Something Brian Eno said recently about the importance of limitations has stuck with me over the last few years. When it comes to the possibilities of music making with digital tools, there are endless iterations of what can occur, which can be a problem.
Just because you can produce any type of sound it doesn’t mean you should use it. Restriction can be a good thing, it encourages a thematic palette and in the context of an album, makes for a cohesive whole.
That limitation is something that’s employed by St. Alban’s producer Rob Lee, Wax Stag, on his second full-length release on Old Habits. Lee has worked as live session with Friendly Fires, White Lies and Clark but his own material has developed into a territory worthy of praise.
“I wanted to limit myself to a small palette of sounds for this album. Some of my favourite rock albums have the same guitar sound all the way through, and I love how that puts the emphasis on what notes are being played. There’s a time and a place for production gymnastics, but I wanted to write hooks and melodies that would stand up on their own.” – Rob Lee
II is filled with spacious melodic synth lines that traverse the plane of beats on the record which settle somewhere between the electronic style of Warp Records’ artists Plaid and the polychromatic house music that Four Tet touches on.
‘Woodland Walk’ sets that blueprint on the first track as drum machine clopping beats are accompanied by a fizzling array of synth lines. There’s space in the music for the rhythm and the, sometimes elaborate melodies to breathe as heard on ‘Sparkling River’. Throughout there’s a leisurely pace of 112BPM taking things to their conclusion and an air of bucolic vistas felt on ‘Cloud Cake’ (and the artwork too).
By employing a similar array of sounds in his instrumentation, Lee creates the album’s vernacular, which is only diminished slightly, by tracks like ‘Caverns’ and ‘Night Trek’ sounding too much like Plaid and Boards Of Canada respectively. By the time the expressive ‘Summit’ arrives with its poignant nostalgic melody, there’s an over-riding impression of an enjoyable unity which makes for a engaging album. Give in to the limitations.
For most of his creative endeavours as Jape, Richie Egan has been juxtaposing traditional guitar-based songwriting with electronic synth textures. It’s evident in his first big single ‘Floating’ in 2007, which found a complementary version courtesy of a Prins Thomas remix right up to 2011’s Ocean Of Frequency, where the marriage of both sides of his musical palette: a folk-leaning songwriter and a synth gear-head was most comfortable on tracks like ‘The Oldest Mind’ and ‘You Make The Love’.
The fifth Jape album, This Chemical Sea, made with band member Glen Keating, is the first released since Egan uprooted his life and family to Malmö in Sweden and that distance has encouraged a clarity of vision that translates to these two sides being more suitable bedfellows than ever.
The album’s recording was halted by the death of Egan’s mother, which lead to Egan taking up meditation. Perhaps as a by-product, This Chemical Sea has a contemplative serenity.
‘Séance of Light’, the album’s opening track, and perhaps single strongest song is indicative of the album as a whole; tightly-woven instrumentation that has a dancefloor quality but addresses a tangible experience: in this case: the unreal way in which we experience the world through a screen.
Tempo-wise, the album maintains a regular gait which means that it moves swiftly along: bass, chords and synths rise to meet the chorus on ‘The Heart’s Desire’; a bed of twinkling synth notes prop up the halluccinatory arrangement of ‘Metamorphosis’ a song which channels the kind of soft gentle sonics that Caribou is now a master of, the song, as if knowing the reference, has Egan singing “sun” repeatedly.
Egan’s mother is addressed on ‘Breath Of Life’, before ending on one of the most beautiful sections of the record: a calming elegiac succession of piano notes.
Things slow down only for the breather of ‘Without Live In The Way’ which hinges on a bassline and harmonies and the strong closing title track which reverberates around a simple piano note and reinforces the album’s sonic allure. There is rightly, no room here for an acoustic ballad.
The soft transparency to the production is helped greatly by David Wrench who mixed and mastered the album, and whose considered imprint can most recently be heard on top notch productions from Caribou, FKA Twigs and Jungle; three of the best sounding records of the last year. Those albums have a clear spaciousness that they share with This Chemical Sea.
Most obviously this is felt in ‘Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon’, a song co-written with Villagers’ Conor O’Brien, that underwent a metamorphosis from an acoustic demo to a full-fledged six minute electronic dance-leaning jam. Its song structure is loose and it has an admirable hypnotic arrangement that Wrench accentuates in body and depth.
This Chemical Sea often feels like its floating above the physical and unmoored from the sum of its parts, that give the songs a unique identity in the Jape discography. It is a collection of serene electronic songcraft: meditative, lucid and unbound.
Right, your band have won a Mercury, you book a big arena tour (they play O3 Arena in Dublin on Saturday), you have a sanctioned Miley Cyrus sample in the bag. What do you do next? Use the first album as a formula? Collaborate with Iggy Azalea? Get 2Chainz on a guest verse?
No, you strip down everything that people love about your music into something even more beguiling. Alt-J, the band who famously don’t use cymbals on their drum kits, have made an even more potent reduction of their odd musical sauce.
This Is All Yours is a quiet, slow record that tones down the band’s debut album eclecticism but makes up for it by being one of the most sumptuous records you’ll hear this year.
The three songs released prior to the album’s actual date, ‘Hunger Of The Pine’, ‘Every Other Freckle’ and ‘Left Hand Free’ are standalone tracks. ‘Every Other Freckle’ is the closest the band get to a ‘Tessellate’ with lyrics like “I’m gonna paw, paw at you like a cat paws at my woolen jumper” or the memorable “Turn you inside out to lick you like a crisp packet. ‘Hunger Of The Pine’ is an epic construct making a sweeping scape from a heart bruised by a lover, bleeps, Miley Cyrus sample, and avant-pop shades. ‘Left Hand Free’ meanwhile, the self-described “least Alt-J song ever” is the most grating track here, a Levis ad-style rock song only saved by vocalist Joe Newman’s warbled purr.
Those three tracks suggest an album with a multi-faceted lean, but it’s really all soundscapes and delicate vistas. Arrangements caress the vocals like a warm hug with precision and imagination. The album’s first three songs leaps into the void: ‘Intro’, ‘Arrival In Nara’ and ‘Nara’ establish the mood through threadbare harmonic coos, drums let loose with folksy strings, meandering piano, whispered vocals with Nara, a place in Japan occupied by deer, adding further mystique to the cryptic cinematic arrangements.
Birdsong and olde English folk vintage recorder interludes reinforce the natural world’s fingerprints on This Is All Yours as does references to rare creatures, blue dragonflies and quelea birds.
‘Warm Foothills’ is the album’s most beautiful track, and it may well be one of the tracks of the year. On it, the interpolating vocals of Newman, Conor Oberst, Marika Hackman, Lianne La Havas and Sivu finish each other’s sentences in a romantic gender-morphing fashion to a simple acoustic folk backing augmented by a whistle solo and subtle strings. “I tie my life to your balloon and let it go.”
The imagery is vivid on This Is All Yours. The lyrics of ‘Nara’ triptych’s finale ‘Leaving Nara’, “I’ll bury my hands deep / into the mane of my lover,” has a callback to an earlier ‘Arrival in Nara’ lyric – “I’ve found a love to love like no other can / he’s found me, my Aslan.” ‘The Gospel Of John Hurt’ takes inspiration from the actor’s famous chest-splattering death scene (“Chest bursts like John Hurt”), ‘Nara’ drowns its subject (“She never finds her bearings / Sucking splash into her lungs”), and ‘Pusher’ pines for indie-movie love (“We could hold hands for fifteen minutes in the sauna”) while ‘Choice Kingdom’ has some things to say about their home country (“Rule Britannia / Bright ideas hide in caves.”)
Those more direct lyrics are delivered in a less idiosyncratic manner than on An Awesome Wave because the arrangements are less forced into strangeness.
Rather than codify their sound into something that will easily fit that arena tour, Alt-J have made a moving mimimalist album of substantial songs with their trademark embedded deep.
The Dublin-based band Sleep Thieves are a very different proposition from the one that appeared three years ago, so much so that their debut album Heart Waves seems, from cursory searches to have been erased from many of the online stores that once carried it, either by choice or by expiration.
Sleep Thieves in 2014 sound unlike that incarnation of the band, so much so that we can take You Want The Night, on its own merits. Starting with 2012’s excellent EP Islands, Sorcha Brennan, Wayne Fahy and Keith Byrne hit on a sound that they have since wrapped themselves in, a glittering canvas of disco-noir synthesizer and digital production.
Across ten tracks and 38 minutes on You Want The Night, the stylistic sound suits them well. The album can run a little too close to sounding too inspired by contemporaries like Johnny Jewel and Austra: artists who delve into the darkness through electronic arrangements that often come with an aural cue to look over your shoulder.
Brennan’s vocals have a sashaying celestial quality to them that wasn’t there before and it’s central to the album’s appeal – a bed of turbulent low-end anchors the feminine high-range she utilises, as on ‘City Of Hearts’ and ‘Oceans’ for example. Brennan isn’t a match for the operatic vibrato of Katie Stelmanis and while the vocal range is admirable, it does invite those comparisons.
Elsewhere, as on the title track, Fahy provides the voice of the mutated: pitched-down vocals add to the eerie feel, a technique plucked from Fever Ray and more recently, Purity Ring.
When the arrangements unpeel themselves from the template, Sleep Thieves add some depth. ‘Ishimura’ revels in the slow air of some hypnotic synth meandering as does the malevolent tones of ‘Tusk’.
There is enough substance here to suggest that Sleep Thieves are heading in the right direction. There is atmosphere and cinema conjured in the arrangements of songs like ‘Sparks’, ‘Oceans’ and ‘Ishimura’. The three-piece have immersed themselves in a electro-noir sheen and You Want The Night has given them a necessary focus. Now it’s time for Sleep Thieves to find their own place in it.
The LA label Stones Throw has held a high watermark in the quality of its musical output in the world of hip-hop, and in its latter years, beyond the fringes of rap, into punk, electronica, outsider music and jazz. It has been consistently referenced into the fabric of posts on this site, since I started.
More than any other label, independent or otherwise, it has stamped its communication and catalogue with its own identity, whether it’s their online site (a good example of how to do a music label website right), email marketing, their artwork or their personal touch (the label’s artwork director and co-founder Jeff Jank once emailed me to tell me about a new Dilla release which doesn’t really happen with most labels).
The film recounts the history of the label, giving context through a prologue about Peanut Butter Wolf, the label’s founder. Wolf has an aspiring musician, a music-mad kid who spent his lunch money on vinyl and with his friend, recorded a radio show-style chart countdown of the albums they collectively owned. The recording ends abruptly, when the budding DJ is forced to end play time to finish a book report for school.
That enthusiasm and thirst for music lead Wolf to form a group with his lifelong friend and rapper Charizma, only for the progressing career of both to end with the untimely passing of Charizma in a random car jacking.
That sadness and leads to a void musically, that is partly filled by the set up of Stones Throw, which Wolf sets up after meeting Madlib and his then group, Lootpack.
The film charts the ups and downs of the label between profiles of its artists, given insight by peers, label admirers and clear enthusiasts including Questlove, Mike D, Common, J Rocc, Talib Kweli, Flying Lotus, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Kanye.
The back stories of Madlib, MF Doom and J Dilla and how they came to be on Stones Throw are among the most fascinating. Small details matter: while Madlib was sleeping in the Stones Throw label HQ, MF Doom would be down in the bomb shelter studio recording vocals over tracks Madlib made that day that would eventually become one of the best rap albums of all-time – Madvillain. The only thing they did together was “chocolate mushrooms.”
The film really gives a sense of the “quiet power” and mutual respect between producers Madlib and Dilla, who made the Jaylib Champion Sound record together after Dilla was tractor-beamed into the sunny world of LA by the label.
The section on J Dilla, who of course died of a rare blood disease in 2006 remains poignant, particularly the story about him wearing 45 records on his wrist as a boy and the footage of him in the wheelchair at a gig shortly before he died. Music was his life, and he left a elegant parting gift in the stunning soulful sample-heavy beat record Donuts.
After Dilla died, the label went through some turmoil that resulted in some terrible releases: Gary Wilson, Wolf’s alter-ego Folerio, Wolf’s brother’s punk band. It’s understandable that labels will hit bad patches but the film paints this period as sort of an identity crisis, but talking heads like A-Trak are too polite and respectful of the label to say so.
Similarly missing in the film are details of record construction: surface level details are given about now-classic records but little else in terms of creativity and process. But those omissions are forgivable thanks to the film’s positivity, which is warranted and infectious.
In the last five or so years, the label had a renaissance of sorts, while moving away from its core sound of hip-hop, that lead to the release of records from soul-nerd Mayer Hawthorne, the classic-soul of Aloe Blacc and the west coast funk of Dam Funk. Hawthorne and Blacc both moved to major labels in 2011, a move that presumably helped the financial stability of the label at the time.
Wolf talks about the difficulty of running a label who want to remain staunchly independent, resisting being bought out by a major. He defines Stones Throw in opposition to the major label system, which moulds artists for an audience where as Wolf is a curator, a finder of artists who just need a family, an audience.
I did find myself wondering if, with Blacc and Hawthorne, Stones Throw could have made a distribution deal with a larger label to get the music out while retaining creative control. Wolf acknowledges he may not have made the best business decisions. That Aloe Blacc declined to be interviewed for the film maybe tells you how the vision differed in that case.
But Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton isn’t a film about the business acumen of a record label. It’s a film about a shared ethos, a thirst and desire for creativity, for the love of it. It’s a film about a label as a home, a family, as Questlove puts it, who are welcomed into the fold by Wolf, a man “embracing the unembraced.”
My first experience of Little Green Cars was of a ragged but talented bunch of musicians participating in a naff battle of the bands competition for teens in 2008. Back then, the lack of focus was obvious, as was the talent. (more…)
Jon Dark and Julie Chance’s music as Kool Thing to date, has shapeshifted in forms between a range of touchstones: elements of ’80s electronic, ’90s indie, brooding cold electronica and everything in-between. Constant throughout has been the presence of both members’ chanting double vocals; distinctive and hypnotic.
The Berlin-based band’s self-titled debut album solidifies the identity of Kool Thing by honing and zooming in on those aspects 14 tracks and 50 minutes of music. Joined now by a drummer in Valentin Plessy, only two of the tracks ‘The Sign’ and ‘Light Games’ were previously released, the other main track ‘Plan.Life.Go’ is not present, presumably because it doesn’t fit this album’s pervasive mood.
And that mood is a escapist one with lyrics that conjure the idea of eloping, of existing on the fringes of a world, in the shadows. Musically too, the music breeds that star-crossed sentiment, created by a subtle mix of Ladytron-style synth atmospherics, tense guitar passages, ’80s-style indie-rock production and hypnotic rushes of electronic subtleties. Full review & stream →
After two years of missing the festival, I finally made it down to one day at Body & Soul in Co. Westmeath over the weekend. Luck was on my side as I could only make Sunday which turned out to be the sunny day. Weather was something I noticed Body & Soul had going for it in its two years so far with previous weekends seeing scorchers so it seems luck and good calendar timing is also something the festival has going for it. (more…)
When The Cast Of Cheers uploaded their debut album Chariot for free up on Bandcamp in 2010, it was an action that many bands and artists have done before and since without little fanfare. That simple action got them noticed by many, blogs including this one were amongst the first. My post on the album received a huge amount of interest for a then, unknown band that it’s something I haven’t really since since in the same situation.
So there’s clearly something special about The Cast Of Cheers. The band arrived fully formed and Chariot was the vehicle that carried the band’s abilities in writing looped post-rock-inspired melodic indie songs with arrangements that had constricted air flow. Live, they were just as intoxicating. (more…)