BBC Album Reviews: Some of the Best, part two

March 26, 2013

Continuing on from yesterday’s first ten picks, here’s ten more standout examples of music reviewing on the BBC.

(Nb these are all from the period I edited the section – summer 2009 until the service’s cancellation this week. Prior to my arrival, the service was run by Somethin’ Else, under the guidance of a fine chap by the name of Chris Jones. A skilled writer – I’d have liked to have kept him amongst my contributors, but it didn’t work out – Chris has a number of BBC reviews to his name (568 to be precise). The quality control under SE was inconsistent, though, as evidenced by exploring the reviews archive. The company makes great radio – Now Playing, Gilles Peterson, Mayo and Kermode, Jazz on 3 – but running this service wasn’t quite its forte.)

Lovely reviews, below…

Fraser McAlpine reviews Elbow’s Build a Rocket Boys!
“There isn’t even a palpable air of triumph to proceedings; no more so than usual, anyway. Elbow are a classier act that that. They do what they’ve always done: construct billowing repetitive structures out of tightly-controlled ideas – twisty guitars, razor-bass, clockwork piano, shakes and rattles and finger-clicks – and then invite a bearlike man with a helium roar to fill them with his scuffed and maudlin love letters.”

Greg Moffitt reviews Hawkwind’s Blood of the Earth
“Occasional Hawkwind collaborator and all-round synth genius Tim Blake is the one weaving the electronic fabric which holds the album together, and his flourishes span from ethereal and entrancing to sinister and unsettling with masterful ease. It’s just a question of balance. There’s not a whole lotta rock. None of the three-chord warp drive needed to take this into orbit. Certainly the eerie atmospheres that the band once conjured like so many cosmic wizards are nowhere to be seen or heard…”

Hari Ashurst reviews Julia Holter’s Ekstasis
“Holter balances her mostly zoned-out atmospheres with a couple of moments of ecstatic release. The biggest of these is In the Same Room – the most conventional and striking moment on the album. For the first three minutes the song unfurls just like a pop song. Electronic beats push a steady momentum while Holter playfully darts around two of the record’s strongest hooks. Small details gather and drive towards a climax that doesn’t quite happen – rather, the song ebbs and slips dreamily back into the pretty soundscapes that characterise the rest of Ekstasis.”

Andrew Mueller reviews Giant Sand’s Blurry Blue Mountain
“Blurry Blue Mountain is a warm, unassuming album, the kind of record made by someone long past trying to impress anybody – which, as is the perverse way of these things, makes it all the more impressive. Gelb’s songs are, as ever, adroitly trimmed to the limitations of his voice, whether the Tom Waits-ish lament Chunk of Coal, the hungover duet with Lonna Kelley on Lucky Star Love, or the half-spoken Ride the Rail, a romp through the legend of the Molly Maguires, which recalls the modern historical narratives of Corb Lund and Patterson Hood.”

Everett True reviews The Black Angels’ Phosphene Dream
“Whereas before, The Black Angels’ albums – great as they were – were mostly centred around one incredible track (most noticeably The First Vietnamese War from the 2006 debut album Passover), Phosphene Dream stuns by its quality of depth. In Bad Vibrations, the balls-out River of Blood, Haunting at 1300 McKinley and several others, The Black Angels have written a series of rock anthems to match both the ghosts of the past and tribal-leaders of the present. The title is a reference to PH3, a toxic and explosive gas. It’s suitable, trust me.”

Laura Barton reviews Sharon Van Etten’s Epic
“There is something special about Van Etten’s voice. It is neither the sort of fey, delicate wisp nor the sour, brittle twist we have come to expect from female folk singers; there is a weight and a gravel to it, evocative of She Keeps Bees or early Cat Power. It’s nice to hear a female artist singing so much from the belly, even, at times, with a stirring kind of anger – as in the rollicking Peace Signs. But even elsewhere, on the country lament of Save Yourself, for instance, or the free-floating haze of DsharpGg, there is always a sense of strength to Van Etten, something strong-boned and muscular, which marks her out from her contemporaries.”

Lloyd Bradley reviews Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of
“The album is all about love in its many manifestations: joy (To Zion and Nothing Even Matters); pain (I Used to Love Him); disappointment (Doo Wop and Lost Ones); and optimism (Can’t Take My Eyes Off You). Sometimes it’s intensely personal (Ex-Factor), or takes a wider perspective (Everything Is Everything and Every Ghetto, Every City), or might even be an attack on her former bandmates (Superstar and Forgive Them Father). In every case, though, there’s an astuteness and sensitivity disproving the notion that hip hop audiences have only two speeds – radical or licentious. Hill’s poetry assumes a liberating intelligence among her listeners, to be repaid as they follow her unflinchingly into some of the more intimate aspects of her life.”

Ian Wade reviews The 2 Bears’ Be Strong
“Touches of skastep (a genre I’ve just invented) on Heart of the Congos, and country on Time in Mind, guarantee proceedings are never monotonous; these tangents also provide the pair’s considerable songwriting chops with a nice stretch. The utopian existence of the disco is but a fleeting temporary state, and so beneath the optimistic ‘dance your cares away’ vibe there’s also an element of the real world outside the club: Work acknowledges that times are tough, and while you have big dreams you need to actually, er, work at them.”

John Doran reviews Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing
“All of her covers are astutely chosen; Bill Withers’ Use Me and Flash and the Pan’s Walking in the Rain are canny reworkings and, as with all good covers, the style in which they are reworked becomes a statement in itself… The album’s undoubted centrepiece is an original composition and a work of cocksure funk disco genius. Pull Up to the Bumper remains a bona-fide dancefloor filler and one powered by a delicious irony at that. Jones’ fanbase at the time was mainly comprised of white gay men, who idolised this chiselled, masculine woman who sang unashamedly and quite obviously about the joys of an, ahem, alternative sexual practice for her, that wasn’t so alternative for them.”

Kev Kharas reviews The Fall’s Your Future Our Clutter
“You don’t last as long as The Fall have without learning a few things. Things like how many times you have to play the same riff before it becomes invincible, and how long you have to spend barking at people before they start treating you like a hero. Mark E. Smith is 371 in dog years. He has been barking forever, and, as The Fall enter their 34th year with their 28th studio album, a hero many times over: looping in and out of critical approval as endlessly as the snarling, nagging guitars that have underpinned his scornful non-sequiturs for decades.”

More BBC album reviews, here.


Efterklang, Piramida – a few words on

September 23, 2012


A few months ago I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the three members of Efterklang – Casper, Mads and Rasmus – to chat at no little length about their then-recently-completed fourth album, Piramida. The record is released in the UK tomorrow (September 24), so I thought now would be a good time to publish the result of those conversations: a biography to accompany Piramida, giving writers like myself some essential background information on one of the best albums of 2012 so far.


Forever fascinated by the purest possibilities of sound, since forming in 2001 Efterklang have consistently adjusted their sonic modus operandi to suit very specific inspirations. The results the Danes have produced so far – most notably across three acclaimed albums, 2004’s Tripper, 2007’s Parades and 2010’s Magic Chairs – have each explored different directions, each an end product of remarkably studied songcraft and emotional resonance.

But Piramida is perhaps the band’s greatest achievement: an album bringing the outside in, informed by frozen time and the relics humanity leaves in its expanding wake. Its roots were laid in 2010, when the band first saw photographs of a forgotten settlement lying, slowly dying, on Spitsbergen, an island of the Svalbard archipelago midway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. This ghost town, which the trio eventually visited in August 2011 (drummer Thomas Husmer left before Piramida’s commencement), would give their fourth album its title, and comprise the conceptual catalyst for its contents.

Once an outpost for some 1,000 Russians, the former mining facility was abandoned in January 1998, near as overnight. Today the town is in a state of slow decay, as deserted possessions erode and buildings where once people were schooled, fed and entertained return to nature. Between the empty oil drums and fuel tanks, glass bottles and lampshades – and sea birds, and polar bears – the band discovered the world’s northernmost grand piano, standing proudly in a concert hall that once held 400 people. Its notes can be heard on Piramida, perhaps for the first time anywhere in over a decade.

When the band returned home, nine days later, they’d accumulated just over 1,000 field recordings from the many and varied environments they explored in Piramida. The beginnings of this approach can be seen on the band’s 2010 film collaboration with Vincent Moon, An Island. Then the time came to transform these audio snapshots of abandonment, of isolation touched by unique beauty, into songs.

“The idea for this album was to start from scratch, for all three of us to create from the same blank canvas,” says Stolberg, the best part of a year after their trip, in Berlin. It was to the buzzing German city that Efterklang relocated from Copenhagen in 2010, and where Piramida found its final form.

It was Brauer who made sense of the sounds the three had brought home. Returning to his memories of visiting Piramida, he selected noises and carefully treated them to produce incredibly standalone sounds for use in the album’s songs. What might sound like an organ of some kind on the track ‘Sedna’ is actually a combination of recordings from the aforementioned fuel tank and grand piano – but it’s only at an atomic level that these elements remain, so delicately have they been synthesised into a workable instrument.

And it’s this process, of taking sounds found organically in an alien landscape and using them to power ‘traditional’ progressions of notes, of rhythms and melodies, that forms the framework for so much of Piramida. The hollow tones of ‘Told To Be Fine’ are sourced from ornate glass lamps, given new life long after their original use had become redundant. The very first sounds on the record, on opener ‘Hollow Mountain’, are metal spikes being struck, protruding from a bizarre-looking oil drum the band cheerily named Miss Piggy. The synth sounds of ‘Apples’ are created from a microsecond of a wonky piano note – from the aforementioned grand. Throughout, the album contains sounds that quite simply have never been heard before. What you’re hearing is a very singular kind of sonic alchemy.

But just as previous exercises in experimentation, albeit with very different starting points, haven’t compromised accessibility, so Piramida balances its challenging genesis with great immediacy. On tracks like ‘The Ghost’ and ‘Between the Walls’, there are whispers of the majestic orchestrations of Magic Chairs. These moments, however subtle, serve to trace progression without skewing from a path that’s served Efterklang so well already.

Every added element – including contributions from Peter Broderick (violin), Earl Harvin (drums), Nils Frahm (piano), brass from the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, and a 70-piece girls choir – owes its presence to the trio’s Piramida visit. “Everything that has gone onto this record is connected with that trip,” says Clausen. Adds Stolberg: “We didn’t really know where we were going to end the record – but the starting point was something we could control. That was an amazing framework for us, and we could constantly put what we were working on in the context of that trip.”

Lyrically, Clausen isn’t telling of empty houses and dusty grand pianos – but his heartfelt performance, more prominent in the mix here than on past albums and all the more affecting for it, is carried by a different kind of isolation, of abandonment. In his words there are glimpses of a relationship splintered, a community of two lost to the winds. It’s thousands of geographical miles away from Piramida, yet becomes the heart of Piramida.

A less-densely layered collection than the electronic-hued Parades, and more direct than Magic Chairs, Piramida is a rare example of a conceptually strong project that never forgets to let the concept serve the song, rather than the other way around. It’s a streamlined sound, but distinct and absorbing too. It showcases a band superbly capable of transitioning experiences shared by a select few into music that can be enjoyed by a wide, open-minded audience.

That Efterklang had to journey to the top of the world to begin their creative process makes for a fantastic story; but it’s just the prologue for what happens now with Piramida. Launching the album at the Sydney Opera House in May 2012, the band completed the first voyage of many in this campaign – from north to south, with their finest record yet crafted somewhere between extreme latitudes. And wherever it lands next, Piramida has the elegant touch to make any vista a memorable one.

See Efterklang live, with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by André de Ridder, as follows:

October 2012
23. Gateshead, The Sage
24. Edinburgh, Usher Hall
27. Coventry, Warwick Arts Centre
28. Brighton, Dome
29. Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
30. London, Barbican


Efterklang’s official website
Read Stevie Chick’s excellent review of Piramida on BBC Music

Forgotten Noughties #7: Adam Gnade, Run Hide Retreat Surrender

May 11, 2011

Adam Gnade - Run Hide Retreat Surrender

Adam Gnade
Run Hide Retreat Surrender

Loud + Clear, 2005

Sometimes I can’t write, my fingers frozen by what’s unfolding in my ears, even several spins down the line. That happened here: I struggled to review this record. I did find interviewing its San Diego-born maker easy, though – you can read the piece on Drowned in Sound HERE. Adam’s music – “talking songs”: spoken-word explorations of the heart and all its bruises, set to folk imbued with worn-down soul, wearing spit-shined shoes and drinking from whatever bottle the hand can grasp the quickest and tightest; disaffected, malformed, inspirational – really had no precedent in my head. Of course it did in The Wider World. But let’s not go there when we can sink, instead, into a record that to this day can leave me just a little shaken up. I should be grateful, I suppose. At least I can move now – apt, as Run Hide Retreat Surrender (commas, optional) is a collection inspired by movement, by travel, and all the experiences that one can encounter in the vast unknown of the USA.

Adam Gnade – Dance to the War

Adam Gnade – Shout the Battle Cry for Freedom

Wild Beasts – new album review and interview

May 11, 2011

Wild Beasts

I am a lucky, lucky man to be doing the job I do. Getting paid to write about an amazing record, and talk to one of its makers. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Read my review of Wild Beasts‘ new album, Smother, on the BBC.

Read my interview with frontman Hayden Thorpe on the BBC Music Blog.

So good. Probably my favourite album of the year so far. If it’s not in the Mercury shortlist when it’s announced in July, somebody’s made a mistake.

Dutch Uncles’ new album, Cadenza, is frightfully good.

April 15, 2011

Dutch Uncles

Read words on it, and listen to clips from it, by clicking these words.

The album is out on April 25, via the impressive-vein-of-form-enjoying Memphis Industries (Colourmusic’s album My _____ Is Pink, which they released on April 4, is also worth checking out).

Loving This Right Now.

April 12, 2011

thumbs up

What’s dominating the 160GB slab that rocks about in my pocket, right now…

Wild Beasts, Smother (Domino, released 9 May)
I’m not sure I’ve loved an album more than this in 2011 so far. It’s a special record, Smother; one that gets into the blood so instantly one wonders if its effects will be only short-lived. Not so. I’m not much of a betting man, but if I was I’d have a tenner on this for the Mercury. And how beautiful is the video to Albatross? Very.

Wild Beasts – Albatross

Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact (4AD, released 9 May)
I’m still getting to grips with this new LP from NYC’s best whatever-they-want-to-be ‘indie-dance’ (loosest-possible-sense application) combo. Beats that spark fire from sticks on skins; synths that shimmer like a desert mirage; vocals like Kate Bush wired to the International Space Station. Incredible fare – and the rush doesn’t seem to be subsiding anytime soon.

Gang Gang Dance – MindKilla

Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (EMI, released 2 May)
There’s no way this should be as good as it is. Three 40-something dudes essentially doing what they did back in the mid-80s. But with superlative production and a real sense in the vocals that the Beasties are hungrier than ever to be heard – especially after MCA’s health problems – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is a scintillating listen. Every bone in my body is shaking with gratitude that it’s turned out as well as it has.

Beastie Boys feat. NaS – Too Many Rappers

Three Trapped Tigers – Route One or Die (Blood and Biscuits, released 30 May)
I’ve already said plenty on this particular slice of sonic brilliance – click here to read as much.

Three Trapped Tigers – Cramm

True Widow – As High As the Highest Heavens… (Kemado, released 2 May)
This second album from the Texan post-metallers (?) has a ridiculously long title. But it’s the music on it that’s leaving me breathless at the moment. Like Autolux meeting Queens of the Stone Age for a secret liaison in some underground club that only those with the right tattoos gain entry to. Not me, then. Check out Skull Eyes below.

True Widow – Skull Eyes

Forgotten Noughties #6: Bear vs. Shark, Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands…

April 8, 2011

Bear vs Shark Right Now

Bear vs. Shark
Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands…
Equal Vision, 2003

Or, to give the album its full title: Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands. And If Something Isn’t Quite Right, Your Doctor Will Know in a Hurry. Quite the mouthful, and probably a name that the band – formed in 2001, disbanded four years later – soon became sick of explaining. Wikipedia says: “The name of the album is derived from a sign that singer Marc Paffi saw and thought was interesting.” He couldn’t have been intrigued by a sign saying “keep left”, or “mind the gap”? But I digress: this, the Michigan band’s debut (a similarly strong second LP, Terrorhawk, followed in 2005), is one of the finest post-hardcore albums of its time – of any time, frankly. It’s got swing, it’s got style; it’s got brilliant breakdowns and lyrics that bend into all sorts of weird shapes. Much of it seems baffling. But that really doesn’t matter, so instantly is the listener swept up by the force of the players, by their precise musicianship that’s several steps away from those bludgeoning their way through hardcore tropes. It crams more originality into its 40-minute run-time than most supposedly clever-clogs rockers manage across an entire catalogue. Really, if you’ve ever been moved by guitar music that is both highly energetic and hugely individual, pick this up. Big Scary Monsters recently reissued it on limited-edition red vinyl – go get.

For fans of: Small Brown Bike, Joan of Arc, June of 44
Download: Buses/No Buses, Campfire, Don’t Tell the Horses the Stable’s On Fire, We Were Sad But Now We’re Rebuilding

Bear vs. Shark – Don’t Tell the Horses the Stable’s On Fire

Bear vs. Shark – Campfire