EP Review – The Dolly Shakes, The Dolly Shakes

Do you enjoy Harry Potter-inspired numbers, set to a DIY, Riot Grrl-style backing? If so, let me introduce you to your new favourite band, The Dolly Shakes.

IMG_20191029_165936.jpg

Formed just over a year ago in Manchester, and consisting of chief band members Quina Chapman (bass, vocals) and Jessica Royle (guitars), with Liam Morgan on drums, they have been steadily building up a back catalogue of catchy numbers based on cult films and tv shows, with a heartfelt and often tongue-in-cheek delivery. They’re now set this week to release their debut self titled EP, just in time for Halloween.

Over the course of the seven tracks on this EP, they cover references such as “End Of The Fucking World” on the Deep Fat Fryer, “Mean Girls” on I Want My Pink Shirt Back, and an ode to Dean Pelton from the sitcom “Community” in the form of All 5 Dances. No matter how esoteric their lyrical references are, they have such a firm hold over the melody that each number just zips along, you can’t help but fall under their spell.

Musically, these guys take in a vast range of influences, including the heavier, tough-edged Riot Grrl esque leanings on “Deep Fat Fryer” and the library fine inspired “I Never Agreed To Abide To Your By-Laws (On The Run)”. There’s lighter, more pop-punk Green Day / Fall Out Boy style hi-jinks on “All 5 Dances” and “I Want My Pink Shirt Back”, as well as the softer indie sounds that run throughout debut single “I Wish Luna Lovegood Was My Friend”. They constantly shift their sound, keeping the ear engaged throughout the EP, which is part of their appeal, you never quite know which direction you’ll be heading with them next.

You can clearly tell just how much fun these guys had piecing this EP together, one of the main qualities that shines through in this material. My personal favourite is “Meal For Two”, a simple, sweet number led mainly by ukulele. Filled with warmth and personality, it pays tribute to Moobys, the restaurant from “Clerks” and “Jay and Silent Bob” fame.

Overall it’s a fab, thoroughly enjoyable release, made by people who clearly love music, and love making it as well. A perfect antidote to these dark and dreary times.

Keep your eyes peeled to catch The Dolly Shakes live, as they frequently pop up performing in and around Manchester, in venues such as FAB Café.

The debut EP “The Dolly Shakes” is available from October 31st on Bandcamp.

https://thedollyshakes.bandcamp.com/album/the-dolly-shakes-ep

Make sure as well to try grab yourself a physical copy of the EP, as the wonderful hand-drawn artwork is supplemented by a delightfully quirky zine, made by the band and filled with handwritten lyrics and illustrations to accompany each number.

Follow The Dolly Shakes on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube

LIVE: Elbow @ Castlefield Bowl, Sounds Of The City 2019

Amongst the typically rain swept skies of Manchester, local heroes Elbow return for a hometown performance as part of this years Sounds Of The City festival, running alongside the bi-annual Manchester International Festival. Other acts on the lineup this week include The National, The Kooks, Hacienda Classical…and Kylie! Located in the stunning outdoor arena of Castlefield Bowl, it’s an ideal setting for tonight’s performance (as long as the weather holds 😬).

First up is Barns Courtney, who is in honesty completely unfamiliar to me. He and his band strut around the stage in leather jackets like they’re The Libertines back in 2003 – I refer to Barns as “Swaggery Joe” throughout the set, which seems to sum up the vibe. It’s a bit “landfill indie” at times, but top marks for effort – as my wife states, in 30 minutes he seems to have used more energy than in her entire life. He prompts as many sing a longs and “wooaaahs” as possible, even jumping the barrier for the final number to sing and mingle with the crowd.

Next up we have the mighty Nadine Shah. Packing her set with tracks from her modern classic 2017 album “Holiday Destination” (which should have won last years Mercury Award), shes a hit with the crowd, exuding an intense energy as she rattles through each number with precision. There’s a thrilling post punk vibe to her sound, bringing to mind the likes of PJ Harvey and Anna Calvi.  A couple of new tracks are peppered throughout, and we’ll hopefully have some more new material released from Nadine by the end of the year.

IMG_20190709_193655.jpgThen we’re on to the main event. The rain has cleared, just on time to mass delight, as Mr Garvey and co take to the stage to rapturous applause, Guy toasting the crowd before launching into a a high powered rendition of “Lunette/Fly Boy Blue”. The band are backed by a wonderful string duo throughout tonight’s set, that adds that all-essential depth to their signature lush soundscapes.

It’s a set derived for the most part from the latter part of their career, post “The Seldom Seen Kid”, their breakthrough Mercury Award winner that launched them onto stages of this size for good. Their last album “Little Fictions” receives a decent airing, and although it’s not one of my favourite Elbow releases, the songs from it tonight sound especially good live, including the sublime “Magnificent (She Said)”.

Only one new track, “Empires”, gets an airing tonight, from their just-announced new album “Giants Of All Sizes”. It’s an impressive number, with a moody electronic backing, a slightly darker sound than we’ve come to expect from Elbow of late. It unfortunately gets a muted response, with many of the crowd taking this as an opportunity to get a refill from the bar. A shame, but an intriguing insight as to whats to come later this year.

IMG_20190709_210509

Guy Garvey is a consummate showman throughout, regaling the crowd with his trademark northern humour between songs, and working his hardest to ensure each number receives as big a singalong as possible, including set highlights  “My Sad Captains”, and “Lippy Kids”, for which the refrain of “Build A Rocket Boys!” receives a mighty full-lunged response. He even attempts to get the frequently passing overhead trains to join in, which provides much delight.

Elsewhere in the set he includes a touching tribute to Jan Oldenburg, the founder and owner of Manchester’s iconic Night and Day Cafe, who sadly passed away last year.  He also references a number of great anecdotes, including giving Night and Days phone number out as his own in the early days of Elbow, as he was such a regular fixture there at the time. 

It would have been great to hear some more material from earlier in their back catalogue – 2005’s “Station Approach” is the only pre-Seldom Seen Kid number to make an appearance. But this is a minor quibble. It’s a passionately delivered set, with the band on fine form from start to finish. You can tell they’re making the most of the occasion, not for one minute taking the audiences admiration for granted.

IMG_20190709_221337

Most of the songs tonight receive an ecstatic response, but it’s the material from “The Seldom Seen Kid”, including “The Bones Of You” and “Mirrorball”, that are still as beloved over ten years on, that really brings the crowd to life the most. Ending their set with a one-two knockout of their most well-known songs “One Day Like This” and “Grounds For Divorce” seals the deal in style, leaving the audience on a high. There’s no encores, but it would be hard to top such a sensational ending to tonight’s set.

Reaffirming their place as one of Manchester’s most loved bands, Elbow aren’t out tonight to reinvent the wheel or try out a dangerous new sound. It’s all about the audience connection, of making everyone feel a part of a communal experience. And in these tense fractious times, it’s a much needed antidote that works it’s charms like magic.

What a perfect waste of time.

Elbow played:

 

All photos my own (excuse the dodgy quality!)

Mid 2019 New Music Highlights

Mid 2019 eh? Wowsers. Rolling into the latter half of the final year in this decade, we’ve witnessed deepening social and political divisions the world over, the growing crisis of climate change rapidly unfolding, and the gargantuan Game Of Thrones going out with a mighty…meh.

But still. As ever, some great new music was released, some of it even heard. Some of it by my own ears! And here, by tenuous link, is my lineup of some of the best releases from the past six months. Cause we can’t just wait until December can we?
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow

It’s been a long five years since we last had a Sharon Van Etten album to savour, in 2014’s “Are We There“. Not that she’s been resting on her laurels, having pursued her acting career (including stints as a regular on Netflix hit The O.A.), studied for a degree in psychology…oh, and the little old job of settling into parenthood.

Thankfully, the wait was more than worthwhile, as “Remind Me Tomorrow” kick-started 2019 on a high. Mixing her established emotional earnestness with a fresh injection of electronics, Van Etten sounds rejuvenated and as relevant as ever, and in album highlight Seventeen, she crafted a calling card anthem that will be resonating across festival fields all summer long.

Essential tracks: No Ones Easy To Love, Comeback Kid, Seventeen

Luke Sital Singh – A Golden State

Last year Luke Sital Singh relocated from Bristol to L.A. along with his wife, designer Hannah Cousins. Although the move hasn’t had an immediate effect on his sound acoustically, lyrically it seems to have opened up a new level of emotional depth to his songwriting. It’s this shift in craftsmanship that marks his latest album “A Golden State” as his finest work to date, featuring intimate emotional peaks such as “Love Is Hard Enough Without The Winter” and “The Last Day” (which is seemingly impossible to reach the end of without getting a little misty eyed).

Essential tracks: Lover, The Last Day, Hearts Attach

Big Thief – U.F.O.F

Following a brief hiatus last year, in which all band members seemingly released solo/side projects, Big Thief reformed in 2019 with possibly their finest album to date. At times warmer and more accessible than their previous albums, it still contains their signature raw emotional sound, centred around Adrianne Lenkers distinctive vocals. At times so hushed as to be barely audible, yet able to switch to a primal howl the next, she is a tour-de-force across the album, bringing to mind Nirvana in their more tender moments.
Sheer quality from start to finish, and in the gorgeous Cattails, they have crafted possibly their best song yet.

Essential tracks: UFOF, Cattails, Jenni

Billie Marten – Feeding Seahorses By Hand

Billie Marten is, at the age of twenty, already an old hand at the ol’ music business. Having initially gained attention at just twelve years old from a series of well received covers via Youtube, she has gone from strength to strength, being nominated for the BBCs Sound Of 2016 award, and this year releasing her second LP to great acclaim.

Initial comparisons to an early Laura Marling are not unfounded, yet there’s plenty here to mark her out as her own unique creative force. There’s a natural quality to her voice that instantly warms you to her, and alongside some deft production flourishes, her distinct brand of melancholy folk-pop is one that marks her out as a fine talent with many bright years ahead.

Essential tracks: Betsy, Vanilla Baby, Bad Apple

Alesund – Shift and Flux

One of my favourite discoveries this year has been Bristol four piece Ålesund, a dreamy alt-pop collective who released their debut EP Shift and Flux in February. Centred around the ethereal Kate Bush-esque vocals of Alba Torriset, their songs are at once tightly played and concise, whilst simultaneously invoking a cinematic, widescreen quality.

There’s an admirable restraint to their sound as well, with plenty of space within the songs to hear each instrument clearly mixed in. Not a note is wasted, each one formed simply to suit the song. Think within the realm of Daughter, London Grammar and the xx, but with a self-professed Nordic twist, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

Essential tracks: Lucid, Shift and Flux

The Tallest Man On Earth – I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream

Kristian Matsson, or as he’s known by his more familiar namesake, The Tallest Man On Earth, has been spinning out early Dylan-esque folk for the best part of fifteen years now. On this, his fifth LP, released back in April, we find him in the melancholic state that dominated much of his previous album, 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home.

It’s a dark, often brooding piece of work, punctuated by occasional moments of clarity and lightness. Matsson himself remains musically on top form, forever a highly emotive and engaging vocalist, and an intricate guitarist capable of some of the sweetest melodies you’ll hear this year.

Essential tracks: There’s A Girl, I’m A Stranger Now

W.H Lung – Incidental Music

Manchester’s W.H. Lung (incidentally named after a local Chinese supermarket) hit the ground running in 2019 with their incredibly accomplished debut LP. Accomplished in the main sense that their lead single was a Simpatico People, a ten minute plus epic synth-pop-electro-post-punk masterpiece, which managed the feat of not sounding self indulgent or naval gazing for one second of its extended running time. And that’s just the opening track. The album as a whole is crisply produced to a point, the band displaying a remarkable level of creativity and maturity so soon into their career as an outfit.

Essential tracks: Simpatico People, Second Death Of My Face, Inspiration!

Julia Jacklin – Crushing

In with a strong shout as my Album Of The Year so far, Julia Jacklin stepped up a significant level on this, her second LP. Having impressed with her debut Don’t Let The Kids Win in 2016, it was here for me that she really landed as an artist, proving a masterful command over both songwriting and melody in equal measure.

Ably watched over by Courtney Barnett producer Burke Reid, here she accomplishes the feat of sounding huge and intimate at the same time. A near perfect run of singles forms the first half of the album, peaking with the anthemic Pressure To Party, before a more low key, introspective second half, which rewards the listener with it’s levels of depth over numerous listens.

Essential tracks: Body, Head Alone, Pressure To Party, Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You

Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride

Vampire Weekend took their sweet time following up 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City. For their first album in six years, they managed to fit about three albums worth of material across it’s near hour running time. Not just in terms of it’s bumper 18 tracks, but each song is a patchwork of soundscapes and influences, including (deep breath): reggae, indie, folk, pop, African rhythms, distorted vocal choirs, layer upon layer of harmonies, more guest musicians than you could shake a fist at…and the successful incorporation of bongos into the mix. Highlights of these would have to be one-two knockout of Sunflower and Flower Moon, both Steve Lacey collaborations.

It’s a White Album-level feat of an album, which would have probably broken many lesser bands. Yet in being able to maintain coherence, confidence and accessibility across so many fragments of ideas, Vampire Weekend still manage to maintain control over their music, sounding as focused as they are sprawling.

Essential Tracks: Bambina, Sunflower, Flower Moon, 2021


Richard Hawley – Further

Sheffields finest returns on his eighth LP, his first not to be named after an area of his home city, and what an album it is. Containing threads from throughout his careers, including subtle nods to the overt psychedelia from 2012’s Standing At The Skys Edge. Here it’s just simply sublime craftsmanship all the way, including lush Scott Walker-esque orchestration on many numbers, as well as Hawleys signature croon taking centre stage.

What’s most telling is how concise many of these numbers are. Where as contemporaries such as Elbow (mainly Elbow) would have stretched out these songs to seven minutes plus, here we rarely stray past three. Not a scrap of sound is wasted, each song is there to make its point before wrapping up neatly. Sheer class.

Essential tracks: My Little Treasures, Further, Doors

So there we have it. Disagree? Good! Let me know your thoughts and your own personal highlights in the comments below. For an expanded selection of some of my 2019 highlights, check out the Spotify playlist below:

Album Review – Woman’s Hour – Ephyra

a2959687430_16.jpg

It’s been a long five years since we last heard from Woman’s Hour, when their stunning 2014 debut LP, “Conversations”, swiftly put them on the rise to becoming a household name, alongside the likes of contemporaries the xx & Daughter. They were a band with their own distinct identity and sound, and an incredible run of singles to support them, including “Darkest Place”, “Her Ghost” and “In Stillness We Remain”.

However, a lot can happen in five years. A relentless touring schedule, and the now fevered anticipation now placed on the band, added to their pressures. They began recording demo material for a second LP, but following a tense number of sessions, in 2016 the band decided to call it a day, citing “deteriorating mental health”. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when the remaining band members decided to reconvene in an attempt to finish the recording process that they started, which leads us to their present state, and their new, final album “Ephyra”. A band, not quite fully with us, but here in all their honesty to present their hard toiled over work. It’s a definitive take on the time old “difficult second album” story.

First track and lead single from the LP “Don’t Speak” sets the tone for the record from the start. It presents itself as more of a mood piece than a conventionally structured song. The title, plus a few more fragmented lyrics, are repeated over and over various shifting and modulated soundscapes, like an ever-changing state of mind, in flux of it’s own self.

This continues into second track “From Eden To Exile”. There’s a jittery, restless feel to the song, with several false starts featuring snippets from other songs and spoken word excerpts before the central melody kicks in. The effect is like a radio dial constantly being re-tuned, unable to settle on a frequency. This restless energy is found again on second single “Luke”, which builds itself up over a single synth line. “Am I shouting in a vaccum? Can you hear me?” lead singer Fiona Burgess calls out, before a simple chorus of a repeating piano note and the word “breath”, like a mantra to encourage a state of calm.

This sums up the album as a whole. It’s breathlessly inventive at times, a real artistic step up for the band. You can hear them really pushing to create something unique, not to settle on a sound that will define them. It’s impeccably produced – the songs don’t fit into set forms and structures, they’re much looser and free-form, compositions that seek to explore various emotional states. They reflect a fragmented, scattered state of mind – constantly shifting and changing in rhythm and tempo. The off kilter effects on “I Can’t Take You Seriously”, which starts off relatively straightforward, a clear guitar line guiding the way, then begins to build upon wave after wave of electronics, with various vocal modulations and pitch bends making it feel as if the foundations of the songs are slipping away from underneath you. There’s a pervading feeling of tension underlying the album, an edge, a sense of darkness, that all is not well. This informs and infuses it’s way into the sound and texture of the music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8PO0FONNeU

The flip side of this, however, it that there’s not a great deal of consistency to be found.There’s no tracks on here that lift it to a level of greatness, and nothing to match some of the peerless work on “Conversations”. It can feel patchy at times, like a work in progress – which, in fairness, is what this record always was. “It’s A Blast” and “Removal Of Hope” in particular don’t feel fully finished, and wrap up before having made a distinct impression. The band have been unflinchingly honest in saying that this is an album pieced together from the fragments of original demos, recorded in their hometown of Kendal. In their own words: “They contain the thoughts, memories, ambitions, fears and sleepless nights that have come to define the narrative of our lives over the last three years. These songs are letters to you, and once you’ve sent a letter you can never ask for it back”. It’s not a perfect album, but deliberately so. It’s a record that captures the band in a state of uncertainty and complete emotional honesty.

Hopefully we haven’t heard the last from Woman’s Hour. They are one of the most deftly creative and emotionally resilient bands around at the moment. If not, then this album acts as a bittersweet finale for their story, a taste of what could have been.

“Epyhra” is out now and is available via Bandcamp. Woman’s Hour will be playing a limited run of live dates to support the new LP, calling at:

March 11th – Fell Kendall – Kendall

March 13th – The New Adelphi – Hull

March 14th – Gullivers – Manchester

March 15th – Headrow House – Leeds

March 18th – Picture House Social – Sheffield

March 19th – The Crofters Rights – Bristol

March 20th – The Prince Albert – Brighton

March 22nd – The Dome – Tufnell Park, London

EP Review – Ålesund – Shift and Flux

Photo credit – Antonio Petronzio

Over the past few months, Bristol based outfit Ålesund have released a steady stream of excellent singles, which are now compiled onto their debut EP “Shift and Flux”, released Feburary 15th.

Centered around the impressive operatically tinged vocals of front woman Alba Torriset, the band concoct a series of dreamy, atmospheric soundscapes which act as an excellent starting point for those new to their music. Think within the realm of Daughter, London Grammar and the xx, but with a self-professed Nordic twist, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

Under the deft production duties of Jake Bright (Svelte, Doeray, Kate Stapely), their songs are at once tightly played and concise, whilst simultaneously invoking a cinematic, widescreen quality. There’s an admirable restraint to their sound as well, with plenty of space within the songs to hear each instrument clearly mixed in. Not a note is wasted, each one formed simply to suit the song.

As mentioned, throughout the EP, Torrisets vocals often take center stage. She possesses a rich, expansive range, with a Kate Bush-esque quality at times, that lends the songs a freedom to twist and move in several different directions, constantly keeping the listener engaged. Her voice is an instrument in it’s own right, rather than simply a vessel for the lyrics.

On the lyrical front, the bands themes often center around the fragility of our collective mindsets set against the harshness of modern life. “Don’t become a stranger, lost in dreams and memories” Torriset pleads on the chorus to opening track “Shift and Flux”. There’s a real quality to these lyrics that grounds each of the songs, rooting them to a central theme so musically they can branch out and explore new directions

The second track, “Lucid”, makes use of the production effects at the bands disposal, with echoing, overlapping vocals cascading throughout the song, creating an otherworldly effect. This builds, as does the instrumentation, throughout the song, before a low key landing where the vocal effects fade back out. It creates a feeling like you’re almost floating both in and back out of the song at the end.

Third track “If You Let Me” is the most streamlined of the EP – it moves at a steady beat, with a shimmery guitar refrain that hooks the attention from the start, before an impressive chorus that pays off the build up of the track.

The bands latest single and lead track from the EP “Pins and Needles” rounds off the collection. Opening with a floating, melancholy piano refrain which Torrists vocals cascade over, drenched in echo as if calling out into the ether. This takes a sudden turn part way through, a low, moody base shifting the direction of the song, before the entire band starts to build the track to a dramatic conclusion.

It’s an impressive, consistent collection of songs, one that sets up Alesund as one of the brighter new talents around at present. They craft subtle, intelligent music, less concerned about hooking you in instantly than seeping gradually under the skin, going a bit deeper in its intent. Based on this release, Ålesund have a lot going for them in the future, and I look forward to hearing where they go next.

Ålesund’s EP “Shift and Flux” is available now via Bandcamp:

http://alesundmusic.bandcamp.com/album/shift-flux

For regular new music updates, keep up to date with this blog, and also listen in to my weekly show on Salford City Radio, Mondays from 9pm

http://www.salfordcityradio.org

https://www.mixcloud.com/callummitchellscr/

@callumsmitchell

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls @ Victoria Warehouse

So here we are. Show 2303 for Mr Turner and his Sleeping Soul chums. And a fine setting for it as well, in Manchester’s stunning Victoria Warehouse, the superbly renovated venue that has re-utilized and regenerated one of the north’s vibrant industrial spaces. It’s this workmanlike setting that sets the tone and the pace for the evening, along with two excellent support acts, folk protest singer Grace Petrie and the ever-brilliant Jimmy Eat World.

Grace Petrie is first to take to the stage. As mentioned, she she sings contemporary folk songs linked to many of the pressing themes of our times, from LGBTQ rights, body image perceptions, and the troubling state of the world today. These are a passionate and genuine set of protest songs – there’s no room for subtlety, the music is specifically crafted to provoke a response, which it certainly does. Grace herself has a warm, engaging stage presence, and proudly proclaims these shows supporting Frank to be the biggest she’s played to date. She more than steps up to the mantle, with the crowd firmly on her side throughout the performance. She could easily be a bigger name in years to come. Her latest album “Queer As Folk”, was released last year, and is highly worth a listen.

Next up we have teenage indie stalwarts Jimmy Eat World, now in their 25th year as a band (of which I’ve been listening for around 20 – yikes). Tonight they receive a rapturous response, almost enough to rival the main event. They play a passionate, hits-packed set, starting out with a full throttle rendition of Pain.

The band are on stunning form throughout, giving no impression that they’re satisfied on just playing a standard set. Lead singer Jim Adkins in particular still holds an impressive vocal range, and has the crowd whipped up in anticipation for the main act. They’re deft enough to know the audience they are playing for at this gig, and are keen not to disappoint. Most of the material from the set is drawn from their most celebrated album “Bleed America”, including anthems Sweetness, A Praise Chorus and set closer The Middle. It’s a wise move, getting the audience on their side from the start and ensuring the energy is maintained right to the end of the set.

Jimmy Eat World aren’t a band out to reinvent the wheel. They do what they do consistently, and with a passion seldom seen in most bands with as many years under their belt. If you’re signed up as a Jimmy fan, you’re a fan for life.

A note on the sound before the main event. Obviously the venues backers O2 have clearly invested heavily into the space, but what a pay off it is – the sound from the stage is crystal clear throughout the evening, each act and instrument perfectly balanced and fully audible throughout. I mention this mainly as there’s far too many gigs I’ve come away from being blasted with a “wall of noise” which compliments neither the acts performing or my ear drums. Top work.

Right, off we go. Frank and the gang take to the stage, the second date of a two night sold-out residency (as they’re keen to point out). They’re off to a flying start, barely pausing for breath during a three song intro of Out Of Breath, Recovery and 1933. From their considerable amount of time racked up on the road, The Sleeping Souls have a well developed, tight knit sound, and they don’t waste a single note, sliding straight from one song to the next, keeping the pace and momentum of the show at a high.

They show off a considerable range, from the up tempo punk numbers to the bands softer side, with ballads like There She Is, and new influences emerging on Blackout, the danceable lead single from 2018’s “Be More Kind” LP. There’s a breadth of material from across Franks career, full of fan favorites such as Photosynthesis, Plain Sailing Weather and Get Better, all of which among many others receive hearty singalongs. There’s a strong showing from the latest album tonight, the songs from it sound fresh and vibrant, seemingly more suited to a live amped-up setting. The title track, which has just been released as it’s own EP, seems to aptly sum up the tone and message of the evening.

Frank himself still plays with as much passion and enthusiasm as if he were just starting out. You can tell clearly how much joy performing to an audience it gives him and the band. He’s a natural showman, effortlessly chatting to the crowd for periods throughout the set. He makes a well made and timely speech about inclusiveness, respect for others, and the need to stick together in troubling times, which goes down very well with this crowd.

One of the highlights is a mini solo set towards the end of the gig, with Frank taking to the stage alone to perform a few numbers – Substitute, To Absent Friends and Glorious You. Unaccompanied and stripped back, it’s here you’re able to appreciate how well crafted the songs are, and how well they hold up in the simplest setups.

It’s a slick, mainstream show, that’s geared to please the old time fans as much as acting as an introduction to new recruits to the family. Frank is down at the front for several songs, getting amongst the people, crowd surfing, even making everyone form a circle at one point to dance with a member of the audience. It’s this unique connection to the crowd that lifts him and the show to another level.

So there we have it, a fantastic night of live music, with three acts all in fine voice. All worthy headliners of their own gigs, but a top level performance from Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, that cements his status as one of the most loved musicians around today.

Album Review – Laura Marling, Short Movie (Virgin Records Limited)

'Short_Movie'_Artwork

Seven years on from brushing the competition aside with one fell swoop of her debut “Alas I Cannot Swim”, Laura Marling returns with her fifth album, all by the age of twenty five (are you kidding me?! This hardly seems fair). After what seemed like her artistic breakthrough with 2013’s blistering “Once I Was An Eagle”, apprehensions began to gather – surely she couldn’t keep up this pace? Sooner or later she’ll drop a dud record, it’s only a matter or time. For now, I’m afraid not. With her new record, “Short Movie”, whilst perhaps not quite dealing the sheer emotional blow of it’s predecessor, Marling has produced her richest, fullest sounding collection of work to date.

Much more than simply plugging in and “going electric” as has been well documented, her sound has developed and evolved in a much more natural, even spiritual way. Whilst her first few albums, brilliant as they are (both 2010’s “I Speak Because I Can” and 2011’s “A Creature I Don’t Know” were within my top albums of their respective years), they felt like she was still learning the ropes, concentrating on getting the songs down. Here, she has taken production duties into her own hands for the first time, and feels much more open to experimentation, willing to push her music into new, unexplored territory. Although, as I’m sure she’ll admit, the great Joni Mitchell remains a key influence, this feels more than ever like her record, and the new found sense of ownership of her sound presides over all tracks on the album. The sheer confidence with which she strides through the thirteen tracks here gives a great sense of authorship, as if there’s now no doubt you are listening to “a Laura Marling record”.

Opening track “Warror” highlights this point, as her simple, looping guitar line becoming increasingly enveloped by an otherworldly, psychedelic backing. In the centre of it all is Marling, cooling recounting a story from the point of view of a horse searching for it’s missing master – she’s clearly done with pining for an old flame here.

Much has been made of the decision to scrap the majority of material she was sitting on in the aftermath of “Eagle”, leave the UK and immerse herself in the spiritual world of Los Angeles. As has been mentioned before, this newfound connection with spirituality really comes to the fore in much of this new material – she seems undaunted now by the audiences perception of her, and is free to express her inner artistry to it’s fullest extent. Her voice is used as a proper instrument for the first time, bending and shifting unexpectedly – none more so than the high pitched plead of “I just need a little more time” at the end of “Walk Alone”. The only aspect that slightly jars is the semi-American accent adopted on a number of songs. It doesn’t particularly add anything to her sound, if anything slightly taking away from her own identity. But we’re pulling at straws here.

Lyrically she has always been a cut above the rest of her peers, and her new songs show a real sense of maturity. A residing theme, linked to the title, is that life is short lived – “Its a short fucking movie, man”, she hollers on the title track, somewhat driving the point home in style. Elsewhere she adopts a more playful tone on the likes of “Strange” – “you get it all and you realize, you haven’t opened up your eyes, since you were young and it’s so bright”, and attempts to find a way to recognise a strangers suffering  “I hear you begging through the wall, a dying animal’s last call” on “False Hope”.

There’s so much going on inside this record that it really takes a good few listens to soak it all up, and it’s best viewed as a single piece of work – individual tracks work well on their own, but sat beside each other the dips and peaks in pace and range really make the most impact. For all it’s shape-shifting and experimental tones, this is a supremely consistent album for beginning to end.

Verdict – Marling has raised the bar yet once again, setting the benchmark for her entire generation. What’s most reassuring though, is that with already five albums down, it still feels like she’s just getting started. There’s plenty more to come from this one. 4/5

Album Review – The Staves, If I Was (Warner Music Group Company)

stave2

When a band or artist reaches a certain level of success, there’s usually only a certain few ways in which their subsequent output will go. One is to find a formula that sticks, and continue to produce pretty much the same album time and time again to the faithful masses (as is the case with far too many bands I’d care to mention here). Alternatively, they can ditch the old, branch out and try something new, and see what works. Could be a winner and potential game changer (Radiohead, Kid A), or could lose half your fan base (Arctic Monkeys, Humbug. Great album in my opinion, not all thought that way).

Intriguingly, and somewhat thankfully, The Staves manage to find a fine balance between the two on their second LP – while there’s enough of the old sounds from their wonderful debut “Dead and Born and Grown”, the Watford siblings have wisely hooked up with Bon Iver’s main man Justin Vernon on production duties, who has opened up the bands musical palate significantly. We’re not talking radical avant garde jazz solos here, but there’s a definite shift from the simple-yet-effective guitar and uke backing from yesteryear to the swelling overall textures and soundscapes prevailing in these songs – the rousing horns and military drums from opener “Blood I Bled” make their most significant impression, while other interesting departures include the echo draped “The Shining”, the looping percussion of “Steady”, and the upbeat country twang to “Teeth White”. Probably the closest song to their earlier work is the simple, bluesy number “Don’t You Call Me Anymore”, which acts as a nice breathing point mid-way into the album.

Taking centre stage as expected are the almighty three way harmonising vocal’s – in the few short years since their debut the trio have really strengthened their what was already impressive range. While all strong singers individually, it’s when their voices combine that the album really soars, in particular album highlights “Let Me Down” and “Make It Holy” (Vernon even chips in mid-way through the latter with a few cheeky pipes, not wanting to miss out on all the fun). This is the bands strongest selling point, and it would have been nice to hear a few more of their intricate a Capella’s weaved in throughout the songs. However, this is picking minute holes in a band that at this rate will be around for many more albums to come.

Verdict: Taking a breezy sidestep from the “difficult second album” problem, the sisters have created a minor triumph, progressing their sound naturally and effortlessly, whilst still staying true to the heart of their songs.

4/5