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My musical ramblings – gig and album reviews, music news and views

The Joy Formidable @ Birmingham Academy 3 – Saturday 20 March 2010 – review

There’s been a swathe of interest over The Joy Formidable recently. The spotlight fell favourably on 2009’s A Balloon Called Moaning EP and ears definitely pricked up when the band were invited to support Passion Pit and Editors tours towards the end of the year.

Rhydian, Ritzy and Matt from The Joy Formidable

That meant there was a certain electricity and anticipation amongst the packed crowd in Birmingham’s Academy 3 on Saturday 20 March.

It would be easy for the weight of expectation to lie heavily on the shoulders of this Wales and London-based trio. Instead, with a barrage of drums and guitar reverb, they dissipated the tension and steamrollered into the set with ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade’. With its signature three note riff, breathy vocals and the spiralling climb towards an epic change of pace at the close, it begged the question of whether the peak had been reached at the first fence. After all, the track is either an emphatic set closer or a very gutsy, almost arrogant opener.

‘Cradle’ – a short under three minute maelstrom of a song about keeping your tongue tied – followed, before gutsy drums, changes in pace and repeated lyrics hammered home ‘The Last Drop’. Many of the subtleties audible on the recording were drowned out live; a factor which would delight or disappoint depending on subjectivity. To this pair of ears, the wall of sound pleasingly filled the ear drums to almost bursting point.

‘Austere’, ‘Ostrich’ and ‘Whirring’ were served in a similar vein. TJF’s brand of epic shoegaze rock, delivered this time with a slower speed limit, offered time to appreciate the complex and brave way the band dispose with tradition in their lyrics.

Between tracks, Ritzy Bryan’s butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde hair, blue eyes and shy conversation starkly contrasted with her steely, glinting stare and robust, rangy vocals on each track.

With a long snare roll, ‘Magnifying Glass’ had its first introduction to a Birmingham crowd. ‘Anemone’ faired equally as well with it’s nod to a tried and tested TJF formula of tip toeing through the first half of the song, before encouraging the hairs on the neck to stand up during the second. But it was ‘Popinjay’s dig at foppish vanity that stood out as the most inventive of the new material, with a sawing guitar riff which ducked and dived in between the rumbling bass.

Whether intentional, the encore neatly balanced the blistering pace of ‘Greyhounds In The Slips’ with a stripped down version of ‘While The Flies’ – fittingly closing with one last blast of distortion.

On this evidence, TJF don’t appear to have noticed that the music world is waiting with baited breath to see whether their upcoming debut album to follow ‘A Balloon Called Moaning EP’ will fulfil promise. Maybe they’re just too busy enjoying the current ride, but it doesn’t look like they are nervous at all. Instead, they just channel their energy into getting better.

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New Young Pony Club @ Birmingham Academy 3 – Tuesday March 16 – review

New Young Pony Club

If it was nu-rave that loosely defined New Young Pony Club in 2007, Tuesday night’s gig at Birmingham’s Academy 3 packaged them up into a totally different box – a box from which they are producing music that is streets ahead of the easily consumed, image-conscious, indie electronica of their former counterparts.

They may have experienced a twinge of disappointment at the relatively low turnout. Perhaps word hadn’t filtered through to the Midlanders that NYPC had thrown off their shackles to transform into a seriously good, dark, funky electronic band with a 70s/80s post-punk bias.

First support, T3eth’s brand of disinterested techno Apple Mac infused indie did everything it could to damage the precious aural functions. Is Tropical favoured considerably better with a sound akin to Passion Pit without the rose-tinted spectacled view on life.

NYPC cleverly opened their set with latest single, Chaos – a song perfect to bridge their old sound with the new. Instantly, Tahita Bulmer’s stage persona gave warmth to her matter of fact semi-spoken lyrics.  This also benefited Fantastic Playroom’s Get Lucky and Ice Cream, making them appear less aloof than on record.

Hiding on the Staircase, The Bomb and Tight Fit were also served up from the debut. Live, they had a new sincerity and edginess but Tight Fit (and possibly The Get Go), with its glorious hook over synth loop would probably be the sole protagonist from the debut with enough quality to make The Optimist’s final cut.

It was NYPC’s new material which catalysed their audience’s reaction. Familiarity may have made the feet start to shuffle but it was The Optimist and Lost A Girl which suddenly made the band seem vital.  Without the double entendres, the songs have a new honesty and depth of feeling  and the New Order riffs, haunting harmonies, stop-start dancefloor rhythms and dead-pan Elastica delivery finally do the fivesome’s talents justice.

We Want To and Dolls were also deeply inhaled, but, as on the album, it was Stone’s pulsating keyboards, break beats and the wistful delivery of, “You’re stone, that’s what you are” that stunned.

The Get Go was probably the encore people hoped for, but it was the new material which endured in memory.

There is no doubt Tahita Bulmer is an engaging and assertive frontwoman who NYPC desperately need. On the night, her eagerness to involve the crowd softened her edgy asymmetric blonde haircut and fitted gold dress, which on their own may have encouraged judgement on her potential aloofness.

The ‘nu-rave’ NYPC of 2007 would have been shaken by the subdued crowd before them at the start of this gig. Thankfully through, the 2010 NYPC have a new and deeply rooted confidence in the quality of their darker, broodier brand of electronic funk, which saw them pull a rabbit out of the hat by transforming a static crowd to a dancing mass.

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Hot Chip – I Feel Better Video by Hot Chip – MySpace Video

Hot Chip – I Feel Better Video by Hot Chip – MySpace Video.

Hot Chip’s video for I Feel Better has just been streamed on MySpace. It’s directed by Peter Serafinowicz and is a right boy band-bashing three-and-a-half minute gem. Watch it!

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New Young Pony Club – The Optimist – review

New Young Pony Club

Fantastic Playroom was one of the better albums to arrive on the crest of the nu-rave wave in 2007. It may have been packed full of sexually suggestive lyrics, but there was substance to be had amongst the ice cream dreams and jerking.

Many of the tracks on the debut – The Get Go and Tight Fit – to name a couple, have withstood the test of time long after the illuminous paint and ‘It’s a Rave Dave’ slogans finally came out in the wash.

No doubt some of those who danced to NYPC week in week out at grotty indie clubs in 2007 will be wondering whether the band’s new album will reflect the fact that times have changed. And The Optimist is indeed a departure of sorts from light hearted hedonism, opting for a more realistic, darker and altogether more mature sounding record.

The album is packed full of minor key guitar riffs evocative of Joy Division or New Order, with the funk of The Rapture and even a hint of Blondie in the mix. Tahita Bulmer’s lyrics and vocals still ooze attitude, although this time she’s more PJ Harvey and less faux American.

Synths, breathy sighs, jerky, jagged guitars and drums and the line, “I guess I forgot I don’t like you much now”, merge to make Lost A Girl one of the best things the band has done to date. It’s a stop-start track with haunting harmonies that clash and match all at the same time, and a minor keyed, swallowing 70s/80s punk rock sound that would have engulfed Ian Curtis. It really is a far cry from the maligned nu-rave genre they were filed with three years ago.

Title track, The Optimist, takes a similar vein. “I’m an optimist you’re a clean slate baby,” declares Tahita in a way that could take you back to Elastica’s Justine Frischmann on Waking Up. Later, NYPC make way for hypnotic electronica on Stone, with pulsating synths that break out from their mellow repetitive sleep-like state into a break-beat fest akin to UNKLE’s Eye For An Eye.

Metronomy’s handmade instrument quality on their music is evident on We Want To – something that at first struggles not to smack of plagiarism, but as the track unravels the willingness increases to put it down to progress on NYPC’s behalf. This likeness, also faintly audible on Dolls, adds a playful bounce to the bassline from which this new, darker, more assertive band have emerged.

On moments, some of the offerings feel like a u-turn back to Fantastic Playroom. Chaos still has that once-fresh, now more tired-sounding Americanised chant and Cherie, like many of the debut album’s tracks, could do with a 90 second chunk removed. If you bother to get that far, the end actually draws to an accomplished gloom-laden instrumental crescendo. Further to these two, Rapture’s “Can’t you smile on the outside?” feels like a dirge too far.

Yet where Cherie fails, Architect Of Love succeeds. Disengaged vocals and harmonies and melancholic guitars develop into a head- infecting looped beat to close the album seductively.

This is the follow up you would have hoped for from NYPC.  Fortunately it’s not the follow up people expected; it’s much better than that and that is a feat that many of their former nu-rave classmates would have done well to achieve.

It’s ironic that an album entitled The Optimist should deliver music and lyrics which swallow the listener in that same feeling of disenchantment with life that the fivesome’s sound currently seems to reflect. But this is an emotion you are thoroughly willing to try on for the ten tracks, in spite of the fact it sometimes frustrates and fails to deliver. 

Most will be willing to wait for songs like Lost A Girl, Stone and Architect Of Love, as these are their best moments where all of the musical elements are balanced so well that despair and euphoria dance together simultaneously.

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Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks – Review

If Midnight Organ Fight documented the broken heart of Scott Hutchinson, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is a tale of how to re-build all of the shattered elements into something resembling a new life.

Where its predecessor brought a lump to the throat, The Winter of Mixed Drinks forces hope in its listener. And coming from a band that is arguably Britain’s best folk-crossover, this album gives the Rabbits a fantastic shot at breaking through into the consciousness of the broad music-buying public.

It makes fewer knee-jerk flits from the ache of the slow ballad to boozy highland jig-tinged ecstasy in response to immediate feelings. This is probably an indication of Selkirk-accented lead singer, Scott Hutchinson’s more evenly-keeled emotional state. In short, he’s nearly over the break up.

But therein could lay the problem. Two years ago, Midnight Organ Fight instantly elicited a catalogue of emotions. It was able to make grown men blub into their beers as Scott’s contorted face blurted out “you’re the shit and I’m knee deep in it” on Backwards Walk, but within a moment paint a broad smile and induce a shuffle of the feet with “Old Fashioned”.

And this begs the question; can Frightened Rabbit match that same level of affected connection in their listeners now that the waves of the break up have subsided? Or will the fact that this is a bigger, tighter, less rough-edged album – more intrinsically important things to a band’s success in themselves – manage to fill that gap?

From Things’ desire to run from the remaining shared possessions that remind of a broken relationship – “pointless artefacts from a mediocre past” – to head spinning-paced next single,  Nothing Like You and the declaration,  “She was not the cure for cancer”, it’s a tale of moving on; musically and mentally.

The main riff on The Loneliness and The Scream is as simplistic but effective as its lyrics. Both build to a crescendo with a helping of football ground ‘Ooooh ooohhs’ which will no doubt frenzy and feed a live audience.

But it is when the Selkirk fivesome produce their wall of Scottish sound that they raise the hairs on the neck. The Wrestle does just this with layers of rhythmic guitars and impassioned, pleading vocals.

Skip The Youth has a vibrating, pulsating quality which runs captivatingly through the track, in a pass-the-parcel type pattern from instrument to instrument and voices to instrument.

Scott Hutchinson’s knack with metaphors and analogies mean the Rabbits’ lyrics delve deeper into each story. First single from the album, Swim Until You Can’t See Land is a notable example, but then any track on the album could be – it’s just that here in particular, the plucked high melody and piano work so as to frame the message of urgency to escape.

Foot Shooter’s apologetic guitar and melody mirror the track’s retelling of the red faced aftermath after a night of arguing with an over acidic tongue that has been heavily fuelled by alcohol.

If anything though, it is Not Miserable that really stamps the fact Frightened Rabbit have managed to run away from the war wounds of a broken heart, awakening positivity and the feeling of anticipation. Soaring violins, ringing vocals and the certain, “I’m not miserable now”, are the confirmation. The placement of Living In Colour as the next track bolsters that celebration.

On The Winter of Mixed Drinks, these five Scots have been stripped of the crutch that an emotional break up gave them in terms of songwriting force. These stories of anguish were, after all, the things that elevated Midnight Organ Fight from a great album into an album of the year.

Fortunately, break ups categorically are not integral to Frightened Rabbit, nor are they integral to the quality of their music. And The Winter of Mixed Drinks is proof that it doesn’t have to be a necessary part of their equation to produce great, emotional albums.

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