Public Service Broadcasting: The Race For Space, released February 2015

Public Service Broadcasting are an electronic and acoustic duo, ‘on a mission to entertain and educate’. By combining the original recordings of speeches and commentaries with different musical settings they create a variety of involving and atmospheric pieces. Careful crafting of the voices meld perfectly with the sentiments of the added music. It is not the normal expectation that a song will inform you of historical or cultural events, but here we get the full rundown of the competition in the 1960s and 70s between Russia and America to get people into space and on the Moon.
The prologue is John F. Kennedy’s stirring 1962 speech setting out plans for the future Moon landings over a background of ethereal voices, then the electronic pulsing of ‘Sputnik’ evokes the worldwide excitement of the first satellite. ‘Gagarin’ is a lively brass-funk workout, released as a single, then the optimistic mood is brought down with ‘Fire In The Cockpit’ reminding us of the fatal dangers always present in the early days of space. ‘The Other Side’ is brooding and tense electronica with commentaries from the Apollo 8 mission into lunar orbit. ‘Valentina’ commemorates the first woman in space with gentle strings and acoustic guitar and the heavenly floating vocals of Smoke Fairies, who will be accompanying PSB on their upcoming tour. At last it is ‘Go!’, building genuine excitement in music and words as Apollo 11 finally lands on the Moon. ‘Tomorrow’ uses a looser structure to end the album on a speculative note, finally playing out with layers of keyboard, drifting off into space of course (a nod to the end of Holst’s Planets Suite?)

In concert they combine the sampled audio with live playing and visuals, I am looking forward to it…..

Blossoms, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 18 February 2015

The Vryll Society are an accomplished five-piece band from Liverpool, their spacious sound occupying territory from The Cure to The Stone Roses with many points inbetween. Long songs allow the mood of each to develop, no instrument pushing forward too much, as if the sound is approaching from a long distance away to gradually immerse the listener. The lead singer has an enigmatic anti-presence on stage, but he is still a hypnotic focal point. They appear to be named after a mystical energy force, which perhaps they have secretly harnessed??

Blossoms, another quintet, named after a pub in their home town of Stockport, have an unstoppable energy force all of their own, a poppy/indie/retro combination starting from the first song, the confident ‘You Pulled A Gun On Me’. Swirling organ and strong three-part harmonies add to the attractive mix and amiable frontman Tom Ogden bonds well with the audience. The stage was bathed in eerie blue light for the more acoustic and mellow ‘My Favourite Room’, then ‘Scattered Rain’ was particularly impressive, a bit different and changing direction all the time. ‘Cut Me And I’ll Bleed’ and the closing single ‘Blow’ are catchy and straight into the memory receptors. After this extensive UK tour they are off to Japan soon, on tonight’s showing I’m sure there are great things in store…

Wave Pictures, released February 2015

A track by track review of Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon, the sixth studio album from Indie trio The Wave Pictures. I am a big fan of the 2013 double album ‘City Forgiveness’ and after a few listens and seeing them live this one is different, but right up there too.

1. Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon. What a great opener, driving bass and drums, surreal and evocative lyric, imagine driving through the desert at night. This track features rhythm guitar from cult artist Billy Childish, the main collaborator and co-writer on this album.
2. I Could Hear The Telephone(3 Floors Above Me). This was the first song played when I saw the band recently, now released as a single. This track highlights the trademark guitar of Dave Tattersall along with some Beatle-esque flourishes and words of minor domestic paranoia. It works its way into your head and stays there.
3. Katie. A solid bass riff from Franic Rozycki, generally a bit heavier and intense, relieved with a bit of glockenspiel. Another two animals in the lyrics, there are a lot on this album…
4. At Dusk You Took Down The Blinds. The title says it all, a quiet love song, gradually turning in on itself. Sparse guitar and light drumming, very effective.
5. All The Birds Lined Up Dot Dot Dot. A rolling bass and guitar and interlocking drum patterns from Jonny Helm. Again the lyric has a feel of (gently) impending doom.
6. Frogs Sing Loudly In The Ditches. Followed by ‘…dragonflies hover overhead’, a title inspired by a mild warning sign at a country hotel! A bit of Half Man Half Biscuit sentiment creeping in here lyrically and plenty going on musically.
7. Sinister Purpose. The first of two cover versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, a rocky edge to this one.
8. Green River. More bluesy this time, with lots of harmonica added to the mood.
9. Fake Fox Fur Pillowcase. Another catchy original, one of my favourites featuring personal insecurities described over big chords and hefty bass and drums.
10. The Fire Alarm. A similar pounding feel to this track, with nightmarish images of nature and instead of the phone ringing it is now the fire-alarm that disturbs.
11. The Goldfish. A superb showcase for the bass, a strong chorus and the singer again mildly tortured, this time by a deserted room and a disquieting fish.
12. We Fell Asleep In The Blue Tent. Juju Claudius adds contrasting backing vocals to this intricate tale of growing up. A summery and nostalgic set of images.
13. Pea Green Coat. The first single from the album, harmonica and sharp chords give it a Wilko Johnson vibe and make the garment in the title sound as cool as it could possibly be.

Bob Dylan : Shadows In The Night, released February 2015

As a long-time fan of Bob Dylan, it is always good to receive another album into the collection. But will this one join the esteemed ranks of ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ (1964), ‘Blood On The Tracks’ (1975), ‘Desire’ (1976), ‘Slow Train Coming’ (1979), ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997), ‘Love And Theft’ (2001), ‘Modern Times’ (2006) and from the Bootleg Series I would add ‘Volume 4: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ 1966 Concert’ and ‘Volume 5: Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue’ ?
Against the general opinion I am also a strong supporter of ‘Christmas In The Heart’, Bob’s charity seasonal cover versions from 2009. Christmas would not be the same without it…

That Christmas album may be some sort of starting point for his new disc, ‘Shadows In The Night’, a set of smoky, late-night versions of songs that were part of Frank Sinatra’s repertoire. I had accepted the evolution of his voice down an ever deepening gravel path but this album seems to reverse that and he is back to a more flowing, smoother singing style. Each song is a conventional statement of love or loss, though often with the lyrical twists inherent in some standards of the genre. Bob could easily have contributed his own compositions in this style, he has many examples, such as ‘Make You Feel My Love’, a low-profile but emotional highlight from 1997 (later turned into a global mega-seller by Adele), but this themed covers collection works very well.

Opener ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’ slides in gently with pedal-steel guitar and sets a subtle musical tone with minimal instrumentation that carries on through the whole disc. Cleverly titled ‘The Night We Called It A Day’ steps up the pace almost imperceptibly, followed by the more stately stride of ‘Stay With Me’, released as a single. Lose yourself in the long introduction and the unbearably sad lyric of ‘Autumn Leaves’, enjoy the relaxed mood of ‘Why Try To Change Me Now’ and the well-known ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. The evocative mystical minor chords of ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ and the understated desperation of ‘What’ll I Do’. And two more for you to discover…

I don’t think it will quite join my list above, but it is a fine, atmospheric, intimate and emotionally-charged album, superbly played and sung.

Wave Pictures, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 4 February 2015

Another strong line-up for a sold out evening at The Portland, starting with Ben Garnet, otherwise known as The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, a regular in Cambridge (and on this site) with his guitar/random sounds/voice/laptop combination. A large audience was already in the venue, reacting well to the electronica, triggered effects and manipulated vocals of hours of painstaking studio crafting being let loose to run free in the live performance. Older songs ‘Testing the Theory…’ and ‘See This Through’ sound as good as ever as does the heavy bass and denser instrumentation of new track ‘False Economy’. Apparently new experiments in stereo are pushing the capacity of the laptop (Bill) beyond its limits but it looks like this creative partnership will run and run.

Five piece Cambridge band Violet Woods are featured elsewhere on this site and it was good to see that their live versions of tracks from the debut album have grown in stature. It was a nicely paced set, contrasting the dark mysteries of ‘Electric Fascination’ with the simpler pastoral pleasures of ‘Here’ and ‘Driftwood Royalty’. The band musically blends moody 12-string electric guitar with bold retro organ notes as second guitar, bass and drums all make a major contribution. The finale of the album and live set is ‘The River’ an epic track with a haunting vocal from Xavier Watkins, then eventually all the instruments break loose, with feedback and the drum kit flayed until it sounds like it is being thrown down the stairs…

The Wave Pictures are a likeable and unassuming trio, their sparse tight sound and onstage interplay creates a captivating and engrossing show. Having formed in 1998, they have recorded many albums as themselves or collaborations with a variety of performers, also they have covered songs by cult outsider American singer Daniel Johnston.
Complex lyrics featuring relationships, domestic trivia, assorted wildlife and name checks of Johnny Cash, Tracey Emin and The Real Slim Shady(!) are delivered mainly by guitarist Dave Tattersall with drummer Jonny Helm leading on some songs. Along with bassist Franic Rozycki the band are accomplished musicians, their trademark indie rock is clear sounding and intricate guitar solos interspersed with busy basslines and solid drums.
There are also departures in musical styles, the polyrhythmic shuffle of ‘Before This Day’ was an early highlight. At times I was reminded of the minimal relaxed sound and lyrical concerns of Jonathan Richman, another live performer with the ability to have the audience losing themselves in his unique musical world. Soon to be released album Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon featured strongly, then the show ended with requests, all warmly received by the very attentive audience.

The War On Drugs, released March 2014

A retrospective track by track review of ‘Lost In The Dream’ by The War On Drugs, one of the most acclaimed albums of 2014.

1. Under The Pressure. Distant percussion, guitars fade in and out then suddenly it kicks off with piano and the full band sound. We are in for a long opener, as with so many tracks on this album there is plenty of time and space to develop the ideas. Adam Granduciel adds a Dylanesque vocal to a simple chord structure and over the nearly nine minutes there are instrumental twists galore.

2. Red Eyes. The first single when the album was released. A bit more up tempo and sparse, romping along over a pulsing drum then bursting into extra life.

3. Suffering. A haunting but simple statement of love or acceptance, again the length of track allows time for a heavily treated guitar line to bookend the wistful vocal, all reminiscent of late-period Roxy Music.

4. An Ocean In Between The Waves. The musical centrepiece of the album, the singer travelling on musically and lyrically as the cryptically described relationship turns sour over a driving beat and gradual introduction of walls of synthesiser and unrelenting guitar solos.

5. Disappearing. A more relaxing feel to this one, the distant sentiment in the words somehow captured by the floating guitar and repeating piano motif. This whole album sounds so lovingly crafted, every instrumental cameo perfectly placed.

6. Eyes To The Wind. A Waterboys-style big sound pervades this story of moving on, it is energetic and lyrically dense, before playing out gracefully with a saxophone break.

7. The Haunting Idle. An echoing guitar instrumental interlude, could almost be Pink Floyd in 1975, effectively acting as an introduction to….

8. Burning. A recurring repeated piano note, wide-sweeping lyrics and a neat structure with chorus sections make this one of the most accessible songs on the album.

9. Lost In The Dream. A quieter contemplative track, gentle chords and nostalgic imagery.

10. In Reverse. The epic finale, vocal lines over free-form guitar textures, then the band maintain a solid calm backing for the words of regret and impending darkness. The song ends quietly as it began and fades away into the waves…

Recommendation : Brute Chorus/James Brute

I first saw The Brute Chorus when they were one of the many attractions at the Cambridge ‘Wish You Were Here’ one-day festival in 2010. The venue was the pre-expansion gig room at The Portland Arms, the perfect setting for the up-close intensity and involvement of a genuinely original act.

It may have been a conventional line-up of drums, guitar/keyboards and bass but somehow the treated guitar twisted and changed to counterpoint the vocal stylings of singer James Steel. Blues, rockabilly, psychedelia and indie-pop; it was all in there with the added bonus of lyrical mini-operas involving death, classical and mythological characters, somehow given a wry retelling with a musical backdrop as sharp as a flick-knife. Their debut album, recorded in a live setting at the Roundhouse was sold in a hand-made wooden sleeve and it is splendid stuff indeed (standout tracks were the opener ‘Hercules’ and the paranoid brooding of ‘Chateau’. And probably the rest of the album too).

The second CD ‘How The Caged Bird Sings’ was more introspective but equally effective, the tracks ‘Could This Be Love?’ and ‘Heaven’ were both great pop songs. ‘(This Christmas) Bury Me In Hawaii’ was a dark seasonal recording, then another single, a support slot at Shepherds Bush Empire……and suddenly they were playing a ‘final’ gig and saying goodbye to many disappointed fans.

But all is not lost, James Steel has reinvented himself as James Brute, he has new recordings (including ‘Bury Yourself’, with a video performed inside a coffin..?!) and he is playing live again……