Song, by Toad

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Broken Records – Weights & Pulleys

BR weights Broken Records, like Paws, are my pals, and I have been following their respective careers pretty much since the start, so while I try to not to just blindly lavish them with praise you should also not expect an objective review on these pages. Not that any music reviewing is objective, no matter what the pretensions of the writer, but I thought I should at least flag them up early.

But you know the rules around here, if you’re my pal and I don’t like your record I just won’t review it, so the only reason this is hear is because I think it’s awesome.

Broken Records albums have always intrigued me, in the sense that I’ve always found myself wondering if it would reveal that I had significantly misjudged the character of the band. Listening to a band’s artistic touchstones at least suggests something about who they think they are, even if interpreting them is a bit haphazard.

In the case of their first album, we’d waited so long for it, and in the case of the second the rather extreme reactions to the first one (both from the press and, if I’m honest, from within the band) meant that I was truly intrigued by what I was about to hear.

In this case the three year gap since its predecessor has seen a lot of changes. Band members have come and gone, a record label – and a significant one at that – has come and gone, and the individual members of the band have seen some pretty significant life changes.

Opting for a self-release this time is not perhaps as big a jump as it might seem. I remember the first time I interviewed the band being told that Broken Records had originally been conceived as a sort of collective-cum-label, and I do know that a couple of members of the band also have their own solo projects, so this is something which must have been at least vaguely in the back of someone’s mind since the beginning.

So after a three-year break, who are Broken Records these days, then? Well the jump from album number one to two was pretty significant, but this feels less drastic. They’re a moody indie band now I suppose, in the broadest of terms, embellished with violin, piano and trumpet. Generally though it’s the rhythm section which controls the pace and feel of the songs, although that sounds like a rather redundant statement.

Still, if you listen to it, while there’s not really any shoegaze in the music per se, you can hear washes of what I am going to *cough* elegantly refer to as shoegazily played guitar – all shimmers and textures. It is the mood of the drumming and the density and darkness of these guitar textures which really seem to define the feeling you get from the music more than anything else – such as the light, borderline jauntiness of You’ll Be Lonely (in a Little While), the momentum of second single Winterless Son or the sense of yearning which permeates the gorgeous Toska.

Take a bit of time with this as well, because the first few times I heard this I thought little more than a generally positive ‘yep, this is good’ but on subsequent listens I like it more and more. Subtler parts start to really stand out too, like the rise and fall of the excellent guitar part at the forefront of So Long, So Late. or the touching vocal delivery of the lovely closing tune All Else Can Just Wait.

I suppose if I were to nit-pick I’d say that the choral vocals aren’t always entirely my cup of tea elsewhere on the album, although funnily enough, one of my other favourite moments is the big vocal end of Nothing Doubtful, a song which seems to hark back to earlier times. There are a couple of tracks like I Won’t Leave You in the Dark, I guess, which are decent songs but perhaps not much more than that, but in general this is a really good album with barely a weak spot, made by a band who seem to be on a remarkably even keel considering all the changes over the last couple of years.

They never got as big as people expected them to, and they never went away when people expected them to either, and now when people have stopped expecting anything at all they’ve come out with a fantastic record. You can buy one here, if you like.

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PAWS – Youth Culture Forever

paws_fatcd129_cover Alright, this time, THIS TIME Paws’ album is bound to end up on the Scottish Album of the Year shortlist isn’t it? I mean, come on people, be sensible.

The disparity between the rest of the world’s taste and my own gets me down sometimes, but I think Paws might be the last band I really liked to come out of Scotland and actually achieve something. Their last album was great – joyous (assuming you didn’t listen to the words too closely) and exuberant, and a pretty accurate snapshot of the kind of energy, commitment and pop nous which made them such firm favourites up here, before relentless touring and the assistance of Fatcat Records introduced them to the rest of the world.

Oddly enough, for a band with such strong DIY instincts, their last album ended up sounding relatively polished. It worked just fine, but definitely emphasised the pop side of the band. This album is self-produced – a relatively bold decision, I suppose, for a fairly young band – and I have to confess I far prefer the sound. It’s denser and nastier and by the time the absolutely fucking awesome cello kicked in halfway through Alone I was pretty much punching the air with delight. In fact the whole van (I listened for the first time when on tour with one of our bands) pretty much all exchanged that ‘holy fuck, that is nasty‘ look in unison. But in a good way. A very good way.

As ‘difficult second albums’ go, in fact, this whole record pretty much laughs that whole cliché off as if the phrase had never been coined in the first place. Rather than difficult, this sounds like a band who have really worked out how they want to sound and gone about making a record of exactly that.

Oddly enough, though, I think that for all this is a better album than its predecessor Cokefloat, it may actually be a little less consistent. Tunes like Someone New and Give Up might be a bit lyrically obvious for my liking, and the trademark Paws arpeggiated chorus (whatever the technical term is) is perhaps a little too strong as well. That might actually be what makes these two of the standout pop songs on the album, but in personal terms they are possibly my least favourite.

To balance that, of course, there are some of the best songs Paws have written, not least the absolutely fantastic 1-2 which starts the album.That glee I experienced when I first heard the cello in Alone was matched when I heard Erreur Humaine as well. I’ve said it about Paws before, but it sounds quite a bit like the unfairly unremembered Marcy Playground. It’s followed by Tongues, a tune which is also relatively gentle by Paws standards, and between them they may not indicate revolution, but they definitely make it pretty clear that this is a band developing from their early material and pushing on into new territory.

When a band have a such a knack for sprightly pop tunes I am always keen to see them show that they can do more. Not that I underestimate the skill behind a good pop song of course, but if you can blend them with a bit more then you have a band with genuine longevity, and it looks like that’s what we’re seeing emerge here: a band with real depth and range.

The epic wig-out track seems to be becoming quite common amongst bands I like at the moment, and Youth Culture Forever ends with one: the rather excellent War Cry. It’s a proper beast of a song and ends with Paws doing what they do best – absolutely fucking going for it. After an album which brilliantly shows all the other strings they have to their bow, this song almost reads like and big fat fucking ‘I told you so’.

There’s something in the mentality of the band – although maybe just in Phil Taylor actually – which seems to be drawn disproportionately to the doubters and the obstacles of a musician’s life. For someone whose band is a pretty big success by comparison to most of their peers you still get the impression that just participating in the modern music industry is something they don’t really relish. What they do like, though, is making music, and by the time War Cry is over you get the impression that’s what is being said. Fuck all the other stuff, we’re a band, we make records and here is what we can do – stick that in your fucking pipe and smoke it.

After all the feelings of self-doubt and not particularly generous self-analysis expressed in the record it seems suitable to end it with something of a war cry. This is what we do, this is why we love it, and this is why I love them.

Paws play Glasgow tomorrow and the Wee Red Bar in Edinburgh on Saturday. If you can’t make it along to either of these shows you can buy your copy of the album here. You won’t regret it.

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Wozniak – Pike’s Peak

I think that when I first wrote about Plastic Animals I said that I didn’t immediately think they were great – in fact I had my reservations about their very earliest recordings – but there was still a kernel of something there which told me to keep an eye on the band, and that they were capable of doing really good things. The fact that we are currently recording the band’s debut album should tell you all you need to know about how that worked out.

Wozniak are a band I think I would describe similarly. Their first recordings, rather than bowling me over immediately, had a glimmer of something I really liked about them, and like Plastic Animals every subsequent encounter has improved upon that impression.  New EP Pike’s Peak (pre-order here) is no exception: after their first single you can hear the band slowly coalescing into something more complete.

Basically this is shoegaze music, I suppose, albeit with touches of krautrock and psychedelia. There’s a lot of good stuff operating in that vague territory these days; for some odd reason shoegaze seems to operate on a much shorter cycle than the standard twenty year recycling towards which the fashion world tends.

Nevertheless, despite their kind efforts to make a radio edit of El Maresme, the song at the top of the page, there isn’t a lot of pop to be had here. A lot of it is heavily dependent on noise, and with music like that I tend to find it best to do something else and let it wash over me, then do the same thing the next day, and then the next. You find out pretty quickly that way if something is sticking in your head or if the whole thing just passes you forgettably by without ever making much of a lasting impression.

The problem with this method from a blogger’s perspective, however, is that it can be really rather hard to articulate what it is about a piece of music which makes it feel like it works. Particularly this kind of music. There aren’t a lot of tunes here, per se, instead you get lots of washes and thrums, and the odd descent into little more than feedback and guitar grumble.

Paper Hat is a little lighter, which is a good thing, because you can’t just hammer away at people like this with no respite, particularly when you consider that the final track Gesamtkunstwerk is basically a four and a half minute buzz (which strangely isn’t crap). Either way, they haven’t given much ground here. Not much quarter is given to the concept of ‘pop music’ and I guess this won’t make them famous, but to me it sounds like a band who started out with some promise, and are getting better every time I hear them. More please.

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Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

burn After the intensity of the frothing over this album, I have to confess I ended up ignoring it for a good while (it’s been out for ages now) so that I could listen to it without my inner misanthrope refusing to like it just because it caused so many other people to touch themselves in bad places and collapse into fits of twee hipster-ecstasy convulsions.

Anyhow, the sound of panting seems to have died down by now, and I’ve been listening to this a fair bit recently. I remember when I first wrote about Angel Olsen I said that there was something in there which I almost loved, but not quite. Her early work maybe took the knowingly retro vocal delivery just a little too far and some of the more intense yelps were unlistenably grating.

Mostly it was beautiful, but just a smidgen too often it went a bit too far, and I haven’t yet been able to listen to an album without reservations. This one, frustratingly, goes too far in the opposite direction. Again, a lot of it is utterly gorgeous. Her voice really is stunning, and when there is little else to vie for your attention it is one of the most compelling things I’ve heard in ages.

This album is far less stripped back than previous work, and recorded with a full rock band at points, but whilst that has indeed sanded off a few of the rough edges in many ways it goes too far. It seems ludicrously simplistic to say it but honestly the slow songs on this album are generally fantastic, but the rock songs are generally pretty dull.

There are tunes on here like Lights Out and the absolutely gorgeous White Fire which are really, really fucking good, but others like High and Wild which are just stodgy. It’s driving me nuts. Somewhere in all this stuff there is a version of Angel Olsen which I am sure I would love just as much as everyone else, but one album is just a bit too wild and the next ends up being just a bit too sensible.

I’ve said this before about people who embrace full bands when it may not always suit them, and I will say it again: what makes Angel Olsen special is Angel herself. Her voice, her style, her delivery… it just all has so much character, and I think the more densely arranged songs on this end up just smothering that and making something special sound commonplace. It’s a good album, and has some stunningly beautiful moments, but all in all I still think it contains too many forgettable songs, and find it a little disappointing overall. So another Angel Olsen frustration, but again, I feel so close to absolutely loving it that it drives me nuts.

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Benjamin Shaw – Goodbye, Cagoule World

a1454438751_10 After reviewing Now Wakes the Sea’s new album it seems like we’re going to have a day of morose, lo-fi music on Song, by Toad, but fuck it, sad music is the best music, so there.

It has taken me a while to get into this album, I have to confess, but then that tends to happen when I first listen to Benjamin Shaw’s music. The reviews are always slow in coming – much, I assume and apologise for, to the frustration of the label – but it just takes me a while to digest. And to be honest, it’s not like he writes albums full of immediate pop hooks anyway, so you have to let it sink in a bit.

After the stumbling acoustic feel of the last album, albeit layered with drones and grumbly samples, this is a rather grander affair. There’s even brass – a sound so jaunty I can barely believe it has found its way onto a Benjamin Shaw record. But then the song in which it appears, Break the Kettles and Sink the Boats, has such a carefree lyrical refrain – “come burn some bridges with me” –  and liberated feel to it that I almost wanted to phone up Shaw personally, just to ask about how much fun he seems to be having these days.

There are strings too, including some wonderfully not-quite-right cello, as well as a refrain halfway through the splendid instrumental A Day at the Park which sounds like it could be right out of the Eels back catalogue – just before the general discord and what sounds like terrified screaming build to a sudden and rather surprising crescendo.

Next up is Magneto Was Right – a typically Shawvian* song name, and one which I have to confess I think works rather better than the eyeroller of an album title – and it is here that we get back to more familiar territory. It’s a gentle acoustic strum, which highlights Shaw’s wonderful vocal delivery, which is unstrained and has a really genuine warmth to it. Even here, though, there is more than usual, in the lovely slide guitar which unobtrusively adorns the song.

You and Me, which follows, starts out like a genuinely expansive tune, but ends up almost as an embodiment of why this album works so well. It may be a departure from previous, glacially awkward Shaw material, but it ends up falling back onto all the same characteristics which made his previous work so good – namely, the personability of his delivery and the sensitive, affectionate pathos of his lyrics.

He can be arch, sarcastic and depressing when he wants to be, but what made his miserable stuff less miserable, and what keeps his more expansive stuff personal, is still Shaw himself. I have seen a lot of very compelling, idiosyncratic songwriters try and make bigger-sounding, more ambitious albums, and they end up diluting themselves when they do it, and thus losing the very thing which made them so special in the first place. Shaw has not done that at all, here, and in fact the extra instrumentation and broader mood swings seem only to make the personal aspect more accessible and just a little deeper and more three-dimensional than before.

It took me a while to realise it, but this might actually be better than his previous stuff. There is so much more going on here, and yet it never dilutes the core of what makes Benjamin Shaw’s stuff so good.

*Oh stop it, just let me have this one, alright.

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Now Wakes the Sea – Bildungsroman

Bildungsroman_Cover_bigA couple of years ago, when I first started writing about Now Wakes the Sea, I rather flippantly referred to them as ‘the best band in Scotland that no-one’s ever heard about’. I didn’t take it all that seriously at the time, as they’d just released a glitchy, mumbled record of morose lo-fi songs – the absolutely fantastic Fluoxetine Morning – and I accepted that that wasn’t exactly the kind of music to spread like wildfire through the blogosphere and automatically elevate an artist to stadium-stuffing levels of fame.

A couple of years later and we’ve seen a couple of absolutely fantastic EPs, and now this brilliant new album, Bildungsroman (buy here), and suddenly the whole thing seems like a little less of an amusing throwaway comment and is starting to feel like a genuinely vexing question. Seriously, why aren’t this band better known? Admittedly, they haven’t had a fortune thrown at their marketing, and their live shows are rare and a little unpredictable, but beyond a small handful of other enthusiasts, people have shown little to no interest – particularly the press. I am becoming as annoyed with the ‘best band no-one’s ever heard of’ tag as I can only assume the band are at this point.

This music is weird, distorted, foggy and lost, as well as being that perfect combination of genuinely interesting and eminently hummable. This is a varied record in every sense, from instrumentation to mood, coherence to incoherence. It can be experimental and lo-fi and it can be, by this band’s standards anyway, relatively chirpy and brash. It is, in short, excellent. Why the fuck are they not being reviewed everywhere.

Admittedly neither the band nor their label are famous, but when that leads to even relatively small-market music publications completely ignoring their efforts to promote the album, the fault starts to seem to lie with the press and not the music. Are they too busy trotting along behind be-haircutted hipster buzz garbage in the hopes that a small scrap of acknowledgement might be thrown their way? Are they scrambling around trying to cover the same fashionable nonsense that everyone else is covering in some desperate bid not to be seen as having missed a particular boat, or missed out on the pageviews that they think they’ll get from being the 1000th fucking site that day to repost some particular video? Do they actually not have the courage to have opinions of their own and the confidence to write about good things simply because they are good, not because the zeitgeist might nod a perfectly-sculpted eyebrow their way?

The short answer is yes. The state of the fucking music press is absolutely fucking woeful at the moment. Herd-instinct at its most contemptible, endless PREMMY-AAAAIRE! click-baiting, scrambling to scent-mark the cool kids and writing faux-controversial, worthless fucking ‘thought-pieces’ (one of the most grating terms in modern writing), and completely neglecting the one thing which above all else gives you integrity and credibility as a music writer: finding good music and writing about it. And writing well.

It reminds me of why blogs were such a breath of fresh air when they first emerged, but as more of them are pulled into the mainstream and others regress to a sort of Twitter-max stream of links and embeds on Tumblr, we are left with very few bloggers who simply do it for the pleasure of finding unusual and obscure music and spending some time to write about it.

What I love about this album is that all because of the presence of a couple of wonkily upbeat numbers with cheery keyboard refrains – notably Original Bone (see video below) and The Shore & the Coastline – it feels like Now Wakes the Sea have written a surprisingly expansive pop record. They really haven’t, though. This may be more of a band effort than the introspective, solitary Fluoxetine Morning, but there is still all sorts of scattered, fascinating mess on the album.

The wobbly, distorted strum of Photoautomat is fantastic, and reminds me of the kind of stuff we released on the Cold Seeds record. ‘Oooh, yes but that’s why it’s not done as well as you think it should’, you might say, ‘that’s too lo-fi and strange for a mainstream audience’. But then almost that exact same technique is used to underpin the glorious Bring Me Simple Men by Timber Timbre (see here), and for all they aren’t huge either, they aren’t exactly doing badly. People can stomach this stuff, but I sometimes get the impression that if we expect weird music then that is what we will hear, whereas if we just assume that what we’re hearing is normal and we aren’t primed to be shocked, then we can be much more accepting than we think.

There is more weirdness here too. Pictures Stay the Same is a textured, almost entirely instrumental drone with what sounds like a looped, heavily treated sample providing only a vague, unsettling gesture as a vocal part. It’s gorgeous though, and probably the murkiest depths to contrast with the highs of the album’s pop numbers. Ending with “To listen to your message again, press one.” is genius, giving the whole thing the terrifying feeling of being some sort of sonic horror story. Or maybe a close friend trying to mumble through a medicated fug about why they just can’t face this life any more, while try as you might, you just can’t understand a thing they’re saying.

The shifting sands of Prefab Houses is brilliant, and oddly enough another tune which slightly evokes Timber Timbre, as it descends from an almost industrial keyboard racket into an echoey, ambient decline. We get one more pop song after that, then something a little gentler and more melancholy, before the final bilious racket of Shining Bright O’er Land & Sea brings things to what feels like a final, angry, almost contemptuous conclusion. Fuck you, it seems to say. You’ve had the tunes, and I’ve tried my best, but fuck it, this is what’s really inside my head.

The song is not, I suppose, the kind of music I myself could have handled eight or nine years ago when I was probably in my most populist phase, but at this stage in my life this is a triumphantly discordant ‘fuck you, I’m done here’ and a brilliant way to end an album which manages to use some genuinely weird and fucked up noises and still have the feel of a fantastic pop record. Or at least, a pop record in the kind of universe I often wish I inhabited.

People are idiots.

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Fat White Family – Champagne Holocaust

fwf Umm, I think seeing this band live has rather ruined this album for me. I really have no idea what I’d think if I’d never seen them before, but once you’ve done it you can’t go back.

These guys were one of the big hits of SXSW this year, and repeated the feat at The Great Escape in Brighton last week. The internet buzz surrounding the release is what those of us with access to a thesaurus and too much time on our hands might call palpable, and the only reason you haven’t read about them on this website before now is that I am disorganised and easily distracted.

I don’t know about changing the world, and they’re too retro-inspired to really change music, but even with my naturally contrarian reaction to any kind of buzz I would admit that these guys really are very, very good. I’ve seen their front man being compared to Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten, and a friend said that they were the first band he’d seen in ages that felt just a little bit dangerous.

Those comparisons are a bit too lofty for my taste, although they are stylistically accurate enough. Nevertheless, the excitement does call to mind Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip reminding us that ‘The next big thing? Just a band.”

Fat White Family may be just a band, but at this point it looks like they really are a very, very good band. In Brighton last week they were awesome: feral, snarling, and yet tight as fuck. They’d descend into mess, but collectively pull the songs back into perfectly-executed riffage with precision and control, and that teetering, strutting front man of theirs? Well I am sure enough has been said about him already, but he was both as intense and as excellent as everyone else has already told you.

But, having said that, by comparison to the live shows the album just feels a little bit tame, to be honest. It’s all good – the sprawling garage-psychedelia is perfectly intact and when it comes on a playlist in the midst of other stuff being released today it actually sounds brilliant – the rhythmic circulation of guitar riffs and choruses is almost animalistic, in the sense that it swirls around like a flock of malevolent birds, always in a different shape, sometimes appearing to have dissipated altogether and then suddenly swoops back towards you with an unsettling sense of purpose.

The thing is, whilst on the album this is ‘really good’, on stage it’s ‘absolutely fucking great’ and I can’t quite shake that aspect out of my head. In some senses, of course, it’s a good thing. I am always quick to criticise a band who treat an album like a live set and just batter out the floor-fillers for half an hour, so slightly less beefy tunes like Who Shot Lee Oswald and the slower, more moody pace of Cream of the Young give the album really good variation. I suppose it’s just that when the band want to really ramp it up and slap you in the face, nothing a rotating piece of black plastic can do can really match a sweaty, shirtless man snarling in your face and possibly just about show you his penis.

So it’s really good, this, and as I said it stands out as excellent when mixed in with pretty much all the stuff I’m listening to at the moment, particularly if it comes on a shuffled playlist, but go see this band live if you can. And hope the weird, thrilling confrontationalism doesn’t ever lead them into Oasis territory.

Buy direct from the band.

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Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing

mph Given the life- and mobility-threatening car wreck which preceded the recording of this album  it is very, very hard to listen to it without allowing those facts to colour your impressions of the music. I’m not sure whether that should be the case, however, given a lot of it was written and, I believe, recorded before the accident.

Also, I’ve interviewed Hinson before, albeit quite a long time ago, and he fairly spat with contempt when I asked about the oft-repeated trope that his colourful past had found expression in some of his rather nippy songwriting. He may or may not have literally waved his hand dismissively and said “yeah, that’s all bullshit” but it wasn’t far away.

So when I see every review of this album talking about the obviously dramatic back-story I find myself wondering how Hinson himself would feel about the assumed consensus that this represents him re-evaluating his life and starting again after such a horrific experience. Not to say that it’s bollocks, of course, but he is a relatively guarded, complex character, and I have never really had the impression that the version of himself we get from the press releases tells much of the story.

What this does feel like is a rather more bare and unguarded record. Despite some pretty blunt lyrics in the past, there has often been deceptively rich production on Micah P. Hinson’s albums, bringing at least some sense of Nick Cave’s style of character creation to what seemed otherwise so be fairly mercilessly personal songs. Here, however, instead of the lush, orchestral strings, what you get is the rather more sparse sound of a string quartet, and when the guitar gets angry it is just one solitary, snarling guitar rather than a furious band battering away.

So in the end what you get is a very familiar sound in terms of the aesthetic sensibilities – Hinson never changed all that radically from record to record anyway – but something which has a very different emotional feel to previous work nevertheless. Songs like The Life, Living, Death and Dying of a Certain and Peculiar L. J. Nichols might be an affectionate song about a departed grandparent, but the specific lyrics don’t exactly paint a sentimental picture. It’s a similar story with There’s Only One Name and maybe even I Ain’t Movin’ – songs which sound a little saccharine at times, and could be much more so, but nevertheless have a rather harder edge to the lyrics than you would imagine. It doesn’t sound like deliberate cuteness either, more that the barbs are there in real life, and hence they are there in the songs too. It’s not artifice, just the way things are.

Perhaps the inevitable conclusion of all these vignettes might be the combination of God is Good and The Quill towards the end of the album. God is Good is basically most kids’ first question about religion – If God is so amazing then why do bad things happen? – but instead of naff philosophy it comes across more as a weary lament. It sounds like the bitter recital of someone who is close to the end of their tether and as bewildered as they are exhausted by the cards that life seems to deal them.

The salvation, of course, is in the music, isn’t it. That’s how the story goes. Person has a shite time and then writes an album about it to help them deal with life. But when the next tune starts with the lyrics “The quill holds the hand still/ the paper draws nothing from this lonely heart” you get the impression that isn’t really what is being said. Rather than releasing the album as catharsis, as a way of dealing with a horrible period of life, I find myself with the impression of someone who makes music because that’s what they do. They’ve found something they’re good at, and whether things are good or bad, that is the lens through which they often view their life.

But when the shit really hits the fan, when things are overwhelming and threaten to crush you altogether it doesn’t seem that music, or the act of writing, are much help. And yet this album seems to exist despite that fact, almost as if the catharsis and act of defiance against a needlessly vindictive universe is not the content of the songs, but the fact that they actually exist at all. I have no idea if this is at all true, of course, but it is nevertheless the feeling I get from Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing.

And it is a beautiful, beautiful record. Buy one here.

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Blood of the Bull – Bend Over EP

bend Which is Scotland’s finest indie label? Us? Chemikal Underground? Lost Map? Why it’s us of cou… actually, whisper it, but the answer might be d) None of the above. It might, over the last couple of years, have been Soft Power Records.

Located in the highly unpromising commuter town of Livingston, I don’t know if they would actually win in a nose-to-nose with release schedules which boast, say, the RM Hubbert or Pictish Trail albums but they’d certainly be (in awful football parlance) right in the mix at the end of the season. They certainly have me casting envious eyes at a lot of the things they put out.

The Bend Over EP by Glasgow-based Blood of the Bull is four songs of bright and breezy retro-tinged garage guitar pop with a gorgeous, clear, high vocal. A very zeitgeisty mix of Britpoppy and more rough and ready garage sound from the late sixties, this actually embraces elements of psychedelic folk in the vocal delivery of tunes like Hold Your Head Up High and Go Fuck Yourself, with shades of late Fairport-era Sandy Denny in there, to my ears at least.

Like a few of the Soft Power releases, this may be garage pop, but it’s not all that lo-fi. Where other corners of this particular landscape may be distorted and aggressive, this has a a cleanliness to the sound to match the vocal. It’s still kinda retro and may be very DIY, but that doesn’t pull the music anywhere it doesn’t want to go. There’s some rougher stuff on the band’s Soundcloud page, and I have to confess I rather like that too.

In fact, in some ways this reminds me of the sort of woman I’ve seen a lot of in places where there are many tattoos to be seen. There seems to be a very specific look at the moment which embraces polka-dot dresses and glamorous hair, and yet includes being covered in ink. The combination of such prettiness with dense tattoos, which still retain something of a hard-edged, rebellious feel to them, always struck me as a little incongruous. In fashion terms it’s a style I have to confess that I really like, and there are elements of that in this EP. It can be very pretty, with a deliberate girlish innocence at times, and then at others there are some noticeably rougher edges. It’s a fascinating combination and a really good record.

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Magic Eye – Babylon

NNF291 Ah, bands. Such contrary bastards!

Magic Eye, you may remember, featured on our second Split 12″ record, released in April last year. They played gorgeous, crystal clear, dreamy pop tunes, and seemed very much in tune with the zeitgeist and possibly on the verge of good things. Well, to me anyway, although as we’ve seen, I am not exactly an authority as far as this kind of thing is concerned.

Anyhow, below is one of the songs they recorded for us, and one which I think turned out really, really well. And I suppose I thought that was how the band heard themselves in their own heads, too. I’d been to see them a couple of times as well though, so I wasn’t just imagining it, entirely.

Of course, we all think we know how our favourite bands ‘ought’ to sound, but when they went into a studio here in Edinburgh to record their debut album, the mixing engineer clearly thought they ought to sound a lot different to how the band themselves thought they should sound. They hated the results, but the guy simply refused to work with them on a second mix. On the face of it, that is pretty shocking behaviour, but they were getting the studio and the time of the engineer on an incredibly cheap rate, so they were probably already well over the time commitments the studio had imagined when they agreed the fee.

I may have released the band’s stuff, but I wasn’t involved in this, so who knows what the ins and outs of it really were. In a sense I find myself really not wanting to know any more, although I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone who actually cares about bands or music refusing to do so much as a ’round two’ when it comes to mixing a band’s album.

Anyhow, whoever was actually in the right in that particular misalignment of expectations, it clearly had a big effect on the band themselves. Firstly, they split up.  Secondly, they obviously couldn’t release the album so their time was wasted. And thirdly, once they managed to get the stems back from the engineer they, er, remixed it to sound like this: Babylon, their latest and I think their last release.

The band themselves describe their studio experience in the press release for this cassette: “they suffered the rite-of-passage indignity of recording their first set of songs at an overly pro studio, rendering the results grit-less and dried out.” Listening to this, it sounds like they have made this mix just to exorcise the ghosts of what they heard before, and I am not sure I would know what to make of it if I hadn’t heard the muggy pop sheen of the studio album (and it is pretty terrible).

The vocals have been submerged in a bath of delay and reverb, it’s a weird, wobbly, hazy mess and I find myself listening to it and feeling both baffled and delighted. After the clarity of the songs they recorded with us, to hear this kind of distorted fog feels kind of shocking, actually. Like I never really understood the band in the first place. But listening to it after the abandoned studio album, it’s almost as if the band’s hatred of those mixes is aggressively, accusingly embodied in these ones.

It helps, I think, that Bek and Roma can really, really sing. They both have high, glacial voices and that element of beauty keeps just a little glitter alive in the fog of hazy mess around them and leaves this music… where, I don’t know. It’s fascinating. I find myself playing it over and over and wondering what I would make of it if I didn’t know so much of the back-story behind its creation.

Buy a copy on cassette here.

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