Monday, September 07, 2009

Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring [Mercury album]

Charlie Fink and friends’ second album was always going to be an interesting proposition. The follow up to a well-received debut that swept Noah and the Whale from the vanguard of the burgeoning anti-folk scene into the big leagues thanks to the phenomenal success, popularity with whistlers everywhere and general radio and TV ubiquity of the single ‘5 Years Time’ could have gone either way. Rush-write and release more of the same perky folk to capture those all important record sales, or distance yourselves from the very thing everyone knows you for?

Whether by circumstance or design (The First Days of Spring documents, or at least references, Fink’s break up with Laura Marling), Noah and the Whale’s sophomore record wholeheartedly surrenders to the latter path, and it might just be the best thing that ever happened to them. It is standard PR fare to label a band like Noah and the Whale’s “difficult” second album as “more mature” or stating that the band has “grown up”, and these are indeed the kind of noises that have been surrounding the release of The First Days of Spring. But rarely can there have been such a stark departure, such a musical growth spurt. Though lyrically adept and with its fair share of dark moments, the often lackadaisical folk of debut Peaceful the World Lays Me Down – epitomised by ‘5 Years Time’ – is replaced by a richly atmospheric concept album detailing the heartbreaking end to a relationship and desperately search for the ability to move on. This time it is the electric guitar not the acoustic that is fingerpicked, the orchestral moments – be they string or brass – sweeping and intense rather than joyful.

The subject matter is far from revolutionary song material, but here it is handled with such deftness and honesty, detailing of the minutiae of exactly what it feels like to break up with someone you love, that you can’t fail to be intoxicated by it. More a song cycle than a conventional album, motifs recur throughout The First Days of Spring (not least that very season) – both musically and lyrically – as it proceeds on its journey. A chorus from one song will end up in an entirely different one (the ‘Blue Skies’ chorus appears at the culmination of ‘Our Window’, for example), while the sound of the lonely electric guitar and yearning violin flit in and out, with orchestral moments used to communicate the force of emotion, good and bad. This all reinforces the oppressive, overbearing mood of the record as it moves from stage to stage of the break up. It leads you through the dark days after a split, through the attempts to move on, the knowledge you’re going to get over it (just not yet), to the inevitable acceptance that life goes on.

From the opening heartbeat of a bass drum, every layer of the album seems clearly thought out, and they sit together in arresting fashion. What was an almost entertainingly lugubrious deep west country voice on Peaceful the World Lays Me Down, Fink’s vocals are perfect to detail in staccato words the pervading depression of the breakdown of the relationship, fitting the moroseness as well as a Leonard Cohen or Ian Curtis. Lyrically The First Days of Spring covers all bases with equal dexterity: from the straightforward communication of the awkwardness of language in such times (“You are talking like a stranger so I don’t know what to do”), through cutting statements (“I do believe everyone has one chance to fuck up their lives”) and pastoral metaphors along the springtime theme of rebirth (“Like a cut down tree I will rise again”), to some beautifully ornate phrasing (“I’m a fox trapped in the headlights and I’m waiting for the tyres to spin over me”). And all the while the swirling strings, the thudding bass drum and the sweep from quiet piano or guitar to majestic orchestral cacophony convey the emotional intensity dripping from the words. Female backing vocals are deafening by their absence in comparison to the first album, too, and whether deliberate or not it is indicative of the songs’ subject matter: the outpourings of a lonely and brokenhearted man.

The album is chronologically split in two, the pit of despair following the break up of the first half – as exemplified by the miserable ‘I Have Nothing’ (“'I love nothing, I love no one' are words that you whisper in my mind to someone I don’t know”) – and the more uplifting second half where acceptance kicks in, most notably the soaring single ‘Blue Skies’. As such the one incongruous moment comes in the central choral pieces, ‘Instrumental I’ and ‘The Love of an Orchestra’, which sound like they could have been taken from the score of The Sound of Music. As a tool to provide the bridge between the two halves they work fine, but as a result of this very contrast ‘The Love of an Orchestra’ is the one song that is easy to skip through. It is, however, followed by ‘Stranger’, which so successfully paints the scene of a rebound one night stand that any worry about the quality of the second half of the album is soon dispelled. For the four songs that provide the denouement to the story are at least the equal of those that set the scene, and we are even treated to some acoustic guitar strumming and singalongs (particularly the “I know in a year I’m gonna be happy, I know in a year it’s gonna be better” refrain), reflecting the more positive outlook.

In a world where music is increasingly disposable and has a shelf-life as short as our ever withering attention spans, Noah and the Whale have made an album that is worth its weight in gold. For it is one where you feel every word and every note means something to its writer, that blood, sweat, tears and real human emotion have gone into both its formulation and execution – and that is a rare commodity indeed. Impressive in almost every regard, it may not be what fans of ‘Five Years Time’ are looking for or were expecting, but it is at the end of the day a record you will – or at least you should – want to play again as soon as it ends. If you have ever been through the heartbreak at the end of a relationship, that is. Flawless it isn’t, but such is the ambition (emphasised by the album’s poignant companion film, also written and directed by Charlie Fink), quality and sheer beauty of The First Days of Spring, that you can’t fail to be moved by it. As Fink sings on the National-esque ‘Slow Glass’, “it’s not just music...the pain’s not brief”: this record is his catharsis, and its catharsis must surely resonate with all who listen to it.


First published on

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Richmond Fontaine - You Can Move Back Here [Trash Aesthetics single]

Masters of the disaffected down and out, purveyors of the most heartbreaking alt. country music out there, and possessors of one of the finest lyricists in America, Richmond Fontaine celebrate 15 years of making music with ‘You Can Move Back Here’, the first single from forthcoming 8th studio album – the characteristically poignantly titled
We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River.

Call it alt. country, call it Americana, call it American folk music, whatever it is they do, there can be little doubt that Willy Vlautin and his band have been doing it better than pretty much anyone else around for many years, and this two track, hand-screenprinted 7” vinyl single, complete with a Vlautin (also author of two critically acclaimed novels) short story, seems to confirm that, like one of Willy’s beloved race horses, they are not ready to be put out to stud quite yet.

With the yearning elongated vowels of its standout chorus, ‘You Can Move Back Here’ sounds immediately like a classic country rock song, and could well fit on Whiskeytown’s
Strangers Almanac or Wilco’s Summerteeth – or in terms of Richmond Fontaine, harks back to some of the poppier moments of the seminal Post To Wire. The chorus actually also seems to give something of a nod to the sounds of ‘80s A.M radio alt. rock, most noticeably Reckoning-era R.E.M. The song built around this chorus is far from “pop”, though, and reveals a distinctively bittersweet Richmond Fontaine stamp, particularly the central “At least you’ll have the Western sky and me on your side” refrain.

Lyrically it is on the lighter side of Vlautin’s often jet black stuff, being based around the pull of home to someone who has moved to the big city “alone with neighbours on every side”. Though the positivity of the friend’s “we all miss ya” call to come home is immediately cut down by some of Vlautin’s typical pathos-inducing anti-sentiment, proclaiming “you don’t have to be anything here”. Either way, ‘You Can Move Back Here’ drifts easily into your head from first listen and stays there, and if it doesn’t make you want to move home too, it might just make you want to book the first flight over to the band’s hometown of Portland.

Opening with the heartbreaking couplet “I’m sorry, something’s always been broken inside of me / I know you didn’t think it was true, but now you know it too”, the all-too-brief fingerpicked B-side ‘Now You Know It Too’ is a striking accompaniment to the lead track, and is essentially a distillation of everything that is great about the darker side of Richmond Fontaine in under ten lines.

In the context of some of their best moments over a string of superb Americana albums, ‘You Can Move Back Here’ might well not be the best song Richmond Fontaine have ever recorded, but it remains a catchy slow burner that whets the appetite perfectly for
We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River. The only disappointment is that, at under 3 minutes, there just ain’t enough of it.


First published on See it here.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fifteen to Hum - June '09 Collection Part Two

And so some more info on the Fifteen to Hum choices...

Will The Horrors'
Primary Colours be picking up album of the year awards come December? We've still got half the year to go but it's definitely got a chance - "Do You Remember" is one of many outstanding tracks and perfectly showcases the drone and shoegaze influences that pervade it.

Faris and friends will face some serious competition from White Denim who have taken MC5's imprint and twisted it into something that is wholly their own, with some brilliantly experimental on new album

Forget best (though it's up there) Titus Andronicus' 2008 album The Airing of Grievances .is without doubt my favourite of the past year. Having seen them twice, their live show matches the quality and intensity of the literary punk-shoegaze on record. I urge everyone to pick up the record and catch a show next time they're in town.

The second time I saw Titus Andronicus (at the 100 Club) was also the second time this year I'd seen The Soft Pack. In that time the Californians have evolved from an over-hyped, kinda sloppy Strokes-alike to an incredibly tight, top quality garage rock band. Their latest single "Nightlife" proves it.

"We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed" is the title track of one of my favourite albums of last year. Los Campesinos! released two very good long players in '08, but this latter one saw the band hone their skills into a really special album.

Black Lips were the first signing to Vice magazine's record label and as such, should by rights be making some sort of post-ironic, hugely pretentious, self-congratulating music. However, it isn't. It's great. "Bad Kids" is a doo wop rock classic that you won't get out of your head for days.

Richmond Fontaine
are pretty much the best band in the world. With new single "You Can Move Back Here" out on Trash Aesthetics soon and live dates in September, it's as good a time as any to revisit "Barely Losing" from the alt-country classic Post to Wire.

The '59 Sound is another album I have absolutely worn out over the past year. There is simply not a duff track on there, and it is great that The Gaslight Anthem seem to be getting at least some of their dues with a string of successful singles and a sold out show at the Forum. It's an album where you have a different favourite song each week. For me it's "Miles Davis and the Cool" right now.

I couldn't resist throwing some Blur in there on the eve of Glastonbury, as their reunion is the highlight of the musical summer. It could have been anything but I've gone for "Badhead" off Parklife.

More to follow...

Add to Technorati Favorites

Fifteen to Hum - June '09 Collection

It's been a while, but with the sun shining and the festival season well and truly here, it seemed only right to put together a playlist from some of the best new bands and albums, as well as the odd classic thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!

Hmmm, it seems no sooner do I host a playlist on my blog than the songs become unavailable. Try this spotify link instead - some different songs due to availability and you'll need to have installed spotify to listen, but still...

Add to Technorati Favorites