Thursday, 24 September 2009

Hockey - Mind Chaos

Hockey - Mind Chaos (**)
album review for the skinny

Showing some admirable self-awareness, Oregon's Hockey use the first song on their first album to pre-empt what they know is going to be a recurring criticism of their band: singer Ben Grubin's extravagantly affected vocal style. "Look out, cos I'm just too fake for the world, oh you know it's just a game to me" he squeals, yells, and coos, but that confession doesn't make his flagrant oversinging any more palatable. I'd say it was a shame, but it's a USP they'll work to their advantage in some quarters: if you catch yourself thinking Brandon Flowers has got himself rather over-excited, or that Razorlight have got much funkier, you're probably listening to Hockey on Radio One. There's a few good ideas here -- the lilting backing vocals on third track Learn To Lose are particularly nice -- but they're outweighed by repeated resort to modern rock cliche; and everything's overshadowed by Grubin's histrionics on the mic.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Taken By Trees - East of Eden

Taken By Trees - East of Eden (***)
album review for the skinny

Victoria Bergsman's second album as Taken By Trees is born of admirable intentions: seeking to break free from her comfort zone, she travelled with a sound engineer to Pakistan to find some local musicians to record with. So while East of Eden never strays too far from Western indie-pop norms, its South Asian instruments and backing vocalists give it a vivid sense of the exotic. Bergsman's lethargic vocals even sound like she's wilting in the heat, although, if you remember her guest spot on Peter Bjorn & John's Young Folks, that's just the way she sings. A blog-chasing cover of Animal Collective's My Girls seems unnecessary, but there are other, better moments on several tracks: the man wailing in the distance on unsettling opener To Lose Someone, the flicked-out guitar trills of Watch The Waves, the complex but gentle hand-tapped percussion of Day By Day. East of Eden is ambitiously conceived and modestly played.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Twilight Sad - Forget The Night Ahead

The Twilight Sad - Forget The Night Ahead (****)
album review for the skinny

The Twilight Sad have taken on a leaner, meaner look in time for the release of their hugely anticipated second album Forget The Night Ahead. Singer James Graham and guitarist/producer Andy MacFarlane have both shaved their heads, as if two-and-a-half years of wondering how the hell to follow up their magnificent debut album has left them both ready to escape to the same institution as Britney. Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters didn’t take the Twilight Sad into the charts, but it did elevate them into an exalted position in Scottish indie rock; reams of positive press across the Atlantic, where Graham’s local brogue earned him dodgy comparisons to Groundskeeper Willie, solidified an international indie reputation. And it came out of nowhere - three tiny gigs and a low-key EP release preceded the album, which had won rave reviews from Los Angeles to Melbourne before the Kilsyth band reached Edinburgh.

Forget The Night Ahead isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s following one of the most acclaimed Scottish albums of the young century; 30 months of touring the US, Europe and Britain in support of some pretty big bands (Smashing Pumpkins, Mogwai, Snow Patrol); and a couple of stop-gap EPs which weren’t all that satisfying. If second album syndrome really exists (and Wikipedia says it does), Forget The Night Ahead must be odds-on to show symptoms. You’ve already seen the rating above: its symptoms are mild.

Forget The Night Ahead isn't massively different from Fourteen Autumns, but it is a bit louder and noisier, and hence more intense. Both records are concerned with the possibilities of guitar noise, and how to shape feedback, reverb and other effects around otherwise unshowy, austere but emotional indie-rock. There’s a slight move towards shoegaze‘s chromic fog, but that only materialises momentarily in a few songs. Scissors is where the clearest My Bloody Valentine influence shows: their famous live ‘holocaust’ section - a twenty-minute endurance test of unfathomably loud and brittle guitar noise played as a finale during You Made Me Realise - is the basis for this three minute vocal-less interlude. Abstract echoing waves wash over Scissors’ middle, but from recent gigs it’s clear the band are most keen on the painfully rough intro and outro here.

Whereas the theme to the first seemed to be adolescent anger at neglectful domestic life (although Graham diplomatically insists otherwise), there’s no clear theme here: the lines that stand out seem significant within their own song, but don’t connect to the others. Graham’s lyrics are obliquely dark, often sung as non-sequiteurs, and full of references to stories not fully told. But he possesses an emotive vocal style which is capable of lending weight to otherwise confusing lines: “head up dear the rabbit might die” still feels like the most profound thing in the world when Graham cries it live. In new song The Room he croons “you're the grandson’s toy in the corner/ don’t tell anyone else you were seen in the cherry tree/ look what you have done.” It’s an impossible line to parse, but the sweet vocal melody excuses it. That holds true for most of the record: the standout lines are those most sweetly sung or loudly cried, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation.

The most prominent vocal on the whole album is troublesome, though. It kicks off the album’s centrepiece, Floorboards Under The Bed, a brave anti-commercial footstamp from the band. Preceded and followed by two of their most conventional indie rock songs yet, Floorboards begins with Graham singing a cappella in a reflective room: “We’ve taken all of our mistakes/ turned them into aeroplanes/ and the boy’s throwing rocks off my face”. Then harsh guitar stabs twist and slice, a piano wanders in, and the song descends into a stark instrumental anti-song, just in case you were having fun for a minute there. It’s a stunning shock and awe move, but what are we to make of those conspicuous opening lines? Do the first two parts refer to scrap paper, and therefore to playfulness, and the latter to suffering backlash or hatred? Perhaps, but that doesn’t really clear anything up.

If Forget The Night Ahead's lyrics can be cryptic, for the most part they remain on the right side of mysterious, allowing the visceral thrills of the band to dominate. That Birthday Present fades in with a ferocious momentum, guitars howling and drums racing like …Trail of Dead during their youthful vintage. First single I Became A Prostitute also begins with driving force, and is then carried by a heartbeating drum-kick into a huge anthemic chorus and a thick, loud guitarscape. Unsettling closer At The Burnside builds in with ghoulish but timid guitar squeals, before exploding in cacophonous, disastrous noise.

Like Fourteen Autumns, Forget The Night Ahead is a serious grower. There's little point in giving it just one listen - five will persuade you to persist much further. But, it's not quite a match for the debut. Why? Some of the best moments of the first album were where Graham seemed to genuinely lose his rag: like when he raged "and they’re sitting around the table, and they’re talking behind your back" on That Summer. Perhaps mindful of now having fans and therefore expectancies to meet, Graham's a little more restrained on this album, meaning we never feel the full hairdrying force of his anger. Also, the accordion was a key part of the band's sound on Fourteen Autumns, but it's missed here amid all the storms and swells of guitar.

But the Twilight Sad still pack a helluva punch: in Scissors and Floorboards Under The Bed, the group explicitly demonstrate their commitment to the anti-commercial noise aesthetic; and in I Became A Prositute, Made To Disappear, That Birthday Present, Interrupted, and The Neighbours Can't Breathe they've added a handful more powerful anthems to their catalogue. Were Forget The Night Ahead recorded by a new band, it'd be hailed as a stunning debut. Keep an eye on the Twilight Sad - this band's got some potential, by the way.