Music Reviews

Cold Specks – Blank Maps

The world is full of soulful singers who aren’t soulful. Just watch the X-Factor to understand me; or rather don’t, unless your want to lose your soul. So, under the impression that Cold Specks was fronted by a soul singer, I sat down to listen to ‘Blank Maps’ with some trepidation. But my apprehensions were swiftly removed.

‘Blank Maps’ opens with a guitar riff that is more Radiohead than Joss Stone and then the voice kicks in. I’ve never been a fan of great voices; by which I mean I don’t give a fuck if a voice can hit every note in the vocal range – I’d rather listen to a voice breaking with sorrow or anger any day. Al Spx, the singer with Cold Specks, has a great soulful, gospel voice, but she has something more; she has darkness. There is something Southern Gothic, full moon, steamy nights, civil war graveyards about her voice. She’s cool and sings like she means it. I keep replaying the song. What greater compliment can there be than that?

If Cold Specks can keep a blank map ahead of them, rather than be turned into another musical cliché by the record industry that reduces everything to the lowest common denominator (sales), then it’s going to be a wonderful, dark journey.

And any band that is named after a quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses has to have the endurance for a long, dark, but ultimately rewarding, journey.

The single is out now. The debut album ‘I Predict A Graceful Expulsion’ will be released on 21st May, through Mute.


The above appeared on Backstreet Indie 01/05/2012:

Music Reviews

Tu Fawning – Anchor

‘Anchor’ is the latest single from Portland, Oregan based quartet (two men, two women; imagine Abba as German nihilists) Tu Fawning. Tu Fawning have made a name for their selves with moody, stark, indie based rock whose influences are diverse.

‘Anchor’ opens with menacing drums that evoke marauding Vikings (think theme tune to Mastermind) which is then over laden with electronics that come straight from the ‘80s, and a chorus of sirens invoking a storm sky. When the solo singer kicks in with a plaintive, longing vocal, I think I am in for a treat. There is a Teutonic feel to the sound; the edge slightly blunted by the sweet vocal. But over the just sub five minutes I am left feeling slightly deflated. It was a great start but it didn’t take me anywhere. There is an anti-climax to ‘Anchor’, like a Viking ship pulling desperately at its moorings to escape port.

But there is enough here to intrigue me to search out the latest album ‘A Monument’, which was released May 7th.

Watch the video to Anchor:

This review appeared Backstreet Indie 01/05/2012:

Music Reviews

This Many Boyfriends – (I Should Be A) Communist

Ah, jaunty, toe-tapping indipop that takes you to a musical time before the Berlin Wall came down. The Leeds foursome, This Many Boyfriends, have been compared to The Smiths and The Housemartins, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If Morrissey had decided to throw out his complete works of Oscar Wilde and gone for a drink down the student bar with his mates, then this is how the Smiths would have sounded.


The fact that ‘(I Should Be A) Communist’ is such a bloody perfect pop song almost counts against it and makes it a pastiche. It has a great, simple beat, with a deep bass line and jangly guitars, catchy vocals and a few ahhs on the outro and the whole song in and out in 2:10. This band makes pop look effortless; exactly as it should be.


Communism, that dead political duck, needs a bit of a renaissance, but maybe with Stalin, that mass murdering fucker, re-spun as a Charlie Chaplin figure of fun.


Oh, and any song with brackets in the titles is alright in my book (maybe Back Street Indie could do a Jukebox of bracketed songs (or maybe I should ‘(Get a) Grip (On Myself)’)?


‘(I Should Be A) Communist’ is released on May 21st on the Angular Recording Corporation Label.


The video:


This review appeared on Backstreet Indie 20/05/2012:

Music Reviews

Dan Mangan – Oh Fortune Favours The Brave

There is a moment, whilst watching Dan Mangan’s short documentary, that I wonder how anybody could fail to be inspired by the beauty of the Canadian landscapes that are home to this indie-folk songwriter. But, of course, if this were true, all lands of beauty would be filled with artists and no artisans, and the economy would be as much of a mess as it is when we let bankers run it. In truth, inspiration is a symbiotic relationship. Every artist needs a muse, but every artist must take his own spin on that muse, and has to put the sweat in.

Mangan released his first EP when he was 20 and his first album two years later. In rock a young singer can sing about love and sticking it to the man with cheerful abandon, but it you go down the singer/songwriter, folk route then a maturity of insight is called for. You can’t fake experience. Now, nine years later, when we hear Mangan sing, “I should know better by now” on his latest album, then we see the insight that experience truly brings – nothing actually changes and we keep making the same mistakes.

Oh Fortune, Mangan’s third album, was released last year and shows his maturity. It is a beautiful, thought provoking, evocative album. They are songs of loss, longing and hope; small moments set against large landscapes. Songs of death, but meditations not sadness.

The album opens with an almost Beatlesque orchestral build up before it drops away to leave Mangan and his guitar. And this sets the tone. The songs always come back to the singer and the song, even though they often swirl into full blown band efforts. He plays well, with a slight touch that reminds me just why I love the guitar, with just a few notes and chords a whole vista of images are conjured up. His voice is strong and, at times, yearning, with no parody of other, greater, singers, which is often a curse for singer/songwriters.

As befits an indie-folk singer there is a protest song, ‘Post-War Blues’, which reminds me of The The, though lyrically not as cutting as Matt Johnson (not a criticism as few people write lyrics like Johnson). There is also a driving song, ‘Daffodil’, which is a small thing of eerie beauty. He rocks out on ‘Rows of Houses’; maybe just to prove he can, or just to have fun. The album ends with a song called ‘Jeopardy’ (presumably named after the famous American quiz show), with Mangan reeling off soul searching questions. It builds to a joyous conclusion, with brass kicking in like a New Orleans celebration, or, maybe, given some of the themes, a joyous funeral send-off.

My own favourite track is ‘Leaves, Trees and Forest’. It opens with Mangan singing, “My heart is a ghost; he drinks and he smokes and he keeps me awake”, which is a wonderful metaphor. I would have preferred this as the upcoming single, rather than ‘About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All’ (but that one wins as a song title!).

As I have been writing this, I’ve suddenly become aware that today Dan Mangan is 29 years old. He’s playing Manchester tonight. Go along and wish him happy birthday. I, for one, am looking forward to where he heads on his musical journey as he enters his 30s.

Very much recommended.


Oh Fortune is available now.

‘About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All’ will be released on April 30th.

Mangan’s mini-documentary:

This review appeared on Backstreet Indie- 01/05/2012 :

Music Reviews

The Monochrome Set – Platinum Coils

To paraphrase Jane Austin, it is a truth universally acknowledged that The Monochrome Set are the most undervalued of all British pop/rock bands. They emerged at the end of the ‘70s, born from The B-Sides (their twin brother running off to a rise and fall and rise again as Adam Ant) and released a slew of singles and albums that rank as some of the best by any post-punk/alternative rock standards. If you haven’t heard the trilogy of LPs released from 1980 – 1982 (Strange Boutique, Love Zombies and Eligible Bachelors) then you haven’t heard a major influence on Morrissey and Marr to name but two notables. Yet major success deserted them, though they flirted with the mainstream with 1985’s The Lost Weekend; it was the failure of that release that eventually saw the first breakup of the band. The band re-formed in the ‘90s (their last great release, in my opinion, was 1990’s Dante’s Casino) releasing several albums on Cherry Red before again splitting. But now they are back with their first release in 17 years.

For Platinum Coils Bid is joined by original members Lester Square and Andy Warren (members of Bid’s other band Scarlet’s Well complete the 2012 version of The Monochrome Set). The cover artwork shows a drawing of Bid’s head with a plethora of weird and wonderful objects pouring forth; nothing could better illustrate Bid’s unique take on the world and his lyric writing. Themes covered on this album have been covered before by Bid (cowboys, food, drugs, moustaches) but mortality and death are also touched upon as Bid suffered a serious illness a while back that could have been fatal (platinum coils are used to treat aneurysms). Any fears that this brush with death could have subdued Bid are instantly blown away by the first track.

‘Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome’ is classic Monochrome Set: jangly guitars, a great hook and quirky lyrics (“There’s a kitten on my hip and it’s going on a trip/Up the river to my head where it’s purring). Originally, I thought we were in drug territory here, but my guess is the song is about treatment that Bid received in hospital. As the album goes on it feels good to be back with the Monochrome Set.

This is the best album they have released since Dante’s Casino and see’s a return to the brilliance of those first three albums. It is full of wonderful catchy tunes and impenetrable, sometimes laugh out loud lyrics. Bid has always looked at the world from a different angle than most people and when this vision is aligned with Lester Square’s wonderfully clean and 60’s retro guitar playing you have songs that will have you toe tapping and singing along straight away. That they have never had a hit is a complete anomaly. Listen to ‘I Can’t Control My Feet’ to see how effortlessly they appear to knock off a great party record. Then listen to ‘Waiting For Alberto’ and marvel at what a delight, or terror, it would be to spend an hour in Bid’s company.

The album closes with the instrumental ‘Brush With Death’. It’s a jaunty tune, mocking the title, which sounds like it should be played over a magic act. But the only magic here is that the Monochrome Set have pulled a cracker out of the hat 33 years after their first releases.

It is some bands lot in life to inspire others to success whilst never achieving it themselves. But, as in life, music should never be appraised merely by the vox populi and the musical landscape of Britain would have been a lot duller without the Monochrome Set.

Put a little colour in your ears today: listen to the Monochrome Set.

Platinum Coils is released on 1st April on the band’s own label, Disquo Bleu, and will, initially, only be available from their website and for sale at gigs.

This review appeared on Louder Than War 17/03/2012:

Music Reviews

Memoryhouse – The Slideshow Effect

There are aids to memory; little props that scatter the stage of our mind to recall moments from our lives and the greatest of these are smell, taste, music and images. Smell is the most mischievous for it crosses our paths from nowhere and sends the mind into a paroxysm of remembrance. Similarly taste, like Proust’s madeleine cake, will come upon us unawares, an involuntary memory. It can rarely be manufactured for if we attempt to use smell or taste to recall a pleasant effect, something is lost in our forcing it; but not so with music and images. A photograph, a moment preserved in flat dimension, a second in time, caught forever in beauty and ugliness, can transport us back instantly. And music, with its vibrations in the air, that can play with our memory like delicate fingers plucking at a harp.

Memoryhouse are a duo – composer Evan Abeele and photographer Denise Nouvion -from Canada, who originally began to collaborate on a multimedia art project using music and photography. What has grown from that was an EP, released September 2011 on Sub Pop, called The Years, and now, this month sees the release, on the same label, of their debut album, The Slideshow Effect.

The very name of the album gives a hint at what Memoryhouse are trying to achieve: the slideshow effect is a cinematic term used to describe the technique of giving movement to still images, by panning and zooming. This is dream-pop. This is memory-pop.

The album opens with a vocal repetition, an ahhhhh ahhhhh drawing us into ourselves, into the mind, before the music and lyrics become clearer memento motifs. The vocals are crisp and clear, intonated like poetry weaving webs of remembrance; strands linking with forgotten pasts through paths not often trodden. The paths that are opened up by Freudian dream motifs.

But, as Nouvion sings: It’s not enough to live your past through old photographs. And Memoryhouse are intelligent enough to know that the past we remember is not necessarily the past that happened. Memoryhouse create music of the hinterlands and borders, the place between dream and reality, where a lush vocal and a jangling guitar pulses away at the cerebral cortex. Yet this is a voice and music with deep pop sensibilities. It is a sound reminiscent of Euro-Pop, tinged with the neo-psychedelia of Mazzy Star.

There are some beautiful songs on this album (Walk With Me, Punctum, Heirloom and Old Haunts are stand outs) but the danger with this kind of dreamscape music is that too many songs can dull the senses, just as too much smell or taste removes the effect of memory aid.  Memoryhouse manage to just keep enough interest and variety over the whole recording to make this a most enjoyable experience that is best taken in one go.

The Slideshow Effect isn’t going to make you change the world, but it may just make you look deep into yourself and examine your past: and don’t all great changes start from first changing yourself?


The Slideshow Effect will be released on Sub Pop Records on February 27, 2012.

This article appeared on Loder Than War:

Music Reviews

Jeffrey Lewis – Geek Chic and the Comic Book Soul

Geek Chic and the Comic Book Soul

Jeffrey Lewis first entered my musical vista when a friend recommended his 2007 release ‘12 Crass Songs’ – which does exactly as it says on the tin. I would have feared a Nouvelle Vague type recording (not that I dislike Nouvelle Vague exactly, in fact I love some of their covers, but there’s only so much of that kitsch easy listening take on punk/post-punk I can brook) but the friend who told me to bend my ear was an old punk compatriot who had loved Crass more than I did back in the day. And he was right – both about Crass back in the day and Jeffrey Lewis in 2007. Lewis updated Crass with his own anger and made me dig out my old vinyl and listen afresh to the message that was Crass.

Lewis is geek chic who, besides being a singer songwriter, is also an underground comic artist. He is from New York, colleague to Moldy Peaches and purveyor of anti-folk. He is a perfect example of how to survive in the music business on your own, low-fi, terms; when he goes on tour Lewis will ask on Facebook if anybody can put him up for a night or two. He is a Jonathan Richman for Century 21. But where Richman looks at the world with William Blake innocence, Lewis looks at the world with wit and love but is always aware of the blackness at the centre of it; and, more often than not, the blackness at the centre of the world is himself. His musings are part hippy, part punk; though those two genres have always been closer than a punk or a hippy might admit. He is clearly a man with depressive tendencies who isn’t afraid to air his fears and doubts; what stops it being self-piteous or maudlin is a sense of humour and a perfect turn of phrase that can encapsulate an idea with brevity (mirror mirror on the wall; oh, come on, that’s not me at all). His voice is calm and warm, though coated in sadness.

At the end of 2011 Lewis released  A Turn In The Dream-Songs, which, along with the aforementioned 12 Crass Songs and 2009’s ‘Em Are I, ranks as a high point in his recordings.

Dream-Songs opens with To Go and Return, a hippy-trippy philosophy on how everything is connected and nothing lost, not even a wish sent out into the night-sky. How Can It Be showcases just how good Lewis is at writing great hooks. This guy writes great pop songs. The song asks where romance all went wrong and how exactly do you get over a lost love. I Got Lost is perfect Lewis: grab a phrase and run with it. Lewis wonders at what point in his life it all went wrong. Did he nod off when something important was imparted? Will he ever now catch up? Time Trades offers advice to those oppressed by how time takes so much away. Lewis’s answer is to do something that you can get better at, something that time will help you improve. That’s the trade. A great idea that actually does make you think of starting that long-term project you kept putting off.

Then we come to Cult Boyfriend, which is perhaps the classic Lewis song. He compares his relationships to cult movies, bands etc, he sings: Suicidally alone or totally smothered…I’m lonely or I’m worshipped by a lady in the know/When you’re a cult boyfriend life’s always intense.  This is the stand out song on the album and deserves to become a cult record itself (A cult boyfriend’s like a record in a bargain bin/no one knows it’s worth till a collector comes in), it perfectly keeps the balance between humour, bewilderment at the world, love lost and love gained, loneliness and please leave me alone!!

Krongu Green Slime is an example of an idea that Lewis sometimes stretches too far. It is a fun song about…well, it’s about the best sort of slime available before the land before time in a time before land, when the world was just slime. It conjures up Weird Tales covers from the ‘50s, all garish colours and ooze. But at 6:06 it runs a little long even for a time before time. When You’re By Yourself is a melancholic meditation on the loneliness of the single diner (sitting and eating and cleaning/so much to do just to eat by yourself). So What If I Couldn’t Take It is a fun trip into the mind of a suicide. And yes, it is funny. Lewis describes various ways he could try to end it all and how it will all go wrong; including taking out a contract on himself by the Mob who cut off his hand to send as ransom. Lewis is then thrown out of the trunk of the car and ends up signing for his own hand: I get a minute of restin’/and isn’t this interestin’/here comes the UPS man/the package ain’t hard to guess/ but I gotta sign with my left hand.

The album ends with Reaching, a touching duet with Annie Hart (of Au Revoir Simone) about helping those who reach out to you, and reaching out for help from others.

Lewis is clearly a man who struggles with depression. Is it ok to laugh along with him? Are his songs a cry for help, regardless of how much wit and insight they are wrapped in? I, for one, hope he has good friends around him, because I look forward to many more releases from this New York depressive geek. Oh, and if he’s playing in your area, why not put him up for the night?

Other songs on the album: Boom Tube, Try It Again, From Draz, and Water Leaking, Water Moving.

A Turn in the Dream-Song is available on Rough Trade Records and was released October 2011.

Orignally published on Louder Than War: