Category Archives: albums

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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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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Crystal Antlers – Tentacles

Album review for The Skinny

Crystal Antlers - Tentacles

In the endlessly cyclical history of popular music, psychedelic rock has mostly been left to gather dust in record shops. There have been isolated attempts to revive the genre from bands like Comets on Fire and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but nothing like a concerted revival. Crystal Antlers could well be the band to trigger it. Continuing where their acclaimed EP left off, Tentacles is a blistering onslaught of splashy organ, tangential guitar solos and Jonny Bell’s howling vocals. Despite their adoption of late-60s modes, the latest ‘crystal’-prefixed band do more than perform CPR on a half-dead musical corpse. Andrew, for instance, begins on a Van Morrison-style blues refrain before plunging into a double-speed punk frenzy, while Memorized is a pained, exhilarating track that encroaches on the far-out territory of the Mars Volta. Unlike their indulgent forebears, Crystal Antlers refract psychedelic rock through the prism of punk, adding plenty of soul in the process.

Rating: 4/5

Crystal Antlers play Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh on 18 May and Stereo, Glasgow on 19 May.

Stay tuned for an interview with Crystal Antlers frontman Jonny Bell next week.

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Chimes & Bells – Into Pieces of Wood

EP review for The Line of Best Fit

Chimes & Bells - Into Pieces of Wood

In these hyper-connected times we’re living in, it’s rare for a band to emerge from seemingly nowhere, with no biographical baggage, no superficial hype and no expectation – and yet utterly astound you with their music. This much I know about Chimes & Bells: they’re a Danish quartet, and their debut EP Into Pieces of Wood marks them out as the best new band I’ve heard this year.

It may be that Scandinavians are more adept at sidestepping the public parade of the music business, or it may just be that Chimes & Bells are still undiscovered. At the time of writing they had a mere ten listeners on Last.FM, there were only a few, non-descript photos on their MySpace, and on Google the band itself is buried beneath an impenetrable layer of tacky e-commerce sites for wind chimes and door bells.

So that leaves the music and the music alone. Not to discourage anyone from the start, but it’s unremittingly slow, brooding and bleak; the four tracks that constitute this EP all last more than five minutes, and are all dirge-like in quality. But there’s an allure to Chimes & Bells; a ghostly glint that illuminates the darkness of their sound world, best captured in a line they borrow from Leonard Cohen on opener ‘Stand Still’: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

They follow this with the title track ‘Into Pieces of Wood’, and with its dragging, clanging, adagio-paced guitar track, it’s what Mogwai and Death in Vegas would sound like if they had ever collaborated. ‘Golden Sweater’ meanwhile is a haunting amalgam of lazy cello, Velvet Underground drone, and the keynote feature of their sound: vocal harmonies that don’t quite square up, leaving a phantom echo hanging in the air. The tone changes on ‘You Shall Not Pass’, with its line “I will plaster you to the floor.” Thus it could quite conceivably be the tale of a brutish doorman’s aggression, were it not for the song itself, which is like an especially downbeat Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Despite everything I’ve said, this isn’t a depressing record. Instead it possesses the kind of grim beauty and far-flung ambition that surpasses all the half-baked hype in the world. For now, Chimes & Bells are a mirage, both in reputation and style. Enjoy the mystique while you can.

Rating: 85%

Since writing this piece I’ve been informed that Chimes & Bells are on the verge of signing with Bella Union, the label that hosts Fleet Foxes and Andrew Bird in the UK. So expect to hear more of them in months to come.

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Frightened Rabbit – Liver! Lung! FR!

Live album review for The Skinny

Frightened Rabbit - Liver! Lung! FR!

Liver! Lung! FR! is an intermediary fan-pleaser in which Frightened Rabbit serve up a no-nonsense semi-acoustic live set, rigidly following the track-listing of The Skinny’s album of 2008, The Midnight Organ Fight.

So you might rightly question the worth of such an endeavour; most live albums usually wheel out an unexpected cover after all. Irrelevant, because this is a band already renowned for their near-transcendent shows, playing a superlative album to a room of real fans at Glasgow’s intimate Captain’s Rest. Ask yourself, do you really need that self-conscious Pavement cover?

Still not convinced? Well, there are a couple of ‘bonus features’: Glasgow troubadour Ross Clark “pulls a mandolin from his arse” to guest on Old Old Fashioned, while Twilight Sad singer and bezzie mate James Graham scales the vocal heights of Keep Yourself Warm. Shut your eyes and you’re there, tapping your toe at the front. This may be a fan-pleaser, but only deaf hermits aren’t fans by now.

Rating: 4/5

Released on 30 Mar via Fat Cat records

Frightened Rabbit play Captain’s Rest, Glasgow on 31 Mar and The Bowery, Edinburgh on 3 Apr.

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FOUND – The Fidelities EP

FOUND - The Fidelities EP

EP review for The Skinny

Apparently designed to give the lie to those who say the Scottish music scene is too ponderous or introspective, Edinburgh collective FOUND are specialists in skewed, mashed-up folk-tronica. Fans of Attic Lights and Make Model already know about their digital talents thanks to some gloriously glitchy remixes, and The Fidelities EP certainly errs more on the ‘-tronica’ side of things. With its yelled chorus and pent-up electro, Let Fidelity Break is an alt.pop hit-in-waiting, Now We’ll Never Make The Playlist is a spindly slice of unabashed funk, while This Way By Design confirms FOUND as natural successors to The Beta Band. The creative well tapped by Ziggy Campbell and his cohorts shows no sign of running dry.

Rating: 4/5

Out on 9 March through Fence/Aufgeladen & Bereit

FOUND have also released a download-only, pay-what-you-like album of remixes and rarities called snarebrained to fund their trip to the SXSW music conference in Texas. It’s available from their website. They play Old St Paul’s Church Hall, Edinburgh on 7 Mar.

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