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