Wednesday, October 30, 2013

5 New Albums I Want Right Now

Dunking my head in the waters of the Welsh Music Prize for a month or two was a fun exercise, don't get me wrong, but buying up all of those albums did cause me to miss a few interesting new releases that weren't born on Welsh soil. Here are five new-ish albums that will be going straight in my shopping basket come payday:

Reflektor by Arcade Fire
I wasn't a big fan of The Suburbs (as this blog post made pretty clear), but I get the impression that Reflektor is a pretty big departure from its predecessor. Equally interesting is the lack of critical consensus I've seen; NME hailed it as their best work yet, while Uncut portrayed it as grand but flawed and Drowned in Sound didn't seem very convinced at all. I'm keen to hear who was right.

The track that has me excited: Reflektor itself. It's big, it's new, it's cuh-ray-zay!


Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails still occupy the 'Best Live Band I've Ever Seen' throne in my brain palace (they completely upstaged the new Smashing Pumpkins at Reading 2007), and while there are still plenty of old NIN albums I don't yet own, this new'un was sufficiently unexpected to leapfrog to the top of my wishlist. I thought Trent Reznor was done with NIN, so the announcement a few months back came as a pleasant surprise.

The track that has me excited: The rather awesome Came Back Haunted.


The Silver Gymnasium by Okkervil River
I love The Stage Names, and I quite like I Am Very Far, so when I stumbled upon the news that Okkervil River had a new album out I was pretty made up. I know absolutely nothing about The Silver Gymnasium, but I daresay that these guys know what they're doing.

The track that has me excited: I haven't heard anything off this album yet, but if any of the songs are half as good as Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe, I'll be happy.


Arrows by Polly Scattergood
As I hinted in an image caption on Friday, this one is quite high on my buy list. I discovered Polly Scattergood through a Mute label sampler (free with another purchase from the ever-excellent Spillers Records); the song was Disco Damaged Kid, and when I discovered that its parent album hadn't yet been released, I made a mental note to check it out when it eventually did see the light of day. Arrows is that album, and I intend to purchase it forthwith.

The track that has me excited: Disco Damaged Kid, the climatic teenage defiance-storm that stood out on that Mute sampler.


There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time by The Superman Revenge Squad Band
I'd never heard of TSRSB until a couple of days ago. I posted a tweet asking people what new releases I ought to check out, and @DannyinBelfast insisted that I add There is Nothing More Frightening... to my list. I listened to the first track on bandcamp, and promptly stopped listening after that so as not to spoil the album for myself.

The track that has me excited: Lately I've Found Myself Regressing, which sounds like Ed Stockham with a full band behind him.

Come back on Friday, when I'll be listing some slightly less new albums that I've got my eye on.

Click on this link to find out what I thought of these five albums when I did eventually buy them, or click here for the 'slightly less new' albums mentioned above.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rebuilding The Album Wall

First of all, it would be remiss of me not to mention Lou Reed, who passed away yesterday at the age of 71. I considered doing a whole blog post about Transformer and/or The Velvet Underground & Nico, but to be honest, I couldn't really think of anything particular to write about them. I suspect that everybody else will have plenty to say about those particular records today, so I'll just drop in my favourite songs from those two albums - Hangin' 'Round from Transformer and All Tomorrow's Parties from ...Nico - and leave it at that.

RIP Lou. Now, on to the meat of this blog post...

This is The Album Wall as it currently stands. It's skeletal-looking, full of gaps and bearing all the hallmarks of half a job. This may come as a surprise to you if you've seen this picture before:

First published in 'Does the Physical Version Matter?', a blog I did back in August.

That was what The Album Wall looked like when I first started this blog: a proud titan, home to more CDs than all of your local charity shops put together. So what's happened? Why is The Album Wall now a shell of its former self?

Well, as I mentioned in that previous blog post, I recently moved house. The healthy-looking Album Wall was mounted in my old bedroom; the sparse-looking one is in  my new house. I've been living there for a few months now, but my dad and I only got around to putting up the CD racks yesterday. As you can see, I've started to fill 'em up, but most of my CDs are still in boxes, waiting to be slotted into their new home.

The upside of this upheaval is that it's given me a chance to re-organise everything. Previously, my CD's were basically arranged in order of when I bought them (with some exceptions, but the thinking behind those exceptions is too complicated to explain here); I quite liked this, because it was like I had used those hundreds of albums to create a map of my past. Here were the CDs I purchased in the summer of 2007; there were the ones I got for Christmas in 2005; and right on top were the ones I've only just bought. It was beautiful, and if you were looking for a specific album, I was the only one who could find it for you.

But this system did have its problems. It bred vicious OCD-like tendencies in myself, for starters - I couldn't bear to have an album out of place, and that was frustrating when I wanted to take several CDs out of the rack for, say, a long car journey. Also, my collection was getting so large that even I was struggling to remember where everything was, and short of noting down the position of each and every album (that thought did cross my mind, incidentally), it would have been almost impossible to keep everything in its right place for the duration of the big move.

So I decided that it was time for a change of Nick Hornby proportions. But where the guy in High Fidelity actively pursued a labyrinthine record organisation system, I'm going in the opposite direction - streamlining, and making the whole mess a little more manageable. He had just broken up with his girlfriend, whereas I've just bought a house with mine, so while he wanted something personal, a record collection that only he could navigate, I'm aiming to make my collection accessible to all.

So I'm alphabetising, by artist. Solo artists are categorised by surname, not first name, and if I've got multiple albums by one artist, I'm putting them in the order they were released. It's a slow process (I'm just adding a chunk of CDs here and there whenever I get the chance) and I'm very aware that I've not got enough room for all of those albums, but for the moment, I'm just enjoying the reorganisation of it all. It's a nerdy kind of enjoyment, but sometimes that's the best kind.

Friday, October 25, 2013

'Generally Favourable'

Ooh, I've been waiting for that Polly Scattergood album to come out.

Last Tuesday, I came across this article about music criticism and how wishy-washy it tends to be. I would have blogged about it straight away, but I was still going hammer and tongs on the Welsh Music Prize shortlist at that point and I decided that it would have to wait. Besides, my thoughts on the matter would surely be all the crisper for having been cooked a little longer.

You see, this is a topic that's quite close to my heart. Not because a slew of vaguely positive reviews is entirely unhelpful when you're searching for your new favourite band (although goodness knows I've bought my share of two-star albums on the back of three- or four-star reviews), but because I as a music reviewer have often found it difficult to raise the critical sword and run an artist through with it.

In his blog post, Sick Mouthy (I think his real name is Nick) suggested several things that might be responsible for the overwhelming abundance of three-star reviews and 'generally favourable' releases:
  • Fear of causing offence ("avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone")
  • Fear of  being "called out for not knowing what you're talking about"
  • Fear of being seen as "a snob".
  • Plain old ignorance (perhaps some critics "don't know what bad art is")
I'd like to think that I wouldn't be bothered if somebody called me a snob, and in a field as subjective as music, I'm not sure ignorance is really a factor (reviews, after all, are just people's opinions, and if a song or an album sounds good to you then you're not at fault for not having learned why that song or album is, in fact, crap). For my part, I think that the crux of the matter lies between those first two points.

Fear of Causing Offence
Let me just make it clear that I am a small, small fish in a big, big pond. I've only ever had reviews published in two places: my own personal blog, and a local music magazine called The Miniature Music Press. Neither outlet was ever at the forefront of criticism, and so when Sick Mouthy talks about "damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side", I relax a little because that's not an issue I've ever had to worry about.

I am, however, deeply concerned about offending the artist. If an album sounds like it's just been farted out in the bathroom - like very little effort went into it whatsoever - then I'm more than happy to lay into the lazy people behind it, but that's seldom the case. Far more frequently, I'll come across an album into which the artist has evidently poured a lot of time, care, and consideration...and I'm just not into it. I'm capable of going deeper into my own opinion, working out why the songs do nothing for me, but actually putting finger to keyboard and telling my readers (however few in number they may be) that this release simply isn't worth their time is something that I never acquired the stomach for. To paint a distinctly lame self-portrait, I don't like being mean about the fruit of someone's creative efforts, no matter how little I care for them.

The problem is exacerbated when writing about local artists, as I often did for the MMP; I doubt the Arcade Fire cared very much when I did my blog about The Suburbs, but if I had written the same piece about a struggling Cardiff band who had all been working nights just to pay for studio time, they would probably have taken it far more personally, and I'd have felt like far more of a dick for having a go at their music. If anything, the bands with PR people and a record company behind them are the ones I'm happy to savage, mainly because they won't give a shit.

Fear of Being Called Out
If music critics seem to be forever at sixes and sevens, perhaps it's because most releases do genuinely have both good and bad points. A bad review can easily be rebuked by pointing to one of the album's good bits; a glowing write-up can be shot down by any hater who's familiar with the album's weakest moments; but a middling review? Pretty much bulletproof, at least until people like Sick Mouthy start blogging about it.

In many ways, mixed reviews are a good thing. Assuming that most albums do have their share of both positive and negative qualities, I want to be equally appraised of both, to be given a balanced view that allows me to make a semi-informed purchasing decision. And when I'm on the other side of the review, I am extremely prone to second-guessing; if I write a very positive review that focuses mainly on an album's merits, I will immediately start to question my opinion and spot weaknesses of which I was previously oblivious. Similarly, on the rare occasions when I do allow myself to really rubbish a record, the appeal of said record will become far more evident after I have hit 'Publish'.

The result (hopefully) is a review that, while slightly non-committal, does give the reader a relatively clear idea of what the album might do for them. And that's good; I think that the main aim of music criticism ought always to be helping people to decide whether or not they should listen to an album, rather than simply finding a slot for that album in The Great List.

The only trouble, then, is the score. If all reviewers were going straight down the middle, then surely Metacritic would be packed with ratings in the fifties rather than the sixties and seventies. Presumably, this means that most music critics would rather focus on the positive side of an album than on the negative, probably because of the aforementioned fear of offending anyone.

It's a shame that Sicky Mouth has, by his own admission, "exactly zero interest in video games". If he did have a gamer streak, he might find Zero Punctuation to be a pretty rewarding watch; Yahtzee Croshaw, the voice behind those yellow videos, is one man who has never been afraid to call 'em as he sees 'em. If our music critics mostly talk about the good bits and only mention the bad bits in passing, Yahtzee is the complete opposite. He routinely spends four of his five minutes administering a verbal beatdown to the game of the week, pausing only occasionally to mention something that, actually, he kind of enjoyed.

This method is pretty brutal, and one can't imagine that Yahtzee has kept many game companies onside over the years (nor that he would really care). But it's a good way of doing things, because when a game comes along that he does genuinely like, the positive review shines all the brighter for not being surrounded by a whole bunch of others.

I'm not mean enough to be music's answer to Yahtzee, so I'll just stick with my 'this was good, that was bad' approach. Perhaps with a 'buy this if you like...' line at the end where the score usually is.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Kill 'Em All

Please note: this blog post has nothing to do with Metallica's first album. In fact, I've never even heard Metallica's first album. Is it good?

So I really like Game of Thrones, and one of the best things about watching it is trying to guess who will die next. Given the programme's 'anyone can die' reputation, relatively few major characters have been killed off so far (see the full list here), but my dad has read the books and he gleefully assures me that the worst is yet to come.

It's hard to create engaging, three-dimensional characters over the course of a song, and harder still to get your listeners so attached to those characters that they're upset when you kill them off. None of three albums listed below ever emulate Game's ability to make you go 'holy moly, I can't believed they did away with him', and frankly, none of them really endeavour to. You'd need a proper concept album with recurring characters to make that happen, and that's not what these LPs are about.

But just because each song has its own set of characters doesn't mean that the artists are any less excited at the prospect of giving those characters a grisly death. Without further ado, then, here are three albums with a body count that George R. R. Martin would be proud of:

Picaresque by The Decemberists
Colin Meloy and Co. have never shied away from a gruesome tale, and by my count, Picaresque is the most corpse-strewn of all their albums.

Final Body Count? At least five: the suicide lovers in We Both Go Down Together, the mother in The Mariner's Revenge Song, and Eli the Barrow Boy and his lady friend. Then we have the "fifteen celebrity minds" and the "sixteen military wives" who get served to the cannibal kings in Sixteen Military Wives; assuming they all get eaten, that brings our total to 36. It's probably a safe bet that both mariners in the Revenge Song cop it as well, given that we leave them inside a whale (not to mention the fact that one is about to be murdered by the other). That makes 38, and that's ignoring the countless unnamed seamen who were "chewed alive" by that whale.

Too Long In This Condition by Alasdair Roberts & Friends
A collection of traditional folk songs (always good for a grim demise or two) as interpreted by the Scottish singer and his pals. More or less every song features at least one kick of the bucket.

Final Body Count? I counted 14, but that figure doesn't include the people who presumably perish in The Burning of Auchindoun or the crew of the "Spanish galley" that is sunk by the boy from The Golden Vanity.

Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
An obvious choice. At just under an hour long, this murderous little platter averages out to roughly one death per minute.

Final Body Count? A whopping 65, according to Wikipedia. It isn't clear whether or not that number includes the dog that gets "crucified" in The Curse of Millhaven.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Swn Festival 2013

The spectacular Swn Festival took over Cardiff for much of the weekend just gone, and while I didn't see as many bands as I might have liked to, I still caught a few gems that I thought would be worth sharing. So, just as I did after returning from the Knee Deep Festival, I present four of my favourite acts from Swn 2013:

The Wytches actually played at Knee Deep, too. They were on the main stage as we arrived, and while they did sound pretty great, I sadly had to go and set up camp. Still, I later managed to establish the name of the band I had heard, and I swore that, sooner or later, I would get around to having a proper listen.

And so, when I spotted that The Wytches were down to play Clwb Ifor Bach on Swn Saturday, I cleared my schedule. They were absolutely awesome, too, with meaty basslines, Halloween surfer guitar sounds (a bit like The Cramps or The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster), and a vocal style that probably isn't especially good for the singer's throat. The recordings don't do them justice; by all means listen to the song I've embedded above, but see them live if you can.

Seazoo were my last band of the festival, and not a bad one to go out on. Their music occasionally strays a little close to the nose-wrinkling tweeness I complained about in my Sweet Baboo review, but the underlying chug and Seazoo's knack for a big, Hold Steady-style guitar riff injected just the right amount of attitude to balance the sweetness. In contrast to The Wytches, they're even better on record, where you can hear all of those lovely layers properly.

I didn't see all of ESKA's set, and that's a great shame because what I did catch was something special. The lady's voice covers considerably more notes than would comfortably fit on a stave, and her all-trades talent - each of the three songs I heard was played on a different instrument - makes it hard to lose interest. Her songs are soul-cleansing things, filling your ears with a cathartic wail that's really rather astonishing. It's far from easy listening, but the loose structuring and near-religious fervour that typified those few songs made for a seriously electrifying experience. It reminded me of Josh T. Pearson a little bit, but then everything reminds me of Josh T. Pearson.
My final pick is nowhere to be found on SoundCloud, and I couldn't see anything of theirs on YouTube, either, so above is a link to their EP on Bandcamp instead. Without Feathers were billed as being a bit like The Moldy Peaches, but they're far more polite than that, peddling sweet little songs and three-part harmonies that remind me of The Roches as much as anything. I liked the round they sang - you don't hear many rounds nowadays -  but my favourite songs were those on which the girl in the awesome coat did most of the singing (not sure of the name, sorry; she's in the centre of the photo below). She had a little more spunk when she was singing lead rather than backing vocals, and the slightly more punky moments contrasted well with the softer stuff.

Did you go to Swn this year? Who did you see?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Welsh Music Prize 2013 - And the Winner is...

It feels weird doing another blog post about Georgia Ruth so soon, but this was the risk I took when I left Week of Pines 'til last. Still, I don't want to use the album cover as my main image again, so here instead is a Georgia Ruth selfie:

So Week of Pines has won its creator the 2013 Welsh Music Prize. And actually, I'm pretty pleased with this result. I was rooting for Furniture, of course, but WoP is certainly a worthy winner in itself, boasting at least two stone-cold classics (Week of Pines and A Slow Parade) and a whole host of other lovely songs., like Old Blue and In Luna. As I mentioned on Twitter the other day, it's a very nostalgic album - she's trying to "get back to the week of pines", she's singing about her old dog, she's thinking about relationships that have long since ended. True to the title, the album is full of longing - or pining - for things past.

I was looking for Old Blue on YouTube, and guess what? It's a cover! I couldn't find Georgia Ruth's version, so here's a slightly less modern rendition...

And if that lot doesn't make Georgia Ruth a deserving winner, consider that, with a sprinkling of harp and a smattering of Cymraeg, Week of Pines was probably the Welsh-est album on the shortlist. If the WMP is supposed to show off what this country has to offer, music-wise, then this album was a fine choice for the prize.

At the end of the day, though, it's not about who won or who lost. The whole shortlist was full of amazing stuff, and I'm glad that I made myself listen to it all. Even when I was disappointed, irritated, or downright baffled, I was still  having fun. Oh, and it's Swn Festival now, which means that I get to see a bunch of these bands I've discovered in person. I caught Trwbador at the Angel Hotel last night, and they were awesome, like Kate Bush with a laptop.

Thank you all for joining me on this Welsh Music Prize journey - you can relive the whole thing here. Normal service resumes on Monday, but in the meantime...who do you think should have won?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

WMP Nominees - Georgia Ruth

Last one, you guys! Since early September, I've been listening to the albums that make up this year's Welsh Music Prize shortlist. The winner is announced tomorrow, but before I can start thinking about that, I've one more album to tackle...

Cover Final small

So why have I left Georgia Ruth 'til last? I'd like to say that it wasn't planned, that it was just the way the chips fell; one of those twelve records would have to wait around until the very end, and Week of Pines just so happened to be the one album on the shortlist that I hadn't bought, listened to and blogged about yet.

But that would be a bit of a porkie. In truth, I've kind of been putting off Week of Pines because, well, I thought it would be a bit boring. I'm aware that it probably wouldn't have been nominated for a national prize if it was Dullsville, Tennessee, and I'm equally aware that the softer side of this shortlist has often been the better side, having already thrown up splendid surprises like February and The Diary of Me. Heck, in retrospect, I was even aware that this album's title track was a rousing, kraut-flavoured epic, worlds away from the blandness I was braced for.

In spite of all that, I had convinced myself that Week of Pines would be one of the less gripping listens on the list, and that, rather pathetically, is why I did all the other albums first: I basically just wanted to avoid this one for as long as possible. Solo singer-songwriter, trees in the album title, boring artwork (which, now that I look at it properly, actually has a mild Dawn of the Dead vibe to it) my mind, the signs weren't great, and this review is not one that I've been looking forward to writing.

But Week of Pines has actually given my Welsh Music Prize story a pretty good ending. Expectations have been a recurring theme throughout this little marathon, insofar as whatever I've expected from an album has consistently failed to transpire. It's almost like a running gag; Summer Special was hardly summery at all, Fist of the First Man sounded nothing like the Fist of the First Man I thought I remembered, the aforementioned February turned out to be far less rubbish than the month for which it was named...pretty much everything I presumed was wrong.

And so what better way to round things off than by closing my eyes and listening to the familiar, crunchy sound of my expectations getting curb-stomped yet again?

Week of Pines is a surprisingly varied album, bearing no relation at all to the hour of gruelling, Celtic-flavoured tedium I've been hiding from for the last few weeks. You've got the toasty, laid-back goodbye song (Seeing You Around); you've got the solemn Welsh-language squeezebox hymn (Codi Angor); and you've got the lolloping slice of electric Americana that sound like it might pop up towards the end of a free Uncut CD (A Slow Parade).

You still get the occasional quiet'un, but when songs like Dovecote are side-by-side with songs like Seeing You Around, it doesn't create a problem. Instead, it creates a wonderful mix of stuff that stays fresh throughout. it as good as Furniture?
No, which I suppose means that Furniture is my favourite album on the shortlist and that Race Horses are the artist that I'm backing to win tomorrow night. Week of Pines is great, for sure, and when the lilting bass guitar brings Winter to a close you do feel like you've come to the end of a great journey.

But unlike Furniture (and Praxis Makes Perfect, for that matter), it's not a journey that I'm immediately itching to retrace. Where Race Horses and Neon Neon leave me hungry for more and perfectly happy to go back to track one and listen again, Week of Pines leaves me full up, and that's why I don't feel quite so enthusiastic about Georgia Ruth as I do about those other two acts.

Also, as good as the various tracks are, nothing quite equals the motorik magnificence of the eponymous opener. Putting your best track first is no way to win me over, I'm afraid.

So that's it - that's the whole list, done! Keep your eyes peeled for the big reveal, and come back here on Friday to find out what I thought of the result. Furniture may be my favourite - if you spread those twelve CDs out on a table right now and asked me which one I wanted to hear, I'd plump for the Race Horses - but to be honest, there are at least five other potential winners I'd be pretty happy with.

I guess we'll see, eh?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

WMP Nominees - Little Arrow

The winner of the 2013 Welsh Music Prize will be announced this Thursday. Not familiar with the nominees? Neither was I, until this happened. I've still got two albums to cover, mind, so we'd better crack on...

State of You and Me
Reviewing albums in haste - as I have been doing over the last few weeks - doesn't always make for good reading. I downloaded Wild Wishes first thing on Monday morning, and while I did manage to squeeze in a fair few listens before I started blogging about it, my impression of the album is still rather, uh, impressionistic. I don't really know anything about Little Arrow yet, and I haven't had a chance to look into the story behind this LP, if in fact there is one. I do know that The State of You and Me was (sort of) the lead single, but that's only because I reviewed the damn thing when it came out.

So, having spent but a morning with Wild Wishes, what impression am I left with? A rather post-apocalyptic one, actually, but don't worry. These songs don't form some terrifying, fiery vision of things to come; instead, they show us a world in which technology and modern civilisation have more or less disappeared, and humanity has reverted to a much simpler, much lovelier state. It's more Swiss Family Robinson than The Road.

Little Arrow sound like they've wandered away from the end of the world, bumped into each other on some secluded, windswept beach, and decided to sing a few songs together. Lead Us Now (perhaps the best closing track on the shortlist) is the only song on this album that really goes all-out on the instrumentation, letting rip with brass instruments and electric guitars that are absent elsewhere as far as I can tell. Pretty much everything else is acoustic, and this gives the album a pure, 'round-the-campfire honesty that's really quite nice. A lot of the vocals are sung as a group, and even though I complained about this technique in my February review, I think it actually fits quite well here.

My favourite track is probably Wash (and no, of course it's not on YouTube). It starts out in The Diary of Me territory, once again bringing Bagpuss to mind, but then it starts to pick up steam. And then it calms down again for a lovely little rockpool of a chorus ("You were buried in the wash"), and then it seems like the band aren't sure what to do next, but fortunately they find their way back to that nimble little verse thing before bringing it back for another chorus. It's all quite understated, actually, but it's a great example of this album's strengths.

As I said, though, it isn't on YouTube, so instead here's a live version of the one that comes after it: it better than Furniture?
No, but I will concede that Wild Wishes beats Furniture hands down in the nooks and crannies department. The Race Horses album is like a rollercoaster, taking the listener on a thrilling, twisty-turny ride that's great fun but over all too quickly. Little Arrow simply place us on a path and tell us to find our own way through the album, and while it's not as instantly gratifying as the rollercoaster route - with loose structures and varying tempos, a lot of these songs sound disjointed and a little all-over-the-place to begin with - it does afford a lot more opportunity for exploration. As I mentioned before, I've still only the faintest idea of what this album really is, and I suspect that I'll still be hearing new things in Wild Wishes long after the head-rush effect of Furniture has worn off.

Only one album left, guys! Come back on Wednesday for Week of Pines.

Friday, October 11, 2013

WMP Nominees - Trwbador

With less than a week to go before the winner is announced, I've still got three Welsh Music Prize-nominated albums left to ponder. My little listening expedition will end next week with stuff from Little Arrow and Georgia Ruth; in the meantime, let's get stuck into Trwbador's self-titled LP.

"I've got a dirty mind, you've got a dirty mouth." I had this mental image of Trwbador as a sweet, childlike little outfit - all toy pianos and lullabies - but that happy little daydream is called into serious question within the first few seconds of Carpet Burns. Of all the myriad ways to kick off an album, I did not expect Trwbador to start with a reference to cunnilingus. At least, that's what it struck me as; I don't know, perhaps those dirty kids from Cars Can Be Blue have left me corrupted and overly eager to jump to perverted conclusions.

Fear not, though, because the toy pianos show up before too long and they're really rather nice. The aforementioned opening track gets things underway with some surprisingly squelchy synthesisers, but what comes afterwards is far closer to the Trwbador I remember from last year's Swn Festival (blimey, that was almost a full twelve months ago now). That means chopped-up acoustic guitar, the occasional glockenspiel, and electronic beats that sometimes sound harsh but never sound mean. After Carpet Burns (which, for all of its eyebrow-raising potential, is actually a really good track) we get Lluniau, which pretty much encapsulates the Trwbador sound I described above, as well as the eighties-influenced Safe and the playfully experimental Red Handkerchiefs. Oh, and Sun in the Winter, which is outstanding:

Trwbador's first five tracks are pretty much beyond reproach as far as I'm concerned; the lyric-writing sometimes gets a little...daft, but the stuff about how Angharad Van Rijswijk has 'holes in every sock' doesn't detract from one's enjoyment of the songs.

Regrettably, the second half of the album doesn't float my boat quite so readily. It still has its high points - most notably Mountain, the album's most danceable moment - but at least two and quite possibly three of those five tracks feel a little aimless, a little too inconsequential. I'm all for a bit of musical messing around, and a couple of instrumental tracks never hurt anyone, but it's better to sprinkle those bits strategically throughout the album than to lump them all together on Side B. Some slightly shrewder sequencing wouldn't have gone amiss here, because it seems like most of the big ideas are over and out of the way by half time. Sun in the Winter needs to be on the other end of this album, for starters; it sounds too climactic for a track three. it better than Furniture?
Mm, no. I feel like this is a kind of primordial release for Trwbador, and what really interests me is what they might do with album number two (this is their debut, right?) Having set out their slightly avant-garde take on Orange advert music here, they'll either use that sound as a springboard for weightier, more fully-realised songwriting...or they'll take an even sharper left turn and get down to some serious studio tinkering. Either way, I reckon it'll be excellent.

Only two albums left, and then we *finally* get a winner. Exciting times, people! Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

WMP Nominees - Metabeats

We'll find out the winner of this year's Welsh Music Prize a week tomorrow, but in the meantime I've still got a few more albums to listen to. I'm doing Caviar Crackle by Metabeats today, but if you're new here, check this page out first.

I don't feel qualified to comment on this album. I did an interview with Metabeats for The Miniature Music Press last year, and I didn't feel qualified for that, either. I think I just asked a lot of quite generic questions (What music do you listen to? Who would you like to collaborate with?) and, fortunately, his answers were colourful enough to draw attention away from my shocking lack of insight.

You see, I'm a bit of a novice when it comes to hip-hop. Of all the hundreds of CDs I've acquired over the years, I can think of six that could reasonably be described as 'rap' albums:
  • The Black Album by Jay-Z
  • Angles by Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip
  • 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul
  • Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast
  • Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty by Big Boi
  • Hot Sauce Committee Part Two by Beastie Boys
Aside from The Lonely Island (who, let's face it, probably don't count) I genuinely think that's the lot.

None of this information is especially relevant to Caviar Crackle; I'm just making excuses for the review you're about to read. You see, there are bits of this album that I really like, but I can't escape the feeling that the whole shebang is somewhat beyond my ken.

Let's start with the stuff I enjoy. It's a very nice-sounding album, for starters; the promised crackle lends the album a nice, warm atmosphere, and a lot of the samples sound very soulful and very seventies. Full marks for sonic appeal, then. The raps are great, too - standout moments include EyeSeeYou (which taught me a lot about the police and their IC codes), Spectacular (which includes a great reference to Ferngully), and Ralph Rip Shit's turn on Music (Part.1), which is just awesome all over. The Bitches is a great listen, too, winning me over in spite of the sliiiightly dubious subject matter.

So what is it about Metabeats that doesn't sit right with me? Well, oddly enough, it's the beats. I realise that I'm setting myself up for a serious tumble here, and it's not the case on every track, but some of these songs just sound off. The last minute of Battery Phunk is a prime example - the snare drum hits seem to show up as and when they please, and it's very difficult to get into that sort of groove.

I've seen this music described as 'swing', but no matter how hard I try I just can't pick out the pattern in some of these beats. Maybe it's deliberate (it's almost definitely deliberate), but I personally find that this lack of rhythmic tightness makes Caviar Crackle a very awkward listen, at least in places. Even EyeSeeYou (hear it in that video up there) doesn't entirely dodge this problem - it's a very difficult track to nod along to. it better than Furniture?
That's the question we're asking now, by the way. Uh, no, it isn't for the reasons highlighted above. Put it down to my non-existent hip-hop chops if you like - I've certainly given you every opportunity to do that here - but at the end of the day, I find parts of this LP genuinely difficult to listen to, and for that, it's not going to get my vote.

However, I should stress that, yes, there are really good bits. The aforementioned Spectacular is a personal favourite, with its hazy flute sounds and one of the most relaxed raps I've ever heard, and The Music has me very curious to check out Ralph Rip Shit's other stuff. And then there's Passport - in that interview, Che Ahmed described the Metabeats sound as 'honest funk', and I feel like that's the best example on show here.

Friday is Trwbador, I think.

Monday, October 7, 2013

WMP Nominees - Race Horses

Hold your (race) horses! If you're not already up-to-date with my ongoing yomp through the Welsh Music Prize shortlist, you'd do well to check out this page first.

I had high hopes for this one. I saw Race Horses live a couple of times before they split up, and while I don't recall anything as specific as how the songs went or what they sounded like, I do distinctly remember having a jolly good time on both occasions. And then there's Lisa Magic a Porfa, a song that Race Horses released when they were still called Radio Luxembourg - I'm rather fond of that particular track (which I heard on a Welsh language compilation called Rwy'n Caru Ciwdod or something like that), and I expected more of the same from Furniture.

And it delivered...sort of. This album is never quite as carefree and childlike as Lisa Magic a Porfa was, but Racy O'Luxemhorses still have a way with great, arresting tunes. At first it seemed like there were only a couple of standouts; it was immediately clear that Mates and Sisters would be right up there with Sure Fire Bet and Between Destinations on the 'Best of the WMP 2013 Shortlist' playlist I'll inevitably end up making when I'm done with all this, but the other tracks weren't so obviously awesome.

But a few spins later and I'm loving the whole darn thing. In a way, I'm actually glad of the differences between this band and the one that recorded Lisa Magic a Porfa; while that song, a sunny burst of fun if ever I heard one, was great on its own, that wide-eyed approach might have grown a little tedious over the course of an entire LP. By contrast, the songs that make up Furniture are more grown-up, more apprehensive, more doubtful, and they hit all the harder for it.

What sounds slightly messy at first soon reveals itself to be an album full of direct hits, serving up track after track of punch, poppy pleasantness. Nobody's Son is insistent and large-sounding, My Year Aroad throbs alluringly, and What Am I To Do seems like a quieter one but then explodes out of the traps when it reaches its chorus. Special mention should go to both the keys player and whoever was in charge of percussion, because as good as the basic tunes are, it's these ear-catching instrumental embellishments that keep me coming back for more. Kudos.

In many ways, Furniture is the album that I wanted Ships to be: jam-packed with different instruments and fun little frills, but underpinned by a slightly more serious atmosphere. Perhaps I had the wrong idea of Sweet Baboo's sound, but either way, it's nice to have old expectations belatedly fulfilled by something completely different. it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?

Yes! There are a couple of tracks I'm not that keen on (namely Bad Blood and See No Green), but as my Praxis Makes Perfect post made clear, that's also true of the Neon Neon album (hello Hoops with Fidel and Listen to the Rainbow). The weird thing about Furniture - and this is one thing that is has in common with the Zervas & Pepper album - is that, while the doubt and the melancholy that I keep mentioning are undeniable, it's kind of difficult to pin down exactly what any of these doubtful and melancholic (but still pretty catchy) songs are about. Perhaps I just need to listen harder, or longer, but if anything, this lack of clarity just makes Furniture's superiority to Praxis... all the more amazing.

Allow me to break it down for you. I first heard Praxis Makes Perfect in April, and since then I've read into its subject matter, been to see a theatrical performance based on the album, and obviously listened to those songs any number of times. I first heard Furniture this morning, and in the space of a day I've gone from not being especially bothered about all but a couple of choice singing the album's praises and being more or less content to hand the Welsh Music Prize to Race Horses right here and now. The remaining four nominees - Little Arrow, Metabeats, Georgia Ruth and Trwbador - have a real mountain to climb now.

In the meantime, congratulations to Furniture, which has shown me that a big, noisy smorgasbord of sounds can sometimes be even better than Gruff Rhys and his cold, crisp synthesisers. It has also impressed me sufficiently to grab that 'current favourite album' slot on the right-hand side of my blog (and a good thing, too, because A Short Album About Love has been sat on that particular throne for far too long now).

I'm still in love with Praxis Makes Perfect, and I would still be thrilled if Neon Neon won the WMP, but what we now have is an album that seems even more deserving of the crown. Come on back on Wednesday to see if Metabeats can beat our new champeens.

Friday, October 4, 2013

WMP Nominees - Zervas & Pepper

My Welsh Music Prize mission has cruised past the halfway mark and, with Swn Festival mere weeks away, I'm picking up speed. As I mentioned on Wednesday, every Album Wall blog post for the next fortnight or so will be WMP-related, so settle in and catch up here if needs be.

If The Diary of Me sounded just like Cardiff, then Lifebringer is the sound of two people who have imagined themselves away from Wales and mentally emigrated to California. Zervas and Pepper sound amazingly similar to the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and that's really rather impressive for a duo from just down the road.

No, it's not the album version, but it's a good example of what I'm talking about.

I like albums with multiple vocalists, and these guys pull the same trick as the Future Bible Heroes did on Partygoing, that is, taking it in turns to do the lead vocals. This keeps things fresh and interesting throughout; Zervas kicks things off with Buffalo Crow (the one in the video above) before Pepper steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park with the very Mitchell-esque Living in a Small Town. Zervas then serves up Jerome, a tasty, cowboyish mini-epic, and so on and so forth. They're very good at their harmonies, of course, so the truly solo moments are few and far between; even so, this friendly album-length duel between two vocalists keeps the listener on his toes quite marvellously.

(Incidentally, how good are 'Zervas' and 'Pepper' as musical duo surnames? I was amazed to find out that that's actually what they're called: Paul Zervas and Kathryn Pepper. They deserve to be bigger than Simon and Garfunkel just for that.)

For my part, I prefer Pepper's voice, but I think that Zervas wins the battle by dint of the quite stunning Sure Fire Bet. Once again, my favourite song on the album is nowhere to be found on YouTube, but it's worth buying Lifebringer for this track alone. It's got a really arresting tune, the chorus is wrapped around a great recurring line ("It's a sure fire bet/I will surrender the closer you get"), and the main riffy sort of thing is strangely reminiscent of Manic Monday by The Bangles. Yeah, you're curious now, aren't you? it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?
It's close, but no cigar. Having to answer this question at the end of every WMP blog I do is increasingly frustrating; I'll listen to a very good album like Lifebringer, find myself pretty much bereft of criticisms to fire at it, and still have to end the review on a sour note because, for all its merits, it doesn't grab me quite as firmly as the Neon Neon album does. It's not like I'm only allowed to enjoy things that are better than every single other thing I've experienced up to that point; imagine finishing a thrilling, thought-provoking book, putting it down with a satisfied sigh, and having your reverie interrupted by somebody yelling, 'yeah, but it's no Hitchhiker's Guide, is it?'

No, Lifebringer isn't The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it still has plenty going for it and very little going against it. Not every track is a Sure Fire Bet, but even the most pedestrian moments have something to offer: whether it's the John Grant-style sci-fi synth solo on Lookout Mountain or the lovely flute parts on Ghost Dancer, there's always something to hold your interest.

I haven't decided which nominee I'm tackling next. Will it be Trwbador? Metabeats? One of the other three artists I haven't gotten 'round to yet? Come back on Monday to find out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

WMP Nominees - Laurence Made Me Cry

As you may well have noticed by now, I'm listening to each Welsh Music Prize-nominated album in turn and blogging my thoughts thereon. You can keep up with my progress on The Album Wall's dedicated Welsh Music Prize 2013 page.

First of all, I would like to say thank you to Jo Whitby - for Laurence Made Me Cry is she - for making The Diary of Me one of them 'pay what you want' albums. I was beginning to worry that purchasing every album necessary for this Welsh Music Prize adventure might well ruin me, and while I do feel a little guilty for not stumping up more than £2, my pockets are certainly glad to have had that option.

Anyway, on to the music. This is a very nice album indeed, and it makes great fodder for a game of 'Who Does This Song Sound Like?' Some tracks sound a bit like The Staves, other songs have a bit of Chairlift running through them. Remedy, the second track, sounds like a Tindersticks spoken word track in the verse and a skittery, post-millennial Radiohead song in the chorus. I could go on.

And in fact I will. Paper Chains is very Björk, while Intelligent Mister Toad reminds me of The Magnetic Fields (their very old stuff, with Susan Anway as lead vocalist instead of Stephin Merritt). You know I've got a raging music boner on when I mention them.

I can't find the album version of Intelligent Mister Toad on YouTube, so here's one of the songs it reminds me of instead. The dreamy atmosphere, the mishmash of sounds drifting in and's very much that sort of thing. Jo's vocals are kind of similar too, although the mix on The Diary of Me is much less murky than this.

I haven't mentioned my two favourites yet. The first - and this one I did manage to find on YouTube - is a beautiful number called Between Destinations. It has that wonderful quality of sounding like something very familiar that you can't quite put your finger on, although if I had to compare it to something, I'd say that it sounds like a 21st century version of the music from Bagpuss. The faux train announcement is a sweet touch, too - speaking as someone who lives in Cardiff, it sounds very much like home.

The other song, which I perhaps like even more, is called A Channeling/Northern Lights. It's the album's penultimate track, and it's one of those songs that just builds up layers of different sounds and, unusually for a gentle folktronica record like this, really gets your body moving. Again, no YouTube clip of this one, so you'll have to use your imagination (or, y'know, get the album). it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?
You know what? It might be. They're very different albums, and I think I'll need a week or so to decide for certain, but the signs are definitely promising. Where Praxis... is a very concise album, bringing the big choruses in bulk and sprinkling them with cold, cold synthesiser ice cubes, The Diary of Me is a nice, warm album that you can really get lost in, and sometimes that's just as enjoyable.

It's odd, really. My WMP odyssey has touched upon five albums so far (not including Praxis Makes Perfect), and my two favourites - this and February by Winter Villains - are also the two softest ones, the two that I expected to be a little bored by. Perhaps I'm just softening in my old age, but this shortlist has done nothing but surprise me so far and I hope it continues to do so.

Incidentally, I'm kicking this little adventure into high gear now that it's October. Every blog post between now and the big announcement will be about a Welsh Music Prize album; come back on Friday for my take on Zervas & Pepper's Lifebringer.