Monthly Archives: November 2012

Album Review: The Staves – Dead & Born & Grown

Watford sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor have made a good fist of their debut album.  With a handful of EPs already behind them, the group have crafted a sound which falls somewhere between alt-country and traditional English folk.  Inspired by Gillian Welch and the literate storytelling of Laura Marling, Dead & Born & Grown should see The Staves propelled further into the public consciousness.

All the elements of humble folksongs are in place: fingerpicked guitars, sandy drums and the occasional organ are all present, but the real appeal lies in the way that the sisters unite to deliver such rich harmonies.  Their tightly-wound vocals are instantly foregrounded on opener Wisely & Slow, as verses are sung untouched by additional instrumentation for over a minute.  Consequently, you’ll be sure from the off whether or not this kind of music is your cup of tea.

Although it isn’t immune to retreating into overly-safe territory, for the most part, Dead & Born & Grown is a sumptuous treat for the ears.  Gone Tomorrow is an exquisite shuffle which progresses into a rapturous display of vocal talent, but the real riches are found when The Staves allow a chill to permeate the warm atmospheres.  Winter Trees churns into an enchanting, rhythmic gallop, and the campfire stomp of Tongue Behind My Teeth brings a touch of spooky drama to the album’s latter half.

This rustic musical style is matched by tales of burgeoning relationships and pastoral tribulations, with the romance of golden rivers and snowy landscapes blotted by an undertone of melancholia.  It’s not all vividly drawn, and occasionally some songs feel a mite too safe to really make their mark (for all their musical prettiness, Facing West and the title track are a touch too anodyne), but when The Staves allow the sparks to fly, the results can be dazzling.  If they can hone their talents for future releases, it’ll be intriguing to see what direction they choose to take next.

Beautiful in its simplicity, and filled with sublime textures, Dead & Born & Grown is a warm and comforting collection, tailor-made to accompany the winter season.

7/10

“Holy Moses, everybody’s gone, packed up and moving on.”

20/11/2012

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Album Review: Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man

Originally published on Unpublished: A Young Writers’ Literary Journal.  My first contribution to the website, I’ll be reviewing an album and submitting creative pieces on Unpublished monthly from now on.  I hope you enjoy the first album review for the journal – definitely check it out for a great source of material from talented young writers: http://unpublishedjournal.co.uk/?page=review

Setting out to make a “stripped-back” record can turn out to be a poisoned chalice for some artists.  Removing excessive elements can unclutter the space and present a more refined style, but go too far and they risk losing what had their audiences captivated in the first place.  When the third album of Natasha Khan’s Bat For Lashes was announced as being a much more restrained affair than her two eye-popping first albums, there were concerns that she would flounder without the elaborate productions of old backing her.

But satisfyingly, the spacious, deliberate The Haunted Man makes for sumptuous listening.  There are frequent moments of transcendence which are devastating in their simplicity (just listen to the album’s first single Laura, in which that voice is joined only by a funereal piano and flutters of woodwind), but Khan hasn’t abandoned her taste for dramatics.  The Haunted Man is a theatrical listen, with the sweeping landscapes painted by Khan’s lyrics complemented with a spooky, widescreen aesthetic.

Inspired by artists including Patti Smith, Khan has crafted a captivating third record which is quite possibly her strongest yet: art-pop dressed in a tasteful mixture of rustic instrumentation and electronics.  Thematically, The Haunted Man never definitively adheres to one particular focal point, but it mostly seems to follow individuals haunted and burdened by the effects of war, bound in a wintry depiction of pastoral England.  Winter Fields evokes its titular image via archaic strings and wind instruments, as Khan paints a vivid scene of a family “hurtling through heavy snow”.  Elsewhere, the title track corrals a multitude of male singers in a battle-march which sounds like a reaction to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake.

On paper, the lyrics seem stark and simple, but Khan breathes life and poignancy into her raw writing, transforming unassuming lines into moments offering vivid imagery.  “You’re the train that crashed my heart,” she professes during Laura, before sighing that “your tears feel hot on my bedsheets”.  Her confessionals also seem much more direct on this outing, especially when her operatic voice is finally let loose in a manner which may draw comparisons to Florence Welch.  Yet Khan never lets the bombast get the best of her, only unleashing her full potential sporadically, in order to maximise the emotional impact.  Opener Lilies is a triumph of songwriting, building from its pared-down opening to a breathtakingly open-chested cry of “thank God I’m alive”.

Occassionally, as beneath Marilyn’s dystopian sheen, the lyrics can become disappointingly vague, resulting in the grandeur of several moments feeling somewhat hollow.  But as the album progresses, and the electronic elements gradually begin to take over, one begins to forgive these shortcomings and instead notice the tiny details of wonder.  The album never quite reaches a conclusive catharsis, but as Khan breathes “baby, let your scream come” over the ethereal waves of Deep Sea Diver, she hints that there is hope glimmering on the horizon.  And ultimately, for all its inventive musicality and its beautifully-rendered darkness and despair, the quiet promise of eventual peace is what makes The Haunted Man such a powerful listen.

8/10

“Thank God I’m alive.”

01/11/2012

Film Review: Holy Motors

Even though I’m now twenty years old, I still wanted to go trick-or-treating this Halloween.  Instead, I ended up spending part of the evening at the cinema watching Leos Carax’s fifth feature-length film, which fittingly enough revolved around ideas of disguise and performativity, suiting the occasion well.  And even though I didn’t get any free Haribo with the film, it was enough of an event that I didn’t really mind.

To get right down to it, Holy Motors is completely bizarre.  The action takes place over the course of one day in the life of the cryptic Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven around Paris in a stretch limousine by his close colleague Céline (Édith Scob).  His purpose is to stop off at nine so-called “appointments” at different locations in the city, and for each one, Monsieur Oscar adopts a different disguise, and in turn, a new identity.  If this sounds a little off-kilter, just wait until you see what some of these appointments entail: keep your fingers clenched in preparation for what goes down in the third…

I don’t want to reveal too much in this review, given that watching Holy Motors with fresh eyes is a much more rewarding experience than being spoon-fed particular inferred interpretations.  If you haven’t seen the film, suffice to say it’s a unique and brilliant watch, and you’re probably better off finishing here and coming back to the rest of this review after you’ve actually seen it for yourself.  There’s no guarantee that you’ll definitively love or hate the film, but it’s definitely worth watching if only because there’s been little else like it released in recent memory.

For one thing, it’s consistently surprising.  Throughout the film, Carax keeps reshuffling the pacing, unpredictably lurching from scenes of startling violence to moments as sombre and gentle as witnessing a man on his deathbed.  Like his film’s central character, Carax incorporates many conflicting styles and tropes into his work, equally favouring a livewire fervour and a delicate sense of pathos.  Everything is given a strange Lynchian twist, and even a cameo from Kylie Minogue (as a fellow limo passenger) is handled deftly, with a musical scene delivered with gravitas rather than with a cheesy, knowing wink.

It’s all tied up marvellously in Lavant’s engaging, enthralling performance.  Even amid all the bizarre occurrences of Monsieur Oscar’s working day, Lavant never totally hams it up (even when does transform into a flower-munching goblin), and it’s during the quiet moments in the limousine, as Oscar exchanges thoughts with his driver (imbued with a subtle melancholy by Scob) that the film hits hardest, with the weary Oscar questioning the consequences of his actions upon others and himself.

In a film rich in potential for interpretations and discourses, it’s a mercy that Carax never lets things fall into an existentialist sludge.  Beneath that eccentric exterior lies a sense of dark playfulness, realised in several moments of dry, deadpan humour, and in moments of arresting imagery, when a marriage is formed between the absurd and the beautiful.  One scene in particular involves mo-capped lovemaking, and it’s weird and wonderful in equal measure as the figures glitter like constellations in the middle of such a rudimentary act.

It’s not for everyone, but Holy Motors should be applauded if only for its audacity.  Whether you see it as a treatise on acting, on cinema, or on life, the universe and everything, you can’t deny the skill with which such a strange array of elements have been corralled into a cohesive and frequently dazzling whole.

9/10

Unhinged yet sophisticated, bizarre yet beautiful, Holy Motors is an accessible slice of art-house cinema which will leave your head bustling, both with arresting imagery, and with admiration for the conviction of Carax and Lavant.

10/11/2012

Live Review: Spiritualized

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, 04/11/2012

Support: Roy And The Devil’s Motorcycle

In the liner notes of their 1997 masterpiece Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the music of Spiritualized is coined as something “to treat the heart and soul”.  As a huge fan of that album in particular, and feeling a little disjointed after a short-lived visit to the homeland, I approached Spiritualized’s performance on Sunday night with a keen anticipation.  Surely the warm sounds of the gospel-tinged rock group would be an uplifting way to conclude a weekend?

First onstage at the Butterworth Hall was the bizarrely-named psychedelic group Roy And The Devil’s Motorcycle, whose strung-out guitar exercises leapt between slowly contemplative and biting.  Their performance offered some interesting sounds (and the drummer’s haircut was ridiculously entertaining), but they never felt genuinely engaging, a fact which wasn’t helped along by the fact that the Butterworth Hall was half-empty during their set.Image  That said, a sizeable portion of the venue was still empty when Spiritualized arrived a short while later, and the fact that the venue was so spacious and sparsely-filled made it kind of tricky to feel any surges of excitement.

His expression inscrutable behind his characteristic dark glasses, Jason Pierce spent the entire event perched on a stool stage-left, performing with an almost-detached quality.  Given his recent battle with liver disease, one can forgive him for not having exuded charisma in spades, but it was a shame that he displayed little-to-no stage presence.  Not a word was offered to the audience for the duration of the set, and while this wasn’t exactly heartbreaking, it did make the performance seem a little aloof and inaccessible, as if we were watching from a distance.

All the same, the gig began on a very strong note.  After a wall of reverb-laden guitars announced the band’s arrival, the huge screen lining the back of the stage flashed images of a bustling city as Pierce and co. launched into the gospel chug of Hey Jane.  Followed up by a ferocious rendition of 1997’s Electricity, it was an amp-crackling opening which set a high benchmark for the remainder of the evening to live up to.

From there, however, the pace sagged as the band began to perform a plethora of mid-tempo numbers from 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light.  While some were pulled off nicely (the fluttering pianos of Too Late were really quite lovely, and in a live capacity, Little Girl transformed into a tastefully funky shuffle), the concert quickly became Imagerepetitious and slightly tiresome, with little variation to the formula to elicit surprise as their most recent album was played from start-to-finish.  Admittedly, I do find it annoying when people complain that bands won’t “play the classics” at live performances, but the prevailing ignorance of songs from Ladies And Gentlemen… and Lazer Guided Melodies did give off the impression of flippancy.  While the new material is largely strong and evocative, on stage it felt a mite too inoffensive, and I started to wish for a little more from the group’s 1990s output to get an airing.

Even in the more blustery moments, the musicians didn’t seem to invest any real passion into the music (with the exception of the lead guitarist, who looked like he was having a whale of a time during the squall of Headin’ For The Top Now), which was strangely at odds with the nature of the band’s music.  With their songs traditionally so heart-on-sleeve, it was disappointing that the emotional potential of these songs was never fully realised.  It wasn’t until the later outings of So Long You Pretty Thing and the spectacular light show that accompanied Take Your Time that the music started to offer something beyond mere prettiness, helped along by an increase in guitar skronking towards the gig’s climax.

Still, half of those in attendance were really getting into things, with the left-hand-side of the mass in particular bobbing and cheering along to every song on offer.  This could be my bad: perhaps if I was more of a die-hard fan, the gig would have made much more sense and been a lot more enjoyable as an experience.  But as a casual listener, it was merely a pleasant way of spending an evening, with nothing quite reaching the euphoric or life-affirming standards left by other concerts, or for that matter, left by listening to the group’s albums back on the stereo.

Setlist

Spiritualized

(Instrumental)* // Hey Jane // Electricity // Get What You Deserve // Little Girl // Too Late // Headin’ For The Top Now // Freedom // I Am What I Am // Mary // Life Is A Problem // So Long You Pretty Thing // Another Man’s Crime* // Part The Clouds* // Take Your Time // (Instrumental)*.  All I Wanna Do* // (Instrumental)*

*I’m not entirely sure of the titles of these pieces, so I’ve just popped in the lyrics that cropped up.

06/11/2012

Live Review: Beach House

Camden Roundhouse, London, 02/11/2012

Support: Holy Other

Before I get down to talking about the gig itself, I feel like I should make my feelings about Beach House clear.  Almost every individual I know holds a particular artist or band closer to their hearts than anything else they listen to.  Somehow, the sound of that one specific group provokes a profound emotional reaction in them which little else can replicate.  For some people that I’ve spoken to, The Smiths hit that magical note; for others it’s The Beatles, or anything from Laura Marling to Adele.  Whatever your taste, you might know what I’m banging on about here.  (If not, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs to get straight onto the live review.)

For me, although they aren’t the band that I find myself most excited by, nor the most technically inspiring or influential, Beach House have always had me totally and utterly hypnotised.  Ever since I first heard Zebra in 2010, I’ve found that the music of the Baltimore duo consistently affects and touches me like little else on the market.  Alex Scally’s guitar lines are as graceful as diving swans, even at their most simplistic; and there are few singers in the industry as powerful as Victoria Legrand, whose songwriting treads a perfect balance between euphoric and devastatingly sad.

Most of all, their music sounds so personal.  When Legrand sings, it feels as though she sings directly to you, and even in venues such as the five-thousand-capacity Camden Roundhouse, their performances still feel intimate, as if the group are playing specially for you, and you alone.  I suppose it also helps that I’m a little bit in love with Legrand, but you get the idea.  Now I’ve made that clear, you can guess how excited I was on Friday night when me and my friend Ollie took the train from Leamington to catch them at the Roundhouse.  Let the review commence!

I managed to bagsy a spot front-and-centre in the circular arena, making friends with Chris and Andrew – two avid dream-pop fans – right in front of the stage.  The issue was, from here, things didn’t get off to a great start.  The enigmatic producer behind Holy Other (I even tried to do some research, and the only thing I can confirm about Holy Other is that he is from Manchester) is undeniably a talented musician, who can conjure some hauntingly unsettling atmospheres, but for my money, he made for an absolutely awful opening act.  There’s nothing wrong with keeping things chilled, but when your job is to get a crowd warmed up, having zero stage presence (he didn’t so much as glance at the audience once during his set) is jarring.  In fact, he nearly looked as bored as some of the crowd members, some of whom had – and I have photos to prove this – fallen asleep, slouching on the barriers for much of his ‘performance’.  I did appreciate the spooky trip-hop atmospheres which flowed and swirled for forty-five minutes, but as good as the sounds were, they were completely out of place for an opening act, and drained the audience’s enthusiasm where they should have boosted it.

Thank God, then, that Beach House’s performance was everything I was hoping it to be.  From the second Legrand, Scally and touring drummer Daniel Franz clambered onstage, every iota of energy and electricity sapped by Holy Other returned to the crowd in a flash.  Scally looked like a magician-for-hire in his black overcoat as he lifted his Stratocaster, and although there were a few minor sound issues during the towering Wild, everything was resolved by the emotional gut-punch of Walk In The Park.  Legrand’s voice quickly warmed after a slightly husky opening, and by the time she delivered an incredible rendition of the big-lunged Heart Of Chambers, I was pure putty.  I like to think I don’t gush that much, but every time her eyes fell on me in the front rows, my legs felt unsteady.

In a live capacity, the songs felt heavier than they do on record, largely due to the presence of the live drumkit and Franz’s un-showy pounding.  Also, in the livelier moments of the set, Legrand would swish her head up and down in a manner surprisingly close to headbanging: through the driving rhythms of The Hours, she transformed into a blur of frizzy hair.  Their set pulled mostly from Teen Dream and Bloom, although it was a joyous moment when Legrand announced the arrival of “a very old song”, the gentle shuffle of Master Of None, which sounds even better six years on, with Legrand’s broadened vocal range.

The set flowed so beautifully that even during a technical hiccup (wherein On The Sea was paused for several minutes due to a guitar feed fault), the smoothness of the concert was barely affected in the slightest.  “Thank you for your kindness, all of you,” Legrand called after the encouraging applause which followed the completed version, before breaking into the psychedelic trance of New Year.  The highlight, though, came just a few minutes later, when Legrand took a few minutes to address the crowd further, thanking us for our hospitality, while Scally and Franz played some corny music to drown her out.  “These guys get impatient when I get sentimental,” Legrand sighed with a smile.  “They get pissed off.”  She then announced they were about to play a special rendition of Zebra in gratitude, and I may or may not have become slightly misty during that song’s delicate sweep.

The gig went on to close perfectly, winding down with the aching Take Care, and during the encore of 10 Mile Stereo, the stage exploded in a frantic display of red lights which damn near reduced me to an ecstatic epileptic fit.  (I should quickly mention that this gig’s lighting was some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.)  With one final thank-you, the band crowned their show with the majestic Irene, its climactic two minutes crashing over the crowd like tidal waves.  And then they were off, disappearing back into their mysterious world, and leaving the Roundhouse cheering.

When I finally arrived home off the Waterloo train at about 1:30am (fittingly enough, just as Home Again sounded on my iPod), I was still glowing with warmth.  In my life, there will be many other bands I’ll fall in love with, but it will take something very special indeed to top Beach House.

Setlist

Beach House

Wild // Walk In The Park // Norway // Other People // Lazuli // Heart Of Chambers // Used To Be // Master Of None // Silver Soul // The Hours // On The Sea // New Year // Zebra // Wishes // Take Care // Myth.  Real Love // 10 Mile Stereo // Irene.

04/11/2012