From sparking clean Stockholm Sweden to the down right grit of NYC, this week we lend our ears to First Aid Kit in all their harmonious loveliness and then get straight on to lo-fi, punksters that are Parquet Courts. Two completely different but great releases that have many of us as continuing devotees respectfully. We listen hard to James and their 13th full length album, yes, the band who brought us the British indie classic Sit Down, return with Le Petit Morte that sees the chaps going all dance and upbeat. Not a bad return as far as we are concerned but one that may have many divided, is there really room for a band that has been around so long???? Finally, we listen in apprehension to the new album from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah now that they band have gone from 5 to a duo. What does it mean for the band and their latest album? Sit back, have a read and let us share with your our thoughts and views.
Artist_ First Aid Kit
Album Title_Stay Gold
Label_ Columbia/Sony Music
Genre_Accoustic, Ballad, Alt-Folk, Alt-Country
Moments Of_ June Carter, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes
It must be something in the water pipes of Sweden or the air that is breathed, but when it comes to pop music and melodic gems, this is one country that beats them all. In 2009, First Aid Kit released their first recording in the form of an EP called Drunken Trees and this was the first we really heard of these two sisters, Johanna and Klara Soderberg. There is denying their influences of Americana Country with respectful bows to Jonny Cash and Emmylou Harris however with having teamed up with Mike Mogis who also worked with Bright Eyes (the reason why First Aid Kit started writing music), their sound remains wholesome and timeless.
In mid 2009, I read an article about 2 Swedish girls who were too young to be in the venues they played in, writing music that should have been penned by someone three decades their senior, songs that Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris or June Carter would be proud of. Not that I was much of a fan of Country music back then, this was a big claim so in true reactive style I searched out their debut EP Drunken Trees. Dripping in influences from years gone by, this was an EP that had “promising” written all over it so much so that I was first to get tickets to their debut gig at Bush Hall. What a night. You have to love you tube because here it is…..
Two very nervous young girls took the stage like they were about to offer “show and tell”. With fingers strumming their guitars and harmonies soaring with such beauty, we all new we were witnessing something very special.
So here we are 5 years on and their 3rd full length album, Stay Gold. Although there is not much in the way of a change of direction (why change a good thing) this is an album of sheer maturity and accomplishment both in production and song writing. The Lion’s Roar was equally an accomplished album but what makes Stay Gold so special is the addition to some subtle but powerful orchestration. The sister’s vocals continue to soar throughout all the tracks and although having “genetics” as an advantage, there is no denying their vocal abilities and their ability to blend each others voice so perfectly as one. Shattered and Hollow proves this to a tea and sung so deep down from a full heart, it yearns love lost. Okay, they are only low 20’s….a lot to learn..but hey, they fake it pretty well.
Opening track and a single release My Silver Lining is an instant reminder that these girls no what they are doing and they have no plans of changing what they are so damn good at. Id say this is more Western than Country and would fit suitably in a classic Western where there is no road but the road ahead. Funny that, the lyrics reference this perfectly….such brilliant lyrics. “I just keep on, keeping on……”
Each song tells of stories of love that is lost and found, lyrics of vulnerability and power, weakness and strength…. Even if lyrics are not your calling in musical joy, you cant help but want to listen to the stories that are being told here. They are actually quite beautifully and you have to remind yourself that we are listening to two sisters from Sweden and not the deep south of America.
Their most recent single Cedar Lane, takes a psychedelic twist with slide guitars, gentle gliding vocals that carry through like a gorgeous lullaby, again lyrics.
Waitress Song takes First Aid Kit back to their early recordings and the closest we get to the strip back sounds that we all were fond of. Quickly the songs build in production but it just works so fine. You can here how the help of orchestration, a bit of band can make these girls sound full and grand. You can’t help listening to these lyrics and know that they are written straight from the heart.
Mogis has done this album proud and made two Swedish girls a very important addition to today’s music scene. The orchestration on all these tracks is subtle but doesn’t get in the way of the Johanna’s vocal, the backing instruments just perfectly accompanied. Whether you have a fondness for folk, country (or western) I don’t believe there is any denying that we have two hugely talented songstresses in our hands and if this is 3 albums and only 24 years at the most that they have been on the planet, we have many MANY more years to be graced with some beautiful music. I almost feel quite proud to have been there from the start and watched them grow into Stay Gold.
Album Title_ Le Petit Mort
Label_ BMG Chrysalis/Cooking Vinyl
Genre_ Alternative Rock
Moments Of_ The Charlatans, Shed Seven
Manchester misfits James have dropped their 13th studio album, the curiously titled La Petit Mort. A staple figure in post – punk and alternative rock since the early 80’s, James have endured various incarnations along with the departure of Tim Booth in 2001, a break up and somehow managed to outlive (thank heavens) the inception and consequent demise of the 90’s brit – pop boom. Such anthemic pearls as Come Home, Sit Down and She’s A Star litter an extensive body of work that has colored the past 3 decades. Le Petit Mort is a return to the gamey, introspective fare we’ve come to expect from the alt – rock veterans, and this week I got the op for a bit of a sit down and squizz at their latest.
It’s a peculiar dichotomy. On one hand, we may potentially have some very somber subject matter on our hands if the title of this album is anything to go by. The literal translation of Le Petit Mort is ‘The Little Death’. Atmospherically, it should (in theory) provide a relatively ominous backdrop, and mortality certainly does play the lead role in this album, hands down. However, in France it’s also an idiom for a reduction far more lascivious in nature. The only reason I know this is because I recall being about 15 or so, and whilst loitering at the local video store and engaging in other similarly frivolous endeavors, I stumbled across the Bride of Chuckie movie.
Whilst I found most of it inconsequential, there was one part in particular that did stick, and it was a scene where a transsexual cum Marilyn Manson type explained that Le Petit Mort is in direct reference to climactic elation. Subsequently, what follows is the expulsion of life force and state of euphoria, triggered by a precipitous rush of oxytocin in the brain. Phew, what a mouthful. But the theme of release plays a very central character in this album, and to quote Tim Booth directly ‘I reckon the lyrics are probably 80% about death and 20% about orgasms’.
The usual suspects that you’ve come to expect from James are all still nestled comfortably within the milieu. There is that unmistakable vocal of Booth’s that is just so phenomenally timeless that you would know it anywhere layered atop of those staple four chord paradigms. I think personally too, or for anyone that grew up listening to these guys, there’s just an inherent nostalgia attached to Booth’s voice. You also have the likes of Max Dingel on production here, which has resulted in some slightly more polished fare than we’ve been accustomed to, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Possibly yet another exercise in contrasts, a shiny happy turn on production juxtaposed against that solemn, ominously brooding subject of mortality. But make no mistake; this album is an ode to joy, upliftment and sheer beauty, which is evident from the moment you press play. The opener comes in the form of Walk Like You, a piano ringing, anthemic homage littered with minor chords for sufficient melancholy. Its contemplative, solicitous lyrics ponder primary conditioning and the complexities of the bonding paradigm whilst Curse Curse is a peculiarly acidic number, which I felt was slightly outside the realms of their wheelhouse, although those frank wistful affectations are still present as ever. Moving on is James in all their formative glory, four chord progressions abound and lulling synths for a rounded contextualization whereas Frozen Britain subscribes to a similarly formulaic palette, but its just as tasty now as it was in the 90’s. The latter part of the album is more subdued, personified in the form of Bitter Virtue, which is simplistic comparatively with its lilting proffers of the potential pleasure that lies in suffering.
For many a James fan, this album is a must. Admittedly there have been slight deviations from what you may have come to expect from these lads, but it is without refrain that James have ventured into these new soundscapes in a concerted effort to shake up their sonic palette, with the results speaking gregariously for themselves. Le Petit Mort despite the seemingly negative connotation is a rejoicing, life-affirming jewel that is poignant and joyful all in the same breath, marking an inspired evolution from the bands genesis. Its title may very well be The Little Death but this offering is a celebration of life, in all its beautifully tragic glory.
Artist_ Parquet Courts
Album Title_ Sunbathing Animal
Label_ Rough Trade Records (under license from What’s Your Rupture?)
Genre_ Indie Rock
Moments Of_ Tyvek, Smith Westerns, Cloud Nothings
Album number three from New York’s Parquet Courts (their first album, American Specialities, was only available on cassette and was released in late 2011) follows on from the highly acclaimed Light Up Gold released in the later part of 2012. It didn’t really gain much attention until they blew people away with their first U.S. tour, after which their ‘debut’ was re-released to a wider audience by Brooklyn based label What’s Your Rupture? in 2013. After a heavy worldwide touring schedule since it’s release, the guys have somehow managed time to write and record this new album, Sunbathing Animal. Does it live up to or exceed the uniqueness and slacker likeability of it’s predecessor? Read on to find out.
In a world full of generic indie rock bands (mostly springing forth from the US or the UK) it can quite a challenge to really pick out those differentiating qualities. A lot of people complain that music today all sounds the same, whilst refusing to listen to anything post-grunge era. Parquet Courts however are one of those bands that I would challenge such stubborn critics to really take an effort to listen to.
Taking influence from guitar bands of the late 90’s, they have previously described themselves a combination of The Fall and Neil Young. Many have used the term ‘slacker punk’ or ‘Americana rock’, but really whatever you call it, there’s not much else around right now that compares to them. This is also confirmed by their straight up live shows. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them a few times now in different environments. Each time their simple method of two guitars, bass, drums and Andrew Savage’s monotonous, Ben Folds paralleling vocals are enough ingredients for a hell of a good time.
It’s not all about the music that captures your ear. However it is pretty hard to ignore the basically one-chord power blast of Sunbathing Animal or the jump around chorus of Ducking and Dodging. These guys know to make the most of their basic set up; a sound that hints at nostalgia, but also feels unique and refreshing. Almost spoken word, Savage spits out descriptive but absurd monologues (who doesn’t remember the indecisive ideas of ‘Swedish fish, roasted peanuts or licorice’ from Stoned and Starving on Light Up Gold?) such as the hypnosis poet Ramona in Dear Ramona, where you can read about who she is going to bed with in her Moleskin.The song is tinged with out-of-tune chords and one in particular that makes you think there is a glitch in the song. It’s also pretty hard no to get the silly-but-who-cares bounce of ‘bodies made of….slugs and guts!’ from the album opener Bodies Made Of. This reinforces that these guys are here for a good time, not a serious time.
Whilst Sunbathing Animal doesn’t provide anything innovative in terms of guitar music, or in comparison to previous album Light Up Gold, stylistically they follow their formula well but feel slightly more polished on this release. That’s what two years of solid touring will do to you, I imagine. They are a tight knit quartet, which makes their music that much more captivating.
The way that they present and promote their music also demonstrates that they do really want you to focus on the music. They are unassuming looking guys, like some dudes you might see hanging out and drinking cheep beers at some average Brooklyn watering hole. And their videos, in particular that for the album track Sunbathing Animal is 3:52 of black and white footage of a still camera focussed on a cat roaming around a sun filled living room, probably doing things that it shouldn’t while it’s owner is away. It’s an important and grounding aesthetic in a world of polished pop stars and stadium attitude rock bands.
Sunbathing Animal is an appropriate follow on from their breakthrough album Light Up Gold. They haven’t done too much to change a winning formula or make things too complicated. They are good at what they do, and boy, the musical world is grateful for that. Guitar music needs Parquet Courts. They remind us that music is supposed to be fun, not to think about it too much and do what feels natural. No fancy stuff, just good times.
Artist: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Album Title: Only Run
Label: Self Released, under exclusive licence to Xtra Mile Recordings limited
Genre: Indie Rock
Moments Of: Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, White Rabbits, The Postal Service, Talking Heads
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are an American indie-rock band that produced an insanely awesome album almost 10 years ago now, that many would consider to be a cult classic. Since their self-titled debut album in 2005, they have added three more full-length albums to their repertoire, including this latest release, Only Run. The distinguishable vocals of frontman singer/songwriter Alec Ounsworth make CYHSY instantly recognisable, however, the biggest difference is seeing the band going from a five-piece band to a duo, leaving Ounsworth, and drummer Sean Greenhalgh to pick up the pieces.
The album is an enjoyable listen but perhaps appealing to a completely different fan base of musical listeners that were won over by their first album. Maybe they are a band changing with the times, however for me it was a feeling of giving into conformity when they are were so good at pushing the boundaries. Maybe such an album cannot be produced with only two creative minds; and instruments limited to the drums, synthesizers and keyboard.
Their first two albums are truly unique, rough and experimental; they can be challenging to the listeners ear’s. Some Loud Thunder released in 2007, was almost unlistenable for me, however went in the same direction as their self-titled debut, appealing to their already stable fan base. When Hysterical was released in 2011, they evidently took a completely different path. Only Run has followed suit, ditching their experimental tendencies, offering something that is safe, clean and polished in comparison.
Ounsworth’s vocals are imperfect and I’m sure irritating to some but there is no denying that it is a voice that is uniquely distinguishable. However the voice that once cracked and gave-way mid sentence, has since mellowed and become almost refined. Only Run uses Ounsworth’s voice more like an instrument than a main vocal focus, and in my opinion, has ended up taking away their edginess and spunk that made me a fan. The whole album sounds like their attempt to piece together an epic soundtrack for a dramatic movie, teaming together mumbling, drawn out vocals with inflated drumming and synthesizers.
The first track As Always, makes a dramatic entrance, at first unfamiliar to me until the vocals. The pace is set for the rest of the album as each track sounds like a build up for the next. The suave and stylish Matt Berninger, front-man of The National’s, makes a short but sweet appearance in the track Coming Down. An unexpected enjoyable moment, but dare I say; unworthy of more attention. Berninger disappears before the song begins to fade out, unfortunately making it far from a standout track for me. Beyond illusion is my favourite, a clear resemblance of Radiohead’s Idioteque and similar sounds to Postal Service and even Architecture In Helsinki. Ounsworth and Greenhalgh show focus on this track and work well together. A memorable catchy song I care to hear again.
Unfortunately for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, their fans and reviewers alike will instinctively and rightfully so compare their new album release to their memorable back catalogue. But what if the band has just matured, changed their taste, and as a result taken a different direction? This can still be disappointing to the listener because of our expectations and love for their old tunes. As one of the many original fans of CYHSY, unfortunately I found this latest release a little underwhelming. Often you can pinpoint what an album is missing, and in this case, it’s three of their former band members. As a result of their obvious lack of unity, three band members have tapped out, and taken their much needed melodic bass-lines and guitars with them.