Sunday, 15 July 2012


Combining all kinds of coolness, Alt-J (even the idea of alt-J is cool, producing a ∆ symbol on your keyboard) could be/ should be one of the sounds of 2012. Funk, hip-hop, indie...

Video for Tessellate here

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Best songs of 2011

First day of 2012 seems like the best time to compile a list of the songs I liked most in 2011...

The whole of the Centro-matic album, Candidate Waltz, so picking a favourite is hard, but Shadow Follow Me is available in a lovely version on YouTube...
Only discovered Mimicking Birds this year, but songs don't get lovelier than Pixels...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Lady Gaga to cover Karl Phillips

News reaches us that Lady Gaga is to cover one of Karl Phillips & The Midnight Ramblers' new songs, a more sensitive track called All In Your Head.

Tipped as Ones To Watch by BBC 6Music and others for 2012, this seems to confirm that rise...

Awaiting confirmation from 'sources close to Lady Gaga'

Thursday, 31 March 2011


Been away for ages. Guess it's because I didn't hear much that excited me... Then I went and downloaded the new Royal Bangs album and I got excited again. Then the new Wye Oak album...

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 27.06.10

Avi Buffalo
Avi Buffalo
Sub Pop
The Sub Pop label is some handy shorthand for high expectations from a debut album, and this album does not disappoint. Avi Buffalo is the adopted name of 19-year-old Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, and the music they make (appropriately for Long Beach, Californians, perhaps) is summery, wistful pop, but the kind that you'd hope The Shins would make if they took some time to just hang out. Fashionably-enough, the music also features the kind of ecstatic mass choruses and hand claps that seem essential all of a sudden. But that doesn't diminish the feel-good factor from what is a throw-back to a 70s Buffalo Springfield reminder, brought bang up to date. No song on the album matches the lead single, What's In It For, but, like Band of Horses, the feel becomes the idea, and all of a sudden you're out the other side, blessed out and hitting repeat.

ACE rating 8/10

The Morning Benders
Big Echo
Rough Trade
The Morning Benders' Talking Through Tin Cans was an epic debut, introducing us to a band whose harmonies were 'the way music used to be' - easy, gently gorgeous. Fortunately, now that they are a big deal, the band have stepped up and produced something significant. Big Echo is the sound of a band properly on its feet.
Opening with the frankly astonishingly great Excuses, a song which must be in contention for single of 2010, the record then goes on to run through 10 could-be singles, and a great bonus track. Clearly, like Delta Spirit, this is a band that finds it hard not to make music (they released a fantastic Bedroom Covers album for free in 2009, running through wonderful cover versions, seemingly for fun). Another band that alludes to the Shins, but here it's to mix them with some later-period Beatles and some Beach Boys. Big Echo is a have-to-have.

ACE rating 9/10

Suzanne Vega
Close-Up Vol 1: Love Songs
Cooking Vinyl
All the way back in 1985 (yup, 25 years ago), Suzanne Vega's honest, poetic debut album shocked many, as a reminder of how remarkable simple, largely acoustic music could be. After a period where Vega has drifted into electronica and rock, Close Up is a return to her back catalogue, with selections re-recorded acoustically. With a more mature voice, songs like Marlene On The Wall, Gypsy, and Small Blue Thing are reflected in their perfect essence. There is a deeply affecting energy shining through each song - the sense that these are old, loved friends. Almost the best way to come at this album would be as a Suzanne Vega novice - discovering these songs fresh would surely put this among the contenders for album of the year.

ACE rating 9/10

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 13.06.10

Tokyo Police Club
Memphis Industries
Tokyo Police Club's entry couldn't have been more exciting - A Lesson In Crime was an 8-song EP, full of high-energy punchy punky indie, tightly wound around bass, cheesy organ and bursts of spiky guitar. The follow-up, Elephant Shell, was a delight, taking that spit and fire and giving it a more mature grown-up feel without ruining anything. Champ, the second full-length, is more of the same - full of joy and anthemic melody, wholly 2010 in feel. The Canadian 4-piece have here started to breech the 3-minute song barrier, with great results. Standout songs include Breakneck Speed, Wait Up
and End of a Spark, songs that sound like a more indie Fratellis. Champ takes a couple of run-throughs to fully get into - some of the immediacy has gone in growing up, but it has been replaced with genuine quality.

ACE rating 8/10

Delta Spirit
History From Below
Delta Spirit almost define the can-do spirit of indie music. Their debut album, Ode To Sunshine, is an essential record that has been released and re-released as the band started to gain its audience. And that audience has been gained one fan at a time by taking the show on the road, and blowing people away nightly.
That album should be on every music fan's shelves, sounding like
The Band 40 years later - along with These United States and Centro-matic, this is America's new best new Band. One of the main benefits of that continual live experience is that the follow-up has been honed in front of audiences, and, through a process of evolution, the 11 songs here are genuinely great. Keeping the live studio sound, there is a real sense of space and energy - fortunately the band's range is maintained, rather than simply filling the album with barnstormers - Salt In The Wound is touching, aching. History From Below is another essential album from a band you have to know about.

ACE rating 9/10

Pernice Brothers
Goodbye, Killer
One Little Indian
Once upon a time, Pernice Brothers were able to put together outstanding wit, lyric writing and punchy exciting music. That time was 2001, with the World Won't End. Since then, with 2003's Yours Mine and Ours, 2005's Discover A Lovelier You, and 2006's Live a Little, the highlights have become progressively harder to find. Like Teenage Fanclub, the sound is still there (very like Teenage Fanclub in sound), the lyrics are still there, but my goodness, Joe Pernice's voice has gone. Most of this album sounds like it took him by surprise, and that he's singing a couple of keys above where he feels comfortable. This is a shame, as the songs are back to standard, but there is no way past the voice - while never the band's strongest asset, it was never a hindrance, but with this latest release it has become a distraction. Great set of songs for another band to re-record, though.

ACE rating 6/10

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 30.05.10

Damien Jurado
Saint Bartlett
Secretly Canadian
Damien Jurado is one of those songwriters that all songwriters know and love, but who is all-but-unknown to the public here in the UK.

With an ability to write a genuinely affecting song, and deliver it in a vulnerable, sweet voice, and then do it another 11 times on the same record, his under-recognition is unfair.

On his tenth studio album, Saint Bartlett sees him return to form after the variable Caught In The Trees. Produced by (the excellent in his own right) Richard Swift, Saint Bartlett is a bleaker, quieter more honest affair, which suits him right down to the ground - he is not an arranger, just a very very good storyteller, and there are some wonderful stories here. As a way into Damien Jurado, there are no better places to start.

ACE rating 8/10

Band of Horses
Infinite Arms
It is hard to escape the view here that, as so often, Band of Horses gave us their best on their first record, and struggled with the follow-up. Everything All The Time was a stunning debut, with Cease To Begin retreading the same basic formula. Infinite Arms' problems can be traced to the line of the press release that is supposed to make it sound grand: "Produced by Band of Horses with additional production from Phil Ek, mixed by Dave Sardy, and recorded over a 16-month period, the songs on Infinite Arms project the essence of the different locales across America that became the setting for the recording and songwriting process behind the album." For that, read, the band have no musical direction any more and recorded anything that sounded like a song over a 1 year period… Infinite Arms is fine Americana, proving that the band can intrinsically make an ordinary song sound nice. But that is all it is.

ACE rating 5/10

Beachcomber's Windowsill
No-one can say I didn't try. Having heard so many glowing reviews of this band, it was hard to go in not expecting the saviours of British music. Ultimately, what Beachcomber's Windowsill provides is a nice enough set of songs - folky, poppy, like an upbeat Mumford and Sons. What it does't really provide is any substance to challenge better bands like Frightened Rabbit. There is every chance that your 50 year old uncle is dancing around his Poggenpohl kitchen to Stornoway right now, so nice and middle class does this sound - the beachcomber of the album title may well be there for a nice week in Padstow. At the end of the day, 'nice' shouldn't be a bad word to use in a review, but caution should be exercised for anyone else drawn into the hype - that's pretty much all there is in here.

ACE rating 7/10

Friday, 28 May 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 23.05.10

Here's To Taking It Easy
Dead Oceans
Phosphorescent is based around main man Matthew Houck, and on this fifth studio album they enter a rather lovely indie folk space. Emulating Great Lake Swimmers if fronted by Iron and Wine's Sam Beam, this is laid back, harmonic and gentle - music that could have been recorded at any time in the past 40 years.
Houck's voice has a wonderful plaintive quality - strong and vulnerable at the same time. A song like We'll Be Here Soon is gorgeous, laid out like a landscape - any fan of Fleet Foxes would find a lot to love in here. Occasionally the band head into Neil Young/ The Band space (The Mermaid Parade), although it is a reflective Neil Young rather than the rock-heavy one. The band's previous album, Pride (the Willie Nelson covers album aside), was a record that took time to grow but when it did it had its hooks in everywhere. Here's To Taking It Easy is a lovely build on Pride.

ACE rating 8/10

Surfer Blood
Surfer Blood are a band from West Palm Beach, Florida, and follows the new movement in bands that hark back to a 70s sound. Here, they embrace 70s summer pop to produce a sound like Weezer mixed with Girls. The quartet also, in deriving their Weezer references, manage to sound like some Nick Hayward 80s bands. Ultimately, mixing in the trendy Afrobeat (Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend) and eclectic sounds (a bit of dosie-do here, a bit of New Romantic there, produces an uneven record - the kind of record that you'd like to like, but that fails to achieve anything memorable once the last song has gone. The band seem to have hooked into a nice wave of hype, which may do them no favours in the long run, as the music just isn't completely there yet.

ACE rating 7/10

Not Even In July
Let’s face it – even the hardest critic of hippy folk would find a lot to like in Fleet Foxes. Well, those same parts make up most of what makes Not Even In July special. Jesse Marchant, an actor turned singer-songwriter, who goes under his initials, sings in a sweet, gentle voice over relaxed lovely melody. A Canadian by birth, Not Even In July was recorded in a church studio, whose atmospherics add a gorgeous ambience to the lazily swelling dynamics and the echoes. Like fellow Canadians Great Lake Swimmers, Marchant’s music has an intimacy that reminds the listener of early Neil Young, Jackson Browne or Rickie Lee Jones. With material covering subjects such as the perfect July On The Sound, written for a dying friend, Marchant is a match for our own Stephen Fretwell – a band is used to fill out the songs without ruining their delicacy and elegance. As a first album, this is an immense small effort.

ACE rating 9/10

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 09.05.10

Broken Social Scene
Forgiveness Rock Record
City Slang
Broken Social Scene are an idea as much as they are a band - a collective band with no single direction and a lot of musicians, Forgiveness Rock Record sees them trim down the number to a more cohesive level, although there is never any doubt that the album is a stitched together affair. Coming at indie from the ecstatic, loosely melodic side, Broken Social Scene do provide the odd goosebump moment in their music, and occasionally a song breaks through the general drift around the various contributors' songs - here it is The Sweetest Kill, and Forced To Love: one, a lovely ballad, the other a very good indie song. It is still hard to recommend BSS to anyone who isn't already in their club. Forgiveness Rock Record is tight relative to their other work, but it is still a collection of ideas.

ACE rating 7/10

The Black Keys
The Black Keys have undergone so much experimentation since breaking through that it was inevitable that they would get to this point. Drummer Patrick Carney's side projects and label suggested a massively interesting musical brain, while guitarist Dan Auerbach's solo work took a sidestep from the thick bluesy funky rock that the pair broke through with.
That wonderful sludgy funk is still apparent on their sixth studio album, Brothers, as it becomes apparent that the soul rock of 70s America feeds the pair a delicious backdrop. Brothers, as a title, is meant to suggest that the pair still feel like a pair, despite their meanderings. What there is a lot less of is blues, although this sounds like the Attack and Release album if it had kept going at its departures from the 'sound'. There is falsetto, Booker T-like organ, Cream-like rock, and a whole lot of soul. The pair have one of the best modern musical legacies in the 5 albums to date, and Brothers proves it is built to last.

ACE rating 9/10

Darwin Deez
Darwin Deez
Lucky Numbers
Proof, if it were needed, that the UK is still prone to giving hype time to bands that manage only to show an interesting look and a hook. The shame here is that frontman, Darwin Deez, does have an interesting voice, and the band is capable of some Vampire Weekend-like spiky rhythms, and the occasional hook (singles Radar Detector and Constellations) that position them as a more electronic Julian Casablancas. The challenge is that there are dozens of great bands or artists in the same space: Kelley Stoltz, Devin Davis, Billy Harvey… (Who? Exactly…) This is a great record, taken in isolation - Deez is a better vocalist than Casablancas, and there is a good loose-limbed energy everywhere; the casiotone synths also seem perfect for what they're doing, the wittiness of the lyrics contributes. The shame would be if this debut were taken for more than what it is - a very interesting first go 'round - and expectations were changed because of that.

ACE rating 7/10

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 02.05.10

Jesca Hoop
Kismet Acoustic EP
Last Laugh
With the really rather special album Hunting My Dress bringing Jesca Hoop fame as this year's best quirky female singer-songwriter, time perhaps seemed right to release an EP of acoustic covers of her own songs, largely drawn from her debut album, Kismet.
Everything's there - the wonderful better-than-Bjork voice, the interesting arrangements… And yet, it is hard to not wonder what's missing, and that thing is the excitement from the Tom Waits-like orchestration that the studio brought to Hunting My Dress. While the EP is lovely, and is a great way to gain additional perspective on the two albums, this is for those who've already fallen in love with those records, not someone who is checking her out.

ACE rating 7/10

Magnetic North
Aqualung (well, Matt Hales, who is Aqualung) has done very well since breaking through on the back of a VW advert with Strange and Beautiful. Since then, he has had an occasional track (Easier To Lie, Brighter Than Sunshine) break through and find its way to TC series like Brothers and Sisters or Greys Anatomy. The music is smack-bang in the middle of bands such as Coldplay, Snow Patrol, or Travis, and like those bands, you're really not supposed to find it offensive - if you find it compelling, that's a bonus. Magnetic North continues the tradition on recent Aqualung albums of nice-nice and a track or two that could work on an iPod playlist, or a mixtape CD if you're trying to come across as sensitive. Probably best as singles, unless you really don't like it spicy.

ACE rating 6/10

Jesse Malin and the St Marks Social
Love It To Life
Jesse Malin came out from Ryan Adams' wing as a squeakier Bruce Springsteen, forging a more interesting space for himself while Adams went off to forage in country and singer-songwriter territory. Here he follows the wonderful (and under-noticed) Glitter In The Gutter with a more straightahead return to his older wannabe. Love It To Life (the second album of his to be so-titled - the first is a 2007 live album) sounds more like the mid-80s Springsteen knock-offs (like John Cafferty), and ventures no further than the white lines on the same road throughout. Energetic enough, but lacking anything resembling an idea or a change of gear, this is Malin-on-repeat.

ACE rating 7/10

Adult Contemporary Essentials 25.04.10

The Tallest Man On Earth
The Wild Hunt
Dead oceans
Sweden’s Kristian Matsson will endure many many comparisons to Bob Dylan, for his adenoidal impassioned folk (think Blowin' In the Wind era), but the artist whom he should properly be compared to is Steve Forbert, for his voice is closest to that underrated star, and his music more melodic than the protest standards for which Dylan became famous. Like many Swedes writing in English, the actually lyrics have their flaws, but that doesn't stop the headlong rush through word associations sounding right on the money. This is a fantastic follow up to the great debut album, adding in great additional instruments to great effect. If there is a criticism, it is that the pace rarely varies, and that there really isn't much here that couldn't be a straight lift from another musician. Once you're past that, it's all good.

ACE rating 7/10

The New Pornographers
Once, The New Pornographers were a vital, essential new rock band, full of Neko Case energy and AC Newman drive. Then, as people started to listen, the band (always known as a 'supergroup' simply because it corralled three singers and songwriters) started to sound like the sum of some parts, and more like less than the sum of those parts. Together (perhaps ironically?) allows Case to do Case songs, Newman to do his, and, for some reason allows Dan Bejar to do his. The outcome is that this is both a retread of what worked for them in the past (Your Hands (Together)) and some material that shouldn't have ever been allowed out of the studio (Silver Jenny Dollar, If You Can't See My Mirrors). For a band that has been nothing but disappointing on recent outings, Together provides all the reason needed to stop hoping that they were an aberration.

ACE rating 5/10

Josh Ritter
So Runs The World Away
Josh Ritter's warm, gentle voice and ability to write songs that seem instantly memorable brought him to the attention of many, in that space above folk where the occasional artist achieves success. He makes the kind of music that Ryan Adams occasionally manages, or that Stephen Fretwell drifts into unwillingly. There was a time when he was called The New Springsteen, but So Runs The World Away puts him smack dead centre for The New Paul Simon, with its Still Crazy After All These Years feel. One listen to The Curse will be all you need to make you buy this album - its gently unfolding epic story beautifully told. The fact is that Josh Ritter is now an essential artist, one with a place on the shelf of every adult who likes considerate, intelligent music. This is his best album.

ACE rating 6/10

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 04.04.10

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Brutalist Bricks
For many of us, the only Elvis Costello we're happy with is the 80s punk popster, when tunes met power pop. Ted Leo has been making records for almost 20 years now, steadily improving his craft these past 10 years as Ted Leo and The Pharmacists. He has retained the Frank Turner kind of spit and fire, the angular biting guitars and almost more importantly has started to understand his own territory a lot better, rather than grabbing styles from the library shelves. While capable of some straightahead rockers, it is his explosive fire that is more appealing - like The Posies, but snottier, or The Clash but more tuneful. That is in evidence from the opener, The Mighty Sparrow, and only gets turned up on Mourning In America. The Brutalist Bricks is the best Ted Leo album, and the most Ted Leo of the bunch.

ACE rating 8/10

Cypress Hill
Rise Up
Priority/ EMI
RISE UP is Cypress Hill’s first new album in six years and the first release issued through Priority/EMI, since being signed by Snoop Dogg. Rise Up is the follow-up to 2004’s Till Death Do Us Part, recorded over three years at B-Real’s studio, The Temple, in Los Angeles.
The band's deep grooves and hard riffs are amplified here by guest appearances from Rage Against The Machine/Street Sweeper Social Club guitarist Tom Morello, Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda, System of a Down guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian, singer-songwriter Marc Anthony, rapper Pitbull and others, including Everlast, Young De, Evidence, The Alchemist and Cheech & Chong. The net effect is to improve, rather than detract from, what is a strong set of songs - old school hip hop upgraded for 2010. Cypress Hill were the first Latino hip hop group to go platinum, and Rise Up is a welcome return to the studio.

ACE rating 9/10

Sweet Sister
Once upon a time, Annuals looked set to be the bloggers and critics' band for all time. Preceding Yeasayer and Arcade Fire, the band's ecstatic electro-hypnotic folk had an appeal all its own. Be He Me in 2006 looked set to launch the band as a massive new name. Then, the members went and did a few side projects, they self-released a weak EP in 2008, and now there is a self-released EP. While way more appealing than Such Fun, Sweet Sister does seem to lack a killer blow. It is nice enough - bouncier and breezier than what's gone before. Opener Loxtep is as good as this EP gets, with its World beats, Fleet Foxes harmonies and electro-frills all over the song. Annuals do know how to pull off this kind of thing with aplomb, and if we had an album full of such quality, all would be well with the world. However, the EP descends into some seemingly-easy retread, arrested slightly by Turncloaking. If this is a foretaste, that's a shame. If it is just a release because this stuff was sitting around, ho hum.

ACE rating 6/10