Alternative music reviews

October 3, 2005

The Weightless EP by Stillman

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When Chaz Craik nearly grasped success with Britpop band Cab only to suffer disappointment as the Britpop bubble burst, Craik spent a long time on the fringes of commercial acceptance. His solo project Stillman is another throw of the dice to gain some attention. Over the course of this wholly impressive E.P. Craik has managed to craft solid and concise acoustic driven songs which are rich in texture, showing an understanding of how to pull off this singer-songwriter lark. Highly professional sounding production glosses these 5 tracks which is impressive in that Craik worked on his compositions using an old computer and some guitars lying around. When you consider so many artists record their music in what sounds like a disused garage with tinny and harsh production values, ‘The Weightless E.P.’ is of good sound quality. Always a welcome sign for this type of music – lush, dreamy Elliot Smith influenced gentle folk-pop. Craik sound like a more demure Grant Nicholas from Feeder, so imagine Feeder’s quieter moments for an idea how Stillman sounds. That’s not to say Stillman can be pigeon-holed into one category, as the likes of ‘Weightless’ and ‘The Worst Is Over’ are achingly slow and beautiful with introspective lyrics. ‘The Worst Is Over’ details insecurities with lines such as “Stay home tonight, shut the world outside, it’ll suck you dry, it’s over now” and title track ‘Weightless’ goes into metaphors to express feelings – “Here we are weightless, drifting free, numb and memoryless”. To add a little assortment, ‘Born For Show’ is more uptempo with jangly guitars and more pop feel. This leaves the ‘Foreword’ and ‘Afterworld’ which bookend the E.P., the former a minute long introduction to the record and the latter a 3 minute swirling mostly instrumental piece which goes for studied atmosphere rather than songwriting kudos. There is plenty to recommend with Stillman and it’s good to hear acoustic and lush pop that usually turns out to be dull and forgettable ditchwater in the wrong hands to be pulled off successfully here.

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Review by Nick Collings

September 24, 2005

Kaedee by Kaedee

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Three piece band hailing from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania band with a tendency to stray into noodling guitar passages. The singer Steve Mousseau has quite an authentic voice in the Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews and Jim Morrison mould, the songs benefit from his vocal delivery. The eight songs were recorded live in the studio over 10-12 hours which gives an unpolished and welcome edge to the music. Guitarist Chris Mercer uses space in-between the guitar parts effectively, letting the instruments breathe with some minor effects adding some spacey vibe, as ‘Movement 2 (The Escape’) demonstrates. Opener ‘Beg and Borrow’ is a driven rocker with bellowing vocals and chiming chords dropped into place. Getting progressively more intense as the song develops, it’s a fine introduction to Kaedee. To display the band has some diversity, ‘The Vision’ is underpins by Rich Breazanno’s drums, showing this band are a collective unit. The production values are just about held together as Mousseau howls out the key line “getting it right” halfway through.

Over the course of the self-titled album, the debt to classic rock is obvious. No modern day gimmicks or flavour of the month trends are applied, the songs are straight forward and passionate. Bands like Free and The Doors have performed this type of music decades before, yet Kaedee exude enough sincerity to make the listener believe that the band believe in their own music. However, there are times when Kaedee go forth and expand on their jams, with three of the songs exceeding the 7 minute mark. Over this length of time, as on ‘The Cetacean Glyph’, there are enough musical ideas to retain attention with a locked in groove half way through.

Amongst the positives, the main criticism is lack of diversity over a full album with songs not differing too greatly from each other. The same mood is applied to all the songs but that’s just nitpicking. Overall, an impressive release with the same thirst for exploring structural boundaries as Dave Matthews Band before them.

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Review by Nick Collings

July 27, 2005

Seminole County by Seminole County

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Comprising of female singer/rapper Jj and guitarist/occasional singer Byron J, Seminole County formed 2 years ago in south Florida county where the band gets its name. Let’s get the obvious out the way first, the duo sound remarkably like Linkin Park crossed with Evanescence with a hint of Garbage’s Shirley Manson attitude. The mixture works well on their 10-track self titled album, with Jj spurting out her vocals in clipped tones over processed guitars during the verses, then reverting to Linkin Park styled harmonies during the evitable choruses. Highly commercialised and geared towards fans of Linkin Park and Evanescence without the strong gothic tendencies, this young act are certainly a very modern and “right now” sort of band. The rap influenced groove of ‘Let ‘Em Know’ will appeal to hip-hop fans with slight electronic tinges heightening up the sound density. The short named Jj (with emphasis on lower cased second “j”) has a specific vocal style and uses it without diversifying her range or tone too much. It works well enough but needs to develop to stay interesting. Luckily for us listeners third track ‘Playin’ Me’ has Jj attempting straight forward singing which turns out lovely and not used enough. Byron J duets on the song and his commanding voice works well as does all his vocal contributions across the whole album. The stop-start guitar stutter returns for ‘Myself’, crunchy yet non-sloppy the song is sleek, polished and again fits to type. Seminole County have found a style that suits them and stick with it, though added piano touches enliven the song, showing stronger Evanescence comparisons.

‘Better Than Me’ continues the tight formula of drawn out guitar chords and vocals dominant in the mix. Other instruments aren’t so clearly defined, instead focusing on the duo trading off some assessable vocal harmonies. ‘Life In Me’ introduces acoustic guitar, offering some lightness – it’s a good move as it offers some diversity to the pattern of similar sounding songs. One of the album’s highlights, ‘Life In Me’ approaches ballad status and stays sincere. Over the course of 10 tracks, with the exception of ‘Playin’ Me’ and ‘Life In Me’ the remaining tracks begin to merge into one another as identi-kit slabs of modern American radio rock with hip-hop influences. The quality stays consistent throughout, no track weaker than the other. Probably the most quintessential track is ‘Let ‘Em Know’ with its hip-hop beat and Jj’s head-strong female attitude coming through. The most impressive in dynamics and showcasing the duo’s best attributes is ‘Playin’ Me’ as it strays from the clipped rap vocals into pure melodic singing with professionalism. Overall, it’s a promising release from a young band with potential to develop away from their obvious influences into something more unique and musically developed. The music production is highly polished and sounds great on loud speakers, which is job done.

Seminole County are on tour with The Backstreet Boys throughout August 2005. Wow, The Backstreet Boys – let that fact sink in for a while. Now that’s an intriguing combination, the rock edge of Seminole County touring with the pure boy band pop of The Backstreet Boys.

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Review by Nick Collings

July 26, 2005

Something To Die For by Undercut

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Having already reviewed the undeniably catchy ‘To Die For’ single, Undercut’s full length album is a mixture of unwavering vocals over chiming, non-aggressive guitars. In context with the rest of the album, ‘To Die For’ is still the strongest in terms of melody and still reminds me awfully a lot of Foo Fighters at their most pop sheen. The other single, ‘Soul Food Mother’ is also American sounding, reference point for me being Filter during their ‘Title Of Record’ phase. Hailing from Bristol, England – the band sure have enough American influences seeping through their music. Many critics and media types frequently mention Coldplay and U2 as comparisons but I can’t see it. The vocals are less dynamic, lacking the bombast of a Bono or heart-wrenching impact of Chris Martin. Singer Johnny Benn has a smooth and listenable voice, easy to sit back and not feel threatened – rock radio is ready and waiting. ‘Crazy Too’ has a reflective mood which is appealing with well-built song structure. Far more exciting is ‘Soil’ which opens with throbbing bass and stadium sized guitar chords before settling into solid verses and a pop-infused chorus.

The production is crisp and clean, no sudden left turns into experimentation, fitting the mould of a rock band suited to radio play lists. Compared to the current flavour of the month Snow Patrol and Kasabian, I would take Undercut over them as Undercut’s music doesn’t completely fall into pop blandness trap which I’ve grown despondent with. The chorus to ‘Rising To Fall’ is well-crafted and works well with crashing cymbals and displays Benn’s vocals in a positive light. So what we have is a very consistent album with no obvious low points. None of the songs offended me or made me reach for the “skip” button which is a very good sign. The singles ‘Soul Food Mother’ and ‘To Die For’ are uniformly excellent in the face of derivativeness, and to top it all off, this is a band on the rise – I’ve even seen this album regularly advertised in rock’s Holy bible – Kerrang!

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review By Nick Collings

July 25, 2005

Heartache & Pain: An Introduction to the Alternative Country of Jamtland by Various Artists

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After such a long winded album title, this is essentially a compilation of Swedish Country bands; four artists, two songs per artist (that makes eight songs in total mathematic fans). The artists are: Former Beauty Queen, who play ragged reflective country-fried odes to pain; Six Figure Transatlantic, influenced by seventies era Bob Dylan and Neil Young; Grande Roses, who must have Johnny Cash on heavy rotation and finally The Celophane Flower, more light-hearted with twang guitars.

Since The Celophane Flower was the very first band I reviewed for my promo page, they are not a band I could easily forget. So when this compilation dropped on my doorstep, it was time to re-evaluate the Swedish Country scene in a broader sense. I still don’t consider myself as a Country Music fan; some early seventies Dylan goes down nicely and a handful of others are on steady rotation – but that it.

Former Beauty Queen is disappointingly not a Beauty Queen, former or otherwise. Once I got over the fact I wasn’t listening to some hot chick, the two songs ‘Our Private Mardi Gras’ and ‘A Typical Syndrome pt 2’ are of very high standard – enjoyable, melodic, dark atmosphere and a decent singing voice. Former Beauty Queen is probably my favourite artist on the disc, which is a high compliment.

‘I don’t want to get back on that horse again’ – no, not my fear of horses but the title of Six Figure Transatlantic’s immensely catchy song, the most immediate chorus on the disc. Imagine the song title being repeated a few times in a decent singing voice and you get the picture. The Celophane Flower’s ‘2 a.m.’ is gentle with a soft singing voice – very calming with steel guitars. Their second offering ‘What Can This Bring’ which closes the album is an unusual choice with deliberately tinny production, harking back to decades past. It’s an old fashioned Country N’ Western poignant number which would be apt around a camp fire in the American wilderness.

Bottom Line: A handy, compact overview of a musical scene, showcasing some captivating artists. Over the course of the compilation, the four artists do sound similar to one another, a uniform sound becoming apparent. Tales of regret, loss and most likely heavy drinking are driven by carefully structured Country guitar songs.

And in reference to my original Celophane Flower review, I’m still off to listen to some Slayer.

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Review By Nick Collings

July 24, 2005

This Is Now by Iodo

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Playing this lo-fi indie record with electronic drum machines and Radiohead influenced blips and beeps is undoubtedly a jagged experience. Not your typical rock record, ‘This Is Now’ jumps from Pavement scratchy guitar tones and Joy Division bass lines to Aphex Twin drum n’ bass beats as demonstrated by ‘Stainless Steel Mouse’ which their obvious affection for left-field artists. Lincoln lads Kip, Dappy, George and Phillip came together in 2003 and formed Iodo, contrasting poppy sixties melodies with cold, post-punk atmosphere. It somehow works, with some songs more successful than others; ‘First Semester’ fits a rapid-paced drum beat over a slow, simplistic melodic structure which sounds uneven and difficult to appreciate. More successful in execution is ‘By A River’ which attempts Sigur Ros ambience, the guitar tone and chord pattern very similar to The Passenger’s ‘Miss Sarajevo’. It does distract from lack of originality, but overcomes such hindrance from its charm and excellent textures.

The whole album has low key production, is unpretentious and slender. Iodo ‘s website describes vocalist Kip as “a man with no musical training who was fired from a previous band for lack of singing ability”. Either an honest account or tongue-in-cheek and after listening to Kip’s singing voice it’s difficult to tell since the vocals are distorted and sang in monotone without much variation. Yet, the vocals suit the music much like Ian Curtis from Joy Division or Kraftwork before them. Not exactly karaoke singing material, but plenty of interesting ideas and experimentation to raise my interest. ‘The Beauty Of Violence’ is another highlight, taking the Aphex Twin template of discordant beats and samples, twisting all kinds of effects into an impressive sprawling outcome. The instrumental coda is especially off the chart in term of sonic sound abuse.

Which brings up the point of non-coherence, switching from dirge acoustic ramblings (‘My Regression’) to keyboard driven catchy tunes (‘A Lesson In Camouflage’) to calming ambience (‘By A River’) within the same album. On the flipside, it shows a band unafraid to try their hand at different styles, the upbeat songs are more listenable and enjoyable than the pensive slow dirges. ‘This Is Now’ showcases a band with an esteemed set of influences (Radiohead, Pavement, Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin, Joy Division), and moulding them into their own identity. Flawed in places yet the positive moments make for a worthwhile and eventually rewarding creation.

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Review by Nick Collings

July 9, 2005

Machines To Live In by Quartershade

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Recorded in a rural Leicestershire barn, ‘Machines To Live In’ is an emotive three song CD from Quartershade, taking in many British influences from (latter era) Headswim, Idlewild and Crackout. Making up for lack of originality are the actual songs, which retain their Englishness in vocals and corrosive guitars a la ‘Pablo Honey’ era Radiohead as on the soaring ‘Stay With Me’. Drumming is rudimentary, giving focus on vocals and guitars which keep my interest throughout. The most sombre track ‘Swim’ starts off slowly with just the guitarist playing repetitive chords, allowing bass and drums to enter the mix which progressively builds into an epic sounding rock song. It’s quite calculated, pushing emotional buttons in the listener, in the same way Hell Is For Heroes can put together a life-affirming rock song. The most conformist structure belongs to ‘Capetown’, the shortest song at less than 2.5 minutes, the chiming guitars and solid rhythm section make Quartershade appear to be a more sincere and low key U2, which in my book can’t be a bad thing.

Four years into their career, the Loughborough band have assurance in their abilities and know their strengths – soaring guitars, energetic drum bashing and unfashionably solid rock songs. There’s enough in the music to appeal to the commercial crowd, with accessible songs and broad, easily digestible lyrics, take Capetown’s lyrics of “you seem to be a shooting star, can’t ignore, so hard to hold you” which can be interpretive as being unable to keep the girl, one of relationship’s universal themes. All the factors are in place for Quartershade to muscle in on the current UK rock scene action; ‘Machines To Live In’ demonstrates the strong potential.

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review by Nick Collings.

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