Song, by Toad

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Grace Joyner – Young Fools

grace So I don’t like pop music eh, well what about this, you fuckers, what about this? Well I suppose it’s a counter-argument but only kind of. A lot of this is pretty damn morose, and needless to say those are my favourite bits. It does get pretty pop at times, such as Holy, and inevitably that is my least favourite song on the album, but most of this is really good.

Off the top of my head there are a few loose comparisons to give you a rough idea of the kind of territory we’re in here – some of that wounded glamour of Lana Del Rey, a horribly depressed cousin of Nicole Atkins, or perhaps a less affected Angel Olsen. None of these comparisons are that great, but they put you in roughly the right ballpark.

Although I don’t love any of those artists, there is definitely a bit of something in all of them that I like to varying extents, and I think Joyner comes closest to nailing it. This is old-fashioned, but still modern. The synths are moody without being prominent, and the drumming sounds like a drum machine (although looking at the photos it would appear the band do have a drummer).

I suppose, put simply, I prefer this because it is quite lo-fi and stripped back. I remember early Nicole Atkins, and how there was a sort of gloriously amateurish glamour to it.  Lana Del Rey’s album may have been a lifeless, embarrassing mess, but there was something incredible about the direct, unsettling feel of Video Games.  So of course Holy isn’t really my cup of tea, but I think Young Fools is fucking great: bitter and wounded, but fantastically light and elusive.

I’m sure it would be crap for her career to embrace the miserable, weird and the uncomfortable side of her music and move in the direction of the fantastic Powerdove or Lady Lazarus, but I reckon I would love the results. This EP teeters on the brink of either approach – pop or anti-pop –  and Joyner could do either. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and this may just be a digital release, but I am most curious too see what the future holds.

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Threes and Will & Huerequeque – Blue Thirteen

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I played a tune from this on the podcast last week, and I have been listening to it all week. It’s sort of nice that I have found an awesome Estonian band, give Tiit Kusnets on Klassikaraadio in Estonia plays our label stuff over there on such a regular basis.

It’s fair to say, I suppose, that this ain’t really pop music. It is full of harsh distorted amp tones and harsh growls with just the barest hints of the melody buried below, but there is just enough to make it actually eminently – can I really use this word for this kind of music? – ‘enjoyable’ to listen to.

This is being released on Blue Tapes. They are a label I don’t really know much about, but their site is beautiful, they seem really interesting and they have a LOT to say on the subject of releasing tapes as opposed to any other format. They seem to release a lot of experimental and abstract stuff, mixed with spoken word and, well, just interesting, weird shit.

The penultimate song, Hullumeelsuse Mägedes, is perhaps a little boomingly harsh, with it’s cycling, metallic guitar tone. I can see Mrs. Toad casting me slightly nervous looks as this one ground its way into it fourth or fifth minute. And because the guitars operate so low in the EQ spectrum the drums can sound a bit tinny as their low end is almost entirely absent, but for the most part, abrasive as it is, this is a bloody great listen.

The ongoing, persistent rumble of those guitars pretty much makes this worth listening to all by itself.

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BRAAINZZ – Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper

braainzz I’ve written about BRAAINZZ before. They’re weird as fuck, but they happen to be a really rather good band once you get used to all the vocoders and time-warping and general love for making you wonder if you’re listening to music that was made on purpose or entirely by accident when someone had Logic open and spilled a can of fizzy juice all over their computer.

It’s hard to argue with an album where Mrs. God plays cello though, if we’re being honest.

One of the things I like most about them is that in amongst all this perverse, messy nonsense, moments of clarity occasionally appear, just to remind you that this lot do genuinely know what they are doing, and all the weird elements of the music are as considered as any more conventional sounding tunes you’ll hear.

There’s a cracking Walkmen cover on here, for example, and while it doesn’t sound all that much like The Walkmen themselves, it’s actually pretty straight-edged by the standards of this lot. Needless to say, though, they descend into incomprehensible mess pretty much immediately afterwards, just in case you were in danger of getting the wrong idea.

Amazingly, with all these noises which border on the just plain silly, they seem to have a real flair for melancholy music. And actually it works pretty well. Even with the vocoder and the squeaks and the beeps.

Shroom folk. Wyrd pop. That’s what they call themselves. And, as they say, it sounds like nonsense but makes total sense once you listen to the music. I have no idea how or why this lot are good, but they really are.

Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper is their third EP and can be downloaded for free here.

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Allison Crutchfield – Lean In To It

lean You’ve heard me talk an awful lot about Kingfisher Bluez in the past- they released Adam Stafford’s album in North America, and released a Rick Redbeard single quite recently as well.

In fact I reckon if I were living in Vancouver (which a large part of me would love to) then Tim and I might well find ourselves squabbling over the same bands a lot of the time. They have a mind-bogglingly prolific release rate as well, and every time I go to their Bandcamp page it seems there are a small handful of new releases I’ve never heard of before.

One of the latest to go up there is this – a pre-order for an absolutely fantastic-sounding 12″ by Allison Crutchfield which will be available sometime just before Christmas. In other words, soon.

It’s lo-fi pop music, basically, with keyboards and drum machines fleshing out the sound, but most songs relying on relatively simple melodies not unlike the style of Casiotone For the Painfully Alone.

There’s plenty of gravel and distortion in the backing, but for all Allison’s voice is relatively low in the mix, it’s still clear and strong, which means this doesn’t just sound like yet another deliberately self-sabotaging lo-fi pop artist hiding behind their own effects – there is plenty of fuzz, but it is used with care and to really, really good effect.

I love a duet, and standout tunes for me would be the duet with Sam Cook-Parrott on Lupe, a tune he co-wrote, as well as You and Supermoon – all lovely singing, with a really nice sense of strength, brought by the insistent pace of the artificial percussion. It just rattles along, even through the songs which themselves seem to waver a little more.

It may have a slight air of vulnerability to it, but that’s really just her voice, and even so it’s pretty minimal, but these are (generally short) sharp, self-contained pop songs and this is an excellent record.

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Waiters – What For Art Thou

waiters Ahh, Waiters. I was writing about Sex Hands earlier today, and that put me in mind of our first Split 12″, recorded back in the Winter of 2011 I think, and if I recall Waiters were the first band we actually recorded.

I’d had plenty of good results with the Toad Sessions by then of course, but I was still nervous, and the Waiters songs are the first and (and to date still the only) songs where I personally have made technical mistakes which threatened our ability to use the actual recordings themselves.

It turns out that by sheer good fortune we were able to work around my errors and for all they were one of the most low-profile bands on that Split 12″ (except maybe Dolfinz who seem to have quietly drifted off into non-existence) I am still so proud of the songs they did with us – that sense of sad, lazy melancholy still feels to me like some of the best stuff I’ve ever recorded.

I offered to help them record an album in the same way afterwards, but for apparently they wanted to work at a slightly slower and more deliberate pace. It’s a shame, but that kind of thing happens with bands, and you can’t push anyone into something they aren’t entirely comfortable with, particularly not at this level where none of us are getting rich out of any of this.

Anyhow, Jon moving to the States seemed to put the brakes on a Waiters album permanently, but I forgot that a while back they asked me about this recording. I loved the songs, but at the time I said that I thought it would be financially a bit crazy, because 12″s are expensive to press, and you can only really sell a four-song EP for so much.

CF Records in Belfast, however, seem to have disagreed, which is excellent news. They specialise in short-run and limited edition releases, and clearly have a lot more experience in this area than I do, and I am delighted this release has found a way in the end because the songs are fucking ace. If you look at the rest of their releases you’ll see what I mean – so much good stuff.

This stuff embodies so much of the stuff I love about Waiters. I love Joe’s voice – just a little bit flat, in a way, but with such a warmth to it. When he sings sad songs you really do believe him, and for someone who likes sad music as much as I do that’s quite a big deal. The rhythm section chugs along mechanically but a little uncertainly, almost as if it is struggling to hold the whole song together. I don’t think these lads rehearse all that much, so that ‘about to stumble to a standstill’ feel may be simply an aesthetic choice or it might simply be what was actually happening in the room when they recorded.

Grey Matters and Mirror Threat are just gorgeous songs, and classic examples of that thrumming rhythm, slightly plaintive vocal delivery and unobtrusively downbeat atmosphere which make Waiters songs so compelling, and which made me so excited about the first Split 12″ when I pulled them off the desk and started the mixing process. I sincerely hope that between Joe’s stuff with Water World and Sex Hands, Perry’s fantastic Comfortable on a Tightrope stuff and umm… well I’m actually not all that sure where Jon is living now, that they still find the time to keep this band going, because they are bloody ace.

Waiters – Vacillate Wildly from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

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Maston – Opal

maston Looking at the actual purchase link for this album it appears I am actually writing a review from the point of view of only having heard Side 1. Never mind. We don’t do serious analysis here anyway, just pointing at good things and shouting ‘oh look, this is good’ at the internet in the hopes that someone else might take an interest as well.

Looking at the web shop of Stroll On Records you’ll see why I am being a bit blasé about this – their releases are generally excellent anyway, so I am prepared to go out on a limb and say ‘I have heard enough – this is really good’. Have a listen to their Soundcloud page here.

Anyhow, Opal is dreamy, meandering and excellent. The songs can be whole pop songs or wee snippets, instrumentals or simple pop tunes, but it all flows together really well, feeling at times like the soundtrack to a baffling sci-fi film where they never quite resolve what is reality and what is only happening inside your head.

There’s a wistfulness to it as well, perhaps achieved by the sense of vaseline-on-the-lens, blurred romanticism, and at times that sort of stylish 60s film score feel. It’s not by any means an unusual mixture these days, but this is done really well, and is one of those records I just warmed to immediately.

The band’s other work is perhaps a little more upbeat and for all this is a little different, it still actually filters through, providing a nice purposeful sense of rhythm throughout most of this record and preventing it meandering off into blind alleys. It’s dreamy, it’s a little ramshackle, but it’s never just noodling.

Get one here.

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Sex Hands – Pleh

sexhands Listening to this has been a surprisingly nostalgic experience for me. The reason for this is that Gay Marriage, Chandler in a Box and The One Where the Stripper Cries were all recorded and mixed by myself for our first ever Song, by Toad Split 12″ some three years ago, and hearing their proper versions on a full album is rather an emotional experience, albeit in a quiet little way.

Invariably I find myself listening to the album versions of those songs and wondering if they are somehow closer to what the band wanted than what they got from us, or whether they preferred the performances or whether they simply rattled all the songs together in one session and these are just the current versions, rather than any kind of improvement. This is sort of creepy ex-boyfriend behaviour, I acknowledge that, but it’s almost impossible not to fall into the trap.

Without wishing to insult the band, it’s something of a weird thing to find what is basically a smart-arsed concept band by its very definition (all the songs are about episodes of Friends, in case the song titles above didn’t give it away) progressing from a few catchy singles into the relatively legitimate territory of releasing a debut album.

In a way, once you get the joke, you could argue that the band itself doesn’t need to exist much beyond that. ‘Friends? Yeah, right. Oh wait! Holy shit, they were fucking serious!’ and that’s about as far as you have to go.

Except this is a really, really good album. I am not allowed to use the word ‘garage’ to describe them, because apparently they have never been anywhere near a garage, but you know what that means as a sort of stylistic shorthand of course: rough-and-ready guitar pop songs, with plenty of growl, a bit of thrash from time to time and muffled vocals.

And, basically, the tunes are fucking great. From the instrumental guitar intro of Space Song, to the faintly surreal experience of listening to hugely hummable songs like On A Break whilst knowing exactly which intensely tedious dead horse the Friends writers were flogging at the time they wrote all the source material. Christ, that fucking thread just refused to fucking die. But it’s a cracking song.

And this brings me to something which might sound like over-rationalisation: the number of times people go into intense critiques of what depth and what subtlety they find in pop music, when this is almost by its very definition anti-intellectual. It’s shallow and basically frivolous, and let’s see what the writers at places like The Quietus or Pitchfork, where the serious music writing is done, actually make of this. I mean, it’s about Friends, for fuck’s sake, meaning that as soon as you have anything serious to say you are already being mocked by the nature of the record itself. It’s like music writing has been pre-satirised.

So really there’s nothing to be said about this. It’s a weird, silly record with awesome tunes and you should buy a copy because it is hugely enjoyable to listen to. It’s just pop music, I suppose.

Sex Hands – Chandler in a Box from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

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Five Years of Audio Antihero

audioantihero Running a record label can be a little like being in Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition at times, in that I lose count of the times I get into conversations which start with ‘The toughest thing about running a record label… wait, wait, the two toughest thi… actually the THREE toughest things about running a record label are…’ and so on and so forth.

It’s not the same as being in a band, but it’s close. I don’t think maintaining a level head amongst near constant rejection and occasional hyperbolic adulation is quite as personal a challenge when you’re one step removed from the actual making of the music. But there is what can only be described as a crushing sense of responsibility to the people who choose you to be the one to do your best with their life’s work, and make sure it gets out in the world properly, particularly if you are small and tend to work with friends and people who personally trust you.

A pal of mine who I have known since very near the beginning of the label is Jamie from Audio Antihero. You’ve heard about Benjamin Shaw, Jack Hayter, Nosferatu D2 and Superman Revenge Squad on the blog before, but more or less everything the label releases is good. And he has the best label motto of all time: “Specialists in commercial suicide.” I wish I’d thought of that first.

If you don’t trust me on that one, well there is a very simple remedy. To celebrate their first five years of existence they are offering up a free sampler – well pay-what-you-like, which is NOT THE SAME THING! – which you can get from their Bandcamp page here.

If you want a clear indication of why I like this label so much, I think it is summed up in their press release which contains maybe even more sarcasm and bitter cynicism than even these pages:

“It’s our “Birthday” – Audio Antihero has been a label for five long years. It could have gone worse, I suppose. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of it. Thanks for supporting.

50% OFF:
Get 50% off anything from our Bandcamp for the next 48 hours (expires Friday) with the discount code “fuckthisshit” (after that, it’ll switch to a 15% off code). Valid on anything (CD/Digital/Cassette/Stress Ball).”

Kindred spirits, clearly. Anyhow, go and buy things. Or least listen to them closely, to make up for the fact that I didn’t write about the Cloud album when I actually rather liked it. Sorry Jamie. Here’s to the next five years old chap!

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The Wytches – Annabel Dream Reader

wytches I’ve played these guys on the podcast a couple of times already, and I’ve had the album for a while, but it seems to be one of these records where what I think of it yo-yos back and forth every time I listen to it. Sometimes I think it’s fearsomely fantastic, sometimes a bit chuggy and samey, and it doesn’t seem to depend on anything consistent I have been able to notice besides mere whim. Which I don’t like. I prefer to know what my opinions are and why I have them.

Gravedweller, for instance, has a baseline which could easily enough be straight out of Love Buzz. Get me in the right mood and I think ‘fucking brilliant, what a fantastic baseline’. The wrong mood and the similarity bugs me a little.

Generally I love the thumping intensity of this album. It’s psyche-rock (not in the way everything these days is fucking psyche-rock, this is actual psyche-rock) but it’s dark and heavy, and you just can’t really imagine them playing this at anything other than full pelt. There’s something about that heaviness which is a real gut-grabber, too. It makes you screw up your face and bunch fists and do a really aggressive pigeon-peck with your head.

I don’t mean to keep coming back to Bleach again, but there’s loads of it in here, meaning that more than a lot of the other psyche revivalists out there, but the result is that instead of just being a knock-off band with (in some cases admittedly) great tunes, these guys feel really fresh.

I fucking hate that word, particularly when used to describe new music; in fact I really hate it. But there’s life and sparkle to this which belies its relatively familiar recipe. There’s nothing new here really, and it can get a bit chuggy, so when I am in the wrong mood that bugs me a bit. But generally it’s just awesome.

I mean, as thrillingly wild songs go, the rest of the world is going to have to go some way to match Wire Frame Mattress this year. The other single Burn Out the Bruise has possibly had more radio play I think, and is a cracking song in its own right, but Mattress is just fucking great.

Again, the recipe is relatively simple – guitar, bass and drums with some pretty familiar effects pedals – but it’s all played with purpose and energy. There’s a sort of reckless abandon here which is utterly absent from pretty much any band who are described as ‘bringing back guitar music’.

Royal Blood, for example, when they hear this, should give pretty serious consideration to retiring immediately out of sheer embarrassment. Not every tune here is brilliant, but ‘guitar revival’ bands seem to all sound so leaden, whereas this is loose, brilliant fun and played with gleeful malevolence.

Also, if anyone buys one from Heavenly, which you can do here, can you please let me know where to go to validate my download code. I bought the damn thing in a shop and got a card with a code, but no clue as to where to redeem it.

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Water World – WWII

ww2 I’ve  been a while waiting to review this album, and I think part of that is a lack of access to the medium which allowed me to get so thoroughly into the band’s previous, brilliant album Water Bird.

The tape player in my car is broken, so unlike the last album, which seemed to spend an age going round and round and round on the way to work, this one is forever getting played while I’m sitting at my desk working. And I tend to lost concentration.

You could call that a criticism of the album, I suppose, and suggest that a great record would cut through whatever you were doing, but it really isn’t the case. Working is great for casual listening, but not for actually figuring out it something is good or not.

Having said that, over weeks of listening to this regularly when I got the chance, an album which didn’t really grab me at first has slowly filtered in and I am now really enjoying this.

As with the last one, I am genuinely unsure quite what makes this stand out from all the lo-fi guitar pop out there, but it does, once it’s sunk in properly. And I suppose it goes back to the old friends of riffs and melody. This is just pop music, and despite a rather scruffy exterior, it’s really good.

Cream Soda, the instrumental Sneaky Pete, Enough… there are loads of songs on here I just find myself humming along to, and with a pop record that’s about as much as you can ask for. Another great release by Life Dunk International – get it on CD, tape or download here.