Not so much a band as a project for multi-talented writer/musician/producer David Burns, Longbeard’s debut EP by California band pulls together various influences.  Augmented by Shane Bordeau on bass and saxophones, Burns’s compositions feature a whole bunch of electronic elements, but Longbeard is not really an electronic outit, since such sounds are often blended with a cinematic indie-pop feel.

Due to a very commercial edge, ‘On Our Way’ provides a strong opening number (barring the short intro piece).  The music itself has a very multi-layered feel and thanks to great production it’s easy to hear the separation between each of the elements. The guitars jangle pleasantly and the bass and drums have a strong presence which never dominates.  The best feature here is the vocal, which is high and breathy in the lead role, while processed and treated in various looped backing parts.  It may be the best feature, but it’s not especially original; you’ll have heard various other bands tinker with similar musical soundscapes throughout the late 00’s.  For an easy comparison, it’s not unlike Team Me’s more restrained offerings.  It might be fair to say that since Team Me raised the bar with regard to vocal/choir-led indie pop, it’s not as good.  However, for what it offers, it’s still very enjoyable.  The vocal arrangements are also dominant throughout the title cut, where Longbeard tinker with Arcade Fire style wanderings.  Placing the vocal against backwards electronic loops helps round out the overall sound, but in terms of actual music, this isn’t as well-rounded as ‘On Our Way’, despite a few strong moments.

‘Now We Are’ finds a space within a very summery groove.  Programmed drums lead the way, and over the course of five minutes, the collection of ringing guitars, warm bass, heavily filtered vocals and synths carry the listener far away.  Imagine parts of The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Met You’ reworked and smoothed out by Royksopp and you’ll start to get the picture.  It builds slowly and gets a little busier as it moves along, but never becomes too intrusive or particularly tiresome.  Towards the end, rhythm guitars flesh out the sound and stay the course until the inevitable fade out.  With regard to electronic based music that’s more active than mere ambient noise but enjoyable in most surroundings, this is a great example of how to get it right.  In contrast, ‘And Now I Know’ eschews electronic leanings in favour of guitar based indie-rock.  The rhythm guitars are relentless throughout, while lead guitars provide not always tune-based squeals and vibrato.  As with ‘On Our Way’ all vocals are multi-tracked and over processed – often repeating the one line “I’ve seen it all and now I know”, sometimes forward, sometimes backwards.  Also – again like ‘On Our Way’ – more than slight comparisons with Arcade Fire are evident.

Recorded on a reasonable budget and by a man who clearly knows his way around a studio ‘The Tide’ sounds great for a DIY release. Comparing ‘And Now I Know’ with ‘Now We Are’, it could be the work of two different bands; which side of Longbeard’s work  you’ll prefer is purely down to personal taste.  Due to a lack of originality, Longbeard’s work is good rather than great, but each of the four main tracks from ‘The Tide’ has something to offer the potential listener.  The EP is worth investigating even if only for ‘Now We Are’.

You can download the EP on a “pay what you want” basis from the widget below.

September 2011

FOE – Hot New Trash EP

FOEtrashWhy is it that every time a female artist with alternative leanings begins a career, they’re never accepted as just being themselves? It seems the knee-jerk reaction is to liken the artist in question to either PJ Harvey or Kate Bush. Foe (aka Hannah Clark) has been likened to both – but in reality, has little to nothing in common with either. It’s hugely unlikely you’d find Harvey or Bush delivering anything quite as rocky as the music offered by Foe, and you certainly wouldn’t find either of them donning a luridly coloured wig willy-nilly.

It would be so easy to dismiss Foe as a novelty, but once you get past her penchant for wearing day-glo headgear and oh-so-deliberate kookiness, her debut EP ‘Hot New Trash’ has a definite charm. If you’ve not given up after the first track, chances are you’ll enjoy Foe’s trash-filled musical aesthetic.

That opening number, the rather short ‘Ape Song’, is based around a waltz time signature played on a harmonium, creating the kind of carnival atmosphere which might please Kurt Weill and Tom Waits. Foe’s vocals are strong, but not especially user-friendly with their slightly sneering nature. The track falls apart fairly quickly, descending into ugly electronic drones and backward loops. ‘Tyrant Song’ combines a hard edged electronic punch with a fuzzy guitar riff, over which Foe’s slightly distorted voice works excellently. Where there should be a chorus, she spits “are you ready for the next big thing / are you ready for a clown in a g-string”. It just about passes as a hook; but the mood of the track seems more important than its sing-along qualities. If you like chunky riffs overlaid by electronica, this is a number should hit the mark. Even the jarring keyboard lines don’t interfere with the solid grooves.

‘Genie In a Coke Can’ is much slower and a fair bit darker, with its brooding riff clashing with electronica in a way which recalls the best work by cult 90s artists Snake River Conspiracy and Jane Jensen. The lyrics are full of anti-media messages and spite directed at record companies who spend “millions in marketing for pop star trash”. Once again, the ugly keyboards play against the mid-paced rock elements in a way that sets out to unnerve, but there’s enough bottom end and fuzz here give the track a proper edge. ‘Merry Go Down’ features a heavy use of keyboards, overlaid with upfront bass. Foe’s vocals avoid being twee by being slightly distorted via some studio trickery, but while her voice is loud in the end mix, it’s the instrumental arrangement which provides the greatest strength. The harmonium, combined with very measured drumming and retro guitar twang lends a slightly unsettling atmosphere; the kind of twisted spookiness you should expect from someone who claims that Oompa Loompas often invaded her bedroom at night via hallucinations.

‘Hot New Trash’ presents the sound of a raw talent refusing to be moulded and pigeon-holed by her record company. While it starts out on shaky ground by trying slightly too hard, by the mid-point, Foe’s mix of alternative pop, ugly electronica and chunky rock becomes more than endearing. Forget what you may have been told: she isn’t PJ Harvey, Kate Bush or any other female singer-songwriter you care to lazily pin on her; she’s just Foe – making her own music, and even better, she’s doing it on her own terms.

April 2011

RADIOHEAD – The King Of Limbs


Radiohead’s debut ‘Pablo Honey’ threw the band into the public consciousness thanks to hit single ‘Creep’ (a track that’s long since worn out it’s welcome thanks to many cover versions), but overall, the album was patchy. When their second album ‘The Bends’ was released in 1995, the sense of growth was obvious. Every song featured was incredibly strong and Thom Yorke’s song writing showed an increasing maturity. Its 1997 follow-up ‘OK Computer’ was a brave release, which resenbled little of the band from previously, encompassing a far more cinematic style, bringing elements of progressive rock into the mix. This was most notable during the closing moments of ‘Exit Music For a Film’, which brazenly ripped off paid homage to Pink Floyd’s ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ (particularly the version from Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’ movie’). Here was a band three albums into their career, and they were musically already a world away from their debut. [At this point, while NME were still praising Radiohead for being the greatest alternative rock band in the world, it was more obvious that this was the work of a band who’d spent their teenage years soaking up influence from 70s prog bands.]

They returned a couple of years later with ‘Kid A’, an album which seemed to polarise fans. Radiohead’s experimentation pushed itself to new levels over the course of the albums that followed. Some embraced the experimental turn their work had taken, while some were turned off, yet rather surprisingly, the band retained a huge fan base – and still appeared to be winning new converts.

Their eighth studio album arrived ahead of the planned release date as a downloadable release, on the 18th February 2011, to what appeared to be unanimous praise, though at times, it’s hard to work out why. For the first five of the eight featured numbers, Radiohead present a collection of soundscapes, beats and loops – and very little in the way of real songs.

A few bars into the opening number ‘Bloom’, it becomes obvious that ‘The King of Limbs’ can be another wilfully difficult release. Busy drum loops relentlessly drive what is essentially an electronic piece, almost lacking any tune. The drum loops are punctuated by an electronic parping noise until the arrival of Tom Yorke’s vocal line. He wails sporadically, his voice almost used as extra instrumentation, as opposed to singing in the conventional sense. The bass sound which creeps in now and again sounds rather good through a pair of 1970s speakers, but there’s not much to enjoy here. Imagine a beefed up electronica version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ but without any of the talent and you’d have a fair idea of what to expect. Striking, it may be, but for most people looking for a tune, its abstract nature probably won’t inspire further listening.

‘Morning Mr Magpie’ is a little softer on the ears, with the drum loop reduced to a rather pleasing hi-hat sound, while the rhythm guitar part shows a minimalistic brilliance with its staccato patterns. Colin Greenwood’s bass pattern has a danceable quality in places, helping to give the mechanical feel of the number some warmth. Even Yorke’s performance hints at Radiohead of old – breathy and passionate (while still an acquired taste). If you’re still looking for an actual song with an actual hook though, you may as well forget it. ‘Little By Little’ continues in a softer mood, but here, Yorke’s voice moves from breathy and passionate, into realms of tuneless and whiny – almost breaking completely in places. The guitar work adopts an enjoyable soft twang, but that’s about the only enjoyable element here. After a few minutes, the sounds of the drum loop and Yorke’s vocal become nothing more than an irritation.

‘Feral’ takes the drum sounds into darker territory, as Phil Selway offers a pattern which resembles another dance loop, over which there’s an odd sounding keyboard punctuating the rhythms. During the second half of the track, there’s a bass sound with a real presence which occasionally hints at 90s ambient dance. But despite a couple of good elements, this number doesn’t particularly work as a whole. Selway’s busy drum rhythms are bothered throughout by keyboard sounds and Thom Yorke, whose vocal drifts in and out, eventually becoming an irksome noise. The bass sound makes a return for ‘Lotus Flower’, which in places, has a pleasing tune – again very much driven by the rhythm section. Greenwood’s playing is laid back – almost sounding like it could have been a bass sample – and even the electronic and keyboard parts of the number present themselves in an unthreatening manner. Such a pity that Yorke has chosen to sing in falsetto throughout – without that, it could have possibly been worth listening to.

The last three numbers present a surprising turnaround of fortunes. In a nod to the past, ‘Give Up The Ghost’ is a sparse haunting number led by acoustic guitar. With minimal percussion and a few electric guitars sounding a little like theramins, Yorke takes place front and centre, delivering a ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ style lament. As a Radiohead fan of old, I very much welcome the presence of such an accessible number (one which could have easily been an ‘OK Computer b-side). As the track pulls to a close, Colin Greenwood’s bass rumbles in a lead fashion and then everything fades out (no pun intended) leaving me wanting more. Similarly, the gentleness of ‘Codex’ has more in common with Radiohead’s history than most of ‘The King of Limbs’. A simple, yet cinematic piano line provides the basis for a heartfelt vocal; Yorke in strong voice (perhaps his strongest this time around). The voice and pinao are joined in places by a dark horn sound and a few strings, to create something almost beautiful. It’s almost as if ‘Codex’ and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ are a reward for old Radiohead fans who haven’t given up on the album by this point.

Closing the album, the Massive Attack/Zero 7 inspired ‘Separator’ utilises yet another great drum part from Selway, accompanied by one of Greenwood’s more interesting bass riffs. It’s busy, again with a slight hint of dance, this time with a little funk thrown in for good measure. Midway, a very clean-toned guitar adds an almost sunny accompaniment – and from that point, the track builds to it’s climax. Yorke’s vocals are reverbed and could, once again, be best described as additional music, since it’s very hard to pick out any of the lyrics (aside from a brief refrain of ‘wake me up’ which creeps in at the end). Arguably one of the best tunes ‘The King of Limbs’ has to offer, it makes me wish the disc hadn’t stopped there (despite disliking most of what came previously). How different the album may have been, if only Radiohead could have tapped into their trip-hop qualities earlier…

While it’s necessary to appreciate bands move on and experiment (and in some cases change their sound almost completely), it’s almost remarkable how Radiohead have managed to retain such a huge following by releasing such challenging music as they have from 1997 onward. Over the years, there have been other artists performing music with equally interesting results which have barely had a look in by comparison. ‘The King of Limbs’ as a whole may be more experimental than anything Radiohead have attempted before, but it’s first half is almost devoid of songs. A couple of numbers are even devoid of tunes. Thankfully, the second half is more accessible, but still doesn’t grab the listener in the same way the band’s best was once easily capable. They won’t care, of course. Those who enjoy Radiohead’s wanton electronic experiements will praise this album to the hilt – as for the older fans…at least ‘The Bends’ can thankfully be revisited time and again without it’s brilliance ever waning.

March 2011

THE NETWORK – Money Money 2020

These guys can be seen scattered across the internet, but it seems every time you find something, it’s often the same snippets of information and speculation. Take five people, put them in disguise and throw in a bunch of new wave tunes with pop-punk edges and it’s widely believed that you have a collaboration between Green Day and Devo. The first half of this theory is certainly correct: Fink sounds like Billie Joe Armstrong and close ups of his eyes blow away any doubt. The same goes for their drummer, The Snoo, who is unmistakably Tre Cool. Of most interest, though, is bassist/vocalist Van Gogh (Mike Dirnt). He handles a majority of the vocals on this release, with a delivery rooted in the new wave.

As for the second guitarist and keyboard player, it remains unclear who they might be. One thing’s almost certain – despite what you may have heard, they’re not members of Devo, even though Devo are an obvious influence on these songs. Although there’s still no concrete proof, I’d hazard more than a guess they’re old friends and Green Day touring band members Jason White (Billie Joe’s band mate in Pinhead Gunpowder) and Jason Freese. It’s also certain that this release exists as an outlet for Mike Dirnt’s vocal and songwriting talents as well as giving White and Freese greater creative roles.

Enough of the speculation and hype – what about the songs? There’s plenty here to enjoy. ‘Reto’ is spiky pop-punk in delivery, but the guitars are turned town giving it more of a new wave feel. The lyrics are biting, about someone who uses internet technology for exciting teenagers with cyber-sex; this may or may not be a true story (again, check your Green Day ‘American Idiot’ CD single – it’s engineered by someone called Reto – yet another clue?). ‘Right Hand-A-Rama’ also explores the smuttier side of The Network’s little world, being a song about buying porn and beer to pass the time. It’s rather more obvious who is involved on this song, with Billie Joe taking lead vocals.

Again, ‘Roshambo’ is more obviously a Green Day number, but treated vocals give this a fuzzy sound and the music between verses gives it a very mechanical feel, which seems to be a recurring approach. ‘Love and Money’ exploits the new wave side of things completely, being nearly all droning keys, coupled with a quite spiteful sounding vocal delivery. ‘Supermodel Robots’ was one of the earliest tracks available from this album, available at one point as a free download before the album was released, so I’m told. It’s obvious why. The vocals are unmistakably Billie Joe’s; less of an attempt has been made to disguise the Green Day input here, and this track was a favourite of mine from pretty much the fist time I heard the album (I have to say, though, most of the other songs took repeated listens before they took hold). One of the weaker offerings, ‘Spastic Society’ perversely offers one of the strongest musical arrangements, but is let down somewhat by seemingly stream-of-consciousness words on the verses, coupled with a fairly obvious ‘society is screwed’ chorus.  (Great tune, though their choice of words is an absolute travesty.)

Another album high point, ‘Joe Robot’ nods towards Devo’s ‘Whip It’ musically. It has lyrical concerns with changing technology asking whether these changes are helping us or hindering human progression. It’s almost certainly deliberate that one of the songs here most influenced by Devo has a lyrical concern that’s almost the anti-Devo. Also balancing out the fun and smutty offerings, ‘Spike’ is a piece based around telephone calls by a teenage heroin addict desperate to get money to get a fix. Like Devo, concerns of human wrongs are strong within The Network. Closing the original twelve track version of the album, ‘X-Ray Hamburger’ is slow and brooding, showing obvious homage to Tubeway Army.

The UK issue of this album features two bonus tracks, ‘Hammer Of The Gods’ and a quirky cover of The Misfits’ ‘Teenagers From Mars’. Neither of these add anything special to the overall feel or quality of the release, but from a fans perspective, it’s good to have them if you can track them down. As for the actual album itself, after a quick buzz, it seemed to go largely un-noticed here in the UK and full price copies of it sat gathering dust in the racks at HMV. If only Green Day would stop pretending they had nothing to do with it and start shouting about it a bit more, so many other people would have discovered this great album.

August 2007

MIRAH – Advisory Committee

For the uninitiated, Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (not to be confused with Mirah, a Danish pop star), is an American singer songwriter. Typically, she uses sparse arrangements and electronic loops. ‘Advisory Committee’ is probably one of her best known releases, though still, at the time of writing this, she’s still very much a cult artist. Most of her work to date has been issued on the K Records label, based in Olympia, WA. Typically of that label, most of Mirah’s work has a lo-fi feel with a DIY ethic.

This album offers fourteen songs in total and feels very much like an album, as opposed to a collection of songs. ‘Cold Cold Water’ was released as a single, though listening might leave you wondering why. There is no obvious hook here, though musically it follows a tried and tested quiet verse, loud chorus formula. Though unlike others who’ve popularised this technique, there aren’t guitars upfront – there are strings, voice and pounding drums. The arrangement seems unstable, almost feeling like its swaying about. A bold move for both opening cut and single and promises a great deal for the album as a whole. ‘Monument’ is gentle folk-pop and it’s here that you’ll probably realise you’ll either love or hate Mirah’s vocal style. There’s an innocence at play, it seems, but thankfully she never adopts that faux little girl squawk that Joanna Newsom seems to think is somehow endearing.

‘After You Left’ is fuzzy. Droning but gentle, there’s something here which makes Mirah sound distant; the track itself sounds like a work in progress that somehow made the finished album. ‘Light The Match’ is largely based around the accordion. Never my favourite instrument, this isn’t so easy to listen to, but balanced against the strings here, this song has very much an Eastern European feel. It doesn’t feel as personal as some stuff here, but maybe that’s the accordion forcing me not to listen quite as closely as I might. ‘Special Death’ features prominent xylophone sounds in the intro, when combined with the light vocal and guitar instrumentation feels quite spooky; it doesn’t quite live up to initial promise, truth told, but the use of strings in the backing arrangement is effective, as it’s so sparse. Not so sure about the Christmassy bells. It’s on stuff like this where Mirah begins to feel like the anti-Feist, offering a sometimes similar gentility, but not always beauty.

‘Recommendation’ is a short track based around a programmed drum loop, very mechanical with a nod towards the early 80s new wave. Lyrically, it seems to concern parting, but the song is over almost as soon as has begun, leaving the listener wanting more. Strangely, for something which doesn’t feel like a focal point, its one of the album’s stand outs. ‘Body Below’, in contrast, is four minutes worth of fuzz guitar and feedback drone, coupled with hushed vocals. Pavement and Sonic Youth may be obvious comparisons (especially the latter), but this experimental approach works well for Mirah here. ‘Mt. St. Helens’ begins with a gentle, almost lullaby vocal. After this, as a listener, it’s expected that the arrangement will pick up a little. It does, in a fashion, as Mirah hammers on her acoustic guitar, which seems to be in a muddy tuning. As always here, I’m left with the feeling that it’s not the music that’s important, but at that point, electronic loops play backwards and are at complete odds with the once hushed voice and acoustic sounds. ‘The Sun’ employs a similar guitar tuning and in this case, it doesn’t seem to work. There might be a nice twee tune in here somewhere, but the off-centre vocal and guitar work obscure the melodies. The end part of the song is electric indie-rock and works better, but it’s not memorable in the way a few of these songs are. ‘The Garden’ employs a similar clunkiness to the end of ‘Recommendation’, but with little else to focus your attention on, this is far to stark for music in the usual enjoyable sense; but yet, it’s not out-there enough to be considered even slightly avant-garde.

‘Advisory Committee’ is not an album which can be recommended to everyone, hovering as it does somewhere between twee and discordant. Like some of the works by The Magnetic Fields, though, this is very rewarding to patient listeners.

November 2007