Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 5th October 2011 at 10:10am
As the summer, and indeed it's slight return begin to fade into memory, the music industry is starting to wake from it's slumbers once again. Amidst the plethora of fairly high profile releases which seem to be tumbling out during October is an understated gem of a record which, were it not for the other activities of it's members and the flurry of entirely justified critical acclaim, might go criminally unheeded. This is The Moth & The Mirror. Formed from various bits of Frightened Rabbit, Admiral Fallow and Reindeer Section among others and loosely pulled together around The Boy Who Trapped The Sun before he decamped south for fame and fortune, the band centres on the vocal talents of Stacey Sievwright, alongside Gordon Skene and Louis Abbot. But this isn't a record made by a disparate bunch of musicians filling in down-time in their day jobs with a low-key project - The Moth & The Mirror look, feel and most importantly sound like a band in their own right, and "Honestly, This World" is something pretty special which sits more than comfortably alongside anything the musicians involved have done elsewhere.
Opening with "Everyone I Know", the prevailing mood of the album is set early on. Gentle melodies grapple with a robust rhythm section and swirling atmospherics. This effortlessly slide into a huge crashing guitar riff - no slow build-ups or time wasted noodling for The Moth & The Mirror - they clearly mean business. A delightful duet of boy/girl voices and lots of tinkling and dancing glockenspiels appear, and I'm beginning to wonder if the band have slipped their entire repertoire into this first track. Despite her sometimes quiet, delicate delivery Stacey Sievwright is never quite drowned about by the band even at full volume, until she barely whispers "I don't have the heart for this" before a final thunderous blast. Louis Abbot shares the vocals on "Fire", delivering a more upbeat track with slashes of noisy guitar and heart-warming, blissful harmonies as the pace and volume crank up.
The tense, acoustic opening of "Boxes" is all childlike innocence - keeping the bad things under the bed. But we all know that strategy never works, and in a strange twist they escape as Stacey's voice mutates into a Kristen Hersh like howl of desperation and madness. Alongside odd, off-kilter rhythms and squalling, discordant noise this is epic - but damaged and a little overwhelming too. Then just as unexpectedly it's back to the gentle tinkling opening. This is unnerving, unhinged brilliance. More complex rhythms and mariachi trumpets are allied to a jazzy vocal delivery on "Beautiful Creature". A song built of several parts with moods, perhaps even personalities of their own as it merges into title track "Honestly, This World". As an almost welcome relief, the band swing into the spiralling woodwind and surprisingly formal rhythms of "Hope is an Anchor" which strikes by far one of the most optimistic notes on the record. This middle section of the record displays Stacey's skill as a character actor - capable of becoming any one of myriad voices and veering from pensive child to slighted, dangerous ex-lover. It's as impressive as it is disturbing. That the band manage to produce the dramatic shifts of mood needed to support this is nothing short of miraculous.
I probably don't need to expand on my previous thoughts on "Germany" (a new Headron remix of which is below for your listening pleasure) except perhaps to remark on how, in the context of this album, it fits so perfectly. Its choppy, upbeat exuberance and ridiculously infectious nature slipping effortlessly into "Honestly, This World" alongside all the other curious stylistic shifts and surprising turns of musical phrase. Quiet different again, "Closing Doors" is an early-morning ballad of dejection and resignation, the achingly dull and commonplace turned into a love song for a lost home while the soundtrack to real life echoes and shudders in the background. It's a common enough theme perhaps, but rarely so neatly encapsulated without undue melodrama or overwrought emotion. Stripped back to some of the simplest music on the entire record, this is a reminder that we're dealing with an entire band full of talented songwriters here. Finally, "Oceans and Waves" sweeps in. A majestic closing epic full of grinding, swooping guitars and washes of quiet melody. The record closes as quietly and unassumingly as it opens, and you're left wondering if what came in-between those whispered bookends really happened?
It's easy to trot out the line that The Moth & The Mirror are something of a Scottish supergroup - I'm guilty myself - and there is always the worry that this will become their albatross. It would be the greatest shame if this record bypassed judgement on it's own terms, because the bottom line is that if you come expecting to hear some thread of one of the constituent parts, you'll miss out on the whole frankly amazing package. Having said that, there's much in the complexities of the band's lineage and their individual journeys to the present day which makes this a rich, complex and sometimes overwhelming brew. "Honestly, This World" presents the lazy blogger with a problem - it's just so unlike anything else that it evades easily tripped-off comparisons. I sense it's one of those albums which will only reveal it's full potential over time - but for now it's a dramatic, imposing and breathtaking debut.
The Moth & The Mirror's debut album is released on the always surprising and eclectic Olive Grove Records on 7th November. The single "Germany" is available now, backed with a fantastic Strike The Colours remix.
The Moth & The Mirror - Germany (Headron Remix)
Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 2nd October 2011 at 6:10pm
There are some record labels where it's safe to take a punt on a new release - either because they've established a reputation over the years, or because in my experience I appear to have similar enough taste to the people running the show that I'm going to at least be interested in what they're doing. One of these of course is Fence. While their release schedule is slower and steadier now than it was in the heady days of the past, everything they choose to release has a link to their frontier spirit and an utter indifference to the prevailing winds of fashion. Having said this, I was a little wary of The Shivers at first - were they just too far off the Fence map to fit? How indeed had this New York based outfit come to rest on the Fife shores? Or was it just a sense of unease about one of those band names which suggests some sort of bland, US mainstream friendly indie-rock. Well, on the early evidence it's fair to say that my suspicions are entirely unfounded.
Any band with a good backstory is going to grab my attention, and their tale is a compelling one - telling how Australian Jo Schornikow was so moved by the simple, affecting songs she heard New York native Keith Zarriello play that she upped sticks and relocated to play organ and sing in The Shivers. This becomes entirely believable as "More" begins to unfurl itself on my turntable, and Zarriello's simple but direct approach to tugging heartstrings is revealed. He does this through the medium of timeless, classic pop songs which have little regard for where in the last four decades they seem to originate. Sometimes, as the organ churns away low down in the mix he sounds like a revitalised Bob Dylan free of the decades of being a jaded spokesman for a generation. At other times he takes on the swagger of cynical Lou Reed, spinning arch lyrics and coming on like he knows it all to beat down the bile and sorrow. Put simply, the gamut of American music history underpins these songs and The Shivers major accomplishment is managing to channel it's wayward spirit into this record. If this suggests that this is a mixed bag, that wouldn't be inaccurate - but the album manages to blend styles and genres seamlessly by sheer force of personality.
An early highlight is "Irrational Love", a staccato tick of drums, and rumbling bass and organ introduces the track which jerks and stutters into a soaring chorus with Zarriello's voice stretching for the notes - and in the face of his romantic tragedies somehow recalling the defiant swagger of Springsteen at his strutting early finest. No sooner has this incongruously joyous romp of a track shuffled away and "Kisses" changes tack with its organ-drenched, tense urban blues which appears to have teleported in from the late sixties. Once again Zarriello's voice mutates from a mumble into a pained moan, and his delicate splashes of guitar augment Schornikow's organ work wonderfully. There's a special moment here where the organ mimics Zarriello's choppy vocal delivery, before launching into a wonderfully atmospheric swirling solo. By "Used To Be" the band have skipped forward a decade or two in the East Coast canon, and the track is a tight, focused synth-heavy burst of New Wave pop. Zarriello's voice drops to a compressed snarl while the playful melody jitters and scuffles around him. A ridiculous but perfectly-placed one string guitar solo leads into the incredibly catchy ending where the synths dance around the jangling guitars. In complete contrast "Two Solitudes" harks back to Schornikow's former life as a church organist, as sepulchral notes create an uncharacteristically downbeat atmosphere. Zarriello's broken, pained falsetto is delivered apparently from the next room, buried deep in the gloomy folds of organ. The Shivers manage to invoke Leonard Cohen on the folky, delicate "Silent Weapons Are For Quiet Wars". Just enough support from a clipped, formal piano and trills of military drums while Zarriello intones dense, detailed lyrics. There are hints here of the slight political edge which the band occasionally entertains - never overt, but enough to hint that it's not possible just now to be a US musician without a nod to the growing gulf in their society. However, The Shivers do their bit to bridge this with the joyous, universal pop of "Love Is In The Air" with its low-budget soul stylings and soaring broken vocal.
The sheer diversity of approaches employed by The Shivers on "More" belies the fact that this is essentially the work of a duo, and if anything the minimalism instils a discipline which keeps this a tight, focused record. It's fair to say that over the course of "More" they shamelessly plunder the finer moments of American pop's recent history, but it's done with genuine affection and reverence - and never feels contrived or affected. This is an aching, damaged-at-heart record in many ways with more than a little bitterness at its core, and there is a sense that all the sweet soundtracks and upbeat moments can't quite rescue it from it's lovesickness. However, it's also just the kind of music you'd hear on the radio every single day if there was any justice.
The Shivers UK debut album "More" is available from the Fence Records webshop, along with any of their usual stockists. The rather wonderful sounding vinyl LP is accompanied by a CD of the tracks. A UK tour is to follow in October and November 2011.
Song's Heard on Fast Trains is also pleased to announce exclusively that The Shivers will also be part of the line-up of Hooops #3 at The Louisiana, Bristol on 10th November.
The Shivers - Irrational Love
Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 28th September 2011 at 10:09pm
One of the side-effects of the computer catastrophe here has been the inability to buy music. Given that times are tight, and it's difficult to squeeze another notch on the belt, this isn't all bad - but it did delay my access to two eagerly awaited releases.
Supporting this King Creosote tradition of revisiting and reworking songs in new situations and contexts, the next two tracks take the rewriting process of "Honest Words" as a model. "Aurora Boring Alias" originated on the "Love + Hate = Hate" collaboration with HMS Ginafore and here is supported by a surprisingly gentle, almost absent touch of atmospherics from Jon Hopkins. Just a music box piano tinkling and the subtlest of drones shimmer in the background whilst Kenny floors me once again with one of those lyrics which grasp a mood and hold it up for inspection as he intones "a magnet at my very core pulls me northwards". With eyes turned skyward the song agains becomes self-referential with the revealingly honest claim that 'I'm aware it's me that I describe in code'. Finally a reworking of a recent reworking features in "Bats In The Attic (Unravelled)". I've never quite shaken off my love of this "Bits of Strange" song in any of it's forms, but here it becomes a gentle but powerfully phrased construction. A bit of regret, a little bitterness, some bile even. The simple melody here is reduced to a background shimmer and a quiet clanking rhythm drives the song onwards. Stripped back to this degree, King Creosote's voice is revealed even more than usual as a delight. My only sorrow is at the loss of the line about "Fife council" before song echoes away, fittingly into nothing.
The critical acclaim which "Diamond Mine" has enjoyed seems to have caught this unlikely duo completely unawares, but this brief addendum to their slight but affecting and already much loved canon continues the story. I hope there is more, because I genuinely don't think I'll ever tire of listening to them.
King Creosote & John Hopkins - Honest Words
And that is perhaps where "Drunk and Crazy" comes in...never has a song been more appropriately named as a shuddering low fidelity rhythm stutters in behind distorted guitars and a sheen of white noise which suddenly, almost clumsily gives way to an unexpected and beautiful string quartet mid-track. A stark piano accompaniment picks out the melody which just about survives from the opening section, and eventually the two halves of the track are reunited in a jagged but epic closing section. This is uplifting, wide-screen brilliance which builds on the more varied textures of the recent album by reuniting them with Mogwai's sense of the dramatic and absurdly epic which were less in evidence on "Hardcore...". Finally, the sombre "Does This Always Happen?" strips the instrumentation back to strings and piano, with a delicate and considered weave of guitar and bass slinking in mid-track. The insistent melody, the atmospheric strings, the spacious and dignified ending signify the new Mogwai. No need for explosions or hackneyed post-rock loud/quiet cliches. This is the sound of a band confident in it's own skin. Experimental and inventive, but utterly, compellingly beautiful.
Mogwai - Does This Always Happen?
Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 25th September 2011 at 11:09pm
It had been a surprising sort of day in all kinds of senses, and having set out for Bristol in the ubiquitous and mundane fashion of catching a slow, lazy sunday afternoon train but ended up completing the journey in a sports car driven by a attractive young woman, I figured anything was possible. As I wandered through a warm, damp Bristol evening to The Cooler I pondered how all my visits here were a little bit unusual and wondered how this evening would work in this odd little venue. After trying to tackle the steep hill of Park Street nonchalantly and not to appear too hopelessly knackered by the time I reached the end of the already growing queue for entry to the venue, I exchanged playful age-related insults with the owner of the venue who stood at the door checking ID. This was a very young audience, which is of course good to see however old it makes me appear. But, there were also a few faces here who I suspected had come expecting a rather sedate evening of charming folk songs, and having had the newly released "Paradise" on fairly constant rotation over the past week, I speculated that they might perhaps not quite get what they wanted from Slow Club tonight. It was going to be an interesting evening...
Sweet Baboo performed in the same three-piece setup which took the stage at Homegame. However, things have been tightened up and honed considerably over the months - not least perhaps because audiences around the country are a little more demanding of support acts than the preaching-to-the-converted exercise of Anstruther. None of this however makes Stephen Black any less nervous as he breathlessly addresses the crowd after completing the opening "The Morse Code For Love Is Beep Beep and Beep Beep and the Binary Code is One One" - a title I'll never get tired of repeating. It's a jagged, bass heavy and full sound which suits the louder numbers, but adjusts surprisingly sensitively to the quiet elements of the set. A romp through "I'm A Dancer" is a crowd pleaser for sure - and it's good to see Sweet Baboo capturing the imagination of the sometimes troublesome Bristol audience. The set meanders around both the album and the more recent "Girl Under A Tree" EP, including a fair selection of more up-tempo numbers. When the band swings into these, it's with a confident, timelessly retro edge. This classic pop is reinforced with a storming cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Keep The Customer Satisfied". The heads of the more serious folk element of the crowd starts to bob a little here, whilst the youngsters who are almost entirely oblivious to the pedigree have a bit of a dance up the front.
Despite his nervous demeanour, Black is always an engaging frontman to watch - and his urgent stage direction keeps things flowing through a non-stop set which sees the band veer oddly across genres, before alighting on the infectious pop of "Bounce" which the audience seems to take fairly literally. Things come to a close with a more reflective air on "If I Died Would You Remember..." and to be honest I think the band could have happily carried on. Bristol audiences can be terribly unforgiving to support acts at times, but the strange generation-spanning crowd tonight seemed to really enjoy the unpredictable, idiosyncratic world of Sweet Baboo.
I thought that the days when bands strode on stage to epic intro music had long since disappeared, but that's exactly what Slow Club do tonight as the opining bars of "Paradise" thunder around the stage as Charles and Rebecca are joined by two thirds of Sweet Baboo to provide the extra edge which features on songs from the new album. It was an unsurprisingly "Paradise" heavy set tonight, and the backing track soon subsided into the clarion call of "Where I'm Waking" with its swaggering introduction. Any sense that Rebecca's mid-tour lurgy might have prevented her voice from hitting the spot is soon dispelled as she soars and dips around the jagged guitar lines. The band is tight, focused and manages to deliver the new songs alongside subtly reinvented takes on old favourites, as "All Our Most Brilliant Friends" illustrates ably. There is a quiet tension in the older songs too - a bit like the strange creeping unease I sense during David Lynch films. And when Rebecca says they're going to play a couple "...because we'll complain" they deliver faultless, spectrally pared down takes on "Come On Youth" and "I Was Unconscious It Was a Dream".
However it's encouraging to see such a strong response for the new material and personal highlights of the album "Never Look Back" and "Hackney Marsh" both receive a fantastic reception from a crowd either already familiar with the songs or more than willing to be taken along by the occasion. The harmonies on the latter are jaw-droppingly good and the now appeased folksters behind me are spotted swaying gently as Rebecca's voice hits the staggering high notes. Things just keep getting better as Steven Black turns in a surprise saxophone solo, before the band rips into a high-energy take on "Giving Up On Love". There's not a lot of banter, with Rebecca saving her vocal chords for the songs, and Charles' rather shy on-stage presence. Letting his guitar speak makes sense though, and he cranks out some surprisingly chunky, driven playing during the night. Happily there were no awkward yells of "Judas" or other Dylan goes electric moments, and everyone appeared to be won over by the bigger, feistier sound on offer. For a final encore - just when you'd think another old song would seal the deal completely, "Gold Mountain" is unveiled - and it's a revelation. A slow-burning and rather quiet interlude on the album, it is transformed into a swaying, crowd-pleasing epic here tonight.
Slow Club are never a band who take the easy path, and the gamble paid off tonight with relatively new material sitting well with an adoring crowd. So, as I wander off into the weird atmosphere of a Sunday evening with desperate revellers literally falling over themselves to get the last ounce of fun out of their weekend, I'm struck by how both of these bands manage that curious trick of getting the audience on side almost effortlessly. As you see these folks singing their hearts out on stage, it's impossible not to want them to succeed.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.