I long ago stopped imagining there was any logic or fairness at work in any part of the music industry. The annual parade of televised desperation urged upon us by Simon Cowell and his band of judges is a case in point. The simple meritocratic ideal that success rewards hard work, genuine ingenuity and technically remarkable music simply doesn’t seem to hold true any more. It was with this mildly depressing realisation in mind that I read earlier in the year how Happy Particles were searching in vain for a label in a position to release their debut album “Under Sleeping Waves”. This is, after all, a sextet of established musicians of some pedigree. Sharing members with the much vaunted Remember Remember and a host of other bands over the years, there are no shortage of admirers for this almost embarrassingly skilled and rather unique outfit. But, the industry’s loss is perhaps our gain as Happy Particles have decided to self-release the album via Bandcamp on Christmas day. I know presents are best when they’re a surprise, but it’s nice to know you’re going to be getting something you’ll like…
There’s no doubt that “Under Sleeping Waves” is an amateur blogger’s dream of a record. Every adjective you’ve been saving up all year can be dusted off and applied liberally – you can call it crystalline, brittle, even perhaps glacial in places. I’m as guilty as anyone of trotting out these ethereal-sounding superlatives when faced with music I love, but this is genuinely a record it’s hard to describe in other terms. In part that’s down to Robin Sutherland‘s spacious and sensitive production, which allows this music room to breathe and grow naturally so the tendency towards the clichéd post-rock quiet/loud/quiet dynamic is resisted. That’s not to say this isn’t a record of extremes in many ways, particularly Steven Kane‘s sometimes whisper-like and sometimes soaring falsetto vocal which forms the centrepiece for opening track “Aerials”. Drifting in with minimal instrumentation, the voice does almost all of the work here and strangely blurs the lines between the mighty Sigur Rós and “Sophtware Slump”-era Grandaddy. The gentlest of reverberating drones, a hint of sorrow in the simple lyrics. As the song ends on a deliciously gloomy, sudden minor note it’s clear this is going to be pretty special. Raising the pace with an insistent, snaking bassline is “Infinite Jet”. This song has been doing the rounds in various demo versions for a while, and while I’m familiar with it in principle, it has never quite sounded this good. A tangle of clean, melodic guitar lines, an ecclesiastical organ sound, and those pure vocals echoing high in the mix. Then, suddenly the whole song begins to slow to a heart-stoppingly soporific pace, almost like a clockwork toy winding down. It’s a really strange effect, executed perfectly.
“Slowness” thunders in on dry, echoing drum beats before the bell-clear guitars set up a wintry chime. Here Kane‘s vocal is surrounded by a warming blanket of strings, as the song develops into a scaled-down symphony thanks to the quartet which adorn much of the record. The vocals take a back seat here, letting the strings and the clamour of guitars take the track spinning off to new heights. Things take a more straightforward path on “Offline Contact” which has hints of Mogwai in it’s more traditional construction. Standing out here though are some delicate shimmers of guitar, which weave around Gordon Farquhar‘s solid drum pattern. The song slowly burns away, leaving just the string quartet which soars into the utterly wonderful “Reprise” – a brief interlude of dizzyingly technical playing which provides an introduction for the slow-moving “Come Home All Dead Ones” which picks up pace enough to include a curiously bright and optimistic guitar melody. Against the gentle backdrop of strings, this echoes insistently before ebbing quietly away. And if all this quiet, reflective brilliance is getting a little too much now, “Empty Circle” takes a slightly edgier turn. Starting with a cyclical melody and a stately beat, and visiting some familiar lyrical territory for the record in lines like “she wanted to sleep/in the comfort of sorrow“, this is one track which does finally capitalise on the ever threat of explosion – but in true Happy Particles style it’s controlled, technically brilliant and movingly epic when the guitars do finally crash into the foreground. Finally “AM Sky (Bleary)” arrives, another familiar tune from it’s early demos. A deft guitar line duels with a glockenspiel, while Kane‘s vocals soar and dance around the minimal tune, reaching near impossible heights. It’s probably the most immediately accessible and the closest Happy Particles get to delivering a pop tune on “Under Sleeping Waves”, but it’s no less fantastic for that. A shimmering gem of a song which hasn’t tired from repeated listens to it’s nascent form over the last year or so.
Having read over what I’ve written above several times, I’m rather stuck here – wondering if I’ve done any kind of justice to the sublimely cool, almost Nordic beauty of this record? Equally, I’ve found myself wondering if my descriptions weren’t just a little bit too adjective-laden, and whether I’d broken the very rules I set out at the start? Whatever, the simple bottom line is that this is a multifaceted, intricate and trance-inducing work which shines with a quiet confidence and an inner warmth which is very hard to describe. You need to go and listen to this unearthly, beguiling music to even begin to understand how tricky it is to write about. After all, things born on Christmas day have a historical tendency to go down in legend, and I suspect “Under Sleeping Waves” will be no different in that respect.
You can purchase “Under Sleeping Waves” from Bandcamp from 25th December.
It’s a brave band that chooses a name featuring punctuation. Since it seems a fair number of the literate population can’t use it properly at the best of times, the ever-present risk of getting missed in the search results because of a stray full-stop or a misplaced comma is always going to be a worry. Indeed, I’ve seen several attempts at this name scattered around the internet already with varying levels of similarity to the band’s preferred version. But that’s perhaps a fair indication of where People, Places, Maps are coming from – they do things properly, they don’t cut corners and they work damn hard at what they do. But they’re not going to get too upset if we don’t dot our i’s now and then I’m sure. So, having passed comment on their free-to-download EP earlier in the year I’d been looking forward to this release for a while. Then in a pretty typical muddle of work, travel and general senility I completely missed the release and find myself catching up a little later than planned. But here it is at last, the debut album – notably completely shorn of any confusing punctuation on it’s stark, atmospherically out-of-focus cover – but still as achingly desperate to convey it’s messages as ever.
Opening gambit “Pyromaniac” is strident, urgent pop dotted with explosive squalls of guitar which propel things through plenty of stomach-flipping dynamic shifts, just the way this kind of music should. The rhythm section here – nominally Matt Arnott and Steven Ferguson – is particularly robust, solidly driving the angry initial burst of the album forward as it means to continue. Title track “The Distance Tricked Us” starts with a dizzy swell of melodic guitar lines and develops in an anthemic vein, which also runs through Ryan McGlone‘s breathlessly eager vocals. This is proper guitar pop music in that long Scottish tradition which links bruised emotions to irresistible swirls of melody. The moody organ-based shimmer of “I Get So Cold I Get Nervous” couples with an acoustic guitar and a lyrical, regret-tinged vocal delivered in a heartfelt Dunfermline vernacular. There is a lightness of touch here that is often missed by bands who use their debut album to attempt to convey all of their ideas in one hit. People, Places, Maps though, show a surprising understatement and manage to focus the songs almost perfectly. Lyrically too, the songs here aren’t afraid to tackle sometimes tricky, raw concepts which don’t often belong in pop music – illustrated well by dark-edged couplets like “in our advancing years/she needs me to conquer her fears” which hint at difficult times and uneasy thoughts.
Loathe as I am to make gratuitous comparisons, the broader canvas deployed on “The Distance Tricked Us” reminds me of bands like Endor perhaps, who make a virtue out of their multi-instrumental talents without appearing showy or over-egging things. So when, amid the little touches of piano and carefully brief washes of strings, a female vocal foil is introduced on “Bury Your Head” it marks a gentler musical approach which is no less direct and insistent. The album includes a number of the tracks from the debut EP, which I’ve mentioned before here including the painful ache of “Sarah’s Song” which is just as moving and gently emotive now as it was on a first listen. Sitting here among a wider selection of People, Places, Maps work it remains a stand-out and is surely guaranteed to melt the hardest of hearts. “High Regard” is a little more upbeat and delivered on a cinematic scale – adding a piano and some distant string sounds, and working up into a miniature epic with enough rough edges to keep it rooted in real life. The album closes with “Deconstruct the Familiar” which may well serve as the band’s manifesto just now with it’s opening line of “Although we might start small/we’ve got big plans on the go“. Again the rhythm section urges this song through it’s quiet opening into a soaring tangle of guitars.
It’s a curious time to be releasing a record, as the end-of-year-lists are already compiled and hitting the blogs, and folks are busy making sure they’ve namechecked all the right people in their picks for the top next year. It would be easy enough to let a release just now slip entirely through the net perhaps? But where this record stands out and demands attention is in the unashamed attention to writing great tunes, literate lyrics and splicing them into an honest, spirited collection of songs. People, Places, Maps manage endlessly to deploy the neat songwriting trick of elevating commonplace minutiae into significant moments, and capturing them to deliver little shocks of familiarity. So if you find yourself idly browsing for something to spend that iTunes gift voucher on, forget the pick-of-2011 lists and the albums everyone else thinks you should hear and give this a go. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
“The Distance Tricked Us” is available from iTunes. You can still download the non-album track “Fear of the Modern” for absolutely nothing at Project Rodney.
For the second time in less than a month I find myself reviewing a cassette release, which as I look back on 2011 is something I didn’t expect to find myself saying. As this recent revival of the retro format continues, I find echoes of my own past – not least in the inventive packaging and the attempts to elevate this once ubiquitous format into an artefact. Untying the golden thread and unravelling the heavy paper sleeve featuring truly beautiful and wintry art, reveals a bright blue professionally dubbed cassette with inserts allowing access to secret songs and featuring snippets of information to peruse while you listen. This sense of experience makes the purchase of music so much more exciting than just clicking and waiting for the download to complete, and takes me right back to the thrill of ordering unknown music and the anxious wait for the postman. The debate about how relevant and useful cassettes are in the 21st century will rumble on I’m sure, but it’s absolutely important not to let this overshadow the contents of the media – which in this case is magnetic in every sense of the word.
Once again this is a Gerry Loves Records release, and this time around it’s a split between Field Mouse and The Japanese War Effort both of which have previously graced these pages. Despite not being a first mention here, Jay Kural – the driving force behind Field Mouse – remains a rather mysterious and reclusive character. His side of this split tape is ushered in by a shuffling of insistent synthetic beats and a cavalcade of glockenspiel sounds on “Toy”. Later in the track, the strange chittering laughter of children is part fitting, and part rather creepy. From the outset though, it’s clear that Field Mouse have pulled an ace in terms of making machine-manufactured music sound organic and yet still mechanically hypnotic, and this is in no small part due to the way that analogue instruments and sounds are threaded through the electronics. “Cloth Pattern” sees a rare intrusion of vocals, courtesy in this case of Conquering Animal Sound‘s Anneke Kampman. Fractured beats, an undertow of melodic bass and shards of spine-tingling, glassy noise weave a curiously warm atmosphere, while Anneke half sings and half raps her vocal. In common with Conquering Animal Sound, Jay Kural’s work at the edge of the human-machine interface is compelling and unusually personal – and while this music is satisfying and engaging in it’s own terms, the inclusion of vocals brings a new depth. There are more vocal moments too, as Yahweh, otherwise known as Lewis Cook, guests on “Lonely Her” providing a tumble of uncharacteristically euphoric vocals to top a skittering, sampled harpsichord melody with a sinuous chorus. As he promises faithfully to write lyrics for the track, Cook self-deprecatingly suggests “I’ll meaninglessly self-disect” as his upbeat delivery belies a darker edge. Finally “Slowflow” is as gorgeously unctuous and blissed-out as its title implies. A ululating bassline, eerie samples and a liquid cascade of sounds brings this side of the tape to a close, with the formerly commonplace task of having to walk to the tape-deck to flip the cassette over now an odd novelty.
With the tape turned over and the reassuring hiss shivering the speakers The Japanese War Effort side shimmers in with a drone of electronic noise and a throb of bass. “Everlasting Sun” kicks off with psuedo-religious, hymn-like qualities before Jamie Scott returns us to earth with a line about “steaming cups of tea“. As the track builds through a series of layered, blaring organ sounds it’s hard not to get carried away on it’s strange, giddy optimism. I remember hearing “Dream of a New Labour” appear on the web earlier in the year, and it’s succinct observations on the gradual slide of the British left into comfortable, middle-aged conservatism is set alongside a queasy, warped musical backdrop. Scott just about nails the uncomfortable truth about modern British culture when he intones “the moment becomes the monument” – there’s a government-funded research project just waiting to escape from that statement already. Jamie remains in a reflective mood on “Our Land Could Be Your Life” as he explores post-industrial Rutherglen in a surprisingly straightforward and tender song, with a minimal pulse of a tune burbling away underneath. This tendency towards the personal and political feels like a distinct shift from the comparatively playful “Surrender to Summer” EP which arrived earlier in the year, but it’s not an unwelcome one as Scott‘s swipes at bankers and fallen politicians are gentler, cleverly observed and far wittier than most in an era of otherwise pretty ham-fisted attempts at protest singing. Finally the mood is lifted out of reverie by the gently insistent, upbeat “Daddy Says” with it’s almost choral closing refrain of “squint at the sun“. I continue to find myself surprised and amazed by The Japanese War Effort in the strange ability to turn a style of music which I’ve previously found fairly disengaging and perhaps even confusing, into something vital and personal.
Wherever you stand in the debate, the cassette feels like just about the perfect way to deliver both The Japanese War Effort and Field Mouse, with their shared love of analogue clicks, pops and glitches, washes of water-colour electronica and warped retro beats. Taken alongside the beautiful packaging there is a sense of a masterpiece in DIY miniature here, and a real feeling of craftsmanship and industry. Both sides feature sometimes slightly downbeat, but mesmerizing soundtracks to what promises to be a rather gloomy winter, with just the hint of humour and warmth necessary to make it all worthwhile. If you’re going to treat yourself to a Christmas present which has the potential to last beyond the empty bottles and discarded carcasses of the festive season, you could do far, far worse than investing in this cassette.
The split tape can be purchased from Gerry Loves Records for £5, complete with a digital download of all of the tracks and more for the casette-challenged. The label is also offering a two-for-one deal with their split 12″ also featuring The Japanese War Effort for just £10.
It’s possible of course for these blogs to become terribly personal and subjective, and I’ve wondered for a while if inviting others to chip in their thoughts would be a good idea to break the monotony of my reviews and ramblings? Particularly when the shows I’d really like to cover are often miles away and not easy to get to, I’ve toyed for a while with including views from those who can make the trip to the furthest corners of the country to these hallowed events. But who can sustain the level of heavily biased, utterly one-sided observations which our readers have become used to? We needed a celebrity contributor who could step up the mark – and well, we’ve got one. Some of you will, I’m sure know our guest from his often bizarre but always entertainingly alcoholic ramblings on Twitter. Today, putting the critic in Cricetinae, I’m delighted to introduce Zaphod Jr. His view arrives in the form of a letter from Edinburgh – and yes, I’m assured he really is a hamster…
From my little perch on top of a speaker I had a pretty good view of Kid Canaveral‘s Christmas Baubles II for someone so small. First on was The Pictish Trail, I enjoyed that very loud set, made my paws tingle. But all the better for it! His cover of Slow Club‘s “Gold Mountain” was a winner! Next, after a quick soirée to the bar, rolling back my can to my perch (the can was almost bigger than me!) was Eagleowl. At first from the name I thought they might eat me, but all was good! I’d not seen these guys before and was impressed. After this was Sweet Baboo who’s periodic mentions of drink were right up my street! Closely followed by Aidan John Moffat who is also maybe a man after my own heart. At this point I decided to get my straw out to siphon off passing humans’ drinks since getting a can is harder than it looks! Martin John Henry was up next and I had a bit of a dance on the speaker as you do! And Josie Long‘s jumbled cracker jokes nearly made me fall off – I know the issues with ghosts well, I swear one keeps pinching my sunflower seeds!
So to lunch, or for me what seemed the ideal time to go syphon off the slops bucket into my pouches for later. Came back with full pouches and cider soaked fur to see Standard Fare who I had stowed away to see first earlier in the month much nearer my cage. Loved them. Then it was time for the big one, Kid Canaveral! I think this set took all my dancing reserves for the month I’ll tell you! A mash of older and newer songs, all so much fun, and joined by King Creosote for the new joint single “Home Run and a Vow” blowing the crowd away again. Then my favourite song of all: “You Only Went Out To Get Drunk Last Night” it’s almost a ballad to my little life!! And heading off the evening was Slow Club, starting their set with a cover song in the centre of the room acoustically before starting properly- another reason to dance around! The set ended with an encore of Christmas songs which really got me thinking it’s Christmas I better buy my laaaaaaady hamster a gift or two! The humans stayed around for a while after doing what they call dancing, it was a bit lame – no gymnastics and hanging upside down involved. I snuck off home before my humans started to miss me!
You can follow our guest contributor on Twitter, here. Zaphod is currently touring the country taking in a string of Christmas gigs and parties. He may well be popping up near you soon. Kid Canaveral are currently working on material for their second album.
Around this time of year, it’s going to be hard to peruse any blog without bumping into an ‘end of year list’. I’m undecided on their value in some ways – they are naturally pretty subjective and limited by individual bloggers’ tastes and attitudes. It’s also going to end up a summary of the content of the blog over the past twelve months if, like me, you write fairly exclusively about music you find interesting or inspiring. Then there are the rules – what qualifies, what doesn’t – a veritable trainspotter’s delight of technicalities, sub-clauses and exceptions to twist their favourite releases into the framework. In short, it’s a complicated and confusing time of year for the christmas party gig-addled blogger.
But since the mainstream press will be full of their own backslapping efforts to appear to be defining the zeitgeist, I’m a little less concerned about this happening on blogs and podcasts. It redresses the balance a little, and reading these lists on sites with which I generally find I’m musically compatible provides an opportunity to check what I’ve missed. It was this sort of thing which led me to Timber Timbre and Aidan Knight in the past. If nothing else I hope that this list points someone to something they’ve missed and they give it a spin too. I’ve said it before, but this blog is after all the internet expression of yelling at your pals that you “just heard something amazing!”
So what are the rules for the Songs Heard on Fast Trains list for 2011? Pretty simple, this is a list of full-length releases which I’ve listened to most, returned to most often and which I’ll carry forward as essential listening into the new year. It’s a very personal, highly skewed list I have to admit. There are some very honourable omissions, and because for the sake of my sanity the list has only twenty places, because as an arguably fairly normal human being there are things I love more than others – but this doesn’t stop me loving them too. The order of the list is based on nothing more than the impact the releases have had on me – there is no science here, aside from a cursory glance at last.fm to see if my suspicions on what I’ve listened to most are founded in fact or fantasy. There could equally be a list for singles and EPs, gigs or other stuff – but there are still interesting records being released in 2011, so I might get distracted and write about those instead.
So, without further rambling or self-justification here is the list. It’s been a strange and interesting year for me, and the music below has been the soundtrack. Here’s to the next one!
- King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
- FOUND – Factorycraft
- Edinburgh School for the Deaf – New Youth Bible
- Rob St.John – Weald
- Beerjacket – The White Feather Trail
- Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel
- The John Knox Sex Club – Raise Ravens
- Adam Stafford – Build a Harbour Immediately
- The Shivers – More
- The Moth & The Mirror – Honestly, This World
- Song of Return – Limits
- White Heath – Take No Thought For Tomorrow
- Slow Club – Paradise
- Jonnie Common – Master of None
- Pensioner – Yearlings
- The Renderers – A Rocket Into Nothing
- I Build Collapsible Mountains – The Spectator and the Act
- King Post Kitsch – The Party’s Over
- Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
- Lonely Tourist – Sir, I Am A Good Man
Some honourable mentions too, to Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat, Come on Gang!, Edward Gray, Martin John Henry, The Son(s), Happy Particles and United Fruit who made me struggle with the idea of this being a Top 25, or even a Top 30. No doubt these artists will be appearing in lists everywhere – and maybe here in the near future too.