Thursday, 26 August 2010

Little Fish / Jenny Owen Youngs / Phil Recommends... ALBUMS

Reviewer: Phil

“Baffled And Beat”: LITTLE FISH

So I was planning an article called "Phil Recommends: Little Fish" on account that I've seen them twice live and loved them - and yesterday I got their newly released debut album through the post. Sadly though, I'm a little disappointed with the album, it just doesn't feel like it represents the guitarist / drummer combo very well. Live, imagine PJ Harvey meets The White Stripes with acres of massive guitar distortion. On record, the songs are there and so are the vocals, but they don't feel as good with all that massive guitar distortion reined in for a more polished, radio-friendly sound.

Only a couple of times do we ever get brief momentary bursts of that live sound I found really inspiring. Otherwise, for a guitar / drums White Stripes-style combo, the studio polished radio-ready album is also bursting with other instruments including a very prominent bass guitar running all the way through from a guest bassist that’s mostly mixed higher than the guitar! To make a comparison, on Amanda Palmer / Dresden Dolls records there are other instruments but they never outshine the piano and vocals, always complementing them. Here, the singer / guitarist is lost most of the time and as if to add insult to the attempt to make these songs radio-ready, there isn't a single guitar solo on the whole record despite their live show featuring big face-melting searing solos!

So… well, I guess I just reviewed it there! A great live show but I expected a raw, guttural snarl of blues rock and searing vocals, rather than a polished slab of subdued radio-friendliness. I may grow to like the record anyway, there are still those great songs and vocals, but without the snarl of the live show they feel a little empty and without the simplicity of the guitar / bass combo they don't feel half as impressive. One of those moments when I remember why I don't buy many new CD's.

A final thought: it was with some sinking feeling after listening to the Little Fish album through for the first time, that I read the liner notes and discovered the album to be produced by Linda Perry! No wonder a live act I thought really stood out among the crowd has ended up sounding like everyone else! Makes you wonder why breaking bands aren’t producing their own albums in the way the internet underground now seem to be in droves, and with studio quality sound that would embarrass Jack White. Ahh well…

“Transmitter Failure”: JENNY OWEN YOUNGS

Another new artist album I bought this year was by American artist Jenny Owen Youngs. Seeing her live before her album came out, she's a lone singer / songwriter who plays a combination of country and punk songs with quirky lyrics and when she rocks she beats real punk energy from her acoustic guitar. So just up my street! But I was disappointed to find the debut album turned out to be all recorded with a guest band, with all the energy sucked out of the songs and everything rolling out like a watered down Arcade Fire which I guess is rather like what Florence and the Machine must sound like if I got around to listening to them. I'm guessing another example of record labels turning exciting live acts into more bankable album sales.

But after all this negativity, what about albums released this year I have liked?

Phil Recommends:

“Crazy For You”: BEST COAST – Debut album from the California based trio, imagine Beach Boy’s tunes recorded in your basement with noisy shoe gazing guitars and a female vocalist. It really is that awesome!!

“Volume Two”: SHE and HIM – Another slab of sixties inspired tunes from the impossibly cool Zooey Deschanel. It’s more of the same on her and M. Ward’s sophomore album but that makes it no less wonderful.

And last but not least “Junior”: KAKI KING – Miss King goes rock n roll on her fifth album to stunning results with guitar work to melt your mind and a set of songs that just get better every time you hear them. Truly awesome!

Monday, 16 August 2010


Review: MMT

Before I get into the “Dudebox Track Of The Summer” review – which is coming soon, Scout’s Honour!! – I’d like to do a round-up of some of the various demo CDs, EPs and fully produced albums (yay!) that have been pressed into my hands (often in exchange for monies or our own CDs) at the gigs, festivals and open mics we’ve been at over the last few months. It’s been another great summer for MK music, and here’s just some of what we’ve been hearing around and about…

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And where better to start than the Sno!Bar? Aficionados of the Milton Keynes Acoustic Open Mic scene will no doubt know all about the Sno!Jam Sunday nights up at the Sno!Bar in the XScape – and if so, I’m sure you’ll already have a copy of their recent collection “The Sounds Of The SNO!Bar (vol.1)” (a compilation of 12 of the regular acts who frequent their open mic night… hmm, gives me an idea!)…

The CD is bookended by tracks by Isabelle, the fabulous five-piece who also act as regular hosts of the Sno!Jam night, as well as putting on gigs down in Leighton Buzzard. And if you’re keen on the kind of laid-back / soulful / summery / folky / heartfelt acoustic singer-songwriting usually on show at any of their nights, you’ll dig this. Featuring Sno!Jam regulars such as Jon Kendall, Robin Grimmer and Social Resin, I think my favourite choon is the shimmering harmonies of “The Man Who Fell Out Of The Moon”, by Isabelle escapees The Trotsky Assortment. Though it’d be a crime to omit a mention of “Girl Nowhere” by the superb (and apparently “hobosexual”!!) Jet Lagged Jeff, another legend of the local open mic world. An impressive collection.

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YC Olie’s “Miss Direction EP” is a surprise. Well, a surprise to us – we’ve only ever seen him at open mics like The Cannon or the above-mentioned Sno!Jam night, where we’ve kind of got used to hearing him delivering confidently tuneful acoustic gems (and his rousing Killers cover!!). But this six-track EP is a totally different kettle of fish – it’s a balls-out fully-electric pop-metal treat!

It’s actually interesting to hear songs we’ve heard played solo live become melodic punky anthems – “Same Old Girl” and “Miss Direction” turning into much bigger, wilder beasts. Bigger, but not necessarily Better, of course. Just Different – cos naturally I like the acoustic versions too! You can hear the occasional influence of genre masters (like Green Day - listed as such under his MySpace Influences) though, and addition of these extra layers, like the buzzsaw guitars of “Anthem For The Broken Hearted” or the handclaps on “Two”, are a revelation. I’m intrigued to see what might be next for this voyage into “full band” territory. Will Olie gather together a full gang of musicians and translate these songs permanently? I think if he did they would make in instant impact on the local scene, such is the joyful catchiness of the tunes. Watch this space, I guess.

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I’d like to include a brief but heartfelt “Ladies From Not Far Outside Milton Keynes” section here too – quick shout-outs therefore to Rozism who came down from Northampton and headlined our July Monkey Kettle Open Mic night. I managed to swap some Monkey Kettle CDs for her “Sketches EP”, which contains several songs from off her MySpace. “Special Brew” is well worth a listen, though her live cover of “Smelly Cat” will live long in the memory. Likewise I should also big up Jammiesammy who came up to MK to play at the Poetry Kapow! at the end of July: there’s a definite buzz growing around her charmingly wry gems – if you’ve got a short attention span check out her anthem “Weirdo-eo”, but if you’ve got any heart you’ll play them all!

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And last, but by no means least - Final Clearance. We finally – after much Dudebox enthusiasm over them in the past – got to see them live when we had them headline our stage (Stage 2 – aka the Monkey Kettle Stage!) at the Great Linford Waterside Festival in June. And I was lucky enough to get not one but two of their CDs – the five track “Window Cleaners Of Amsterdam EP” (2008) and last year’s full debut album "Teenage Dreamland".

I’ve tried a few times in the past to qualify just why I enjoy their sound so much. The best I’ve managed to do till now is: in a local music scene which is predominantly teenage metal acts, acoustic solo artists or ageing blues-rock covers combos, they don’t sound like much else. But let’s unpack that a bit…

They’re an indie-rock band, for sure – but with the added weaponry of piano-keyboard and violins in their arsenal. The violin in particular makes a difference for me – it adds an elegance, an emotion, an urgency to the sound. But the more I listen, the more I’m drawn to Tom Simpson’s voice as well. Rich and deep with the occasional crack of humanity, it totally suits the band’s songwriting, complemented well by the occasional female b/vox. And let’s not forget, they make their own music videos too (see their MySpace) – as far as I’m concerned, that shows they know what it’s all about! ;-)

What makes them equally exciting to listen to on compact disc is the quality of the recordings of those songs. Both CDs were recorded in a “proper” studio (The Lodge Studios in Northampton), and it shows. The sound is rich, well-mixed and allows the songs to come through… the spiralling lead guitar runs on “After The Scream”. The heartaching harmonies and the military rhythms in the middle of “She’s So Pretty”. Great stuff.

The full album (a year on from the EP) is slightly more rounded and mature, as you’d expect. FC have a poppy, occasionally folky sensibility but that doesn’t make them inoffensive. There’s a definite edge to their music and their lyrics which shows through regularly. Phil mentioned once when we were reviewing them before that he could hear a definite “Nineties indie” influence, and that’s not a million miles off. “Stupid Things” for example calls to mind The Wedding Present, of all people. And the piano-led "The Final Word" could almost be intelligent Britpoppers Gene. But better!

Standout tracks for me are the forlorn and beautiful “Circles Round You” (again, the violin! I’m clutching at my heart) and the bouncy “She’s So Pretty” from “Teenage Dreamland”; and “Started A War” and “Na├»ve Child” from “Window Cleaners…” – this last I absolutely love – it’s fast becoming one of my favourite ever songs by an MK band!

So, then. Final Clearance. I hope the sale goes on and on. Check out their stock as soon as you can. Before the metaphor police come and nab me.