Washed Out (the moniker of US producer Ernest Greene) has been long-associated with the ‘chillwave’ genre, which rose swiftly to prominence at the turn of the decade, but has since become largely defunct. Greene’s previously releases – particularly the gorgeous ‘Life of Leisure’ EP and the slightly patchier ‘Within and Without’ album were at the forefront of this chillwave movement, their dreamy, balaeric pop songs helping to define the sound of the genre. Other notable chillwave torchbearers such as Toro Y Moi and Small Black have moved on, and redefined their sound, sometimes with forgettable results. The pressure is on Greene to up the ante.
So does ‘Paracosm’ deliver? Mostly. It’s unquestionably a development of the Washed Out we know - Greene used more than fifty different instruments to flesh out the sound of the album, and there’s a multi-dimensional depth to many songs that wasn’t present before. The ambient beats, warm synths and despondent drawl of Greene’s vocals all remain fully intact. The opening tracks largely stick to the tried and tested formula of the first album; sometimes it works (the gorgeous ‘Don’t Give Up’), other times it’s forgettable (the album’s rather safe lead track, ‘It All Feels Right’).
But it’s the latter half of the album where things get more interesting: the title track is five minutes of meandering escapism; closing track ‘All Over Now’ is a dose of mournful melancholia, Greene’s voice sounding more resigned and downbeat than ever before. It’s these final tracks where the development of the Washed Out sound becomes really apparent: the songs are more crafted, more intelligent, and more immersive. ‘Paracosm’ could at face value be labelled as steady progression, but it’s only once you explore its hidden depths the nuances of the record hit you. Worth losing yourself in.
Rebekka Karijord / Linnea Olsson - Union Chapel, London (live review)
Part of a week-long festival of specially-curated events to celebrate the restoration of their historic (130 year-old, no less) Henry Willis organ, north London’s Union Chapel hosted a night of established and emerging Nordic music talent, headlined by Stockholm-based musician Rebekka Karijord. The unifying theme was all artists making full use of the Chapel’s organ, an almighty yet mysterious instrument, the unique feature of which is the fact it is near-completely hidden from the view of the audience, behind decorative screens. It allows all of the artists playing tonight to twist, rework and amplify their songs in very different ways.
Swedish singer and cellist Linnea Olsson’s simple, often fragile songs are perfectly suited to the immense surroundings of the Union Chapel. Drawing mostly from last year’s debut ‘Ah!’ album, Linnea’s charming set of love songs – which are built on nothing more than her voice, cello, and a use of pedals to loop her vocals – are captivating to watch, with album highlight ‘Dinosaur’ sounding particularly impressive. The short set introduces a number of new songs, including the spiky ‘What’, suggesting a second album will be worth keeping an eye out for.
Part of Iceland’s Bedroom Community collective, composer Valgeir Sigurðsson’s powerful, electronic compositions, played together here with organist Jamie McVinnie, are an entirely different beast. The set sweeps from minimal, Olafur Arnalds-esque neo-classical electronica, to other-wordly walls of noise, deftly fueled by the addition of the organ. It’s a world away from the set which precedes it (and indeed which follows it) but again is one which perfectly plays to its surroundings.
Singer-songwriter Rebekka Karijord appears every inch the headliner. Her presence on the stage is powerful, and the songs – particularly those from most recent album ‘We Become Ourselves’ – certainly have an epic quality to them. ‘Use My Body While It’s Still Young’s’ tribal rhythms are a high point, and whilst other songs veer too close to tasteful power-ballad territory, there is much to admire in Karijord’s performance. It rounds out a successful evening where, unusually, the instrument hidden at the back of the stage is perhaps the biggest star in the room.
Camera Obscura’s new album, the first since 2009’s top 40-bothering My Maudlin Career, is at face value a case of comfort in familiar. The Scottish quartet have, for the past decade and beyond, been the masters in (mostly) self-depreciating indie-pop songs, and much of this fifth album is no departure from that.
Singer Tracyanne Campbell’s wry, love-weary lyrics - always one of the group’s strongest assets - are firmly intact. But something is clearly different here: the decision to record the album in Portland, and the contribution of Neko Case and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on backing vocals, both lend the album a polished sheen and a tighter sound.
The first half of the album is restrained and melancholic (compare the opening, brief instrumental and the slow-burning ‘This Is Love (Feels Alright)’ to the stomp of My Maudlin Career’s opening track ‘French Navy’), but these first four tracks sit with the group’s best work to date, particularly the gorgeous, world-weary ‘New Year’s Resolution’ (“All I ever wanted was someone to rely on / All I ever wanted was somewhere to go home”).
A mid-album blip (both ‘Cri De Coeur’ and ‘Every Weekday’ are somewhat superfluous) gives way to a more upbeat second half, peaking with the synthy, doowop-ish ‘Break It To You Gently’. As always there’s an elegant, timeless quality to Camera Obscura. They’ve flown below the radar for over a decade now, but ‘Desire Lines’ has one eye on your heart and one eye on the charts.
Lanterns on the Lake - Scala, London (live review)
Lanterns on the Lake’s return to the London stage marks a tentative step back into the limelight for the Newcastle five-piece, following a year of personal difficulties and personnel changes, which has seen two of the group’s founding members (brothers Adam and Brendan Sykes) leave the band, and the recruitment of a new bassist, Andrew Scrogham. Part of a short tour to road-test tracks from forthcoming second album ‘Until The Colours Run’ (released in September), the band seem both nervous and incredibly relieved to be back on stage.
Any apparent nerves were swiftly dispelled with, however, as the band launched straight into two new tracks, including the album’s lead single, the beautiful ‘Another Tale From Another English Town’. Further new tracks are peppered throughout the set, many of which showcase a tougher sound. Whilst their debut album (2011’s ‘Gracious Tide, Take Me Home’) blended folk with lush, cinematic, downtempo electronic sounds, new tracks offer a stronger post-rock influence, often starting quietly with singer Hazel Wilde’s delicate, hushed vocals, before erupting into Explosion In The Sky-esque walls of noise. It’s a trick many of the new tracks repeat, frequently to impressive effect. First album tracks such as ‘A Kingdom’ and the sublime ‘You’re Almost There’ were also treated to well-received crunchier makeovers.
The encore strips things back somewhat, allowing the softer side of the band’s sound to come through. New track ‘Green & Gold’ is a beautiful piano ballad, before the tender first-album highlight ‘I Love You Sleepyhead’ brings the show to a close. It would seem the last year has not been easy on the Lanterns on the Lake, but it’s certainly good to have them back.
Empty Estate is a swift return to action for Jack Tatum (aka Wild Nothing) following last year’s much-lauded, and quite wonderful, Nocturne album. This record picks up where that album left off – the 80s indie, shoegaze and dream-pop touchstones which have always formed the basis of Wild Nothing’s sound are firmly intact – but it develops the sound in a myriad of directions over the course of seven tracks.
Opener ‘The Body In Rainfall’ is swaggering, glam-rock pop song, making more use of guitars than anything Wild Nothing have released to date; the frantic synths of ‘Data World’ recall The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, while elsewhere many of the tracks benefit from an Eno-esque ambient sheen. Maybe it’s a case of comfort-in-familiar, but the record’s standout moments, ‘Ocean Repeating (Big-Eyed Girl)’, and in particular the sublime ‘A Dancing Shell’, are those which stick closest to Nocturne’s synth-pop sound; the combination of spoken verses and a lilting, mournful chorus pitch the latter track up there with Wild Nothing’s best work to date.
The sheer number of influences fighting for attention gives the EP a disjointed feel, and the two instrumental tracks are largely superfluous, but there’s much here to suggest that Wild Nothing’s next full-length could be quite something.
Matthew E White — Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (live review)
Matthew E White seems a happy man. He spends a large part of tonight’s gig beaming, repeatedly thanking the crowd in the Southbank Ceantre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall for their attendance, in between a bunch of (genuinely) amusing anecdotes from the band’s European tour, of which tonight’s show marks the final date. He has every reason to be chuffed: the album he is touring (2012’s mellow, soul music-indebted Big Inner, which was quietly released in the UK back in January) is a slow-burning, word of mouth success; one that gives every impression of a star in the ascendancy.
On record, Big Inner is a warm, shuffling, Sunday morning-esque album, drawing heavily on classic soul artists such as Donny Hathaway, and mixing it with a low-slung southern-Americana vibe. For the most part, it’s restrained and hushed. With the help of a full supporting band, plus an impressive horn section, the album becomes an entirely different animal in a live setting. Indeed many of the songs are completely reinterpreted: ‘Big Love’ gets an extensive rework into a psychedelic, cosmic workout, whilst ‘Gone Away’s’ somewhat morbid lyrical matter (‘Your body’s cold, Your body’s so cold, but your sins and your sorrows are all done away’) almost gets lost its euphoric transformation.
The gig itself is a short-but-sweet affair, clocking in at an hour, which is ample time for each ofBig Inner’s tracks to be given a thorough working out, as well as a couple of new tracks to be confidently introduced mid-set. In a nice touch, White had a programme produced for the audience to accompany tonight’s show. ‘Every note that you hear tonight will be gone as soon as you hear it’ he muses in it; ‘The finite quality that permeates everything that will happen tonight is why live music has a magnetism and a vibrancy that is wholly separate from its recorded cousin.’ Grand statements they may be, but tonight’s show is so perfectly honed, it’s difficult not to feel glad to have experienced the moment.
It’s fair to say that Vondelpark’s debut album has been eagerly awaited in some quarters, and it’s taken its time to arrive, following two well-received EP’s of dream-pop released back in 2010 and 2011.
The band have clearly spent the time away honing their craft; Seabed is a far more polished affair than either of those releases, and sounds unmistakably of-the-moment, updating the ambience of their early releases for a record which immerses itself in post-dubstep, downtempo electronica, flirting with r&b-flecked beats here, indie-tinged pop there.
When it’s good, it’s very good — the skittish-yet-mellow ‘California Analog Dream’, reworked from their debut EP, remains their finest song by some margin, and bringing the vocals to the fore on the new version gives the song an entirely new lease of life. Opening track ‘Quest’ and the James Blake-esque ‘Dracula’ are also impressive. At times though, Seabed is a slightly frustrating listen: ‘Come On’ is part-Washed Out, part-Shlohmo, but not quite the sum of either parts, and elsewhere the album has a tendency to drift into anonymity; polite and pleasant, but offering little to grab the attention. Closing track ‘Outro 4 Ariel’s lonely ambience hints at interesting things to come however; Vondelpark may yet have a great album in them.
The follow up to much-lauded Smoke Ring for My Halo is Kurt Vile’s self-proclaimed ‘classic rock’-influenced album. It eschews the punchiness of that previous record for something far less focused; few of the album’s tracks clock in below the five-minute mark.
The album’s lead teaser track, the nine-minute Wakin on a Pretty Day opens the album and sets the tone nicely, all languid, sun-kissed and sprawling. It’s a glorious opening track, and despite its length, doesn’t outstay its welcome at all. Following track ‘KV Crimes’ interrupts the mellowness for something crunchier, but is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the more forgettable tracks on the album. Indeed, on balance it’s the mellower, unhurried tracks which work best, exuding a low-key charm and revealing their beauty over time; ‘Too Hard’ and closing track ‘Goldtone’ find Vile at his most relaxed (“you’d think I was stoned… but I never touch the stuff”, he drawls on the latter) and sit with his finest work to date.
Perhaps what is most endearing about the album is its apparent effortlessness; despite the lengthy, meandering nature of many of the tracks, barely a note feels out of place, and only on the slightly superfluous penultimate track ‘Airbud’ does the album come unstuck. Whilst it maybe a sidestep from ‘Smoke Ring…’ many of the charms of that record have made it intact to this album. It needs time and patience to get into, but is all the more rewarding for it.
Esben and the Witch — “Wash the Sins Not Only the Face”
Brighton trio Esben And The Witch’s second album of gothic-influenced dream-rock is a step up from the gloomy, dense atmosphere which made the band’s 2011 debut ‘Violet Cries’ a somewhat difficult listen. There’s a new (relative) lightness to the band’s sound at times here — although the pounding, frenetic opening track ‘Iceland Spar’ would perhaps suggest otherwise. The myriad of styles and influences are held together through the icy, detached tones of singer Rachael Davies — at times piercing, at other times taking a softer approach.
An obvious reference point for the band’s sound would be Cocteau Twins, however the dense layers and textures on which each track is built also bring to mind contemporaries such as Warpaint, Tamaryn and — on the album’s quieter moments (such as the glorious penultimate track ‘The Fall Of Glorieta Mountain’) — even The xx. ‘Wash The Sins…’ meanders somewhat in the middle, until attention is revived by ‘Dealthwaltz’, the closest EATW have yet come to an out and out pop song. EATW remain a challenging listen, and the album feels a little poised at times, but this is clearly the sound of a band bristling with confidence.
(Original review for Shout4Music, published 23rd January 2013)
Bearded Magazine’s albums of 2012: my choice — Efterklang “Piramida”
Efterklang’s fourth — and best — album to date has all the hallmarks of a band making definitive leaps forward. The Danish quartet’s sound has always been difficult to categorise, moving from the wintry, glitchy electronics of early release Tripper, through to embracing more immediate pop songs on third album to Magic Chairs, to this: a concept album (in the loosest sense of the word) influenced by a trip the band made to the settlement of Piramida, the ghost town remains of a Russian mining colony in the Arctic Circle. Fascinated with the town’s history, the band spent nine days there gathering samples and influences for the album — capturing the sounds of everything from birds and bottles to the world’s northernmost grand piano. The remoteness and emptiness of Piramida (the town was completely abandoned in 1998) echoes throughout the album, delivering ten mostly sombre, melancholy songs which share an over-riding sense of loss and desolation.
The warmth which has characterised the band’s sound to date may take a little while to permeate, but Piramida is far from gloomy listening despite the downbeat subject matter: the brassy orchestration which fleshes out many of the tracks make for a rich, enveloping sound (‘Apples’ uses this to full effect and is simply astounding), whilst the band’s trademark twinkly percussion which has been present on all of their work remains intact. Whilst perhaps a little too poised and immaculate at times, there’s no faulting the ambition here, and fewer more elegant albums have been released this year. Give time for this album’s glacial facade to melt a little, and the rewards are spectacular.