing, chest beating coda as the backing choir stands up to sing ‘we will crane our necks’ in unison. It’s an obvious nod to Crane Your Neck on Ripley Pine, where she once sang “And if you’re crying by the moon / In the sun you better lift up your chin” as if she knew the sort of strength that was required but was still unable to show it. Now though, she’s standing taller, and there’s a feeling of optimism that hangs beneath After that she might not have been capable of before.

Performing is clearly a very purifying process for Spaltro, as if a song or an album can be used as a box to organise the complexities of her mind and her life. On ‘Sunday Shoes’, she confronts the death of her sister with images of her ‘eating dirt in the flower bed’ before being ‘chased by wolves’. It’s the simplest song on the album, with her vocal sitting cleanly above a noodling guitar. This moment of calm is disarming; almost as if we are getting a private glimpse into the first time she’s had a chance to truly reflect on the event. Spaltro’s lyrics are often wild and chaotic, but despite the gut wrenchingly sad nature of this song, she remains firmly in control this time as we are left with this gorgeous ‘you will become your most favourite colour’ refrain.

Spaltro was young when she wrote Ripley Pine, and with its raw, blood and guts energy, it felt like she had thrown everything she had into this insoluble liquid where the parts could move around and bounce off each other, but never quite connect. You’d be pushed to find any sort of thread that flows across this record, and the lack of cohesion here might prove too distracting for some. But even if After is an altogether neater album, where the vocals are more in tune and the guitars in time, you can still feel the blood pumping through it. She lives inside her songs, creating these pulsating, breathing vessels for her fraught and restless spirit. And for anyone willing to stick around long enough to listen, they are richly and endlessly rewarding.


Thursday, 12 March 2015

Review: Lotic - Heterocetera (The 405)

Lotic grew up in Houston, Texas, studying music before moving permanently to Berlin with his boyfriend in 2012. It’s a journey many electronic musicians make, with the German capital being a much more fertile ground both for inspiration and experimentation than the more immediate, instant gratification culture of North American dance music scene. After several months, J’Kerian Morgan started the regular clubnight Janus as a response to the city’s dominant and overwhelming techno scene, using the dancefloor as a stimulant for his brooding, menacing take on R&B.

‘Heterocetera’ is Morgan’s first Release on Tri Angle Records, sitting comfortably alongside the likes of Evian Christ and oOoOO at a label moving further towards the darker corners of electronic music. And these kinds of sharp, abrasive beats lend themselves naturally to hip-hop. I mean, if you look at recent collaborations like Hudson Mohawke and Kanye, Rustie and Danny Brown, as well as label mate Clams Casino’s three instrumental mixtapes, it’s clear that this kind of heavy handed, low bpm production works well with an aggressive, emotionally charged rap vocal over the top. With this in mind, EPs like this can sometimes be in danger of sounding like a glorified beat tape, incapable of commanding your full attention because it feels incomplete.

Lotic avoids this on ‘Heterecetera’ by not sticking to any sort of form, adding these small, but crucial idiosyncrasies that act as valuable checkpoints across the EP. On opener ‘Suspension’, these rolling 4/4 ticks are punctuated by a harsh, industrial crash, almost like an old, rusty metal door being forced closed. There’s a sharp, high pitched synth drone crying above throughout, gradually rising and sounding more and more anxious until it’s almost unlistenable. Similarly on the title track, some otherwise conventional synth and percussion movement plays second string to a frantic sample from Masters At Work’s The Ha Dance, swirling around like thousands of flies trapped inside a jar. On the slower, brooding ‘Phlegm’ the work is done at the deeper end, with a robust kick drum clearing the way for some short, intense percussive interjections. These dark, specific motifs all feel very considered and deliberate, providing instant and memorable signposts for these songs that allow them to standalone in their own right. It’s clear that Morgan had a good idea of how these songs were going to sound before he stepped into the studio, and despite the uniformity in terms of textures and mood, his skill as a producer and as a songwriter is in his ability to look at every song as a separate idea, making ‘Heterocetera’ feel like a fully formed, cohesive body of work.

Emotionally, this kind of electronic music can often operate within quite tight parameters. Morgan approaches his productions in the more traditional sense, though, with songs that aim to provoke deeper and more specific emotional reactions and attachments. Throughout the EP he manages to create and then sustain a narrative by adding an unswerving sentimentality to the technical mastery. There’s a moment on ‘Stay’ where a fragile, ethereal female vocal is introduced above another sprawling, metallic beat. It almost sounds too clean, or too angelic, like one of those default sounds you get on those cheap keyboards in college. It’s a jarring moment of vulnerability, especially in the context of these very clinical and confident soundscapes. After moving to Berlin, J’Kerian Morgan experienced an almost debilitating loneliness and anxiety, as the unfamiliarity of a new country threatened to detach him from his creativity and sense of self. “It was very tough. I was depressed for six months straight, basically”, he told Pitchfork last month. You can absolutely feel this sense of loneliness and alienation throughout the EP, which in turn makes it confessional, like a privileged, moving window into Morgan’s own emotional space.

Songwriting seems like an intense, all-encompassing process for Morgan, as he channels all the noise that makes up his world into these tight and clinical  productions. It’s an ambitious approach to being a producer, and it’s exciting to see what form it will take within the wider boundaries of a full length album. For now though, even at five tracks, ‘Heterocetera’ is a strong, visceral electronic record that maintains its ambition and intensity from beginning to end.  


Review: Purity Ring - Another Eternity (The 405)

When Shrines, the debut album from Canadian duo Purity Ring came out in 2012, this idea that indie music could be highly digitised and contain all the impulses and immediacies of pop music whilst still sounding indie barely existed. And it’s true, first album treated melody and phrasing in such a distinct way that the term ‘sounds like purity ring’ became synonymous with any new act who dared to write subtly intelligent, infectiously melodic songs with glossy, meticulously programmed electronic sounds. If not exactly inventive, Shrines was certainly impressive in its singularity, which was refined and administered with a surgeon-like precision.

You get the feeling that Purity Ring started to feel suffocated by this specific and unambiguous aesthetic they have created for themselves. When speaking about the writing process for this album, instrumentalist Corin Roddick told Pitchfork: “It was a tricky place to be in because, with a second album, we’re trying to evolve and we wanna be new and exciting with whatever new music we’re releasing. But we also have a fan base that likes us for the first album we put out”. The statement almost sounded like an admission of defeat, and this notion of stifling your creative ideas to cash the same cheque as before seems a little sad – especially for a band only on their second album.

Another Eternity still sounds like Purity Ring, though, yet the synths are louder, the bass thuds deeper, and the songs take a more traditional structure where the verses are more defined and the choruses are bigger. This approach to a sophomore album is certainly well versed – take everything that worked before and just turn it all up. Whilst Shrines certainly wasn’t a minimal album, it showed restraint when it was needed, isolating the hooks so that they resonated with maximum effect. James’ vocals would be left to hang in the air; a wobbing bass pedal note would be cut just at the right time. All these direct and compact parts would be allowed to grow bigger and smaller, twisting and unfolding together like cogs in some brilliant twentieth century machine. The glaring, screeching synth repeated on ‘Flood On The Floor’, ‘Stranger Than Earth’, ‘Dust Hymn’ and ‘Begin Again’ sounds obvious and undeliberate, like simplified signposts for the grandiose and the dramatic, aimed at that kind of festival tent, MDMA tinged euphoria that comes with huge sound systems and bigger ‘drops’.  This maximalist approach to Another Eternity feels indirect and arbitrary, like a child bashing away at his favourite sounds on a toy keyboard.

This regression is mirrored lyrically, too. ‘Cut out my sternum and pull / My little ribs around you’, James sang on Shrines highlight Fineshrine, as she viscerally conveyed all the desperation and abandon that comes with loving someone so much that it feels like an unhealthy, frightening obsession. And there’s still little doubt that Roddick and James are still brilliant at creating these gorgeous, balanced phrases: “You feared a lonely death like a lake / leaves you alone in her deaths, she cries on ‘Bodyache’, or  “You push and you pull and tell yourself no / It’s like when you lie down the veins grow in slow” on ‘Push Pull’. The decision to write less autobiographically makes these sound like empty shells, though, like a stunningly painted sculpture that is completely hollow once you pierce its surface.

With Shrines, Purity Ring sounded one step ahead of the popular music landscape, creating these catchy, compact little songs that sounded just a little bit unfamiliar. And whilst it may seem unfair to keep comparing Another Eternity to its predecessor, it’s troubling to see a band who once revelled in their nuances and their weirdness to completely dilute themselves like this. It’s possible that they underestimated their audience, looking to connect with their more immediate, primal pleasure centres using volume and excess rather than intellectually. James and Roddick clearly have their sights set on mainstream success, but are instead in danger of sounding like one of the many pretenders that their first album spawned, rather than smart, subtly innovative band they once were.


Mike Townsend

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Review: Marika Hackman – We Slept At Last (The 405)

“I want to change with each record, and experiment with each release, right from the start”, Marika Hackman said in a recent interview with The Guardian as she spoke of the creative freedom she felt when writing her debut album ‘We Slept at Last’. Experimentation doesn’t always have to come from the leftfield, and sometimes just nudging the boundaries towards a place where you can explore old ideas but in new, interesting ways, can be enough to create a sense of ownership between a singer and their sound. The album, recorded at London’s Iguana Studios and produced by long term collaborator Charlie Andrew, was written within the space of two months, as Hackman used this short window as a means of capturing personal feelings of restlessness or anxiety into a singular body of work where the “I” was always her own self.
Marika Hackman has always been a very dark songwriter. Even on the more pastoral, rootsy 2013 cut ‘Wolf’, she sings of being “strapped against a bow / Of a ship that’s captained by fraud”, attacking an ex-lover who’s memory alone makes her sick. ‘We Slept At Last’ is even more insular, further exploring this notion that music can be window for your own afflictions and complexities whilst discarding the noise that makes up the rest of this world. “I’ve been weeping silent like a wound / Won’t you stitch me up or let the blood soak through?” she pleads on ‘Animal Fear’, before a chorus of falling melodic sequences that make the song feel unnervingly familiar, like the young girl singing a nursery rhyme in the climax of one of those low budget horror movies.. On ‘Skin’, an obvious centrepiece, there is a gorgeous counterpoint between her own vocals and those of St Ives singer-songwriter Sivu, playing opposites in a relationship blighted by jealousy and insecurity. ‘I’m jealous of your neck’, Hackman sings, “You told me of your heart”, Sivu responds, both as two lovers who are being forced to come to terms with the person their relationship has turned them into. The vocals feel almost unbearably close, where every intake of breath creeping sharply above the sliding of fingers on the fret board. It’s like you’re eavesdropping on your parents having an argument in their bedroom: you can feel the intimacy, but you’re not invited.
The album just comes up short during its more restrained moments, like the sparse, finger-picked ‘Claude’s Girl’, which hangs motionless in the air waiting for a curtain that never quite drops, or the forgettable ‘Monday Afternoon’ and ‘Undone, Undress’, which are both over reliant on simplistic, directionless  melodic phrases. Hackman works best when her naked, blood and guts emotional precision is offset by a textural grandiosity, the two acting as counterweights for their own intensity. Take the elegant strings that creep into the closing stages of ‘Before I Sleep’, the distorted, funeral march snare on the solemn ‘Undone, Undress’, or the swells of guitar feedback that anchor ‘In Words’. In these moments, despite the dark, often very sad directions these songs head in, this still feels like a warm album, incorporating the timbre and soul of each instrument as an extra arm for artistic and emotional expression in a way that supports, but never smothers.
Hackman’s voice is unshakably calm throughout. Even when faced with lines as biting as “So, I’ll drown in your mind” from the excellent ‘Drown’, they are presented with a resolute stillness. She might be struggling, and these psychological wounds might run pretty deep, but even as they threaten to overwhelm she still remains in control of them. “Songwriting is about trudging through the darker sides of your brain and sifting that stuff out”, Hackman told the Guardian, and this album has clearly served some sort of cathartic process for her. If you keep these things internalised then they become twisted, they get deformed, and eventually they turn into something you no longer understand. But the more you talk about it, the more normalised they become and the easier they are to live with. The result is a measured, wonderfully arranged, but emotionally singular album, tackling very personal feelings of doubt, pain and insecurity in a way that’s easy to feel, but difficult to truly connect with.
Mike Townsend

Review: Cheatahs - Sunne EP (the405)

This perpetual, better-in-my-day sentiment still hangs over contemporary rock music yet younger music fans crave innovation and creativity in their new bands more than ever, forming this almost impossible balancing act between the nostalgic and the innovative. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for the revivalist, though, for the old dude at the Christmas party telling everyone about their favourite guitar setting on Loveless. With their eponymous debut album, Cheatahs sounded exciting and energetic but fell short of making any sort of indelible mark in genre already brimming with pretenders, creating an album that explored a wide array of paths already laid out, without forging enough of their own.
In an interview with Clash Magazine in 2012, singer Nathan Hewitt said: “I think now that we’re invested in it together it’s becoming easier to come up with songs that fit the band”, and it’s clear that songwriting might not be the kind of organic, throw-your-passions-against-the-wall process you read about in Tony Parsons novels. These songs are all very clinical and very deliberate, with frequent production and recording techniques hidden beneath every cadence and every chord change. Take the disorientating tremolo use on the guitar line on ‘Controller’, or the way the backing vocals and guitar lines merge into a single part towards the end of ‘No Drones’. Hewitt and the band are obviously supremely talented and experienced musicians, using these skills alongside an encyclopaedic understanding of their favourite bands to expand their limitations as songwriters. And every song is more evidence of their striking ability to explore the emotional properties of their instruments and of the recording studio, using textural and instrumental flourishes as centrepieces for everything else to be built around, like the piercing lead guitar in title track ‘Sunne’ which sounds just slightly out of tune and badly mixed. It’s almost unlistenable, but manages to capture an anxiety that the barely audible lyrics can never surpass. That their deal with Wichita came off the back of a short support slot in 2012 is unsurprising; with their ability to use timbre and volume as a form of expression certain to make an impressive live show.
Whilst their dedication to this shoegaze and psychedelica sound is undeniably infectious, it’s a shame that they are so reverential of its history and the things they love about it to attempt to make any real modifications to the formula. This puts them in danger of sounding like a bunch of guys with a great record collection playing their favourite tunes in their garage. And clocking in at just over twelve minutes, Sunne is a jarringly short EP in a genre that has always been characterised by these expansive and immersive albums. The four songs on Sunne sound more like a collection of ideas rattling around like loose change at the bottom of a bag, rather than a considered, cohesive body of work. Released just a year after their eponymous debut album, Cheatahs might be using it to give themselves more time to work on their second record. Or they could just be overflowing with ideas. It’s difficult to imagine it being of little to use to anyone other than the converted, though, instead offering a brief, and at times thrilling, timestamp in the story of a band still very much in transition, looking for a way to carve their own identity out of the enormous weight of their influences.

Mike Townsend

Friday, 6 February 2015

Live Review: Emmy The Great (Line of Best Fit)

Emmy The Great
Oslo, Hackney
27th January, 2015

Photo: Daniel Alexander Harris

‘I’m always surprised to see so many people’, Emma-Lee Moss explains quietly to a sold out Hackney crowd. She isn’t being modest, Emmy the Great’s path as a musician has seen a slower, more measured ascension than many will have predicted. As a former member of Noah and The Whale and the nu-folk family around them, her excellent debut album ‘Virtue’ remained a hidden gem, capturing that innocence and wide eyed wonder of first love with an emotional precision that missed the hands-in-the-air, festival tent euphoria that her contemporaries thrived on.

The conversational delivery on ‘Paper Forest’ is almost unbearably confessional as if she’s reciting pages from her own diary, whilst ‘City Song’, one of only two songs lifted from her debut album, sounds like a nursery rhyme with tumbling sequences and maudlin ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ sugar-coating this song about a young girl forced to mature too quickly by a life she isn’t ready for yet. You can imagine them sitting on a mixtape you’ve made for a guy you’re into, or playing on the stereo as you drive home from a party where you’ve just met the girl of your dreams, capturing those feelings in their simplest and most natural form so not to dilute their power.

‘Swimming Pool’ leads a generous array of new material taken largely from her ‘S’ EP, and they all represent a necessary progression from her earlier work, appearing altogether more considered as her direct lyrical style couples with a wider range of textures to explore the space between what her experiences mean to her, and what they can mean to anyone who might be listening. The gorgeous, programmed backing vocals wailing on ‘Swimming Pool’, or the dense layers of guitar feedback behind the excellent ‘Social Halo’ might have seemed arbitrary on her older songs tonight, but now feel absolutely necessary as she moves away from the comfortable of singer-songwriter framework and experiments more with the emotional properties of her instruments. There are times where she misses the mark, like the widescreen synths that weigh down the already excessive ‘Solar Panels’, but you get the feeling that new EP ‘S’, along with this mini-tour, is as much for her benefit as it is for ours, giving her a chance to clear her throat and test the water with this new aesthetic before becoming completely immersed in it with the recording and touring of her upcoming third album.

The band could certainly be tighter, with an array of missed queues and bum notes culminating in a disastrous rendition of ‘Trellick Tower’ which includes two restarts, a few uncomfortable laughs and Emmy eventually singing out the chord progressions to her mortified, dumbstruck pianist. Emmy and her band are clearly in transition at the moment though, which is fine, as long as they have a clear destination in mind. New song ‘Phoenix’ is a good sign, with a simple, floating tune, barely punctuated by the infrequent stab of electronics. It’s a perfect arrangement of her old direct, if not slightly limited, style of songwriting with this idea that any sound emerging from a box of electronics can be just as pure as a form of expression as a note plucked, bowed or blown.

These might be personal songs during a fiercely confessional performance, but we’re invited to feel them alongside her, to see our own reflections in every line and every note. If Emmy the Great can harness this into the more diverse array of sonic expressions she’s hinted at tonight, then album number three can’t come soon enough.

Mike Townsend

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Live Review: Cloud Nothings (Line of Best Fit)


Cloud Nothings
Electric Ballroom, Camden
1st December, 2014

The surge of mainstream electronic music this year with its more immediate, flash in the pan nature of has created icons overnight. Producers have moved from the dance floor to the top of the charts in one swoop, as the trajectory of a hit pop song and its creator becomes steeper. Guitar music on the other hand, looks a little different. By moving slightly out of the spotlight, it has become a much more fertile landscape for the hidden gems, for the slow burners and for the best kept secrets. Cloud Nothings deservedly end 2014 with their largest ever UK show tonight, as their critical and commercial arcs finally align.

‘Here and Nowhere Else’ is a breakthrough album. Cloud Nothings’ three previous records are good, largely, but with the inconsistencies of a band still struggling for any sort of clear, conceptual identity. They could have easily been accused ‘polishing up’, after the jangly, in-my-parents’-garage aesthetic of their previous body of work, and it’s true that ‘Here and Nowhere Else’ has clearer cadences, sharper mastering and an altogether stronger backbone that makes them easier to digest. This conviction though, this idea that saying something more clearly doesn’t have to diminish its effect, has allowed them to land on a sound that is fully formed and create one of the best albums this year.

‘Now Here In’ almost explodes on impact, where the drums are impossibly loud and the vocals coarse and frantic with almost no space at all between them. There is an urgency about the band tonight that nods back to the days of punk or early grunge, rattling through each tune too quickly as if it will only make sense once you hear the beginning of the next. Their ability to turn tension into aggression, even within the boundaries of a three minute song, is even more prevalent on a performance level. ‘Pattern Walks’ accelerates towards a terminal velocity of screaming lead guitar and crashing cymbals, whilst ‘Psychic Trauma’s’ change of pace feels so frenzied that Dylan Baldi’s vocals are rendered into an obscure growl. These are choruses to scream with a beer in the air, drum fills to bash out on your steering wheel and guitar solos that make you clench your fists. It’s clear that if Cloud Nothings were struggling to capture any sort of pure sound before, ‘Here and Nowhere Else’ is them completely nailing it.

The newest LP also sees them messing around with tempo more than they, or many other of their contemporaries have done before. Tonight they bend and stretch time signatures, capturing that same restlessness and inability to keep still supported by Baldi’s weary, anxious lyrics. This lends itself well to their live show, where each pull back is a chance to breathe, every dramatic upturn in speed an excuse to completely lose your shit. There are times where this haze of spontaneous aggression swallows the hooks that make these truly memorable songs, like I’m Not Part Of Me’, which has such a great chorus that it deserves to be played simply and unaltered rather than thrashed out and rushed. Cloud Nothings' quest to create the most visceral charge of energy and sustain it for a full ninety minutes performance is undeniably impressive, but it can have you longing for a bit of subtlety or some tiny nuances to cling onto. This is subjective criticism of course, and would no doubt be heartily rebuffed by the pocket of fans seemingly recreating the siege of troy at the front.  

Cloud Nothings have grown louder, more confident and more compositionally assured, so if tonight feels like a victory lap of sorts then you can allow them a moment of indulgence. You get the feeling that Baldi and his band still consider themselves music fans before professional musicians, creating the sort of raw, no-thrills rock show that they will have grown up with. Their growing stature and success might force them into considering their live show beyond just a series of song renditions at some point in the near future. Until then though, party on.

Mike Townsend

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Live Review: Christopher Owens (Line of Best Fit)

Christopher Owens
Islington Assembly Hall, London
19th November, 2014

Upon leaving Girls, Christopher Owens was accused of the kind of well documented, front-man narcissism that has precipitated the end for many before him. And it’s true, this narrative worked well with the kind of blithe, effortless self-confidence the band chose to present themselves with both aesthetically and musically. ‘
The easiest thing in the world for me to do would have been to make another Girls album’, he explained to Pitchfork in 2012. ‘It's just not what I wanted. I wanted a real band. I wanted the Rolling Stones, The Beatles’. It’s telling that even with two brilliant, classic albums, Owens never saw Girls as truly great. Despite appearances though, there was always a vulnerability to Girls’ music that makes his move into a calmer, more sensitive singer-songwriter landscape seem very natural. Take the slow, lighters up bridge section in the otherwise charging surf-rock anthem ‘Honey Bunny’, or the desperate refrain of ‘I don't want to cry my whole life through / I want to do some laughing too’ on ‘Hellhole Ratrace’. The press shots accompanying ‘Lysandre’ and ‘A New Testament’ might look like stills from a budget American western movie, but this is an artist where the ‘I’ in his songs and in his image, both as a solo artist and front man, has always been himself.

Owens has always been good at exploring simple emotional concepts in unusual and complicated ways, masking the core of his song writing within these webs and layers of context and red herrings. It’s certainly what allowed Girls to climb above their California, guitar-pop contemporaries, whilst letting him move beyond his new singer-songwriter template. And tonight, wearing a snake skin jacket and striking, pointed shoes, he disguises personal feelings of introversion with flamboyance, offering these mostly touching songs of love unrequited, love unfulfilled or love realised with all the complexities and contradictions that we’ve all experienced and can all recognise, putting you right up there with him. Some deal with personal trauma by shutting themselves away or with some form of mental self-flagellation, and others like to put on their best outfit and surround themselves with their favourite things, in this case a shredding guitar solo (‘Laura), a noodling organ riff (‘Love Like A River’) or, indeed, a giant revolving disco ball (‘It Comes Back To You’). It’s theatrical but never insincere, as Owens lives inside his performance and his songs like a movie character narrating tales of his own shortcomings.

The frequent exertions into Girls’ back catalogue are, inevitably, greeted with elation, and it’s hard to believe that some of these songs are barely three years old, as if the premature break up has crystallised them in the modern music canon like old, adored relics. ‘Forgiveness’ begins with Owens alone, whispering that gut-wrenching line ‘Nothing’s gonna get any better’ before being swallowed by a tearing guitar breakdown that teases at a resolution which almost never arrives. ‘Vomit’ still sounds remarkable, collapsing into a sprawling coda with wailing gospel vocals, a howling organ and crashing cymbals surrounding Owen’s wounded plea of ‘Come into my heart’ like waves beating against an old, crumbling lighthouse.

Tonight is a reminder that Girls could have turned into one of the best guitar bands in the world, had they chose to stick it out. Christopher Owens isn’t going anywhere though, and his attempts to occupy and own his personal flaws and inadequacies in a way that’s both beautiful and comforting to him will continue to produce great music and performance over the years. Whether it’s in the form of an insular, sensitive singer-songwriter or a bratty west coast guitar band - I’m not sure it even matters.

Mike Townsend

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Live Review: MØ (Line of Best Fit)

Photo Credit: Dan Harris

Shepherds Bush empire
Saturday, 1st November 2014

Pop music has moved on since the turn of the decade. Arguments of authenticity and ‘proper music’ now sound dated and petulant, whilst the artistic merit of writing a good a catchy, melody propelled song, whether it surfaces on Tumblr or Saturday Night Live can be appreciated on face value alone. Female artists like Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX and Tove Lo are bridging the gap between critical acclaim and wide-reaching accessibility, finding a beauty and a craft in the creation of music that’s instantly gratifying and memorable.

With so many examples now scattered across the popular music landscape, it’s easy to forget that MØ was once at the forefront of this modern renaissance. Since debut single ‘Pilgrim’, though, Icona Pop’s ‘I love It’ powered to number one and Charli XCX broke America, all while Karen Marie Ørsted’s debut album ‘No Mythologies To Follow’ hit neither the critical nor commercial heights to match it’s lofty expectations.

The level of fandom tonight is almost unnerving. Devoted disciples can be seen across all corners of a near sold out Shepherds Bush Empire, with girls elatedly swinging their plaited topknots, lads donning full scale, eighties tinged adidas tracksuits without a hint of irony and mums and dads greeting even the more arbitrary album tracks like old favourites. Pop music has always commanded an obsession with its listeners, and this almost feels like a throwback to the days where it was practiced like a healthy, constructive hobby, like your big sister buying Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack mini-dress or your weird cousin drawing heartagrams on his school pencil case.

What’s most striking about tonight’s show is how much more complete these songs sound. The album, arguably to its detriment, wanders through a diverse collection of styles and influences without expanding enough to really lock them down, reaching for the rhythmic dynamism of funk or the widescreen euphoria of pure-pop but just pulling up before the end. The band, that includes a four-piece horn section tonight, provide that extra weight - that shot of adrenaline - to get them over the line. The heavier percussion on the once woozy ‘Maiden’ edges it closer to the dance floor, whilst the aforementioned horns of the insolent ‘Pilgrim’ are more explosive and more deliberate. Circumstance can absolutely affect the way we perceive and experience music, and people will return home with a new set of favourite tunes from an album that they’ve heard one hundred times before. It might be because they were winked at during a disarming, lights-down rendition of ‘Freedom (#1)’, or because they were high-fived as she wandered through the upper tier of the crowd during the excellent ‘Never Wanna Know’.

MØ completely embodies the emotional properties of her songs, whether she’s swaggering on the back of her heels as she sings ‘I’ve got money’ on ‘I Got’, or punching the air and snarling defiantly during the empowering and aggressive ‘Waste Of Time’. That ability to understand and then capture the reason people connect with your music as recordings, and then translate it into a live show almost overwrought with emotion and intensity is something that has eluded many a great pop artist. There are times tonight where MØ sings directly to the front row, crouching on her knees and reaching gratefully towards their outstretched arms as if she’s clinging onto a final moment of intimacy before her platform gets too big and her audience too far away. A stage dive during the closing moments of her rendition of Spice Girls’ ‘Say You’ll Be There’ seems a fitting finale, as she finishes 2014 in the arms of the elated and the adoring masses, ready for her ascension into superstardom.

Mike Townsend

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Live Review: The Horrors (lineofbestfit)

Photo Credit: Jason Williamson
The Horrors
Troxy, London
4th October 2014

Eight years ago, five weird, unhealthy looking lads from Southend On Sea appeared on the cover of NME. Their eyes popped out like the Camden synthetic drug addicts they presumably borrowed their outfits from, accompanied without even a hint of irony by the caption ‘They’re Freaky, They Rock, They’re Taking Over’. Their debut LP Strange House was similarly as polarising, prompting ridicule among those just touching the surface and tentative acclaim from anyone willing to dig a little deeper. 
Between a strikingly self aware appearance on The Mighty Boosh and an album of the year, The Horrors have stopped traversing UK music’s undulating cool spectrum, shedding their layers of histrionics and settling as one of XL’s strongest, most consistent guitar bands. Their latest LP Luminous is the first time they’ve built on a framework already laid out, rather than undertaking a stylistic overhaul. And in the context of their progressive, transmogrifying body of work, it’s telling that this alone manages to blight what is still, at times, a breathtaking array of songs.
Tonight’s show at East London’s Troxy feels fitting, with the old, gothic art-decor just about permeating through the building’s modern renovations. “Chasing Shadows” could quite easily have been purpose built as a set opener, with its cloudy layers of feedback and electronics making way for the bands mysterious, cloak-and-dagger introduction. Faris Badwan remains almost rooted to his stage mark throughout, delivering each lyric with a self-reliant indifference that keeps the whole thing almost intensely stylised. And it would be easy to accuse them of detachment, keeping their influences and audience at arm’s length in a way that never truly exposes the musicians behind them. But backed by the thumping sound system and acoustics of the building, the parts and layers that make up these songs - however deliberate and contrived - are deployed in a way that serves but never overshadows. That piercing hook from “Who Can Say” is so colossal that it acts as the rhythmic driving force of the song, rather than a decorative flourish, and those atonal, instrumental bellows on “Scarlet Fields” almost feel like we’re watching Gesaffelstein in a festival tent waiting for ‘the drop’. Tonight, the similarities to their noise-mongering, shoegazing contemporaries feels less like a throwback and more like a defining feature that they’ve fully and truly immersed themselves in.                      
The towering “Still Life” is an inevitable highlight – it’s the type of song that would have kept John Hughes awake at night. It lingers in the back of your mind when you worry if the best days of your life are behind you, capable of creating melancholy during quiet moments of introspection and rapture out of muted celebrations. In the context of this performance and their body of work it feels like a moment of indulgence, even absolution, from a group of guys who have spent a long time being taken more seriously than they might have liked. “We’re not the sort of band that can sit around with acoustic guitars on the tour bus, playing new songs to each other. We much prefer to go into a studio, with everything set up” - bassist Rhys ‘Spider’ Webb explained in a 2009 interview with Clash, suggesting that the emotional backbone of their songs is channelled through studio precision rather than the act of writing it. There’s no right or wrong way to be a good band, and it’s true that as many people love music for its technical mastery as they do because they connect with the people behind it. An encore of “So Now You Know” and “Moving Further Away” further emphasises their ability to explore the emotional properties of sound and texture, creating centerpieces out of psych-rock breakdowns or sprawling My Bloody Valentine-eseque codas in a way that bridges the challenging with the popular in a way that few other mainstream UK Guitar band is doing right now.
As they negotiate their way through their catalogue, you get the impression that The Horrors will always create music that you have to feel, rather than understand. The euphoria of “Still Life” might seem like a brief moment of abandon in what is a deftly serious and clinical performance, but this is still a mightily impressive showing from a band who know their strengths well enough to be able to rely on them alone.


Chasing Shadows
In And Out Of Sight
Who Can Say
Sea Within A Sea
Scarlet Fields
Endless Blue
Change Your Mind
Still Life
I See You
So Now You Know
Moving Further Away