Song, by Toad

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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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Passenger Peru & Fleeting Youth Records

a1224397052_2 As well as Soft Power, another tiny label with an excellent back catalogue is the relatively new Fleeting Youth Records.  Like Soft Power they already have an extensive Bandcamp page of interesting stuff, although Fleeting Youth do have the advantage of coming from the relative musical mecca of Austin, Texas, rather than an East Lothian commuter town.

I think I played the very first thing they ever sent me, but that was only a few months ago, and they’ve already racked up over half a dozen full releases. Honestly, I am finding it hard to keep up. Their general style seems to fit in that pop-punk, breezy skatey shouty kind of area which you know I like, with The Reaper by Basketball Shorts on their first split tape being as enjoyably hummable an example of that as you’re likely to find.

They do stray into more downbeat, slightly shoegazey territory at times as well, and one of their more recent releases (they really do move rather quickly) has that slightly fuzzy flavour of psychedelic indie rock down really nicely: Passenger Peru.

There’s a really nice sense of unhurried thrum to this, and it reminds me a little of some of the indie stuff which was knocking around in this country in the early nineties. In a way I think that kind of stuff is still stigmatised over here – tainted perhaps by its proximity to the much-maligned Britpop movement – whereas in the States the bands seem to feel freer to pick and choose the bits they like, free of the blanket associations we might have over here.

It’s only a small aspect of the sound, mind you, not an overwhelming impression, and this record is definitely its own beast. There’s a lighter touch than a lot of the krauty, shoegazey stuff I’ve been listening to recently, with moments of playful, rhythmic pop intruding on the moody bits quite regularly, and it doesn’t have that density of instrumentation which can drag the droney stuff down sometimes.

It’s released on limited edition cassette too, which implies to me that I might be coming back from Austin this year with as many tapes as I do records. I don’t know how to feel about this. They’re more fragile, but at least they aren’t as heavy!

Listen to the whole thing below, if you like:

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Chalk and Numbers – Cassette Compilation

a1831330414_2 I know I grouse sometimes about Edinburgh being a bit of a musical outpost, as far as the world of music is concerned, but at least we’re still a relatively big city. Imagine running a record label from somewhere like Livingston – i mean, just imagine!

Well somebody does, and those somebodies are the team behind the absolutely awesome Soft Power Records. Based in suburban West Lothian, they release possibly Scotland’s finest collection of hipster guitar rock, and have a back catalogue of which I am really rather jealous. They have  most of their releases up for listening on their Bandcamp page too, so you can have an extensive browse before you commit to spending all your money on vinyl you only just found out that you desperately need.

One of their latest releases is this rather joyous slice of sixties, soda-fountain girl-pop. It’s pretty close to being a pastiche, I guess, but pulled off with a sense of fun and excellent tunes, which gives it a really light, enjoyable touch.

The songs themselves are a compilation of tunes from Chalk and Numbers’ previous releases – of which there are relatively few – and adds a new song to it, to serve as something of an introduction to the band, and will be available on tape relatively soon.

Music like this is interesting to me, because it evokes a sort of breezy nostalgia for an era I never experienced. I guess the band are no old than me, so you have a weird combination of artists evoking a time they didn’t experience for the enjoyment of an audience who didn’t experience it either. It’s kind of second-level retroism in that sense, and gets a bit weird if you think too much about it. Best just focus on how enjoyable these six songs are and not worry about it too much, if you ask me.

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Dean Wareham has a Solo Album on the Way

holdingpattern He’s a funny one, Dean Wareham. Unlike a lot of the indie rock fanboys around at the moment, I never really knew Galaxie 500 during their heyday. This is daft, because I love the music and I am the right age, but we only really had MTV in Austria and I just never heard of them until later on.

I did get into Luna though, eventually, by living in an Airstream trailer in a quiet corner of someone else’s property on Cape Cod, where I waited tables, raked in the tips, and we batted music recommendations back and forth. It was an odd period in my life, and listening back to Luna’s stuff takes me back there very strongly, probably as no-one else I know has ever been all that into Luna, so the associations remain undiluted.

I never looked into it much, however, beyond just enjoying the music, so it was embarrassingly late by the time I finally made the connection between Galaxie 500, Luna and this guy called Dean Wareham. The penny finally dropped sometime last year when I bought my first Galaxie 500 album and thought, hang on, that voice sounds awfully familiar, so off I went to Wikipedia and had a look.

I think it took ages to figure out how much I liked Luna because on the surface of it there’s a very easy listening vibe. It’s very laid-back music, and doesn’t go for the traditional approaches of volume, distortion, sloppiness or attitude which a lot of indie rock used to grab your attention. With this less insistent stuff, it took years of constantly going back to their albums before I even realised that that’s what I was doing. It took a few more to realise that hey, hang on, I must really like this stuff. And I do, I realise now!

So yes, Wareham now has a solo album approaching, called Holding Pattern. There’s barely any more information about it than that, other than the tune below, and the fact that Sonic Cathedral will be releasing it.

As to whether or not it will be any good, well apart from the confidence however many years of making great music should give you, he has another, recent solo release too, and that is bloody great. I happened across an EP called Emancipated Hearts (get a copy here) entirely unawares at the Independent Label Market in London in December. I’ve been listening to it a lot recently, and it’s really, really good. There’s something of a smoother feel to it than Luna stuff, which is odd to say, given that Luna weren’t exactly a tense, confrontational listen.

Still, this feels less creepy, and somehow more at ease with itself, which gives it a really lovely overall vibe. I know that sounds like I’m calling it coffee table music or something horrible like that, but I’m not. It just sounds like music coming from a good place, and I am really looking forward to hearing what the album sounds like.

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David Thomas Broughton – UnAbleTo

a2797613365_2 I love David Thomas Broughton, and it seems a bit weird to be reviewing an album by someone we’re going to be working with later in the year. Nevertheless, just after we started discussing releasing his records over here I got an email from a very interesting-looking label in Portland called Antiquated Future about a new release they were doing with him across the pond.

When we recorded our yet-to-be-released third Split 12″ up at the Insider Festival last June I learned David tends to record things on the basis of improvisation. He just starts with an idea, builds some loops and some textures and keeps going, to see where it takes him. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but for all I don’t think it’s entirely off the top of his head, it seems that it’s rarely planned in too much detail either.

This release is two continuous sides of a cassette tape – basically a rolling, single piece of music. It’s within a whisker of being one of my favourite things he’s committed to tape actually, except for one extended, fifteen minute squeal which makes it pretty much impossible for me to listen to the whole of side two without skipping on a bit.

David’s live performances can be quite tense and confrontational. He seems to enjoy pushing his audience to see just how long they’ll stay with him. He drifts from noise to melody and back, but I get a real sense that he likes to needle people at the time, daring them to either give up completely or sit through as much baffling stuff as he can intimidate them into nodding their heads through. Once they do, depending on how generous he is feeling, he’ll bring it back from the nasty places into something utterly lovely, and with a voice like his, his music can indeed be really beautiful.

His recorded material, on the other hand, has often lacked that edge, and I think it has often been to its detriment. UnAbleTo, on the other hand, embraces it. Apparently Ableton is used extensively, and the results are absolutely great. The combination of the organic and digital elements is great, and I think the balance between beauty and hostility is mostly spot on. Except of course for that bit on side two.

Basically a rather piercing tone starts to invade the music about five minutes into the side, becoming more and more prominent until by the eleven minute mark that’s pretty much all there is – this nasty, grating electronic tone. I like to try and challenge myself with what I listen to, but I have to confess this has me beaten. It’s horrible. And it goes on for six or seven minutes.

And it’s a shame, because absolutely everything around it on this release is absolutely great. In fact once that tone stops – and I am guessing David didn’t really know where he was going with it any more and eventually decided to just turn it off – the remainder of the side is fantastic. In fact (most of!) the whole record is. It just seems that after six years of trying, David Thomas Broughton has finally located that point in me where I throw my hands up and confess that no, sorry, this is too much for me, I can’t handle this. A fine, fine release otherwise though!

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Song, by Toad’s Top Albums of 2013 1-5

trphy 1-5 / 6-1011-20

So here we have it, the definitive, totally objective list of the five best albums released in 2013. I could show you the proof if you wanted, but it’s basically just a chart which says that I am always right, except when I change my mind, and even then I am right the first time and even righter once I’ve decided I wasn’t. Got that?

It’s kind of from the Donald Trump School of Reasoning, so surely can’t be all that difficult to grasp.

Anyhow, unlike some years, this time there are at least another five records or so I would personally have wanted on this list, and actually if you ask me on another day they might well have found themselves on it. You know what it’s like red wine and saucisson and you choose one album, gin and radishes and you choose another.

Song, by Toad, where the deeply, deeply middle class have been going to find out about music since 2004. Read the rest of this entry »

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Song, by Toad’s Top Albums of 2013 6-10

horse1-5 / 6-10 / 11-20

Welcome back to the utterly definitive, empirically more correct than anyone else, final once and for all list of the best albums released in 2013.

In fact, these aren’t necessarily even definitive in my own bloody house, and actually depend a little on various factors, not least of which is the amount of diligence I’ve put into actually listening to particular records.

I love the Flaming Lips new album, for example, but haven’t spent enough time properly listening to it to be able to put it in this list. Old Earth, on the other hand, I have listened to an awful lot because as well as loving his album, I also helped put him on twice in Scotland and recorded a Toad Session with the guy, so I have listened to his music a lot!

So yeah, don’t think I take this too seriously, there are plenty of factors beyond the specific excellence of the album which influence where it finished in this list. Read the rest of this entry »

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Song, by Toad’s Top Albums of 2013 11-20

cup 1-5 / 6-10 / 11-20

It has been, I must say, an absolutely phenomenal year for great albums this year. Really, really great.

Even before February was over I had some records I knew would end up being favourites. Yo La Tengo were back Nick Cave was brewing something, and there had already been some fantastic surprises.

So that’s a good thing, but the other good thing is that I seem to come across as less of an anti-big-label snob this year. Last year the biggest labels represented in my top twenty were Fatcat and Chemikal Underground, and the rest were tiny labels or self-releases.

Those tiny releases are still here, of course, but despite the disappointments of The National and Kurt Vile, the bigger labels are a little better represented this year. We have Nick Cave and Yo La Tengo, and might have had The Flaming Lips too, had I spent more time listening to their album, which I really like the sound of so far.

There are also some of the bigger indies represented as well, and in general the whole list just looks a lot more balanced than last year. Not that I have changed my mind about last year, but it did look a bit like I was being intentionally obscure, which I wasn’t.

Anyhow, without further ado, here is the first half of this year’s top twenty, below the jump to stop all the embedded song players from slowing the whole page down completely. Read the rest of this entry »

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Soft Drinks – Born to Do It

softLife Dunk International are hardly a household name, as record labels go, but in their short lifespan and limited catalogue they do have some really rather excellent releases. After last year’s awesome Water World album made it into my top five albums of the year, they’ve released another cracker.

It’s another digital-or-cassette release, and available for the trifling sum of £3, but well and truly worth it. As with a lot of the best music coming out of Manchester at the moment, there’s a really nice slacker element to it, and and an unhurried approach which sits somewhere between Waiters and Former Bullies. And if you don’t know anything about those two bands then you really, really should.

There’s also a lot of Blur in there, actually, between the vocal delivery and the guitar playing – and in a sense it sits between really early Blur and their cracking Blur and 13 albums which they released in the late nineties in alternating between a gently hypnotic thrum and something a little more heavy. So it won’t grab you and demand you bounce up and down, and the arrangements are really basic as well, but there’s something really satisfying about this, particularly tunes like the title track Born to Do It.

It’s the first release by the band, and of course I have no idea where they want to go from here, but it’s a really promising start indeed and I really look forward to hearing pretty much whatever they do next.