Monthly Archives: November 2011

On Blandness, And The Tragedy Of Birdy

Birdy - Birdy

If you thought that my scathing treatise on Cher Lloyd earlier this year was a tad harsh, you might want to look away now. I genuinely feel a little bad for having written what you’re about to read – for it seems cruel to shoot down the dreams of a fairly talented 15 year-old girl as she takes her first big steps into the unforgiving music industry, but I feel that something needs to be said. Essentially, my problem isn’t with Birdy herself, but what she represents – music reprocessed and repackaged into its blandest and most easily-palatable form. It’s all so calculatedly inoffensive that it comes full circle and irks my by its mere existence.

I’ll admit that I’m obviously not the target audience for Birdy’s music – she’s clearly being aimed at people who don’t know or care that 10 of the 11 tracks on her self-titled debut are covers. But for anyone who’s familiar with the original versions of these songs, the most obvious flaw with Birdy’s covers is that most of the time they simply seem watered down in comparison. Take her version of The Naked & Famous track ‘Young Blood’, which cribs the synths from the original but buries them deeper in the mix, sucking the track dry of any sense of exuberance. Her version of The Postal Service’s ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ suffers from similar problems – someone has evidently taken all of about 5 minutes to create a poor pastiche of Dntel’s beats in Garageband, while the skittering electronica that made the original so interesting is absent entirely. And if you’re looking for evidence that copious overdubs are no substitute for a well-delivered vocal harmony, then look no further than her take on ‘White Winter Hymnal’, which takes the pastoral beauty of Fleet Foxes and makes it sound like little more than a midly pleasant vocal exercise.

The other major flaw is that Birdy simply cannot inhabit these songs in the same way that their original composers did. Take the album-closer, a cover of The National’s ‘Terrible Love’ – a song written by a man in his late 30s, lest we forget. While not as ill-fitting as other National songs might have been (‘Afraid Of Everyone’ or ‘Sorrow’, to name but two potential candidates), there’s still a certain disconnect between the lyrics and the girl who’s singing them – “And I can’t fall asleep without a little help” just doesn’t seem as plausible coming from the mouth of a 15-year old girl. It doesn’t help that the original’s visceral crescendo is replaced by a hackneyed string section and the least imaginative drumbeat possible.

It’s a problem that plagues the entire record – try as she may it imbue these songs with emotion, the words that come out feel either insincere or just plain meaningless. The semi-nonsensical lyrics of Thomas Mars were never going to be a great candidate for Birdy’s attempts at sincerity, and her take on Phoenix’s ‘1901’ feels a little forced because of it. Her most famous cover, that of Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’ also suffers, simply because you just can’t quite imagine Birdy having experienced the same heartbreak that runs through the song’s lyrics – and while she gives it her all, in places it almost feels like she’s over-emoting to compensate.

Admittedly, there are places when her stripped back versions come closer to working than others. Her cover of The XX’s ‘Shelter’ is mercilessly stripped of its late-night ambience, but if you push Birdy’s age to the back of your mind then it almost, almost sounds believable – certainly, it would be churlish to deny that it’s a strong vocal performance regardless of that. Similarly, her take on Cherry Ghost’s ‘People Help The People’ is perhaps a little over-sincere, but still works better in a thematic sense than a lot of these songs.

The other problem with Birdy is that it essentially tells us next to nothing about Birdy herself, other than that she’s got a decent singing voice and can play the piano. Expecting a 15-year old to be a brilliant songwriter is arguably unfair – but it’s equally unfair to Birdy herself that she’s hardly been allowed to express her own voice on this record. She’s essentially just a vehicle for other people’s songs – none of which are at particularly unpalatable in their original forms, rendering her versions pretty but pointless.  The whole exercise is akin to taking some nice wallpaper and then painting it beige.

Perhaps, in cynical marketing terms, this is Birdy’s foot in the door – a record that bends over backwards to be accessible in order to warm up a potential audience for a future album of self-penned material – certainly, you get the impression that someone at her record label believes she could occupy the same sort of space as the currently omnipresent Adele. The one window into what might lie ahead for her is ‘Without A Word’, the sole original composition on the record – it’s not desperately exciting, but it does feel surprisingly mature, and it’s an indication of a potential future for Birdy that doesn’t involve being a musical wholesaler of bland indie and folk covers. I almost hope she does get the chance to make a record on her own terms (and maybe prove cynical hacks like me wrong in the process) – but it feels like there’s every chance that she may be forgotten about before she’s even old enough to legally drown her sorrows. I suppose that sales of Birdy will ultimately decide her fate – and that, in itself, is the tragedy of young Jasmine Van den Bogaerde. For the British public are fickle beasts, so even if she does get the chance to make a second record, there’s no guarantee it’ll be a success. Just ask Duffy.

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Let’s Get Cynical’s “Stuff I Do For Other People” Roundup

Soundsphere Magazine

It occurred to me a little while back that people who stumble across my blog without knowing me personally probably don’t know about other music-related stuff I may write or otherwise do. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer a brief summary of these things – sorry if you’ve already seen me spam these all over Facebook…

Muso’s Guide

I’ve been writing for Muso’s Guide in a sporadic sort of way for three years now, after answering a call for writers that I happened to glance on the Drowned In Sound forums. They’ve been very easy-going and great to work with, allowing me to write reviews as and when I see something that catches my eye – this is great for me, as it means I can often get early access to albums I’m looking forward to, or alternatively I can take a punt on something I’ve heard good things about. It’s also nice to be part of something bigger than just me and my own thoughts on this blog – for example, by contributing to the site’s ‘albums of the year’ countdown (speaking of which, I should get thinking about this year’s…). You can find a handy collection of all my reviews for the site right here, but do have a look at some of their other reviews as well, there’s some good stuff there. I should give a quick plug to my friend Rosie Duffield as well – she also writes for the site and shared Head of Music duties at Newcastle Student Radio with me back in the day. Read her stuff here, it’s good!

Soundsphere Magazine

Keeping things more local, I’ve started doing a few reviews for York-based magazine/website Soundsphere. It’s run with bucketloads of enthusiasm by Dom Smith, and I was only too happy to oblige when he offered me a chance to write for them. As well as the website, they also published their second print edition over the summer – to find out more about it here.

So, if you were wondering where my review of this year’s Constellations Festival is, the answer is that it’s right here, after Dom asked me to cover it for him at the last minute. I’ve also written reviews of the excellent new Fawn Spots EP Hair Play, and Flashguns’ debut record Passions Of A Different Kind. Hopefully you’ll see a lot more from me on the site in the future!

BBC Introducing In York And North Yorkshire

Jenny Eells, presenter of BBC Introducing In York And North Yorkshire, has been kind enough to put various interviews I’ve done with local bands out on air over the past few months. This has somehow culminated in her asking me to do a co-presenting slot on one of the weekly shows – of course, I jumped at the chance! We recorded it on Monday and it went really well (I think), and you can hear it this Saturday 26th November (that’s tomorrow!) on BBC Radio York between 6-7pm. Tune in on 103.7 or 95.5 FM locally, or click here to listen live on the internet. The show will also be available on iPlayer for a week after broadcast, so I’ll update this post with the link as soon as I can.

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Constellations Festival 2011

Constellations Festival

First of all, a big thanks to Lets Get Cynical for giving me a platform to talk about music publicly, rather than just to him, as usual. Niceties aside, heres how I saw it:

We ambled into Leeds students union, which is a very nice students union with a large shop which looks like a supermarket. One of the halls didn’t allow alcohol, but did allow music, more about that later. The first band we encountered tucked away in one of the smaller rooms was Hookworms, who from what we heard sounded like a fizzy can of red bull exploding in a garage through a cheap transistor radio. But that’s a good thing. I made a point to investigate them further.

Outfit were next on the agenda in the oddly shaped and claustrophobic Mine venue. These guys had an awesome collection of harmonies going on, their music being a soundscape to the rising and falling melodies they bounced off each other. I definitely heard a lot of other bands in their sound from Of Montreal through to headline act Wild Beasts, but ultimately I enjoyed their sound and the response they received was certainly a positive one. Next on the agenda was a coffee, but unfortunately the Cornish pastie shop (traditional Leeds fayre!?) was playing hard to get. After I explained the horrible machine in the excellently stocked union supermarket was not functioning they decided to give me one, scolding me because they would once more have to clean their hot caffeine producing machine. Shame. Me – one, Cornish pastie shop – nil. Time to scuttle back up to the alcohol-free Riley Smith Hall for the girl-boy duo of Big Deal. If I was lazily to describe them in one word, it would be shimmery. But I won’t. I’ll describe them as twee and shimmery. But they did warm my cynical heart slightly, for that I tip my proverbial hat to them. Their guitar led upbeat pop with intimate bridges  could perhaps be interpreted as thinly veiled dialogues of feelings reserved for someone else (or each other?) . Good fun though.

Paul and I found that the timings were off from this point and we had to work hard to cover the ground, diving between venues and gauging start times of artists we thought would be worth seeing. So out of curiousity and a gap in the schedule as much else, we ended up in Mine to watch Exitmusic soundchecking.

But to describe it as a soundcheck isn’t doing it justice. Perhaps a more apt description would be a ‘soundgrumble’ which was precisely what it was. Aleksa Palladino was spewing forth bile at the soundman at the seeming inadequacy of the setup, totally oblivious to the populous in front of her thinking ‘ this better be good me dear’. So foul tempered preparation complete, they began…

..And they’re forgiven. It’s broody, it’s a vivid layered landscape of noise punctuated by twanging melodies and an unorthodox percussive setup. Aleksa’s voice, whilst perhaps slightly shuddering, had enough power to sweep you along into each distinct song pattern. High maintenance? perhaps. Talented? Absolutely. Feeling like I’ve just watched a cinematic masterpiece, I go in search of Stalking Horse, mainly due to their insanely catchy single ‘Waterhole’ which sounds like a Late Of The Pier type arrangement, but one that takes itself less seriously, which after Exitmusic is deeply refreshing.

I would rate Stalking Horse as one of the best performances of the day and the Pulse venue is full of onlookers, soaking up their sounds and singing along, perhaps with a local collection of fans watching on admiringly. And rightly so. Art rock delivered with passion, style and aplomb. Next up, Paul drags me along to see Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. But I never got Pavement. I just didn’t. And slacker rock means about as much to me as ignored library fines from five years ago. Regardless, I listen to them do their thing on the main stage in Stylus. And its OK. No more, no less. They were polished, and appreciated by a packed venue, but unfortunately not by me. Back to Mine, next up – Braids.

Wow. I won’t beat about the bush, I was looking forward to them, having listened to Native Speaker on Spotify prior to the festival, but I was impressed beyond my expectations by their delivery. Braids are an eccentric bunch of individuals on stage who seem to be singing and playing to each other, but with enough about them to carry the audience along with them. Raphaelle Standell-Preston, the vocalist, is a revelation. She has the stage presence to fill stadiums, and her voice constantly transcends even the most audibly pleasing segments of the melodic dissonance created by the rest of the group. For me, this was the stand-out performance of the festival. If you haven’t listened to Native Speaker, it’s worth sitting back with an ice cold beer (or orange Fanta if you’re the Let’s Get Cynical curator) and enjoying it. Note to self – visit Montréal. At this point Paul and I decide to split as I go to listen to 2:54, being drawn by the promise of lo-fi broodiness and a strong recommendation from the long haired Let’s Get Cynical impresario himself.

2:54 sounded like a party thrown by The Breeders with The Kills and PJ Harvey as guests. And that can only be a good thing. 2:54 are the best bits of grunge with echoes of Shirley Manson but with its own unique passion bubbling through. ‘Scarlet’, the groups single both growls and beats down deconstructed distorted baselines which left me enthralled. 2:54 seemed surprised by the positive response; I’m only surprised they haven’t received more attention. It seems that may change, as they’re set to support The Big Pink on their February UK tour.

Yuck took to the stage in Stylus to a crowd divided between hardcore fans and those morbidly curious to see what the hype was all about. And as a band, they delivered. Their anthem ‘Holing Out’ was what I was there to hear and demonstrated how there’s more to them than a three chord innocence and a penchant for The Lemonheads blended with The Ramones. As Paul waited to see Wild Beasts I decided to go and wait for The Big Pink, as ‘Velvet’ was something of a dissertation anthem (can’t believe I said that) for me back in 2009. But due to the timings being about as certain as a Belgian government, I caught the tail end of Vessels. All I can say about Vessels is that they were tight, talented musicians, but ultimately it descended into a prolonged jam which resulted in a collective loss of interest from the audience. But then as everyone piled off to go see Wild Beasts in Stylus, the venue emptied – almost toatlly. I felt genuinely apalled on behalf of The Big Pink who made stage 35 minutes before the curfew and to a crowd of about 30. Despite looking vaguely horrified at what was before him, Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell whooshed through their set which included ‘Dominoes’, new single ‘Stay Gold’ and, to my own personal glee, ‘Velvet’. I almost felt embarassed at their plight, as they’ve performed at packed academies and to thousands at festivals over the past few years, but their stage presence and new material should see them in good stead for a successful return with that ‘difficult second album’. Overall I thought the event was well organised, with an excellent collection of new music which gave me more to think about for my end of year playlists.

Songs of the Festival:

1. Braids – ‘Plath Heart’
2. 2:54 – ‘Scarlet’
3. Yuck – ‘Shook Down’
4. Exitmusic – ‘The Sea’

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Local Artist Of The Whenever #12: …And The Hangnails

...And The Hangnails - No Time For Naysayers

When it comes to band members, sometimes less can be more – and York-based two-piece …And The Hangnails provide excellent justification for that statement. The band started when Martyn Fillingham (Vocals/Guitars) and Steven Reid (Drums) decided to set themselves a challenge – write an album in four days. It says something of their sheer motivation that they wrote more than enough tracks for the record in less than the allotted time, and you can hear a selection of tracks from it below:

No Time For Naysayers kicks of with the scuzzy guitars and ferocious howl of ‘Fear Only Fear’, which sounds like a lo-fi take on The Black Keys, while ‘Nobody Loves You When You’re Down’ sounds like The White Stripes with the distortion cranked up. There’s also the nonchalant blues-rock of ‘Days Yet To Come’ and some vicious riffage on ‘Nothing Better’ and ‘We Can Change It’. Throughout the record, you really get the feel that the duo are giving their all, as evidenced by the no-holds-barred screams that end ‘Broken Bottle/Tooth And Nail’ and the relentless energy of ‘Slipping Away’.

No Time For Naysayers is a raw, powerful debut that demonstrates that, even at this early stage, the band have got a strong grasp on what makes their punky blues-rock so engaging. They’re not taking any time to rest on their laurels though – with talk of a follow-up record already being planned, you can expect to hear much more from …And The Hangnails next year.

Find …And The Hangnails on Facebook here.

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Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything is streaming now. What are you waiting for?

Johnny Foreigner - Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything

Oh look, another post about Johnny Foreigner, how unexpected! I’ll keep this brief – the band’s new record Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything is streaming right now over at Artrocker, so click here to listen to it.

You can pre-order the record over at the Alcopop store – there are still a few of the super-exclusive comic books left, so if you want one then act fast.

Expect more gushing prose regarding this record before the year is out – but right now, I’m just going to enjoy it. I think you should do the same, no?

Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything is released on 7th November on Alcopop records.

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