Monday, 26 March 2012

Review: Folk & Acoustic Albums

A selection of folky records landed on my desk recently and as such they find themselves tethered together by this tenuous testimony for the purposes of the following combined review post...

Tawse – ec.dy.sis

What do you expect in a recording from a quartet whose live covers have ranged from The National to Daft Punk? ec.dy.sis is safely more the former than the latter given its folky delivery. Chirpy opener ‘Rehab’ takes on various sides to the genre. Initial joviality gives way to inequality-fuelled emotions of anguish and insecurity (“Profit is a dirty word / It’s the dirtiest word that I have heard / There are people in the ditch / And others getting rich”) and finally a rise into remedying crescendo.

Again on the topic of medication for life’s labours and toils, ‘Painkiller’ murmurs in the same bittersweet breaths as Radiohead’s classic ‘High And Dry’, while ‘Carrion’ is higher tempo all round with its Wild Beasts-esque falsetto, but it is the percussion that has the final say; closing on a crashing cymbal. Those rhythmic guides are significantly dampened for the pensive wordplay (“I’m afraid that I don’t love you / I don’t love you ‘cause I’m afraid”) on closer ‘Why Did You?’ and although they don’t go as far as to roll out the synths and take on Daft Punk’s guise wholeheartedly, Tawse do achieve a variety within four tracks that leads the listener both high and low.

Captives On The Carousel – Turn Off The Sun / In The Bleak Midwinter

With a sparse aural arsenal, Captives On The Carousel offer voices against a vacuum; cellist Ben Eckersley (also of Legend Of The 7 Black Tentacles) backs the earnest lyrics and occasional acoustic strums of Sarah Morrey.

Without an interfering beat, Morrey’s saccharine vocal stillness is allowed the space to linger; Eckersley’s restrained cello strings permeate an otherwise untouched subtlety with rhythm in stifled staccato. Although the more upbeat, ‘Turn Off The Sun’ stays as static as ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ in a wintry air where, like footprints in newly fallen snow, too much movement might have spoiled the imagery.

Rook And The Ravens – The Judge EP

Rook and the Ravens have been reading from a different songbook for their latest record. Like that Judas reincarnation Bob Dylan gone electric, they are an indie / folk quintet led astray by the allure of alt rock.

Although previously evoking vague similarities with The Band and other 20th Century folk rockers, this EP veers clear of folk music roots. The title track is explosive with shrieks almost Cedric ‘The Mars Volta’ Bixler-Zavala in pitch – although nearer James Dean ‘Manic Street Preachers’ Bradfield in substance – and tightly contained drum lines; a marching progression is curtailed, simmering down while keyboard patterns peacefully lay the dying embers of the blaze to rest. It is followed by ‘Miss This Boat’, which holds onto more of melodic folk rock feel – aided by diminished drumsticks – until its chirpy guitar flourish, whereas final jive, ‘Horses’, is theatrically presented in the tones of rock opera.

Ivan Campo – What Went Wrong?

The trio evoke not only a fuzzy-haired, fan-favourite footballer, but also sunny days and sing songs, even in the midst of coldest wintry chills.

By comparison with the above artists, these north-westerners are veterans. With What Went Wrong? they’re touching double figures, making a habit of recording long-EP / short-LP hybrids of their progress since 2003 while gigging all the while.

The palm tree in one of their logos tells a tale; with minimal percussive input, many songs are laid back and agreeably lacking in urgency. Opener ‘Dice Man’ is a fine example with a languid piano lament matched with undercurrents of clarinet preceding solemn harmonies of reminisce and its successor, ‘Wolf’, displays the other side of their coin in all its summery chirpiness.

While we’re on the topic of folk music, locally based folky website Thank Folk For That [dot com] launch their monthly Monday at Castle Hotel this evening (26th March), headlined by Ruarri Joseph. I’m told it’s now sold out, but next month’s sees Sam Airey take top billing so get in early for that.

Words: Ian Pennington

Tawse appear on the bill of the next Now Then event; an all day Easter Sunday folk festival at Dulcimer in Chorlton, which also includes David A Jaycock, The Existence of Harvey Lord, TE Yates, Dan Melrose, Greta Santagata and Shen. All in association with Imploding Inevitable. Tickets available here or from the bar at Dulcimer.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Personal or Political: Hip Hop Lyrics in Manchester

It could be true to say that all lyrics will fall on either the personal or the political side of the fence. Popular interpretations of the personal often grow around strong emotions; love, hate, friends, enemies, ambitions, memories; introspection generally. Whereas the political song challenges the world around us, from immediate society to global issues; interpersonal, if you like. After all, it is a distinction found throughout society and life, so to find it in music can only make sense.

The two styles are evident within a pair of Manchester’s more prominent hip hop groups, Broke’n’English and The Natural Curriculum (TNC).

The former opt for a personal touch, reminiscing fondly or with tongue placed firmly in cheek about Life on the Costa Del Salford. Either way, they’re inclined towards experience, like rapping raconteurs dramatising their own lives. This interpretation of their music writing style is encapsulated in the line “I’m doing this for my family and the rest is just bonus,” bringing to a close ‘Kill Em’ from Broke'n'English MC Strategy's Pre-Season Training digital album.

Compare this with TNC who, on paper, on video and on record, are the more socially aware. Certainly through the Dayse & Aver splinter group, backed by DJ Omas, they point out dystopian aspects of society and rasp viciously about the double standards of the status quo. They enter dialogue with the world’s uncomfortable truths ringing in their ears from sci-fi films and Moondog epigrams (“Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time, but now that it’s the opposite it’s twice upon a time”), bringing a barrage of metaphor (“You live your life like a white rat behind glass / Trapped by the dread of what could happen if you bite back”) and messages for us all.

Conversely, it is Broke’n’English who rise to the occasion of performing to and with a crowd. Their shows are more of a spectacle, sharing inward looking lyrics with the utmost external confidence. Their audiences are encouraged to participate by choosing words or topics for them to freestyle around, which adds a jocular entertainment that Dayse & Aver avoid.

The latter tackle the grim with gusto and the real with relish, enshrouding the listener in a darkness of supposed sci-fi just beyond the looking glass; the sort found in A Clockwork Orange or Nineteen Eighty Four that sits a little too close to home, while staying arm’s-length enough to leave many readers thankful for small mercies and oblivious to the puppet strings. It doesn’t lend Dayse & Aver's music to an uptempo outlook.

There’s no doubting that Broke’n’English have more renown both in Manchester and beyond but you’ve seen Dayse & Aver as well, I guarantee it. It’s hard to miss them when walking around Manchester; past the city’s streetlamps, bars, venues, signposts. Their paraphernalia is peering back at you in mugshot poses, waiting for you to take note. And take note you will.

The recently released video for one of Dayse & Aver’s debut EP’s standouts ‘No Exit’ brings the images to life, with Dayse donning his trademark ski goggles in untypically apt, snowy terrain. While other members of the TNC collective have their own distinct styles, it is the political voices currently shouting the loudest. And those voices, of Dayse & Aver, are there to proclaim more than entertain, so the contrast with Broke’n’English continues. By comparison they’re static, stoic and standoffish, visibly waging verbal wars by facing each another with words fired back and forth, but letting lyrics rather than gimmicks do the work.

This isn’t to say their performances are motionless. Past gig costumes have included CCTV camera heads leering at them – a nod to the video for ‘Human Zoo’ – and a string of future shows will fill stages with instruments as part of a live collaboration with former members of The Mind On Fire Band, beginning with Antwerp Mansion on Thursday 22nd March. It is just a case of what they say more than what they do being the cause for movement, which is an apt contrast with Broke'n'English given the lyrical dichotomy.

Words: Ian Pennington
Dayse & Aver album art from Dayse & Aver EP
Strategy album art from Pre-Season Training
Photos #1 & #2: Ged Camera
Photo #3: Gary Brown (GB Multimedia)
Flyer design: Hattie Lockwood

Dayse & Aver headline Antwerp Mansion on Thursday 22nd March. Support comes from Mothership Connection and Krankit.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Interview: Neko Neko

Type ‘Neko Neko’ into your internet search engine of choice and you’re met by numerous Japanese anime drawings of cats. That’s easy enough to explain; ‘neko’ is Japanese for ‘cat’. But delve a little deeper and Neko Neko, aside from meaning ‘cat cat’, is the alter ego of an electronic musician with a knack for successfully interlocking samples into fresh, soulful and funky settings.

For its creator, Graham Shortland, Neko Neko’s other meaning – “someone who has creative ideas that are damaging or get in the way of normal life” – was too fitting with his musical outlook to resist as a moniker.

The project is indirectly the result of a defining experience at the age of 16 that lit up a path in electronic music. “Late on one night, I was having a cig in my garden and I heard this amazing music coming from a neighbour’s window. Immediately, I ran round and knocked on until he answered. He told me it was Four Tet and gave me a bunch of records. That was it, I was hooked.”

The path has so far led from listener to composer and on to performer, with many and varied modes of musical production, which is what keeps Shortland interested. Sitting in front of flashing LEDs and digital complexities, he has a simple intention: “to create something with soul.”

“With samples,” Shortland explains, “it’s generally one little part of a song or phrase that catches my ear. Sometimes it's not even an obvious bit, might just be a single note or chord I can hear which I know I can transform into something else.”

Fulfilling that ambition is no easy task and the possibilities for filling every minute segment of musical structure are vast, so when writing he aims for a clear mind in order to produce something “that's different and has a new sound. I don't think I have any big notable influences that I try to emulate.”

Once pinned down, the samples are then often looped and it is a technique that walks the tightrope between mellow bliss and monotony bereft of meaning. That’s the risk at stake for any musician and Neko Neko’s output so far not only avoids the potholes, but shows early promise.

It’s also always a risk to rework any song considered sacred to many, but that didn’t stop Neko Neko taking on the Pink Floyd classic album The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, finding right amount of clever embellishments, tempo shifts and idiosyncrasy to make it something distinct enough from the original to take on a new life. Its title of Orange Side of the Moon is typical of his abstract and light-hearted approach to making music, with the orange part a reference to an unreleased album of his named My Favourite Sound is Orange.

Since then he has released a two singles via Manchester based My First Moth Records – the latest of which sold out of physical copies soon after becoming available to buy last month – which have been punctuated by another longer recording project in the shape of remixes from an old Reader’s Digest mixtape. He filmed the process via webcam as an added innovation to accompany the Balearic grooves that recall Aim’s funky trip hop in its smooth rhythms and instrumental ambience. For something he describes as being born from frustration, it makes for delightful listening, although not much of it has been retained for live sets.

What does merit inclusion in the Neko Neko live set varies between subtle clips and better known remixes, such as the B side to his latest single, ‘Ya Playin’’, with its lyrical nod to Jeru The Damaja. Now sought after by his peers, Shortland sets himself a high standard in remixology but, aside from his own material, he can appreciate anyone who achieves a composition “where the remix ends up standing up as a good song in its own right, like the Machinedrum remix of Bonobo’s ‘Eyesdown’.”

His realigned soundwaves are scheduled to be featured on the forthcoming record by Frameworks and BluRum13, while a recent gig supporting local trip hop trio From The Kites Of San Quentin at Salford’s Sacred Trinity Church proved an opportunity to air remixes completed last year for an EP by The Electronic Exchange. There are plans to develop this further in imminent performances as The Electronic Exchange’s vocalist, Najia Bagi, will make the step from an electronic sample to a live appearance in collaboration alongside Neko Neko. The first opportunity to see the results will be a Now Then gig with My First Moth Records on Thursday 8th March.

It is a sign that Neko Neko is an evolving artist with a busy year in the pipeline. Shortland admits that his current guise is by no means the finished product so there is plenty to look forward to in the foreseeable future. “This year there’ll be an album, another beat tape, a remix for Frameworks’ album, an EP and some possible collaborations with a local mc, but that's early days yet. I'm also planning to step up the live set, hopefully introducing some live instruments.”

Words: Ian Pennington
Now Then My First Moth poster design: Craig Brown (Beards Club Illustration)
Other art / photos courtesy of My First Moth or Neko Neko

Neko Neko's first performance in collaboration with Najia Bagi will be at Dulcimer on Thursday 8th March for a Now Then / My First Moth co-promotion. WhoAmI & Trebor will also perform live while MFM manager DJ Mischief will DJ along with TNC's Omas and Aver.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Electronic Exchange @ Kraak Gallery, Friday 10th February 2012

It’s a homecoming of sorts for a band whose lifespan has predominantly been lived on the internet.

When the second date of this tour creaks into life, this enlarged incarnation of The Electronic Exchange has completed one live show, three rehearsals and plenty of emails.

I say ‘creaks into life’ because there’s a downtempo, static feel to the opening stages. Dayse & Aver are painting their lyrical imagery in ‘Human Zoo’, backed by beats merchant Omas in a reserved start for an initially passive audience with the soundsystem noticeably quietened and restrained. But static is the TNC offshoot’s style; facing each other, mics poised, lyrics fired to and fro. Their movement is cerebral; their skill is in satire, dissecting the world in which they live with references from dystopian sci-fi to the gritty realism of this CCTV state, via technological age epigrams by Moondog. ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘No Exit’ are highlights with their discordant funk and jazzy refrains scratched and skewed by Omas.

A string section in a trip hop band can hardly be described as pioneering these days, but one assembled, instructed and practised online is perhaps with traits less widespread.

Pained grievances of “it just don’t fit right” lifted from the recent sophomore EP are misled; the mood created with the help of additional live instruments from drums to violin and cello fits perfectly. The strings in particular render a body of sound dismembered with the tension builds of a horror flick, acting as the ideal companion to the echoing eeriness of ‘Noises’ from the self-titled debut EP.

The original duo is enhanced by the safety in numbers. Najia Bagi’s soulful vocal is aptly matched to the classical and glitch trip hop hybrid on show, while Tullis Rennie’s processed beats and samples synonymous with his output via Concrete Moniker are aided by extra pieces to the puzzle. Bagi in particular, who also sings with The Beats & Pieces Big Band, To Sophia, The Ground and solo, has no problem adapting her voice to the new scenario.

There’s opportunity for ambient interludes and instrumental flexibility, as sticksman Dave Johnson is only too happy to exemplify in frenzied fashion. His disregard for the prepared template is more applauded than derided, even if Bagi is forced to wait for her cue a little longer than expected. The bar-raising ‘Country Murder’ produces one of those moments you tend to remember. Its thickened sound builds and climbs atop a lofty summit before diving head-first into a huge drop; ripping open sonic cortices in the thundering rapids of drum and bass below.

Words: Ian Pennington
Photos: Anna Kafkalias

Najia Bagi of The Electronic Exchange will perform some songs with electronic musician Neko Neko (who remixed two songs for The Electronic Exchange’s Second Shift EP) at Dulcimer in Chorlton on Thursday 8th March along with other artists on the My First Moth label. Later this month, on Thursday 22nd March, Dayse & Aver will headline a gig at Antwerp Mansion in Rusholme to perform a new full live band show, supported by The Mothership Connection and Krankit.