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EP review: Blue Tiger – Artifice

Although a recognisable face on the Edinburgh music scene for a number of years – having fronted sludge-rock luminaries Plastic Animals – the gorgeous Artifice sees Peruvian-born Mario Cruzado step out from the shadows and into the light. I’d say tentatively, but there’s a confidence and assuredness bleeding through every second of this intentionally low-key EP that belies any doubt or uncertainty that may have been present in its genesis. Also, I should say that when I speak of light, in true Scots fashion it’s the kind of cold, blue-tinged light that seems only to come with the type of temperature my father-in-law would call fresh.

I’ve lived with these five songs for well over a week now, and I still feel that they have secrets to tell. Every listen seems to reveal another little detail that I hadn’t noticed before – which is quite interesting as on the surface they’re songs and arrangements that tend to be on the minimal side. The kind of minimal that can only really work when the artist understands the power of silence and empty space. In this case, I guess you could say that these songs are very much an opposite of Cruzado’s previous work with Plastic Animals; and instead of the vocal being another texture buried in the landscape, here it’s actively carving it.

Picking favourites is tough, as at seventeen-minutes-and-twenty-nine-seconds it’s difficult to justify not listening all the way through – but I find myself particularly drawn to the utterly beautiful Eta Carinae (which sounds like it could’ve been one of the best songs on Wilco’s Summerteeth) with its glorious coda of “Do you think it’s love, Eta Carinae?” This is sandwiched between the aching lo-fi beauty of Lux and the swooning, Grizzly Bear-esque Ornament – a track full of stark harmonies and delicate, sweeping strings which carry it off into another dimension. The closing two tracks – Phantom Music and Alone With You – are equally perfect; with the former reminding me of the fragile beauty of some of Gruff Rhys’ late-90s Super Furries tunes, and the latter a slow-moving, ominous, dissonant gem.

All in all, Artifice is a superb collection of songs. I’ve had it on repeat since I heard it, and to be honest I’m struggling to think of anything else I could add that would say more than that. Released via the excellent Glasgow-and-Edinburgh-based OK PAL Records, it’s a late contender for my personal end of year list, but also hopefully just the beginning for Blue Tiger.

A conversation with Blue Tiger

Happy to say that Mario agreed to answer some questions regarding the EP, his songwriting, recording process, and some other bits and pieces. As ever, my questions are in bold and Mario’s responses in plain text.

Photo credit – Scott Willis

• Hey Mario. Congratulations on the new EP. I thought it was quite something. I love the luscious arrangements and how they’re almost hanging by a thread at times. I found myself searching for the Plastic Animals stuff and thought it was interesting how you’ve really peeled back the layers of what you’re doing now. I like how your voice is front and centre with this new material, less obscured, and I’m interested in how you’ve arrived at this point… if that’s even a question? Ha.

Thanks for the kind words! With Plastic Animals we had this heavy atmospheric sound which relied on the band’s dynamics mostly and that didn’t really allow for a vocal presence to be that essential to the music. It was out of choice to layer it all up and add an extra guitar here and there and we loved it. Once the band fizzled out, I found myself wanting to go the opposite direction just because I’d never really done that. It felt uncomfortable and exciting at the same time. Getting used to the sound of my voice is still something I’m working on but I’m getting there.

• Has the way you approach writing changed with this material?

I made a conscious effort to make shorter songs. Get the right harmony, the right words and visit them swiftly, never outstay my welcome if that makes sense. 

• I can hear some parallels with artists like Grizzly Bear and Wilco. I mean, Eta Carinae could be a highlight on Summerteeth. Phantom Music reminds me of Gruff Rhys too, in some strange way… around the time of Guerilla. Anyway, I was wondering who would you say are your main influences on the Blue Tiger stuff? Also, do you think about these influences when you write, or is it more a case of it will sound like what it sounds like?

Thanks! I’m not that familiar with Grizzly Bear except a few tunes that I really enjoyed but I love all the early Wilco stuff. High praise indeed. I’ve always felt spiritually connected to Sparklehorse so there’s definitely an influence there whether I’m conscious of it or not. 

• The instrumentation is beautiful across the EP. Are you playing most yourself, or are you working with other musicians? Likewise with the production. I love the uncluttered, kinda lo-fi nature of it. I guess I’m asking about your recording process in a very convoluted way!

I recorded some of these songs before with other people but they ended up not sounding quite the way I wanted them to so I decided to do it all myself. That gave me the chance to write arrangements as I was recording, listening back and revisiting over and over until it was right. I had the time to think about the space in the songs and what was essential to get the feeling or mood I wanted to put across.

Because of this I did most of the playing, otherwise I’d have made other musicians crazy! At the same, I’ve got some very talented pals and they helped me hugely. Robyn Dawson laid down the strings in Ornament and Eta Carinae as well as the rhythm section in Alone With You which was missing something I couldn’t quite work out. Hailey Beavis (50% of OK Pal Records) sang backing vocals in Alone With You

• Your bio describes you as ‘Edinburgh-based, Peruvian-born’. How did you come to be in Scotland, and do you think the geography is explicitly there in the music?

Back in 2005 I came to be together with someone from here. We fell in love in Lima and kept it long distance for a while, but things didn’t quite work out for us. Geography is kind of in the music because it’s me playing it and I’m not from here. As much as I feel at home in Scotland there’s a fundamental part of me that will always be foreign and which makes me who I am. It’s just one of those things. 

• I wanted to ask about the Artifice artwork in particular. I can see the obvious literal peeling back of a layer to reveal what’s underneath – and all the connotations that come with that – but I wondered what the thoughts and process behind it was. Also, who did it, because it’s great and feels completely part of the music?

I put the artwork together and I wanted it to fit the sound so I’m glad that’s coming across well. One day I could just see a picture of me kind of coming out of a swimming pool or pushing out of something into a void. Just a random image but I really liked the way it looked in my head. After that I could more or less just see the whole thing. The idea of having a lot of space also influenced it now that I’m thinking about it. 

• As somebody whose music kinda falls into the melancholy realm, have you found this last eight months or so to be a productive time? I mean, I could be wrong here, but I’m presuming you spend some time on your own anyway! 

Like most people I’ve talked to, it’s come in waves. The first few months were dilapidated with reckless abandon but having projects like the EP kept me going. I said to myself that as long as I did even a little towards it, it counted. That and the support from my loved ones have been been a saving grace. But oh yeah, I love spending time on my own, a little too much sometimes. 

• Lastly, OK Pal seem like a really cool, progressive label with an exciting roster. How did you come together?

Aren’t they just the best? I met Faith at art school back in the day and we’ve been very good pals ever since. I met Hailey through Faith and now we’re also like family. I suggested to Faith if they’d be into working with me after I sent some demos a long time ago and that was that. They have a radically kind approach to life and it shows in their work ethics. I also work as a filmmaker and I’ve had the pleasure to help on Faith’s and Hailey’s music videos. It’s a lovely thing we’ve got going. 

You can find Blue Tiger on Facebook and Instagram. Artifice is available to download via Bandcamp.

Track review: Faithful Johannes – It’s OK to Be Alone (This Christmas) [feat. Benjamin Amos]

Everybody knows there are only three ways to make a Christmas song:

  • A: Play it dead straight, somehow navigating the cliché and schmaltz-ridden wasteland on your way to creating something as timeless as It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
  • B: Have shitloads of fun, not take anything too seriously, and somehow end up with something sentimental and weirdly life-affirming.
  • C: Phone in any old shite, throw some jingle bells in there and call it a day.

You can apply the Rule of Three (as it is commonly known) to any Christmas song ever made. See for yourself: just wait a few minutes for the test results and away you go. In the case of Durham City’s Faithful Johannes, we’re looking at a classic case B. All day long. Basically it’s everything you want it to be during what’s sure to be the shittiest festive season almost every one of us will ever have had: it’s uplifting, catchy, funny, a little rough around the edges, and very reassuring. It’s saying don’t worry pal, everybody’s having a crap time. Let’s whack on Zoom and make the best of it and, frankly, who doesn’t want/need to hear that right now.

I wasn’t aware of Faithful Johannes’ particular blend of rap, spoken word, and alternative pop before I heard this, but lines like “there’s nothing wrong with a nut roast for one” and “Google your own favourite cracker jokes” – as well as the sheer fact that he’s vowed to make a Christmas song every year until death – are going some way to making me want to check out his back catalogue.

In all seriousness though; I do genuinely love a Christmas song done right, and I think it takes quite a lot to make something that has staying power. I also personally appreciate when an artist doesn’t just take the easy route, throw any old shit together, and put on a Christmas jumper. Above all else, if you’re going to do it then you need to write a good song, and that’s exactly what this is.

You can find Faithful Johannes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also, as it’s Bandcamp Friday, you can check out his stuff here.

Track review: Dust In The Sunlight – Hard To Explain

After a successful year which has seen them release their self-titled debut EP, followed soon after by another release composed entirely of five remixes of its title track, London duo Dust In The Sunlight return to see out 2020 with a surprisingly tender cover of the Strokes’ classic 2001 single, Hard to Explain. Looking at it on paper, anybody familiar with the pair’s stellar debut might be forgiven for thinking it an odd choice. However; immediately after pressing play it makes perfect sense.

Gone are Fabrizio Moretti’s trademark claustrophobic drums, and in their place a more languid, skittering beat holds everything together. Around this, the frenetic and tightly-wound guitars of Hammond Jr. and Valensi have been jettisoned in favour of hazy finger picked acoustic guitars and a luxurious blanket of Bon Iver-esque horns.

There’s no two ways about it either: it’s these shimmering, undulating layers that are the star of the show, and contribute so much to revealing a depth and vulnerability that you’d never have guessed was buried in the song.

Listening for the umpteenth time, it strikes me that Dust In The Sunlight are one of those rarefied finds for whom terms like luxurious, magnificent, and sublime can sometimes seem somewhat inadequate. There’s a chemistry between Annie Rew Shaw and Billy Wright that feels entirely natural, and the way that they trade off lines in the chorus here is a thing of wonder. It’s not just the blend of their harmonies, or the respective tone of each, but rather the way that they dance around each other so effortlessly that impresses. I’m not one for fate, but one can’t help but feel that their somewhat serendipitous meeting does have something of the written-in-the-stars about it. Most tantalising of all is the direction in which these two seem to be heading.

A conversation with Dust In The Sunlight

I was really impressed when I first heard the Dust In The Sunlight EP. Had I caught it a bit earlier I no doubt would have covered them on the blog a lot sooner, but alas it was not to be, and it wasn’t until they released (the ace) The Big Pink remix of the title track in late-August that I featured them in a writeup. Anyway, since then I’ve been keen to send the pair a few questions touching on both of the EPs, songwriting, recording, favourite records, and what the future looks like for the band. So I was genuinely stoked to receive an email out of nowhere with a link to, of all things, a Strokes cover (honestly, I’ve never heard one before) and so I had to reach out. So here we are. As ever, my questions are in bold and Annie and Billy’s responses in plain text.

Photo credit: Lauren Luxenberg

• 2020 has been a busy year for you two, with the Dust In The Sunlight EP, the remixes, and now the new single. How has it been for you. I mean, in terms of where you wanted to be going into 2021, did the EP go down how you thought it would?

Annie: It’s actually been a pretty good year for us as a band! Obviously the pandemic and other world events have been quite unsettling and have had a huge impact on our industry, but we’re really grateful to have been able to release new music this year to get things going.

Billy: I’ve looked back at many points during the year and felt grateful that we met the label (Project Melody Music) when we did. Having them in our corner has made a big difference for us. This year has definitely had its challenges, I think not gigging after March has felt very at odds with releasing new music. It’s been good to see the EP connect with people without any live performances of it (virtual gigs don’t count!) 

• I was really blown away by the EP. The songwriting was great, and I’ve been curious as to how it works for the both of you. For example, do you sit together and bounce ideas back and forth, or do you work separately to begin with and then piece things together?

Billy: Thank you! Our process has developed since we first wrote together – which was on the first afternoon we actually met. Usually we just sit down and write with an acoustic and keys, whether it’s based on a riff or melody, or a sentence one of us has. During Lockdown 1, we both really got into Ableton and that has had an influence on the writing sessions since – so we’re able to get the song to a much more advanced point before we get a producer involved. It’s important to us as songwriters that the songs can stand alone, as stripped back versions.

Annie: Thanks Adam, glad you enjoyed it! The first EP was very much us getting used to working together – harmonising our voices, trying out different chord progressions / rhythmic ideas, and exchanging stories through our lyrics. That process has now grown and developed into a fairly effortless synergy where we know each other’s strengths and pretty much always agree on where we want the songs to go. 

• Billy, Being from Southend, I was used to seeing your name around and about quite a bit through various projects you were involved in. I remember there was a huge banner for one of your old bands stuck high up on the side of a building in Hadleigh forever… well, until the building got torn down and rebuilt as luxury flats. Seems they literally had to take the building down to remove it. Obviously you’ve got a lot of experience of writing, performing, releasing music over a number of years. I was wondering about how you feel you’ve developed as a writer/musician in, say, the last ten years? And Annie, likewise, what were you doing before this project, and how do you feel your work has changed through the years?

Billy: Oh yes! I remember that Redtrack poster. It was there for years – as the band was too. It’s been a strange but necessary journey, if I’m honest. Redtrack shone very bright for a brief moment around 2010, and for a while, I believed our hype. Which ultimately led to a very humbling few years following our split. But I now know how vital that was. Listening to praise can be just as damaging as listening to criticism. You should ultimately create things that YOU want to exist, not based on what other people have told you is good or bad. I think that since Redtrack, throughout various projects, I’ve been trying to find the sound that Annie and I have. And this immediately felt the most cognisant music I’d written in years. You don’t find that often.

Annie: Since moving to London in 2013, I’ve been involved in all sorts of projects. Performing with people like Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, Rumour Cubes and Lyla Foy gave me some great live experience, and I’ve loved writing and collaborating with my other bands Munro Fox and Stella Martyr. Running my solo project Austel has also taught me a lot. Being involved in so many bands has allowed me to flex my different musical muscles and explore the many styles I enjoy. 

When I met Billy back in 2017, I think we recognised each others’ musical experience, and how combining our knowledge would prove to be really valuable. I’d never really written with anyone else before – it was always something I’d felt was a private thing – but working with him has really helped develop my songwriting and the way I think about music. I’d say this project has definitely given each of us a new lease of life!

• How did the remix EP come about, and do you think it’s going to feed into where you go next?

Annie: We had reached out to a few producers to ask if they’d like to do a remix… what we didn’t expect was so many of them to come back with absolutely incredible tracks. It was impossible to choose just one to release, so we decided to put it out as an EP. 

Billy: One of our favourite remixes was by our label mate – Tom Donovan (Monster Florence). We’ve actually gone on to record ‘Hard To Explain’ and some more of our own tracks with him. We knew him previously, but after hearing the direction that he took ‘Dust In The Sunlight’ in, we knew we wanted to go further down that particular road, sonically.

• Can you tell me a bit about Hard to Explain? It’s a really great reimagining of the track, and you’ve kind of unlocked something emotionally that didn’t really seem to be there before – at least on surface level. It seems like an inspired decision, but not a song I think anybody who’d heard your work would necessarily have seen coming. How did it come about?

Billy: I constantly had BBC 6 Music on during Lockdown 1 and one of the DJ’s played it randomly and I remember thinking “this is just such a well written song”. There is such a narrative to it, all the while it rockets along at 1000mph. Julian Casablancas is so good at doing that. I ran upstairs and immediately started working out the chords and then started recording the acoustic guitar part. It consumed that weekend entirely. And a few weeks later I played it to Annie and we decided to show it to the label. 

Annie: Billy sent me the demo during the first lockdown and I loved his version – it was a great interpretation of the original. Further down the line, we decided to team up with Tom Donovan and musicians Jonny Poole, Will Heaton and Cam Morrell to build up the production and add layers of gorgeous Bon Iver-style horns, real drums and tons of vocal harmonies. I think it’s going to be a really nice stepping stone between the first EP and where we’re going next. 

• You mention artists like Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and Joni Mitchell as influences – all of which are evident in what you do to some extent – but I was wondering which two records the two of you would choose as being the most important to you personally… and why?

Annie: Ah, such a hard question! I’d say specifically regarding ones that have directly influenced Dust In The Sunlight, mine would be Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver – Bon Iver. The latter has probably been one of the most influential albums of all time for me. 

Billy: Ah what a good question! Mine would be ‘From A Basement On A Hill’ by Elliott Smith, and ‘Illinois’ by Sufjan. I remember first hearing “King’s Crossing” by Elliott Smith and there is a part when he sings “Give me one good reason not to do it” and his girlfriend and other friend “Because we love you”. This was actually added to the record after his death. And just knowing gives the song this whole other depth for me.

• What’s next for Dust In The Sunlight. Can we expect another EP or the debut album in 2021?

Annie: We’re working with a brilliant team of producers and musicians on plenty of new material, so watch this space!

You can find Dust In The Sunlight on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Track review: Diving Station – June Damp

June Damp is the third and final track to be released by Manchester four-piece Diving Station in the last couple of months, and – alongside the equally magnificent Joanna and Fruit Flies – it completes one of the most exciting releases I’ve heard this year. As with the two previous singles, it’s another rich offering that stands head and shoulders above pretty much all of their peers, with a lethargic groove that builds to a beautiful, understated crescendo.

As the EP’s closing track, it kind of feels like the tail end of a hot, late-summer evening where the air is thick with moisture and time seems to move ten-times slower. Unfolding over a gently warped synth drone, Anna McLuckie’s weightless vocal sings evocatively of “moisture on soft skin” and “heatwaves and long days” as George Burrage’s skeletal, slinky bass, Sean Rogan’s guitar, and Barnabas Kimberley’s drums keep you moving ever-so-slightly closer to the end.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my previous pieces on the band talking about their meticulous arrangements and the kind of intangible, otherworldly thing that they have going on. I said to myself I wouldn’t do it again, but it’s difficult to ignore it. One of their major strengths is the somewhat unusual presence of the clàrsach as a lead instrument (yes, I had to Google it at first too) and it’s very much the centrepiece around which everything else orbits on June Damp.

As ever, each element feels like a carefully placed part of a jigsaw puzzle – albeit one with as few pieces as possible. The thing I love most about Diving Station is the sense of space in their music. Taken as a whole, it sounds complex – because it is – but if you listen closely you can make out each member’s contributions in crystal clarity. Nothing is hidden and nothing is an afterthought. Much like Amrit Randhawa’s bold, economic artwork that adorns the band’s sleeves, everything you hear and see is absolutely essential.

A conversation with Diving Station

I’ve made little secret of the fact I think these guys are great, and because of this I was keen to dig a little into their creative process and plans for the future. As the June Damp EP has finally seen release, it felt like now would be a great time to send a few questions over, and I’m pleased to say that Anna and Sean from the band took time out to answer my ramblings. As ever, my questions are in bold and their responses in plain text.

• Hi guys. I’m sure you know from my previous coverage that I love what you’re doing. From the first time I heard Joanna it was like ‘woah, this is different‘, and the same goes for the other two tracks on the new EP. It’s such a distinctive sound you’ve got. I’m curious as to how the band came together, and how long it took you to arrive at the point you’re at now?

Anna: Thanks! Well we met 6 years ago now, as fresh faced freshers, so I think our sound has changed a lot due to time playing together more than anything. 

Sean: Yeah, for sure it’s changed a lot over the last 6 years, and even now I feel like we’re still finding our feet. A huge part of it all has been the collaboration with our producer, Hugo M. Hardy, too, as he’s pushed us further sonically.

• I’m interested in the clàrsach as a huge part of the sound. Obviously, the harp in general is quite an unusual instrument in the context of a band setup – at least not in the standard sense – and it got me thinking about how it became something you used in this way, as opposed to being, say, classical?

Anna: I think it’s less unusual than people think – there’s so many incredible popular music harpists out there. I love playing classical music but I have always listened to more jazz, folk and pop music, so I guess I just started to play what I listened to.

• How do you tend to write as a band?

Sean: We are extremely collaborative, as a group of 4 musicians. I feel like usually in these situations there’s a lead songwriter and a bunch of musicians to help out, but the writing in this group is constructed almost exclusively in the room together. The process changes regularly, due to both circumstance, and intention to keep things fresh. I think one of the recurring things we spend a lot of time on is careful arrangement between the instruments and creating sounds that are new and exciting to us. With a harp and guitar in the band, there’s a lot of scope for experimentation sonically, as we desperately try to blend whilst staying out of each other’s way.

• Why do you make music?

Sean: I wish I had something poetic to say. All I know is that no matter how I spend my days, writing music is what I always fall upon eventually, some way or another. The best thing about doing it with a band is you get to hang out with your friends all the time, too, so maybe it’s just that, really.

• I’m interested to find out what other musicians you listen to. Are there any artists who you could specifically point to as being influences on the June Damp material?

Anna: Directly, Joanna has a namesake in Newsom (but that’s a secret), indirectly American indie folk singers like Julia Jacklin and Adrianne Lenker were a big melodic influence. We like a whole load of stuff to be honest but who doesn’t.

• How have you found the last eight months or so in terms of being creative. Have you written more, for example?

Anna: Some days have been better for others. Some days there’s not much to write about other than your 3 square meals and your same 4 walls. “Endless trips to the fridge”. But other days are better, it can be helpful to have free time. 

Sean: Agreed. We tried the whole Zoom writing thing a fair bit, too. We got some stuff out of it, though it was a struggle at times, and we usually ended up just catching up instead, but maybe we needed that more. We certainly don’t have a huge catalogue of lockdown recordings to release now, but equally we’re more pumped than ever to write together again when we can.

• I also wanted to say that I really love your artwork. The reason I first listened to your music was because of the Joanna art, and then the Fruit Flies cover blew me away too. Can you talk a little about who does it, and perhaps what the process is? (I’m going to grab one of the prints at some point in future!)

Anna: We are lucky to have the incredible Amrit Randhawa of Taxi Cab Industries as our artist. Growing up with Sean in Stockport it’s been really nice to continually collaborate and influence each other. For these three artworks Amrit had to work with limited supplies due to C-19 and such so the outcome was different from what he would have normally created. Influenced by the stills of Wim Wenders and artwork of David Hockney but with Manchester underneath it all. Grab a print!! 

• Do you have any plans in place for what comes after June Damp?

Sean: Having plans right now feels like such a distant dream that I can’t say we’ve put a lot of time into thinking past this release. Provided we can get in a room together comfortably in the near future we’ll get back to writing and recording. There’s lots of exciting things popping up as the industry is adapting and coming up with new ways to present music, and I’d love for us to get more involved in those developments. I spent most of the year clinging on to gigs that inevitably got rescheduled, and perhaps we can adapt and try something new rather than hold on to the past.

Find Diving Station on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. You can purchase June Damp through Bandcamp.

Track review: Almost Sex – Charmer

Almost Sex are Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Nick Louis and the mysteriously named HW LaSota; an intriguing combo that describe themselves as ‘a folky alternative post-punk rock indie pop duo’. Their bio talks of ‘a chance online encounter, several months of remote collaboration, and one freakin’ epic meeting’, all of which has lead to their first two singles: the understated, infectious pop of September’s Knockoff, and the woozy, insistent, slow groove of latest single, Charmer.

The first thing to say about Charmer is that it’s brilliant. It opens on a bed of what sound like mangled, backwards guitar and synth mixed with meaty bass, over a crisp dry beat. Soon after, the atmospheric backing parts like the sea to reveal Louis’ distinctive vocal. From here on out, the track is a real masterclass of how to build and release tension – with a great, modern production aesthetic and a fluid arrangement that never stays in one place for too long. It’s a sound that’s intoxicatingly sexy and mysterious, and there’s a real ambiguity to the lyrics and vocal that’s heightened by the ethereal backing. Then, just as you think you’ve got a handle on how it’s going to play out, the duo swerve off into a unexpected territory, with a semi-chanted coda that takes the song into another realm completely. It’s utterly inspired, and kind of like going from black and white into colour.

Based on these two singles and nothing else, it’s fair to say that Almost Sex have something special going on. The songwriting is watertight – from LaSota’s intelligent, playful lyrics through to Louis’ delivery, the inventive musicality and arrangements, and the production itself. They’re very much one of those bands that know exactly how to eek out every available piece of the audio spectrum to their advantage too. Put on some headphones, turn your phone right up, press play, close your eyes and you’ll know what I mean.

Check out Almost Sex on their Instagram and website.

Track review: Rowan – You’re Not The One

You’re Not The One is the closing track from up and coming Irish indie-folk band Rowan’s debut EP – which was released into the wild last week, on November 20th. It’s a pity I don’t have a huge amount of time at the moment to write about everything I get sent in, because I’m sure I could write a lot more about the five songs that make up the rather excellent No One Is Safe Here. As things stand, our twenty-month-old dictator son has decided he can get by on just a couple of hours sleep every night, so it’s all out warfare here.

Rowan are a band that know how to write the kind of songs that you could imagine mass crowds singing back at them. Indeed, looking at their bio, that’s exactly what they do. I’m taking well-crafted, anthemic, rousing pop songs that are lusciously rendered with the kind of melodies your brain feels like it already knows, effortlessly dynamic and largely acoustic arrangements, and gorgeous harmonies. This is no more evident than on You’re Not The One. All of the above elements are there in abundance, alongside some fantastic strings, and a lead vocal that at times reminds of Thom Yorke’s around the time of The Bends. It’s very, very good.

If you’re a fan of stuff like Radiohead, Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Villagers, and Flyte, then Rowan are going to be right up your street. The Cork-based band – consisting of Dylan Howe, Fionn Hennessy-Hayes, and Kevin Herron – have set themselves a high bar with No One Is Safe Here, and it’s going to be interesting to see what the future has in store.

You can find Rowan on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Album review: Maeve Aickin – Waiting Rooms

Maeve Aickin is quite a talent. It’s incredibly clichéd to mention age like it’s a barometer of anything other than how many days somebody has been on the planet, but I’m going to do it anyway. At seventeen, the Minneapolis-based songwriter’s debut album Waiting Rooms is as astonishing a piece of work as I’ve heard since starting this blog.

It’s an unflinchingly honest set of songs that document Aickin’s life as a young person living with chronic illness – specifically Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. Written over the last two years, and self-recorded during quarantine between her bedroom and bathroom on limited equipment borrowed from school, the album is a stark listen that draws you in and beguiles with its beauty. Endlessly shifting, at times Aickin’s vocals and skeletal guitar soar before almost disappearing completely. There’s a fragility to her voice, and a notable waver that appears at its most vulnerable, yet really these songs are anything but fragile. 

Since late 2018, my wife and I have spent a lot of time in various waiting rooms. Appointments with specialists, with consultants listening, consultants not listening, consultants pushing terminations, consultants drawing diagrams of the brain, neurologists, geneticists, dieticians, therapists… the list could go on. At least we get to go through these with our beautiful son now. But still, it’s very much a drag. Anyway, why do I mention all this? Well, put simply, I’ve been writing and making music in some form since I picked up an unwanted guitar from my brother at the age of sixteen. I’m thirty-five now. I like to think I kind of have an idea what I’m doing in some sense. On top of this, I understand far more about life, disability, and grief than I ever did, although I learn more every day. Listening to these ten tracks really struck a chord with me, and in truth I think it’s partly because I don’t think I’ve ever got anywhere near the honesty and directness that courses through every track on Waiting Rooms.

Oftentimes I will highlight lyrics or talk about what the music sounds like. I don’t feel the need to do it here, because there’s not a huge amount I can say. Nine of the album’s ten tracks consist of Aickin’s voice set against her minimal electric guitar work. Sometimes there’s a ghostly reverb, sometimes there are what sounds like some subtle double-tracked vocal lines and guitar parts. The approach is one of simplicity, and in this case it works beautifully. Essentially it’s gorgeous. It has its ups, it has its downs. It’s tender, it’s defiant, it’s angry, it’s joyous, it’s intelligent, it’s humble, it’s flawed, and it’s complex. Above all, it’s very good. Aickin is a rare find and I hope that Waiting Rooms is just the beginning.

A conversation with Maeve Aickin

Intrigued by the narrative around the album, Maeve’s relatively young age, and her background – she lived in Mumbai for the last nine years, recently moving back to her birthplace of Minneapolis due to the pandemic – I was keen to ask a few questions about what she does and how she does it.

(As ever, my questions are in bold and Maeve’s responses in plain text).

You’ve mentioned Julien Baker as a huge influence on what you do, and I can definitely see that coming through in these songs. What is it that draws you to her music?

It’s tough to crystallize what it is about her discography that is so meaningful to me. I think it was the beauty of her melodies that first drew me toward Sprained Ankle. “Blacktop” was the first song of hers I heard, and the soft glissando-y thing she does on the chorus broke my heart. Her melodies just feel so full of grace. Once I started reading the lyrics, her candor and eloquence were what drew me in further. She can distill such intense experiences into concise phrases– “rejoice and complain” comes to mind. The specificity in her writing is what makes me see myself, see who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

• I was really surprised by the last track riffing on the Pet Shop Boys, too. It’s quite a big leap in sound, and it got me thinking about what other music you’re influenced by?

I’m so glad that you asked about the Pet Shop Boys reference! I know very little of their music, but I came across that song a couple years ago and it had a profound effect on me. I was comparing the context in which it was written against the context within which I live. It’s such a tragic irony, the “we were never being boring” refrain. When he writes “all the people I was kissing / Some are here and some are missing,” all I wish is for the speaker to live a boring life, a contented one without the devastation of the AIDS crisis. In response, I thought about my own aspirations for a life of simplicity after a revolution; a life wherein I work a job that helps others, have time for music, live with someone I love, and worry about things like getting milk at the grocery store. It’s an idealized life that I know is unlikely to materialize due to climate change, imperialist wars, global capitalism and the resulting exploitation of workers… the list is, obviously, extremely long. And “Boring” is a selfish song, which I realize, but I meant it to be just specific enough to be trenchant and just general enough to be relatable. I am totally rambling, but that Pet Shop Boys track was instrumental in helping me find an angle into approaching the anxieties that keep me and so many others up at night.

Before listening to the album, I was immediately drawn to the Mumbai/Minneapolis thing. Seems like a really unusual combination of places! How did you end up living in India to begin with?

My parents started teaching abroad about twenty years ago and met in Brasilia. They continued teaching overseas after having me, so I’ve lived in Mexico, Brazil, India, and now the US. Minneapolis is where my maternal family immigrated to from Ireland, so it’s become a really meaningful place for us.

Speaking as somebody who’s also spent a lot of time over the last couple of years in different waiting rooms with my son, I was really blown away by your lyrics and how unafraid you are of exploring the notion of illness in such an eloquent, powerful way. Was that something you kind of worried about, or is it just natural for you?

I think my perennial worry is that my songs come off super self-indulgent. Like, “look at how horrible my life is!” Because the truth is, my life is not horrible. I have a loving family, supportive friends, financial security, access to healthcare, a place to live… I am extremely grateful for what I have. Writing about illness is not difficult for me, because on this record I mostly used songwriting as a way to offload the thoughts that were weighing me down. At the risk of sounding trite, I write what I know. What I do worry about is whether or not I am causing harm by curating a very limited narrative through my music. I don’t want to flatten my experiences solely to suffering, because that story is just not accurate. Through songs I wrote later in the process, I tried to acknowledge how illness weaves its way into mundane aspects of living without overwriting the beauty of those mundanities. That’s something I hope to get better at as I grow as a songwriter.

• I like the arrangements with the stark guitar and vocal. The simplicity certainly suits the to themes of the songs. Is it important that it’s just you, or do you see yourself expanding the sound in future?

I’m writing the second LP right now, and I am envisioning a much more expansive sound. Even on Waiting Rooms I saw space for synths and violins, but I only had access to an electric guitar, and ultimately decided that the instrumentation was appropriate to the writing. I tried messing around with plug-ins to make the production sound like more than the sum of its parts, but in the future I really want the opportunity to collaborate with other artists. That isn’t an experience I’ve had so far, because I’ve written everything alone and played my own guitar parts. I think that with this record I was so anxious to get it out, to get it off my chest, that I made peace with my own limitations. As folks have become more conscious of their health due to the pandemic, I hoped that Waiting Rooms might resonate or comfort listeners in a way unique to the moment. I’m expecting the second LP to sound very different, though; so far my authorial voice is lapsing between the confessional tone of the debut and a more omniscient approach, and I am planning on writing a couple full-band songs.

How do you write?

Most of my songs start out as simple thoughts that I write down in the notes app. As I begin to get a sense of the shape of the song, its texture, its form, I take a stab at writing verses in my notebook. I’ve had this notebook for a few years, and all the original drafts of the Waiting Rooms tracklist can be found within it. Then it comes down to editing, and sometimes it’s waiting for time to pass and letting the song mature that way. Sometimes I ad lib lyrics to a pre-existing melody; I wrote “Park” to a Deathcab song so that I could get something with the rhythm and meter I wanted, then developed my own melody around the verses.

Why do you write?

There is something extremely validating about writing down an experience or emotion, just literally seeing it on paper. I think part of my development as a songwriter has shifted from the framing “I should write about this because it’s important” to “I will write about this to make it important.” That’s one of the most transformative elements of the written word. I worry about folks not seeing their experiences reflected back at them in popular music and then feeling that they are not worth writing about when, in fact, the opposite is true. While I have had the privilege of seeing women who look like me writing songs about experiences I can relate to for most of my life, as I got sick, I started seeking out music about disability to help me process what I was feeling. While I found a lot of work about observing other people’s physical illnesses, I did not find much material concerning the personal experience of your body fighting against you. “Thinning” by Snail Mail is probably the song that I most acutely related to at that time; “In Your Head” by Nilüfer Yanya, too, was really special to me. So it’s a generative process– someone puts this moment to words, and someone somewhere else hears it, sees themself, and maybe feels an urge to preserve one of their own moments through songwriting. That’s what I really hope to do.

• Lastly, have you found the last eight months or so more productive or harder to make music?

I’ve only written about three full songs in the last eight months, one of which was “Harriet.” However, in terms of recording, I’ve been extremely productive. I recorded the whole project between March and August. I think that the stressors of senior year have definitely impacted the amount of time I work on songwriting, but I am currently learning the mandolin, and I’m working on my own music blog, which will launch in January.

You can find out more about Maeve Aickin on Twitter and Instagram. Waiting Rooms is available to download from Bandcamp.

EP review: As We Leave – Everything To A Point

I’m a real sucker for exactly this kind of music, and boy do these guys do it well. To glance at the artwork for Everything To A Point you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve clicked on a Stone Roses album by mistake, but thankfully As We Leave couldn’t be further away in sound. Based on the Isle of Wight, the band – made up of childhood friends Caine Entwistle, Tom Gardner, Kyle Abram, and Kit Jolliffe – describe themselves as a psych-pop outfit, and the five tracks that make up this magnificent debut EP ooze a certain 60s & 70s-Americana-infused vibe that marks them out.

Opening the set is Hope That Kills: a fine song that rolls along on warm acoustic guitar, stately pedal steel, and intricate electric guitar textures. It’s the kind of bittersweet, laid-back tune that calls to mind the likes of Neil Young’s mid-70s work, and would really feel at home on something like Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. Utterly gorgeous, basically. On the second track, Dreamland, the band introduce some subtle electronics to the mix. It’s got a great feel, with the verses in particular reminding me of Supergrass’ much-overlooked Road to Rouen LP. The production is really strong, and the way that the chorus cuts through and blossoms is particularly breathtaking.

Taking the off-kilter 60s vibe that runs through the previous two tracks and dialling it all the way up, Counterpoint is an absolute joy. The organ and fuzz guitar are particularly cool… but what I really like about what the band do here, is how economical they are. There’s so much space in the mix, and a sense that these songs have been really poured over – not that you’d necessarily think that on first listen. Lyrically, all five tracks are impressive, but I really like the vague, almost-surreal chorus of  “Black and white views turn ashen and grey / Living the dream, it seems miles away / Not sure of it all, but it’s what you say / Blocks up the hallway, the smaller the space“.

Stories We Tell, with its outro of “You and I, we’re reaching for the stars in everything we do“, is a nostalgic, sun-soaked treat with an anthemic chorus that’s difficult to resist. Again, the arrangement is wonderfully concise, and the production clean and straightforward. It leads beautifully into the gorgeous, spacey Body Clock too – which sees another subtle shift in tone that slowly unwinds over a steady dry beat, washes of ethereal guitar, and a bed of spacey synth. There’s a similarity to Tame Impala’s last couple of records in the luscious melody and the lo-fi production that exerts a hold over you until it abruptly ends, leaving you wanting more. It’s wonderful.

Everything To A Point is a superb debut. There’s a lot going on within these five tracks – echoes of rural island heritage, rose-tinted nostalgia, shared memories of school days and travelling the world, betrayal, and celestial escapism – but, put simply, they’re just five exceptional songs. As We Leave have stumbled on something great here, and I look forward to hearing more.

Find As We Leave on Instagram.

EP review: Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly – Hold Tight

Tired of looking at the past” sings Sam Duckworth within the first minute of Go Figure, the opening track of this new, surprise six-track EP. It’s by no means the most important line from the release, but it does capture where we find him right now. And that place is, well, right now. There’s a teaser clip across his socials which describes this collection as ‘six songs of solidarity’ and it’s very much what they feel like. Kind of the aural equivalent of someone putting their arm around you and reassuring you that, yes, the world has gone to shit in so many ways, but you’re not alone.

First things first, it’s his best work to date. Next year will mark fifteen years since the release of the debut Get Cape record, and it speaks volumes that Duckworth is hitting the peak of his powers now. Take the opening track, Go Figure, for example. It’s got everything you’d expect: glorious brass, silky warm fingerpicked electric guitar, tight double-tracked vocals, and a wandering melody that feels new and familiar at the same time. The lyrics (as ever) are fantastic too, building up to the lines “Am I a lost cause / Maybe I just need more time to figure it out / When did all my hopes turn into doubts?” A special mention should also go out to the line “Maybe I just need more fucks to give” – which I’m 100% certain has never sounded as profound as it does here.

Some Regrets follows, like a campfire song for the times we’re in, based around an almost gospel-tinged communal hook and acoustic guitar. Lyrically it’s another track about stopping and taking stock, with a particularly strong middle that offers “I don’t wanna get old and be counting all the things I lost / Without any comprehension of how my own endeavours played a part in all the chances I scoffed“. It’s difficult to hear lines like this without thinking about what’s happening around us right now, in Westminster, in Washington, in Southend-on-Sea, wherever. This year more than any other we’ve become more aware of how, say, the act of sharing a black square, or popping a like on an Instagram post might not be an adequate answer when the grandkids ask ‘so what did you do?’

The centrepiece of the EP is the gorgeous Ebb. More delecate and introspective in sound, and built on lingering arpeggios and acres of empty space, it carries itself with a quiet urgency. I love the sentiment that drives the chorus of “If this is an hourglass, let’s make this moment last” as well as the subtle electronic percussion that keeps the song moving. There’s a great moment near the end where the drums gently rise up, take over and carry the song off. Another clear highlight is the more sedate 40, with Duckworth urging to “listen to our youngers and what they have to say“. It’s a beautiful song. Having mentioned the debut LP earlier, it’s interesting to think of this track as a kind of reckoning of sorts with his younger self, as well as addressing that dismissiveness with which younger generations are so often met.

Closing out the EP are the upbeat title track and Rewild. With its loose groove, female backing vocals in the chorus, and neat almost-Americana-sounding guitar licks, Hold Tight is a response of sorts to the questions posed in the opening track. “Having doubts is just figuring it out” sings Duckworth. Again, it’s got that vague hint of gospel lurking somewhere in its DNA, and is almost impossible not to tap along to. Wrapping up proceedings is Rewild with its comforting chorus of “Rarely does a day go by when I’m not reminded of lost times“. It’s another beautiful track, with some lovely Rhodes piano playing off against the guitars.

All in all, Hold Tight is an absolute joy from start to finish. The songwriting is as strong as you’d expect, and the production typically clean and concise. Lyrically Get Cape have always been impressive, but you really get the sense that he’s gone up another level here. All six tracks seem to fit together, in sound and in message, and it really holds weight as a body of work, and more specifically as a body of work for these weird, divided times we’re in. I have the feeling it’s going to resonate with an awful lot of people.

Find Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Hold Tight is available from Bandcamp.

Track review: Beckie Margaret – Divine Feminine

Regularly (and rightly) championed by the likes of 6 Music and Radio X, Southend’s Beckie Margeret continues to blossom as a singular songwriting talent. Having steadily released a stream of stunning singles over the last three years, with each a little more jaw-dropping than the last – check out Cars and Catacombs, New York and God on Spotify ASAP – she’s back to salvage something from 2020 with the exceptional Divine Feminine.

Easily her heaviest track to date, and opening with an explosive, accusatory chorus of “I know what you said about me” over a bed of huge, almost-industrial power chords, it’s genuinely thrilling. What follows over the next three minutes is another impressive blend of atmospheric, dynamic songwriting and slick production. Margaret’s vocal is a wonderful thing, able to switch from soft, sultry, almost-whispered lines to primal power with ease. As ever, what’s really interesting (and what sets her apart from most of her peers) is the restraint she uses. Far from being showy, her vocal is just another component, or instrument, in her music – albeit an extraordinary one. Combined with the distinct songwriting, her skilled collaborators, and Rees Broomfield’s sensitive production, the results are quite unlike anything else out there right now.

If you haven’t heard Beckie Margaret’s music before, then now would be a good time to catch up. Divine Feminine is taken from her forthcoming debut album – due out next year on Cool Thing Records – and I guess in some ways it’s kind of like a mission statement. So if you want to get a sense of what she’s about, then this is a good introduction. It’s been interesting to follow her trajectory as an artist over the last few years, and seeing how the music – which was quite majestic to begin with – has only gone from strength to strength. Exciting times are ahead and I’m sure I’m not the only one looking forward to more.

You can find Beckie Margaret on Instagram, and Facebook.