The phrase ‘an acquired taste’ could have been made for Polly Scattergood. She has a little girl lost voice and a tendency to cast herself as a needy victim to such an extent that the preference may be to send her to a good psychoanalyst than indulge in her recorded confessions. Her self-titled debut included a song called “I Hate The Way” in which Scattergood listed all of the things wrong with her and included the line ‘not all men are bad and I’m not like your dad and I’ll hold you even though you’re slightly mad’ sung from the perspective of her boyfriend. But she can have a way with a tune and her best tracks were perverse and genuinely dark, atmospheric electro pop songs. “Arrows” picks on up the synth-pop element of her first collection and broadens it with ballads as contrast; this is an album that is more slow than fast, are just as black-hearted and desperate.
“Wanderlust” has a Numanesque overarching synth and sounds like Goldfrapp at their squelchiest. It’s nice but derivative and the silky “Disco Damaged Kid” is one of the many songs here that builds into something very different from its first couple of minutes but fails to live up to the vivid imagery suggested in its title. “Falling” has a rougher New Order indie pop sound and “Machines” is a standout, a tender electronic ballad which builds to a convincing enough passionate climax. “Subsequently Lost” is probably the pop standout, a PSB type production, tight with an ‘I’ve subsequently lost my mind luv, apparently I’m going nowhere’ chorus which very much sums up Scattergood’s opinion of herself.
The album’s final track “I’ve Got A Heart” is appropriately heart-breaking; piano and synth chords, beautifully spaced out moments and also the confessional ‘the doctor gave me pills to take, to stop me feeling quite so awake’ line accompanied by strings which help play out the tracks final two minutes. If you don’t like this track then it’s unlikely that Polly Scattergood will be for you. Alternatively the piano led ballad “Miss You” crams in all of her less sympathetic aspects, lyrically and also in respect to performance. It’s whimsical and self-pitying with juvenile lyrics referring to bedroom floors and chimneypot-lined skies.
“Arrows” is an album that sees Polly Scattergood lose some of the things that made her debut oddly compelling. She is clearly attracted to melancholy and that dark disco aesthetic that’s loved by many similar artists but here she is both more diluted and obvious than before. The thing that marked her out as being different, her own relentless self-involvement and a singing style which manages to be downtrodden and girly, are still here but the songs let her down more often than not. The surreal flourishes of songs like “Nitrogen Pink” and “The Bunny Club” from her debut have been replaced by more straightforward song writing and themes and where Scattergood was very good at narrating these kinds of escapist fantasies she is less effective with these kitchen sink type scenarios. There is a place in the electro pop world for Polly Scattergood I’m sure but she many have to go back to her initial influences and eccentricities to push her way back through the very crowded door.
Anna Calvi’s debut album was heralded as a new classic within moments of its release. It was florid and troubled, being close cousins to artists such as Nick Cave and with a cinematic cloak draped over it as if imagined by David Lynch at his most romantic and doomed. It was also produced by Rob Ellis, long-time collaborator with PJ Harvey. Ah yes, PJ Harvey. It would be almost irresponsible as a reporter of music not to acknowledge that both artists can share a writing and melodic style, vocal comparisons can on occasion be made between Calvi and Harvey and both fall into the same genre of woman with a guitar (sometimes), not passive, singer-songwriter blues/rock, visually hyper-stylised , entertainer. There are many people who have made records over the past decade or so where the influence of PJH is undeniable but unlike the majority, Calvi’s talent is the actual link between the two and not her desire to mimic Harvey. This is reinforced here on her second album, the radiant and self-possessed “One Breath”. After the stalking guitars and ghostly ‘ooh-oooh’s’ of “Suddenly” and “Eliza” with its thumping strum, it’s only on the third track, “Piece by Piece”, that Calvi deviates from the sonic template previously established on her debut. After the broken and collapsing strings of the intro a rhythmic, tumbling drum snaps into shape and a plucked mandolin and various electronic zips and pops swoon around Calvi who has conjured up the spirit of Siouxsie Sioux here, whilst a scuzzy bass muscles up against an airy string part. The total effect is mesmerising. It’s these string sections, very much a musical theme here, that give “One Breath” its power, the push and pull between light and dark. Producer John Congleton, who has, amongst others, worked with Joanna Newsom and St Vincent, helped create a sumptuous but frequently uneasy and volatile soundscape throughout. Calvi has spoken out about how during the making of this album she suffered from very low moods and that someone very close to her died. It is likely that this in some part went toward dictating the themes and mood of this album and the title track is the boulder around which each track is laid. ‘I got one, I got one breath to give ….it’s going to change everything’ Calvi repeats as though a mantra whilst everything around her is building unforgivingly and then, precisely at the 3 minute mark, a gorgeous orchestral coda breaks through the tension and instantly lifts Calvi, and the listener, wordlessly away to a safer and more beautiful place. It’s both moving and dramatic, a combination of theatre and absolute sincerity. Elsewhere, the near 6 minute “Carry Me Over” with its demonically euphoric final minute of Calvi’s rapturous wails pillowed by the continuing orchestration is a genuine tour de force and “Sing to Me”, which regularly threatens to break into “River Deep, Mountain High”, is an authentic and commanding torch song. After this heightened sensation of a noir love story gone awry , the false start of the rock roll throb of the most straightforward song here, “Love of My Life”, is an unexpected and thrilling thump in the eye. The shortest and perhaps most breath-taking song here is the album closer “The Bridge”, an acapella, choral hymn that chills and will make many misty-eyed with its simple, crystalline beauty. In some ways Anna Calvi has toned down the theatrics and threat that dominated her debut and replaced them with a more nuanced and considered account of a persona under attack but ultimately, and appropriately breathtakingly, breaking free from previous restraints, self-imposed or otherwise. Without doubt the drama and darkness are still present, but on “One Breath” Calvi has created a collection of songs which reflect and show her as an exceptional artist in her own right as opposed to a great artist within the genre. If you want to be genuinely thrilled and startled by music that twists and turns in unpredictable shades and volumes then Anna Calvi has made an album to treasure and completely immerse yourself into, it’s quite an accomplishment.
Tristesse Comtemporaine is a collaboration between former singer of Earthling, Maik, former Japanese punk singer, Marumi and Swedish guitarist Leo (a former hockey player) and “Stay Golden” is their second album. After hearing the album’s opening track a few months ago, I was interested enough to want to hear the rest of the album; intrigued, even. Perhaps I should have just left it at that.
Once you get past the opening tracks, “Fire”, “Stay Golden” and “Waiting”, everything starts to sound very familiar. There’s a template which is applied to almost every track; the opening is minimalist percussion or synth sounds, a breathy vocal comes in and then layers are added as the song progresses. Where this works it works really well, but would you want to have the same food every time you eat?
Some of the elements are interesting; there are some nice synth sounds and the occasional blast of crunching guitar. The vocals are generally breathy and close-miked, sounding like something midway between Chris Difford (Squeeze) and The Beloved’s Jon Marsh, and they initially pull the listener in, like an orator lowering their voice for emphasis but the impact is lost when the technique is used constantly. There’s a lot of repetition on the album (drum patterns, looped synth lines and repeated lyrics) which gives the impression that Tristesse Contemporaine didn’t have enough original ideas for a whole album.
There are moments when the trio achieve what I think they set out to achieve and create moods that are languorous, menacing and disturbing both musically and lyrically. When this happens, it’s very powerful and evocative, but the problem for me is that it doesn’t happen often enough. The alienation evoked by the songs is emphasised in the videos but, ultimately, the project feels like an attempt to seem interesting by being self-consciously strange. It might work for you but it doesn’t really do it for me.
There some very interesting (and disturbing) ideas here musically and lyrically, but they are spread very thinly. Tristesse Contemporaine could have released a very good four or five track EP from this selection, but in this format, it’s a frustrating hint at what could have been a very good album.
Out now on Record Makers (REC 100-01-LC-16765).
M.I.A. has gone through a bit of a hard time. Her last album “Maya” was not loved, she was accused of hypocrisy because she may or may not have consumed truffle french fries whilst being interviewed by The New York Times and her relationship with the obsessively revered Julian Assange (which is continued here) bothered some and problems with both her record company and her own marriage were publicly discussed. She is a fascinating artist, as unique and important as Bjork and, like Bjork, her work could only ever be hers. In respect to the first criticism at least, 2010′s “Maya” was widely slated as inaccessible, ugly-sounding and, the inevitable, ‘hard to love’. Even early musical partner Diplo expressed his concern about her apparent lack of judgement and choice of collaborators but this reaction was one that perplexed. Featuring her most brilliant pop moment ever with “XXXO”, a lovely cover version of Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle” and “Born Free” with its insane ginger-haired army video and Suicide sample, the album was thrillingly eclectic and intricate. It differed from previous releases though, in that M.I.A. had strayed somewhat from sounding like her and this is what’s addressed in “Matangi”, M.I.A. sounds a lot like herself again.
The title track, the first of many here produced by UK electro, fidget-house master Switch sees the pair reunited from the highly-acclaimed and successful “Kala” album, sounds like a continuation of the burundi beats, squawks and chaos of 2006’s “Bird Flu”. The two part time signature of “Come Walk With Me” comes from the same place as “Jimmy”, also from Kala, which M.I.A. remembers as being inspired by pop songs she heard on the radio as a kid. It’s exuberant and child-like and at odds with the majority of M.I.A.’s discography. “Attention” is vocodered, cut to ribbons, archetypal M.I.A and will irritate the hell out of some. Julian Assange helped her find as many words as possible that could contain the word ‘tent’, acounTENT’ being a favourite although she may be pushing it a bit with LoubouTENT shoes.
The skanking “Double Bubble Trouble” shockingly uses the lyrical hook from Shampoo’s massive pop brat hit from 1988 ‘Trouble’ and is conformation of the amount of fun that M.I.A. is having here. The lightness that was all over her debut album has certainly returned and on “Bring the Noize” and “Y.A.L.A.” she has created two of her biggest and brutish club tunes to date. Lyrically the rhymes do not stand up to close scrutiny, less political than ever before aside from the politics of being M.I.A.. “Boom Skit” talks about her most recent battle with the Super Bowl organisers and “Bad Girls”, sounds as elegant and fresh now as it did two years ago, is about, well, how bad she is.
“Matangi” tends to fall down somewhat with its mid-tempos. Where “Maya” had the gorgeous and spooky “Space” and “Kala” and the gargantuan “Paper Plans”, this has two (very similar) versions of the same song “Sexodus” and “Exodus”. Initially intended for Madonna, or at least offered to her but subsequently refused, it would have been interesting to hear the superstar’s take on this and her proven track record to pull out a melody would have come in useful here. Keeping the slower tracks bunched together at the album’s close only highlights the weakness of them musically and melodically; spaced out during the entire run of the album they may have been more welcomed as a breather from the relentless tempo and charged attitude. It’s only on the minimal, popping shuffle of “Lights” that M.I.A. sounds refreshed and intimate.
“Matangi” has been heralded as Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam’s most spiritual album to date and this statement may confuse but it is not as misleading as initially perceived. Lyrically it may not bare soul and penetrate in the way imagined but musically and rhythmically it references M.I.A.’s own culture as a London-born, Sri Lankan woman and it’s this sound that is at the forefront, left and right in every track. The chants, the percussion, the drums, the melody styles and, on “YALA”, the explicit statement, ‘If we only live once then why do we keep doing the same shit? Back home where I come from we keep being born again and again and again. That’s why they invented Karma’. On “Kala” she explored other cultures and sounds but this is M.I.A. reasserting her own sound and place in popular culture and music. It may not be as aggressively forward-sounding as some of her previous material but “Matangi” is a celebration of M.I.A.’s ability to provoke and assault in her most joyously sounding album to date.
The troubling thing about Lorde is that she’s only sixteen, about to turn seventeen at the time of writing. This, her debut album, sounds like the work of someone in their mid-twenties which isn’t exactly middle aged either but the experience that comes with age does help reinforce artistic credibility, it seems. But this a prejudice and should therefore be discounted. Childhood and very early adulthood is experienced differently based on environmental and social factors and kids are no longer just kids; the definition has become blurred. Exposure to almost everything is effortlessly achieved whether you are in control of what you are experiencing or not and kids now worry about feeling too old, to quote Lorde here, at the age of 16. Her worry is our worry, her talent is that she knows how to create brilliant, massive pop songs.
There are two very big songs on the seductive, and that it is the right word, “Pure Heroine”. The bigger of the two, “Tennis Court”, begins with Lorde asking the question ‘don’t you think that’s it boring when people talk?’ Although the statement itself is nonsensical without context, she has already stared you straight on and in the space of five seconds you’re captive. Against a bare hip hop beat, wide screen synths and the lonely sound of a repeated and dominant ‘blip blip’ from an imagined early computer game (Atari tennis would be topical of course), the steely-eyed verse can only serve as a perfect appetiser for the sublime chorus. Punctuated by a drunk and slowed down ‘yeah!’ borrowed from the current rap sound favoured by ASAP Rocky and already hijacked by Miley, Lorde is intoxicatingly confident and dominates the song’s boulder-like hook. Interesting that the current number one in the USA, the appropriately majestic “Royals”, and the second very big song here, is lyrically a reaction against hip hop culture which, in the States at least, is a dominant chunk of popular culture (see Miley again). It’s all rumbles and clicks, equal parts Peggy Lee, Lana Del Rey and Lykke Li (vocally they sound very similar, you would never imagine that Lorde is American let alone a New Zealander) but musically it’s as much a classic Rihanna song as anything else currently in the top ten, more “Umbrella” than “Only Girl in the World”.
The remaining eight songs on the self-written “Pure Heroine” are variations on the musical and lyrical themes established in these two songs and apart from a couple of misfires (the album closer ,”A World Alone”, is too heavy-handed in its attempts to demonstrate one of the album’s key subjects of alienation) the quality is very high throughout. The cleverly repetitious “Ribs” is the only track with a recurring and solid dance beat but is drenched in teen melancholy and on the booming and hypnotic “Team”, Lorde lyrically avoids the tirelessly reproduced ‘up in the club’ line by announcing ‘I’m kinda over being told to throw my hands in the air’. “Glory and Gore”, probably owing the most to Del Rey (the ultimate magpie) divides verses up sonically between hip hop via The XX cut with indie pop percussion practices of seemingly banging hard on a saucepan. These clever and effective musical tricks, and there are many, help what could have been a samey-sounding set remain fresh and inventive. “White Teeth Teens” has a 60′s girl group roll and sneer until the confessional line ‘I’ll let you into something big, I’m not a white teeth teen, I tried to join but never did, the way they are and the way they seem; it’s something in the blood’. “Buzzcut Season” contains the lovely line ‘I remember when your head caught flame, it kissed your scalp and caressed your brain’ and demonstrates Lorde’s skill with words, lyrics that can create a fluid and beautiful image.
The worldwide success of Ellie Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor, her real name, puts her in the post, post-modern situation of becoming what she appears to at least mock here and, at times, hate. A star who is, because of her ability to not only perform but also write and reproduce, is a highly desirable commodity. There is an innocence to Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” which she will be unable to return to, her school friends and their anti-gang, their language and rejection of the mainstream; now she is the mainstream. Her ability to compose and express these experiences in such an accessible and grounded but haunting style may be her downfall but our gain. Ultimately Lorde will just have to decide just how far she wants to go as at the moment there really would appear to be no limits for this extremely talented and intriguing young woman.
I first heard about the Radio (in my) Head project over a year ago when I met up with a couple of the people involved in putting the album together. It’s fair to say that it’s been a fairly long flash-to-bang time, but the end result certainly is a cracker (sorry). We’ve been publishing fairly regular updates on the album’s progress and reviews of the singles released so far (as well as a few unrelated singles from the artists involved), so the final release could have been an anti-climax; it isn’t, because this is a very, very good album. Normally, I’d give you a bit of background on the artists, but there are eleven of them, so you can find all you need to know here. I try to avoid track-by-track reviews as well, but there really isn’t any choice here, so I’ll start at the beginning, leaving out the songs we’ve already reviewed as singles.
The opening track, “The National Anthem” by STRNGRS, which eases the listener into the album doesn’t depart radically from the “Kid A” original but replaces the funk groove with a rockier, heavier feel, a bass sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a Kasabian track and a vocal with more than a nod in the direction of Brian Molko. You just know that Black Casino and the Ghost will put their own very individual stamp on “Packt like Sardines in Crushed Tin Box” with an incredibly heavy bassline and Elisa Zoot’s breathy but powerful vocals driving the song along; it doesn’t disappoint.
Stoneface Travellers are the first band to really make a song their own with a version of “My Iron Lung” that replaces the original’s “Dear Prudence/ Lucy in the Sky…” guitar sounds with straight ahead blues riffing. Where the original breaks down into a noisy middle section, this becomes quieter ahead of an extended solo from Emile Gerber. It’s the first radically different version on the album. Yoya’s take on “Wolf at the Door” replaces the mainly acoustic instrumentation of the original with samples played backwards and forwards, loads of electronic sounds and a vocal which goes from pure to fractured in the space of one line; it took Marianne Faithfull twenty-five years to do that.
There are good, and very good vocal performances on the first half of the album, but the first truly outstanding vocal is on Amy Hannam’s version of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. The song builds gradually from a chiming guitar intro with the piano providing the bass and a very close-miked vocal which demonstrates the quality and power of Amy’s voice, particularly when joined by the perfect harmonies in the chorus. It has a very 70s prog feel at times; there’s a passage where the vocal is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and the piano is straight out of “Tubular Bells”. And, yes, it does fade out. Skeye’s version of “Karma Police” again has a retro feel using traditional rock band instrumentation and adding organ to the mix in traditional 70s style. The vocal is pure and clear until pushed hard when it becomes more raw and rocky and it’s another song stamped with the style of the performer.
Malin Andersson’s version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” has electric and acoustic guitars providing the backing for Malin’s breathy vocal (close-miked again) before adding a violin, in contrast to the original’s drums and synths in the final third of the song ; it’s another excellent version. Alexey Zelensky tackles the only non-album track of the project, “Staircase”, which was released on “The Daily Mail” single. Many of the elements of the arrangement are similar to the original, including the UK garage/drum ‘n’ bass drum patterns and chiming guitars but Alexey adds some powerful multi-tracked lead and backing vocals and guitar. And I think you can guess what’s coming at the end of the album.
The closer is Bethan Mills’ version of “Creep” and it’s a classic. I must admit to hearing a demo version of this a few months ago and it’s been really difficult to keep this one secret; it’s a powerful and original take on the song that Thom Yorke seems to hate so much now. The song opens with understated piano before Bethan’s (close-miked again), intimate vocal comes in. Drums and bass kick in after the first chorus, but the vocal still punches through the arrangement. There’s a breakdown back to the opening arrangement on the “Whatever makes you happy…” verse before an epic finish featuring a big guitar solo with squalls of controlled feedback drop out to leave a plaintive vocal to end the song. I’m a huge fan of the Chrissie Hynde unplugged version of “Creep”, but I think this version just shades it in a straight fight.
So, it could have easily been a bunch of tired retreads of Radiohead songs but it’s much, much more than that. Project curator John O’Sullivan has pulled together a bunch of people from all over the world to put their own stamp on their favourite Radiohead songs. Listening to the album for the first time, you have no idea of what’s coming next and the surprises are all pleasant. There aren’t any average tracks here; they’re all well thought-out and very well performed. My personal highlights are Amy Hannam’s version of “Street Spirit” and Bethan Mills’ version of “Creep”, but I’ll happily listen to any song on this album.
The good news is that from October 29, you can hear the album in all its glory by downloading it on iTunes here.
What are the odds on Portis(in my)Head next?
American synth trio Au Revoir Simone have stepped out from the shadows a little on “Moves in Spectrums”, their fourth album in a decade. They were never a dark band, don’t let the adoration of superfans like David Lynch confuse you, but they were introverted and their sound straightforward in its small way where basic electronics meshed with sympathetic but independent, occasionally folky female leads. The trick was that little thorns would stick and cut occasionally if you weren’t careful and sadness would completely dominate and then just evaporate. It was this that made them special and why so many would always come back for more of something that they couldn’t quite put their finger on.
Over the course of three albums Au Revoir Simone had gone from their relatively lo-fi, cheapo keyboard aesthetic to something far more expansive and expensive without ever compromising what is essentially their sound. Their last “The Bird of Music” was in many ways their most experimental but almost their most whimsical; it had more sonic clout than the previous two releases but it was also hard to escape the feeling that three albums from the trio may be enough. “Moves in Spectrums” goes some way in proving this hunch to be somewhat short-sighted and premature. Opening track “More Than” with its menace and prowl and dominant drum pattern and droning synth has only the bright harmonised chorus that reveals the band’s identity and it sounds great. “The Lead is Galloping” with its interestingly reversed, request hook of ‘Nobody put your hands up’ is a lolloping, sarcastic low self-esteem anthem and both “Just Like a Tree” and “Somebody Who” (featuring some all too brief but totally gorgeous cowbells) plunder satisfyingly rich-sounding, 80′s electro chart pop. Swirling and ‘ha-ha-ha-ha’ voiced “Boiling Point” is a commendable homage to Laurie Anderson and “Crazy” has the most incredible use of synths as if they were guitars that you will have heard for a while.
There are some odd decisions made here though and this is something all of Au Revoir Simone’s previous albums suffer from; plonking a track in, three in this case, whose inclusion seems to make little sense to anyone other than, I presume, the band themselves. Personal songs or experimentation are one thing but “We Both Know” is a very boring, almost five minute, semi-instrumental that goes nowhere, vocals popping up in the last minute and a half to be forgotten forever. “Love You Don’t Know Me” is that one line repeated over a minor MOR electronic keyboard melody for three minutes and album closer “Let the Night Win” although superficially vibrant, is not exactly captivating. It’s almost a complete certainty that the band have better material but they’ve decided that these tracks are the ones that should be heard; it’s frustrating and feels oddly self-indulgent.
“Moves in Spectrums” is an album where the good is some of Au Revoir Simone’s best and the average is still present. Every album has been more interesting than the last and this is their most cohesive in many ways and certainly the most assertive, a much needed attribute that the band required to move forward and to avoid the sometimes all too appropriate ‘nice’ tag. They are currently one of only a few female groups making this particular type of warm, slightly eccentric electronic music and therefore the competition may not be great but they do still lead in their genre. The feeling now though is whether Au Revior Simone can find that one brilliant album that they surely have in them as sadly, despite the very strong opening, this isn’t it.
This is singer-song writer, Lissie’s second album after her acclaimed 2010 debut, “Catching a Tiger”. That album branded Lissie a ‘folk’ artist, but her follow-up, shows she’s made of much more musical variety. ITunes brands it ‘folk/country’ but it’s probably more ‘rock/pop’. Much of the production duties fall to the producer of REM and Snow Patrol and you can tell this, in fact it’s the production where I find fault, the album sounds rather muddy and crowded throughout, especially in the bass tones, lacking the light touch of her first effort. The sound is more drivetime-friendly and stadium-ready; I don’t want to be like a Dylan fan erupting in rage at his first electric album, but if you like this type of Americana, there is plenty to sing along to. Arguably, it might be hard to produce a unique sonic experience anymore with the standard guitars, bass, drums and keyboard, even with the range of tempos, themes and moods we have here.
Despite the carpet-bombing of her marketing team, Lissie has been rather over-looked, although “When I’m Alone” made it to iTunes best song of 2010. Perhaps this is partly due to her not being either air-brushed or especially grungy, but she is starting to sell out stadiums across Europe and is currently performing dates in the UK. This fuller sounding set of 12 songs (some extras with the deluxe version), are all originals written by California-based Lissie and the band. The lyrics and music are all good, launching with the uptempo “The Habit”, ‘You’ll never get out/And you’re always gonna be an addict/ The heart breaks way before the habit’ and it’s these touches lyrically that make the album, along with her vocal timbre.
I don’t have a favourite amongst these tunes but there’s no real filler either. The singles are here, “Further Away (Romance Police)” and “Sleepwalking” and they’re bouncy enough to get Radio 2 airtime, but also check out the slower “They All Want You” for a greater exhibition of Lissie’s voice. This is not a concept album but a collection of songs about relationships and issues, including low pay, the anthemic “I Don’t Wanna go to Work” and the glamour industry, “Shameless”. (‘I don’t want to be famous, if I got to be shameless’).
I was going to award this album 4*, but that’s the figure I gave the first album and I do believe that’s better, or perhaps I prefer her earlier, more acoustic sound, so maybe just 3.5 stars for Back To Forever. Out now.
London based indie electro brats New Young Pony Club are now just NYPC. The abbreviated name also reflects their reduction from a five-piece band to a duo; original members lead singer Tahita Bulmer and producer Andy Spence remain. They still sound like New Young Pony Club but this, their third album, is by some distance their most accomplished, musical and exciting to date. It seems that the trimming away of excess views and voices has bought about a new-found sonic richness and clarity with a welcomed ability to craft the kind of songs that you always hoped they would make but never quite managed to deliver.
The tough and tantalising opener, “Hard Knocks“, with its wonderfully disorganised lyrics (‘waiting for, hard knocks, the school of, I think you are) is instantly recognisable as the group due to its monotone, perpetually pissed off vocal, heard first in 2009′s omnipresent “Ice Cream”. On NYPC’s first single “You Used to Be a Man” which is a lesson in building, electro minimalism there are multiple harmonies throughout, a middle eight and a melody that will not want to leave your head willingly. ‘Do you understand how hard it is to stand and watch you fall hard?’ goes the cheeky, smartarse hook and although somewhat economic in structure it bears testament to how far their song writing skills have developed over five years.
“Sure As The Sun” has humour (‘last night we went to a model home, we thought it was love, it was just a mirage’) funky bass and sheets of electro parps, defining the point where Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club merge. “I Came Through For You” has muted “Planet Rock” style drum machine booms and “Things Like You” relies on the staple Bulmer delivery before it shifts key and, along with Spence, a romantic and wistful, pure pop chorus unexpectedly emerges. Stand-out track “Now I’m Your Gun” with its seductive and assertive plucked synth chords and accordion appearance is sleek and precise. The beautiful and modern electronics, albeit inspired mainly by three decades worth of genre twisting artists and music, are expertly played and gleam throughout the album.
“Play Hard” with its hard-nosed, new wave guitar and vocals can be traced back to the B52′s first two completely essential and ground-breaking albums when Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson sang about fish as gifts, dirty back roads and not dancing like cheese; weird and wilfully sexy. The final two minutes of “Everything Is” are pure snapping beats and steel drums which will undoubtedly bring to mind The Knife but NYPC have made something life-affirming and relatable as opposed to the overwhelming impenetrable coolness of the Stockholm duo’s “Shaking the Habitual” album from earlier this year. It’s sad that Bulmer and Spence won’t garner the same amount of media coverage and adulation. Only on the final track, “L.O.V.E.”, does the steam begin to run out and things start to plod but by this point it is easily overlooked.
At times it felt like New Young Pony Club were more part of an East London ‘fashion slash’ mob rather than a standalone, individual musical entity. Their debut was gimmicky and sounded only half-finished and the (surely) ironically titled “The Optimist” was heavy with something other than tunes and in retrospect the disharmony within the group at that time could have been responsible. NYPC, though, are the sound of artists finally snapping together the crucial matching and previously lost parts forming a new, perfect whole. Streamlined, efficient and pleasure-seeking, it’s a beautiful and intelligent thing.
One of the benefits of being a member of the Riot Squad is that you get to visit all sorts of weird and wonderful venues and (mostly) hear great new bands; sometimes you even get both at the same time. So this time it’s Buffalo in Islington, a cellar bar with enough PA to ensure the bands are loud and a room that you could probably cram 150 people into if you had a big shoe-horn. We were invited to go and have a look at Civil Protection, who were first on the bill but thought it was only polite to check out the other three bands on the bill.
Sound Off played a set that was musically solid but not particularly strong vocally, while Punch and Judy featured original material plus a couple of covers including the song you couldn’t get away from this summer, “Get Lucky” which they rocked up a bit at the expense of its funky feel and it sounded pretty good. Of the three, Vera Lynch impressed most. They describe themselves as dark alt-surf-garage rock with a sprinkling of psychedelia; the musicianship is very high quality, the songs are strong and they have a very charismatic frontman and I’m sure they’ll be featuring here in the near future.
Civil Protection are a five-piece from Yorkshire (bass, drums, three guitars and occasional vocals) and they released their debut album, “Stolen Fire” earlier this month. They’ve been compared to post-rock bands like Mogwai and This Will Destroy You, but there’s probably a bit of Sigur Ros in there as well. It’s impossible to describe what they do as songs, because there aren’t a lot of vocals; soundscapes is probably better or, if I’m feeling really pretentious, tone poems.
The set opens with the quietly haunting “Monedula” and, as on the album, eases gently into the opening of “Stolen Fire” which builds layer on layer, guitar on guitar using all of the band’s dynamic range. “My Memories will be Part of the Sky” starts like a piledriver before easing back into a build-up starting with a melodic bass line. “Many Moons Ago” and “Redrawn” have similar structures, starting slowly and gradually adding textures (although “Redrawn” does it twice) before hitting a peak and releasing the tension with a gentle coda. And that’s it; thirty minutes and five pieces.
Civil Protection live are a collage of textures and layers of guitar (and bass) parts with a huge dynamic range. The band move effortlessly up through the gears from one clean, quiet guitar to the whole band playing at full power in a live setting with as much confidence as on the album and somehow convey emotional states without using lyrical content. The changes of pace and levels throughout the short set ensure that the audience is always attentive, waiting for the next move. You should make the effort to get out and see Civil Protection live as soon as you can but if you can’t do that, then get yourself a copy of “Stolen Fire”.