Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 6th March 2012 at 8:03am
As 2012 finally starts to hit its stride musically, there are suddenly lots of singles around providing previews of delights to come. After glibly proclaiming the old-fashioned single largely dead sometime earlier in my musings here, I'm suddenly finding lots of bands using just one or two tracks to tease in the weeks up to an album or EP release. What's interesting too is how bands who have perhaps an EP or two under their belts are marking these releases as their 'debut single'. For me this is all good - the idea of new music from an artist you love being something of an event, along with the anticipation it builds can only be a positive thing. So here, hot on the heels of my last round-up of single releases is another one. There is lots to listen to here, and even stuff to see linked below - and you get much less rambling from me in each case too, which can only be a bonus...
Setting off at his now traditional breakneck pace, on "I Live Where You Are" Lonely Tourist invokes the spirit of Johnny Cash early on with a wonderfully twangy solo guitar. Recording with a full band on this first brand new material for a year, once again this bursts energetically with a tumble of rapid-fire lyrics and half-revealed dramas. The scratchy, skiffly acoustic guitar style fits surprisingly well into this setting and the whole thing cannons along at a satisfyingly breathless tilt. Touching on home with his description of a mood "as black as a winter Glasgow morning", Tierney brings the classic folk song theme of the itinerant hobo right up to date, rattling through a litany of couches, tenements and the vagaries of the rental housing market. Despite it's life-affirmingly singable refrain, this is all about uncertainty - and clinging on to the few solid things in life. Slowing to a pensive halt in the middle, the song builds to a note-bending, spirited wild-west style conclusion. If you're not singing along by now, then I despair of you.
There is an album coming along soon, and Lonely Tourist will undoubtedly bring his humbly simple live show to somewhere near you very soon. You really need to hear this, and whatever comes next...
Lonely Tourist - I Live Where You Are
Lonely Tourist has provided early access to "I Live Where You Are" via a pay-what-you-like deal at Bandcamp..
Opening quietly enough, focusing on Wull's engaging vocals which proudly sport their Caledonian heritage, things take a surprisingly rocking turn as a solid rhythm section kicks in and guitars chug. This is a slow-burning, pensive piece which showcases Alison Cochrane's violin, winding in and out of the song, marking out the rhythm in the verses and soaring dizzily into the choruses. Meanwhile the vocals strike a note just between desperation and sinister obsession, working things up to a crashing ending where a tangle of edgy guitar noise gives way to allow Wull the last word. A masterpiece of dynamics, there are satisfying noisy moments coupled with dramatic silences here, which all fit surprisingly well into the heartachingly desperate minor-key epic. There's no doubting a lightness of songwriting touch here on Swales part, and coupled with a band which seems to understand perfectly how to interpret these songs I've no doubt that this new incarnation of WWLOH has the potential to surpass their previous efforts. And given the speed with which they're operating just now I'm sure they're not going to be standing still, so it's probably wise to catch them in tiny venues while you can.
Where We Lay Our Heads - Bury You
Where We Lay Our Heads release "Bury You" on 19th March, via their Bandcamp and will be taking it on a short Scottish tour with LETTERS, kicking off at The Captains Rest in Glasgow on 22nd March and proceeding to Inverness, Thurso and Skye before heading through to Edinburgh's Wee Red Bar.
Previewed by a rather special video being promoted with unashamed excitement by Glasgow's emerging Comets and Cartwheels project, "Seven Hundred Birds" is the first single as such from Quickbeam despite a couple of collections of demos which have circulated among those deeply smitten by the band for a while. A plangent bass drum beats the rhythm while a harmonium moans amid spirals of wonderously mournful violin courtesy of recent new member Nichola Kerr. Monika Gromek's vocals are sparing, giving the music room to breathe - but when she sings in her wonderfully understated and gentle way, the atmosphere deepens and the tone darkens. The production and recording of "Seven Hundred Birds" is a triumph too - every gasp from the harmonium captured, silences and spaces preserved to provide a sense of depth and distance - like you're hearing something ancient and reverent. There is a line here where Gromek sings of "a painting that's escaped the frame" - and perhaps that is the best description for Quickbeam? A moment of beauty, briefly and gloriously animated.
Quickbeam - Seven Hundred Birds
Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 4th March 2012 at 10:03am
This is by my reckoning, the one hundredth post on Songs Heard on Fast Trains. I still sometimes wonder if I'm not completely barking up the wrong tree here, scribbling away about music I love, and somewhat randomly hitting and missing releases depending on how the blog fits in with real life. Still, it keeps me busy and it organises my thoughts - two incredibly important things just now, so it's likely you're stuck with me for a little longer. It also seems fitting that this landmark posting should go to The Douglas Firs - a band I've not written about before, but which has lingered in the background of my listening for sometime. Last year's "Happy As a Windless Flag" slipped by unremarked here, really only because of my own bad time-management - but had it made these pages i'd have written about dark, sometimes impenetrable and confusing music which is oddly, almost perversely addictive. This EP, while essentially a collection of field recordings and fragments recorded since the album, continues in that curiously compelling vein - and at the same time documents the metamorphosis of The Douglas Firs from one-man bedroom recording project to a full live band.
Available as a download, or a austerely packaged cassette or CD, this EP gives away few secrets from the outside. Even my normally astute mail thief neighbours failed to steal this one which perhaps hints at just how oblique and anonymous the release is. Beginning with "30.11.10", an echoing drone of background noises and feedback which surrounds a distant bass melody, it's clear that this isn't going to present lots of hit pop tunes. "What Remains" continues in a similar musical vein, but adds Neil Insh's plaintive, high vocals along with cascades of guitar and washes of percussion. I'm struck here, as on the debut album, that what sets The Douglas Firs apart from most other acts is that events in the background of songs are often far more important that the immediate foreground. Despite being quite noisy and fairly sonically challenging in places, this is never in your face - never overblown. The skill in building these cinematic scenes becomes increasingly apparent on "Ghost Wardrobe" which takes a simple bass guitar and violin coupling, and turns it into a sinister but beautiful sheen, which has an oddly perfect fit with the theme of spectral bedroom furnishings!
On "Something There" we're faced with a curious chorus of voices, sometimes sweetly harmonic and sometimes insistent and imploring - but always over a weird, industrial background of wind and traffic. It's unsettling and confusing - is this the sound of the Highlands where The Douglas Firs began their journey, or the urban edgelands of Edinburgh? In either case, there is a journey at the heart of this song - a strategy which always appeals to me. There are more conventional songs here too, and "Frameworks" is a example in its gentle acoustic interlude. Possibly the most upbeat composition here and driven by an undertow of bass guitar, Insh uses his high voice to struggle with structures and forms here - vocally and lyrically. Meanwhile "Church Hill" centres on a wavering, uncertain vocal and spartan piano notes which cluster around an echoing drumbeat. Like most of the vocal pieces here the mood is reflective and distant, with an obscure and pervasive sense of melancholy. Despite the simplicity of the instrumentation, it's a surprisingly warm and engaging piece. The droning opening of "The Dream, September" mocks the 'pipes and shortbread tin' stereotypes which scupper Scottish music all too often in the eyes of the world outside. This glitchy, atmospheric shimmer slips from channel to channel in the headphones, providing an interlude before we're transported once again via "South-Folk in Cold Country". This has more than a hint of the sounds of the early New Zealand DIY scene in its sparse instrumentation, military drums and stentorian vocals. There are familiar hints of impending discomfort with the troubled observation that "the indication that all is not fine". Taking advantage of the expanded line-up of the band, distant brass and piano accompaniment add depth and somehow this starts to pull together and make sense of the widely varied sounds which have preceded it.
The pieces which make up this release, whilst not designed to belong together in any sense, have conspired to become a whole which is sometimes shadowy and indistinct, but at others incredibly direct and accessible. The simple recording technology and experimental nature of "ep1" don't always make for easy or comfortable listening, but they document the processes of a band developing and changing, providing some beautiful sound pictures along the way. If the developments here are the future of The Douglas Firs it's going to be a very interesting one to watch unfolding. This is the soundtrack to a movie which will never be made...don't let it become a lost gem.
The Douglas Firs - Frameworks
This release is available from 5th March as a simply packaged CD or Cassette, along with a digital download from Armellodie Records. Proceeds from this release contribute to the recording and release of the band's forthcoming second album. You can read more about The Douglas Firs here.
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 2nd March 2012 at 8:03am
What French Wives manage better almost than any band operating in this area just now, is the sense of event and spectacle. Building songs into layered, complex, life-affirming swells without turning them into those overblown 'anthems' destined for Masterchef vote-offs isn't easy. Here it's achieved by centring the track on one of those nagging, epic guitar lines which lifts your heart instantly and just keeps growing as the song develops. Coupled to the insistent winding violins and vocal harmonies which support Stuart Dougan's distinctive croon, "Younger" becomes a hymn to ageing and regret which belies the relative youth of the band. Things build up to the simple but stark declaration that "I wish I had found my marker/I wish I had started younger" before the track spirals off into a crescendo of defiance and determination. The album isn't far away now, and will represent just the marker French Wives are seeking - and it will represent the culmination of a whole lot of effort, frustration and persistence. It's no accident perhaps then, that these themes come to the fore here. I'm fairly certain that French Wives are going to be a far more widely known name by the next time I'm wittering about them here.
French Wives - Younger
You can get your hands on "Younger" from Bandcamp as a free download.
"Cosplay The Hard Way" emerged as an early taster for this EP, and despite it's gentle and delicate opening passages the lyric contains more than a hint of menace and implications of troubled sexual politics which, taken alongside the innocence and sweetness of the music become genuinely uncomfortable. Mid way through the song takes a dramatic flip, with a serrated guitar line entering - before a beautifully constructed cascade of vocal harmonies and strings sees things through to the end. The ending is unresolved - and there is a sense that whatever dark happenings the song hints at are bound to be repeated. This is wonderfully crafted, detailed pop music used to explore the corners of your mind where perhaps you'd least expect to find it heading. In that sense, it's just about perfect. Finally "Back In A Liquid Minute" showcases some wonderfully slinky, undulating bass playing as an incongruously funky counterpoint to crunchy guitar riffs and soaring choruses. Once again the lyrics seem to tackle personal boundaries and themes of threat and submission when Lauren sings "my body is your battleground".
In the space of around ten minutes of music, Blue Sky Archives manage to cover an emotional and musical range which seems almost impossible. Crossing more genre-boundaries than it might at first appear, their tactic of post-rock colliding with folk-rock in three-minute pop songs sounds implausible and contrived on paper, but it works insanely well in practice. This is a concise, compelling bunch of songs which hint at future greatness for this hardworking bunch. I just hope I get to be in the same place as them soon.
Blue Sky Archives - Cosplay The Hard Way
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 24th February 2012 at 8:02pm
I can distinctly remember my first encounter with Randolph's Leap - tipped off that there was a band I might just like I stumbled across a bandcamp page packed with tunes, all illustrated with strange doodles apparently courtesy of Microsoft Paint. However, a brief listen confirmed that there was something special here - not least that rare realisation that taking everything too seriously isn't always the best option. After an excellent EP on Olive Grove Records and a single to coincide with an appearance at last years' Homegame, Adam Ross and his motley band of co-conspirators have been a little quiet of late. So this release, a limited edition of just thirty cassettes on Peenko Records - and happily a less unobtainable digital counterpart - collects together a bunch of recent recordings. There are some familiar tunes, lots of new favourites, and even a couple of demented computer game soundtrack pieces thrown in. Mostly, it's the work of songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Ross which appears here, supported by some selected guests and occasional bandmates. But drenched in the hiss of analogue reproduction, the clicks and crackles of home recording and the comfortingly old-school need to flip the tape half way, this is far more important than a mere stop-gap in the Randolph's Leap story.
Despite the relatively low-tech premise of this release, moments of genuine, poignant reflection abound which in typical style are swiftly flipped on their heads, coming face to face with sometimes slightly uncomfortable observations of the everyday. The whole thing is delivered via a stream of wordplay, punning and rhyming which ranges from the dazzling to the beautifully absurd. Opening gambit "Sunday Morning" is a distant cousin of the Velvet Underground track of the same name - an understated and gentle strum, a quietly pretty keyboard counter-melody and our first hearing of Adam Ross' affecting vocal. Stretching for impossible notes here, Ross sounds to be at the edge of his range which lends a strange and likeable vulnerability which complements the sometimes self-deprecating humour. There is an echo of gentle desperation too in "I Can't Dance To This Music Anymore" which tempers it's apparent finality with "I'll give it one last chance then I'm walking out the door". Ross manages to capture that difficult moment of knowing the right thing to do, but being utterly afraid of change. Set against a quietly lovely melody and with a choir of supporting voices joining later in the track, it becomes the perfect rallying cry for the silently frustrated among us.
Elsewhere "The Nonsense In My Head" picks up the threads abandoned by Belle and Sebastian somewhere around their third record when they finally made the leap to becoming a fully paid-up seventies cover band. Now accompanied by the full band, this sets off at a spirited shuffling pace, with plenty of twee-as-it-gets recorder accompaniment and a fiendishly addictive tune which lodges deep in the back of your skull, the addition of some solid drums and a skiffle-influenced mid section just make this all the more joyous a listen. "On That Fateful Day" seems to be performed almost entirely on woodblocks and those aforementioned recorders, giving it the strange flavour of a school music lesson until the euphoric burst of a chorus. Here we find an interesting twist in Ross's rhyming skills, in his habit of using place names. During the course of the cassette, firstly "Crossmyloof" and then "Cowdenbeath" feature in audaciously odd couplets which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the surprise and delight when they land. Just prior to the release of "The Curse of the Haunted Headphones", a seemingly gloomy sounding tune called "Dying In My Sleep" surfaced as a taster. In fact the tune is an irrepressibly happy ode to complete irresponsibility, which had a chorus which sounds like Noel Coward, reincarnated to haunt the central belt. And just to ensure every niche is catered for, those who express concern at the preponderance of beards in Scottish music will be delighted by "The Will To Shave", a brief ditty in which the - admittedly smooth-chinned - Ross relates the tale of a character whose friends become increasingly concerned when an ungoverned growth of facial hair seems to signal some sort of moral decline. As he queries with the utmost sincerity "How could one find such a darkened state of mind/to let it grow so long?", it's hard not to laugh along with a tale which has just a hint of genuine pathos hidden in it's tangled beard.
Thinking back to those early impressions of Randolph's Leap and the ever present sense of playfulness around these tunes, it's surprising to detect a darker edge to the set of songs here - more than once Ross hints at reaching the edges of reason and sanity, of the fear of losing control or the exhausting nature of existing just on the edge of things. If you're one of those people who has found themselves feeling distinctly uncomfortable in a club you never wanted to enter in the first place, has realised that everyone else seems to have a proper adult life while you've not grown up a bit, or who perhaps wonders if laughing aloud is sometimes just the right response to music you love - then this tape is almost certainly perfect for you.
The limited edition cassette release of "The Curse of the Haunted Headphones" on Peenko Records is already sold out, but you can purchase the download from Bandcamp alongside a variety of other, previous Randolph's Leap releases.
Randolph's Leap - I Can't Dance To This Music Anymore
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.