Levi Cuss has quite a back story. He’s lived an eventful life, done things that he regrets and done some time as a consequence, but ultimately it’s all grist to the mill. He’s living a more conventional life now (if writing and performing songs can be called conventional), using some of the experiences from earlier days as material for his songs and using music as a means of redemption. And that’s all very well, but is the music any good? Well, it is, as it happens; the songs are strong and the musical settings are always interesting. Producer Steve Dawson has brought in some vintage (seventies mainly) instruments and soundscapes to bring a sense of historical perspective to the narratives.
The songs are across a range of styles, but the musical settings are firmly rooted in the early seventies; the lively JJ Cale cover “Bring it Back”, a story about bringing contraband across the Mexican border which probably won’t be released as a single in the current climate, is part “Spirit in the Sky” and part Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”. It’s raucous and great fun.
Without sounding derivative, the album is infused with seventies references. The opening song “Red City River” hints at Dylan and The Band, “Cut my Teeth” is country-rock and “Pills” is pedal steel-laced country about the twisted logic of assuming that pills are better than alcohol because ‘Pretty few songwriting people they take pills’. There are a few songwriting twists, “Saturday Night” is a laid-back, rather than lively take on the party night and “Grandma” is a tribute that celebrates a real life without sanitising it.
And that leaves a couple very interesting songs indeed. “Tecumseh” is a love song with a twist; where a man builds a relationship with the sister he murdered, and the closing song “Utumbo” which recreates a spacey retro synth mix of Pink Floyd and The Animals. It’s quite a way to close out an album that moves easily between retro styles with songs that have a strong autobiographical feel.
“Night Thief” is released on Friday March 10 and Levi Cuss will be touring the UK later in the year.
If you’re after an album that’s safe and unpredictable and you know exactly what’s coming next, then “Be the Media” is definitely not the album for you. Annabelle Chvostek’s fifth solo album moves away from the folky sound of her two previous albums “Rise” and “Resilience” to a sound that is lo-fi and embraces styles from indie thrash to psychedelia with several stops and detours on the way. It’s fair to say that with this album, you never know what’s coming next. Annabelle’s roots are in Canada, which may go some way to explaining the affinity to and parallels with Neil Young, who’s also had the odd change of direction along the way.
The album is built around live-band recordings with some overdubs added later and the raw, Stooges-like, power of the title song gives some idea of the direction the album’s taking, but there are still plenty of surprises to come. “Jerusalem” is mournful lyrically and musically with the added melancholy of some Middle-Eastern violin to season the mixture. “Black Hole” sets the controls for the heart of the sun with the simple, if bleak, message that we’re all irrelevant compared to the vastness of the universe, delivered over a soundscape that’s part early Pink Floyd and part Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”; it’s certainly dramatic. “This Night” is the closest the album comes to a love song, if you count ‘Your hand is the hand I hold to jump out of the burning tower’ as a lyric. Powerful yes: cheerful no.
“Carnal Delights” is the perfect example of the albums’s twist and turns. From a doom-laden minor key verse, the song bursts into chorus in 3/4 time that’s straight out of a sleazy 1930s cabaret routine; and yes, that is someone playing a saw (Lisa Gamble, actually). It’s an odd one, but the contrast works perfectly. “You Can Come Now” is probably closest to Annabelle’s earlier work with gentle electric guitar and a vocal that isn’t pushing at the edges her voice’s power; it’s very different from the songs it’s surrounded by. As if to cement the Shakey connection, there’s a stripped-back cover of “Like a Hurricane” featuring mainly mandolin and piano with a touch of guitar. It’s very different and it works.
“Inside the Scream/Screen” returns to the spiky guitars and claustrophobic technophobia of the title track before another change of pace to “Say it Right” which has a hint of Television-styled guitars and the album’s only example of swearing; one use of ‘fucking’ for emphasis and a bit of shock value is so much more powerful than using it in every sentence.
So Annabelle Chvostek, Tony Spina (drums), Jérémie Jones (bass and organ), Lisa Gamble (saw and backing vocals), Jordi Rosen (backing vocals), and co-producer Jeff Oehler have created a piece of work that moves from menacing to mournful to manic but never loses its grip on your attention; you may not know what’s round the corner, but you can bet it’s going to be worth hearing.
“Be the Media” is released on June 1 on MQGV (ABC123).
I know this might come over as a bit ungrateful, but I’m really hacked off by the way copies of albums are distributed by some promotion companies. I know it’s 2014 and I won’t be flown Business Class to LA while hoovering the gross national product of Colombia up my nose to interview the latest semi-literate rock wannabe, but surely it’s not unreasonable to want decent sound quality on album review copies. For anyone who’s even slightly involved with the music business (or any creative industry) it’s obvious that it’s incredibly difficult to make a living out of creativity these days; we all understand that. This isn’t nostalgia for a golden era when music journalists were worshipped and every artist’s ability was recognised and they were rewarded accordingly; it’s always been a business dominated by the need to cash in as quickly as possible, dominated by pond life who would sell their grannies for a Snickers bar, and you can find the evidence in virtually every music biography. You might not like the robust methods of Peter Grant, but at least Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones saw some financial rewards from Led Zeppelin.
So where was I? Oh yeah, promotion copies. I know margins are tight and it’s difficult to quantify the benefits from sending out physical review copies, but there has to be a better way than transferring a bunch of MP3 files. I always prefer something that pops through the letterbox rather than into the inbox, but that’s not just me being old-fashioned. With a physical copy, you get the writer credits, possibly the lyrics and, if you’re really lucky, some sleeve notes from the artist; with an electronic copy you get a press release (if you’re lucky), maybe a photo and a few hyperlinks. I don’t mind doing a bit of research but if you’re reviewing a really new band, chances are that the website looks good but tells you zilch and the only other stuff you can find is YouTube “videos” filmed on the singer’s friend’s phone; it’s not helpful. I don’t even mind getting back to the promotion or PR company to request more information, but I have a piece of advice for you. It doesn’t matter how clearly you think you’ve worded your request, it will take at least three more attempts to actually get the information you need from the intern who’s been delegated the task of dealing with incoming email. And just bear in mind that you’re trying to get the review out before the release date.
And you know who’s to blame, don’t you. We all are, because we’ve all bought in to the hype about digital music reproduction and then compression of file sizes so we can carry our music collections around in our pockets. I’ve got nothing against portable media players as first line of defence on public transport, but how much of that stuff do you actually listen to? I bet you have songs on playlists that you skip every time they play. What’s that all about? So, now we all accept compressed formats that work for the industry because they don’t have any overheads like retail and physical storage space to worry about and they can keep copies of everything that’s ever been digitised, unless the artist refuses to play ball (take a bow the surviving members of Pink Floyd), and nothing is ever out of stock or deleted. There’s an added bonus; you don’t get patronised by a shop assistant when you buy something that’s even remotely commercial and you can have great fun trying to work out which algorithm recommended Ed Sheeran and One Republic for you. And because the transactions are all electronic, its’ easy to record sales and streams for chart purposes. A friend of mine got to 298 on the singles chart because a couple of people were heard whistling his song at a bus stop.
Seriously though, a physical review copy would be great; some of us can even play vinyl but CD’s still ok (and it fits through the letterbox), but an electronic copy isn’t the end of the world if it’s in an uncompressed format. It takes slightly longer to download, but it’s a better quality than its compressed and stunted sibling and, as a bonus, you could send an electronic press release and a jpeg of the artwork. See, it’s not really that difficult, is it?
“Lost at Sea” is the follow-up to The Reads 2011 debut “Stories from the Border”. Although three years is a relatively long time between albums, it pales into insignificance beside the eleven years between their formation and the release of the first album. The line-up of the band is: Marcel Delrue (keyboards and programming), Jamie Russell (lead guitar, harmonica and backing vocals), Stuart Bennett (vocals and rhythm guitar), Clare Goddard (bass guitar and lyricist), Matty Goddard (drums) and Chris Goddard (percussion, mandolin, lap-steel and backing vocals) and they are located, geographically and spiritually, in the rugged area where North Wales meets the North-West of England. They’ve already had some support from BBC Radio Wales, XFM and Radio 2 and if you listen to this album that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
I hesitate to use the dreaded phase “concept album” to describe “Lost at Sea”, but there’s an unusual cohesion across the album in the musical and lyrical themes and, with some songs segueing into the next, it’s clearly meant to be heard as an album and not just as a bunch of songs. It took a while to persuade my media player to play the tracks in the right order, but it was worth it. Of the album’s ten tracks half are over five minutes long and only one clocks in at less than four minutes, allowing plenty of time to build up a mood before the vocal comes in.
The opening track, “Drowned” is a perfect example of this, fading in for forty-five seconds before the lead guitar cuts in to push the song along in a fairly traditional arrangement (ok, with a mandolin as well) before a long fade-out featuring a montage of seaside sounds. If you’re looking for lyrical themes, here’s your first one; the sea, or more accurately, the place where land and sea meet. The seaside montage fades in to “Lost at Sea” with sparse beats and some nice lap steel creating a backdrop for a vignette of two strangers looking out to sea. “Scarlet” is a wistfully reminiscent folk-styled piece which, unusually, slows down for the chorus. The instrumental tone poem “High Taid” follows, again building up layers over a percussion heartbeat which continues through the next track, “Haunted”, with its cascading keyboards and synth washes and the great line ‘Feeling spoiled like a painting in the rain’.
“Love or Be Loved” kicks off with a six-note sequencer intro which runs on through the song. There’s plenty of wah-wah guitar and a lyric which presents a series of bipolar, or black and white, choices, so it’s interesting that the next track is “Counting your Greys”, a mainly acoustic song about people growing old together. The atmospheric “Schnitzler” is unlike anything else on the album with its beats, trip-hop feel and Clare Goddard vocal which creates an almost hypnotic feel by repeating lines and part-lines throughout the song. The gentle “Shifting Sands” hints, instrumentally at mid-70s Pink Floyd with a relatively simple lyrical message that you can’t build anything without a solid foundation.
The closer, “Spitting Feathers”, (references to a local brewery and Thom Yorke there, and that’s just the title) is the busiest production on the album building up to the rising melody of the chorus, before breaking down after about four minutes to an evocative sequencer and synth-dominated closing sequence. The melancholy musical textures and the lyrical rhythms of the album combine to create a sadness that’s strangely ethereal and uplifting, while the north-western accents keep the whole thing grounded. Not one for the playlist generation, but if they don’t want melodic and lyrical invention, interesting blends of traditional instruments and technology and ten songs/pieces which form a cohesive work, that’s their problem.
Out now on iTunes.
AM – Just looking around Leigh as an outsider, it always seems to have had a bit of an artistic vibe to it; do you get that?
PB – I’m torn on this idea; if you asked me where I would love to have lived it would probably be Greenwich Village but I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. You sometimes come from hick towns and you get the mavericks and the big fish in little pools but I’m not really sure that it matters at the end of the day. Obviously New York is a great residence simply because so many great writers came from there but if Lou Reed was born in Leigh-on-Sea what would he have written about?
AM – There’s no CBGBs here is there?
PB – Well there isn’t, but it would have been interesting, and vice versa; you get parochial writers who, well, what would they have done if they’d gone to town? I’m not sure it’s important; it’s certainly relevant, where you come from and where you write about. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite of something good. You can get blood out of a stone; you can, you’ve just got to try hard. Sometimes you’re swamped; now, having written from a local area that isn’t particularly bohemian, if I now went to New York, I’d probably overwrite everything and it would just be a mass of input and no way of filtering it. Which would be great; I’d love to do it if anyone’s got an apartment in New York.
AM – And that kind of leads in to “Dunfearing…”, which is the first part of a trilogy.
PB – I’m fond of these things; I get a lot of stick for it.
AM – It’s obvious that that there’s a tremendous sense of place in it. It’s a very West Country thing.
PB – The rest of the trilogy won’t be. You were probably the only person that picked up on the idea of approaching America as the only possible escape after the end of England; the only place you can go. That’s developing a little bit and the other two parts of the trilogy are written and I’m sorting out the third one but it’s more about how you escape the idea of getting old and the only way to do it is to reinvent a youth, which never really works and the idea of America is that it’s supposed to be the land of eternal youth no matter what age you go, so there’s a cynical angle to it as well but I hope that it’s more hope than cynicism: pragmatism.
AM – Do you think that the way the music business has gone over the last twenty years has allowed people like you to do what you want to do?
PB – No, I don’t. I actually think the music business is poorer for what’s happened to it. I would rather be struggling to sign to Warner Brothers, in a way. There’s a philosophy now that anyone can do anything they like, they can record it in their bedroom and make an album, which is fine, because the punk ethos is fine, but there is a difference. Yes, someone could thrash away at three chords and sing ‘I hate Margaret Thatcher’ and be played on John Peel; fabulous, but that was it. Now there seems to be a corporate mentality attached to do-it-yourself.
AM – It’s so difficult now, with music, to actually make any money.
PB – Which is essentially what you have to do. There were people around punk who never thought they’d make any money and a lot of them didn’t but they thought they’d got a chance of maybe an album and that’s it and they’re now working in IT or whatever and that’s what they wanted. The problem is, while you’ve got that ethos is that if people are taking it seriously, then they get lumped in with it and it’s ‘Oh, you’re still here, are you?’ and now it’s even worse because nothing’s taken seriously. To include lyrics with an album now is seen as pretentious.
AM – And yet, to me, “Dunfearing…” was actually a very nice packaging job, but we shouldn’t be talking about packaging, really.
PB – I would have agreed with you a while back, but now I go back to albums I’ve listened to and loved and I think these are beautiful things, regardless of the music, I would want this album; as a piece of art, as a whole.
AM – I’m accused of fetishing the whole thing; going for the vinyl and the nice gatefold sleeve…
PB – My mantra for that is accused by whom? I’m a great fan of the Oscar Wilde saying ‘The show was a success, the audience was a failure’; it depends who’s criticising.
AM – It’s a completely different listening experience now; I sometimes stick review copies on a little MP3 player and you have to pull this thing out of your pocket to check the track title.
PB – This is the first album I’ve done with a record company as opposed to putting it out on my own and Phil’s great (Phil Penman of Drumfire Records) but if you want tracks for radio, or the hit track (not the hit single, that never happens any more), I just think ‘I don’t want one’. That’s why I hate the download culture so much; ‘I’ve listened to this album twice, these two are obviously the best songs so therefore I’ll stick them next to my favourite Kylie song on my iPod’. Well, fuck that, what are you going to do with Lou Reed and “Berlin”; take a couple of tracks from that and stick it next to Miley Cyrus. Would we do it with art? ‘I think I like that third sunflower but I think it would look nice in the Velasquez, so I’ll shift it over and Photoshop it in to that’. There’d be outrage.
AM – I think Pink Floyd were entirely right…
PB – There has to be a first time for everything
AM – When they blocked the downloading of single tracks from “Dark Side of the Moon”.
PB – Funny you should say that, but it occurred to me the other day that if I blended my music in so that it tinkled out on one track and tinkled in on the next, nobody would be able to download it; don’t tempt me.
AM – I can’t do it, I can’t buy in to the download thing; I’d rather pay full whack…
PB – And be wrong. I’ve spent ten quid on an album and it’s been bullshit apart from the track I liked. That’s what you get; you can buy a sofa for four hundred quid and the leg falls off and that’s life, get used to it.
AM – So you’re going to be recording the second album in the trilogy soon.
PB – This year we’re doing the second. The third album is very ephemeral, but I want to get that done because I want to get on to the next phase. There’s a bunch of folkie songs that I’ve written and I want to get them out of the way, so I’ll do a double folkie album next year, but I might get two albums out before then. I’ll have to put out one on my own label because I don’t expect Drumfire to do it. It’s weird really; if Bob Dylan was still fabulously creative, I’d want an album from him every month. There’s an idea that you can only put an album out once every year or two years but The Fall make an album every twelve minutes; some of it’s all right, some of it’s not but I’d rather have that.
AM – That’s just reminded of someone that I know you admire, Jackie Leven, who would do exactly the same thing.
PB – That’s what I’m aiming for actually. Jackie recorded what he called his platinum albums for Cooking Vinyl. Someone would give me a tape from a live gig I did somewhere and I’d love to release that so and that’s why I kept my own label. I can put stuff out that’s not a big production number but it’s a bunch of songs that hang together well and say ‘Have a listen to this’ and Jackie did that really well. Other than that, I’ve got a good setup for recording that I use with a few people and Mark Elliott especially and it’s easy to do. We get the band together, rehearse it and record it. “Mercenary Thoughts of a Lush”; we went up to London and recorded the whole thing in two days. Bit of punk spirit and some people say it sounds like it but that’s what it needed to be with that bunch of songs. We could never have done that with “Dunfearing…”because it needed a bit of time but there should be room to do that.
Neil Young would be cruising about, just out for a drive and he’d drive down to New Orleans and hear a bit of music and end up writing ten songs and think ‘I need to record this’, so he’d phone up local musicians, get into the studio, record them and send them to his recording company and they’ll say ‘Well you only had an album out a month ago, you can’t do this’, and I’m with him, why not. If you love Neil Young, or whoever, and you hear that a month after you’ve paid out ten pounds for his new album, he’s got another one out, I think I’d find ten quid but apparently it’s an unwritten law that you can’t do this.
AM – What I find quite interesting is that more and more bands are rehearsing stuff, getting the songs right, going into the studio and recording as a band rather than doing separate tracks.
PB – I don’t exactly do that. I like the idea but I find it takes a lot more time because you have to do a lot more takes but certainly, with the next album, it’ll be a lot looser; it’s nothing like “Dunfearing..”. It loosely follows on from that album; the third of the trilogy ties it all together. The second one will be a bit ‘what’s this?’, but it’ll make sense with the third one. I’m already on to next year with the folkie album, trying to get into Pentangle now, God help me.
AM – That’s something to look forward to then.
PB – Well that’ll be a double album because there’s a lot of songs there. Just songs that I’ve written in a folkie/country style that don’t need a lot of embellishment so they’re easier to record. There’s a lot of them, so let’s stick them out on a double album, which no-one does any more; gatefold sleeve coming up here.
AM – I bought the Ben Watt album, “Hendra” on vinyl, a few weeks ago and that had a nice gatefold sleeve and lovely packaging.
PB – I had a drink with Ben Watt, once; a very polite drink.
AM – It’s a great album and it’s nice to hear that people are still making music in that way.
PB – Well, these Drumfire gigs I’ve been doing, I supported Clive Gregson and my first reaction was ‘Christ, he’s still going’ and Martin Stephenson played there as well (at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham) and I thought it was great because you don’t to discover that they’re dead or working in Macdonald’s or something; they’re still out there playing and that’s really reassuring. They must love it. They must love and hate it enough to carry on doing it. Any ordinary, sane person would just say ‘I’ve had my shot now’, but the rest of us drink ourselves to death and write songs.
AM – The first time I saw you play was supporting Dean Owens in Clerkenwell at Drumfire gig. I spoke to Dean and he wasn’t happy because the venue was half-empty because they hadn’t used the posters he’d sent to publicise it and that must be incredibly frustrating.
PB – This was the other myth about myth about punk, that you used to have all these gigs going on everywhere. If you had a punk band or a new wave band or a post-punk band, you could probably get a few people to turn up but if it was a solo, forget it, it would be the owner and his dog, and his dog will hate you.
Which brought us neatly back, almost full circle, to Phil’s punk beginnings and the end of the interview.
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?
So, what is it then? It’s indie Jim, but not as we know it. The Dirt Tracks is a Spanish band, writing and performing in English; you might have heard of them during their UK tour earlier this year and following the release of their third single “Kaleidoscope”. You might have seen some very lazy comparisons with a certain band from Oxford, but I’m not having any of that; there are many influences on show here and the “R” band is only one of those. What the band does very successfully is to pull together influences from a wide range of sources and eras and blend them with their own ideas to create sounds which are very definitely The Dirt Tracks.
The Dirt Tracks line-up is almost a traditional rock/indie five-piece with the traditional keyboard being replaced by a couple of samplers providing beats and, well, samples. The combination of two guitars, melodic basslines and samplers allows the band to create a huge variety of textures and dynamics throughout the album. The construction of the songs and the quality of the playing are superb throughout the album and the band’s use of vocal harmonies is original and highly effective.
The opening track, “All Paths Cross”, is a perfect example of this, fading in with a string and keyboard sample before the lead vocal and then percussion build up layers of sound for nearly two minutes before breaking into the body of the song. And you get a reference to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe (In the Air)” which has to be intentional. This is followed by the brilliant but disorientating “Kaleidoscope”, which we reviewed as a single earlier this year. “Bit Train” is driven along by a dirty and distorted two-guitar riff which is closer to the Black Crowes than British indie and “Bloop” features two guitars and bass interweaving melody lines under a powerful vocal before morphing into a heavy metal break and several changes of tempo; it sounds great here, but it’s even better live. “Midline” is an interesting blend of indie and funk with and a lyric about escaping from the mundane world. Santiago Coma’s high tenor on this track vocal works perfectly with the guitar arrangements to create a relentless, driving feel which mirrors the theme of a life being forced down a certain predetermined track and the escape from that track.
“Astroblender” and “Pulse” are perfect examples of the way the band use their influences; the former breaks down into a guitar solo and choral section which wouldn’t sound out of place on the first Queen album, while the latter is pure Depeche Mode. “Up” is an atmospheric instrumental interlude leading into the sparse arrangement of “Unchanged”, which brings me to the only song that I don’t like on the album. “Self-Terrorism Manual” has a lo-fi production and, for me, the vocal just doesn’t work on the first two verses. Things improve after that, but I think the album would have been better without this song. The final song, “Another Way (to the Other Side)” takes the album out on a high with big guitars, vocals and harmonies.
There’s no doubt that The Dirt Tracks are something special; the band mixes up British indie with psychedelia, hard rock, samples and beats with great songs, innovative arrangements and a huge amount of energy. This is a very good debut album and it’s in my top five so far this year.
Physical release Monday September 30.
So, I’m in a basement bar in Dalston, painted black of course (the room, not me) on a Sunday night in July and it’s the hottest day of the year so far; this had better be good. I was in Birthdays on Stoke Newington Road for the launch party for a new release from The Nyco Project, whose EP “The New Machine” is being released in the form of an app. The Nyco Project (TNP) has four members: Ben Hardy, Zahara Muñoz, Joantoni Segui and Daisy Brodskis. I’m not going to list their instruments because, apart from the drummer, Joantoni, they mix it up quite a lot.
There were two support bands for the evening, Sky Between Leaves and Turnpike Glow. TNP decided to ignore the usual headline-band-last hierarchy and played between the two support bands to ensure that anyone leaving early to make sure they could actually get home on public transport (yeah, that’s me) didn’t miss their set. Unfortunately that meant I missed Turnpike Glow; sorry about that and I’ll try to catch you soon.
After an interactive session using the sound and vision clips from the EP on a big screen which allowed the audience to remix the songs in real time, Sky Between Leaves took the stage to play a set which was enthusiastically received despite the unbearable heat in the venue. The low-tech lighting effect created by shining a lamp through a stencilled cylinder rotating on a Technics SL1200 deserves a mention as well.
TNP are usually described as psychedelic indie, but there’s a lot more than that going on. From the opening song of the set, “Blown”, it’s obvious that they have great songs but the really impressive thing is that they deliver so well as a live act. The playing isn’t flashy, but the arrangements are perfect and when it has to be spot-on (vocal harmonies, for example) the band always nail it. The EP tracks “The New Machine”, “Fade Away” and “You’re So Weak” are spaced equally throughout the set, but TNP save the best for last. The final three songs, the storming “Poor”, the experimental “Disco Pedro” (which has a feel of early Pink Floyd) and the closer “She’s Only Carbon” are stunning. The final song was dedicated to a friend of the band who is no longer with us and demonstrated the quality of the band as they gave a perfect performance while struggling visibly with strong emotions.
So, what’s all the fuss about the EP/app release? The concept is that the band recorded each instrumental and vocal take as audio and video files with the motto “Everything you hear, you see”. They took this concept to the Arts Council, which agreed to fund the project (so even that losing lottery ticket is a winner for someone) and that enabled them to produce the app which shows the video footage of all of the takes used in the production and allows the user to isolate individual instrumental and vocal parts or to get information about the band members. It’s an original idea which works really well because the listener gets the chance to unpick the song and hear the way the parts fit together as well as having plenty of eye-catching visuals. It’s very addictive because you can’t see or hear everything at one attempt and you have to repeat to pick up on the parts you missed. And the live interactive version on the big screen is even better. Apparently there’s a chance that you might even be able to see this at The Barbican at some point and it’s the kind of installation that should work really well in that environment.
As a live band, The Nyco Project is superb and the EP/app is an innovative attempt to explore the possibilities being opened up by developing technologies; I love both approaches and I think you should download the EP/app and then get out and see the band live as soon as you can. You won’t regret it.