Posted in SHOFT on Monday 21st May 2012 at 7:05am

Esperi - Melancholics Anonymous EPI've written before about Esperi, but make absolutely no apology for once again drawing attention to this, long-anticipated new release. In fact "Melancholics Anonymous" seems to have been in preparation forever, before suddenly and almost apologetically announcing itself to the world. It's fair to say that Esperi - whether it is indeed a band, an individual or a revolving collective of creative folks centred on Dundee-native songwriter Chris Marr - is one of the hardest working entities in Scottish music. A constant string of live dates over the past year or so paused only to allow Chris time to work with fellow troubadours Luke Joyce of I Build Collapsible Mountains and Panda Su. But this hasn't translated into a hectic release schedule however, and this is this first music committed to record since last year's "Esperi EP" on Olive Grove Records which essentially collected together songs which had been scattered around the internet for a while. These mixed the simple, open hearted singer-songwriter approach with more experimental washes of sound and playful instrumentals. But this all-new EP on Fall On Records finally sees the two sides of Esperi welded together. Happily the personal, human warmth remains perfectly intact, while new musical pastures are explored over the space of five delicate, heartfelt compositions.

The record opens with "Homer" which is, in many senses, trademark Esperi. A shuffling beat and a complex, jazzy bass line courtesy of the perhaps unlikely hand of Fat Goth's Kev Black propel the song at a surprisingly jaunty pace at odds with the title of the EP. Meanwhile Chris Marr unravels his reflective, half-spoken musings on fatherhood and parenting. After a quiet, delicate pause for handclaps and bells, Marr's voice is centre stage the song reveals it's eponymous but unlikely hero. There are genuinely tender reminiscences here which vie for emotional space with the swelling, heart-bursting additon of The Korda String Quartet which provides a discrete and sympathetic addition to the track, rather than drowning the song's spirit in strings which is always a temptation when you have musicians of this calibre on hand. The influence of the oddly and guiltily compelling show of the same name sees "Come Dine With Me" skitter in on a burst of untuned TV noise which resolves into more of Chris's beautifully intricate guitar picking and a wash of gentle strings. The sarcasm-drenched daytime cooking contest doesn't have too much further influence on proceedings, beside a reference in the chorus - but this song is full of the warmth of homecoming and shared histories. This also sees the first appearance of another Esperi signature in the use of toy bells and tinkling percussion, as ever performed on improvised instruments constructed from bits of household junk. This, along with Marr's remarkably skilled use of a loop pedal are staples of the Esperi live set, which translate to record surprisingly well.

On "Broadlands", the stripped down backing of just guitar and handbells allows Marr's lyrics to take a bolder, broader sweep. It's brief and simple, gently and reverently detailing life-long friendship and suggesting how a time-worn connection allows people to unerringly read each other in it's refrain "your eyes/never too hard to disguise". It's these interludes, short and direct, heart worn firmly on sleeve, which set Esperi apart from those who spin darker, more oblique tales. What you hear is most definitely what you get, and the song ebbs away into birdsong and countryside sounds far too soon. There is an otherworldly, dreamlike quality to "Luke" which seems to describe a much loved, sleeping dog, but in such delicate and tender detail that its impossible not to be swept up in Marr's strange mix of celebration and melancholy reflection. Weaving his breathy lyrical delivery around a sheen of noise and clinking, ringing percussion sounds and a quiet thunder of bass, it's here too that his lyrics become perhaps their most touchingly descriptive with lines like "watching you sleep/is like watching a meadow/with each breath that you take/your hair ebbs and flows". As ever, Esperi delivers those surprising, lump-in-throat moments when they're least expected. The EP closes with "Who I Am" which is a surprisngly forthright exposition of the Esperi ethic. It's tempting to reason that Marr is telling us exactly why he's working so hard for his songs to be heard as he quietly but forcefully suggests "it's in my bones/it helps me grow". The song gradually builds with gentle drums and resounding washes and crashes of cymbal adding an oddly nautical ebb and flow to the sound. Marr's quiet lyrical strength is at its best here, and when the song finally breaks free in a clamour of military drums, bells and crashes, it's liberating and illuminating in equal measure. Finally, it all dissolves into tape hiss and disappears back to Esperi's homegrown roots.

Once again Esperi has managed to capture the sound of hearts breaking and being reforged on this brief collection of songs which focus on passing time, love and loss, growth and change without descending into schmaltz or allowing sentimentality to get the better of them. While this EP strikes a middle ground between the song-based and experimental work which has been kept resolutely separate in the past, across the five songs here the lyrical themes couldn't be more varied or their detail more acutely observed. There are plenty of artists ploughing the solo singer-songwriter furrow nowadays, and probably always will be - but you'll struggle to find an artist more inventive and committed than Chris Marr.

Esperi_-_Come Dine With Me

You can download "Melancholics Anonymous" on a pay-what-you-like basis from Esperi's Bandcamp page. The video for "Come Dine With Me" can be seen here too. Esperi will play at the Go North festival in Inverness on 6th/7th June, with more dates to be announced shortly.

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 19th May 2012 at 10:27pm

Lately my wanderings have gained in importance once again due to frustrating and dull times at work, but have also decreased in imagination. Often, all I'm aiming for is journeys long enough to distract me - to see movement and feel distance pass by. As the schedule of engineering works and diversions slows to a crawl ahead of a summer of events, it's proving tricky even to find interesting diversions. So, I'm drawn repeatedly to London. I can easily spend hours doing nothing there and still feel part of something bigger than the rather tiny life I seemed to have got myself wedged into back home. There is also the sense of London being off-limits soon - the Jubilee and Olympics making an always chaotic city even more difficult to navigate, and the attempts to impose order no doubt creating an unpleasant edge. So perhaps I'm unconsciously cramming as many London trips as I possibly can into these few precious weeks of relative sanity?

This one was a little different - my drive to take long, relaxing trips had suggested the normal run out to Birmingham, which is generally a good start to the day. Noted the Phantom Seat-Stealer back on the train and wondered if I'd have a scrap for my booked seat at Temple Meads, but noted him still on the platform as we left, heading for Cardiff I suppose. Ruminated on how the railway led me to know all these people by association - but not to know much of their lives, or mostly even their names. The journey was quiet and uneventful - just what I needed it to be. Changing trains at New Street left me time enough for coffee and people-watching on the concourse. I hope this possibility is preserved when the station is refurbished, because it's become something I rather enjoy. This station always signified mystery and a long trip somewhere - but suffers of course from a rather grim experience at platform level. Even though being delayed here is an unwelcome proposition, I recall breaks in epic trips with some fondness. Down to the platform for the 10:13 service which was a little late in arriving. This led to a lot of people milling around asking about the unit that arrived. In particular, a group boarded first class a little in front of me - a sarcastic, sleepy man and two babbling women. They'd snapped up the cheap London Midland tickets eagerly enough but wanted the Virgin experience - Where were the people handing out refreshments? Why did it call at all those stations? Headphones in, for a snoozy but pleasant journey south along the WCML, as always enjoying the approaches to London particularly.

I wondered if I'd left long enough to switch trains in London, as this was to be quite a fleeting visit? Though a short journey to Marylebone it can be a slow and congested one - but in the event I was able to get a 205 and have a fairly smooth trip. Along the way I noted the Euston Road pubs were full of West Ham supporters. It was the Championship Playoff Final today, and I'd completely failed to notice this. It wouldn't interfere with my trip, as the Birmingham Snow Hill service I'd chosen didn't call at Wembley Stadium, but Marylebone itself was an interesting experience! Chiltern were running additional shuttles to the stadium which worked well, and the crowd were nothing if not good natured. They were very, very vocal however - and everytime the chanting, singing or shouting died down there would be a solitary, clipped and almost embarrassed rallying call of "Irons!" which would kick it all back into life. The police looked amused and unconcerned in the main but I was stopped by one and asked some questions about my business. He was polite and friendly, and seemed keen to talk so I explained I got stopped a lot and asked if he could tell me why? He told me the simple truth was that I appeared unusually confident and knowledgeable in the station. I knew where things were, didn't mill around in confusion like most passengers in the off-peak seem to. It was unusual enough to make him wonder what I was up to. I'm not sure I'm any happier with this explanation, and I told him that - but I suppose I can sort of see the logic.

Away on the 14:00 to Birmingham via the Chiltern Line, surrounded by a loud group who kept swapping seats and moving around. They were comprised of a couple of asian women and their children heading off to Bicester Village to shop. But they didn't know where to get off, and asked a pair of black guys sitting opposite them. The response was quite frankly racist - some of the worst and most open I've ever seen in public. They asked me and I set them right, but noted that they seemed used to the response which disappointed me. Otherwise the trip was quiet and pleasant, just like the last time I passed this way which was fairly recently in fact. This time I bailed at one of the through platforms at Moor Street, and spent an idle hour watching people and trains, particularly the new Class 172s, shuttling back and forth.

After another leisurely linger on the concourse at New Street, I took the usual 1V65 back to Bristol. As ever it was a quiet, pleasant run into the slowly setting sun - echoing trips of old. While waiting for 1C27 homewards at Bristol I figured that today had broken no new ground at all, but it had been just the tonic I needed.

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Posted in SHOFT on Thursday 17th May 2012 at 8:05am

Having tried, and mostly failed in keeping up to date with interesting new things here on Songs Heard on Fast Trains, I more than anyone appreciate how the mundane churn of day-to-day life can get in the way of doing creative, interesting or rewarding things. I also know all too well how there is always something out there to steal your attention and lure you into doing far more pointless things - isn't that what the internet was invented for after all? So today's selections are from two bands who have disappeared for quite a while but are now back with a vengeance. I'm not suggesting they've been playing dodgy Facebook games or laughing at pictures of cats wearing bread during this time. They've just taken a while to get these releases out into the world. If there is a common theme, it's perhaps that these two new singles reveal bands who have changed and developed - let alone grown in membership - during their absence.

The State Broadcasters - Trespassers

The State Broadcasters - TrespassersSome bands seem to have been a part of the furniture for so long that you sort of forget to hear them. That sounds a bit glib I know, but having had the privilege of being bombarded with new music these past couple of years there are bound to be bands which fall by the wayside. But if fate deals the right card, you'll encounter them later and have one of those forehead-slapping moments where you wonder why you weren't listening earlier. The State Broadcasters caused me just such a moment, and the reason they've sprung to mind now is their addition to the ever eclectic roster of Olive Grove Records who continue to judge the timing perfectly with their slow and steady release of new Scottish music. Having arrived on the scene during my period of musical disillusionment, there is some catching up to do as The State Broadcasters already have pedigree - a single and album on Electric Honey, some high profile support slots and an award at Celtic Connections not least among their achievements.

Emerging as a taste of a forthcoming second album, "Trespassers" is a curiously formal waltz, sparse at its outset with Graeme Black's melancholy voice and a piano doing all the work. As the narrative unwinds, the benefits of being a six-piece band of multi-instrumentalists become apparent with a reassuringly solid double-bass marking time, while dashes of piano and ukulele adorn the track. The lyric is a tale of disassociation and longing, which builds to a chorus drenched in chiming guitars and dramatic key changes. The highlight for me is the entrance of the lush, beautifully arranged strings which carry the song away to new heights. Overall, there is an atmosphere of regret and heart-aching sadness, but those uplifting strings bring things back from the brink. In an era when everyone is suddenly a folk musician, this is unashamedly heart-on-sleeve pop music which misappropriates all the wistful, dark honesty from that contested - and somewhat devalued - genre. Make no mistake, The State Broadcasters are coming after your heartstrings with this stuff - and they won't rest until they've seen grown men cry.

"Trespassers" will be available as a free download on 11th June, in anticipation of The State Broadcasters second album "Ghosts We Must Carry" which will arrive in September. The band play The Captains Rest in Glasgow on 14th June with Randolph's Leap as part of the West End Festival. You can find their debut album "The Ship and The Iceberg" on iTunes.

Jesus H. Foxx - So Much Water

Jesus H. Foxx - So Much WaterWhilst Jesus H. Foxx might seem a world away in terms of sound and approach, there are some remarkable similarities with The State Broadcasters. Also emerging from a host of other bands in the heady years at the end of the last decade, where the internet was making all kinds of things possible for small bands, they too have left a big gap between releases. They've left a huge hole in the Edinburgh music scene too during this time, because as I've remarked elsewhere, there just haven't been good guitar bands coming through at all in the last few years. A ramshackle, delightfully messy single "Tightt Ideas" preceded an EP in 2009. Since then, Jesus H. Foxx have officially been recording their debut album for Song, By Toad. This process has become one of those legendarily protracted experiences, up there with My Bloody Valentine and The Beach Boys - and for a long time we've had to be content with the assurance that "it'll be ready soon..."

Well, the album is here - and it's purely down to my laziness and lack of organisation that it hasn't had a full, over-wordy exposition here on this site. I might yet get around to it if real life gives me the time and the space. For now though "So Much Water" - a free single available for immediate download - captures the spirit of the record perfectly. Declaring it's intentions early with a glorious splash of colourful, ringing guitars, the song settles into a pensive and jittery rhythm. It's almost obligatory to reference Pavement when writing about Jesus H. Foxx but to be honest, the similarity - at least here - starts and ends with Michael Hunter's downbeat drawl and the phrasing of the vocals. A sudden explosion of competing voices and chiming guitar lines heralds a chorus which explodes again and again throughout the remainder of the song. This has much more in common with the familiar British indie-pop sounds of the last couple of decades than anything from across the pond. The band - numbering seven at full strength - uses it's multiple vocalists to excellent effect here, with chorus of backing voices appearing to support the long, blissfully jangling outro. There is a sunny, upbeat quality to "So Much Water" which is tempered by the laconic vocals and near-defeated lyrics. While elsewhere on their album you'll find strings, brass and all manner of rather wonderful cleverness this is the band at their simplest and most direct. Somehow Jesus H. Foxx manage to fuse together that scratchy, punky sense of urgency with lush summery guitar pop in ways which very few bands seem interested in attempting now. The fact that there is now a whole album of this awaiting your listening pleasure is something to be very happy about indeed.

You can download "So Much Water" right now, for absolutely nothing from Song, By Toad Records where the album "Endless Knocking" can be purchased too, and comes highly recommended. News of a launch event will follow at some point we are assured, but once you live in the world of Jesus H. Foxx you learn that the anticipation is all part of the fun.


Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 15th May 2012 at 8:05am

Plastic Animals - Automaton EPIt's always tempting in a reductionist view of our complex world, to imagine there are rules - and that at some point in the past Edinburgh and Glasgow did a deal. Glasgow got the guitar bands, the downbeat Americana and the indie-pop while Edinburgh settled for the alt-folk or whatever absurd name is being applied this week - and of course that festival. Of course it didn't happen quite as cleanly as this and I suspect there was not really any Faustian pact between Provosts, but there have certainly been remarkably few good guitar bands emerging from Edinburgh in recent times. However last summer the debut EP by Plastic Animals challenged the west coast supremacy, by coupling delicate harmonies and hazy guitars in a strange collision of noise, pop and melody. I remarked at the time that it was the sort of record which harked back to a bygone age of guitar music, at the same time as sounding incredibly fresh. Well, they're back - and I'm happy to report that this second EP by Plastic Animals retains all of the texture and complexity of the first release. But there is something else here - in short, it sounds haunted. Haunted - both in the sense of the gloom which has shifted from being an undercurrent to taking a greater part in the atmosphere, and in the wash of ghostly, sometimes distant elements which make up these five, rather wonderful songs.

This five track EP opens with the distant, sparse "Yellowcraig", apparently and appropriately named for a stretch of unspoiled, windswept coastline on the Firth of Forth, and which couples the familiar nagging, hollow guitar jangle from the first EP to a distant, disembodied vocal. It's all willed back into line via a rumbling bass line which prevents everything from unravelling into the ether, and gives it an oddly sinister edge. The strangeness of the atmosphere is ramped up via weird chirps of distorted tape noise which herald a sudden but sure-footed gear change into the closing section of the song, built around a satisfyingly crunchy guitar with melodies layered over noise to spectacular effect. There is more haunting themed fun with "Ghosts" - musically more upbeat but equally hollow-eyed and strung out lyrically. Focused on a chiming guitar line and half-whispered vocals which unfurl a tale of being unable to shake off a memory. Mid-song, a shimmery, shoegazey note familiar from the first EP is added to the insistent rhythm section as guitars lines tangle and overlay to form a sonically complex mix. A down-shift in tempo heralds an utterly beautiful mess of noise and feedback which ebbs away leaving just an acoustic guitar. It's usually around this point in a review that I realise my efforts to describe music like this are largely pointless - it's just utterly lovely and you should listen to this free download at the earliest opportunity.

If there is a Plastic Animals manifesto, it's summed up by a post on their Tumblr - simply a picture of Bilinda Butcher and the word "YES". This influence is perhaps most evident on the sprawling, distorted "Sundowning". This is a hazy spectacle, sounding blissed out but bittersweet. A gorgeous drone of guitars and vocals which erupts into a sudden, earsplitting squall of noise with what sounds like an overdriven organ drone to my untrained ear, adding an oddly jaunty counterpoint to the vocals which resignedly accept "guess we'll all be dead before the summer". Unexpectedly though a tempo change propels the song into a joyous, anthemic closing section. There are various points on this EP when any sense of a repetitive formula to Plastic Animals' muse is shattered by these impeccably performed shifts of time signature, reliant on the self-assured rhythm section which underpins these hazy and sometimes seemingly chaotic bursts of energy. But the absolute highlight of the EP for me is "Pirate DVDs", kicking off as shamelessly straightforwardly sludgy garage rock with stuttering, urgent drums and distorted vocals. I'd be happy with this continuing, but it all unexpectedly gives way to sweeps of undulating surf guitar and screeds of static. There are more changes of pace and tone in a single song here than in entire albums by some bands, and it's Plastic Animals ability to perform these shifts with jawdropping suddenness but still keep the sense of a song which is one of their most remarkable skills. Whilst there are ideas aplenty here, it never ever feels like stray bits of writing bolted together. As the song winds back into life after a soporific lull its hard not to get swept along with the feedback crashing and echoing around. This track clocks in at an eventful six and a half minutes, but surprisingly commands attention all the way. Finally, the sepulchral "Slow Song" returns to the spectral theme with it's woozy, clamourous organ and distant vocals. There are hints of Grandaddy in the delivery here - and it feels achingly sad, hopeless even. But there is a note of defiance in the lyrics, and something comfortingly narcotic about the droning, fading glimmer of a tune.

There are some bands I find myself mentally willing to succeed, despite realising with some embarassment that I know relatively little about Plastic Animals beyond these two EPs. In a week when there is a huge amount of attention focused on Scottish Music and in particular the list of remarkable albums from the last year, its easy to understate the importance of the EP as a tool for a band to lay out an agenda. Across the five expansive, often lengthy tracks here Plastic Animals accomplish far more than an album's worth of ideas and sounds, once again pinning it all together via a sense of conscious design and thoughtful construction. This is despite the sense that the spiralling, dizzy sounds here are sometimes wayward, threatening to burst free and overwhelm the songs in static and noise. In the confines of a not-very-widely-read blog, it's remarkable easy to fall into the trap of trotting off comparisons and analogues for bands. However, Plastic Animals manage the trick of incorporating back-references to some of the finest elements of guitar music from the past three decades, but remaining resolutely of their own time and place.

Plastic Animals - Sundowning

The "Automaton EP" will be available on June 2nd from Bandcamp. "Ghost" is available now as a free download, and you can watch the video here. By way of launch gigs for the EP, Plastic Animals will play at Henry's Cellar Bar in Edinburgh on 3rd June and The Old Hairdressers in Glasgow on 8th June.

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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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