Tag Archives: Folk

The Front Bottoms: Back on Top

29 Dec

BackontopBy Travis Carlyle

In their latest release, The Front Bottoms have continued to develop toward more studio precise and audio-engineered sounds – leaving behind some of the noisier, folkier sounds key to their earlier albums.

Back on Top is catchier than any of the band’s prior releases. The story-telling nuances that characterize their sound are still strongly in play, but with the almost total absence (bar a few horns) of their earlier folk influences, the narrative The Front Bottoms composes here comes closer to emo than all of their prior work combined. “Cough It Out” is as close to their old sound as the band gets, but the song also stands out as a highlighter of the emo-esque indie-pop-rock direction their latest release has tended towards.

As with Foals’ latest release, variation seems to be The Front Bottoms’ 2015 casualty. However, where Foals seem to have gotten complacent in a sound they are comfortable making, The Front Bottoms sound more refined, more together and more complete as a band for it.

Variation is definitely still here (just not as much so as previously), as is brilliantly illustrated by the rap verse in “Historic Cemetery” (one of my favourite songs of 2015). “HELP” also has one of the best hooks I’ve heard for a good while and is undoubtedly the best song on the release.

Hardcore fans of the band may be upset by more radio-tuned frequency Back on Top taps into, but I genuinely feel this band has reaffirmed itself as one of my favourites to listen to. If you enjoyed Talon of the Hawk (2014), this addition to their discography will sit well with you for all the same reasons and more.


Bombay Bicycle Club: So Long, See You Tomorrow

20 Dec

(Moving on to bands I have never heard who amass considerable reputation in the hipster community:)

More often than I would like to admit, you can tell how good a band is by how many of your friends like their Facebook page. Bombay Bicycle Club‘s substantial popularity did not bode well for them, and I’m sorry to say that So Long, See You Tomorrow is just as appalling as I feared it would be.

I mean, it’s not suddenly-take-up-smoking-as-an-excuse-to-leave-the-room-until-this-music-stops-playing awful, but you really could do something better with your time than listen to this. I bitterly regret the last 45 minutes of my life.

bombaygrossgrossRight from the first track, I got the distinct impression that the members of this band just looked at each other and went, “I saw Regina George dancing to terrible EDM while wearing a Mumford & Sons T-shirt, so we should try sound like both at the same time”. What could be, in places, slow, subtle poignance à la early Bon Iver, is buried beneath cross-rhythms so inflammatory I think the liquid in my inner ears got confused enough to give me motion sickness, as well as instrumental and vocals processed to an abrasively flat, tinny timbre. In addition, this album is terribly mixed: the layers blare together into a fuggy mess, and not in a good way. 

In short, So Long, See You Tomorrow sounds like mediocre folk music that’s been terribly remixed by some horrible EDM duo you religiously avoid every time you visit your hometown. Don’t listen to it.

Tim Hutchinson: Like a Tree

5 Jan

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 6.43.21 PMI feel like very few musicians these days write lyrics that could actually be poetry: lyrics you could read aloud and they would still make sense: no awkward repetition and no disembodied metaphors relying on the music to tie them together. But Tim Hutchinson does this. Each song standing as its own profound piece of lucid spoken word, Like A Tree (the title track a sentimental celebration of Tim’s father, who is pictured on the album cover) is an enchanting anthology of reflections both personal and spiritual, pulsating with the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity that can only be felt from taking a glimpse into somebody else’s head.

In “How David Sang” – a pondering of the peculiarity of finding oneself in a Biblical landscape in a foreign, modernized world (perhaps a remnant of Tim’s experiences working in the Transkei as a teacher), gazing at sheep in the rural sunset and wondering how David used to sing  – represents Tim’s ability to intertwine the spiritual and the personal in the telling of a story; reuniting Godly revelation with the grit and grind of the everyday from which we so often separate it.

Lyrics printed in the CD booklet.

Tim’s melodies are timeless somehow: they linger persistently in your head in a way that incites you to further explore them rather than push them aside. Like a Tree is the mark of a songwriter with a true gift in that so much has been achieved with so little: we hear only vocals and guitar throughout the album, and yet the music sounds so full and remains so captivating: the songs do not blur into one another but stand distinctly as individual works.

Something is to be said, as well, for the way this album has been recorded and mastered (by Darren Peens at Spaced Out Sound, Cape Town). Often I find the difference between live and recorded music is a process of alienation; the “official” recording clean and flawless and inhuman in the face of its live counterpart. The recording of Like a Tree, though, is merely (magnificently) an elimination of background noise, bringing Tim’s deft guitar and soft, resonant voice closer and clearer than the live listener has heard it before; as though he were performing at one’s shoulder in a small and sonorous room.

Tim Hutchinson and audience at his album launch on 1 April 2013 | Photographs (c) Michelle Avenant

Like a Tree is available on iTunes. 

Feist: Metals

28 Dec

Broken Social Scene member Feist’s fourth solo album is another one of highly-skilled Indie-Folk-Pop.

Feist has a powerful voice. Whilst she clearly has the capacity to belt every word out at the top of her lungs à la Florence and the Machine, in most of her songs she opts, rather, to sing softly and amplify her vocal recordings, resulting in a notably textured, dynamic and emotive vocal sound.

Feist also plays her dynamics well, oscillating swiftly between bare vocals backed by subtle acoustic guitar and the fuller sound created by prominent vocal harmonies in “The Circle married the Line”, and the final minute and a half of “Undiscovered First” – shouted boisterously over a strong, forceful percussion track – contributes to the entire album as a dynamical outlier, adding more sensitivity by comparison to tracks like “Cicadas and Gulls”.

In addition to emotively-harnessed vocals and skillful work with dynamics, Feist’s music is richly instrumentally-layered. “The Bad in Each Other” – strongly folk-influenced and garbed in wise, true lyrics – exemplifies this, and “Anti Pioneer”, interwoven with Jazz and Blues, displays an ear for tiny but memorable details in the soft, shrouded however poignant piano part that comes into it towards the end.

Feist’s music is excellently finished in terms of its instrumental composition, its dynamics, and of course the rare level of sensitivity in Feist’s vocals.


The Decemberists: The King is Dead.

19 Dec

The DecemberistsThe King is Dead is ” the most pastoral, rustic record they’ve ever made”*.

I listened to this album late at night with two old friends whilst waiting for a third to return from a lengthy trip to North America. Spread consistently with a wholesome base of acoustic guitar and top-coat of lead singer Colin Meloy’s vocals, the album is a smooth-flowing collection of relaxed folk songs featuring accordion, raw-sounding string instrumental pieces and a prolific use of harmonica-led melodies.

In the (paraphrased) words of Chase (Old Friend A.), this music – particularly “Rox in the Box” – has the sound of the lengthy, musically-narrated folk tale you’d hear in an ancient pub somewhere in the Irish countryside.

In addition to The Decemberists’ strong folk feeling, The King is Dead flies a visible Country/Western flag, particularly in tracks like “Calamity Song” (which Chase deemed a “cowboy’s bar-brawl number”).

The King is Dead‘s first single, “Down by the Water” and ending track “Dear Avery” stand out within the album for their unconventional use of melody and harmony in relation to the album’s genre. “Down by the Water” is distinctive for backup-vocalist Jenny Conlee’s out-of-conventional-major-key harmonies, and the  chromatic, 1-2-♭3 guitar-led refrain of “Dear Avery” is equally especial.

Its lyrics image-strewn, murky and moderately-cryptic, The Decemberists’ The King is Dead serves well as a late-night contemplative soundtrack.

A Fine Fleet of Foxes indeed

14 Dec

Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues has the folk enthusiast in me cavorting around a metaphysical campfire in an imaginary forest somewhere in amongst my viscera.

This five-year-old band (that is, the band has been officially active for about five years. It is not comprised of five-year-olds. That would be mad.) presents a blend of baroque-inspired indie-folk-rock heavy with string instrumental, intricately-picked acoustic guitar-work, innovative percussion, chordal vocal harmonies and the leading vocals of Robin Pecknold, which, as well as sounding similar to those of Bob Dylan, reflect a subtle but nonetheless obvious Dylan influence in the melodies they depict.

Channeling soulful, relatable lyrics and sterling instrumental work is a mastery of volume and tempo dynamics extremely impressive for a band only releasing their second studio album. Helplessness Blues makes sudden switches from quiet, intimate moments to belted-out, multi-instrumental gallivants which create the feeling of having a private, contemplative moment alone in a room suddenly put into song by the band of enthusiastic musicians who have been hiding in the closet all the while. Whilst this  (repeated) occurence could easily have shocked or disgruntled listeners, Fleet Foxes have managed to blend together their drastic dynamic differences smoothly enough to flow (albeit quickly) rather than jolt, resulting in a musical experience that is exciting much rather than jarring. (“Sim Sala Bim” is a prime example of this amazing dynamic-phenomenon.)

On the other end of the “dynamics” scale, “Blue Spotted Tail” is a beautiful, bewildered ballad featuring only guitar and Pecknold’s vocals all the way through… although it fades straight into the very-much-louder “Grown Ocean”, which is the closest thing to straight rock you’re going to get from Helplessness Blues (good grief, it even has a “1-2-1-2-3-4” drumstick count-in)(Those count-ins are easily one of the most exciting things in generic pop-rock, by the way.) This track, in contrast with “Blue Spotted Tail”, is fast-paced and heavily underlined by a solid bass-pedal beat most of the way through, until it ends with 30 seconds of bare two-part vocal harmony with wind-chimes in the background.

The album’s title derives from a lyric in its title track (“Helplessness Blues”), which questions our society’s notions of careerism and the function of personal individuality within a pyramid structure of corporate servitude.

Helplessness Blues is a perfected collection of raw, real-sounding recordings which are powerful for their artful piecing-together. The album is an absolute triumph to the Baroque-Inspired Indie-Folk-Rock genre.


Post Scriptum: For anyone religiously reading these posts: yes, I am still two posts behind. I was going to catch up today, but instead continued to feel about as sickened as a hipster in a franchise store. More reviews are going to have to wait until I no longer feel like the rainforest that is my immune system is being nommed by tiny, tiny fuel corporations. Thank-you and good night.

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean

12 Dec

Iron and Wine‘s fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean, is poppier than prior work, however continues to present Sam Beam’s unique narrative imagery in its lyrics.

The album was titled after a line in “Your Fake Name is good enough for Me”, a saxophone-rich jazz track that cynically speaks (among other things) of the brutality of modern urban life, and the often-fickle nature of those who live it. Of the lyric “kiss each other clean”, Beam remarks to Spin.com: “”It insinuates that shit is wrong and that we’re not clean… but at the same time we’re doing something about it.”* The song, halfway through, dissolves into a slowed-down, melodically-repetitive montage of images of all the things to be represented by the urban youth of today, each metaphor encased in the repeated “we will become, become…”. The repetitive melodic structure of this cornucopia of lyrical images seems to pick up on both the personal homogeneity and the temporal repetetivity faced by the postmodern urban-dwelling youth.

Beam’s lyrics – littered with Biblical references and, in places, constructed purely from imagery (as opposed to interpretation) – continue to tell a new story (or set of stories) with each song. “Tree by the River” is the narrative of a man addressing an old lover, Mary-Ann, about the relationship they had when they were seventeen, and how things have changed since then. The narrator’s tone is both reminiscent and contemplative, and the major key of the song calmly waves aside the generic mournfulness often inherent to such nostalgic numbers.

Whilst most of the album is embellished with saxophone riffs and very obviously jazz-influenced, “Godless Brother in Love” is an exquisite layering of piano-arpeggios and each-note-noticeably-strummed guitar chords (as well as rawly-recorded vocal harmonies) straying back into Iron and Wine’s original folk style.

Also closer to Iron and Wine’s earlier music is “Walking far from Home”: “an account of a guy walking far from home, what he sees and experiences… surreal and beautiful and sad all at the same time”*. This track carries a weary feel, and could easily be played in one of the sad bits at the end of House (wait, that sounds familiar…).

Iron and Wine’s lyrics, as aforementioned, continue, despite any musical deviation, to present a patchwork of  meaningful narratives and images – often avoiding overt interpretation thereof, and hence leaving the listener to construct their own understanding of the lyrics – enforcing the value of each track as its own cryptic, adaptable story as well a piece within a collection.