Sunday, 3 April 2016

Laura Gibson - Empire Builder

The back story to Laura Gibson's Empire Builder, released on April 1st on City Slang, is quite astonishing. Back in 2012, she released La Grande, and in the summer of 2014 she decided to relocate from Portland to New York - taking a break from music to study creative writing instead.

Her journey began with a trip on the Empire Builder, a rail route between the Pacific North West and Chicago that has legendary status in the US. This part of her story - a journey in the literal as well as the figurative sense - might be enough in its own right to inspire a collection of new songs, but it was eclipsed by the events that followed.

At the end of March 2015, a gas explosion blew up Gibson's apartment building, destroying almost everything she owned, including most of her recent work and all of her musical instruments. Two people were killed in the blast.

Empire Builder becomes a metaphor for this entire chapter in her life, from the initial rail ride, to the time spent completing her studies while sleeping on friends' couches and spare beds, and all while literally rebuilding her own empire, replacing not only the instruments she had lost, but the lyrics and music too.

The result is a quite incredible album, ten tracks that almost alternate between punchy defiance and melancholy reflection, lyrics that speak of loss, and of recovery, and of simply refusing to quit. These are the big feelings of every human life, and I think most listeners will find at least one track that resonates almost uncannily with their own life and experiences.

Not Harmless

The first of our preview tracks is Not Harmless, one of the more defiant tracks on Empire Builder, with a similarly feisty video you can watch below.

From the first second, Not Harmless is punchy in an instrumental style reminiscent of some of the best Tom Waits songs - heavy on percussion, on rhythm rather than melody, a slap beat that sustains through the whole track, creating a sense of time passing, a second by second tick-tock effect.

Gibson's own description of the song is similarly no-nonsense:

"In very simple terms, Not Harmless is about standing up for myself: defining womanhood on my own terms. It may be a critique of social expectations, but more so it's a critique of my own behaviour and insecurities. I must add that I have always, always wanted to write a song in which I was the villain, to hold that sort of agency, to reimagine myself in my most self-serving no-fucks-given form. So lines like, 'I'll be the thief you forgot to chase, the bramble sprung back in the hero's face' gave me great pleasure to write."

As for the video, director Derrick Belcham puts some context on the physical assaults suffered by Gibson throughout, as a metaphor for the assaults that come from within:

"It's an attempt to capture a multi-angle viewpoint of the various aspects of the singer's insecurities in the music video environment. Each of the dancers embodies a specific discomfort or complex that raises its head during the process of being on camera, exposing oneself through songwriting and 'being' in the world in general. Their actions reflect the shifting battle that an ego faces when the spotlight is turned on it."

Not Harmless is not the most 'listenable' song on Empire Builder, by any means - other tracks are more melodic, less confrontational on the ear, but of course that's not what everybody will be looking for from this album anyway. What the song does offer is a kind of inclusive defiance, almost a justification of relying on the darker side of your character when you need to find your inner strength, and I think that's something a lot of people will relate to as well.

Empire Builder

The title track is one of the most astonishing songs I've heard in recent years, a fist of emotion to punch into the chest of anyone who's ever lost somebody, and hoped to someday reconnect. I'm delighted to be able to preview this one below.

I had goosebumps within seconds of the start of the song, before Gibson began singing. There were tears in my eyes after the first few lines. Maybe the lyrics just hit home with me on this particular day, and there are certainly personal reasons for that, but I think I would have loved this song just as much if I had heard it for the first time on any other day. It's elegant, gentle, with a more muted percussion track that still echoes that sense of passing time; the inevitability of change.

"Oh, forget I said love.
And also don't forget I said love.
We are not alone
and we are more alone than we've ever been.
So hurry up and lose me
hurry up and find me again."

There's no long, slow fade at the end of the track, as you might expect, but an equally elegant end to the beat and a soft cymbal crash. It's a small symbol of the authenticity of this album - songs where the acoustics are held almost in a kind of reverence, given their own voice, not simply faded to silence when they are no longer needed. There's love here, and hope.

I'm in love with Empire Builder - the song and the album. It tackles the biggest emotions in all our lives without becoming pretentious. Musically it's beautiful, the very best qualities of its own time, with hints of half a century before it, the occasional lingering note that wouldn't be out of place in Unchained Melody or something similar. This is timeless subject matter, with enduring acoustics, and I look forward to revisiting Empire Builder time and again in the years ahead.

Buy Empire Builder on audio CD or digital download from Amazon.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Vaadat Charigim - Hadavar Haamiti

Once in a while, in amongst the latest chart releases and indie EPs, you get sent something to review that is a little special or unusual. Vaadat Charigim are both.

The Israeli trio formed in 2012 and released their first LP with the title The World is Well Lost; on September 25th 2015, they will follow it with the UK release of their second album, Sinking as a Stone, from which Hadavar Haamiti is taken.

Already some readers will be thinking "boo, Israel" and while we're not going to launch a political debate here, it's worth taking a moment to recognise that Vaadat Charigim - consisting of vocalist Yuval Haring, drummer Yuval Guttman and bassist Dan Fabian Bloch - are just three people who happen to be from Israel.

They are not the Israeli government, although the turbulence of their surroundings has a clear place in the tone of their recordings.

Haring says: "Instead of singing about missiles falling on a shopping mall and naming the missile and the shopping mall, I am taking the essence of that, and breaking it down to its basic mechanism. I am dealing with it piece by piece, as fragments."

The politics of a nation should never prevent artistic expression of any kind - although, as is the case here, it can certainly sculpt the tone of a musical work.

Vaadat Charigim have a frankly amazing sound, like an Israeli Stone Roses singing in a cathedral, choral and anthemic, moving and contradictorily uplifting.

I can only imagine the sense of affirmation their music might carry in more optimistic times. I hope we might find out, one day.

Until then, their music carries a quite different message, and one that would be all but impossible to convey in words alone.

Vaadat Charigim's second album, Sinking as a Stone, is due for UK release on September 25th via Burger/Anova records.

Buy Sinking as a Stone on audio CD from Amazon now, download The World is Well Lost as an MP3 album, or see more digital music downloads from Vaadat Charigim.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Cristobal and the Sea confirm debut album Sugar Now for Oct 2nd

One worth looking out for later this year is Cristobal and the Sea's debut album Sugar Now, confirmed for an expected release date of October 2nd on City Slang.

It's good news for anyone who caught the group's EP Peach Bells back in December 2014, and it's great to see the album follow less than a year later.

What should we expect? Plenty of variety, not least thanks to the band's multinational membership: Spain's Ale Romero on vocals and bass, Portugal's Joao Seixas on vocals and guitar, Corsica's Leila Seguin on flute and vocals, and the UK's own Joshua Oldershaw on drums.

In terms of genre, there's an equally eclectic mix, and Joao explains: "We don't ever consciously make our music sound like a genre."

Josh adds: "The Latin element is always there, but it naturally adapts to whatever theme is most prevalent, whether it's psychedelic, or more poppy, or sometimes a bit disco."

Sunset of our Troubles is a summery, almost Caribbean track, so it's good to see this one is available already - no need to wait until October to get your hands on it, just hit play on the SoundCloud player below.

If this is an indication of the album as a whole, Sugar Now will be worth waiting for - and with any luck, there'll be some autumn sunshine to enjoy at the same time. Even if not, it's likely to make the perfect soundtrack for Christmas shopping too - even if the big day is still six months away right now!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Son Lux - Bones

Bones is the latest album from Son Lux, AKA Denver-born musician Ryan Lott. It's his first album on Glassnote, after leaving Joyful Noise Recordings in 2014, but it bears all the hallmarks of an artist whose work is probably more widely known than his name is.

If you're not familiar with Son Lux, take a look back at our review of Lanterns in 2013; you can also hear Lott's work on the soundtrack to the Bruce Willis time-travel movie Looper, and on Ned Benson's 2013 trilogy The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

Bones is typically dramatic and fast-paced, an energetic and acoustically rich tapestry of music that yet again proves Lott's talent for composition in a genre he has all but made his own.

X Factor 2015 judges/mentors announced

Well, the new judges (or mentors, if you prefer) for The X Factor 2015 have been announced, and they're likely to leave Simon Cowell looking like a dad at a disco.

He and Cheryl Cole Fernandez-Versini are due to be joined for the new series by Rita Ora and everyone's favourite where-the-hell-did-he-come-from DJ, Nick Grimshaw.

Grimmy, Cheryl and Rita are The X Factor mentors 2015

'Grimmy' is a contradiction in terms, in that he's been around for ages yet every time he gets a new job, everyone immediately says he lacks the experience for it - he started out on E4 nearly a decade ago, and has worked on pretty much every channel there is since then.

If you like him, that's great. If not, it's hard to avoid his leering face or just-got-out-of-bed voice, whether on BBC Radio One, hosting his god-awful panel show Sweat The Small Stuff on BBC Three, or popping up like a wasp at a picnic on Children in Need or the recent TFI Friday revival.

Rita Ora is by no means the most popular person in the world, so it's saying something that she seems to be the better received of the two new mentors (at least she's a singer, right??).

Personally I've never found anything much to dislike about her, and she did a decent job as guest judge during her previous one-off appearance on The X Factor, so good luck to her.

In fact I'm more than happy to say good luck to all concerned - I can't bring myself to watch anything Grimmy is involved with, but the presenting duo of Caroline Flack and Olly Murs should see the Saturday night show in safe hands, and it's understandable that some young blood is being pumped into a show whose biggest recent successes have been the just-started-wearing-pullups groupings of Little Mix and One Direction.

For the rest of us, jaded by more than a decade of dodgy decisions from the judges and convenient 'deadlocks' to shift the blame back on to the public vote, it feels like a lifetime since Saturday night telly involved Mrs O calling Steve Brookstein a dickhead on live national TV.

Those were the days.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Will Katie Waissel judge X Factor 2015?

Long-time Popsiculture favourite Katie Waissel made her return to The X Factor this weekend to perform in what was dubbed The X Factor Medley - basically a cover of The Time (Dirty Bit) by the Black Eyed Peas.

You can watch the full performance below - Katie arrives near the end and frankly does an impressive job of rescuing what is otherwise several minutes of absolute car-crash television.

As usual it seems set out to humiliate the performers, rather than to bring them back as heroes of series gone by, and Katie once again brings an undeserved amount of grace and elegance to the X Factor stage which pretty much sums up how she's always been treated by the show.

But none of that matters - what matters is her tweet just before 11pm on December 13th (just a few minutes ago, as I write this) which has really set the Katie-cat among the pigeons for her Twitter followers.

Katie's tweet said:

And just in case she deletes it or it won't load for any reason, that is "Bye bye London!! See y'all on the other side.... #seeyounextyear #confirmed #chair".

Does this mean we can expect to see Katie Waissel judge X Factor 2015? Is the 'chair' she refers to one of the coveted X Factor mentors' chairs?

This IS Katie after all, so nothing is impossible... watch this space for official confirmation, if that really is what La Waissel was hinting at.

Either way it was a cathartic return to the show for Katie, who also posted on her Instagram account, where a picture paints a thousand words (or 65 words, in Katie's case...) and allowed her to send a message too long to tweet.

#amen #thexfactor @thexfactoruk #closure #farewells #newchapter Be Inspired.....

A photo posted by Red Velvet (@redvelvetband) on

Again, will this 'new chapter' see Katie Waissel mentor for X Factor 2015? Or are the ever-hopeful Waissel Warriors jumping to conclusions?

It's too early to be certain, but you can bet her fans will have their fingers crossed - Katie has written X Factor columns for magazines and websites over the past couple of years, so her association with the show has never faded (and frankly, never will).

With strong opinions and no fear of expressing them, personally I think Katie would be a fantastic X Factor mentor for 2015; she might even be enough to convince me to watch it again.

If she is confirmed for one of the mentors' chairs in 2015, I'll just be hoping the media are a little kinder in their coverage of her than they were when she was a contestant on the show.

UPDATE: What if she meant The Voice?

Just a quick addition to this - what if when Katie said 'see you on the other side', she meant it more literally than anyone has realised?

People don't tend to talk about The X Factor judges/mentors in terms of the chairs they sit in, but there is of course a similar show where the mentors' chairs are a much more significant part of the production - The Voice.

It's on 'the other side' in the sense that it's on the BBC rather than ITV, and the mentors change much more regularly than they do on The X Factor.

What if... maybe, just maybe... Katie's 'confirmed chair' for next year is over at the Beeb? Personally I think she'd be a great fit for the show.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Twin Peaks to return in 2016...?

Amazingly, it looks like a third series of Twin Peaks is on the way.

This is amazing news whether you like the show or not, when you consider that the pilot episode was first broadcast in 1990 - that's a terrifying 24 years ago for those of us who were around then to see it.

A second series followed in 1991, and the movie, Fire Walk With Me, came in 1992.

Since then it's all been quiet, and fans have had to make do with re-runs, DVD box sets and the genuinely awesome soundtrack CD.

That is, until David Lynch tweeted the following:

Just in case you can't view the YouTube video in that, we've embedded it here below:

OK it's not much to go on, but fans already seem convinced it's more than just a full re-run of the original series.

Will we see the return of Agent Dale Cooper and all of the other characters who made the show one of the strangest things to ever hit TV screens? Let's hope so.

And in the meantime, there's just enough time to watch the original series and remind yourself of what to expect... if they get it right, it could be a hell of a nostalgia trip for some of us.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ex Hex - Rips

 If you're the kind of person who likes to say "They don't make music like that any more," then Ex Hex are the girls for you.

The Washington DC trio are rock'n'roll in its truest sense, all cymbal crashes and clanging guitars, and it's really, really good to hear some new-old 'proper music' still being made, well into the 21st century.

Drums come courtesy of Laura Harris; Betsy Wright is billed as an 'ace piano player' and all-round performer; and Mary Timony is the driving force behind the songwriting.

The result of the collaboration is a slick performance across a dozen tracks with killer hooks and enough rock'n'roll heritage to leave you wondering if this really is a debut album, or a group who have been around for years.

Preorder Ex Hex - Rips on audio CD
Preorder Ex Hex - Rips on vinyl
(Released on October 13th 2014)

Thursday, 24 April 2014

To Rococo Rot - Many Descriptions (feat. Arto Lindsay)

To Rococo Rot's distinctive blend of ambient and electronic sounds has been a hallmark of their sound over the past 18 years, and long-term fans will be pleased to hear of the upcoming full-length album release of Instrument.

It will be To Rococo Rot's eighth album in all, and their first since 2010, and is due for a July 21st launch date, accompanied by a launch show at Cafe Oto in London.

Until then, fans will have to be satisfied with preview tracks, and the first of those is Many Descriptions, featuring vocals by Arto Lindsay.

It's an elegant reintroduction to the musical world of To Rococo Rot - I could happily listen to four minutes of the intro before any vocals were introduced - but it also marks an evolution in their sound.

"We wanted to make clear that something is different," says Robert Lippok, and while that is true, the signatures of Robert and his brother Ronald, as well as collaborator Stefan Schneider, are written all over the track.

The launch of Instrument may be some way off, but you can already preorder it via iTunes - click the button below if you don't want to miss the launch date.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Day of the Doctor

There's an awful lot that could be said about The Day of the Doctor, but I'll try to be brief and avoid spoilers as far as possible (but if you've not seen it yet and want to, you might still prefer to watch it before reading on...).

Firstly, let's get the most important thing out of the way - it was good. The first 30 seconds or so, before it all goes a bit adventurey, are a pleasing link from the very first episode to present day, and the last shot of the episode - without wanting to give anything away - is a nice way to round off the first 50 years of the show.

In between those opening and closing shots, there's 75 minutes of spectacle with a plot that, at least as far as I can tell, holds up to scrutiny better than many recent episodes of the series itself.

The feature-length piece also, of course, INTRODUCES JOHN HURT AS THE DOCTOR, but the lack of subtlety with which he was shoutily announced at the end of the preceding episode has been smoothed out slightly, and he fills the role nicely without stealing the show as the biggest 'name' among the cast members.

Subtlety is, for once, to be found in abundance in The Day of the Doctor, which manages simultaneously to give a nod to the classic era of the show, the early days of its modern-era revival and its current incarnation with Matt Smith at the helm of the TARDIS and of the show.

Billie Piper's appearance (again, hardly a spoiler by the time you've watched the opening credits) is handled well, allowing her to feature without getting bogged down in the Tenth Doctor/Rose storyline - which, remember, younger newcomers to the show may not have seen.

And there's a curious Wizard of Oz undercurrent throughout - look out for the ruby slippers in the Black Vault, Clara (IIRC) calling herself the 'Wicked Witch of the West' and Ingrid Oliver's character name 'Osgood' (Clara is, of course, varyingly known as Clara Oswald or simply as Oswin in previous episodes).

I've been trying to work out if the three Doctors are meant to represent the Scarecrow (Smith), Tin Man (Tennant) and Cowardly Lion (Hurt), but it's not a perfect fit - maybe it's all just my imagination.

I could spell out all of the references to the earlier Doctors, but I won't - I'll leave that for somebody far more familiar with the show than I am, and for a page that's less careful about spoilers.

But needless to say, as a viewer who came to the show in the mid to late 1980s (I wasn't born until 1983, so I like to think I have an excuse), there was enough of the spirit of Doctor Who as I knew it then, balanced nicely with the modern-day sense of the show as the new generation of fans have come to know it - not to mention a couple of surprises thrown in purely for the older fans, which seems fitting for an anniversary of such magnitude.

I do wonder how they got from the end of the previous episode to the beginning of this story, but perhaps that doesn't matter too much - it really needed to stand alone, so viewers who tuned in only for the anniversary did not feel lost from the outset, and I suspect it achieved that aim fairly well.

The focus now has to be on Peter Capaldi - it's no secret that this year's Christmas special is likely to see Matt Smith bow out and regenerate, which will ruin Christmas Day for a few kids, but never mind.

Can Capaldi continue to unite the two eras of Doctor Who? Restore The Doctor to his true, original character as a grumpy grown-up, rather than a clown? Bring back the darker side of the character and the show, for a generation of fans who came to the show as adolescents but are now reaching maturity in their own right?

I had all but written off Doctor Who until this anniversary episode; now I greet the oncoming storm with optimism. I have loved Matt Smith but, like Sylvester McCoy, he has rarely had the storylines he needed to shine to his fullest potential. Bring on Capaldi.