March 2011 Music Picks

Greetings from the Underground of the known pop universe. We have a fair bit of time-travelling this month, taking in Texas, Derby, Montreal, New York, California, Berlin, Seattle, Dublin, North Wales and Cork. Time travel is good. Let the UOH be your travel agent...
All albums, unless otherwise noted.

Josh T. Pearson - Woman, when I've raised hell (Mute, from the album Last of the country gentlemen)
Thoroughly outstanding centrepiece from the Texan's, ex-Lift to Experience frontman's, new album. From the gripping opening line, "Woman, when I've raised hell, you're gonna know it", you will be captivated by the wonderfully slurred delivery for the full 7 minutes. That's without mentioning the heartrending violin backing of Warren Ellis (and others) and the completely convincing dirty realist imagery - "Don't make me rule this home with the back of my hand", "Let me quietly drink myself to sleep". In a way, it's amazing how much drama can be wrought out of a sparse acoustic guitar, a vocal and some strings. I've listened to it about 20 times and it still sounds new every time. However you cut it, it's a compelling masterpiece.
Behind the scenes video:

Playing Crane Lane Theatre, Cork, May 1st, and other dates

Grimes - Halfaxa (Lo Recordings)
Meet Claire Boucher from Montreal, who has produced a fascinating, impossible-to-pigeonhole album. The constant features are haunting vocals - layered, filtered, and antique sounding, calling to mind Liz Frasier or Kate Bush in places - and sparse drum machine+synth backing. The overall effect is of a wide-ranging and completely "other" soundworld. From the de-constructed R 'n B ballad Heartbeats, to the ghostly-lament-masquerading-as-dance-pop of sagrad, the deliriously shoegazey Devon, and the ukulele stomp of Favriel. Be prepared for a trip. An album to treasure.

Grimes performs at Gorilla Vs Bear / Mexican Summer party, SXSW '11 from on Vimeo.

Playing Whelan's Upstairs, Dublin, May 15th

Radiohead - Little by little (XL)
Stand-out track from the King of limbs album, joining the dots between two-step and post-rock. A shuffling, rattling rhythm sets about being unsettling, with math-rock guitars floating above it. Hard to know exactly what the song's about, although the line "I'm such a tease, you're such a flirt" suggests Thom Yorke has (re)discovered his sensual side. Intriguing.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Heart in your heartbreak (Fortuna Pop, from the album Belong)
Perfect slice of sunshine, shoegaze pop (sungaze anyone?), from the New Yorkers' second album. The soundtrack of your summer, if you're lucky.

Tune-Yards - Gangsta (4AD, from the album whokill)
Another thumping tune from the upcoming second album (I believe "sophomore" is the term) from Merrill Garbus, complete with pounding jam-room drumming, sirens, distorted vocals, brass honking and the trademark Garbus wail. Essential. On release April 18th.

*Interview with Merrill Garbus from Feb 2010 -

Damon & Naomi - Walking backwards (Broken Horse, from the album False beats and true hearts)
Gorgeous return from the ex-Galaxie 500 rhythm section. A bank of acoustic guitars flank fuzz guitar, female "aws" and muted trumpet. Dreamy isn't the word. In other quite amazing news, the duo have unveiled a "video" for another track from their upcoming album, a single image provided by none other than Chris Marker (if this is a new name to you, there's some more info at this link - Check it out, right now.

Free d'load:

Damon & Naomi with Chris Marker - And You Are There from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.

Nils Frahm & Anne Muller - 7 fingers (Erased Tapes)
A triumphant collaboration between the pianist/composer and his fellow-German cellist. These are luminous soundscapes ranging from post-classical pieces with an ambient undertow (Teeth), to full-on electronic workouts with glitches and squiggles (7 fingers, sounding quite like something Radiohead might have had a hand in). Check also the emotional tug in the busy, Nymanesque strings of Let my key be C; the minimalist, and very German, electronica of Show your teeth, with violins adding synthesised swells; the cinematic chamber piece Because this must be/Augmentation (which includes Italian movie dialogue for good measure); and the haunting musique concrete of Journey for a traveller. Frahm's production is sublime the whole way through. Another gem on the Erased Tapes label.

Emphemetry - A lullaby hum for tired streets (Time Travel Opps)
A beautiful album alternating between ambient instrumentals and heartfelt folk songs with avant-garde leanings, from Derby's Richard Birkin. He describes the album himself as a "time travel fancy" and it comes across a bit like a love poem to his home city. After Catalunya is a sleepy wash of rumbles and drones punctuated with guitar harmonics. The sound of traffic in the rain opens Every other second day, a drunken keyboard waltz with distorted vocal takes over, before a low-key trumpet duet to finish. Five fields has a gorgeous fingerpicked guitar pattern with string accompaniment. Emilelodie is an elegant and arresting piano instrumental eventually submerged under an intriguing wave of static (the piece fits easily into the post-classical camp and in fact Nils Frahm crops up here on production and mixing duties). The overall effect is to put a sense of wonder back into the everyday. Everybody needs time travel like this. Beguiling.
*By the way, you can name your price for the album on the link below. I suggest you do so; the eight-page, hand-sewn booklet is also a thing of beauty.

Erland & the Carnival - I wish, I wish (Full Time Hobby, from the album Nightingale)
My favourite track on E&TC's fine second album. Circling sparkles of electronics give way to a bass-prominent arrangement not far from Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb territory (we like that), a self-deprecating vocal and some fantastic teeth-whistling to finish. A woozy, psychedelic, almost supernatural, atmosphere takes hold, which adds depth to the modern folk setting - "til apples grow on an orange tree".

*Check also Emmeline, track 3 on the album with its unexpected, and highly successful, use of the opening arpeggio pattern from Bernard Herrmann's main title from the soundtrack of the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. Up with that kind of thing.

Hotels - On the casino floor (Hidden Shoal)
A concept album of sorts from the Seattle band with a madly ambitious premise, too good not to quote from the press blurb. The plot concerns a "secret agent, his former mentor and current arch-nemesis, and a nefarious prince's plan to destroy Earth during the grand opening of the universe's only outer space casino complex" (!). This would be good enough in itself but happily the musical chops match the scale of the ambition, with elements of surf-rock and post-punk, a dollop of film soundtracks, as well as a hint of decadent and very welcome lounge. You may already have had the great pleasure of hearing first single The bat watusi, a wonderful Dick Dale-style bassline strapped onto a louche vocal with ray-gun synths in pursuit. A shimmering suite of tunes overall, which eschew standard verse-chorus structures but still retain a firm grasp of pop dynamics (for example, the delirious crescendo of From the west, the glorious wall of sound of the title track, the John Barry-like uplift of Sleep in fame). And at the centre, Blake Madden's sonorous croon. Highly recommended.

*I have to mention also that the hummable bass intro of Trouble at the consulate reminds me very much of early Go-Betweens (I'm thinking Springhill Fair era) and my religion obliges me to show love to anything with a hint of Grant McLennan.

**Watch out for an interview with Blake Madden coming up soon - it turns out he prefers the term "soundtrack to an imaginary film" to "concept album". That works for me.

Toro y Moi - Underneath the pine (Carpark)
Another triumph from the North Carolina wunderkind Chazwick Bundick, which does a great job of bridging the gap between R 'n B and indie (I wouldn't get sidetracked with "chillwave", personally). Among the highlights are the beautiful bouncy organ of Still sound; the soaring double vocal of How I know; the flanged guitar, handclaps (R 'n B could do with more of those if you ask me) and keytar riff of New beat; the soft samba of Before I'm done; and the lovely, reverbed "summer day" feel of Go with you which finishes with a fantastic "ooh-aw" vocal, Star Trek-style (plus the organ intro reminds me of the theme from The Odd Couple, which is also in its favour). Throughout, Bundick's dreamy vocals tie everything together. You'll get hooked.

Rich Bennett - Wild ride (Hidden Shoal, from the album On Holiday)
New single from Bennett's excellent 2010 album. A driving synth squiggle leads the way, with airy, male-female voices on top, until the wig-out ending. Sounds a bit like what might have happened if The Beach Boys had gone to visit Munich, instead of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Free d'load:

School Tour - The last exit west (Cass/Flick, from a split release cassette with Patrick Kelleher)
Fascinating goth-electro workout from the Dublin artist, culminating in a great distressed synth riff. The voice sounds a little bit like Gary Numan in a flotation tank. The track finishes with massed church organs. These things are good.

Robin Pecknold with Ed Droste - I'm losing myself (Fron an untitled free EP)
Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear frontmen duet on this straightforwardly beautiful tune, which has a distinct air of Simon & Garfunkel about it. Those Grizzly Foxes...

Get it free:

Antonymes - Endlessly (Hidden Shoal, single)
Sublime piece of abstract neo-classical music from north Wales, based around piano with rumbling atmospherics.

Free d'load:

Antonymes - 'Endlessly' from Hidden Shoal Recordings on Vimeo.

Sin Fang - Because of the blood (Morr Music, from the album Summer echoes)
Spectral folk music with a pop heart from the Icelander, which Belle & Sebastian fans will find plenty about to admire. Worth it for the "bom-bom-bom" backing vocals alone. (I must say I also have a soft spot for the home-made beards in the video.)

Marques Toliver - Deep in my heart (Bella Union, from the Butterflies are not free EP)
Superior R 'n B vocal backed with plucked violins and an unexpected two-step rhythm (the old two-step is everywhere this month).

Free d'load:

Crystal Stilts - Through the floor (Fortuna Pop, from the upcoming album In love with oblivion)
First single from the New Yorkers' new album which seems like a bit of a departure from their first. There are handclaps, pumped-up piano chords and vocal oohs in the background, making for an unexpected 70's MOR atmosphere (not a bad thing, I'm saying). Still, there's enough of a garage rock heart with wonderful slacker vocals to sound like the special band they were on their debut.

*Interview from May 2009 -

Colourmusic - You for leaving me (Memphis Industries, from the album My _____ is pink)
Gospel backing singers (brilliantly described in the blurb as "agnostic gospel"), a great art-rock lead vocal, the dirtiest fuzz guitars, pounding drums and a tender piano coda. A strange but highly successful cross between BRMC and the kosmische of Clinic. (By the way, the _____ is pronounced "blank" and you have to love that.)

The High Llamas - Fly baby, fly (Drag City, from the album Talahomi)
Beautifully warm, string and brass/reed-laden nostalgia from Sean O'Hagan (he's from Cork, you know) and friends. There are also vintage synths, tricky guitar shifts and dreamy melodies. Happy days all round.


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