It’s been admittedly a little while since our last set of reviews. Life has a funny habit of getting in the way sometimes. We’ve a big backlog of great stuff to get through, but here are six recent releases that tickled our fancy. Some brand new, some we took our sweet time to get around to.
The Birthmarks – Slowly
We’ve been meaning to write about this album after it came out in June! It was a crazy month so a few things slipped the net. So here we are. We got there in the end. The Birthmarks have been beavering away since 2016. With two excellent EPs under their belt since the band (featuring former members of Sex Hands and Lovvers) formed, they dropped their debut album proper; ’Slowly. Kicking off with the topsy turvy first single “Royal Youns”, their psych-tinged retro garage pop has lost none of its sparkle.
The hazy groove of “Child Stars” follows.
It combines elements of Yo La Tengo with 60s beat pop before slowly unravelling into a crooked Country Teasers crescendo.“Deep Fake” is a jangly upbeat affair engraved with light fuzz and some gloriously playful interplay between guitars and bass.
Things become a little more raucous on the excellent “Portuguese Man O’ War” which fills the clattering wonk indiepop void left by Let’s Wrestle many moons ago. It’s a mantle they take up again with aplomb. For the rough edges of The Birthmarks’ music there is no doubt they are excellent musicians (is this pun too niche?).Their delightfully lackadaisical delivery persists throughout “I Know You Know” and “Man Of The Times” while “The Villain” is full of anxious tension. The doubled up hooks are brilliantly off kilter, the interplay between lead guitar and vocals exciting. It spills over into a crazed high pitched scrawl like nails down a chalkboard. In a good way.
The subtle “Waste Of Time” is striking in its simplicity.
A lightly strummed guitar accompanied by dual vocals. It’s an unusual moment of reflection that brings a welcome new dynamic to the album. Sometimes less is more and this is certainly the case. It gives a touch of breathing space and cleanses the listening palette before the countrified rim clicks of “DRTHC”. It shares a lot in common with Edwin Stevens’s previous exploits as Irma Vep.
This gradually builds in intensity, like a less in-your-face Gorky’s, picking up pace with each bar towards the end. There’s time for one more piece of bouncy post-punky pop with the 6 plus minutes of “Do They Know”. Initially it has a touch of The Oh Sees about it. It serves as a moment for the band to jam and really let loose. Al Robinson’s drums flail wildly, changing the dynamics of the jam. It’s the sort of song that you can imagine might vary wildly from gig to gig. It serves as the perfect closer for the album too.
’Slowly’ is a little more nuanced and varied than the previous EPs.
That’s often necessary when it comes to a full length. It strikes the right balance to keep the listener engaged rather than going for hit after hit, which can be exhausting. We’d been anticipating this album for a while and it doesn’t disappoint.
black midi – Hellfire
Black midi don’t really need much of an introduction now, do they? Meh, I’ll do it anyway. ‘Hellfire’ sees them follow up the unexpectedly schmalzy ‘Cavalcade’ just one year later. It’s quite a feat given the intricacies involved in their work. Even moreso considering this is their first album completely without former guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin. ‘Cavalcade’ wasn’t necessarily a mis-step but was certainly a surprising follow up to 2019’s unhinged ’Schlagenheim’.
So, how does ‘Hellfire’ compare?
Well… it’s kind of a cross between its two predecessors. This is obvious from the off. “Sugar/Tzu” is tinged with loungey jazz as Geordie Greep’s familiar croon enters. It’s only 45 seconds in that we see the other side of black midi as they explode into a tight technical loop that gives me RSI just listening to it. It’s complimented by brass blasts and displays their wild creativity brilliantly. All the usual ingredients are there.“Welcome To Hell” is built upon an and expands from an upbeat almost comical groove. It has a twisted, dark sensibility that winds through the progressive riffs of King Crimson and insanity of Mr Bungle.
The title track follows.
It’s an intense and paranoid one and a half minutes of stabbing instrumentation and militaristic drums. Greep relentlessly jabbers over the top until it reaches its whirlwind ending.In typical black midi fashion they through in a complete curveball. This time it comes in the fashion of the almost Elliott Smith-like “Still” which sees Cameron Picton take vocals for the first time on the album. It’s a gorgeous country song that descends into stunning chaos. An unexpected highlight.Picton again takes the lead on “Eat Men Eat”. His voice is far less dramatic than Greep’s but the ideas somehow stranger. That we’ve got to this point without even mentioning Morgan Simpson’s drums is perhaps to have taken for granted just how good he is. There are large swathes of this song in which he isn’t playing. However, when he is, it’s phenomenal.
Simpson really shines on “The Race Is About To Begin” which is, for want of a better word, insane.
It explodes into frenzied math lounge and jazz noise. It’s like a bizarre concoction of Beefheart, Mr Bungle, Dilinger Escape Plan and Frank Sinatra. The final three minutes drift off into Jeff Buckley territory.
“The Defence” veers back into schmulzy territory. It’s like a show tune or something from a Lloyd Webber Musical. It makes you wonder if we might end up seeing a black midi Musical in the future. At this point I wouldn’t bet against it. They carry this mood into “Dangerous Liaisons”. There are, of course, wild moments that would make for quite a disturbing theatre experience!
The album takes another twisted turn on “27 Questions”.
A track filled with stabbing rhythms, throwing in wonky melodica and a huge amount of bombast. The final track “Marlene Dietrich” takes influence from its namesake. This would be a surprise if we
If there is any musical ground left to cover black midi seem intent on unearthing it. I eagerly await the Reggae, Death Metal, Acid House and Celine Dion hybrid of the next album then.Black Midi symbolise the ridiculousness of the world we now find ourselves in but also one of endless possibilities.
Jenny Moore- The Piano Tapes Vol 1
Jenny Moore claimed our EP of the year in 2021 with her six piece ensemble, Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business’s ’He Earns Enough‘. Last month she followed this up with another EP released under her own name. ’The Piano Tapes Vol 1.” is a stripped back set of five songs, with Moore (obviously) accompanied by a piano throughout. Despite it appearing to be a completely solo pursuit from its title, the EP still features members of Mystic Business providing backing vocals.
“Marshmallow” is a gorgeous evolving piece that gradually reveals new layers, winds through several sections, adding solemn strings, powerful chants and stunning vocal harmonies. Whilst more sombre in tone it very much has the feel of a Mystic Business song.
“Take It Down” is even further stripped back but no less powerful.
The vocals take absolute precedence while this very much sounds like it was recording in one take. Piano mistakes are left in, adding to this feeling and it’s only more charming for it.With a sound so minimal the quality of the songs has to be exceptional and Moore has really delivered. The simple, repetitive piano chords of “Hotel Room” simply work as a platform for the vocals to do all the work, guiding the dynamics of the piece. As with ‘He Earns Enough’ there are moments of absolutely crushing beauty.
“Let Them Go” provides arguably the most stunning. The final minute and a half is spine tinglingly powerful. The harmonies create a giant wall of sound with an unerringly placed discordant note that completely changes the complexion of the piece.As is Moore’s want “Never Trust A Therapist” provides comic relief which is still wrapped inside a serious social issue. The jaunty piano lines and spoken word rambles build to a crescendo fitting of this superb EP. The Piano Tapes Vol 1 is out now via Lost Map.
The Orchids – Dreaming Kind
The Orchids are back with their first album in eight years. Their seventh in total. The cult indie band from Glasgow, were a prominent name on Sarah records in the 80s and early 90s. Their output has been more sporadic since those heady days but it’s always a pleasant surprise to get something new from them. This release is their first via the Skep Wax label and it sounds pleasingly familiar.
From the off their shimmering guitar sounds and pristine pop melodies are present.
“Didn’t We Love You” has all the hallmarks of a great indiepop song. A simple melodic bassline, Cure-esque guitar jangle and solos and sweet vocal harmonies. The great thing about the Orchids is that they’re not afraid to explore new sounds and “Limitless #1” is a great example of this. There are beautiful textures created via effects and electronics.
The Orchids aren’t your average indie pop band.
They embrace subtleties, spatial dynamics and minimalism in the electronic “What Have I Got To Do” and the gorgeous acoustic lead “Isn’t It Easy”.“This Boy Is A Mess” toys with industrial sounds in its intro which almost have hints of Yello. The song evolves into a bouncy Yo La Tengo-esque hip shaker. This isn’t the only track that has notes of US indie. “Echos (Have Hope)”, for instance, could quite easily be mistaken for a Wilco track given its effortless, breezy mix of electronics and laid back indie rock.The whole album is full of beautifully constructed songs, instant melodies and smart dynamics.
“I Should Have Thought” has a wonderfully fuzzy bassline and general production that recalls Dave Fridmann’s most playful work with the Flaming Lips, although in this case Ian Carmichael is the master knob twiddler.
Such is the attention to detail this album sounds like one eight years in the making.
This is a great headphones album. There are so many intricate details that are hard to notice or appreciate on the first sitting. ‘Dreaming Kind’ is a superbly crafted album that we’ll no doubt be coming back to on a regular basis. The comeback of the year and quite possibly The Orchids’ masterpiece.
Order Of The Toad – Spirit Man
Order Of The Toad released one of our favourite albums of 2020 in the brilliant ‘Re-Order Of The Toad’. They’re back already via Gringo Records and Hidden Bay with the excellent ’Spirit Man’. Their hip shaking retro pop has lost none of its sparkle. “Subterranean” opens the set with glorious bounce. It’s an aural treat, with a wonderful backing vocal hook, Gemma Fleet’s ever buoyant lead vocal and Andrew Doig’s unusual, yet ultra retro, guitar sound.
This is chased by the glorious recent single “Golden Rod”.
The organ-like guitar sound adorning Doig’s guitar chops excitedly again new member Fionnan Byrne-Perkins’ counter melodies. It shoots for that same Byrds-esque dynamic that The Coral initially mined. Full of joyous quirks, fun stop-start drums and tumbling melodies. Order Of The Toad always sound like they’re having fun. “Let Myself Go” is a great example of this. The “ooh” backing vocals, the playful guitar interplay and honey sweet melodies are backed up by ever shifting and intricate drum patterns.
Chris Taylor takes the lead vocal on the oddball “Salt Of The Earth”.
As ever, his baritone vocal recalls The Magnetic Fields, Calvin Johnson et al. The melodies and rhythmic construction are almost comical and marry well with the tongue in cheek lyrics.The title track brings things down a notch. The metronomic drumbeat and drawn out keyboard chords of this instrumental are accompanied by sparse, warped, twinkling chimes. It works as a mood piece to change the dynamic of the album to the more plaintive tones of “Love Duet”. Fleet’s vocal on “Foghorn” is an absolute joy. She shifts between her natural powerful tone and a Kate Bush-esque falsetto which matches the ever shifting dynamics of the backing.
They’ve really taken another step forward with this album.
The intricacy of their compositions is breathtaking at times. “Solo Amor” is full of beautiful little counter rhythms, pieced together like a magestic puzzle, yet it still retains the band’s stunning pop sensibilities. It’s also beautifully produced by Ross McGowan. Things take a new turn on “The Dumbening” with Doig and Taylor duetting over a wonderfully crooked backing that comes across like an ultra chilled Parquet Courts. The stomping “Beyond The Pale” has a spaghetti Western tinge to it, with its twangy descending guitar licks and drum fills. “Upstairs Downstairs” is another lyrically hilarious song that sees all three vocalists combining. Fleet’s sweetly sung chorus provides a great counterpoint to the cheeky content.
Order of the Toad have packed this album with aural candy.
Closer “My Familiar” is no exception. It has a dreamy quality to it when it hits the chorus. The abstract intro repeats later into the song accompanying some slightly indistinguishable whispered vocals and serves to introduce a change in pace for the final minute.
’Spirit Man’ is Order Of The Toad’s most ambitious and playful album yet. A glorious pop record full of wonderful melodies and counter-rhythms that simply deserves attention. It’s not out until 16th September so keep your eyes peeled. Available for pre-order, of course.
SDF – Rhythm of the Rubicon
SDF first came to our attention in 2019, leading to a set at our first DIY, Why Not? Festival. Then playing as a duo, Adam Parkinson and Oliver Marchant provided the festival with a euphoric and hypnotic edge. Their acid house inspired disco pop performance, with Marchant having quite the stage presence was as joyous as this new album. ‘Rhythm Of The Rubicon’ is SDF’s third album, following 2017’s ‘Alana’ which was released via Psykick Dancehall.
Now finding a home on Lost Map (Marchant also having released an excellent single on the label as RKB Vitesse) quantum physicist Lucy Whalley completes the trio.Their heady concoction of beats, ambient synths and sprechgesang vocals belongs in clubs the world over.
The sub bass of “Hi Vis”, the cavernous dark melodies of “Broken Glass” and the club worthy “Can’t Get High” would no doubt turn dance floors into haptic mechanisms. There are tender moments, such as the spellbinding and aptly named “Dream” and “Punch & Judy”. The lyrics, which often revel in the oddness of the everyday draw natural comparison to The Pheromoans. Closer “Aspartame” has a similar atmosphere to Marchant’s urgent “The Pledge”. The heavy, skittering drums and brooding synths provide an intoxicating backdrop to Marchant’s impassioned vocal.
‘Rhythm of the Rubicon’ is a sensational return after five years.