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Crystal Antlers, Times New Viking, Dupec @ Sneaky Pete’s, 18 May

Live review for The Skinny

Crystal Antlers

The unifying theme of this gig was always going to be volume – as in, lots of it. But Edinburgh band Dupec (****) refuse to be blown off the stage by their raucous American successors tonight. The trio pour their all into this their most high profile show to date, crashing every cymbal and straining every sinew of songs that are by turns intricately melodic and searingly intense.

After a rather random visual interlude by an American ‘video jockey’, Ohio punks Times New Viking (***) stumble into vision with their shambolic racket, taking some time to hit their stride; their short, sharp opening songs melting into an unwieldy gloop that leaves the audience uncertain where to clap. But this simple guitar-drums-keys trio finally shift into a wilfully discordant gear, and the reticent onlookers gradually become slightly more animate.

No chance of indifference in the face of Crystal Antlers (****). Led by grizzly frontman Jonny Bell, the Californian sextet inject a not unwelcome shot of trippy psychedelica into proceedings. Bolstered by incessant organ and latin percussion, it’s an overwhelming spectacle, but they reign it all in with robust blues riffs on Andrew and A Thousand Eyes. There’s a lasting buzz in our ears, but this was well worth the damage.

Dupec support We Were Promised Jetpacks at Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh on 9 June.

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Interview: Bat For Lashes

Natasha KhanFeature for The Skinny

In a music business where female artists are so often forced into pigeonholes – Duffy the doe-eyed kitten, Lily Allen the feisty brat, Kate Nash the kooky every-girl – it’s only the true individuals who stand out over time. The talent of non-conformists like Kate Bush, Bjork and PJ Harvey burns far brighter and longer than the aforementioned chart dwellers, and now we can add another name to that list: Natasha Khan.

The silken voice of Bat For Lashes paints from a palette of influences and inspirations that extends far beyond that of the current crop of pop tarts. Like countless musicians before her, the creative diversity of the half-Pakistani, Brighton-based Khan stems from an art school background. “I did artwork before I ever considered music so I think it couldn’t help but imbue what I do,” she says. “When I was at university I did a 50% music, 50% art degree and it was all about how music and visuals relate to each other. So it’s always been natural for me to express the universal concept rather than just keep to isolated mediums.”

It was this all-encompassing ambition that led to the stylistic panache of her debut album Fur And Gold in 2006, the bookmakers’ favourite to win the Mercury Music Prize of the following year. In the end she lost out to The Klaxons’ music tabloid friendly ‘new rave’ debut. I ask Khan if that was a blessing in disguise. “Definitely,” she replies without pause for thought. “I mean I’d already been touring the album for two years and I was dead on my feet by that time. It was lovely as a little affirmation and to be thrust into the spotlight and give it that final sort of bang before I stopped and went on to make the next record. But I think if I had have won it would have been a good excuse for the record company to send me off on another tour for a year and I probably would have died! I think I was really ripe and ready to move on creatively at that point, it was like the perfect outcome really.”

What the nomination did do was turn heads, and one particularly famous noggin was that of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, who asked Bat For Lashes to support his band on last year’s In Rainbows European tour. And according to Khan they’re not the irritable chin-strokers of Meeting People Is Easy yore. “It was great. We danced a lot every night, drank lots of wine, had lots of fun,” she recalls. “I was quite nervous playing to so many people, like up to 50,000 people, but after a while I realised that the Radiohead fans were being very patient, interested and quiet during my set and that was really cool. So if it was going to be a big band Radiohead was the one. It was a big learning curve but a good one.”

With such endorsements, the pressure was on Khan to follow the rather bare-boned Fur And Gold with a second LP that took Bat For Lashes an artistic step forward. So there was probably no better environment for creative inspiration than the epicentre of indie that is Brooklyn, New York, where Khan lived for a time during the conception of Two Suns, her new album. “I think in Brooklyn and America there’s a lot more interesting stuff coming out than in England,” Khan says. “I’m glad I was there when that was kinda incubating.” But she wasn’t just holed up in one studio the whole time: “The proper recording started in Wales, and then a bit in New York. I also did quite a bit of field recording, like the subway trains in Brooklyn and my friends sitting around a campfire in the forest that comes at the end of Sleep Alone.”

A campfire in the forest? It sounds almost too new-age to stomach, but Khan happily revels in her own brand of 21st century mysticism, an outlook that extends to the primeval cover art and vaguely pagan overtones of Two Suns. I enquire about the duality that the title suggests. “This record is based on a personal relationship I went through. I wanted to call it Two Suns because it’s the analogy of two personalities crashing into each other. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a romance album, that the concepts were quite universal, on a personal and on a big, cosmic level.”

It was this particular approach that drew Khan to another band with a penchant for out-there lyricism and ethnic beats. “When I heard Yeasayer’s album I was really excited because I knew it was along the lines of what I was doing,” Khan says. “I asked if they could enhance that and help me push it even further, which they did. I liked their album because it had that element of spirituality and mysticism but it was quite rootsy and dancey and I love that combination.”

Although the Brooklyn band focussed their energies on the song Pearl’s Dream, their sound permeates the album’s more kinetic moments. Khan elaborates: “I wrote the bassline for Daniel but I had done it on a little bass synth and Ira [Wolf Tuton, Yeasayer bassist] kindly replaced quite a few basslines for me, and added his own to Pearl’s Dream that was really funky and was something I never could have come up with. Chris [Keating, singer] added a lot of African-style drum programming to the second half of Pearl’s Dream that moves it to a really happy, dancey place. We were dancing around the studio being silly, enjoying the pop-ness of it!”

Khan’s hedonistic collaboration with Yeasayer was a world away from her experience of working with Two Suns’ other guest star, the reclusive 60s icon Scott Walker with whom she duets on album closer, The Big Sleep. “It was totally different,” Khan confirms. “And that’s what’s interesting about collaborating if you choose wisely. I knew Scott Walker would be perfect for that kind of brooding song. We emailed each other because he’s so shy but we discussed the song and talked about the characters and the imagery and he sent me his amazing part. So I never met him and I’m not sure I’d want to really. It was nice to write for each other and communicate on that level without all the embarrassment and awkwardness. It was really special.”

Now that her album has been released and critics are striving to sum up its myriad qualities, Bat For Lashes are on the road again, with a revamped line-up that includes former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. “I loved the last tour because we had all the strings playing and the girls were just so well disciplined,” Khan says. “It was powerful in some areas but there wasn’t much opportunity to dance. This time there’s still all the dark, magical elements but there’s also the drumkit and electronic drumpads and beat machines. The beat’s really big now so you get that real dynamic during the set, up down and all over. And Charlotte’s kick-arse. She’s singing, playing guitar, bass, synth and drums. I like multi-instrumentalists, so we can all move around. She’s very diverse and quite feisty.”

The same could be said about Khan, and although she’s amiable in conversation, she doesn’t like to give too much away. It’s when I ask a dry, non-personal question about the production of Two Suns that she actually hints at a deep-set concern over how she is perceived: “I had a massive say in the production. I like to make that clear because some people think ‘oh she just sings’ but I’m quite proud of my technical abilities.” Unlike your standard-issue chanteuse, it’s safe to say that Khan does more than just sing.

Two Suns is out now via Parlophone.
Bat For Lashes play Latitude Festival, Suffolk on 17 July.

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Sparrow and the Workshop – Sleight of Hand

EP review for The Skinny

Sparrow and the Workshop - Sleight of Hand

The current Scottish music scene is healthily diverse, and now Sparrow and the Workshop bring another genre to the mix: country and western. Having only formed last year, the Scottish-Welsh-American trio’s debut EP opens with a brooding vocal harmony between singer Jill O’Sullivan (formerly known as Dead Sparrow) and drummer Gregor Donaldson, before Devil Song kicks into life with a Rawhide scuffle. That dustbowl-Americana sound is pervasive: O’Sullivan twists her vocals with a Tennessee twang, and tracks like The Gun and I Will Break You revel in olde world, hard-livin’ romanticism. But don’t dismiss this band as a dug-up musical time capsule; with this first release they have woven their unique strand into the fabric of the sound of Scotland in 2009.

Rating: 4/5

Sparrow and the Workshop play the Captain’s Rest, Glasgow on 14 May

Sleight of Hand EP is released on 25 May via Distiller Records

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The Horrors – Primary Colours

Album review for The Skinny

The Horrors - Primary Colours

Evidently tiring of the black-fringed cartoon band they had become in the wake of the B-movie pastiche of Strange House, The Horrors shift focus to the music with album number two – even if the title Primary Colours is irony of the highest order. And they don’t hang about: the 90-second intro to opener ‘Mirror’s Image’ is astounding, starting so serenely with washes of tidal synth and a subdued beat before a truly disturbing, key-shifting descent into MBV-aping tremolo drones and staccato snare. The disused-funfair-at-night vibe remains in the use of garish organ throughout, but this time producer Geoff Barrow (instrumental brain of Portishead) bolts down their excessive theatricality with elements of ’60s psych (‘Who Can Say’), leftfield post-punk (‘Scarlet Fields’) and motorik rhythm (‘Sea Within A Sea’). The Horrors may still look like a noxious gang of Camden attention-seekers, but the thrilling bombast of Primary Colours will ensure we listen as well.

Rating: 4/5

Released on 4 May via XL Records.

The Horrors play King Tut’s, Glasgow on 29 May.

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Interview: Yahweh

Feature for The Skinny

Yahweh

Lewis Cook has a level-headedness that belies his youth. When most teenagers fly the family nest for the boundless freedom of university life, their first year away from home is spent drinking, watching daytime TV, attending the occasional lecture, boiling pasta, and more drinking. But the 18-year-old Cook – whose own nest-exit took him from the quaint Dumfriesshire town of Moffat to the bright lights and rain-sodden streets of Glasgow – actually did something productive with all that freedom: he recorded a debut album under his musical moniker, Yahweh.

[Yahweh – The Wee Ending]

While Cook admits that juggling an academic and musical career “can be hard, especially when we’re busy and there are essays to be handed in”, the musical assignment he produced (titled Tug of Love) is a staggeringly assured debut. I ask him if people were surprised when they found out his age. “It’s one of these things that can either act in your favour or be a hindrance,” he replies. “As much as there are the so-called benefits of youth on my side, there’s always the risk of not being taken seriously. As a result it’s not something I often mention to people… maybe I should be exploiting it more!”

Tug of Love can be read as a literal tug of love between the lively metropolis of his present life and the placid town of his upbringing: the first half of the LP is dedicated to Glasgow, the second to Moffat. “It’s quite an introspective record in a lot of ways and I decided to try and relate its format to the kind of split life I felt I’d spent over the course of writing and recording it,” Cook explains. “Most of the sounds on the first side of the album are immediate, more up-tempo and mostly about experiences in Glasgow, whereas the sounds on the second half are more subtle and are about experiences when I lived in the country.”

Back “in the country” as a youngster, the lack of diversions led to many hours spent in his room “with headphones on playing around with different sounds”. That willingness to try out contrasting styles brought together elements of Mogwai’s minimal soundscapes and Boards of Canada’s tarnished electronica in his songs. But it is that other name-checked Scottish band of the past decade, Arab Strap, who are the closest musical relatives to Yahweh’s gutsy alt-folk. “When I was 14 I sent an e-mail to Aidan Moffat asking if my age would stop me from getting in to see their acoustic request show,” Cook recalls. “It was at Sleazy’s in Glasgow so I couldn’t get in but he sent me a letter with a couple of CDs. I was made up!”

[Yahweh – Laps(e)]

Although Cook recorded almost the entire album alone in his bedroom, on an assortment of (pause for breath) guitars, maracas, drums, synths, sticks, toys, a programmer, harmonium, glockenspiel, banjo, violin, sitar and stapler, Yahweh is a collective that swells in number for live shows. “Tug of Love was definitely a solo project and is to be viewed as a complete piece,” Cook says, “but when we play live, the four of us are all part of Yahweh and everyone contributes to the re-invention of the tracks on the album.”

With two more releases “lined up in his head as concepts” and four years of study to look forward to, it looks certain Cook will have no trouble keeping busy. The only problem might be one or two rather eccentric fans, but that’s inevitable when you name your band after the English version of the Hebrew word for God. “Every so often I’ll get a message opening with ‘shalom’,” Cook says. “There was a woman from America who was literally messaging me every day with pictures of her and her children and quotes from the Bible written below… that was pretty strange.”

Yahweh play Stereo, Glasgow on 11 April and Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh on 20 June.

Tug of Love is out now – available from Yahweh’s MySpace.

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Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Album review for The Skinny

Bat For Lashes

Anyone acquainted with Bat For Lashes’ highly regarded debut Fur and Gold will know that the Brighton singer-songwriter (real name Natasha Khan) is something of a New Age siren. On this highly anticipated follow-up, she ups the mystic ante, harnessing the tribal energy of kindred spirits Yeasayer (most noticeably on thrilling opener Glass) and poses on the cover in body paint against a desert-at-night backdrop. So far, so cosmic. But there are also less predictable developments: Peace of Mind boasts an “all-black, all-gay” gospel choir, and legendary crooner Scott Walker makes a rare guest appearance on the vaudevillian finale that is The Big Sleep.

Conceptually, Two Suns is an album of opposites, an exploration of contrasting perspectives that Khan takes as far as the alter-ego ‘Pearl’, a character who acts as her more brazen, provocative self. While this can lead to occasional moments of lyrical indulgence, of more import is the fact that it only furthers her chameleon ability to flit between styles, from the menacing electro of Sleep Alone to the polyphonic vocals of Pearl’s Dream to the synth-pop gloss of current single Daniel. In less able hands such divergent ambitions would clash horribly; in Khan’s they gel to form another measured, consistently excellent album.

Rating: 4/5

Out 6 April on Parlophone
Bat For Lashes play QMU, Glasgow on 8 Apr

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