I’ll be honest, I’ve been itching to write about North American War for a long time now, and with this new release they’ve finally given me the excuse I needed. Since hearing their debut EP – which is still available free from Winning Sperm Party – I’ve been trying to contrive a reason to feature them here. However, having not managed to make it north of the border to any of their sporadic and often short notice live appearances, it’s only now with the release of this 7″ single that I get to talk about this intriguing and – for me at least – rather mysterious band. It’s going to become painfully clear in the next couple of paragraphs that I know woefully little about them, so readers will have to indulge me and take this at face value – because it’s a damn fine record you really ought to hear.
The really unfair thing to do here would be to pull in a few reference points, make some lazy comparisons and leave it at that – and it’s inevitable that reviewers with good record collections, long memories or (like me) a few years on the clock will resort to mentions of Sonic Youth. This is no bad thing, because if North American War have picked up the thread from that behemoth of US alternative rock, they’ve selected that brief moment when they balanced bubblegum pop and experimental guitar destruction almost perfectly. But there is far more to North American War than a set of, albeit very well chosen, influences. Not least in the laconic and brutally disinterested vocals provided by Anna Schneider which set them apart from other bands ploughing similar furrows. She carefully half-speaks the fragmented, paranoid lyrics of “Ivory And” while scratchy, urgent guitars duel for attention. Occasionally, they burst free into a squall of ungoverned white noise. But Anna never breaks her stride, carefully pacing her distant, disconnected utterances. After a brief respite, there is a storm of irrepressible, beautifully discordant guitar noise with at least three distinct melodies vying for dominance at the track’s conclusion. These few moments of blissfully tinnitus-inducing racket make me want very badly to see North American War play live as soon as possible.
Meanwhile “Geraniums On A Spit” is a different proposition, opening with a delicate and almost pretty guitar melody and just slightly ominous sounding backing vocals. The vocal drifts between German and English while the bass and drums drive things forward with a little more form and pace this time. The guitars shift between their melodic, slightly off-centre drift and a satisfyingly gruff, edgy note which maintains the tension. It’s never as simple as loud/quiet/loud here, with the track collapsing and reforming several times while the vocals are wound up towards the concluding – and oddly sinister refrain of “if you don’t come now/I’ll never get out of bed again“. There are points here where they drift into that dark, uncharted territory inhabited by The Dead C and their New Zealand brethren – where the squalls of noise fuel the imagination into hearing things which aren’t really there. It’s unsettling, enervating and dangerously addictive stuff. While it’s easy, as I hinted, to parcel off North American War in terms of bands who have done similar things historically, in pieces like this they display an acute understanding of songcraft and dynamics which is often absent in some of the more waywardly experimental guitar music out there.
It’s a huge relief when a band gets me as excited about music as North American War have managed to over the course of their debut EP and this single. I started this blog to record and relate music I loved, and whilst it might seem because of that policy that there is never a shortage of things for me to get fired up about, it does sometimes spook me that not nearly enough of it is genuinely new and coming up from the grass roots. This record, and the band which made it restores enough of that faith to make me want to keep listening. I get the sense here that this is the start of a very interesting journey for North American War.
North American War‘s “Ivory And”/”Geraniums On A Spit” 7″ is released today. You can purchase it in a limited, hand-painted sleeve including a digital download from Bandcamp. The debut EP is available as a free download from Winning Sperm Party, or as a cassette featuring additional tracks here on Bandcamp. They can be seen at Doune The Rabbit Hole on August 24th-26th.
This is the first new King Creosote solo material to be widely released since 2009 – which apart from being a criminally long gap in releases, is surprising since the “Diamond Mine” effect means I can now have meaningful conversations with work colleagues about him without blank looks or nervous glances at the clock. During that time Kenny Anderson appears to have almost lost faith with the turbulent and slowly imploding music business, going as far as to provide an album via live performance only, to thwart the more mercenary elements of the business. But now, back on Domino who at least seem to understand how (and when) he works, this is the first in a series of EPs which re-visit and re-work the songs from the largely acoustic “That Might Be It, Darling” LP, which you could mostly get only by fronting up at a Fence Records event of some description. So with Kenny‘s profile rarely higher among the nation’s music lovers, and with the industry still languishing on it’s collective arse and lashing out at the hand that feeds it by way of lawsuits, talent shows and format wars, what exactly has King Creosote learned from the Gaels? If you’ve come looking for an honest, warts-and-all critique, you’d better leave now because Songs Heard On Fast Trains isn’t the place… This release has seen days crossed off calendars in anticipation, pre-orders placed at the first possible moment, and a mercy dash to the Post Office depot to effect an emergency rescue. This is, in all fairness, unlikely to be an objective piece of writing…
There haven’t been many songs which are complimentary about the 1980s. In fact musically at least there seems to be a collective amnesia about some of the aberrations which occurred during those dark, confused times as Britain began it’s slow transit to modernity. Sure enough, in these similarly gloomy financial times, there is a money to be made in ironic theme nights, and it was left to the long-since decommissioned Prolapse to succinctly sum things up in their scathing piece “Deanshanger“. But, calculating that I am in fact a very similar age to Kenny Anderson, its impossible to deny the influence that the eighties had on some of us who grew up during the time, and “Doubles Underneath” is King Creosote‘s love song for the lost decade. Shuffling in on a jaunty drumbeat with little reels of accordion and a nifty bass melody appearing on cue, Kenny is in fine voice – his oblique and cryptic lyrical opening giving way to the more direct observation that “there’s definitely something up/’cause the clocks have all but stopped back in 1984“. Part way through it becomes apparent that this isn’t perhaps a simple nostalgic look back at the music of that bygone era, it’s King Creosote‘s apologia for what he sees as his own past deficiencies. In his words it’s the decade that came “before that 90′s guff” was the one “you’re overly proud of“. Whilst I’m not sure his assessment of either of those periods in terms of his own releases is accurate, if this signals the rejuvenation and reinvigoration King Creosote, then that’s got to be a good thing. With a reverb heavy guitar solo, and a droning organ ending this is a proper rock song which wouldn’t have cut much muster back in the era of synth-pop and highly elaborate haircuts perhaps? But then again, it’s maybe no accident that this EP is available on 12″ only, with the heyday of the ‘Maxi-Single’ format being one of my fondest memories of the decade. You always knew you were in the presence of a proper fan if they had the twelve-inch…
One day I will count the references to stars in King Creosote‘s back catalogue – not an easy prospect, as I’m often reminded by pangs of horror that I have only the tiniest bit of his massive output here – but even so, its an image which crops up a lot. Maybe it’s something about clear, northern skies and the lack of light pollution in the East Neuk of Fife? In any case “Near Star, Pole Star” is a welcome addition to this list. By far the quietest and most uncomplicated song on the EP it benefits from the initially strange but ultimately beguiling overlaying of HMS Ginafore‘s song “Ounces” onto its quietly direct and emotive structure. A rolling, maritime rhythm with a gentle acoustic guitar line and a woozy organ backs Kenny‘s plaintive vocal here. A painstakingly described would-be-relationship sees its false-start laid bare – like all the best ones, starting with dutch courage, a nervous proposal, drunken late-night coffee and alcohol induced vomiting. But it’s ultimately all for nothing, a brief episode in a life described in acute, slightly raw detail with buckets of sublime pathos and a little humour. It’s left to the distant, spectral and gorgeously underrated voice of HMS Ginafore to bring the song to a close.
There is of course, a whole new generation of King Creosote fans who will have heard Kenny mostly in reflective mood, with Jon Hopkins slowly manipulating a harmonium by his side. How they’ll make the transition to this new material will be an interesting prospect, and “Single Cheep” is going to be the acid test. It’s good old fashioned pop music, performed by a band which strides stylistically across the decades – bright acoustic guitars tangle with delicious sixties-style rock’n'roll solos and fifties-throwback vocal harmonies courtesy – in part at least – of BBC Radio Scotland DJ Vic Galloway. Meanwhile Kenny leaps for the notes and belts out the bitterness in inimitable style. In her hilarious but neatly apposite sleeve notes Nicola Meighan makes reference to Anderson and Galloway‘s previous exploits in the Khartoum Heroes, a band rejuvenated for a riotous Homegame 2011 performance and now occasionally to be reformed on special occasions it seems. This is very much in that spirit, a high-speed dash through an old tune now infused with new energy and a shiver of anger and frustration. Finally, and in the time-worn tradition of Fence Collective related releases, the everyone-is-in-everyone-else’s-band effect arrives in earnest on “Little Man”. With the majority of the vocals delivered by the tiny human dynamo that is Alan Stewart aka Gummi Bako, this was always going to get messy! It chugs and stutters in, a tangled mix of noisy, garagey guitar sounds. Gummi Bako‘s oddly alien vocal delivery is well-suited to the angry, frustrated lyric which complains “I’m so tired of this old life/just can’t seem to get it right“. With each wheel around the song, Stewart ups the ante, his voice sounding increasingly unhinged and urgent. Guitars build, an urgent patter of djembe sets up courtesy of Captain Geeko, and the organ whirls appealingly. King Creosote himself orders a final crash from the band, and the record is done…
Well, done for now at least. By my calculation there will need to be at least two more of these all too tantalisingly brief forays into the post-Mercury world of King Creosote in order to cover all of the “That Might Be It, Darling” material. These songs have burned slowly, gestating over a long period whilst the promotional duties for the project with Jon Hopkins have consumed time and energy no doubt. That these new versions haven’t landed far from their stripped back, simpler cousins at all is testament to just how good they are perhaps? But where they have altered and developed, it’s to become even more engaging, direct and impossible to ignore.
You can purchase King Cresote‘s “I Learned From The Gaels” via the Domino Records Mart, or from the Fence Webshop on proper, old fashioned 12″ vinyl only. Wherever you get it, you’ll find a download voucher inside. What you won’t get, sadly, is any sort of preview here. Because I suspect that would make Kenny very angry indeed! King Creosote curates and headlines the Refugee Week Scotland Opening Concert on June 18th, at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, and can also be seen in a variety of fields across the nations this summer including Camp Bestival, Green Man and Festival No.6.
There are days when, even as someone who seems to be a source of technical support for everyone around me, technology defeats me. Today it was even more annoyingly totally out of my control, as vandals destroyed vital bits of the railway system turning travelling into a slow, hot and frustrating experience. Listening to the ill-informed griping, watching harassed staff being abused by idiots in suits, and looking at the faces of woe around me in the carriage, it was amusing to think of the name of tonight’s headline act. There were a lot of angry humans around me today. As ever, pickings on a Tuesday night in Bristol were slim, and I pondered why bands who’d made the long trek down south always seemed to end up here on this quietest of days? Competing with the Olympic Torch Relay hadn’t helped either, with Bristolians treating the arrival of that dim flicker of competitive spirit as an opportunity to get drunk in the sunshine. In some ways, who can blame them? It’s probably the most they’ll get from the London-centric circus that comes to town this summer. But I digress, and any drift into discussing that Grand Plan will get ugly.
The modestly filled upstairs room at The Louisiana quietened respectfully for Martin John Henry who took to the stage with just his acoustic guitar and a little bank of electrickery. Thinking back to his self-confessed nerves at Homegame a year or so back, it was actually really remarkable to see how his confidence and his songs had transformed in that time. Opening with “A Love Economy” from De Rosa‘s “Prevention” album, the set progressed through a number of songs from last year’s superb but somewhat unsung solo debut “The Other Half of Everything” beginning with the fragile but affecting “Breathing Space”. Using the electronics sparingly, and drafting in Human Don’t Be Angry guitarist Paul Mellon, Henry was able to flesh out these largely acoustic takes on the songs into truly lovely, enthralling pieces in their own right. An edgily menacing “Only Colour” leads into another De Rosa track in the shape of “Pest” and suddenly it’s clear just how many wonderful songs Henry has at his disposal, and how great it would be if he just kept playing. However, all too aware that his support slot was coming to an end, Martin delivered a plaintive take on “I Love Map” before closing with a re-worked Christmas song “Under The Stars”, rejected from a BBC compilation “because I sing ‘piss’ in the second line“. It turns out to be a spirited, rollicking winter tune with a leery edge of implied violence – fantastic stuff indeed and a lost to the prudes at our national broadcaster, who’s recent decisions on the regional “Introducing…” shows indicates just how narrow their vision really is. Henry‘s set tonight exuded confidence in the performance and the material, sounded amazing as things seem to at The Louisiana’s nowadays, and won him plenty of interest from a modestly sized but curious audience.
In contrast to Martin John Henry who I appear to have inadvertently stalked around Scotland for a while, I was a late-comer to Malcolm Middleton‘s most recent project, as I was to his other solo work. The ending of Arab Strap was just about the final straw for my musical frustration those years ago, and seeing them – coincidentally supported by Martin‘s recently reformed band De Rosa – at The Thekla on their final tour was one of the last gigs I went to for a very long time indeed. In the intervening years, Middleton‘s solo output has resulted in a collection of funny, painful and wry observations on relationships, the human condition and often by extension the identity crisis of the modern Scotsman. Despite only marginal exposure to this until recently, it was a bit of a surprise to first hear Human Don’t Be Angry in all it’s sprawling, post-progressive-rock glory. Tonight, it’s hard to believe that the four musicians on stage are going to be able to recreate some of the delicate, multi-layered work on the recently released album, but rather amazingly they manage it perfectly. Middleton, joined by Henry on bass, the aforementioned Mellon on guitar and a live drummer, is a quiet and humble figure on stage who makes it all look annoyingly easy as the band meander into a wayward, opening instrumental which may have been loosely based on “After The Pleasuredome” from the recent album, on the back of their “Chariots of Fire” intro music. With a minimum of audience interaction, it’s on to “The Missing Plutonium”, where the urgent distorted throb of bass provided by Henry is filthily compelling, carrying the slight melody whilst Middleton and Mellon spin guitar magic around him. “First Person Singular, Present Tense” sees Middleton take, almost reluctantly to the microphone uttering the mantra of “looking for the person…” repeatedly with an air of increasing menace. This is about as vocal as he gets during my time in the venue, and on the eponymous “Human Don’t Be Angry Theme” he elects to leave the vocals to disembodied electronics which echo oddly and unsettlingly around the small venue. Throughout these pieces, the influence – both in terms of sound and composition – of label-mates Mogwai looms large, with open, spacious arrangements. In Middleton‘s case though, these spaces are an opportunity to weave wonderfully dark webs of guitar work which take things spinning into other dimensions entirely. Somewhere during one of the pauses in the magic tonight Middleton introduces his new band to the audience and a voice from the crowd tells him “You’re loud“, adding after a brief pause “but GOOD loud!“. I could probably have left the review at that, because his assessment is just about perfect.
With the railway still struggling back to normality after it’s difficult day, I had to slip away a little early – something I utterly hate doing. But leaving the Louisiana with the sprawling, weird and epic racket of Human Don’t Be Angry echoing around the street outdoors was a fitting exit.
I’ve written before about Esperi, but make absolutely no apology for once again drawing attention to this, long-anticipated new release. In fact “Melancholics Anonymous” seems to have been in preparation forever, before suddenly and almost apologetically announcing itself to the world. It’s fair to say that Esperi – whether it is indeed a band, an individual or a revolving collective of creative folks centred on Dundee-native songwriter Chris Marr – is one of the hardest working entities in Scottish music. A constant string of live dates over the past year or so paused only to allow Chris time to work with fellow troubadours Luke Joyce of I Build Collapsible Mountains and Panda Su. But this hasn’t translated into a hectic release schedule however, and this is this first music committed to record since last year’s “Esperi EP” on Olive Grove Records which essentially collected together songs which had been scattered around the internet for a while. These mixed the simple, open hearted singer-songwriter approach with more experimental washes of sound and playful instrumentals. But this all-new EP on Fall On Records finally sees the two sides of Esperi welded together. Happily the personal, human warmth remains perfectly intact, while new musical pastures are explored over the space of five delicate, heartfelt compositions.
The record opens with “Homer” which is, in many senses, trademark Esperi. A shuffling beat and a complex, jazzy bass line courtesy of the perhaps unlikely hand of Fat Goth‘s Kev Black propel the song at a surprisingly jaunty pace at odds with the title of the EP. Meanwhile Chris Marr unravels his reflective, half-spoken musings on fatherhood and parenting. After a quiet, delicate pause for handclaps and bells, Marr‘s voice is centre stage the song reveals it’s eponymous but unlikely hero. There are genuinely tender reminiscences here which vie for emotional space with the swelling, heart-bursting additon of The Korda String Quartet which provides a discrete and sympathetic addition to the track, rather than drowning the song’s spirit in strings which is always a temptation when you have musicians of this calibre on hand. The influence of the oddly and guiltily compelling show of the same name sees “Come Dine With Me” skitter in on a burst of untuned TV noise which resolves into more of Chris‘s beautifully intricate guitar picking and a wash of gentle strings. The sarcasm-drenched daytime cooking contest doesn’t have too much further influence on proceedings, beside a reference in the chorus – but this song is full of the warmth of homecoming and shared histories. This also sees the first appearance of another Esperi signature in the use of toy bells and tinkling percussion, as ever performed on improvised instruments constructed from bits of household junk. This, along with Marr‘s remarkably skilled use of a loop pedal are staples of the Esperi live set, which translate to record surprisingly well.
On “Broadlands”, the stripped down backing of just guitar and handbells allows Marr‘s lyrics to take a bolder, broader sweep. It’s brief and simple, gently and reverently detailing life-long friendship and suggesting how a time-worn connection allows people to unerringly read each other in it’s refrain “your eyes/never too hard to disguise“. It’s these interludes, short and direct, heart worn firmly on sleeve, which set Esperi apart from those who spin darker, more oblique tales. What you hear is most definitely what you get, and the song ebbs away into birdsong and countryside sounds far too soon. There is an otherworldly, dreamlike quality to “Luke” which seems to describe a much loved, sleeping dog, but in such delicate and tender detail that its impossible not to be swept up in Marr‘s strange mix of celebration and melancholy reflection. Weaving his breathy lyrical delivery around a sheen of noise and clinking, ringing percussion sounds and a quiet thunder of bass, it’s here too that his lyrics become perhaps their most touchingly descriptive with lines like “watching you sleep/is like watching a meadow/with each breath that you take/your hair ebbs and flows“. As ever, Esperi delivers those surprising, lump-in-throat moments when they’re least expected. The EP closes with “Who I Am” which is a surprisngly forthright exposition of the Esperi ethic. It’s tempting to reason that Marr is telling us exactly why he’s working so hard for his songs to be heard as he quietly but forcefully suggests “it’s in my bones/it helps me grow“. The song gradually builds with gentle drums and resounding washes and crashes of cymbal adding an oddly nautical ebb and flow to the sound. Marr‘s quiet lyrical strength is at its best here, and when the song finally breaks free in a clamour of military drums, bells and crashes, it’s liberating and illuminating in equal measure. Finally, it all dissolves into tape hiss and disappears back to Esperi‘s homegrown roots.
Once again Esperi has managed to capture the sound of hearts breaking and being reforged on this brief collection of songs which focus on passing time, love and loss, growth and change without descending into schmaltz or allowing sentimentality to get the better of them. While this EP strikes a middle ground between the song-based and experimental work which has been kept resolutely separate in the past, across the five songs here the lyrical themes couldn’t be more varied or their detail more acutely observed. There are plenty of artists ploughing the solo singer-songwriter furrow nowadays, and probably always will be – but you’ll struggle to find an artist more inventive and committed than Chris Marr.
You can download “Melancholics Anonymous” on a pay-what-you-like basis from Esperi’s Bandcamp page. The video for “Come Dine With Me” can be seen here too. Esperi will play at the Go North festival in Inverness on 6th/7th June, with more dates to be announced shortly.
Having tried, and mostly failed in keeping up to date with interesting new things here on Songs Heard on Fast Trains, I more than anyone appreciate how the mundane churn of day-to-day life can get in the way of doing creative, interesting or rewarding things. I also know all too well how there is always something out there to steal your attention and lure you into doing far more pointless things – isn’t that what the internet was invented for after all? So today’s selections are from two bands who have disappeared for quite a while but are now back with a vengeance. I’m not suggesting they’ve been playing dodgy Facebook games or laughing at pictures of cats wearing bread during this time. They’ve just taken a while to get these releases out into the world. If there is a common theme, it’s perhaps that these two new singles reveal bands who have changed and developed – let alone grown in membership – during their absence.
The State Broadcasters – Trespassers
Some bands seem to have been a part of the furniture for so long that you sort of forget to hear them. That sounds a bit glib I know, but having had the privilege of being bombarded with new music these past couple of years there are bound to be bands which fall by the wayside. But if fate deals the right card, you’ll encounter them later and have one of those forehead-slapping moments where you wonder why you weren’t listening earlier. The State Broadcasters caused me just such a moment, and the reason they’ve sprung to mind now is their addition to the ever eclectic roster of Olive Grove Records who continue to judge the timing perfectly with their slow and steady release of new Scottish music. Having arrived on the scene during my period of musical disillusionment, there is some catching up to do as The State Broadcasters already have pedigree – a single and album on Electric Honey, some high profile support slots and an award at Celtic Connections not least among their achievements.
Emerging as a taste of a forthcoming second album, “Trespassers” is a curiously formal waltz, sparse at its outset with Graeme Black‘s melancholy voice and a piano doing all the work. As the narrative unwinds, the benefits of being a six-piece band of multi-instrumentalists become apparent with a reassuringly solid double-bass marking time, while dashes of piano and ukulele adorn the track. The lyric is a tale of disassociation and longing, which builds to a chorus drenched in chiming guitars and dramatic key changes. The highlight for me is the entrance of the lush, beautifully arranged strings which carry the song away to new heights. Overall, there is an atmosphere of regret and heart-aching sadness, but those uplifting strings bring things back from the brink. In an era when everyone is suddenly a folk musician, this is unashamedly heart-on-sleeve pop music which misappropriates all the wistful, dark honesty from that contested – and somewhat devalued – genre. Make no mistake, The State Broadcasters are coming after your heartstrings with this stuff – and they won’t rest until they’ve seen grown men cry.
“Trespassers” will be available as a free download on 11th June, in anticipation of The State Broadcasters second album “Ghosts We Must Carry” which will arrive in September. The band play The Captains Rest in Glasgow on 14th June with Randolph’s Leap as part of the West End Festival. You can find their debut album “The Ship and The Iceberg” on iTunes.
Jesus H. Foxx – So Much Water
Whilst Jesus H. Foxx might seem a world away in terms of sound and approach, there are some remarkable similarities with The State Broadcasters. Also emerging from a host of other bands in the heady years at the end of the last decade, where the internet was making all kinds of things possible for small bands, they too have left a big gap between releases. They’ve left a huge hole in the Edinburgh music scene too during this time, because as I’ve remarked elsewhere, there just haven’t been good guitar bands coming through at all in the last few years. A ramshackle, delightfully messy single “Tightt Ideas” preceded an EP in 2009. Since then, Jesus H. Foxx have officially been recording their debut album for Song, By Toad. This process has become one of those legendarily protracted experiences, up there with My Bloody Valentine and The Beach Boys – and for a long time we’ve had to be content with the assurance that “it’ll be ready soon…”
Well, the album is here – and it’s purely down to my laziness and lack of organisation that it hasn’t had a full, over-wordy exposition here on this site. I might yet get around to it if real life gives me the time and the space. For now though “So Much Water” – a free single available for immediate download – captures the spirit of the record perfectly. Declaring it’s intentions early with a glorious splash of colourful, ringing guitars, the song settles into a pensive and jittery rhythm. It’s almost obligatory to reference Pavement when writing about Jesus H. Foxx but to be honest, the similarity – at least here – starts and ends with Michael Hunter‘s downbeat drawl and the phrasing of the vocals. A sudden explosion of competing voices and chiming guitar lines heralds a chorus which explodes again and again throughout the remainder of the song. This has much more in common with the familiar British indie-pop sounds of the last couple of decades than anything from across the pond. The band – numbering seven at full strength – uses it’s multiple vocalists to excellent effect here, with chorus of backing voices appearing to support the long, blissfully jangling outro. There is a sunny, upbeat quality to “So Much Water” which is tempered by the laconic vocals and near-defeated lyrics. While elsewhere on their album you’ll find strings, brass and all manner of rather wonderful cleverness this is the band at their simplest and most direct. Somehow Jesus H. Foxx manage to fuse together that scratchy, punky sense of urgency with lush summery guitar pop in ways which very few bands seem interested in attempting now. The fact that there is now a whole album of this awaiting your listening pleasure is something to be very happy about indeed.
You can download “So Much Water” right now, for absolutely nothing from Song, By Toad Records where the album “Endless Knocking” can be purchased too, and comes highly recommended. News of a launch event will follow at some point we are assured, but once you live in the world of Jesus H. Foxx you learn that the anticipation is all part of the fun.