Monday, May 25, 2009

Deerhunter - Andrew's Lane Theatre, Dublin. May 22

(This article was originally written for the website Muso's Guide,

Considering their position as alt-rock figureheads du jour as well as their ever-growing fanatical following, it’s slightly odd to witness Deerhunter performing in the relatively quaint surroundings of Andrew’s Lane Theatre. Odder still is the gnawing sense of anti-climax that I can’t seem to shake after the last echoes of feedback have dispersed; then again, expectation levels tend to be raised when you’re dealing with a band whose gigs Karen O has described as being akin to ‘religious experiences’.

It’s not all that, but it’s still mighty impressive. As the Atlanta, Georgia four-piece take the stage, enigmatic lead singer and main creative force Bradford Cox politely asks if they can begin with a new song, and so we’re treated to a rendition of the title track of Deerhunter’s brand new EP, Rainwater Cassette Exchange. The lyrics are a continuation of the themes that have so far dominated Cox’s considerable output (disease, dread, erotic obsession), while stylistically it sees the band further develop the classic pop influences that became more evident on last year’s double set Microcastle/Weird Era Cont., with a waltz-like rhythm and Cox’s woozy crooning. A spectacularly malevolent-sounding ‘Cryptograms’ follows. Much of the beauty of Deerhunter stems from the way their often poignant, desperate melodies and themes of dislocation are frequently buried under waves of guitar dissonance and enveloping drones. It’s a heady brew that they recreate well live. Having said that, Microcastle saw them taking a less impressionistic, more anthemic route at times; an enthusiastically-received ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ is one such example, a tight, spirited performance giving way to a thrilling extended jam. On the other side of the coin, ‘White Ink’ smothers the audience with a loud, disorientating swell of noise that plays hell with your senses. In a good way, of course.

It’s not the only thing it plays hell with. Already slightly concerned by the partial deafness in one ear I’ve suffered for the last couple of weeks, and mindful that I’ve got a date with My Bloody Valentine in less than a week, I decide to spare my eardrums from unnecessary damage and move back a safer distance from the stage. Perhaps due to less-than-ideal sound quality within the venue, there’s a loss of intensity from this vantage point, despite renditions of ‘Hazel Street’ and ‘Never Stops’ that showcase the group’s knack for rousing melodies. After some bizarre rambling from Cox on the subject of ‘dead babies’, the gently chiming ‘Agoraphobia’ follows, it’s “come for me, comfort me, cover me” refrain making for a slightly uneasy singalong. They round things off with the closing track from Weird Era Cont., ‘Calvary Scars II/Aux. Out’ (unfortunately the only track to feature from said album tonight), it’s disturbingly self-immolating lyric eventually drowned out by a grandstanding, frenetic climax that ultimately collapses, leaving a hazy trail in its wake. With Deerhunter, it’s hard to know sometimes whether you’re being immersed in a transcendental dream state or being plunged into the deepest nightmarish recesses (it may well be a bit of both), but whatever, it’s a compelling experience all the same. If not quite a religious experience. Maybe next time...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lyric Of The Day

"Like your smile
And your fingertips
Like the way that you move your lips.
I like the cool way you look at me,
Everything about you is bringing me

BOB DYLAN - 'Buckets of Rain'
Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The Oxegen festival has come in for some amount of flak in recent years. Much of this can be put down to the tales of tent-burning and other anti-social behaviour that dominated media coverage, while the rise of the more chilled-out Electric Picnic won the hearts and minds of the 'discerning' music fan (which is a pretty elitist concept, let's face it).

However, MCD deserve some massive credit for the way they've turned things around of late. This year's line-up is, quite simply, sensational: ignoring the usual Kings of RazorSnowKillers suspects, there's Blur's comeback, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Elbow, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Specials, Nine Inch Nails, Mogwai, TV On The Radio, Of Montreal, and Foals. You can talk about drunken kids in GAA shirts all you want, but you just can't argue with quality like that. Although i wouldn't deny the unique spirit and atmosphere of the Electric Picnic, their line-up this year doesn't hold a candle to Oxegen's, and as a music fan, music should be what matters most at a festival. Yet still there seems to be a grudging reluctance on the part of mainstream media outlets to acknowledge what a fantastic line-up it is. I guarantee that if the Electric Picnic had even half of those acts, we wouldn't hear the end of the gushing and fawning. What's more, Oxegen seems to be snapping up the more left-field acts you'd expect to see at the Picnic - Fever Ray being one notable example.

Their have been concerted attempts to make the festival more environmentally friendly, with public transport being encouraged, recycling points dotted around the site, and of course the good old 'eco-cup'. It's also worth pointing out that anti-social incidents dropped considerably last year. Overall, major praise is due. And I for one can't wait for this year's experience to roll around. See you up the front at Nick Cave!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

SPECK MOUNTAIN - Some Sweet Relief (Carrot Top)

(This article was originally written for the website Muso's Guide,

Chicago-based trio Speck Mountain first came to attention with their 2007 debut Summer Above, and Some Sweet Relief mostly sticks to the same formula they first made their name with. All measured tempos, tasteful minimalism, slow-burning arrangements and narcotic, reverbed vocals, it’s a sound that recalls Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ or Mazzy Star; an intriguing mixture of evocative Americana and airy dream-pop.

Opening track ‘Shame on the Soul’ sets the predominantly unhurried tone, creating a drowsily atmospheric mood-piece out of its core constituents: a gentle, quietly repetitive chord progression; unobtrusive clock-like percussion; sporadic blues licks and, perhaps most importantly, the soothing, country-influenced vocals of Marie-Claire Balabanian. In a strange sort of way, her impressive pipes tend to enhance the soporific tone of much of this record, yet simultaneously prevent the album from descending into mere background music: her vocals seem somehow both numbed-out and infused with feeling. This is particularly evident on a track like ‘I Feel Eternal’, which combines a descending chord progression, melodic guitar arpeggios and sparingly used horns in what is arguably the standout track here. The interplay between scorched, echoing guitar licks and Balabanian’s relatively (and we stress the word ‘relatively’) urgent vocals on ‘Fidelity Shake’ provides another highlight.

It’s hard to see the generally unimaginative lyrics as anything other than tools used to enhance the mood and atmosphere of the music, dealing as they do mostly in vague imagery. Indeed, the hypnotic ‘Angela’ features no lyrics at all apart from wordless, ethereal harmonies and the repetition of the title, backed by a vaguely trip-hop rhythm and ambient guitar work.

Unfortunately, the second half of the album may well test the patience of anyone initially drawn in. It’s tempting to blame this on the consistently mid-tempo pace and lack of fire in the arrangements, but such a criticism is overly simplistic: by the same token, you could criticise Never Mind the Bollocks for lacking restraint, which is sort of missing the point. With Speck Mountain, a lack of urgency is part of the deal, and the second-half slump is more a case of a drop in standards. ‘Backsliding’ and closing track ‘Sister Water’ are unremarkable, pallid affairs that run the risk of inducing boredom in the listener, rather than the entrancement they evidently aim for.

Nevertheless, Speck Mountain’s aesthetic is frequently very effective: at its best, this is music that conjures images of wide, sun-baked open spaces, creating a dreamy sense of tranquillity as well as a sense of ever-so-slight movement. The next album may well be the deal-breaker.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

THE MACCABEES - Wall Of Arms (Fiction)

(This article was originally written for the website Muso's Guide,

The Maccabees’ debut album Colour It In, released in 2007, featured some sterling tunes but was perhaps a bit too derivative for its own good: drawing on influences like XTC and Gang of Four, the Brighton-based five-piece were late contributors to the then-fading post-punk revival that had been instigated by bands like Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads, Dogs Die In Hot Cars and Bloc Party. Still, there was plenty of potential evident in their jerky, energetic compositions and singer Orlando Weeks’ trembling vocals had a distinctive charm of their own.

The release of ‘No Kind Words’ a few weeks back indicated a change of direction: the vocals sounded meaner, the guitars more menacing, the atmosphere more charged and tense, while the similarly dark lyrics alluded to infidelity (“Dear friend of mine is testing his body/Tempting disaster/Testing water with another’s daughter”). It seemed that slightly twee ditties about toothpaste kisses were firmly a thing of the past.

Wall Of Arms’ opening track, ‘Love You Better’ doesn’t dispel the notion, but it’s not quite in the same vein as ‘No Kind Words’ (included here) either: it’s an earnest, impassioned, ‘big’ sounding composition; steadily and deliberately paced, its echoing guitars and reverbed vocals build a sense of anticipation as the song swells into a brass-propelled crescendo. It also proves to be more representative of the album as a whole. On paper, that sounds like the kind of thing that’s going to have many people running back to their Animal Collective records: the world certainly doesn’t lack for fervent, well-meaning guitar bands at this point in time, and being subjected to ‘soul-stirring’ music from the likes of Editors, Snow Patrol or Razorlight over the last few years is enough to make Metal Machine Music sound like a merciful alternative. Nevertheless, the Maccabees bring a pleasing lightness of touch to the formula, avoiding the overblown pompousness that sunk An End Has a Start or the insufferable mawkishness that did for Snow Patrol’s last two records.

Many reviewers have already made copious references to Arcade Fire, and it’s not hard to see why: Weeks’ tremulous, impassioned warbling is highly reminiscent of Win Butler’s style, and the wordless choral vocals on songs like ‘Dinosaurs’ and the title track have the stamp of Funeral all over them. It’s probably no coincidence that the album is produced by Markus Dravs, who also worked on Neon Bible: the intro to ‘Young Lions’, indeed, is a dead ringer for that album’s title track.

Musically, however, it’s less complex and ambitious than all the Arcade Fire comparisons might suggest. ‘One Hand Holding’ is driven along by a limber bassline and a guitar riff almost as catchy as the “Why would you kill it before it dies?” chorus, the exuberant ‘Can You Give It’ will probably prove a live favourite with its bouncy rhythm and handclap-friendly outro, while ‘Wall of Arms’ has enough off-kilter charm about it to overcome its painfully obvious influences.

Overall, it’s enjoyable stuff, if hardly in danger of pushing any envelopes. It might be a stretch to call it essential, but we’d be quite happy to hear this blaring out of car windows come the hot summer days.


THE BREEDERS - Fate to Fatal EP (Self-Released)

(This article was originally written for the website Muso's Guide,

Happy days: the Deal sisters certainly seem to have rediscovered their enthusiasm for music. Last year’s impressive Mountain Battles was only the second album the band had released since the breakout success of 1993’s Last Splash, but now hot on its heels comes this self-released four-track EP.

Much like Mountain Battles, it’s a mixed bag with no real overarching aesthetic. The title track is the most classically ‘Breeders’ track: a shambling, dizzying blast of lo-fi riffery which threatens to collapse in on itself, with the Deals alternating between drowsy crooning and tuneless bawling. It’s good fun to a point, the sense of disorder emphasised by the way the guitars seem at odds with the rhythm, but ultimately it’s not likely to stay in the memory long after the final note rings out.

Which is a pity, because things don’t get any better. ‘The Last Time’ has the distinction of featuring Mark Lanegan on vocal duties, but it won’t go down as one of his better collaborations: his contribution sounds almost phoned-in, which is no real surprise considering what he’s given to work with - little more than an unremarkable, ambling backing track that sporadically threatens to break into something heavier, but quickly retreats to its comfort zone. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Sometimes Always’ - another track that featured a heavyweight vocal talent (Hope Sandoval) guesting with indie-rock royalty - but nowhere near as enjoyable, and that comparison is somewhat telling: much like the previous track, it’s as if the last 15 years didn’t happen.

‘Chances Are’ is a cover of the Bob Marley song, and a pretty standard cover at that – its minimal acoustic instrumentation allows the twins to harmonise sweetly, but it’s hard to see the song as anything other than a curio for diehard fans. Final track ‘Pinnacle Hollow’, meanwhile, subjects the listener to a good two-and-a-half minutes of aimless noodling before the vocals come in. When they do, however, it’s a pleasure: world-weary and jaded sounding vocals (“I don’t know a sin I haven’t found”) suddenly make sense of the lulling guitars.

All in all, though, the record is a disappointment: instead of indicating some possible change of direction or simply maintaining the momentum provided by last year’s well-received record, Fate to Fatal merely sounds like a bunch of inferior out-takes. Much as we may have bitched about their sluggish work ethic over the last decade, maybe taking their time to record albums wasn’t such a bad approach after all?


Saturday, May 9, 2009


(This article was originally written for the website Muso's Guide)

Side projects: they’re often a great thing. In their most positive manifestations, they provide members of established bands with the opportunity to cut loose and try out new musical ideas, freed from the constraints of working within a band with a strict aesthetic or freed from the expectations and pressures emanating from an established fanbase.

However, less successful examples of the side project bring out the more negative connotations of the term: inferiority, lack of ambition, lack of vitality etc. Unfortunately, Magnetic Morning tend toward the latter, despite featuring the combined talents of Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino and Swervedriver singer/guitarist (and active solo artist) Adam Franklin. They release this debut long-player on the back of 2007’s self-titled EP, initially only available on iTunes but receiving a belated physical release last year.

For the most part, A.M. is frustratingly slight and listless: opener ‘Spring Unseen’, for example, with its shoegaze-lite guitar washes, reverb-heavy production and Crowded House-style melodies, is a pleasant enough listen, but not the kind of sound that’s going to grab your attention from the off. That theme recurs throughout the album, with tracks like ‘Come Back’ and ‘Out In The Streets’ proving so insubstantial and lethargic that it’s difficult to imagine how the musicians stayed awake long enough to complete their takes. Matters aren’t helped by Franklin’s pallid vocals: while in Swervedriver his limitations were masked, and indeed made irrelevant, by that band’s abiding aesthetic of guitar assault and distortion, here the weaknesses of his voice are cruelly exposed. As a result, music that’s already crying out for an injection of personality is only lent a further air of blandness.

If all that sounds unnecessarily harsh, the album’s not without redeeming characteristics. ‘At a Crossroads, Passive’ features atmospheric, spindly guitar lines reminiscent of Fogarino’s parent band, and a grandstanding, string-led crescendo; ‘No Direction’ is a breezy slice of power-pop that calls to mind Elliott Smith or Fountains Of Wayne; while ‘The Wrong Turning’ is probably the standout track, based around an imposing piano hook and benefiting from a vocal performance that provides some much needed soul. They also attempt a translation of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ on ‘Motorway’, but the result is nothing much to write home about, replacing the impalpable sense of wonder that infused the original with a workmanlike FM-radio treatment.

If casual fans are unlikely to be reigned in by A.M., then the same can also be said of fans of either musician’s previous work: there’s none of the dark urban glamour of Interpol or the euphoric noise of Swervedriver, just the sound of two friends making music that, if occasionally agreeable, is ultimately hamstrung by its utter lack of tension, chemistry or vigour.