Gig review – Lauren MacColl

Photo credit: Somhairle MacDonald

Lauren MacColl – Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, June 26, 2019

There’s been some brilliant folk music that’s been played over at 17 Seconds Towers over the last wee while, but the two outstanding albums are Jenna Reid’s Working Hands, and Lauren MacColl’s The Seer.

The latter is a ten-track album that is music based on the life and prophecies of the Brahan Seer. Known as Coinneach Odhar or Kenneth Mackenzie, his prophecies may have been strange, but they included the Highland Clearances, the Caledonan Canal and Culloden (the last battle fought on British Soil). While there are those who question whether he existed at all, there are others who see him as Scotland’s Nostradamus.

Lauren MacColl has written this album, which draws on ancient legend and Scots fiddle playing, and tonight delivers it to a delighted crowd, to present us with something that feels fresh and current. No aural tartan tat here. As well as her accomplished fiddle, she is joined by Mairearad Greeb (accordion, pipes), Megan Henderson (fiddle, piano, vocals), Signy Jakobsdottir (percussion), Anna Massie (guitar) and Rachel Newton (harp, viola, vocals).

The album is a beautiful recording, but live the forty five minutes and ten songs become something else. There’s striking imagery courtesy of Somhairle MacDonald, but the intensity and sheer connection between the six musicians on stage is something not just to hear but to see. It very much stands as a piece in its own right, but the final two pieces ‘An Unkindness Of Ravens’ and ‘Lady Isabella’ are stunningly beautiful. Theres no wish to make notes on what’s happening, but instead just to listen and appreciate it. The standing ovation was utterly deserved, and I’ve played the album every day since…

The return of…Playing House

Hooray! I’ve been championing previous Playing House releases back in 2016 and 2017, and it’s great to finally have some new music from them.

‘Not Good’ is a change of direction from those first two EPs, with more of an electronic flavour, but as always, the urge to listen to the track again before it has even finished playing is there once again. When Mel Patman sings ‘tell me where you been hiding?’ the urge to yell ‘well, I’ve been waiting for you, too!’

Playing House openly identify as queer, feminist, body positive and readily support such causes, playing at queer spaces and charity events. (That’s the PR man talking, but he’s absolutely spot on!) Through their music conform and express ideas of love, identity , politics, as well as growing up and living outside of the heteronormative. Given the politics of the US and the UK at the moment, this is needed more than ever.

In the words of Mel herself ‘“Not Good is a surrealist look at the absurdity of the ambivalence to all things not good. “It’s a song that could only be written in the surreal reality that we’re living in right now, in the middle of the destruction of the planet, consumerism, inequalities, sexism, increased anxiety and depression. The song takes a pop at ambivalence, watching everything go wrong and doing nothing. It’s also about how those abuses take place in relationships. It was written following a really damaging relationship where there was gaslighting and manipulation but I couldn’t leave. Sometimes the safest thing is ambivalence when you are not permitted the power by people or society to change things. I wanted to write something that is both truthful and empowering.”

I’ve long been convinced that Playing House deserve to be playing massive venues, and hopefully this single will make that one step closer. Welcome back!

Album Review – Rev Magnetic

Rev Magnetic – ‘Versus Universe’ (Rock Action)

Rev Magnetic is the new band lead by the legendary Luke Sutherland, Scottish writer and musician. Versus Universe has been on my to do pile for reviews for sometime now, and I’ve put off writing it so far not because it isn’t a good record – it is – but because the 48 minutes within are so intense and otherworldly (not quite Trout Mask Replica, but not so far off in terms of being way out, if not musically) that I’ve been trying to get my head round it.

It is what would have once been described as a headphones album – the music within requires your attention, and there’s no point having it on in the background whilst getting on with the drudgery of day to day life. That way it starts to let you get a handle on it. Because, make no mistake, it is a beautiful record. Sutherland has been a frequent collaborator with Mogwai – it comes out on their Rock Action label – and that makes sense, too. Amongst others, the press release mentions Abba (I guess for the sublime pop within), Vaughan Williams (for the pastoral bits) and Stravinsky (for the utterly mental bits). While the phrase ‘our music is actually really hard to categorize’ is press releases is enough to drive most writers mad, this is an occasion when it’s hard to disagree.

This record was trailed by ‘Yonder’ and ‘The Gloaming’, both of which are very different tracks and yet give a good starting point for getting into this record. This record will take a lot of time to live with – and that may put it out of the reach of many – but those who do will find it rewarding down the line.

****

Versus Universe is out now on Rock Action

Presenting…PHOTØS

This arrived in my inbox just a couple of hours ago. PHOTØS is the work of Gabriel Benjamin, a singer/songwriter from Agoura Hills, California. He’s spent most of his songwriting career writing songs for other artists like Avicii, Camelphat, and Au/Ra – but is now releasing his own material.

Having dealt with anxiety and depression for most of his life, 2019 sees PHOTØS proactively addressing his mental health issues and in doing so finding his artistic voice. “In Too Deep” is a cautiously optimistic love letter in which he lays out the minefield of potential hazards he brings into relationships, and one I found myself playing several times since waking up. It’s straightforward, and rather lovely.

Enjoy…

Presenting…Half Formed Things

Sometimes, over what has been very nearly thirteen years of blogging, I have forgotten just how much it can be a thrill to still discover new stuff. In amongst the 100+ emails that arrive each day (the amount of stuff that I will never get around to listening to is really absurdly high), once in a while there will be something that reminds me ‘this is why I’m still doing it.’

Tonight’s offering comes from Edinburgh band Half Formed Things. They are Matthew Bakewell (guitar and voice), Morgan Hosking (piano and voice), Nici Hosking (percussion and voice) and Edwin McLachlan (drums). They’re about to release their debut album To Live In The Flicker. Despite the name, there’s nothing half-formed about these guys and gals at all, in fact they specialise in a gorgeous cinematic kind of rock, informed by the likes of 17 Seconds favourites Kate Bush, the National and Talk Talk.

They release their debut single ‘February’/’April’ last year and followed it up with ‘the Apostate’ this year – all three tracks can be found on To Live In The Flicker. That title, by the way, is loosely informed by writer Joseph Conrad (Heart Of Darkness, The Secret Agent), each peering briefly into people’s lives. They’re playing at the Wee Red Bar at Edinburgh College Of Art this Saturday (May 25), and a tour is planned for later this year.

One to treasure, I think.

You can order their album over at their bandcamp

Album Review – The National

The National – ‘I Am Easy To Find’ (4AD)

The National could have quite easily titled this, their eighth album, I Am Easy To Love, and they would have been absolutely right. Over the course of sixteen tracks, this is 62 minutes you’ll want to listen to again and again. Right from the digitally manipulated guitar line that starts off album opener ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ to the beautifully sad closer ‘Light Years’ this is an album that gently brings you in, and you don’t want to let go.

Perhaps the thing that regular listeners to the National will notice is the use of female voices throughout the record. I keep changing my mind about what is the best track here, but the Gail Ann Dorsey- assisted ‘Roman Holiday’ is one of them. Other vocalists who appear throughout the record include Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan. Their contribution is far more than mere backing vocals; think of the way that Gram Parsons would bring in Emmylou Harris, or Leonard Cohen worked with a long list female vocalists. It’s that kind of special effect.

Yet at the basis, it’s the songs, dammit. Too many highlights to list individually, but they make up one hell of a collection of songs. While the National may be seen as being a critics and bloggers sort of band, the reality is the deserve their ever-growing fanbase. It’s a very unique kind of melancholy from a very special band. Make sure you spend time with this record.

****1/2

I Am Easy To Find is released on May 17 on 4AD.


Album Review – Cranberries

Cranberries – ‘In The End.’ (BMG)

I must confess to feeling a little guilty. Around the time of their first two albums, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We and No Need To Argue, the Cranberries were never far from the tape deck. Yet somehow, I’d stopped paying attention around the time of the third album.

I have to say, though, that the release of their eighth, and sadly, final album, appropriately entitled In The End, is a fantastic record that reminds me of why I really loved them all those years ago, and shames me into going to investigate the years I missed out on them.

Lead singer Dolores O’Riordan sadly died last year. The Limerick band decided to finish the album, which in many ways seems to have been heading full circle back to how they had sounded when they had started, over twenty-five years ago. What that means is that there’s a soft-sung voice, music that runs from the folk sound of their native country meeting the US grunge sound. ‘Wake Me When It’s Over,’ for example, evokes the 1994 single ‘Zombie’ but cleaner in its sound. There’s the anger within, meeting the gentle, which made this band so winning to start with.

Too many artists will have their final work poured over for signs of premonitions that they were making their last record. It’s not healthy; instead focus on what they have achieved and how they had come together to make a record that should bring old and new fans into the fold. This is the sound of a band who sound reawakened. The title track is melancholy, and reflective, and a fitting end.

Remember Dolores – and the band – this way.

****

In The End is out now on BMG

I’m back…actually I never went away

Indeed. A couple of weeks ago, just as I was attempting to write a link to my review of Craig Finn’s excellent new album, I Need A New War, there appeared to be difficulties with actually posting anything on the blog. This was followed with problems trying to find out who and how to get it sorted.

So here I am, and finally, here is the link to said review over at God Is In The TV:

Craig Finn – I Need A New War

Just to whet your appetite:

EP review – Munya

Blue_Pine_artwork

Munya -‘Blue Pine EP’ (Luminelle)

Munya is the stage name of Canada’s Josie Boivin. Raised in Saguenay, Quebec and based in Montreal, this is her third EP and the final in a trilogy. Following on from last year’s North Hatley (named for one of her favourite villages in Quebec) and Delmano EPs (the latter named for the Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg), we now have the Blue Pine EP. Blue Pine is a mountain in Twin Peaks – so not a real place, but as David Lynch is an important influence on her work, pretty real for her.

The trilogy of EPs very much sit together (so if you haven’t heard the previous two, get on with it!), making a coherent whole – in fact they’re available. Her sound is that of gorgeous electronic pop, with a lightness on the surface, but a sadness that’s just beneath. Comparisons (not to put her down) could be made with the likes of Stereolab, and also Grimes, Air and Zola Jesus.
As with the previous EP releases, this is a three-tracker, and all songs stand very much on their own terms, rather than simply being one single bulked out with a couple of bonus tracks. ‘Blue Pine’ perhaps shows the David Lynch influence strongest, not as a rehashing of the music from the TV series, but in terms of the dreamy electronic spirit. Seriously, you can imagine Sherilynn Fenn swaying to the music on the jukebox in the Double R Diner. While Munya has recorded in both French and English, ‘Benjamin’ the second track is the first time she has recorded a bilingual song. It’s perhaps the most French-sounding track (even without the singing) on the EP, but what is impressive is that it refuses to become cloying, instead being sophisticated and dreamy at the same time. On the final track -‘It’s All About You’ we get an eastern influence, with a sitar providing an interesting juxtaposition with the sophisticated French pop. Dreamy enough to be shoegazing, and certainly music to lose and find yourself within, though much less rocky than the music that has generally comes from that genre.
On the evidence of this latest EP, Munya confirms what her previous releases suggested, that she really is a fantastically talented writer and performer. It’s harder than ever to make a living as a musician in this day and age, but I keep getting dragged back to this EP (and the others), and I hope that she gets the recognition she deserves.

****

Blue Pine EP is out now on Luminelle

 

Rest in peace, Keith Flint

Keith Flint

Dear God. Please don’t let 2019 turn into another year like 2016, when celebrities dropped like flies and every time you saw a name trending on Twitter you started fearing the worse.

News has broken in the last hour that The Prodigy’s Keith Flint died this morning at his home in Essex. He was just 49. According to the Prodigy’s Liam Howlett, he had taken his own life.

It would be dishonest to claim that I was a Prodigy fan from the off, because I wasn’t and for much of the first half of the 1990s, I didn’t get much dance music. This was far more to do with me being a moody teenager, seeing boundaries that weren’t there, and nothing to do with the music itself (though the fact that I can’t dance for toffee may be something to do with it). I didn’t care much for these tracks at the time – I now recognise them as representative of much of the great dance music coming out of Britain then.

 

But The Prodigy – along with many other acts, such as The Orb, Underworld, Orbital, Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers changed my approach, along with the more down-tempo sounds of the likes of Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead.  When I heard the news, there were so many songs I wanted to hear. Sure, they may have been the hits – but what hits they were.

The year after I left school, they topped the charts with ‘Firestarter,’ a song that blistered visually as much as sonically, with a video that was supposedly too scary to be shown on TV (the following year’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ would put it into some kind of perspective, along with Aphex Twin’s ‘Come To Daddy’ video).

This was followed by the even-more exciting ‘Breathe’ which mixed Joy Division bass-lines, punk energy, seemingly several different styles of dance music (I was learning by now) and Keith Flint and Maxim leading this brilliant monster out of our stereos. Perhaps like Massive Attack, they were a British band who managed to combine so many different styles to produce something that was reflective of where Britain’s many tribes were coming from and how they had come together.

Frustratingly, the only time I saw them live was at Glastonbury in 1997. Keith was on fine form, even if the electrics gave out after the second song, and Dennis Pennis had to keep things going by singing to the crowd in Hebrew (no, really). I headed off to China a couple of days later, but not before I picked up a copy of Fat Of the Land, their third album, released the Monday after Glastonbury. Perhaps I drifted apart from The Prodigy after this period – I didn’t much care for the ‘Baby’s Got A Temper’ single in 2002 or the Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned album from 2004 (which didn’t feature Keith), but my interest was reignited with 2009’s Invaders Must Die album and listening to two of the singles from this album again, they deserve to be shared. What also struck me as interesting – I was teaching by this time – was how many of the kids I taught loved The Prodigy, too.

I never met Keith Flint, but according to those he was a lovely guy, and always very appreciative of the crew who worked with The Prodigy. His death, seemingly from suicide, is heartbreakingly sad, but he leaves behind some utterly awesome music.