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albums - feb 2012


The Twilight Sad - No One Can Ever Know (FatCat)

The Twilight Sad are a Scottish indie band who craft darkly intense songs set to a crashing post-rock musical backdrop, a sound which has characterized a lot of music from their native land in recent years, notably Mogwai, The Arab Strap and Aereogramme. Comparisons aside, there is an honesty about singer James Graham's unashamedly Scottish vocal, the angst of his lyrics submerged musically in a kind of dense fog of shoegaze and noiserock provided by Andy McFarlane on guitars and keyboards and Mark Devine on drums. A band that certainly know how to let their songs build before they take things up a notch or two, since their inception in 2003 The Twilight Sad's music has also been characterized by the need to progress and push boundaries.

Their last full-length album Forget The Night Ahead, released in 2009 on Fat Cat Records, was altogether more incendiary than the band's much critically-lauded debut Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters from 2007. Lyrically darker, too, dealing with loss and regret ('Seven Years Of Letters'), and pain and abuse ('The Birthday Present'), the music also matched the singer's intensity. Graham generally uses words to allude to his subject rather than dealing with things head on, more the poet than story-teller, so the songs leave a painful shadow behind them, in much the same way as writers like Nick Drake and Ian Curtis.

The band pre-empted the inevitable speculation about their latest longplayer No One Can Ever Know, by hinting at change in mid-2010 release 'The Wrong Car ep', which included electronic remixes of earlier tracks by Mogwai and Errors, both of whom the band toured with recently. On this album they have embarked on a brave sonic journey, exploring the motoric influences of Krautrock (inevitably, Can but also the more electronic 'sides' of the genre like Kraftwerk and Neu!) and industrial groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Nine Inch Nails. The overriding sound is simpler, sparser and generally electronic, pushing Graham's lyrics forward in the mix as Andy McFarlane switches to keyboards (although also offering a wirey-sounding John McGeoch-inluenced guitar!) and Devine provides hypnotic flashes of brilliance like Stephen Morris did on Martin Hannett's Joy Division recordings. While it's fashionable for bands to 'move in an electronic direction', a trail famously mapped out by New Order and Radiohead in the 90's, The Twilight Sad have clearly worked the new sound in intelligently, rehearsing extensively and consulting legendary producers Andrew Weatherall and Ben Hillier to stay on track: No One Can Ever Know doesn't sound contrived or change for change's sake.

And they've used the Joy Division influence sparingly, important to avoid that kind of overkill if you're a purveyor of dark lyrics as James Graham undoubtedly is (Tom Breihan of Pitchfork once described the band as being 'Perennially unhappy', and Graham himself tires of the comparisons with Morrissey). 'Dead City' uses the classic 'Isolation' bassline and metronomic drumbeat to give Graham's subdued vocals a bleak persistence, while 'Don't Move' with its violent allusions and menace is framed with a guitar break redolent of 'Transmission'. Another more useful musical reference point might be the London-based post-punk band The Sound who produced a string of underrated albums in the 80s. It's easier to hear Graham's vocal on 'Nil', the frayed tempers during a break-up and regret in the aftermath matching the torment of Adrian Borland's on The Sound's debut Jeopardy in 1980. The overall sound on No One Can Ever Know is more subtle than on The Twilight Sad's earlier work, the dark electronica creating a feeling of controlled and claustrophobic menace set against an eery post-industrial backdrop.

'Sick' is also brooding and dark, a bit 'Scatterbrain' from Radiohead's Hail To The Thief, and although latest single 'Another Bed' offers some light relief, stepping up the gears with a classic synth-pop hook, the mood of the album remains defiantly sombre. It closes chillingly with 'Kill It In The Morning' fusing a lot of the new elements, a distorted crashing bass and dark electronic syncopation interspliced with harsh battering ram drums, the whole thing being underscored with McFarlane's spine-tingly guitar shredding. There's a dark electronic heart beating inside the music of The Twilight Sad these days, but No One Can Ever Know combines the new sounds to produce an eery familiarity which has become the band's trademark! Watch film-maker Craig Murray's video of their latest single 'Another Bed'.

Matthew Haddrill


Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack (Mute)

I heard the sampler EP from Reznor and Ross’ The Social Network soundtrack album a while back and was suitably impressed – five tracks each with a gentle sense of brooding but also their own individual identities. Happy days, then, that I now receive their latest collaboration, the triple disc 3 hour soundtrack to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Great start too featuring Karen O covering one of Led Zep’s greatest tracks ‘The Immigrant Song’ (which apparently formed the basis of the movie trailer). There’s an instant drive supplied by the vocal and genius of the original song writing. Then things start to go wrong.

I’ve spoken to a few people who have seen the film and the general opinion is that it’s pretty good but a bit long. You could equally assess this album – three hours of dystopian atmospherics, no matter how pristinely arranged and produced would have the most well-balanced listener beginning to get a bit glum. Flick out disc 1 and replace with Disc 2 or disc 3 and you might expect a bit of respite – not so. The arrangements create a brilliantly claustrophobic cinematic feel, but a stand alone album? Which leads me on to wonder whether it’s always really appropriate to release film sound tracks – the music is, after all, designed to be heard underneath or in accompaniment to the on-screen action. Too obvious and it would detract from the visual aspect, too inconspicuous and you lose any sense of drama.

It’s not like this a compilation of great tracks chosen to perfectly accompany the film (think the Trainspotting method) – it’s often just a series of sound effects, white noise and loops. Which is what makes it so hard to judge – some people do listen to this kind of thing as music in its own right (I think back to a an ex flatmate who seemed to like to listen to recordings of washing machines in their spin cycle) but it’s not really for me. Lovely packaging though. 6/10



The Maccabees - Given To The Wild

This is a release that has been long-awaited from the London-cum-Brighton fivesome - surrounded by an incredible hype ahead of it’s early 2012 release. Their debut album ‘Colour It In’ won the band an enormous fan base thanks to the record being jam-packed with twitchy indie hits from start to finish. A couple of years later marked their return with ‘Wall of Arms’ - which wasn’t as punchy as its predecessor but wasn’t all that bad. There had been a minor line-up adjustment and it was clear that the boys were looking to move on from their early sound. Wall of Arms got them on their way, but we all knew this album would be a very important one.

The album opens with a two minute soundscape of pads and God-knows-what-else, smothered in a shroud of reverb, which runs effortlessly into Child. Guitars start the track, cascading like church bells before a slow yet punchy beat kicks in along with a groovy bass, soft vocals and brass sections. A minute or two prior to the end of the track, the hi-hats arrive and the pace increases in the way that Maccabees songs tend to. First impressions, a mature and extremely well-worked and well-recorded song.

The next track is ‘Feel To Follow’ commences with Orlando’s unique vocals set against a drum beat, before the rare inclusion of a piano and some warm strings. Again, the pace picks up for the chorus as reverb guitars bleed into the backdrop, almost twinkling.

‘Ayla’ also features a piano but starts off sounding outrageously Moby. The producers may be responsible for that sound, having worked with the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Massive Attack previous to this. The slightly electronic production shines through on other tracks too such as ‘West Away’, ‘Go’ and ‘Grew Up At Midnight’ in places too.

The punchiness that won them a million fans with the debut album is only revisited a few times throughout this offering - sneaking into the climaxes of a couple of tracks and remaining for the entirety of the first single to be taken from the album, ‘Pelican.’ But this isn’t about punchiness any more, why hurl yourself around an indie dancefloor when you can just sit there and absorb how fascinating this album really is. It has depth, structure, and most importantly a fistful of quality tracks.

Tickets for Alexandra Palace in June went on sale recently, grab a dozen and take all your friends!

Thom Curtis


That Fucking Tank - TFT (Gringo Records)

Celebrating twenty years of playing music together, Andy Abbott and James Islip returned to the rehearsal room and later the studio to write and record this, their third full-length release. Following up the well-received ‘Tanknology’, That Fucking Tank produce what is undoubtedly their most eclectic album yet.

The bar-room boogie of opener ‘TFT’ showcases a riff capable of causing a breakout of jiving in even the most solemn of pubs as the bell signals last orders. Initially surprisingly reminiscent of Dire Straits, it soon bursts into the good-time rock of AC/DC as hips loosen and heads nod in unison. ‘Wonderful World Of’, another perfect of example of how instrumental music can be soaked in emotion, steals the show with its nagging guitar riff tugging at the heart-strings. The bar- room boogie of before soon gives way to the bar-room brawl of ‘Car On Fire’, as glasses begin to smash. ‘Lomond’ motions towards another expansion of the traditional That Fucking Tank sound; described in the press release as ‘ambient’ it rambles along with concealed menace, flowing seamlessly into the furious hardcore of ‘Nailbomb’, a cover of a Voorhees track. The homage to the past continues but in complete contrast during ‘Acid Jam’, a nod to the classic ‘Acid Trax’ by techno-pioneers Phuture. The results are surprising, and instantly successful, creating a huge sprawling monster of riffs and entangled danceable beats. ‘Threads’ is That Fucking Tank at their most epic, compelling melodies and classic guitar riffs surging forth throughout its seven-minute duration, occasionally complimented by the odd dosage of anticipated noodling. Closing with the acoustic ‘End Of Wonderful World’ will again wrong foot many already aware of the mesmerising talents of the band, but it’s a very fitting end note to such an ambitious and varied album.

Without doubt their most eclectic and varied release to date, ‘TFT’ is hugely enjoyable. It is astonishing in the fact that it captures the intensity of their live show and will almost certainly signal some more incendiary gigs. This album feels exactly what That Fucking Tank have been destined to produce and is one that will remain a frequent visitor to this reviewer’s cd player.

Mark Whiffin


Owen - 'Ghost Town' (Polyvinyl)

A veteran of Chicago's indecipherable-to-us-Limeys MathRock scene, this is Mike Kinsella's fifth album under the moniker of Owen, and if it's an Americana album you've a mind to pop onto your stereo of an early spring evening, 'Ghost Town' is a near textbook example of literate and subtly performed singer songwriting. Opening track 'Too Many Moons' is a bit breathtaking, really, a genuinely affecting ballad whose heartfelt lyric and sudden interjections of string section really will alert you to Mike Kinsella's abilities as a songwriter and arranger. The rest of the album follows the blueprint laid down by the first track, and while he doesn't often get very deeply emotive or even sound as if he's anywhere near breaking sweat, Kinsella's swaying, verging upon delicate musicianship and the album's sympathetic and thoughtful production make, when 'Ghost Town' is taken in its nine track totality for an elegaic, folk influenced collection of wistfully performed ballads, that occasionally verge upon touches of actual grandeur. If nothing else, 'Ghost Town' reveals the existence of a very skilled songwriter, although one whose music isn't perhaps much known outside of his native Chicago, and the unpredictably lively song arrangements should keep even the most cynical amongst us listening.



Mike Marlin - 'Man On The Ground' (Amp Music)

The second album from Mike Marlin, a swift follow up to 'Nearly Man' which I reviewed here around a year ago, and 'Man On The Ground' does seem like a more fully realised work than its predeccesor which could seem a collection of demo tracks in comparison. Mixed at Abbey Road, the songs do retain the touches which made 'Nearly Man' a release of note, but with their edges glossily smoothed and polished. There's less of the gritty Britpop edginess and more of the synthpop sophistication that characterised 'Nearly Man' although the tones of late-period Bowie remain noticeable, in both Mike Marlin's vocal and in the instrumentation. No sign of any new work from the Zigster anytime soon so, does 'Man On The Ground' make for an acceptable stop gap?

It would. Unfortunately Mike Marlin's Bowiesque stylings are somehow too accurate for this particular listener, leading to him even appearing to rewrite 'Heroes' on fourth track 'Lost And Found', and that impression colours my entire experience of listening to 'Man On The Ground', skilfully performed as it is, and I'm on the verge of consigning him to the 'people who sound like other people' box, but give him a chance, not many songwriters can consistently emulate their own idols quite as Mike Marlin does while retaining an element of their own credibility, which he does manage to achieve here.



Smith And Mighty - 'The Three Stripe Collection 1985 - 1990' (Bristol Archive)

Smith and Mighty's combination of deep soul grooves and techno innovation didn't, according to the press release, exactly set the dancefloors alight back in the day. Didn't they? As collections of late 80s Urban music go, 'The Three Stripe Collection' is a bit of a find, the sampling and production sounding as fresh and boombastic as they must've nearly a quarter century ago. Whether reconfiguring 60s easy listening (a version of Burt Bacharach's Walk On By has an eerily sci-fi edge to it), or pushing the boundaries of Hip Hop - there are several quality rap productions on this compliation, or delving into the then emergent House scene without relying too much on the kind of novelty sound that many late 80s Acid productions were prone to, Smith And Mighty were, in the press releases own words, slightly too 'ahead of the field' for their late 80s contemporaries but that should only point out their innovative approach to production and some of their work stands up very well indeed. For anyone with an interest in late 80s club music, this compilation is an absolute must have.



Mull Historical Society – City Awakenings

Colin MacIntyre hasn't lost the knack of winning people over with his songs. His band The Mull Historical Society (really a pseudonym) takes its name from the Hebridean island from which he hails and provided us with a sugar-rush of early noughties albums, Loss, Us and This Is Hope, in the same pop idiom as Badly Drawn Boy, The Lightning Seeds and Prefab Sprout. Their last outing in 2004 suffered a bit from its widescreen ambitions, but even the grandiose Oasis-sounding 'Death Of A Scientist' and odd studio quirks of 'In The Next Life' which featured MacIntyre's grandmother's voice, failed to disguise a Britpop gem, not to mention the Las-esque 'How 'bout I Love You More', impossibly summery and shimmering, perfect pop! He left some of the prog. influences behind on the recent solo recordings, The Water in 2008 produced by Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly, and 2009's Island in which he set about re-discovering his musical roots with a more low-key acoustic-driven sound. But Mull Historical Society and Colin MacIntyre are one and the same thing, of course, and the time felt right for City Awakenings, a collection of songs about metropolitan life, possibly reflecting some of MacIntyre's own personal experience as an island exile, with an album dedicated to London, New York and Glasgow, the 3 cities that have had most impact on the artist these past few years.

This time he's playing it pretty straight for a Mull Historical Society record, songs clipped to around 3 minutes following a conventional pop format and verse-chorus belted out with great energy and verve. Credit must be due in part to producer Dom Morley who has worked with artists like Ami Winehouse, Mark Ronson and Nick Cave on the Grinderman album. It's hard not to be won over by MacIntyre's sincerity even if his enthusiasm borders on overkill at times. 'Must You Make Eyes At Me Now' opens like Prefab Sprout's 'Cars & Girls', a hint of steel drums mixed in with the rich arrangement of guitars, brass, timpani, but no kitchen sink this time as it's swiftly followed by 'Can You Let Her Know' and then possible the album standout 'The Lights'. The singer sounds so intoxicated with the bright lights of the city you can almost forgive him quoting Starship's 'We Built This City (On Rock'n'Roll)'.

'Fold-out City' and 'This Is Not My Heart' are darker and more reflective, the former set to a quaint African guitar riff like the one Blur on 'Good Song' from Think Tank, giving a child's-eye view of the city landscape constructed out of old cut-up newspapers and washing up bottles. The latter on the other hand deals with city alienation and loneliness and the need to reach out to others. MacIntyre seems to fluctuate between his childlike enthusiasm and the more sobre reflections of an adult. There's also a reminder if one should be needed of how he can pen a poetic line or two:

“I watched for lights I said your name
I heard your voice come through the rain
The smell of you an open book a vision sculpted not for view
But in the end I stood up I didn't hide
Or when the people start to slide but then I felt you touching hold”

Bubblegum throwaway track 'Honey Pie' may or may not be an homage to the Beatles or Paul McCartney, but then 'For Bas, The Hague' tweaks the tempo again before MacIntyre takes a well-earned rest on instrumental closer 'Thameslink', a tribute to the capital's commuter rail line and possibly the only concession to quirkiness on the album.

City Awakenings is certainly a return to form for Colin MacIntyre and his Mull Historical Society, an album of lean and hungry pop that manages to stay just the right side of River Twee. I must admit I'm constantly won over by MacIntyre's songs but it's hard to know what the reaction will be in the current musical throwaway climate. With a quality singer-songwriter like this it would be a shame if the world were to turn its back on Mull Historical Society again.

Matthew Haddrill


Van Halen – A Different Kind Of Truth

“If you consider the great journalists in history, you don't see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko...I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don't quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.”

Sometimes you find some fantastic stuff in the most unlikely of places. That starting quote comes from an interview with Hunter S Thompson in a 1997 edition of The Athletic Monthly. I have never claimed to be a journalist, let alone a great one, however I have acknowledged that to proclaim my views objective, would be to lie.

I am made very happy by the mere fact that a new Van Halen album exists and Dave Lee Roth sings on it. It is only Van Halen if DLR is singing. You must not misunderstand me here though. I expect them to do more than just turn up and look pleased to be back. I want tunes and I want smiles. I want, as I always do, bands I like to not let me down.

To start with, that first single sure sounds like Van Halen. At first I thought it could do with being faster, but I'm not sure anymore. I've listened to it far more than I expected to. It is still sounding better and better, especially once you tune into the bass line. Much as I miss Michael Anthony (the exception to my rule that you can't trust someone with two first names) Wolfgang is doing a fine job... Will he be able to hit the high notes soon too please?

Then you notice just how quickly the album goes past and how youthful it sounds at times. Blood and Fire, particularly, sounds fresher than Van Halen deserve to. The album, as you'd hope, drips with swagger. The bit where DLR says “Told you I was coming back...Say you missed me...Say it like you mean it!” Is properly fantastic too.

A Different Kind of Truth is a very very good Van Halen album. It sits comfortably next to Van Halen I, II and 1984. It isn't perfect, but only because it comes so close. I may know that a good chunk of this happy comes simply from the fact it exists, but that's ok. I also know how many times I've listened to the album since I got it and how much I'm grinning while it's on. It bodes well that at least four songs off this record are being played on the freshly started Van Halen World Tour. I have seen the set list, I have seen a future where I spend the evening grinning my face off.

Christopher Carney