Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 19th July 2011 at 7:07am

The Last Battle - Springwell EPThere is something special about finding a new band - or at least one that's new to you - and watching them grow, change and develop. There's maybe even that hint of dismay when the rest of the world cottons on to what you always knew. It's part of the obsessive and sometimes illogical life of a music fan, which of course I do all pretty much backwards there days. But there's no doubt The Last Battle have changed - and pretty soon the world will be cocking an ear if "The Springwell EP" reaches the audience it deserves. The clues were there on that sweaty night in the Smugglers at Anstruther, but I was far too caught up in seeing them play to be much concerned with the details. The fact is, this largely self-recorded and entirely self-released EP marks a seismic shift in the world of The Last Battle - away from their delicate, nautical brittleness and towards something altogether more robust.

The change is almost immediately evident on "Floored", a shimmery slice of sixties-style pop with an infectious staccato beat and a rolling tide of cello swoops. It also allows the twin vocal talents of Scott Longmuir and Arwen Duncan to shine through on the chorus, as they harmonise infectiously on the lines "punching, punching above my weight/out of breath on the ropes again" drawing out the boxing metaphor at the heart of the song. The song slinks and winds around the sturdy rhythm section, with Brian Pokora's guitar adding deft melodic flecks. If this is how the future of The Last Battle is going to sound, you'll get no complaints from me. It's almost unfair for me to comment on "Ward 119" because it's somewhere up there on my list of favourite ever songs, with the performance at this year's Homegame being one of my highlights of the weekend. Nevertheless, it's here - re-recorded with a full band treatment yet still as potent as its spare, rudimentary appearance on the "Ruins" single which seems like an age ago now. The hospital corridor drama played out over two short verses and a chorus retains all the tension and urgency of the original demo with the rough-edged emotion completely intact in Scott's delivery.

The laconic, regret-fuelled country pop of "Viv Nicholson" winds a tale of excess around a delicately picked electric guitar and a moaning cello. The curiously British story of the woman who won the pools in 1961 in the process becoming something of an early 'reality star' was still occasionally troubling the tabloids when I was a youngster, as she increasingly desperately tried to play on her now remote fame to claw back the money she'd lost back in the early 1960s. The story is given a sensitive and careful treatment here, delivered as a cautionary voice to Viv as she fritters away her win rather than harping on the more tawdry side of her life. The song develops with just Brian's fine guitar work and a gentle cello sounding through, while Scott and Arwen deliver the sad tale with all the poise of those masters of the fall-from-grace country narrative, Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry. It's an unusual choice of subject matter, and it shows a growing songwriting confidence in The Last Battle. "The Last Dance" begins as something of a return to The Last Battle of old - just a banjo and a wind-tunnel echo of a vocal - but then the rhythm section arrives in force and Scott and Arwen begin a duet on a brass inflected tune which is bursting with joy in direct contrast to the fatalism of the lyrics. There's a tiny pause filled with a distant police siren before the entire band wade in as a choir of voices, with brass and banjo accompanying a rousing campfire sing-along ushering the song through to it's fade.

It has been remarkable to watch The Last Battle quietly shape themselves into this current form over the course of a couple of singles and last year's "Heart of the Land, Soul of the Sea" album - which of course breezed it's way onto my end-of-year-list in 2010 with more than a whiff of whisky and seaweed about it's shanties and folky stomps. This new material shows a complete understanding of the concept of the pop song, and a grasp of just how the unique talents at play in the band fit into it. Happily it's all done on their own terms though, and there is no lack of the melodic, fragile folk influence which sparked my original interest in the band - it's just delivered in a more immediate and dynamic way. By subtly changing and growing hugely in confidence, The Last Battle have conceded nothing, but are surely going to gain exposure in lots of exciting new places. "The Springwell EP" is a fantastic place to step into the world of The Last Battle, with a clutch of life-affirming and hugely enjoyable songs and a real sense of the talent and range the band can deploy. However, given the distance they've already travelled since last year's album, I don't think they're going to stand still for long.

"The Springwell EP" is available as a digital download or a CD in a handmade sleeve from The Last Battle's Bandcamp.

The Last Battle - Ward 119

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Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th July 2011 at 6:07am

When I set out to write less about more I decided to pick on the single as the ideal target, but nowadays it seems the EP is a resurgent format. The relatively low cost of including a couple of extra tracks in a download-only release is doubtlessly attractive for bands who have lots to showcase, or perhaps just got lucky and have four great tracks recorded at the right time. However it poses it's own issues around quality control, and it's certain there are plenty of EPs around which would have made better singles. The urge to push more and more music out into the world to be heard is both understandable and sometimes commercially necessary, with the EP effectively replacing the 'demo cassette' of my youth, where bands would at least try to ensure there was at least enough material to give promoters some idea what they did on stage. So in the spirit of less about more, here are a few EPs which have appeared in the last few weeks in my inbox or wherever and which I find myself returning to regularly. It's also notable that an EP is often just about the perfect length to accompany my daily commute, which is always going to be a winner for me...

Plastic Animals - A Dark Spring EP

Plastic Animals - Dark Spring EPIt's strange how sometimes one assumes that a band probably isn't going to be for you - maybe it's the name, or the track record of the person who recommends it for making suggestions which chime with your taste? In any case Edinburgh-based Plastic Animals have been tipped by so many people from so many different directions, I felt almost compelled to listen to this recently released EP. It starts rather bravely perhaps, with an lengthy instrumental introduction. It's brave because reckoning on the ridiculously restricted attention span of the average listener - myself included of course - coupled to the confines of the EP format, giving this much time to something which doesn't showcase the entire band sound is fairly unprecedented. But it's a delicate, engaging opening which swoops and crests like an "Albatross" for the 21st century - and on balance it hooked me in rather than switching me off, so perhaps the gamble paid off. A change of pace into "Green Light" which skitters and jangles around an impossibly catchy melody. The following "Gold Medallists" is a slow-burning indie-rock ballad, all Beach Boys harmonies and swoons of spine-tingling regret in the lead vocal. This EP is going to get some people all worked up about influences, but for me this scores extra points by taking cues from the Cocteau Twins and The Chameleons rather than much easier targets from the 1990s. "It Fell Apart" is a little more spirited with some genuinely fine, sparkling flange-heavy guitar playing and maybe a touch of the Sarah Records house-style deadpan in the vocals. It works itself up into a crunchy, chugging ending with layers of guitar tumbling in. In a seemingly growing world of drearily worthy and pompous indie-by-numbers acts, this is an honest, somewhat downbeat but perfectly executed gem.

Plastic Animals - It Fell Apart

Plastic Animals "A Dark Spring" EP is available from Bandcamp either as a download or a CD.

Pet - What You Building?

Pet - What You Building?

I'm not even sure quite where this came to my attention - through a chance email or a podcast perhaps - but I've found myself both intrigued and confounded by this rather odd record over the past week or two. I've also got very little information about Pet except that they're based in Edinburgh or thereabouts. The lead track here is "What You Building?" with its squeaky guitar strings, empty echo and cascades of keyboard. The lazy, soporific lyric oozes over the track while the simple melody and the question which gives the song its title repeat seemingly endlessly. It's a strangely hazy, occasionally rather sparse and frankly quite odd track. I'm not sure if this release properly merits the distinction of being referred to as an EP, since it's a slender three track effort on which "What You Building?" appears twice - the second time as an oddly dislocated but interesting remix entitled "What You Rebuilding?". But "Magnetic" is an entirely different proposition. Drenched in reverb, the urgent drum beat drives a curious low fidelity pop song firmly in the mould of Wire. Then it rather unexpectedly explodes into a tangle of feedback, overdriven angry guitars and oddly infectious harmonies. I genuinely can't make a huge amount of sense of this song, or indeed this EP, and I know shamefully little about the band too. But, I know I like this a lot and that I find myself listening to it with alarming frequency just now.

Pet - Magnetic "What You Building?" is available as a free download from Pet's Bandcamp.

The Atolls EP

The Atolls - EPThis rather mysterious duo hail from Glendora, California - but they seem to be casting their media net far and wide, and I've noted their name cropping up in a number of places. Indeed, their origins aren't geographically far from the magnetic pull of the Inland Empire which consumed so much of my listening time a decade or two back in fact. However, this is a very different proposition - a set of four varied, carefully constructed but almost entirely brooding songs built around the unusual voice of Daniel Martin. Given Martin's sometimes mournful, pained intonations, it's no surprise that this is all pretty serious stuff with rather dark and self-immolating lyrics which are sadly somewhat contrived at points. But the overall effect is mostly pleasing nonetheless as "Low Tide" washes in with hints of Codeine style slow menace, before wandering off into messier, noisier territory with the tone set by the observation that "people drown in less than a foot of water". Cheerful it isn't, and the pleasant jangling pop of "Tangles" strikes a slightly more upbeat, anthemic tone musically if not lyrically. But like it or not, the eye and ear are instantly drawn to "Older Nazi Boyfriend" it's an absurdly silly title for a ridiculously great tune. Dirty, rough-edged pop-punk grinds and clatters along merrily, changing up and down the musical gears with evident glee. Shorn of the seriousness, Martin's voice becomes a punky yelp, which also fits surprisingly well. More like this would have tempered the gloominess of the whole package, and I can't help thinking might have been more fun for The Atolls to play. This is dark, sometimes too clever but pretty damn slick stuff which hints at an interesting future - especially if "Older Nazi Boyfriend" has some like-minded siblings in The Atolls repertoire.

The Atolls - Older Nazi Boyfriends

The Atolls self-titled EP is available at Bandcamp either as a free download or a physical CD.

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 16th July 2011 at 11:07pm

It had been a fairly chaotic morning at work, and though I felt a little guilty about doing so, I was glad to be sloping off early. The plan was to get up to Paddington during the afternoon and to hang around ready for tonight's tour. I was perhaps a bit uneasy - overnight tours aren't a favourite, and the last time I'd done something similar I succumbed to Swine Flu somewhere along the way. Of course I knew that was unlikely, but there's something uncomfortable about the sort of half-awake state in which you end up traversing the network. Did some shopping at Paddington in preparation for both this trip and tomorrow's jaunt, and spent some time relaxing and drinking coffee in the hope of staying awake. Finally, around an hour before departure in fact, the stock rounded the end of the station and thundered into Platform 1. Didn't realise until later that in fact a friend and my boss had been feet away on Platform 2 whilst I wandered about chatting and getting pictures. It's a small world indeed...

Once on board the short rake and underway, I noted the presence of a good few BLS colleagues on the train. Things started perfectly, with a slow crawl out to Kensal Green where we began to climb, imperceptibly at first, then definitely taking the flyover line, passing high over the mainline and down onto the reception lines for Old Oak Common. This elusive stretch of track completed, we pressed on to Reading and Basingstoke, before taking the line towards Southampton via a stop in Wallers Ash Loop, and loading of fish and chips in Eastleigh! It was a strange sensation passing through these stations at near enough the close of service, but there were some last desperate hangers-on, people heading home or perhaps out for the evening. By the time we reached Brockenhurst, all was quiet as we took the very rarely used connection to the Lymington Branch platform, before curving towards the coast. A few minutes later we arrived at a very wet Lymington Pier beside a massive Wightlink ferry. The first loco-hauled passenger train to arrive here for some years, and despite the hour we were attracting a fair bit of photographic interest too. After a short break we retraced our steps towards the Great Western, and I started to doze - waking at Twyford briefly and then again at Henley-on-Thames. Again, one of the first non-DMU services to do so in a very long time I'm sure. Had a bit of a wander to wake myself up, but it was cold and damp outdoors so returned to the coach. It looked like some sort of refugee camp, bodies sprawled everywhere, dribbling and snoring. I ruminated on the public's view of our hobby, and what they'd make of this. Not pretty.

37516 - an unusual visitor to Paddington
37516 - an unusual visitor to Paddington

I woke with a jolt at Maidenhead next. The driver was a little heavy with the brakes, and the leaky window frame had let rain in which had pooled around my elbow. It was pretty grim outdoors, but we pressed on with our itinerary, apparently visiting Bourne End - as far as a train of our length can get on the Marlow branch where a reversal is needed to get to the terminus. I don't remember Bourne End at all this time - and my memory of last time is pretty chaotic in fairness! From here we made a slow, lazy circuit of North London, via Acton Wells and Willesden to reach Euston at just after 04:20. It was dark, quiet and rather strange in the empty station. A few dozing revellers or early starters littered the concourse and the waiting rooms, but none of the coffee shops was open. I paced around, trying to get life back into my aching legs. I also wondered why I did this stuff regularly, but then I remember the racket we'd made as we'd climbed towards the flyover at Old Oak. An interesting and strange night all-in-all...

Movebook Entry

With a little over an hour before the next trip began, I decided to freshen up and search for refreshment. The idea of a 24-hour McDonalds didn't appeal, so I wandered back to the platform where the longer rake of stock had arrived with a fresh pair of 37s in charge. I found the buffet open and grabbed a coffee which I drank whilst chatting and wandering up and down the platform to stay warm and awake. Invited into the brake, I found a nice, comfortable compartment seat and chatted with some DRS and Spitfire folks until departure. Almost exactly on time, we stormed out of Euston and into a slightly murky looking London morning. Found myself alone in my compartment and allowed myself a snooze as we sped northwards on the West Coast Main Line. Things were just waking up, as we passed a procession of London-bound units. The weather varied wildly from sudden, forceful summer showers, to bursts of fantastic sunshine. This was the life - exactly why I enjoy these excursions. Picking up along the way, we finally crept around Birmingham and onto the Shrewsbury line at Wolverhampton. Here, we lost our two DRS locos and gained two of the ETRMS-fitted Network Rail Class 97s for the onward journey. Noted our train was too long for the platform, frustrating photographers hoping for shots of the 37s before their detachment. A reversal took us onto the Cambrian line, newly resignalled with the innovative system, and with some speed restrictions relaxed and loops restored. At times on this run, the sun showed itself in earnest too. I forgot how tired I was and enjoyed the views.

97303 and 97304 on the blocks at Aberystwyth
97303 and 97304 on the blocks at Aberystwyth

After some pictures in Aberystwyth, the tiredness began to overcome me. Decided on a late breakfast and found the place I'd visited on a miserable January morning a year or more back. Found my way to the breezy seafront and slumped on a bench, watching the clouds scud over the Irish Sea. As I pondered I felt a weight on my shoulder, and before I could even muster surprise, found a seagull stealing my sandwich from my hand. Discarded the pecked remains and concentrated on the coffee instead. If I hadn't been so sleepy, I'd probably have been really angry... Wandered around the warm, humid town wondering if a thunderstorm was coming, but finding solace in an air-conditioned coffee shop where I passed some time jotting some notes and watching the world go by. Back to the station for a pleasant chat with an elderly gent who'd travelled up with his son on the charter. Talked about the Midlands and how they'd changed, and a bit about Education and Planning. A clear-minded and sharp gent who was a pleasure to talk too, and who's ability to keep up with the world around him made me forget his advancing years. We seemed to wait an age for the stock to move out of the station to set back into the platform. The inflexibility of the one platform layout of this once much larger station is clear - but eventually we were back on board and off along the coast. I was joined by a couple of cohorts for the trip back, not least the inimitable Geordie, who chatted amicably until Welshpool where he fell into a 26-pint induced slumber which saw him through until Camden Junction! A lazy, relaxing and pleasant trip back watching Britain slowly slip into darkness for the second time from the train window. Even an impromptu hayfever induced nosebleed couldn't detract from my enjoyment of this storming run back to London.

As I checked into my horribly expensive and rather basic room for the evening, I pondered the trip and how things had worked out. If Spitfire continue to offer these innovative and interesting itineraries, along with a friendly approach to tours they're going to be around for a long time. But now, I just wanted to sleep for a while...I think I'd earned it.

Movebook Link

Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 12th July 2011 at 10:07pm

The Japanese War Effort - Surrender to SummerSummer isn't a great time for music in lots of ways. As the entire industry appears to decamp to the ever growing list of festivals and new releases dry up, somehow the general public enters a strange, collective stupor where only the most inane rubbish seems to be played as loudly as possible through open car windows. So to combat my seasonal prejudice, The Japanese War Effort had to produce something pretty special, and in conjunction with the sterling efforts of Song, By Toad records they've pulled off something of a triumph here. Firstly, I've got to mention how great this record looks. Sliding the disc out of it's sleeve reveals a marbled ten-inch record, pressed on opaque vinyl shot through with an explosion of colour not unlike a Damien Hirst splatter painting. The sleeve itself is a bold and rather stunning, a close-up colourful picture of tooth-breaking seaside rock - a packet of which accompanies each order. Once again I'm struck by how the physical artefact is increasingly important at this end of the market. The opportunity to own something that has thought, care and inventiveness at it's heart supplanting the immediacy of the 'having it first' iTunes culture which sadly guides pop music nowadays, losing the sense of anticipation of hearing new music in the process. To clarify the personnel here, The Japanese War Effort is effectively the solo vehicle for Jamie Scott - half of Conquering Animal Sound. Whilst on this record he takes a very different approach to that of his other project, there are threads of similarity which bind them together. However on "Surrender to Summer" there is a sense of experimentation and playfulness which makes it feel more like a low fidelity garage band than the crystalline otherworldliness of his work with Conquering Animal Sound. That's not to suggest anything sloppy or unfinished about this EP where every track threatens to develop into a miniature pop anthem. Some of them indeed do - while others meander delightfully off on their own terms.

Opener "Summer Sun Skateboard" is an air-punching call to arms - because, after all summer is for the geeks too. It's full of the pasty pre-sunburnt optimism you hear in airport departure lounges, with some strange lyrical twists and an almost absurd amount of things happening. But it sounds wonderful - constructed cleverly from a patchwork of throbbing bass, jittery effects and skilful flecks of guitar. Throughout, Jamie Scott's vocals vary from a distant distorted megaphone rant to a strange uncomfortably-close-to-the-microphone chant. By contrast "Beach Buddies" fades in with a shoegazey screed of guitars and reverb shrouded vocals. Swiftly joined by the trademark metallic percussion and organ drone, the song mutates into a rather melancholy lament before it finally finds it's anthemic sweep of an ending. This is possibly my current favourite on the EP if only because it's neighbour-irritatingly loud - certainly enough to drown out the distant thud from the car stereos in the traffic jam outside.

"Pool attendant" is the EP's risqué seaside postcard, beginning with a damaged Blackpool Tower Wurlitzer noise, which is soon buried in an stirring electronics. A squall of analogue synthesiser noise bounces around one of the more involved compositions here. After a flourish of keyboards, it ends with subsonic bass and Jamie menacingly whispering "I shouldn't be kicking kerbs over you quite so early". The low rumbling bass sticks around into the next track, and is joined by what sounds remarkably like an original Rolf Harris Stylophone on "Bucket and Spade". Embellished with a shimmer of electronics as Jamie intones quietly above the noise, I'm curiously reminded of "Drums and Guns" era Low with it's sparse, spacious menace. Finally "Yr Tanlines" closes the record with its swooping, gorgeous pop melodies dotted with disturbing squalls of noise and stabs of static. This is perhaps as close to Conquering Animal Sound as the EP becomes in terms of both sound and the construction of the track, but it's still worlds away from their more restrained other-worldliness. Discordant vocals repeatedly asking "ever felt so small?" over the layered sheen of noise and all too soon this oddly captivating record is stuttering to a close.

This EP is a loose collection around a theme, owing more perhaps to the humid, drunken British summer than any slick continental variant. It's always tricky when someone already known for their work elsewhere releases something on their own terms, and despite the day job of its protagonist, The Japanese War Effort material has a clear identify of it's own - strangely but ultimately successfully leaning more towards shoegazing, lo-fi noisy pop than straight-down-the line electronica in many ways. It's rare to find musicians who can live comfortably in several worlds at once without suffering a crisis of confidence, but Jamie Scott appears to be one of these. Coupling this playful, exuberant and inventive music to the beautifully conceived packaging and design, this becomes both a must have artefact and the soundtrack to the more discerning listener's fleeting British Summertime.

The Japanese War Effort's "Surrender To Summer" EP is available from Song, By Toad Records on resplendent coloured vinyl including a digital download code. Alternatively, it can be purchased via iTunes or Amazon - but in doing so you would largely miss the point, and indeed miss out on free sweets.
The Japanese War Effort - Beach Buddies

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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.

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