record reviews march 2014


The Age Of Illusion (No Emb Blanc)

age b-movie c

Back in 1981, the Mansfield outfit became a minor footnote in synth-pop history when their single, Remembrance Day, peaked at No 61. It was to prove the highest of their two chart entries (although they did manage reflected glory when Bananarama covered Dream Baby on their debut EP) and when they finally managed to release an album, four years later, it sank without trace. That said, they were considerably more successful Europe, but that wasn’t enough to see them finally disintegrate in early 86, guitarist Paul Statham going on to write international bestsellers for Dido. However, over the years, the band’s debut single has achieved a retrospective cult cachet, ultimately prompting them to give things another shot.

Time may have moved on, but the music apparently has not, the tracks here punching below their weight in the same ring as such usual genre suspects as Numan, the Human League and Ultravox, although Statham’s stint with Peter Murphy seems to have rubbed off with the Bauhaus goth feel on things like To The End of the Earth and The Dreamers. That the album sports songs titled Zeitgeist and She’s A Car Crash probably gives a good idea of what it sounds like and you’ll not be surprised to find lines like ‘caught like a fly in the spider’s web of time’. It has to be said that it sounds a great deal better than the old stuff (the ‘hit’ hasn’t aged as well as fond memories might have it), but if they think that it’s going to make them belated stars, then perhaps Age of Delusion might be a better title. 

Mike Davies



Sons of the Sea (Avow!)

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Frontman with American post-grunge alt-rock outfit Incubus, with the band on extended hiatus since 2011’s If Not Now, When?, Brandon Boyd has put together what is, in effect, a solo album of rather more poppy persuasion. Although, as with opener Jet Black Crow and frequent rock riffs, there are hints of days past, as a whole things like the sunny loping singalong Space And Time and Come Together, which sounds like something from Ben Folds, are unlikely to send Incubus fans flocking to the stores. Untethered is equally mainstream adult pop oriented while Plus/Minus finds him playing around with jazz ideas and the swelling, chest-beating  Avalanche has definite  anthemic piano ballad showtune aspirations.

Given that Incubus had their fair share of  acoustic based crossover ballads, it’s not as much a departure from expectations as might be assumed, but it’s certainly an impressive and appealing offering, although, at the en of the day, I suspect it may become most notable for Boyd’s itchily effective strings, shuffling drums, whistling and la la chorus backing reinterpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye. 

Mike Davies




Down Like Gold (Play It Again Sam)


Hailing from the Isle of Wight, Champs is essentially brothers David and Michael Champion, siblings with a shared love of reverb and a record collection that assuredly includes albums by the Flaming Lips, REM, Fleet Foxes, the Beach Boys and, most particularly, the early, pre-disco classics by the Bee Gees. Indeed, with its quivering, tremulous Robin Gibb-like cathedral choirboy vocal, the opening number, Too Bright To Shine, could easily have come from 1st or Horizontal. They favour a similar sound on St. Peters, Down Like Gold, I C Sky and the baroque folk flavours of Pretty Much (Since Last November), any and all of which are likely to induce raptures in those with fond memories of  I Can’t See Nobody and With The  Sun In My Eyes.

Elsewhere, Savannah has more of a Smiley Smile era Brian Wilson air to it while Only A Bullet Knows Where To Run and the more uptempo My Spirit is Broken (yes, it’s a break-up album) both underline their ability to pen naggingly catchy, singalong-friendly chorus hooks and 8mm Desire turns its attention to fingerpicked acoustic guitar and backward tape effects that may well suggest a familiarity with Beck too. Closing with the circling military drums pattern and synths of White Satellite, I’m not sure that repeated plays might not see the lustre pall slightly, but while it shines this glows with a remarkable radiance. 

Mike Davies



Reason To Deny (Self Released)


Not the catchiest of names perhaps (it’s that of the lead singer as opposed to a reference to the Israeli West Bank settlement), if you’re into Radio 2 friendly guitar and synth indie pop with easy on the ear melodies and songs that revolve round familiar relationship tropes you might want to lend an ear to the  London trio’s debut album. Itamar Starets himself has a voice that contains hints of Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker and James Blunt without actually sounding like any of them and the band play with accomplished if not necessarily distinctive flair. The same might be said of the songs themselves which, as in the case of the dreamy waltzing Running After you, the U2 tints of Little Piece of Heaven, acoustic guitar ballad Won’t Be Away and the title track’s soaring major chords euphoria, make for pleasant listening while they last but don’t really linger in the memory once they’ve gone. 

Mike Davies



Empire Bridges (Meer Music/Blue Rose)


Frontman with US Rails, Germany based Parsons has also carved an extensive solo career and this, his second release on his own label through Blue Rose and the follow up to 2011’s Hope For Centuries, is his ninth under his own name (he’s made 18 in total) and, again working with his touring band, Sven Hansen (drums), Freddi Lubitz (bass), and Ross Bellenoit (electric guitars), it hews to the formula he’s mined successfully over the past decades.

Thus there’s songs of love and loss, hope and despair that fuse personal experience and storytelling in a folk-Americana-rock cocktail of melodic melancholic ballads in semi-acoustic arrangements (Minefields), uptempo ringing guitar roots pop (Exhale) and driving, rockier, bluesier tracks (Live Like The King). On the latter, he recalls Bruce Cockburn but you’ll also hear shades of  James Taylor (The Bridge), Michael Stipe (Leave This Town) and even, on Endless Sky, Neil Diamond. At the end of the day, however, his voice is strong enough to rise above comparisons.

The opening track, the despair and cynicism steeped social commentary Seek The Truth starts in muted, bluesy manner but by the time it’s two minutes in, the hooks and chorus swelling as the keyboards and guitars bring it to anthemic strength, it’s hard to resist declaring it one of the best things he’s ever done. That the remaining 10 tracks never let the standard slip makes you wonder why he’s not more internationally celebrated. Mike Davies




Where The Wild Oceans End (Glitterhouse)


Almost like a cliché, Schroeder checks all the boxes for your regulation German chanteuse: mysterious, enigmatic personality, likes black, narcotic dark, ominous and brooding melodies, lyrics about death, obsession, sex and introspective angst and a Teutonic monotone delivery that’s both sensual and threatening with a smoky, heavily accented voice that sounds like she was breast fed heroin.  When she sings she slots easily into the line of fellow Germanic icons Deitrich, Lenya and Nico as well as her spiritual sister Marianne Faithfull

Produced by Chris Eckman, who brings the same desert noir brooding as his work with The Walkabouts, and with a band who patently worship at the set of Nick  Cave, it’s an intoxicatingly enervated collection that conjures images of  rain-washed deserted city streets.

She sets the default mode with the opening Dead Man’s Eyes, an acoustic guitar etching out a dry melody over which she talks her poetic lyrics with a cold, disconnected ennui. And so it goes with the likes of Fireland, the gloom waltzing title track and, amping things  up slightly, the bass heavy brooding and  distortion howls of The Spider and its no less intense, but rockier, bluesy and equally sexually feral The Rattlesnake.

She does lighten up a little for the relatively fragile acoustic Until The End with its spare acoustic guitar line, harmonium and violin and the rather lovely Summer Came To Say Goodbye which sounds a little like a slow motion mazurka while the melody line of Ghosts of Berlin gets positively frisky. Ideally, probably best listened to in a delirium fog in the dim lit depths of some Reeperbahn bondage club, but failing that she should beguile equally in the comfort of your armchair. 

Mike Davies




Water Liars (Big Legal Mess)

water liars

Named for a short story by the acclaimed late Mississippi novelist Barry Hannah, the trio comprises Arkansas born writer, singer-guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster, co-founder Mississippian drummer Andrew Bryant and bassist GP Robinson and plays a muscular brand of Americana rock that emphasises the rawness in its music and its lyrics.

They lay out their stall with the opening lines of the first track, Cannibal, as with a nasally keening weariness, Kinkel-Schuster sings, “ when you taste the flesh and sweat of the one that you love, do you feel like a cannibal?” Things tend not to get much lighter as War Paint veers between bursts of abrasive distortion and slow trudging acoustics, Bryant’s propulsive drums drive along Ray Charles Dream, a pop rock song in wolf’s clothing, and, the album standout, I Want Blood with its cascading chords, military beat drum pattern,  ringing guitar and anthemic title line refrain.

As the gently swaying acoustic Swannanoa (“I  looked death in the face, it was only my father”), the spare, regret stained slow waltz Vespers and, evocative of 60s Greenwich Village folk, the fingerpicked Let It Breathe all show, they’re equally adept at quieter, more reflective moods but it’s when they, as on Pulp, the turn up the volume and the power that they’re most impactful. Immerse yourself in them. 

Mike Davies

© 2014