With a CD cover photo being a ‘portrait’ shot of a face masked by a shock of blond hair it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that band principal Carmen Hillestad’s CV includes a prestigious career as a fashion model. I imagine that the lack of clear facial images in the packaging, in part, seeks to divert focus away from her physical appearance towards the music. This is no vanity project which allows a mediocre talent to be carried by a group of skilled musicians – Carmen actually creates most of the music herself, being credited for vocals, guitars, bass, drum machines, piano, organ, synth and a range of percussion on all songs. To help add depth and extra texture she is joined by a range of others, but this is most definitely a project that she has invested much time and effort in.
Warpaint and The Cocteau Twins (Liz Fraser) are two bands that immediately sprung to mind as I listened to this pleasingly atmospheric album. Having listened to it a number of times I remain impressed by the range of songs and certainly think that the world of music has been enhanced by Carmen’s move from the world of high fashion. Although there is little in the way of rapid bpm high energy amongst the tracks, there is much detail contained which helps maintain a level of intrigue during repeat listens. This is more an album to relax and become immersed in rather than something to provide a party backdrop. I listen to a lot of music whilst driving and can definitely imagine this adding interest and atmosphere to one of my overnight drives on the motorway between Scotland and London.
1/ Two Towns
5/ Made A Shell
6/ How Much
7/ Light, See
9/ It May Well Die
12/ Demon Lover
At heart I’m definitely somebody who appreciates multi-media and consequently do like it when music is packaged in physical formats. Designing CD inserts requires different graphic design skills compared to twelve inch vinyl gatefold sleeves, but can produce equally effective results. The cover of this item is rather enigmatic – the front is devoted entirely to a single photograph of a bench in front of some trees, an image that is replicated on the disc itself. The track listing on the rear is very plain indeed with simple black text on a white background listing song titles in lower case without numbers. No hint at all about the relevance to neither band name, Streetlight Manifesto, nor album title, ‘The Hands That Thieve’.
Packaging aside, the music simply bursts out of the speakers with incredible energy. As a ska/punk band from New Jersey every track bristles with interest. Like other exponents of the genre, there is an overarching sense of manic, barely contained chaos – I saw something very similar when I was privileged to catch a brief live performance by Scottish ska/punk band Bombskare and imagine that a live set by Streetlight Manifesto would be absolutely riveting. On second thoughts, rivets are used to rigidly fix things in position – I don’t imagine that many in the audience would actually be able to resist movement when faced with this aural onslaught!
So often I find myself listening to music that is guitar and drum based, this provides a break from the routine with the lead being provided by saxophones, trumpet and trombone. Perhaps it’s my age, but I have to say that much as I enjoyed listening to this I did find it’s relentless high energy to be a bit much and imagine that in future my listening will be mainly restricted to individual tracks interspersed with other slower pieces. On the other hand I do believe that the experience of a live set would be an absolute blast!
Chris Thatcher – drums: Jim Conti – tenor & alto sax, vocals: Matt Stewart – trumpet: Nadav Nirenberg – trombone: Pete McCullough – bass, vocals: Tomas Kalnoky – vocals, guitar
1/ The Three Of Us
3/ The Littlest Things
4/ The Hands That Thieve
5/ With Any Sort Of Certainty
6/ If Only For Memories
7/ They Broke Him Down
8/ Toe To Toe
9/ Oh Me, Oh My
10/ Your Day Will Come
Thankfully my failing eyesight caused me to overlook the details of the sticker on the CD case – “as seen on The Voice”; had I fully digested that bit of information, my natural aversion to mainstream promotions would most likely have caused me to replace the album on the rack and move on to investigate other offerings. As it was I ended up purchasing Bo Bruce’s album ‘Before I Sleep’ an was extremely impressed as I listened to it as I drove back to Scotland following a trip to London. What little I know about ‘The Voice’ suggests that this TV talent show does seek to prioritise vocal skills over appearance – and Bo’s voice is most definitely a thing of wonder. I’m not a vocal expert, but suspect that one of the things that makes her voice so intriguing is when she applies glissando to individual words.
Whilst making progress, Bo was not the eventual winner. Previously, it has seemed that runners up in such TV talent shows can often have at least as much, if not more, commercial success as the actual winners. I strongly suspect that Bo Bruce will be a name that will crop up quite frequently in months and years ahead. She can already add a notch to her microphone for a successful collaboration with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol which features in the soundtrack of the latest Star Trek movie ‘Into Darkness’.
The fourteen tracks that make up this album provide a great showcase for both her vocal talents and her songwriting expertise. The variety ranges from wispy and predominantly acoustic, to anthemic ballads, all of which provide ample opportunity for her to exercise the full breadth of her vocal range. I used to view TV talent shows as being entirely focussed on developing ‘throwaway’ popular music with mass appeal; if they help to give artists like Bo a chance to bring their particular talents to a wider audience I will have to re-consider my attitude towards them.
2/ Save Me
4/ Speed The Fire
6/ Ghost Town
7/ On The Wire
8/ Holding The Light
10/ The Fall
11/ The Hands I Hold
14/ How We’re Made
With rumours that Andy Warhol was behind it, due to the director being credited as anonymous, ‘Pink Narcissus’ is an American ‘art house’ film depicting the erotic fantasies of a gay male prostitute. It was shot mostly on 8mm, over a seven year period in James Bidgood’s small New York apartment. It was in fact ultimately released without it’s director’s consent………… OOPS, wrong review! This Pink Narcissus is in fact a ‘post-punk’ band formed in Brighton during the winter of 2008/2009. With a disparate range of prior experiences, and an equally diverse range of influences, the members have managed to create a very distinctive sound.
‘Blood On The Page’ is their latest release and contains a selection of six carefully crafted songs all with a very unique Pink Narcissus sound. I’m not going to begin to try to guess at the significance of the various items adorning the defaced christlike image on the CD sleeve but I very much doubt that they have been selected a random. The seraphical winglike imagery on the outer sleeve is echoed on the disc itself by a dancing pair of creatures.
As far as the audio element is concerned there is a consistent sense of menace pervading the tracks, all bound together by Oli Spleen’s haunting vocals. The instrumentals are tight and provide a richly textured support which manages to provide some delicate moments amongst the insistent and driving beat that surges through the album just as the Severn Bore makes its powerful and unstoppable progress upriver from the Bristol Channel. Complementing Oli’s vocals, Paddy Longlegs produces delicately atmospheric upper register guitar motifs and driving riffs with equal ease. All the time the bass and drum combination provided by Cod and Cookie ensures that there are no pregnant pauses as they provide an extremely solid foundation.
On FaceBook they bill themselves as a purveyors of ‘freakrock’ alongside a very diverse list of interests, whereas on ReverbNation their categorisation is displayed as ‘other’/’alternative’/’post punk’ – the bottom line as far as I’m concerned is that labels matter much less than the actual experience of listening. If you are willing to take a few steps off the well-trodden path and seek to explore what might be lurking in darker depths of the forest then you should find that time spent listening to Pink Narcissus helps to expand your perceptions.
Oli Spleen – vocals
Paddy Longlegs – guitar
Cod Riverson – bass
Cookie Swallow – drums
3/ Orphan Eyes
4/ The Great Divide
5/ Kingdom Of The Blind
6/ Yield To The Night
When a heavy piece of agricultural machinery consisting of multiple steel rollers designed to compact newly seeded fields, meets lightweight car body panels – there can only be one outcome. So when my car, a tractor with a rear-mounted cultipacker, and a parked ambulance tried to ‘use’ the same space on a two lane wide street, my car came of worst! Had the implement not been attached and protruding beyond the tractor’s width, I would have got by, but at the last moment I noticed the extra width and just couldn’t swerve onto the pavement in time – the noise of the offside rear of my car being ripped off by the rigid and unyielding piece of equipment only lasted a fraction of a second but the mangled panels of my car will take much, much longer to repair. It is actually like a giant has taken a bite out of the back corner of my car. I can foresee a long wait whilst replacement panels take the ‘slow boat from near China’ as they make their way from Korea – on the other hand I might be in for a pleasant surprise, time will tell! On the other side of the street, the ambulance driver only had to fold back out his driver’s door wing mirror and ponder the slight grazing on his front plastic bumper; whilst the tractor driver simply wonders if there might be any additional little scratches on the side of his cultipacker.
On the plus side, nobody was injured – and I couldn’t have ‘chosen’ a better place to have an ‘accident’ – due to another incident in the locality, there were three police vehicles, five police officers, one ambulance and two paramedics on the scene when the impact occurred – yet when I recounted this to the insurance company, I was asked if I had managed to get some ‘independent’ witnesses! There were, of course, some, as I do remember groups of people gathered on the pavements looking to see if they could see what was happening with regard to the police and paramedic presence. This reminded me of a part of my drive to London last week – our carriageway of the A1(M) was delayed by having to merge two lanes into one to pass a collision that had been ‘moved’ to the hard shoulder; the traffic on the opposite carriageway had also backed up ahead of the incident, presumably due to drivers slowing down to ‘rubberneck’.
Having left London at 7am in the morning to drive back to Scotland, I arrived in the Borders’ Village of Stow just before 8pm after a brief stop to rest and change. I had known in advance that Kat Healy had been announced as a support act; after chatting to one of the organisers, Chris, I then found that Plum had arrived earlier in the day to lead workshop sessions with a group of local young people. These young people, both primary and secondary school students, had spent the afternoon discovering how to use musical instruments in conjunction with found objects along with a loop pedal to produce music, and would be performing a new piece later, ahead of Plum’s performance.
The small hall with its impressive vaulted wooden ceiling quickly filled up, with many young people amongst the audience. The stage stood ready and waiting with guitars, keyboard, laptop, and other assorted pieces of electronic equipment. As the evening progressed more tables and chairs were brought in and set out as the audience buzz increased in anticipation of what was to come.
Ahead of the music, I caught up with Plum and recorded a brief interview. I also chatted with Chris and discovered that the local ‘SoundOut’ group had organised a self-funded music festival in the town the previous summer, and, thanks to a generous grant from a local wind farm, were busy planning and preparing for a second more adventurous one this summer. This evening represented their first venture as ‘contractors’ bringing ‘hired’ acts to the town. I did a rough head count and reckoned that there were around eighty in the hall which felt about right for the venue and throughout the night, a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere persisted.
Having travelled from Inverness, Kat prefaced her set with a lovely relaxed introduction in which she commented on the rural location, having had to negotiate unfenced roads with sheep and young lambs to avoid, and then discovering that the nearest pub was in the next town. Kat was an unknown quantity for me and, given Plum’s electronic pedigree, was slightly unexpected as she delivered a lovely ‘folky’ set with a presence and vocal style that had me recalling Emmylou Harris, particularly on her ‘Wrecking Ball’ album. For some songs she was accompanied by Stanley Odd’s Thilo Pfander on keyboard.
Following Kat’s set, more chairs were brought out, this time for the group of young people who were about to perform. These young people sat in a horseshoe in front of the stage and began by passing a microphone around to enable each to add their individual pieces to the loop. In addition to traditional instruments, guitar and fiddle, items found in the hall’s kitchen featured along with vocal sounds. As the layered sample loop developed, the young people seemed very much at ease and to be enjoying their opportunity to demonstrate their newly found skills. In addition to being an excellent experience for those who had participated in the workshop and performed on the night, I imagine that the performance would have inspired many of the other young people in the audience.
With little set up to be changed on stage it was soon time for Plum to get started. Since I had seen her previously last Halloween in Edinburgh her talents had been recognised at the Scottish Alternative Music Awards where she won the ‘Best Electronic Artist’ category and I was keenly anticipating another excellent performance. For a hall that hadn’t been designed with amplified music in mind the sound quality was extremely good and I was able to enjoy her set without significant distortion. Three digital projectors helped to add atmosphere with video footage being projected onto the wall behind the stage, adding to the other lighting. Plum was very much at ease as she manipulated the various pieces of equipment, augmenting with acoustic and bass guitars as required. Along with a good selection of previously released tracks she included a taste of what to expect from her new album. Making the most of the opportunities offered by digital recording and distribution she will be releasing this album in two parts starting in the autumn – something that I will certainly be watching out for.
Creating a performance based on looping samples and building up a nuanced and captivating backing for her lyrics is a different skill set to that required to master more traditional instruments, but I believe that it is equally valid when the results are as excellent as those produced by Plum. The set in Stow was equally as exciting and impressive as when I had first seen her in Sneaky Pete’s, however, the experience was very different which was all down to the lovely family-friendly atmosphere provided by the organisers at SoundOut who appear to be extremely passionate about enabling their community to be able to experience great live music. The latter part of the set included a number of dub-step oriented tracks which were particularly well received and had many people up dancing. Although she has been recognised as an electronic artist and incorporates elements such as dub-step in her act, she does not produce long and repetitive tracks, I believe that her principal skill is her ability to create a wide range of sounds and approaches in her work, and helps to prove that genre classifications can be quite misleading. I will continue to seek to avoid genre label pre-conceptions in order to identify other new and exciting artists such as Plum.
Finally, I have transferred all (most) of my archived gig and album reviews to this site. As time moves on and my on-line presence continues to develop, I thought that it would be a useful thing to try to gather things together. I will continue to post reviews on Tumblr but will also include copies here – so there should be no more need for any intensive ‘blitz’ postings.
Coming soon should be a review of last Saturday night’s CD launch by Easter Street and I’m off to Stow this coming Saturday to catch an interview with and performance by SAMA winning artist Plum.
Just a brief post for now before heading off to Galashiels for the first co-hosted ‘Lunchtime Review’ with Colleen on TD1 Radio.