Monday, 30 May 2016

Dandy Warhols (Limelight 2, May 27th 2016)

The Dandy Warhols, in their own inimitably casual way, left the Limelight revellers delighted by a triumphant Belfast show which was their debut in Northern Ireland - an incredible fact given their long and rich recording history.

The sun-soaked capital was the perfect setting for a night of hazy guitar heroics, kicked off suitably by a short set by London-based Happyness. Like many support acts, they fitted neatly into the main act's musical bubble, displaying a pronounced Pavement influence, which in this writer's mind can only be a good thing. Happyness have been touring buddies of The Dandy Warhols for a while now, and their potential is undeniable for some big headline sets of their own.

'Be-In' began the Warhols' set, laying out the stall for what was to come. Mid-tempo, blissed out, atmospheric and, most importantly of all, melodic. 'Crack Cocaine Rager', one of their many drug-inspired ditties, struts forth with aplomb, and 'Get Off' harks back to their chart-bothering days and feels oddly out of place as it skips breezily along.

'STYGGO' is an earworm from the new album that bathes the venue in a bit of tropical light even as the outside sun starts to fade. It has one of those wordless hooks that the Dandys do so well.

One of the set highlights comes from a somewhat unlikely source. On record (Distortland), 'Search Party' is fine and dandy (Sorry...) without really packing much of a punch. Here at the Limelight, it becomes a mammoth. Thundering bass, which as it turns out comes from the wonderfully talented Zia McCabe's extensive keyboard setup, married to an array of guitar effects and a galloping rhythm bring the song to new groovy life.

Zia departs for a couple of songs, leaving Courtney Taylor-Taylor to do a bit of solo strumming, but that only gives the audience to show off their chops with a bit of audience participation. No, not on keyboards, but with some loving singalongs of 'Everyday Should Be A Holiday' and 'Welcome To The Monkey House.' Courtney is suitably impressed, leading him to proclaim that the Irish do indeed "sing like bitches." As if there was any doubt.

With the band up to its full compliment, it is hits abound as 'Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth' receives a rapturous response. 'Bohemian Like You', perhaps inevitably, also receives one of the largest ovations of the night - the band's only UK top five hit thanks to a certain mobile phone ad, back when the main function of a phone was phone-calls!

Punctuating the night from time to time are numerous spacey psychedelic interludes, be that in the form of jamming or what resembles an attempt to contact extra-terrestrial beings through Courtney's microphone. The latter of those broke up the time between the main set and a wonderful rendition of one of their earliest hits and best-loved songs, Boys Better - a song that was getting loud requests from mid-set. Worth the wait undoubtedly, it was a perfect closer to an incredibly accomplished set.

Putting a full stop on the night, Zia came out to show off her DJ skills with a brief electronic flourish to send the punters on their way. We can expect to see The Dandy Warhols back in Belfast at the Ulster Hall next year should they keep their promises, and I imagine 90% of those present this time will be back for much more.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Brand New Friend, The Late Twos, Fox Colony (Belfast, McHughs, May 18th 2016)

Brand New Friend launched their debut EP 'American Wives', which incidentally is a must-buy, in some style at McHughs. The night as a whole was  full to the brim with energy and genuine enthusiasm for songcraft, and the headliners were ably supported by The Late Twos and, before them, Fox Colony.

Fox Colony are in fact fronted by the Brand New Friend bassist, Darren Hill, and theirs is a rather more melancholic sound, while still retaining infectious melodies aplenty. The Weekend was an early highlight of their set with the chant-able "We are, we are so fragile" contributing to a knockout chorus. Ghosts of Blink 182 haunt the likes of 'Patterns' (good thing) and early Biffy Clyro is another pleasing echo in the eerie 'Born In Blue.' 'Disappear' rounded Fox Colony's portion of the evening off with what started off moving the feet and then progressed into some Guitar Hero riffing towards the end. Great job all round!

The Late Twos have had some success already, earning play on Steve Lamacq's Radio One show amongst others, and there was an assurance to their set that suggested more plaudits could be on the way. 'Sierra Leone' was released as a single earlier this year and there was a fantastic rendition on show here. I could hear traces of Suede in its mid-tempo jangle. Their self-titled single and Never Mind were also highlights. Anyone from Bangor should also check out the video for Never Mind, they'll see some familiar sights!

To the main event, and Brand New Friend tore through their set with a sound recalling Ash and Los Campesinos. With vocals shared between siblings Taylor and Lauren Johnson, the harmonies and melodies are a perfect counterpoint to what are often bittersweet love songs, but these songs draw overwhelmingly from the sweet end of that spectrum, to their abundant benefit!

'American Wives' was their self-confessed "reason they are here" and the title track of the EP is less than two minutes of pop-rock gold. Equally infectious on record as on the stage, this had all the buzz of the Buzzcocks.

'Settle Down' was another highlight with the colourful keyboards hooking you in right away. 'Your Friends Hate Me' had a breakneck refrain of "I go out while you stay home again" and was definitely a popular choice amongst the small but passionate crowd.

The closing duo of songs was what really capped the night off for the band. They invited local icon Gerry Norman on stage and he joined them before they started off 'I Was An Astronaut', another standout from the EP. 'I Love You Goodbye' brought things to a close with aplomb, and you should expect to see Brand New Friend in bigger venues before long.

Buy their EP 'American Wives' here. I recommend!

Friday, 13 May 2016

The Mighty Stef, Thee Penny Dreadfuls, Petty Youth, Buffalos Bay, (Belfast Empire, May 12th 2016 review)

The Mighty Stef played their final Belfast gig in the Empire on Thursday night, as the final curtain comes down on their time together as a band.

The Dublin quintet headlined three and a half hours of stellar rock and roll and got quite a send-off from a small but raucous crowd.

Proceedings kicked off with Buffalos Bay, a six-piece with a distinct psychedelic flavour, and they kicked off with a organ-heavy take on The Rolling Stones' The Last Time, which was a nice, solid start.

As their set progressed, their tightness as a musical unit was fairly apparent - all the more impressive since they only formed last summer. Their fondness for the '60s and '70s was evident in their set, but it led to a storming setlist. Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Beatles all getting an airing.

Petty Youth ramped things up a notch, and were the standout of the support acts for me. The opener, You Do Me No Good, instantly brought to mind The Hives, a feeling that was repeated with Caught Up On You.

They slowed the tempo down for Something In My Drink for their self-confessed blues homage, but even that displayed an impressive ferocity. S.I.C.K was a stormer of a closer, with a double-time race to the finish line towards the end.

Thee Penny Dreadfuls brought an extremely dark and dense psychedelic feel to the night, with that adjective proving a good sum-up for the night as a whole. You would imagine Otto the bus driver from The Simpsons would have had a blast tonight.

With swirling organs and gruff vocals adding to a dark storm of riffs and aggression, there remained enough melody and attention to rhythm to get the head nodding. The aptly named Pop Song in particular was a highlight.

The main attraction, The Mighty Stef, provided a great send-off for the night as a whole. At the time of writing, they are putting the final full stop on their career in Dublin, but this was an ideal way to bring their Belfast touring lives to a close.

I myself was hooked in by Everybody Needs A Grave, and so that was what I was waiting for. Surprisingly, it was neither an opener or a closer, with it appearing just over halfway through. It lost none of its majesty on the stage, and will surely go down as a career high.

The set was opened by another recent favourite, Stella, and they earnt themselves a warm reception as they tore through it with glee.

A sped up version of Ceremony got quite a few hips moving, and had it been released in the guitar explosion of the noughties it would have scored them a national hit, although you could say that about a number of their tracks.

Another example would be We Want Blood, which even got a bit of crowd participation.

A stirring rendition of Magazine was an ideal way to finish, and in-keeping with the retro feel of the night in general, segued into a cover of Velvet Underground's Waiting For The Man.

Overall, I'd be hard pressed to get a more value-for-money tenner's worth of live music this year. The Mighty Stef will remain active musicians, just not as we currently know them, and it is certainly well worth keeping an eye on their future plans.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Silences - Luna EP review

Silences are a five-piece from Armagh who have steadily been building a fervent local following through a string of EPs, 'Luna' being the latest and, as I will cover, by far the most full-bodied.

While what undoubtedly grabs the attention for many are the softer acoustic numbers, this EP, bar the beatless and still gorgeous last track, shows off dynamics that should have fans begging for a full-length.

'There's a Wolf', as lead singer Conchur White revealed to Clash Music, was written three years before Silences was formed. Starting off with a juddering synth line and a soft acoustic guitar, it quickly pares back to just voice and axe. But those first few seconds signpost that this song has meat on the bones. Drums peek through the window and instruments are plugged in, before gang vocals emulate a wolf pack for a few bars and the melodic pattern is repeated with a few extra layers of instruments.
The actual melodic structure of the song is fairly simple and repetitive, but in three minutes the wolf stirs itself and finds its roar. A build and climax comparable to early-mid-period Radiohead.

'Breathless' would be a good description after that opening track. Some nice guitar lines, a synth and a drum machine bring you back down to earth. This track even boasts a surprisingly catchy chorus. "Honest, am I ever gonna make you honest, am I ever gonna leave you breathless?"
Even this eventually bursts open by the end into another cacophony. The band is really flexing its muscles here in a way that was merely hinted on previous EPs.

'Failing to Learn' starts off with a guitar part that in previous recordings would have been confined to acoustic, but here has a lovely XX glow, dripping in reverb. And then, again, around 45 seconds in, the band crashes back in through the window for awhile, before dropping back into the chilled verses, via a bit of ivory tinkling. Death Cab For Cutie has to be a reference here, partly due to Conchur's voice, but also the enhanced production values present here. This is in no way a bad thing. The chorus of  "If we are falling in love, we are..." is a nice hint at the title, I presume.

The EP ends on a calm note with 'Carve Me Open.' More typical of their work-to-date, although still with the guitar plugged in, it is a reminder that they aren't about to go metal any time soon. Nor should they. The 'Luna' EP is proof of the potential and versatility of Silences, and that you should perhaps see them in smaller venues while you can.

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Coral - Distance Inbetween

The Coral's debut album, all the way back in 2002, played out like the most rickety of pirate ships. The opening line was literally "We'll set sail again." Fourteen years on, and the pirate ship is now a spaceship.

'Connector' is the perfect primer for this journey into the unknown. It is a musical firing up of the engines, before 'White Bird' stretches the wings a bit (titles aren't just made up out of thin air!).

Both tracks have a somewhat kraut-rock grove to them, but with plenty of room for rich organ textures and golden harmonies, in particular 'White Bird.'

Once we get to 'Chasing The Tail Of A Dream', things ascend to another level. Liberal use of the tom-tom and a riff that borrows from Pink Floyd's 'Set The Controls For The Heart of the Sun' set a mood that rumbles on and on, until the sort-of-chorus which repeats the title a couple of times and boasts a too-good-not-to-hear organ stab that transports you back to those days when Pink Floyd's magic was at full beam.

The title track brings us back to down to earth (well, the earth of another planet perhaps) and is a cool splash of water on the face after the intense opening trio. It could almost be a love song - "Through the veil I will catch you, I will come to your door."

Louder guitars and Beta Band harmonies return for the glam rocker 'Million Eyes'. "We are the patterns in the sky." Have I mentioned space yet? This is perhaps where the formula starts to wane slightly, although as if realising this, midway the instruments fall away in favour of whale noise and we float in the ether for a few seconds. That is before the grooviest of basslines makes an appearance and ushers in a rousing finale where new guitarist Paul Molloy steals the show.

Miss Fortune is perhaps the purest pop moment on the album. There are indie discos in space, as James proclaims "She's a mover" and "She twists and turns into the sun." Fry from Futurama would dance to this.

The happy vibes don't last too long fortunately, as 'Beyond The Sun' kicks off with "Do you feel like your mother's gone?" and you remember that this is an album based on real emotions, even if dressed up in more rhythmic Pink Floyd flourishes.

'It's You' could have been off the last Arctic Monkeys album, and I mean one of those dreamy mid-section tracks, not the machismo of the singles. We all love a comparison, so let's throw the last Mystery Jets album into the mix too.

'Holy Revelation' is probably the closest The Coral will get to gospel rock. How it still sounds amazing is beyond me. I could be converted to anything with lead guitar like on this song. Fun fact - Paul Molloy was in The Zutons. Have I possibly misjudged them?

'She Runs The River', is almost a skeletal reprisal of the album's opening salvo. Almost beat-less, we are get a few more nice harmonies and a general sense of foreboding.

The band comes roaring back for 'Fear Machine' - another hint that Arctic Monkeys might not have been far from the studio playlists. If I'm being honest, I'd have preferred 'She Runs The River' as a closer, this doesn't do the album justice (End Credits is exactly as you'd expect, more of a full stop to the album's sentence than an actual song).

In general, this is well worth a listen if you like any kind of guitar music, or have liked The Coral in the past. Where they go from here is anyone's guess. The lack of acoustic tracks is something they may remedy on the next album, although as an entire piece this hangs together perfectly. Must-buy!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Ryan Adams - 'Ryan Adams' Review

Ryan Adams' career trajectory is one that fascinates, whichever way you look at it. From the formative years fronting Whiskeytown, to one of the great singer-songwriter solo debuts in 'Heartbreaker', to his days as his own worst enemy at the height of his drink/drug/depression problems, he has never been less than compelling.

The music had at times suffered, no doubt. Yet there is that old chestnut that states the best art comes from the worst pain. 'Ashes And Fire', his most recent official effort (the man releases so much on the fly it's hard to keep track of what should be taken seriously), lacked some serious momentum, despite the at-times gorgeous finger-picking goodness. Any next move required him plugging in his electric guitars, from where for this writer's money, his best work has always emerged.

As with much of Adams' work, there is an element of homage at play here. Opener 'Gimme Something Good' channels the very best Tom Petty influences into something, well, great. Benmont Tench at the keys may have something to do with this, yet it hardly marks a huge departure for the main man. 'Rock N Roll' and 'Love Is Hell' were just some of his past albums that had one foot in the 80's.

Bryan Adams (yup, it's finally happened) is another touchstone in some of the driving rhythms. 'Trouble' is a long overdue follow-up to one of his classics, 'Run To You'. Given that Ryan once threw a fan out of his concert for having the gall to request 'Summer Of '69, the irony will I'm sure not be lost on him. In addition, he once told of his agitation at being sold as "radio rock, 'fucking Tom Petty" in the 'Gold' days. How things change.

The aforementioned 'Trouble' possesses some of his best arpeggios, retaining that quintessential Ryan Adams feel, even with a new backing band, 'The Shining'. 'My Wrecking Ball' is what grounds the album, and is like a splash of water on the face in what can sometimes be a murky atmosphere. Fans of his acoustic side will love this, and ensures the album veers away from genre exercise status at its mid-point.

We're taken round the 80's bend again with 'Stay With Me', in what is arguably the stand-out moment. Squealing guitars and a pleading vocal, begging to "treat me right, hold me closer in the middle of the night" just beg you to jump in the car and get away.

It's here where things get a bit darker. Critics of 'Love Is Hell' may get a bit alienated, as 'Shadows' piles on the reverb and mope. The "field of razor wire" in his head seems to get the better of him, and the drama is ramped up to maximum. 'Feels Like Fire' feels like pure honey comparatively, in atmosphere at least, as the lyrics are said to have been inspired by Adams' late grandmother.

'I Just Might' finally goes for the jugular and ends up all-out Springsteen, never fully taking off but providing more unsettling insights into the psyche behind this album. "Everything is broken in my mind" and "somewhere underneath all the hope is the truth". Bleak. Fortunately that is as dark as it gets for the remainder, and 'Tired Of Giving Up' feels like a resolution to keep the head up, and is another well-realised piece of soft rock, just ahead of the concluding cheery strum-along of 'Let Go'.

Most aspects of Ryan Adams' most-loved work are evoked with this self-titled album, and it really feels like the North Carolina songwriter is entering a period of contentment, in a more rounded way than the limited 'Ashes And Fire' did. Here we see Adams' embracing his love and urge to emulate the cheesiest of his rock god heroes, in a loving way, without ignoring his country roots. From here, short of going techno, there is scope to go in any direction he pleases, and for Ryan Adams that is the best possible outcome.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Interpol - 'El Pintor' Review

Interpol, one of the pioneer's of the early 00's New York music scene, hit a bit of wall as the millennium entered its second decade. The self-titled addition to their discography, while not without highlights, became a wearisome trudge towards the finish line, which was a shame, as the record's bleak aesthetic was in many ways entirely characteristic of their overall sound. Having shed a member in bassist Dengler (frontman Paul Banks fills in admirably here), much of the bloat in sound picked up over the years has also disappeared on 'El Pintor', album number five in a career that now has some much-needed forward momentum.

Opener 'All The Rage Back Home' overcomes a red herring 'Next Exit'-ish intro to emerge as Interpol's most urgent curtain-raiser yet. Faster does not automatically mean better, but the more stately tempos of later material have exposed cracks in the Interpol machine. Sometimes, pace is indeed the trick. Daniel Kessler, like few other guitarists, can create dreamy soundscapes to build an album around, and with a rhythm section as tight as is present here, it is very difficult to not strike gold.

'My Desire', 'Same Town, New Story' and 'My Blue Supreme' all drift along languidly, underpinned by some typical Kessler chimes, while the lyrical mode of Banks is as ever strangely unsettling at times - tales of desire-related frustration is business as usual for someone who once claimed to be a "scavenger between the sheets of union". There isn't much immediacy here, but the ear-worm melodies reveal themselves and burrow deep with a few listens. To use the word 'highlights' may be misleading, as everything is of a broadly similar high standard.

'Anywhere' is a pounding and quite stirring number that doesn't let up from start to finish. Live performances of the song see the band speed things up even more, but the 'El Pintor' version is no slouch, and is perhaps the band's catchiest song since 'Slow Hands'. The comparisons to 'Antics', Interpol's much-loved second album, are impossible to avoid, and while the sometimes overbearing production ensures the quality does not match that landmark, the tunes are undeniable.

The issue of Carlos' departure was a thorny issue for some, but 'Everything Is Wrong' is front-loaded with the kind of jet-powered bass-line we could have been forgiven for thinking was history. The song itself blossoms into a series of Kessler guitar explosions, while Banks croons the word "truly" over and over. The band certainly weren't counting this song when deciding its title.

While 'Ancient Ways' is a 'wall of sound' experiment that doesn't quite come off, this may be in part down to the aforementioned production, where there is occasionally little room to breathe between the instruments. This problem is overcome on the penultimate 'Tidal Wave', which recalls the very best of The Killers' debut album. As it reaches boiling point on the outro, Banks again shows off his bass chops, while the perfectly-judged electronics make for something of a climax for the record.

'Twice As Hard' winds the album down for a chilled out yet still cathartic close. One complaint that does dog the album is the lyrical repetition; every title of every song is repeated to within an inch of its life, and if the album wasn't so succinct this would be serious cause for concern.

As it is, we must be satisfied with an album that sees Interpol regain their footing as a band of relevance and one to expect continued riches from. Who knows, we may even see a new bassist enter the fold for future albums, but if records like this can come from a pared-down three-piece there is no need to panic on that front.