The Wandering Lamb is back with a lot to say this week in New Borns, thanks to the introduction of two brand new writers to the herd. Welcome Nico and Ben, who recenlty contacted TWL following our search for talented young writers who love music. Welcome guys, great debut reviews on Alabama Shakes (Nico) and Ava Luna (Ben). This week AGAIN, we cover a bag full of genres from the Gararag Rock and Punk Blues sounds of Alabama Shakes, to Villagers who deliver an album of soft accoustic heaven. We get a punk fix from Gallows, a hit of dream pop from Stealing Sheeps and all out Avant Garde with Ava Luna. A great week in music, we hope it inspires you to discover this music too. Enjoy.
Album Title Sound & Color
Label ATO (US), MapleMusic (Canada), Rough Trade (UK)
Genre Roots Rock, Garage Rock, Punk Blues
Moments Of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sharon Jones, The Black Keys
Stand Out Sound & Color, Guess Who, Gemini
The ‘Alabama Shakes’ sound has become hard to define. With their sophomore LP, Alabama Shakes balance the visceral infectiousness that won their debut Boys & Girls three Grammy award nominations whilst covering a wider artistic scope. Undeterred by previous successes and their popularity on the festival circuit, Sound & Color demonstrates a band maturing like good wine – increasing in complexity and deliciousness. It may now be harder to pin down their sound, but Alabama Shakes continue to shove talent down the throats of audiences that may otherwise be suckered by bland bands riding the waves to indie-rock stardom.
Why does pop music have to be derivative and boring? And why do musicians fancying themselves as ~ real artists ~ have to produce inaccessible work that alienates most audiences? Fans of their first LP may pine for straightforward immediacy of the style they remember, but half the fun of Sound & Color is not knowing what the next track holds.
Diverging from the tightly-written fuzzy, roots-rock jams of Boys & Girls, Sound & Color covers tons of new territory, expanding the band’s stylistic boundaries by embracing more varied instrumentation, song structures and volume levels. Check the transition from the punky, garage rock of ‘The Greatest’ into the easy-to-swallow, bluesy rock of ‘Shoegaze’. Or the vintage-sounding strings popping up in the titular opening track Sound & Color and Guess Who. It may seem that Alabama Shakes ran the risk of mixing styles into an incomprehensible mash of genres, but they’ve done it with enough skill to pull it off with flair and coherence.
Perhaps Alabama Shakes have lost something that made up their distinct identity, but it’s not at the expense of quality. The album retains many of their strengths – I can’t stress enough the power of front woman Brittany Howard’s heart wrenching vocal performances to make you want to cry and laugh at the same time. Though the upbeat positivity they’re known for has been tempered by a delicate sensitivity for the quiet on tracks such as ‘Over My Head’, fun still drips from many places. They prove they are indisputably still at their best with the crowd-pleasing grooves of ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ and ‘Future People’, laying on hook after hook that are sure to have fans bouncing at home and live shows.
For all the talent and fresh exploration to be found, it can feel limited at times by their radio and stadium friendly formats. It’s immensely satisfying when they break out of their three-to-four minute constraints with the moody, atmospheric ‘Gemini’, teasing the grandeur of Boris’ droney, 70’s rock masterpiece Flood, before cutting any chance at substantial guitar epicness short. If variety is the spice of life, it would be great to see them cater for their fans with more developed palates.
Despite being a thoroughly satisfying listen, Sound & Color leaves you craving more and looking towards the band’s future. Will Alabama Shakes’ popularity continue skyrocketing, guiding them towards the prevailing indie-rock sounds over unique expression? Will they follow the path of indie-rock giants Phoenix and The Wombats in adopting a more electronic sound and completely replace their trademark organs with synthesizers? Regardless of the direction they take from here, it’s refreshing to see a group continue to progress and produce something poetic and invigorating that also caters for the indie masses.
Album Title Not Real
Genre Pop, Electro, Dream Pop
Moments Of Camera Obscura, Ladyhawke, CSS
Stand Out Not Real, Greed
Dreamy synths, soaring melodies, but edgy drums, cool capellas. This is the second release from British trio Rebecca Hawley , Emily Lansley, and Lucy Mercer, and it is a heady mix of cool simplicity and whimsical complexity. Girl power for girls who hate the phrase ‘Girl Power’. Like me. But I do like the Powerpuff Girls, that is the only place Girl Power is acceptable.
The name Stealing Sheep reminds me of Babe and that scene with the rustlers making of with farmer Hoggarts sheep (curse those dastardly crims!) and so more of a country acoustic twang springs to mind. Definitely not the vibe you get from these Stealing Sheep. More like the opposite.
There is this excellent shift in mainstream culture where women are able to express themselves in more varied, genuine and cynical ways that connect with our generation; think Girls, Broad City, and bands like Stealing Sheep. These types of genres have always been around of course, and there have always been women pushing boundaries. It just feels like finally there is an embrace of it by mainstream culture. Finally. Stealing Sheep personify this with their music, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Lena Dunham hasn’t licensed them for Girls, she’s like the new Grey’s Anatomy for musicians, except featuring you on her show doesn’t kill your career.
Stealing Sheep’s Not Real is excellently instrumented, bold drums that spell out a beat to dance to without taking way from the cool, cynical vibes that ooze through acapellas and indifferent lyrics. Hints of psychedelic, but not quite. Hints of 60s girl groups, but not quite. Stealing Sheep manage to pique your curiosity and satisfy you at the same time.
Album Title Desolation Sounds
Label Bridge Nine Records
Genre Hardcore, Punk
Moments Of Comeback Kid, Alexisonfire
Stand Out Bonfire Season
‘Desolation Sounds’ marks Gallows’ fourth full length album and the second with new frontman Wade McNeil. The UK based punk/hardcore powerhouse is no stranger to a bit of doom and gloom, no surprises on that front. If their 2012 self-titled album and Alexisonfire’s ‘Crisis’ had a baby, this is probably what it would sound like. With Wade now firmly at the helm of the Gallows ship, the morph in their musical stylings has become comfortable, with many calling it Gallows best work to date.
Formed in 2005, Gallows have always drawn on 80’s hardcore legends Black Flag and Minor Threat, among others. They have steadily evolved to a polished, slightly more modern punk sound whilst still staying true to their roots. Their biggest change and point of much contention was the departure of vocalist Frank Carter after the release of their second album. Replaced by ex-Alexisonfire guitarist Wade McNeil, his influence on the band has been a strong one, contributing to a notable shift in sound. Whilst it was received well by most, Gallows purists turned up their nose and jumped ship.
You can feel a greater sense of melody amongst the punk-fuelled riffing that really gels the whole experience together on ‘Desolation Sounds’. ‘Chains’ demonstrates this well, opening quite softly, only to pummel you to the ground mid-way through. There is a lot of this on the album, though the balance is so close to perfect that it never becomes a bore.
Standout track and lead single ‘Bonfire Season’ is one of the softer moments on offer, boasting an incredibly catchy chorus with some riffs that will be with you for days. Carrying on from this is ‘Leather Crown’, showing some more traditionally hardcore moments, it’s fast, aggressive and will have circle pits forming all over your living room. It’s not without that all important injection of melody though, rearing its head to even out the timbres. Did I mention how well that works?
Whilst their lyrical subject matter has always been somewhat morose, album number four turns that aspect up to eleven. Big hint there with the album title right? More than that, it seems to sum up the mood of the entire listening, as I can’t find a shred of hope anywhere, but I god damn love it. Fair warning, the last few seconds of the album are terrifying and manage to scare the shit out of me every time.
There are a lot of old Gallows fans out there that probably would have preferred that the band had split up and then created a new project with Wade. It almost feels like they did that anyway, they just carried the same name along with them. In any case, the polished sound suits the group well and Wade’s influence has worked for the better, even more so here. As strange as it is to imagine an album like this with Frank as the frontman, it’s interesting to think what a follow up to Grey Brittan would sound like had he still been a part of it. Was the band able to branch out without him or were they just following Wade’s lead? Personally, I think it’s a little bit of both, and the proof is in the pudding. The accessibility of this release makes it a great entry point for new fans and an enjoyable offering for the fans that stuck around post-Frank.
Album Title Darling Arithmetic
Genre Indie Folk, Acoustic
Moments Of Bright Eyes, I Am Kloot, Iron and Wine, Kings Creosote
Stand Out Courage, Dawning On Me
Conor J O’Brien, released his clever alt-folk pop debut album Becoming A Jackal in 2010 and gained worthy recognition with a nomination for the coveted Mercury Music Prize. It was a fine album and refreshing given what was being released during the same time. Five years on and two albums down, O’Brien strips back production, locks his bedroom door (literally) to record his (their) 3rd album full of acoustic gentleness, painted lyrics of personal stories that are both touching and inspiring.
Having enjoyed the intensity and well produced album that was AwayLand on it’s release in 2013, I was convinced that Villagers had found their stride, wonderfully recorded, talently played out and accomplished in its refined lyrical content. So when Courage was released earlier this year, the single from Darling Arithmetic, it was a direction that was very unexpected. Completely striped back, it had all the trimmings of O’Brien’s trademark music writing but was delicate and timid.
Of course this was no fluke, O’Brien and his friends, still signed to the tremendous Domino Records, shook off the short lived electronic influences and recorded the album at “home”, literally in the loft of a converted farmhouse to be precise. Opener, Courage sounds so familiar it is like seeing an long lost friend after many years and picking up where you left off, its warm, inviting and wonderfully smooth. “It took a little time, to get where I wanted. It too a little time, to be free” sings O’Brien as he strums gently against some soft washing sounds. Its gentle and simply beautiful. You cannot deny that he is a proficient song-writer of our generation, a clever man.
The album in it’s entirety gently nudges toward 40 minute and has each song following the same tender vibe, especially with the title track Darling Arithmetic, Dawning on Me, No One To Blame and So Naïve. Lyrically they offer honesty and musical simplicity and bring warmth and sense of place to the album that even its short amount of time.
Track two, Everything I Am Is Yours, brings hints of their earlier work, an almost cheeky swagger groove, with a perfectly timed twinkle of some piano keys that complement the vocals like a duet. The layered harmonies are outstanding and drip over the song like sweet honey.
Hot Scary Summer is the only track that ups the emotional anti and volume so to speak, taking a more alt-country sound that sees O’Brien yearning for love and devotion “I live in side you and you live in me,…nothings gonna change that fear….not even being apart….”
Second track The Soul Serene, swirls from ear to ear with gentle gliding synths and layered vocals that sings out with a muted rolling bass line and the acoustic guitar taking a back seat while a cello holds the almost “Sade” sounding soul. It’s a beautiful track.
Villagers fans will embrace the album for its purity and the closer connection with their beloved O’Brien, for you listeners to the band, it is actually a perfect introduction to the band before diving into AwayLand, where you will hear a band in its stride. Id say that Darling Arithmetic would be noted as there interlude album before they return with another striking follow album in a year or two.
You may think 6.5 is a bit harsh, don’t get me wrong I really enjoyd Darling Arithmetic, in fact I played it all weekend on repeat, but I think I’ll save the other lambs for their follow up album that I’d imagine isnt too far away. Villagers will be around for a while and for the next few weeks I have found my Sunday night album to set me into a mellow mindset for crazy working weeks.
Album Title Infinite House
Label Western Vinyl
Genre Avant Garde, Punk, Jazz
Moments Of Dirty Projectors, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Grizzly Bear
Stand Out Billz, Company, Steve Polyester
On their third full length album, the Brooklyn quintet creates a surrealist collage of many historically polarised genres. Jagged and fragmented, Infinite House is a puzzling yet ethereal mosaic of times past and times to come. Framed by a post-punk honesty, the album is less a homage to past eras as it is a calling upon. Infinite House jolts, jumps and jangles through its discordant rebellion to the concept of a popular song, only to find its real momentum in its talismanic echo of past ecstasy, be it 60’s Soul 70’s funk, 80’s r&b or 90’s noise.
Avant Garde at its most discarding, Infinite House calls you in knowingly with its most faithful replication of some of music histories best moments, only to chew them up and sing them soothingly back to you. Take Billz, the single of the album, it opens with an ear clearing crunch of distorted guitars, only to part waters for the most lofty moment of the album. The synth bubbles around a minimal rhythm section providing a halftime groove Prince would have easily run with. Falsettoed above is a cry to the emptiness of a modern humans inertia, that we all move past the things we once owned and eventually lose it all. This is where the album defines its gripe. From here on in, the album feels like a conversation about struggle, a challenge, a question: a question known to be nigh on unanswerable.
The album has an unwavering quest to surprise you, to drop you into an abyss of baroque tranquility just as often as it will jar you awake with a chunk of primal noise punk brashness. The albums titles is lost on them either, the bass of a modern mans house track is well represented here, lushly backed up by major 7ths, suspended 4ths, and the rest of modern houses jazz inspired chord planes. It couldn’t be said that this was a driving force in their naming of the album though (apparently it was named after the consumingly beat up old hose they recorded the album in. It s easy then to see how a respect for chaos has be established.) Composition ironically seems to be at the forefront of the bands mind (albeit disjunct) with songs ebbing between sections: codas, pre choruses (choruses), verses, outros (intros), interludes, and other divisional devices seeming as much decided upon as they are necessary.
Steve Polyester sounds like a Jill Scott B-side, claiming as much spiritual grounding as any other soul-hop production. Beat poetry, scatting vocals, running guitar licks, and a very loose percussive section all add to the pieces smoky lounge vibe. “He was a landscape..” is almost self reflexive, animal like howls and cries soar above a primal and shapeless jazz beat, the sounds here are like minimalist paint strokes against a dark canvas.
The albums cover art is a pretty good indication of what you’re in for. With overpowering surrealist and Cubist influences, the image is jagged, unhinged. The colours are mostly stoic, desolate. And yet, shining through a a crack in the top, a light illuminates its colourful heart. Infinite house is a concerted trip, and one which is not entirely comfortable, but its a strategic choice and one which pays in trumps. While weathering the storm the album brings, look forward to that light through the clouds, it’s notably bright.