Tag Archive: Cardiff


Reading Too Much Into Things

Handclaps, sweet harmonies, and a little bit of soul—it’s not the formative years of a nascent Motown, but the newest LP, Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything, from Cardiff’s indiepop mini-orchestra, The School. And it’s not just early Motown that’s in play here. Whether it’s echoes of Lesley Gore, Del Shannon, or the Supremes, classic textures from pre-British Invasion American rock ‘n’ roll are ever present on the band’s latest effort.

It’s nothing new, of course. The School have always been a band rooted in the ’60s, but Reading Too Much finds the band on firmer footing than ever before. Where the debut LP, 2010′s Loveless Unbeliever, was assembled over the course of several years and lineup changes, the current lineup has been together since early that same year and remained consistent through the composition process of their sophomore release. It’s that consistency which has helped to build a more cohesive album than the first LP. They say you have a lifetime to make your first record. Well, time is one thing. Vision is something else entirely. Loveless Unbeliever was (mostly) the brainchild of a single person with a rotating cast of players, and, while Liz Hunt (vocals, keyboards) may remain the prevailing force, Reading Too Much is clearly a group effort, and music written with the players in mind, and which plays to their strengths will nearly always prove more successful than music written in a vacuum.

While the album is frequently driven by the keyboards which have been so prominent in their previous work, The School are at their best (at least in the context of this album), when the standard keyboard sound is traded in for a digital organ and clean guitars give harmonic vitality to already irresistible danceable rhythms, as on “Why Do You Have To Break My Heart Again” and the lead single “Never Thought I’d See The Day”, where their use in combination with handclaps, upbeat background vocals, and the classic early ’60s drum beat result in what could be a certified dance hit, vintage 1963. In other places, such as “I Should Do” and “Where Does Your Heart Belong?”, trumpet breaks prevail in such a way that will no doubt please fans of early Belle & Sebastian. One of the biggest, and most pleasant surprises here, however, is the melodic, bass-bolstering baritone sax on “The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side”, a driving number with such a firm grip on the Motown sound you’d think Mr. Gordy himself had a hand in it. The same could be said for “Stop That Boy” which, at least in my mind, evokes frequent flashes of early Supremes.

As a band, The School are living proof of the enduring relevance of that first decade of rock ‘n’ roll. More importantly, Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything, makes a strong case for the belief that a good beat and strong melody can get you anywhere, even if the place you want to go is 50 years in the past. Listening to it, you may as well be cruising down Route 66 in a ’59 Impala. It’s just a shame Dick Clark couldn’t be here to see it.

Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything is available now on LP and CD from Elefant Records.

If you missed part one, ’tis here.

Allo Darlin’ (London, UK)

Following a string of well-loved singles with an album that has proven to be a favorite of indie pop fans across the world, Allo Darlin’ have been winning hearts everywhere they go, all the while making ukulele-fronted pop bands sexy again. The future is looking bright for Elizabeth Morris and company, especially with the backing of a stellar label like FortunaPop who hit it big in 2009 with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Don’t be surprised to see a similar surge for Allo Darlin’ in the coming year. And if you haven’t bought their album yet, you really ought to give it a go.

The Lighthouse and the Whaler (Cleveland, Ohio)

These lads from Cleveland spent considerable time building a following all over the eastern half of the US before making their debut in the state capitol with The Black Atlantic back in October to a Wednesday evening record store audience who instantly fell for their own brand of what you might call melodic prog-folk. And after watching them return to town just a month later and absolutely killing at their first proper Columbus headline gig to a captive audience at Rumba Cafe, it’s pretty clear that TLATW are a band that have to be seen to be believed. Luckily, their debut LP is an equally solid performance. So download ‘White Days’ for free here, then go out and buy the rest of it. And if you can, catch them live. They’ll be at SXSW and numerous other places, no doubt, as their stock continues to rise.

Download: The Lighthouse and the Whaler – ‘White Days’ [mp3]

My Gold Mask (Chicago, Illinois)

I first heard that My Gold Mask were one of the most exciting bands in Chicago from a sound engineer who I met after he caught me interviewing Emilie Simon at a Starbucks on the North Side. About a year later, an article in the Sun-Times named them among a list of Chicago bands on the verge of blowing up. I have to say, I think they’re right. In 2010, the band released two super-sexy EPs and landed some major support slots, including a few shows with the New Pornographers. Check out the EPs on Bandcamp where you can also download (for free) the remix of ‘Bitches’ by the fabled Hood Internet. And, of course, catch them on tour this spring.

Dimbleby & Capper (London, UK)

Dimbleby & Capper

It seems like I talk about Dimbleby & Capper all the time and, for the most part, it’s true. But I can’t help myself. Since we were first introduced in March of last year, Laura Bettinson has been busy taking D&C from a one woman band to a full-fledged DIY brand with it’s own unique aesthetic. The first single for Tape Records is projected to be released 31 March, hopefully with a full length LP will be in production in the not-too-terribly-distant future. Oh, and did I mention that Laura also happens to be working on a project with producer Nigel Godrich (producer for Radiohead)?

Islet (Cardiff, UK)

You’d be hard-pressed to find any official information about Islet anywhere on the internets, and that is because, antithetical to yours truly, they do not exist online. Anywhere. But they’ve building an enthusiastic following based solely on their near-legendary local live shows around the small but wicked-talented Cardiff scene, selling out of their first album and no doubt approaching capacity on the second (the first purchase I made on my first ever visit to Wales). And honestly, with a reputation like that, who needs a website? Grab one of their records while you can. You’ll be hearing from them again. (And again. And again . . .)

Ivan Moult and The Mine Canary

The last time I saw Ivan Moult, he had just played his fourth ever show with The School at the Wee Red Bar in Edinburgh. We’d been lamenting the proposed closure of BBC 6 Music, and the generally sorry state of the music industry. Five months and 4000 miles now separate me from the Wee Red Bar. Since then, 6Music has been granted a reprieve and Ivan has released his debut solo EP, Mine Canary, through Cardiff’s Bubblewrap Collective.

Mine Canary is a far cry from The School. Though there may be a dash of the 60s swirling around in the mix, you’ll find no Phil Spector or Brill Building sounds here. You can trace Ivan’s musical DNA through the folk scene and even deeper, dipping into the Delta blues. The songs are quite stripped down, Ivan’s smoky vocals accompanied almost exclusively by his own guitar playing, their colour enhanced by generous use of open chord voicings and rare, minimal piano fills.

For a disc like Mine Canary, choosing a standout track is an exercise in futility as any one of the last three tracks could be your favourite song on any given day. But, for purely melodic reasons and the sheer unforgettability of it, “Fetch me a bucket” has got to be the high point of the collection. Like any good folk song, it has the ring of something you’ve loved all your life with no distinct point of origin. I cannot tell you how long I’ve heard “So fetch me some water, and some bread and a bucket. / Leave me to sleep it off and send me to my bed. / And tell me in the morning how I ended up corrupted. / And then I’ll realise that you go straight to my head.” going round in my head, because, as far as I know, it’s always been there. What I can be sure of is this: when it is gone, it will be all too soon.

For years, miners in the UK and US would take canaries deep into the mines with them. So long as the birds remained healthy, the miners knew they were free from the immediate danger of toxic gas. And like its namesake, if Ivan Moult’s Mine Canary is any indicator, the world is still a safe place for music.

Loveless Unbeliever

Score: 99

I find it ironic that Loveless Unbeliever, the debut LP from The School, begins “An apology for today, an apology for a lifetime”, because I feel I owe them an apology. I recently discovered that, in my first posts about them (over a year ago, now), I called The School “twee”. I was young and new to this business, but now that I know better, it is only fair that I admit my mistake.

There’s more to The School than twee, of course. They’ve carved out a niche in that sliver of sixties throwback between Camera Obscura and The Pipettes—and what a home they’ve made there! For my money, no one embodies the golden age of pop music better than the kids from Cardiff. Loveless Unbeliever is replete with all the memorable hooks, striking melodies, and tasteful orchestrations, and Liz Hunt’s vocals are nothing short of intoxicating—I still get chills every time I listen to “I don’t believe in love” (also featuring former drummer Rob, now of Voluntary Butler Scheme).

The long-awaited LP includes most of The School’s hard-to-find early material (it’s missing Christmasy songs, including my favorite “Kiss you in the snow”, and “And Suddenly”, a Left Banke cover). And it’s a good thing the old releases have been included, because amongst them are some of the band’s best songs, such as: “Let it slip” which is essentially a perfect pop song, and “I don’t believe in love”, with a melody as sweeping as the lyrics are heartbreaking. And, lest you get the impression that this is an album built on the strength of recycled material, the seven new songs are every bit as memorable as the old stuff. The first single, “Is he really coming home”, picks up right where the Let It Slip EP left off, whilst “Can’t understand” and “Hoping and praying”are two of the most unabashedly fun tracks on the album.

Loveless Unbeliever has been a long time coming. The School were signed to Elefant Records in 2007. In the meantime, there have been some lineup changes and a quite a fuss over their early EP and singles—no doubt all contributing factors to the long wait for this album. Then again, maybe that’s just how long it takes when you set out produce an “album…full of pop hits”. Regardless, there is no filler on Loveless Unbeliever, only 37 minutes perfect indie pop that will spend weeks at a time in your stereo (personally, I’ve just reached the one month mark). Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another three years for The School’s next LP, but, if it’s even half as good as this one, it will have been well worth the wait.

[For more, read our interview with The School]

A Switched On Christmas Spectacular

I love Christmas. What’s not to love (even though the fact that half the world celebrates it in the summer kinda freaks me out)? It’s the month leading up to it that I’m not so keen on. Sure, December has its good points, like Starbucks red holiday cups and the incomparable scent of winter (again, with the exception of that freakshow Southern Hemisphere). But, let’s face it, December comes with a lot of crap, too, like traffic, huge crowds, and the incomparable cold of winter (except for you know who). By far, however, the worst facet of the Christmas season is the music. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas music. What I absolutely hate is the effect it has on musicians, namely the “I’m bored, let’s make a Christmas album” attitude. Cases in point: Newsong’s “The Christmas Shoes” and Bob Dylan’s new Christmas album.

No, it’s been a decade since I’ve come across a Christmas album that delivers consistently from start to finish (it was BEC Records’ Happy Christmas volume 1, feat. a young Switchfoot, Starflyer 59, and Five Iron Frenzy, among others). This year, thankfully, has been different. There are a number of promising collections circulating right now. Here are two of them.

The Cardiff-based Bubblewrap Collective has put out a collection that is in some shops this week and ought to be for sale at Rough Trade in London sometime next week. The concept is quite clever, I must say. Twelve artists were given 31 days to write and record a song based on one of the twelve days of Christmas. The result is a varied landscape of often lo-fi, stripped-down indie goodness where ukuleles and glockenspiels (and everything else, really) flourish with an impressive line-up including: The School, Little My, Allo Darlin’, and The Bobby McGees.

Our old friends and Indie Handbook favourites, The School (who are included on a couple of other Christmas comps this season which, if we can get our hands on copies, we will also review for you) have the twelfth day (for those who, like me, don’t have the attention span to make it through the entire song, that’s drummers drumming). And they execute their share of the festivities brilliantly with the handclappy C86 ditty “Drummer Boy”. Brontosaurus Chorus, on “Calling Birds” (that’s the fourth day), manage to pull off what may be the single greatest line in the history of Christmas music: “Christmas is a time for excessive drinking”.

On the lighter side are “Five Golden Rings from the Hi 5 Kings” by The Rocky Nest (including a heartbreaking muted trumpet refrain between otherworldly vocal performances) and Allo Darlin’ with the ukulele-laden “Silver Swans in NYC”. Then there’s the relentlessly charming “Lords Keep Leaping” by Silence at Sea, complete with injected sound effects. I’m going to have to stop myself there, because I’ve got another album to talk about. You’ll just have to check out the other seven days on your own.

Venus Hum’s Switched on Christmas EP (get it here for free) is something completely different from the 12 Days compilation. Rather than a set of entirely new songs, Venus Hum have embraced the spirit of reinterpretation championed by artists like Wendy (née Walter) Carlos on such albums as Switched on Bach and Switched on Brandenburgs. (Once upon a time, the traditionalist in me cringed at the thought of such an atrocity. The post-structuralist in me has since destroyed that aesthetic neophyte.)

Certain tracks on this EP, like “Suzy Snowflake” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” translate naturally into such an electrified idiom. Even before listening, the concept is a welcome change. Ballads like “Silver Bells” also sync easily with the band’s dreamy electropop aesthetic, as a sort of hybrid of their first two albums (though it’s more Big Beautiful Sky than The Colors In the Wheel). On the opener, “Let It Snow”, Annette Strean’s vocals have been assimilated into the network and “switched on” along with a seemingly endless array of computers, synths, and processors to dazzling and (aurally) sparkling effect.

Going in, however, I had my doubts about how even one of my all-time favorite bands would adapt two of my favorite seasonal numbers. There is, of course, the classic “The Christmas Song”, penned by Mel Tormé, immortalized by Nat “King” Cole, here given a tastefully switched on treatment, with a bit of ambient crackling tacked on in the opening for good measure. In the cases of electro-programming wizards Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle, it is their sensitivity and, more importantly, ability to hold back that render “The Christmas Song” not only passable, but one of two “must hear” tracks on the EP. The other being “Silent Night”.

Now, about that “Silent Night”. It’s come a long way since Christmas Eve of 1818 and the debut performance (for voice and guitar) at Nikolaus-Kirche in Oberndorf, Austria. But it’s still one of those songs I prefer un-fooled-around with. Sometimes (ok, oftentimes) it’s easy to question if all of the “progress” we as human beings have made in the last 191 years, has really left us any better off or if we’ve regressed, and those really were the “good old days”. Maybe we really have sucked the world dry of all the beautiful things. Venus Hum’s take on this, perhaps quintessential, musical rendering of the birth of Christ is humbly trippy and sufficiently glitchy (just like we are), but the sound of Annette’s voice floating just over top of it leaves me with the sense (and hope) that there just may be some goodness left in the world.

Sleep in Heavenly peace”? Yes, thank you. I believe I shall.

Photo by Alison Wonderland

Photo by Alison Wonderland

I know, I’ve been talking about this for a long time (here, for instance, and here, and here) and, before you ask, no, it’s not here quite yet. The School’s debut LP, Loveless Unbeliever, is slated for release in October, so you have still a couple of months to wait (for you Druids out there, that’s one autumnal equinox – two full moons for you werewolves). But far be it for me to go more than 45 seconds without thinking of my favourite Welsh pop purveyors or the album which is quickly becoming the most exciting thing to happen in 2009 (and it hasn’t even happened yet!).

Thankfully, for those like me, suffering – willfully, faithfully – from twee fever, The School have preempted their LP with the release of a split 7” (Searching for the Now 6) on Slumberland Records this week (the School take the A side with two tracks from George Washington Brown, the latest nom de rock of Pete Gofton, Kenickie’s Johnny X, on the flipside). Of course, if you’ve taken my advice in the past and visited The School on MySpace, you will recognise their cover of Left Banke’s ‘And Suddenly’. The School are perfectly equipped to pay homage to these pioneers of baroque pop with their uncanny evocation of the 1960s girl group sound with a pinch of C86 and just a dash of Camera Obscura. The performance is so well executed, in fact, that it is difficult believe that this is a cover song at all and even more difficult, still, to stop listening. When you’ve had a month like I have, this is the music that keeps you alive; listen to it about a dozen times, and suddenly, the world is full of sunshine.

You ought to know, however, that this song will not be on the album. This is the only release planned for this track (except for the B-sides and rarities collection bound to be compiled in about a decade in celebration of the band’s inevitably illustrious career). And, as if that is not enough of a reason to entice you to open your pocketbook, there are two tracks (‘End of the…’ and ‘Twin Towers’) by George Washington Brown on the B-side. No, he is not likely to be mistaken for The Angels or Shelley Fabares, but is still well worth your attention. So check it out on the Slumberland page. You will not regret it, because, as I’ve said before, at any given moment, The School are reminiscent of everything that you love about music.

I am so tired. I was up until 3:30 this morning writing a review and then back up for work at 8:00. And I have to host a dinner party Saturday evening, so you will forgive me if I choose the path of least resistance and discuss a few albums that I am looking forward to, rather than delve into completely uncharted territory. Back in January, Under the Radar Magazine printed a list of about 25 of the most anticipated indie releases of 2009. I was anticipating 4 of them and they have all been unleashed. These four were not mentioned. They are nothing less than subterranean.

Little Birdie Storybook (more of an idea, really) – Little Birdie Storybook is Becca Kreutz who writes some of the most charming and enchanting songs you will ever hear. All that exists at the moment is a handful of demos on her MySpace page, recorded at home in one take on an out-of-tune piano, but she will be heading into the studio to have another go at them. To be honest, I am going to miss those blue notes. You Regina Spektor fans will enjoy this, though Little Birdie Storybook is pretty much impossible to dislike. I think I am looking forward to this one the most. You will be hearing a lot more from me on this topic in the months to come. In the meantime, listen to the demos. You can find the lyrics here.

FunAim & Ignite (23 August) – Fun is the name of the band. The name is nearly as pretentious as that of French rockers Rock and Roll, but it is entirely appropriate. I caught their set in support of Manchester Orchestra, and I can say without reservation that they have earned the name. Stylistically, they fall somewhere between Queen and Mika. The release date for Aim & Ignite was up in the air for a while, but it now stands at 25 August. I know what I’ll be doing that day. For now you can check out their MySpace where you can pick up a free download of “At least I’m not as sad as I used to be” which you can also stream on Facebook (where you can also become a fan of The Indie Handbook). If you want more, catch one of the few remaining dates with Manchester Orchestra.

The School, (title and release date TBA) – This one is still in the works. They went into the studio to begin work a few weeks ago. If you’ve been following us for a while, you already know how much I love this band and for your sake I will tell everyone else to read this. Needless to say, I am pumped. I may have to go to Cardiff to thank them in person. You are all more than welcome to join me.

Venus Hum, (also TBA) – I mentioned this on the Facebook page a couple of days ago. It’s been three years since their last studio album, The Colors In the Wheel, which included one of my favorite songs ever, “Pink Champaign” (I will post the video below). Finally, they are back in the studio. Annette Strean has one of the most striking voices I have ever heard and backed by multi instrumentalists Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle, they have produced enduringly appealing albums in my music library. I’ve been listening to Big Beautiful Sky all week. You can track the progress of the recording and here a few samples (which may or may not end up on the record) at the band’s blog here. (Ok, I am adding a live version of “Yes and No” because the band are actually in it.)

New album from Nina Persson’s other band A Camp today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m still excited.

In light of the admittedly surprising success of Dutch Week, we will probably have to sponsor a Welsh Week sometime soon. I swear, this has nothing to do with the fact that I have a weakness for Welsh accents or that if I were ever fortunate enough to meet a woman who spoke with one that she could have me do her bidding with the mere utterance of a few words. Nor has it to do with the fact that Hay-on-Wye is reputed to have more bookshops per capita than any other municipality in the world (be still my heart!) or that Doctor Who and Torchwood are filmed in Cardiff (David Tennant!!!). It’s just that they make so much good music. (Ok, so maybe it is a little bit about the accents.) But can you blame me? Based on that description, it sounds like Heaven on Earth.

For now, we’ll stick with one band (the Handbook’s second Welsh act to date), Cardiff’s 60s pop throwbacks, The School. Put simply, the band are, at any given moment, reminiscent of everything you love about music. “Let It Slip”, with its handclaps and shoop-pop background vocals has the distinct ring of the early 60s girl groups (The Angels, Shelley Fabares). “And Suddenly”, a cover of a Left Banke song, is layered with Beach Boys-like harmonies. “I Want You Back” is the School at their Belle & Sebastianiest, reminiscent of the indie idols’ Dear Catastrophe Waitress era brand of tweeness with a hint of Camera Obscura. And “Kiss You In the Snow” would make a perfect centerpiece for an Indie Handbook Christmas compilation (if we were ever allowed to make one). I love love love this song. All of this is executed with a dash of Northern Soul and maybe even a hint of Glaswegian C86.

The albums. There is a 7-inch on bubble gum pink vinyl and another four track EP. “All I Wanna Do” was also included on the Rough Trade Counter Culture 08 compilation released back in February. So, there you go, three more reasons to resent the hip hop dominated American music scene and the skinny jeans indie hipster counterculture.

Visit them at theschoolband.blogspot.com and on Twitter and, of course, on MySpace. Seriously guys, you need to listen to this one, or we will never be friends.

P.S. How amazing would it be if we were allowed to make a Christmas compilation?! I am totally serious about this. Write your MP! Pester your congressman! Beg your favorite band (the nice ones, anyway)!

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