Receiving mail always used to be an event – records from distant parts, written off for but then forgotten, finally arriving. The thrill of unpacking an LP for the first time, examining the sleeve, anticipating hearing it. All these things have changed – reasonably fast broadband means that there’s very little time for the suspense to build before music lands in your inbox, and even when there is a physical artefact to appreciate, it usually involves a trip to the sorting office to rescue it from being kicked around the floor by bored postmen who don’t attempt delivery until they’re certain you’ve gone out. But rather unexpectedly last week I got a little hint of how it used to be on the arrival of Rob St. John‘s album “Weald”. Unpacking the record is a joy, a beautiful monochrome gatefold sleeve containing a reassuringly heavy chunk of vinyl. There are lyrics, things to read and look at while the record spins. This is how it should be….always. Thankfully, Matthew at Song, By Toad Records gets this. It’s not going to make him or indeed St. John an overnight pop sensation perhaps, but in terms of a record release feeling like an event, they’ve both just about nailed it.
I suppose I should be talking about the music – but perhaps I’ve been a bit sidetracked by that sense of suspense and anticipation too? Taking a moment to examine the cover, it appears at first to show a pleasant enough image – a misty, chill morning scene in the fens perhaps? But there is a rather eerie loneliness about the image too – and something of this beautiful but stark landscape seems to haunt the album right from the start on recent single “Your Phantom Limb”, which sets off with warm analogue hiss and crackle, the tune slowly winding into action. St. John‘s vocals are quiet, sorrow inflected, quintessentially English in tone and timbre. It’s like a traditional ballad dragged forward five centuries, as a winding, clockwork whirr seems to propel this brief, melodic introduction. The chiming guitars of “Sargasso Sea” herald one of the faster paced compositions here, with a sweeping optimistic chorus which is perhaps a little uncharacteristic on the album. There is also a warm, deliciously fuzzy bassline sneaking around the track until the closing instrumental section where it drives things towards a sparkling tangle of noisy guitars. Subdued and mournful, “Vanishing Points” is a return to quieter territory. Delicate guitar melodies and a wash of atmospheric sounds supply a canvas for St. John‘s lyrical, if somewhat maudlin wordplay as he observes in keeping with the tone of the record that “we’re monochrome/we are just vanishing points“. It will be an unwelcome comparison for some perhaps, but “Stainforth Force” opens like an early 1970s Pink Floyd epic, with atmospheric drifts of guitar breezing past until understated drums and a drone of harmonium arrive to support Rob‘s dark and defeated – sometimes near narcoleptic vocal: “not perfect/but yours to keep“. There is a pastoral tone here – a sense of wide, sweeping spaces. However, the underlying darkness occasionally reveals the threat of the wilderness too.
The album hinges on “Domino” – a glacially paced blues which has the sonorous presence of a funeral march. An unwilling melody is wrung from the guitar while St. John supplies distant, half-spoken vocals which occasionally leap in frustration or pangs of desperation. A constant harmonium drone provides an atmospheric backdrop, which finally slips into the foreground as the song builds into a keening violin scraping tumult towards the end. I find myself thinking back to the atmospheric recordings from New Zealand artists such as Peter Jeffries and Alastair Galbraith, but Rob‘s defiantly Lancastrian tones locate this dark beast of a song firmly in an English landscape. Who am I kidding – trying to describe this song is almost futile. It’s just very, very beautiful indeed. Following the brief, melodically blues-flecked and delicate guitar instrumental of “Emma’s Dance” is “An Empty House”, a warmer harmonium-led piece with Rob sounding positively cheery in comparison to elsewhere on “Weald”, and joined by some backing voices too. And while the lyrics might be just as introspective and hard-edged as other compositions there is a sense of completion here as the album ends with the same analogue hiss with which it began, the reel-to-reel tape stopping with a satisfying clunk.
It’s fair to say that “Weald” is far from an easy listen – it demands attention, draws you into it’s dark atmospherics and sometimes claustrophobic gloom, and refuses to befriend the listener casually. But the reward for your persistence is lyrical, dark and strangely uplifting music which somehow belongs to that moment where late night turns into early morning and you realise you’re still awake. The shifting landscapes on which St. John builds his songs don’t sit easily in any genre – so if you come equipped with blinkers looking for a folk record, a rock album or something akin to his work in other projects like eagleowl you’ll probably leave feeling a little bewildered. However, taken entirely on it’s own terms as it begs to be, “Weald” is a beautifully gloomy and wonderfully atmospheric record which is quite unlike anything else you’re going to hear this year. If you’ll take only one bit of advice from this pompous old blogger though, I’d urge you to go to Song, By Toad and buy the vinyl. Even if you just use the free download code to suck the MP3s into your iPod at the first opportunity, there is something very special about holding and examining this record as you listen. A vinyl fetish? Maybe. A proper old-fashioned record release? Definitely.
Rob St. John‘s “Weald” is available as a gatefold vinyl LP from Song, By Toad Records which is exactly how you should buy it. Reluctantly, I’ll also mention that you can find the album on Amazon MP3.
I realise I’m way behind the rest of the blogging world where this record is concerned. The general musical miserableness of returning from a packed week of shows in Glasgow to a rather empty gig calendar, along with a flurry of criticism for the blog has seemed to put me off my stride a bit. I’m allegedly a grown-up who can handle constructive criticism, but I struggle with the idea that a blog – essentially an individual and personal response to music – can be described as “too positive“. I have limited time, with real life hovering menacingly over me while I tap out this stuff – but yes, perhaps I could use that time to spit bile and negativity – goodness knows there are plenty of targets out there! However, I’m sticking to my guns and I still plan only to write about things which I love and which excite me enough to put fingers to keyboard in the wish to tell people how great they are. I still maintain this blog is the modern equivalent of how a good few years back I’d be dashing over to a friend’s house with a hastily dubbed cassette, exclaiming breathlessly “you’ve got to hear this…“. So you won’t find me panning major label releases or doing demolition jobs on individuals in the industry – there’s a whole mainstream music press out there just waiting for your attention if that’s what you want. But I suppose I’ve paused a little because I wanted to attach this rant to a review of something which demonstrated what I meant better than my clumsy explanations ever could. Something which summed up those life-affirming qualities, and which demonstrated just how some music is so unconditionally engaging and fantastic that I want to write about it – and just at the right time Beerjacket has supplied exactly such a release with “The White Feather Trail”.
Beerjacket is Peter Kelly – in interviews a quiet, wry and almost reluctant character – but by far one of the most dedicated musicians in the business with a remarkable catalogue of support slots for some fairly major acts. Over the course of a growing back catalogue of self-recorded and released albums, he has carved out a style and a reputation which makes the fact that “The White Feather Trail” is in fact Beerjacket‘s first ‘studio’ recording as such all the more surprising. The literate, lyrical style which Kelly has developed is perfectly demonstrated on the opening “Blood Roses” which appropriates biomedical imagery to describe an intense analysis of a relationship. Dissection and experimental cures provide an oddly jarring clinical edge to the otherwise tender, heartfelt delivery. In a Glasgow PodcArt interview Kelly was unwilling to expose the circumstances or background to this song in particular, but it’s clear just how personal this work is as Kelly‘s voice dips and weaves around the gently picked acoustic melody with incredible dexterity. The benefits of a more structured recording environment begin to show on “Cave” which adds a banjo and vocal harmonies to a folky stomp of a song with a soaring and naggingly memorable chorus. Louise Connell otherwise known as Reverieme guests on a number of tracks – but in particular duets on fairly equal billing on “Eggshells”. Her voice fits neatly into the spaces left by Kelly‘s sparse instrumentation as he adds archaeology to his scientifically exacting pallette of lyrics with observations like “you are the standing stone gathering moss“. This addition of a female vocal counterpoint does a little to soften the sometimes uncomfortably personal intensity of the lyrics, and rather than hitting you head-on with the keenly observed emotive bombshells, phrases and snippets are left to sneak up and catch you blissfully unprepared.
Personal highlight “Island” kicks in with sinister, dark guitar textures and quiet backing vocals from Connell while Peter Kelly‘s voice soars over the understated musical backing. It’s perhaps unsurprising that he is unwilling to give too much insight into the origin of songs, with stark and honest proclamations like “I’ve always been afraid of truth above all“. This perhaps sums up the mood of the record – a preoccupation with honesty, both in terms of external relationships and in self-examination. It could all get very, very maudlin – but given Kelly‘s ability to neatly and exactingly deploy metaphor, this never quite happens and the listener is drawn, almost unwittingly, deeper into the songs. A lighter mood is created by the increased pace and bursts of melody on “Jack Chasing Jill”, but the lyric is no less obliquely self-critical. This song does however amply illustrate Kelly‘s talent for mastering a range of styles – delivering an incredibly catchy, pop-influenced sensibility within the confines of just an acoustic guitar and voice as Louise Connell assists in closing the song with sweet, impossibly alluring harmonies. The almost traditional accompaniment and lilting delivery of “Crooked Finger” is deceptive, hiding a bitter and desperate tale, with Kelly delivering lines such as “you should take a hammer to both knees just to be sure” with a surprising relish. We’ll probably never get to know quite who or what this is all about, but the painfully dark, withering sentiment is something with which we can surely all identify – even if we wouldn’t perhaps be brave enough to deliver quite as starkly as this? Closing with the shuffling, upbeat road-song of “The Monsters”, Kelly returns to his default position of resignation “we’ll run from all the right answers/and we’ll blow all of our chances“. Again it’s a little grim and an uncomfortable truth to face, but Kelly and Connell‘s vocals make it easier to bear.
And perhaps that is the key to Beerjacket? These are simple, honest stories which have a ring of truth for all of us, presented with a heart-on-sleeve openness which makes avoiding emotional engagement impossible. There is no doubt that this is lyrically a dark, compelling and bittersweet clutch of songs, tempered by remarkable musicianship and beautifully simple arrangements. I set out here trying to explain what makes me want to write about music, and this represents exactly the reason – intelligent, crafted records like “The White Feather Trail” simply deserve to be heard as widely as possible, and this is my enthusiastic, personal exhortation to go out and track it down. You could waste time sneering at the lack of honesty and authenticity in the music industry, or you could listen to Beerjacket and find something faith-reaffirming. It’s your choice – but I know which course I’m going to follow…
“The White Feather Trail” is available via Beerjacket‘s Bandcamp as either a physical CD or a digital download. Peter‘s impressive back catalogue can also be found at the same site.
Back to reality with a bump today, as a week of musical antics and psychogeographical wanderings comes to a close. However, one of the delights of returning home is to pick through the Songs Heard On Fast Trains inbox to see what we’ve missed. So, here’s a hastily prepared edition of “Single Tickets” to celebrate a couple of really exciting releases from bands who we’ve mentioned pretty often here and who have exciting developments in the pipeline…
French Wives – Numbers
There are some bands who you just can’t keep down – and who are consistently working away to get their music heard as widely as possible via endless gigs and a growing canon of self-releases or records on small independent labels. French Wives are just such an outfit, and this release finds them in the midst of recording their debut album with Tony Doogan and feeling pretty damn excited about the results. Excited enough to release some of the early fruits as a single – and “Numbers” is testament to just how exciting this record is going to be. If you’ve heard the bands previous EPs and singles, you’ll be familiar with their brand of intelligent, multi-layered pop – but this track tantalisingly hints at further developments of their sound and unmistakably shows the benefits of bands working with producers who truly understand what they’re trying to achieve.
Built around a core of insistent drums, an epic wash of strings and an absurdly catchy chorus, “Numbers” is scattered with plenty of dramatic lifts and swoops of deliciously crunchy guitar riffs courtesy of Scott Macpherson. The carefully arranged strings, led by Siobahn Anderson‘s violin, embellish but never drown proceedings – and perhaps the biggest benefit of the production is evident in how these wind sinuously around the track, supporting rather than dominating the proceedings as is so often the case when bands include strings in the production. Stuart Dougan‘s vocals soar with a confidence which has grown audibly since earlier releases, while his lyrics appear to ruminate on the apparently random nature of advantage and success in a fickle society. But if there’s any justice and it’s not just a “numbers game” then the hard work will pay off, and this single will achieve the recognition French Wives deserve. Whatever else it achieves, it makes the prospect of the forthcoming album on Electric Honey even more exciting. This one absolutely deserves your attention.
“Numbers” will be released on October 24th, and will be launched at Mono in Glasgow on October 20th with the band supported by the mighty Blochestra and an acoustic set by Endor. Tickets can be purchased online at the band’s new website.
Yusuf Azak – Prizefighter EP
This is the first release from Yusuf Azak since last year’s sublime debut album “Turn On The Long Wire” and in some senses it’s more of the same woozy, breathless acoustic pop which earned that record a place on our end-of-year list for 2010. However, a close listen indicates a few changes in approach here too – notably things feel a little simpler and stripped-back to basics in places, with the songs rather than the unique delivery taking centre stage. Opening “Soft Vision” is the secret pop gem of the piece, with the vocals perhaps a little understated and a gorgeously dextrous acoustic guitar solo. This is coupled to an entirely singable chorus and joyous leaps in the melody as the guitar is picked, hammered and strummed to produce Azak‘s trademark complex style. However “Swim” abandons the guitar entirely, opting for a gentle piano and string accompaniment instead. This somewhat downbeat ballad explores textures and tones which have been less present in Yusuf‘s recorded work so far, and harks back to some of the more pensive moments on his first couple of self-released EPs.
“New Deal Decadence” revisits the approach taken on his debut album with a swooning, string-flecked feel. Some fantastically twangy country style guitar work adorns the middle section too, with Yusuf‘s voice back to it’s exuberant, breathy finest as he glides around the music. Finally “Moon New Moon” is a little more lo-fi, just voice and guitar with little treatment or polish – and it displays the remarkable musical talent that sits beneath the complex layers of sound. The “Prizefighter EP” is, somewhat remarkably, a free download – and I can’t recommend enough that you visit Bandcamp and download this. I hope that it’s release signifies further new work from Yusuf Azak in the near future too.
The “Prizefighter EP” is available from Bandcamp now as a free download. Yusuf‘s debut album “Turn On The Long Wire” is stil available via Song, By Toad Records.
For my last night up here I’d managed to find a pretty special event. These are busy times it seems, and with the huge amount of records being released in the next few weeks, along with the sheer number of great gigs tonight I almost wondered if I’d made the right choice at first. Nursing a headache and the beginnings of a cold, having managed to get soaked struggling over to the Southside earlier, I was feeling a little lacklustre and sorry for myself to be honest. Stereo was also pretty packed when I arrived, with a curious mixture of hipsters and diners. I decided to head down to the venue space early just to have a look around and a quiet pint away from the chatter and noise. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I’d made absolutely the right decision tonight after all, and I prepared for a very different kind of noise.
I’ve detailed elsewhere how I never quite got to see Y’all Is Fantasy Island and how that is matter of great personal regret. So I was pretty excited to see that Adam Stafford was one of Martin John Henry‘s chosen supports for this pretty special album launch show. Coming swiftly after the release of Adam‘s own record, which is packed full of surprisingly accessible if occasionally challenging songs, this evening couldn’t have been timed better. Tonight though, it’s just Adam stalking the spacious stage as he begins to manipulate the various gadgets and loop pedals. Slowly, surely the sounds morph into a tortured take on “Step Up Raise Hands” from his recent record “Build A Harbour Immediately”. Gone is the lo-fi funk riffing, and instead we have an epic, shoegazey noise built from vocal loops and slashes of guitar. Slowed to a glacial pace, the repeating sounds are damaged and imperfect, but they build into a strange sheen of noise. Then, as Adam‘s voice begins to impersonate a siren, it’s hard not to hear phantom sounds in the spaces and silences. Also from the record, but more immediately recognisable is “Shot Down You Summer Wannabes”. The treatment this time is near symphonic – and it’s clear that in Stafford‘s hands the loop pedal isn’t just an agent of soulless repetition. In fact working with it is an organic, physical process – visible particularly as he grows in stature to deliver soaring high notes and jerks erratically around the stage to his own vocal rhythms – pausing only to suggestively rub against the mid-stage pillar. This is an intense, intricate performance which creates so much complexity and texture from so little that it’s hard to believe at points that it is indeed just Stafford playing. As he leaves the stage after far too short a set, it strikes me there is something rather anachronistic about Stafford – impeccably turned out for the event, faultlessly polite, intelligent and inventive. Your everyday rock star he isn’t, and that is something to be celebrated.
I’d also been curious to finally get to see The Seventeenth Century. Following a couple of EPs of often delicate and rather restrained traditional songs, they came across immediately as surprisingly animated given their formal delivery on record. Having been holed up for some time working on a debut album, there is a sense that this rare live outing in recent times has an added edge. Songs take on longer, more progressive forms and “Banks of Home” delivers a spirited, aggressive and emotional take on folk music with more than a nod to more experimental, post rock soundscapes too. “Young Francis” retains it’s military air, but degenerates into a wild reeling ending, with the violin being sawed angrily until the bow sheds horsehair while the tune is anchored by some virtuoso horn playing. Having seen the band play like this, I hope that some of the energy finds its way into the album recording. The EPs have been fine, but their painstaking formality doesn’t fully convey how powerful and emotionally affecting the band can be in full flight. Tonights performance, in this respect at least, was something of a revelation.
Having seen Martin John Henry‘s nervous but engaging performance at Homegame, I’d been looking forward to the release of his debut album “The Other Half of Everything” for a while now and wondering just how that quiet, introspective set would transform on record. Well, for starters Henry takes the stage tonight with a full band – a proper rock band in fact which managed to churn out some impressively loud and focused backdrops to his intriguing and sometimes dark lyrics. Alongside the more traditional bass, drums and guitar set-up Martin operated a small bank of electronics which add a further dimension to the sound and drive some of the songs relentlessly forward. The band slips effortlessly from opener “Breathing Space” into the pensive and dramatic “First Light” which works up to some crashing chords before ending with a weirdly funky section. The band are clearly loving every minute of this, and seem to throw every ounce of energy into the performance. Having seen De Rosa once many years back and posthumously enjoyed their records, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons. If anything, the band tonight are a little tighter and sharper focused than De Rosa in a live setting, but Henry‘s songwriting is equally emotive and benefits hugely from this direct approach. Current single “Ribbon On A Bough” is far noisier and punchier here than on record, its singalong chorus and head-bobbingly catchy riff delighting an impressively large audience considering the competition in terms of gigs across town tonight. Finally “There’s A Phantom Hiding In My Loft” closes the set, a shimmering and epic final tune which showcases some of the electronic trickery too. Martin John Henry is still the humble character who quietly captured hearts with his songs in Fife, but tonight he’s earned the right to defiantly blast this new material at the world.
And so my short visit to Glasgow comes to an end – and what a way to see it to a close! With my ears still ringing, I pick my way through the Saturday night crowds, discarded fish suppers and general debauchery around Central Station and head home. It’s been, as ever, a bit of a rollercoaster ride through the local music scene over the past few days – and long may these trips continue.
Once again, I found myself in Paisley. A year ago I explained how I’d hoped for a pleasant, golden October evening on which to explore the town. In the event, I got a dark, miserable rain-soaked night instead. However, today was different – and dodging the groups of feral kids and fire engines which seemed to howling around the Town Centre with alarming regularity, I made my way along the High Street, taking a longer route to the Arts Centre. I was struck again by the grand civic architecture of the town – and the sense that there was a fierce pride somewhere here, but like so many towns across the UK there were more than a fair share of closed up shops and cafes. Given this, its espcially pleasing that somewhere like the Arts Centre exists, and remarkably enough, remains in public hands still. Tonight’s show was preceded, like last year’s ‘Paisley Underground’ events by an industry panel which was well attended, and as the panel finished and the audience spilled out, Vic Galloway was besieged by folks wanting to discuss things with him in more detail. Picked my way through the crowd which he’d generated and found my seat in the auditorium as the audience filed in.
A lot of people seemed to stay in the bar for opening act The Magick Circle – which is no surprise given the typical local arts centre type crowd who had once again turned out for this event. However, they missed a treat as Laura Carswell, familiar from earlier in the week, rather nervously led this band of local young Paisley musicians through a set of accomplished folk material, which they’d made their own by way of some interesting arrangements. One of the strengths of the Paisley Underground setup is how establised, crowd-pulling acts are paired with bands emerging from Reid Kerr College. Laura‘s voice was certainly the highlight – on this material striking a high, purely traditional register but lacking some of the depth and range of approaches she’d shown in her solo show perhaps. Added to this was a touch of carefully understated electric lead guitar to enhance and add a little edge to the melodies, and some delicate drumming which underpinned things perfectly. This allowed the band to deliver these traditional ballads and covers with a strangely jazzy edge, veering sometimes into a sort of underplayed folk-rock which looked enormous fun to be playing, and their enthusiasm shone through the nerves into a spirited performance. The opening track was dedicated to Bert Jansch, the very recent loss of which seemed to be affecting a surprising number of younger Scottish musicians too, with many having regarded him as a presence in their earliest musical memories it seems. His style and spirit live on in The Magick Circle particularly, and their sensitive but individual take on traditional songs seems to continue the tradition admirably.
With the audience swelled by latecomers, a surprising number of which managed to miss the start of the set entirely, Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat took to the stage. With Wells ensconced behind his piano, the remainder of the band consisted of a trumpet player, a violinist and a double-bass player. With Moffat stationed behind a small collection of percussion instruments, the band swung into a surprisingly full-sounding groove, led by the remarkable piano playing from Wells. Despite Aidan recovering from a cold and having dosed himself up on remedies prior to the show, he was in fine voice – his unconventional Falkirk drawl having softened over the years since I last saw him sing live, becoming a warm and sometimes rather sentimental delivery. Much of the recent “Everthing’s Getting Older” album was played and received a very warm response too, not least for “The Copper Top” which became an even more affecting rumination on age and change in this setting. Also played, and I understand from a forthcoming EP, was Bananarama‘s “Cruel Summer”. Given a regretful and rather downbeat treatment, the bones of the song were revealed – with a darker edge than perhaps expected given the tone of the original. Afterwards Moffat speculated on whether much of the audience would remember Bananarama? Looking around, I’m not sure many of them would remember Arab Strap to be honest!
Having experienced a rather staid, typically ‘arts centre’ type crowd here before, it was heartening to see a little banter developing between the stage and the audience tonight. As the band began a new song with a Halloween costume party theme, there was an outbreak of laughter which put Aidan completely off his stroke, exclaiming that Paisley was “easily pleased“. I won’t explain it here, because I don’t want to ruin the moment when this song finally gets a release, but suffice to say it’s a classic Aidan Moffat moment where bad life choices, illicit sex, religion and deceit collide. The new material is just as affecting and keenly observed as that on the recent album, with new stories on the old themes aplenty. By the end of the set, the audience just didn’t want the band to leave – and I noted that Moffat had turned this not always comfortable auditorium’s shortcomings to his advantage by narrowing the gap between audience and performer. No mean feat with these audiences, and testament to both his skills as a storyteller and Wells‘s remarkable talent as a composer and arranger of backdrops which give Moffat the space to develop his tiny, sometimes harrowing dramas.
It’s difficult to describe just how moving and heartening tonight’s performance was, and how well this music works in a live setting despite it’s quiet, reflective nature. The simple instrumentation suited the setting and the material perfectly, and the intimacy of it’s tone worked incredibly well here. My journey back to Glasgow was full of all the usual spectacle which a late evening here produces, and it was hard not to see some of this through the storyteller’s eyes. Maybe I’m just getting older, and as the song says afterall, everything is…