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……

Alvvays, debut album released July 2014

One of the best albums of 2014, the self-titled debut by Canadian five-piece Indie-rock band Alvvays. An end of the year track by track review…

1. Adult Diversion. A sliding bass and drums introduces this carefully crafted gem, quickly followed by shimmering guitar then singer Molly Rankin’s opening line ‘How do I get close to you…?’ There are so many clever goings-on in this song, short guitar tricks, drum rolls, there is something new in every listen.

2. Archie, Marry Me. Distant bird song, a simple guitar figure hanging in the air and we are into the best-known track on the album. The lyric is open to interpretation but the title/hook line is very strong. Underneath the band blend guitar and some solid keyboard into a perfect pop single, hopefully destined to be played as the couple walk down the aisle at alternative weddings…

3. Ones Who Love You. The opening song when I saw the band live, this is a grower. Deep keyboards to the fore, under lots of constant and non-repeating guitar lines. Molly’s voice with echo, dreamy and restrained in the mix,’When the wheels come off, I’ll be an astronaut, I’ll be lost in space…’

4. Next of Kin. Another brilliant single from the album, on the surface the unusual ‘controversial’ subject matter is warning against taking drugs before swimming…. When Molly sings ‘I left my love in the river’, never has a song about accidental drowning sounded so good. It is all sung over a busy background of jaunty guitar, driven along like a classic Blondie song. ‘No colour to his skin, inform the next of kin’, a dire warning indeed…

5. Party Police.
A change of tempo, slabs of keyboard underpin a plaintive and at times desperate lyric about an unbalanced relationship. Or is it?

6. The Agency Group. Another mid-tempo song, another ambiguous relationship. It is a strong melody with a lovely hook line ‘When you whisper you don’t think of me that way, when I mention you don’t mean that much to me…’

7. Dives. An intriguing lyric over an immersive electronic sound with chiming guitar make this one of the more experimental tracks, with rewards each time you hear it.

8. Atop a Cake. This song forms a nice triptych with the opening two tracks, a pure confection of quick moving summer guitar pop, but again with the dark lyrical undertone of relationship difficulties.

9. Red Planet. A surprise closing song with electronic instrumental sound only, the haunting vocal performance and impressionistic lyrics drift into your consciousness and stay there.

As does the rest of the album..

Psychic Lemon, The Grapes, Cambridge, 13 Dec 2014

I saw Psychic Lemon playing recently at the Mill Road Winter Fair, an event that is one of Cambridge’s best kept secrets. It was a challenge to entertain at 11am in freezing conditions in the car park in the shade of the railway bridge but the appreciative crowd gradually grew and stayed. The Grapes on a Saturday evening was a more comfortable prospect, a welcoming pub with stage and dance floor at one end, bathed in red and green spots of light throughout.

They opened with ‘Dilator’, a strong statement of dual guitar, pulsing bass and drums (interesting to see an electronic drum kit). As in many of the songs tonight, the vocals are often short and to the point, the sound is dominated by a compendium of guitar effects recreating and updating the psychedelic vibe, usually establishing longer instrumental passages.

‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ and ‘Skin’ strayed into dance funk territory with some shades of Talking Heads, the amiable Grapes audience responded by being far more animated than Cambridge audiences can tend to be. Some songs showed darker, claustrophobic edges, the bass becoming more anguished and prominent in the mix as the set proceeded. Final song was TiCkToC, already released as a single and blending many of the elements from the other songs into a satisfying whole.

To quote from Psychic Lemon themselves….

‘The band got together at the end of 2013, everyone looking for a new musical challenge — to write and play the music they want to play, and not be held back by the expectations of others. However, if other people like it too, then that’s great: The band’s goal is to entertain without compromise.’

On the evidence so far, this seems to be happening…

Fat Cat Records 2014 Compilation

End of year sampler CD from Brighton based record label Fat Cat Records….

1. Traams ‘Selma’ Good opener, punchy drumming, spiky guitar and forlorn vocal giving way to a singalong chorus. The lyric is a bit deranged, the sound a bit retro and all over too quickly.
2. Mazes ‘Astigmatism’ My favourite track on this disc, the lead song from the third Mazes album. A rolling riff, punctuated with some strange backward sounding guitar lines and intriguing words about obscured vision and devotion. ‘You are a winning quiz team, you are a morning sun…..beam’
3.The Growlers ‘Big Toe’ A 5-piece band from California, describing their sound as ‘beach goth’. This is a jaunty pop song, jangling guitar belying a lyric of post-relationship dislike. Quite intense dislike really. ‘Her love’s so uncomfortable, she strikes down like a hammer on your big toe’ and plenty more…
4. Paws ‘Owl Talons Clenching My Heart’ A great title from this Glasgow trio and another difficult relationship in the lyrics. Super-low thumping bass and fuzzy distorted vocal with a frequent chorus line packs a strong punch. It reminds me of The Wytches, another dark but sensitive trio.
5. The Twilight Sad ‘There’s a Girl in the Corner’ Formed in 2003 and described by one reviewer as ‘perennially unhappy Scottish indie band’ this is another tale of love gone wrong, with the repeated phrase ‘she’s not coming back’ over layers of stadium keyboards and booming drums. Quite addictive in an unrelenting way.
6. C Duncan ‘Silence and Air’ New Scottish talent Chris Duncan with a meld of vocal and distant choral effects over a soothing multi-layered instrumental background.
7. Vashti Bunyan ‘Across the Water’ Recording her first album in 1970, influential folk legend Vashti Bunyan restarted her music career 35 years later. This new release from her 2014 album Heartleap is a lovely song. Gentle acoustic guitar, flute sounds and strings float by, blended with her ethereal voice, taking the listener to another place and time.
8. Tlaotlon ‘Myriade’ A contrast to what has come before, this is frenetic electronica samples and loops. A challenging listen, any logical patterns or structure dismantled as quickly as they arrive.
9. Gentle Friendly ‘Shake Up’. Not sure about this one, some electronic drones, drums and vocal from this London-based duo. Claustrophobic and a bit relentless, I may have to listen to a few more of their recordings.
10. Honeyblood ‘Super Rat’. This is more like it, Number 20 in the NME Top 50 tracks of 2014 and not even the best track on their album. The two members of Honeyblood make a rich dense sound with just guitar and drums and certainly do not hold back on the lyrical vitriol, ending with ‘I will hate you forever, you really do disgust me’. For the brighter side of HB, see my live review on this site…
11. We Were Promised Jetpacks ‘Safety in Numbers’. Nostalgic band name, sound and song. So many influences here, it starts with a pure voice and keyboard weaving around then bursts into life with a big Indie rock flourish, well honed since their debut album in 2009.

Violet Woods, released Nov 2014

Track by track review of the recent self-titled LP/CD from Cambridge band Violet Woods. An adventure in indie psychedelia…..

1. Electric Fascination. A strong, brooding opening track. The shimmering 12-string guitar figure opens the song then persists through variations as the echoing vocal competes. It is a walk through the trees (woods) on the LP sleeve with occasional glimpses of the brighter sky.
2. Over the Ground. A companion piece to track 1, again with a sinister guitar phrase dominating, backed with descending organ and vocal layers. A fuzzed electric guitar solo takes us to an abrupt end.
3. Here. A resolution to the first two songs, an optimistic pop song with a heartfelt statement of contentment. A simple and affecting lyric, the title barely mentioned but the sentiment very clear. Uplifting guitar lines and well judged sustained keyboards.
4. The Dancer. Appropriately titled, a bit funky this one, when played live it is an energetic high point of the show. Skips around at first, light touch on the bass, then from nowhere a big noisy finale.
5. Take Your Time. A low key ballad, but definitely a grower. Singer Xavier Watkins delivers one of his best vocals on the album, plaintive and subtle. Guitar, drums and organ given plenty of time to build on a repeated phrase at the end.
6. What I Need. Mid-tempo compact structure based around a staccato drum pattern, passes along nicely but not quite the same immersing ambience of the other songs.
7. Raw Love. The band’s debut single from late 2012. A carefully crafted catchy pop song, radio-friendly hook line, if only all radio was as good as 6 Music.
8. Driftwood Royalty. I really like this one, so laid back, could be from the sixties or eighties, it floats in and out again like some sort of impressionist reverie.
9. The River. The rest of the album paves the way for this track, it draws on all the others to create a complex epic, musically driven by military precision drumming, punctuated by restful passages with underlying tension. The last two minutes of the song goes into drumming and guitar overdrive before the final sustained note, tempting us back to track 1…

Overall an accomplished debut, excellent production and deserving of repeated listens (it sounds good live too!)

Robert Plant, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 20 Nov 2014

The crowd were in early for the sold out show with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, the latest of the many performing incarnations of the former Led Zeppelin frontman.

Support trio The Last Internationale played American blues rock, underpinned by folk and protest roots, a sort of Billy Bragg with louder guitars. Delila Paz opened the show with solo acoustic guitar and a soaring powerful voice, singing ‘Workers of the World Unite’. The rest of the set was electric and punchy, showing how sometimes the basic combination of guitar bass and drums is all you need for a satisfying sound. ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood’ was the standout track and their covers of an Elmore James blues and Neil Young’s ‘My My, Hey Hey(Out of the Blue)’ went down very well with the audience too.

Robert Plant is a legend in rock music, his modest and relaxed stage presence and still stunning vocal talents deliver a superior show, a mixture of material from the latest album ‘Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar’, blues standards and reworked Zeppelin classics. The band is superb, all given individual personalities by Robert’s jokey asides and having many opportunities to bring their musicianship into the spotlight. Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson’s prowess on the acoustic guitar duetting with Justin Adams on mandolin and the eerie sounds produced by Juldeh Camara playing a ritti (one-stringed fiddle) were among the many highlights. Other eccentric stringed instruments add variety to the harder-edged sound that showcases Robert’s distinctive voice to perfection.

When an emotionally draining ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ gives way to the opening riff of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ the audience go crazy and we know we will leave the show happy. Then the icing on the cake, an encore of ‘Rock and Roll’….

Pere Ubu, Junction, Cambridge, 17 Nov 2014

Pere Ubu at Junction J2, the enticing prospect of an evening of experimental excess from long lasting leaders in the genre, originally formed back in 1975 in Cleveland, USA.

The first half hour was semi-improvisational, David Thomas the only founder member still in the band sits at the front of a semi-circle of the other musicians, directing and suggesting as each player takes turns to start off a themed piece (eg ‘Martian Lounge Music’!). Clarinet, keyboards, theremin, guitar and drums with fragments of lyrics create a rich seam of ideas, with potential for mining for future full songs. It is an instrumental blend that could feature in a Tom Waits show, where there is always space within the complex sound. It is a challenging listening experience but not inaccessible, just get absorbed into the mood.

Following on from the interval the band returned for the ‘professional band’ part of the show, featuring songs from their latest album ‘Carnival Of Souls’ and many others. Conventional rock guitar riffs are soothed by the clarinet then hijacked by twisted keyboard effects, bursts of drums and the aggressively slicing theremin. At the centre, the focal point is Thomas’s voice, sometimes tortured and edgy, sometimes being distorted through a telephone handset, always surprising. At times it reminded me of the tone of the late, great Kevin Coyne. In between songs David Thomas has many wry observations and anecdotes, including why the band did not want us to clap. This seemed to create a strange atmosphere at first but by the end seemed perfectly reasonable and quite liberating, even though the audience were trying to break the rule when the songs were as good as ‘Caroleen’.

After a break off-stage the band returned to play ‘Irene’. Beginning with keyboard effects like hailstones rolling down a window, beautiful clarinet lines underpinned a plaintive and gently sung vocal performance making it the highlight of the show for me. The final improvised song/statement was urging us to ‘Buy More Merchandise’, after wading through the many layers of irony of this I bought the CD. I did the right thing. I think….?