Review: Packwood, Autumnal

Image Courtesy of Packwood

I was one of the lucky few that go my hot little hands on a stream of Packwood’s mini-album Autumnal well before it was released this week. But the reason you’re only reading the review now is the quandary the release gave me – do I like the album because I’ve been anticipating it for almost 2 years now, or do I genuinely love it for what it is?

I’ve been listening to Autumnal over and over in the past month. A stream of it automatically fires up when I log into my computer each morning and it’s become by default music to drink coffee and read my emails to. I feel like it’s become part of my DNA. And you know what? I honestly think it’s Packwood’s best work to date.

Autumnal sees a few minor changes to the Packwood sound. Done is vintage banjo picking in favour of an acoustic guitar. The orchestral elements are still there but have been toned down, favouring instead the backing of a choir. And there’s even drums on a couple of the tracks! But the essence of Packwood’s chamber-folk sound is still there and fans of his 2012 debut album are bound to be delighted by the five stunning tracks on Autumnal.

“All Smoke Must Find It’s Way Home” is the album’s first single and is probably the most accessible on the album. There’s a Sufjan Stevens vibe to the melody and guitar accompaniment but once it builds to the chorus with it’s choir, pizzicato strings and trilling flutes it draws comparisons with “big” bands The Polyphonic Spree, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros or even early Arcade Fire. I love the way the 6/8 time signature of the guitar is punctuated by the steady march of the drums on this track, pushing it forward and drawing the listener in with every crescendo.

Of all the songs on Autumnal “Before the Fall” feels the most like the tracks from 2012’s Packwood with a focus on Packwood’s sparse vocals and melodic guitar over the top of sweeping orchestral and vocal arrangements. Packwood’s delicate vocals are bolstered by the oohing and ahhing of the choir and result is glorious.

I know Bayden from Packwood is a huge Sam Amidon fan – we often trade Sam Amidon tracks on social media – so it’s no surprise to see the indie-folk singer-songwriter’s influence all over “What I Want”. I think it’s the syncopated drums in “What I Want” that really remind me of Amidon coupled with the timelessness of the melody and Packwood’s vocals. I’d love to see Packwood experiment more with this sound – I think it could take him into interesting directions.

“Some Flood Let Out” is probably the track I struggle with the most on Autumnal. It’s circular, ambient melody overshadows Packwood’s lyrics and I find myself drifting out of the music. It’s still a really interesting song – I like that Packwood is trying different approaches to the way he arranges his tracks, I think this one just missed the mark a little.

The final track on Autumnal, “.​.​.​and All Your Mistakes”, pares Packwood back to his core elements – the beautiful fingerpicked guitar, vocals front and centre with a subtle harmony sitting just behind. There’s something captivating about this song – you can imagine it silencing a room, the audience leaning in close to hear every note. Just stunning.

Overall I can’t recommend Autumnal enough. Packwood has grown so much in the 3 years since his last release while retaining the unique sound that makes him so captivating. I’m so glad he’s back!

Autumnal is the first part in a wider, four part song cycle titled Vertumnus. It is available to buy via Bandcamp and iTunes. Packwood’s upcoming tour dates are below:

Saturday 28th March – Vinyl, Adelaide, SA
Wednesday 15th April – Bella Union @ Trades Hall, Melbourne, VIC
Friday 17th April – Smith’s Alternative Book Shop, Canberra, ACT
Saturday 18th April – Hibernian House, Sydney, NSW
Sunday 19th April – Black Bear Lodge, Bribane, QLD

Review: Emmy The Great, S

Emmy The Great
Image Courtesy of Emmy The Great

So I guess our little folk singer has really grown up.

Well to be honest Emmy The Great has been shedding her folk-singer skin ever since the release of her 2011 album Virtue, but with her new EP S she’s well and truly left folk behind in favour of pop music. And not just any pop music – 80s synth-pop to be exact.

Which may lead you to question why we’re reviewing S in the first place. Well the main reason is deep in the heart of the EP’s four tracks I can still hear the same singer-songwriter strumming away on her guitar that I fell in love with five years ago. So let’s break this down track by track shall we?

“Swimming Pool”: The first single from the EP and probably the closest track to anything from Virtue, “Swimming Pool” showcases Emmy The Great’s delicate vocals over muted, retro production. It’s very easy to hear the influence of artists like Lana Del Rey and Lorde on the track with the minimalist rhythm section, glissando harps and generous reverb. I love the chorus in this track where the male voice (courtesy of Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming) adds a complimentary bass to Emmy The Great’s melodies. One of my favourite tracks from her in a long time.

“Social Halo”: The looping and sampling at the start of this track actually gives way to the kind of simple fingerpicking typical of early Emmy The Great tracks – only this time on an electric guitar. The finger-picking continues the rest of the track but is overshadowed by the production – sweeping eighties rock guitar, ambient loops and restrained synth base. Emmy The Great’s lyrics are still front and centre on this track and it makes me wonder if the track is written about anyone in particular – who’s social halo is Emmy referring to? And does she even want to be there in the first place?

“Solar Panels”: And so the transformation into 80s synth-pop princess is complete. “Solar Panels” ignores any pretense of lyrical complexity and dives straight into thumping base, repetitive verses and choruses and choppy synth. There’s no folk singer here – this is pure dancefloor baiting pop. All I can picture is fluro when I hear this song

“Somerset (I Can’t Get Over)”: The synth-pop trend continues on “Somerset (I Can’t Get Over)”, albeit in a more subdued fashion. The track is an ode to an ex-lover who Emmy The Great pleads with “please don’t get over me”. There’s something almost broadway about the lyrics and melody of this track – you could imagine it being slotted into a musical complete with jazzy big band score and dance solo over the “da da da” break. But obviously it’s not a broadway number – it’s a pop song and it’s a wonderful way to wrap up the EP.

With all the synth-pop in S maybe it’s time for Timber and Steel to well and truly break up with Emmy The Great, accept the fact that she’s not the acoustic folk singer she once was. But I’m still going to buy this EP and I’m still going to be the first to geek out every time she releases something new. Because I can’t just get over Emmy The Great.

S from Emmy The Great is available online now via Rough Trade. You can also stream the EP on Rookie Mag here.

Review: Various, Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

I think when the producers of Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis decided to put the concert, and subsequent documentary and record, together they were expecting to capture lightning in a bottle, the same way the O Brother Where Art Thou? concert Down from the Mountain had done over ten years previously. And they had every right to as all the elements were there: a Coen Brothers film jam-packed with T Bone Burnett produced folk music, performances from some of contemporary folk and acoustic music’s biggest names and a reference point to a music, time and place that is beloved by millions.

But somehow they didn’t quite hit the mark.

Not to say this isn’t a great album – it certainly is. There are a lot of highlights throughout. But it’s not the kind of album I can enjoy from start to finish, not the way I can with Down from the Mountain or even the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack (the intentionally terrible “Please Mr. Kennedy” aside). And I think it’s for a number of reasons.

Firstly there’s too much Americana and Bluegrass music. I never thought I’d hear myself say that but it’s true. So much of the Greenwich Village folk revival was centred around traditional music from England, Scotland and Ireland and while bluegrass and country music was a part of the scene (and no doubt influenced many of the singers and songwriters of the time) it wasn’t the focus – if anything blues was more of an influence at the time. The movie soundtrack itself only really has nods to this kind of music and instead focuses on traditional music plus traditionally inspired songs from the time like Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring” or Brendan Behan’s “The Auld Triangle”, and I think the live album should have gone the same way.

Secondly it takes 10 songs before we even hear a track from the movie and even then it’s the aforementioned intentionally terrible “Please Mr. Kennedy”. Similarly there seems to be too many originals on the album – albeit from amazing artists like Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Jack White and more – to claim to be “Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis”.

And finally there are some glaring misses in the programming of the concert. I love Conor Oberst to death but his inclusion here is misplaced – his waspish voice just doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the concert. Similarly I’m not sure we needed three tracks from a ho-hum Avett Brothers when the brilliant Keb’ Mo’ only gets one.

But all of this aside there is a lot to like about Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Having the Punch Brothers acting essentially as the house band on many of the tracks elevates so many of the songs. The second half of the album which showcases a lot more of the songs from the actual movie – “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”. “Green, Green Rocky Road”, “The Auld Triangle”, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”, etc – shows just how well these songs (and their singers) stack up live. Oscar Isaac, the actor who played Llewyn Davis in the film is surprisingly solid as is Marcus Mumford who is relegated to backing vocals and drums on a lot of the tracks but comes to fore in the final four songs to prove just how good a singer he is.

Once again Rhiannon Giddens is an absolute standout. Her version of the Gaelic “S iomadh rud tha dhith orm/Ciamar a ni mi ‘n dannsa direach” is the only track I just had to go back and listen to twice on my first time through the album, it was so good. And then of course there’s Joan Baez, proving exactly why she’s a legend, outclassing Elvis Costello on a duet of “Which Side Are You On?” and absolutely killing it on “House of the Rising Sun” and “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry”.

I think my advice with this album is not to go in with any pre-conceptions – either from the O Brother Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis or from Down from the Mountain. Instead listen to Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis in isolation, pick and choose the individual tracks you want to buy (you’ll want more than you’ll leave behind) and enjoy the music as is sounds like the live audience did.

Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis is available now on iTunes

Review: Tolka, One House

Image Courtesy of Tolka

When Melbourne trad group Tolka announced that they would be spending six months in Belfast to record their new album One House with with Dónal O’Connor and Brian Finnegan here’s what I expected: The quartet would get so immersed in the Northern Irish trad scene that they’d emerge with a plethora of newly collected traditional tune sets and the occasional song about being away from home.

What I didn’t expect was an album of ten original tunes and songs steeped in, but not constrained by the tradition. Tolka have spent their time abroad getting inside themselves and writing some amazing music in the process.

One House is a stunning blend of instrumentals and contemporary folk songs that shows the band growing from their debut release Tunes From The External Hardrive. It’s obvious the band are enjoying playing with the production with loops, drones, steel drums, vocal samples (in “The Giant”), and even drums on a number of tracks. Tolka’s trademark ear for arrangement, with the banjo, guitar, fiddle and flute all intertwining to create captivating music, is out in full force on One House – I recommend checking out “The Old Sweetshop” and see if you don’t crack a smile when the tune step changes about halfway through.

While the album is largely instrumental the two songs – “Mulberry Sky” and “This Old Lie” – are standouts and demonstrate just how strong Tolka are as lyricists, not just tune writers. Despite being originals the songs sound as timeless as the tunes – I can see “Mulberry Sky” in particular becoming a firm favourite.

Overall One House is an outstanding release from one of the true rising stars of the Australian folk scene. A completely contemporary folk album that is rooted heavily in the tradition, One House is Tolka at the peak of their powers.

One House is due for release on the 1st March, 2015

Review: Sam Brittain, “Live Simply”

Image courtesy of Sam Brittain

I initially took the title of Sam Brittain‘s sophomore album Live Simply to be a declaration of lessons learned – a  collection of stories that brought on this revelation. A few more listens and “Live Simply” came to represent an ode to a personal resolution – a goal or philosophical compass for the future. I think there’s a beauty in the subjectivity of an art form once it’s unleashed in the world and becomes personally appropriated and re-appropriated by a listener. Reviewing the album notes you’ll find Sam Brittain has dedicated Live Simply to Nick Balcombe, his dear friend and fellow young performer who unexpectedly and suddenly passed away earlier this year. Sam has spent the last 2 or 3 months of 2014 touring and busking the UK and a number of European cities, a tour he had originally planned and booked together with Nick before he passed away. For Sam this trip, which was meant to be a shared adventure, instead became a time for healing and reflection – touring an album which for which the writing and recording process started and finished either side of this tragic loss.

In addition, Live Simply sees Sam Brittain a few years older and with countless more hours of touring, busking and writing under his belt since releasing his 2012 Our Shining Skin debut. Certainly, it can be seen as a continuation of his debut stylistically, stamping his name and further solidifying his brand of folk music – his simple, thoughtful acoustic singer-songwriter musings carefully and sparingly arranged for a full band of trad instruments and deft female harmonies. Significantly more honed within this style, Live Simply explores concepts of home and origins on a number of tracks through stories shared by people and celebrates the potential for emotional immensity of small things in a large world. Brittain thankfully also perseveres with his penchant for good old fashioned story telling, which has delivered some of his finest work in the past.

Interestingly, the songs I most enjoyed on the album are those that break it from the steadiness of its groove. Live Simply delves less deeply into blues than his debut, but its single foray delivers the goods in the form of “Rats” – the dirtiest song on the record. For me this track also represents the peak of Brittain‘s fantastic vocal abilities.  Other distinct highlights include the quick-paced and dancing “High On A Hill” and the rollicking “Games” which has a peculiar ageless quality.

Review: Catch Release, Asleep Is a Friend of Mine

Asleep is a Friend of Mine
Image Courtesy of Catch Release

Review by Sheridan Morley

If there’s one major parallel I can draw between nu-folk and doom metal, it’s this: it’s so tempting, and unfortunately common, for bands in both styles to jam five superfluous players onto a stage. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the reasoning behind it – each of these extra players usually only serves to diminish the already-threadbare live pay packet of the core group by a significant percentage, restrict the other players’ movement on those tiny stages even further (both genres, unfortunately, usually deal with performance spaces smaller than your average pub corner), and usually, usually, add no particular value to the overall sound or vision. The hierarchy of excessive live members across both disparate styles usually descends thus: keyboardist, violinist/cellist, third guitarist, miscellaneous horn player, flautist.

Before you lick the virtual envelope on that hate email, I will tell you that I have personally been classified as two of five of those modern-day instrumental expendables many a time, and I, along with anyone else who has ever picked up one of the above instruments, will attest to the despair caused by gig after gig of playing dull, needless, carelessly-thrown together peripheral lines to sate the ego of a songwriter with little knowledge of instrumental range, capability, or, well, composition. It’s enough to make you completely rule out ever listening to either genre ever again.
Catch Release have completely changed my mind.

Catch Release, a five-piece collective multitude of instrumental ability, describe their style as a “Soul-Folk Soundscape”, which couldn’t be more apt. Every single sound, every different timbre, contained within their unique soundscape is wholly essential, and no note played by any instrument featured on debut EP Asleep is a Friend of Mine is ever anything less than masterfully executed. Guitar, bass, French horn, violin, percussion, and the occasional virtuosic display of beat-boxing (by frontman Tom Lee-Richards) are gently tipped into a melting pot and whisked through expert production values to emerge as a unique, delicious six-track creation which you will have no trouble devouring in full.

The stand-outs are neighbours at tracks three and four – “Freedom Is a Squeeze” and “Chasing Ideas”. Both are very different tracks, both in feel and in instrumentation, but together provide an exquisite overview of what this band is capable of. The former is the first real upbeat occurrence of the EP, and could quite easily have been broken up to create four different songs, were the sections not so cleverly tied together through vocal motifs and a brilliant dynamic structure. It’s truly amazing how one single horn note between verses is able to create the same impact as many of us would have heard whole orchestral arrangements achieve on higher-budget records. Cheeky little deviations in tempo between sections really shift the momentum and keep us guessing, as we would in a musical theatre number or an iconic rock opera – top that off with a catchy, catchy chorus and Catch Release are on to a winner. “Chasing Ideas”, the musical vehicle driving EP title line Asleep is a Friend of Mine, opens with a harmonious melding of an expert beatbox rhythm (seriously, how is he doing that?!) with a sparkling ride cymbal, leading into an urgent yet sensual interplay between guitar and horn. A winding, deliberately confused pilgrimage through a range of sounds and volumes will bring you out at a vocal-only bridge that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Tom’s vocals are emotional and full of intent, but with just enough laid-back to keep it a cool few steps back from territory. Navin Gulavita’s violin provides the punchy hook to this track, and acts as the perfect response to its resounding vocal calls.

Opening track “Motion Sickness” perfectly nails the imperfect – that rare recording quality that manages to communicate a band’s sound as though they were playing live. It starts small and grows gradually, through a skilful use of dynamic on muted guitar, percussion and brass, causing you to just about fall of your chair in delight when the whole band comes in at the chorus, as the tiniest bit of rock influence on the vocals starts to shine. Verses are percussion-free, but the rhythmic interplay of guitar and syncopated horn really nails a 4-over-6 groove like a puzzle that fits together perfectly once the drums enter at the chorus. The band’s rhythmic fetish deepens in “Out of Sight”, where simplistic guitar intertwines with congas, which compete against the bass, which dances with the violin; and we find the downbeat cemented in between. Sliding fingers echo impeccably on Tom’s guitar, and we get a real sense of being immersed in a live performance at an intimate venue – a canny production technique that well and truly suits the style.

Asleep is a Friend of Mine is truly a stellar debut effort, showcasing equal measures of the breathtaking and the contemplative. Catch Release are a well of talent and crossover value, and for those reasons alone they are sure to enjoy great success if they choose to continue along the same stylistic vein for a full-length release – I certainly hope they do.

Catch Release will be supporting Scott Matthew’s upcoming Timber and Steel presented tour. The full list of dates are below:

Sunday 11th May – Brew, Brisbane, QLD
Monday 12th May – Mandala Organic Arts Cafe, Gold Coast, QLD
Tuesday 13th May – Pure Pop Records, Melbourne, VIC
Wednesday 14th May – The Toff In Town, Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 18th May – The Vanguard, Sydney, NSW

Review: Scott Matthew, Unlearned

Scott Matthew
Image Courtesy of Scott Matthew

Review by Sheridan Morley

How difficult is it to unlearn something?

If you’ve ever attempted to teach yourself to hold a pen differently, or if you still haven’t come to terms with the fact that Pluto was never a planet, you’ll understand the struggle of unlearning – of reconsidering what was previously fact in your mind, or of un-perfecting a skill you had worked so hard to perfect in the first place.

Listening to music, after all, is a skill. In its purest form, it is the reception of sound by our ears, combined with the ability to use our brains to interpret and convert said sound into understanding. It is in this interpretation, though, that listening becomes a polygamous marriage of physicality to experience and emotion – in a split second, we, as unique individuals, apply layers of our own differing experiences to the same sound, and decide to like it (or not) accordingly. From our peers who decide to like those songs we reject as affronts to our very being, we demand reformation: “How can you even STAND Justin Bieber?! Get thee to the JB Hi-fi rock aisle at once!” For those songs we accept as our favourites, however, we act as aggressive defenders: “Bohemian Rhapsody is SO the best song of all time!” It is these songs that become hits; and that we want to explore and share and hear performed again, and again, and again.

If you think I’ve just taken the most roundabout route possible to overhype a covers album, you’re dead wrong. Scott Matthew’s fourth full-length release, Unlearned, is more than a covers album – it is a creative reimagining of the favourite songs of three generations of music listeners. Like a renewal of wedding vows after decades, Matthew challenges you to reaffirm your love for those very songs that you learned to love so long ago, regardless of their genre. This time, though, he wants you to do it his way.

The tracks Matthew showcases on Unlearned are deliberately eclectic. Iconic songwriters ranging from Whitney Houston to Neil Young are featured, and all rebroadcast in his signature rich, resounding tones. The album opens with what could be mistaken for a Birds of Tokyo keyboard arrangement partnered with a Boards of Canada soundscape. When Scott’s smooth, low vocals enter, it is a surprise and a delight to realise he’s crooning his way through the first lines of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. A pretty, nylon-string guitar introduces the second half of the first verse, and ever so gradually, the track builds through layers of keyboard to present a beautiful, yet restrained, tribute to a classic love song.

From here, we melt into a gently strummed ukulele to introduce an unlikely version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, joined by a beautiful piano progression – a perfect nod to the ballads of Whitney’s era. The track features one of the album’s only percussive elements, a brushed snare in the chorus, which ends almost too abruptly leading into the second verse, losing a little momentum. We’re quickly distracted, though, by a dazzling three-part harmony in the second chorus, and a decidedly modern, un-cheesy take on the “Don’t You Wanna Dance” bridge to finish. Scott’s voice is surprisingly good in this range, though it’s one more native to a female vocalist – the intensity of such a naturally low voice singing up high really drives an emotional impact that couldn’t have been achieved by a female if they tried.

The sure stand-out track of Unlearned is Joy Division’s classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – probably the closest fit to Scott’s vocals which, in the right (or wrong) context, could sound deliciously creepy. The same piano, drowned in sustain, is an excellent substitute for the original instrumentation and effects, while an electric bass references that iconic bass line, but subtly enough to remain cheeky. At just 4:04, Scott rejects the 80s tendency to milk a good groove for all it’s worth, instead including all that needs to be there for maximum impact. It’s easy to see he’s grown up listening to this song. He demonstrates a devastating intensity and phenomenal clarity of tone up high that hasn’t yet emerged on this album. The worst thing is that it’s buried all the way down at number 9 on the track listing.

The more soft rock-inclined of you will be chuffed to note that Radiohead’s “No Surprises” managed to feature on this album, transformed into a ukulele masterpiece. The addition of a female backing vocal separates the texture of this track nicely from the others. While a beautiful track in its own right, those who have been known to throw their support behind the original version will be endlessly frustrated by the omission of that minor turnaround at the end of the main riff – probably the most interesting feature of the original – which instead lands flat with a standard major turnaround. When it finally appears, though, no earlier than the second last chord of the song, you can almost hear the echo of relieved groans from Radiohead devotees worldwide.

The chance to join Scott on this journey through his musical memories is a privilege, and along the way, we start to get a sense of unity in that these favourites of ours were once someone else’s favourites, too. And not just Scott’s – other selections, namely “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “Jesse”, have been covered extensively throughout the ages by such greats as Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Bryan Ferry and more. Hours of fascination could surely be had by considering how each arrangement came to be, but if you don’t have the time, Scott’s stunning homages are enough. Just quietly, I’d love to hear Scott’s rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his next release.

Scott Matthew is touring for Timber and Steel in May. The full dates are below:

Sunday 11th May – Brew, Brisbane, QLD
Monday 12th May – Mandala Organic Arts Cafe, Gold Coast, QLD
Tuesday 13th May – Pure Pop Records, Melbourne, VIC
Wednesday 14th May – The Toff In Town, Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 18th May -The Vanguard, Sydney, NSW

Review: SteelBirds, Oh the Light

Oh The Light
Image Courtesy of Steelbirds

In the time I’ve had to consider it, I’ve been astonished by how little buzz I’ve heard around SteelBirds’ debut. Oh the Light has been, so far, a hidden musical treasure. No, I’m not talking about another aggressively anti-social cult classic. I’m talking about a comfort food you don’t know you’re missing. This is, undeniably, a delicious record, lovingly recorded, carefully arranged and beautifully played.

Don’t take our word for it. The album is streaming on SteelBirds’ Bandcamp. Go listen to it. Right now.You can read the rest of this review if you want. I may have more to say. But meanwhile, let the music answer the important questions. It’s ok. It can’t hurt you. Just Press Play.

If I had to explain why Oh the Light hasn’t got the recognition it deserves, I’d say it was down to its unusual blend of flavours. At times, it’s reminiscent of the country rock and rich harmonies of the Eagles or America. But carefully as he wields it, Luke O’Connor’s blue-eyed soul singing cuts starkly against that. It’s too loud and glitzy to be soft rock, mixed wide and full, like Jeff Lynne’s version of the wall of sound. The songs have strong momentum, and are sometimes catchy like the best pop music. But they’re also quite long, and, perhaps, too self-consciously verbose for that label.

Genre mixing is commonplace in modern alternative music. And listening to SteelBirds is no harder than listening to a dozen other bands with disparate influences. But the sound they make is, as far as I can tell, unique. And uniquely hard to write about. If I have to name a contemporary,, it would be Caitlin Rose, whose new album The Stand In received a lot of acclaim from the country music press earlier this year.

What SteelBirds really need is a song on the radio. “Above the Sky” was well-chosen as the first single, drawing me in easily with its striking dips and swells, strong imagery and excellent electric guitar work from Shannon Trottman. But “This is your Life” would be equally good – short, fast and loud, the closest they get to straight rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe even “Worthy Man”, with mariachi horns, powerful marching drum beat and O’connor taking the chance to show off just a little. “Take the Lead” as a balls out country ballad, complete with fiddle, would prove their authenticity. But closing track “Falling Fire”, with its perfect piano hook, and the twists and turns it takes to get to its huge chorus would be an even more compelling slow-burner. Damn. That’s half the album.

All of this does beg the question of where on the radio all these songs would fit. But that’s not your problem. You’re already in on the secret. My point Is that this music speaks for itself much better than I can speak for it. If you’re good at multi-tasking, you’re already making up your own mind. If you’ve not started listening yet, here’s one more chance.

I’m not saying, by the way, that this album is perfect. The lyrics are sometimes too wordy, and sometimes prone to excessive cliché. Ekamai seems like a joke I don’t get, which I wouldn’t mind if the chorus weren’t a giant logical fallacy. But that sort of thing will only worry you after the fact. Comfort food, after all, is all about excess, all about living in a moment.

Whatever their genre, SteelBirds are a remarkable band, and Oh the Light reflects the quality of their musicianship as much as the variety of their inspiration. I believe they deserve much more critical attention than they’ve received so far. But more importantly, I think they deserve to comfort you, in your car, at a barbecue, on your ipod. They won’t disappoint you. Just press play.

Review: Mélanie Pain, Bye Bye Manchester

Bye Bye Manchester
Image Courtesy of Mélanie Pain

Review by Sheridan Morley

Mélanie Pain was always fascinated by the city of Manchester. In various interviews in support of her second full-length solo release, she has excitedly described growing up listening to the drones of Morrissey and fantasising about one day travelling to the city from which bands like The Smiths were able to draw such a level of profound inspiration. This is precisely what she did for a period of time in 2012, culminating in the release of Bye Bye Manchester.

The years of touring and collaborating with French new-wave covers act Nouvelle Vague have not only helped to springboard Mélanie into stardom in her own right, but seem to have somewhat influenced the direction of her music. Bye Bye Manchester, while superficially presented as an electro-pop extravaganza, is somehow darker, and somewhat further considered, than many modern releases of comparable genre. Mélanie cites, among her strongest musical influences, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Nick Drake and The Pixies; and has managed to transport the melancholic lyrical content and focus on texture that plucked such acts from obscurity to land on the pages of rock n’ roll history, while maintaining a simplicity of arrangement that really showcases Pain’s beautiful, innocent vocal.

Parts of Bye Bye Manchester could be mistaken to have been penned by the members of Massive Attack, but the hesitation to draw that conclusion would be in the album’s simplicity of arrangement which, it turns out, is courtesy of collaboration with Albin de la Simone (Vanessa Paradis, Iggy Pop). On the majority of tracks, there are fewer layers than a purely ‘electro’ album would warrant – instrumentally, what is there is only what is absolutely necessary, working seamlessly to transport the listener through Mélanie’s vocals to a place of pure bliss.

Certain tracks are pure, modern pop. “Just a Girl”, one of only four English-language tracks on the album, is the obvious choice for a mainstream, English-language single release. Clean, simplistic, programmed drums punctuate a ‘summer anthem’ indie guitar riff that could easily be accompanying a group of young, tanned girlfriends off to the beach in their brand new Japanese small car during the ad breaks of your favourite commercial TV show. Complete with ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dum’ sing-along to fade out, the track cements Pain’s pride of pop direction, in self-confessed contrast to the more electronic ambitions of Nouvelle Vague. The same clean, pop-driven elements can be recognised in catchy second track “Ailleurs (Ah Ah Ah)”.

An album of complete contrasts, Bye Bye Manchester’s next English offering is “Black Widow” – a beautifully-crafted merge of warped 60s surf-rock and Pain’s darker new-wave influences, including an unexpected (and substantial) cameo by Ed Harcourt. “Black Widow” is a perfect superimposition of the ‘cutesy’ personality of Mélanie’s vocals with the deeper vocals of Harcourt, against the song’s eerie subject matter, and forgoes full harmonies in the chorus in place of simple octaves. With lyrics like “Don’t you worry ‘bout your funeral baby, I’ve got a coffin with your name in flowers – being called a black widow all the time don’t matter with a heart as cold as mine”, the track is testament to Mélanie’s true ability to compose lyrics, in a language that is not her first, that can either elate or chill to the bone, depending on her mood at the time.

The rare treasure of an album such as Bye Bye Manchester is its ability to connect with listeners who may have no knowledge of the language spoken by its creator, and to communicate its emotional journey through dynamics, production, clever arrangements and a unique, talented vocalist. This is evident on such tracks as “Ca Grandit” – a pretty, plucked-acoustic guitar track wherein textural sound effects (a match being lighted, a cigarette being ashed) are layered around Mélanie’s softer, breathier vocals; cleverly adapted to the lower dynamic of the piece. “Je Laisse Tomber” is more urgent through its driving drums, full layers and frustrated vocal; while ‘Non’ sees Mélanie’s ethereal vocals intertwined with a clean, single-note electric guitar melody and carefully placed tongue and hand clicks to create a percussive base for a beautifully-crafted modern shuffle.

“Fluo” is a clear standout. A demanding ride cymbal and a melancholic chordal piano part accompany Pain’s professions of wanting to inject more fluorescent colour into her life – into her shoes, into her underwear. Not only are the track’s lyrics quirky and classic upon translation, its chorus – a complete pop-fuelled departure from the melancholy of the verses – features a theramin as its instrument of choice for the main hook. A perfect combination of moodiness and eccentricity, the track flourishes in the development of individual parts to reach an incredible dynamic peak before fading off into oblivion.

Though your average pop fan could probably count the number of French musical superstars in their CD collection on one hand, Mélanie’s gorgeous voice, combined with her unique storytelling ability, is sure to allow her to muscle in. Bye Bye Manchester will appeal to fans of rock, folk, indie, electro, new wave and everything in between.

Review: Dan Parsons, Dan Parsons

Dan Parsons
Image Courtesy of Dan Parsons

Melbourne’s singer songwriter Dan Parsons is one of those musicians who can play any instrument, you know the type, bursting with an endless supply of talent. Having recorded and played all the instrumentation on his self titled second album is proof of these talents; it’s certainly no mean feat.

Stylistically different from the first album, it feels like he’s come home with this collection of charming country folk pop tunes. Without the time restrictions of a conventional studio the recording has flourished. The arrangements are well thought out, layered delicately, drawing you further in with every new sound. Parsons’ voice has poignant warmth reminiscent of James Taylor, with a familiarity that enables you to feel like two friends.

“Close Your Eyes, Let it End” is a beautiful song written about a childhood friend who took his own life. I’ve seen Parsons play this one live, he spoke about being an only child and how his friend was the closest thing he had to a brother. It’s an honest, tender and sad. Lyrically it paints a picture of an adventurous soul” Laughed in the face of a loaded gun”.

“Waiting on the Line” has a Fleetwood Mac vibe to it with warm guitar sounds, driving bass and drums. I found myself hitting repeat on this track because of the lovely production and great feel. It’s completely addictive.

I love the guitar playing and vocal melody in song “Shoalhaven Night”. There is a real sense of space – the instrumentation allows the song to breathe, building in all the right places. Gorgeous.

“Oh Baby, When You Say It Like That” is a fun country song written with his fellow musician Luke Brennan. It’s so catchy – you’ll be singing along by the second chorus.

This album will definitely remain a favorite of mine for some time yet.

Dan Parsons is available now via iTunes

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