[Artist Spotlight]: The Rails

The-Rails-photo-1050x700“I’m a fool, no more you’ll rule my fragile, fucked up heart.”

Rising folk duo The Rails may have only been making music together for two years (initially as Dead Flamingoes) and only just released their debut album, Fair Warning, but they have a strong pedigree. Kami Thompson is the youngest scion of folk-rock royalty Richard and Linda Thompson and sister of singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson (Richard has previously joked ‘It’s a battle with the Wainwright-McGarrigles who can produce the most musical offspring!’). She has made appearances at the Wainwright Family’s Christmas shows as well as on tours with Bonnie Prince Billy and Sean Lennon before she released her solo album, Love Lies, in 2011. Meanwhile, James Walbourne’s impressively long CV as a hire guitarist touts such diverse names as Ray Davies, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Pogues, Son Volt and The Pretenders, while making his debut as a solo musician on 2011’s The Hill. In each other, though, they found the perfect musical foil, with Walbourne’s earthy bark playing off Thompson’s sweetly soaring vocals on tales of rootless vagabonds and fatal trysts.

This partnership has been a long time in the making though. The pair first met when author and music fanatic Nick Hornby gave Walbourne a call out of the blue to assist in the recording of Linda Thompson’s 2007 album Versatile Heart, on which Kami was assisting her mother. Both admit they were too wrapped up in their own projects to pay much attention to the other, and so years went by with chance meetings at odd gigs and events. It was only during the early sessions for Linda Thompson’s following album, 2013’s stunning Won’t Be Long Now, that the two started writing music together and found that they could effortlessly harmonise and trade vocals.

Recording sessions for an album naturally followed, which took place at the home studio of Edwyn Collins (who also co-produced the album) with their direct, pared down arrangements occasionally filled out by fiddle duties from Eliza Carthy and deft drumming from Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars). It was also during this period that Thompson and Walbourne forged a relationship and decided to get married. Although this means there is little to no separation between their personal and work life, in an interview with Secret Sounds Thompson said she does not see this as a problem: “You feel that you have a shared goal, I think, which maybe you wouldn’t have if you didn’t work together as much.”

Focusing on a direct and authentic English folk sound, they headed up to legendary folk archive Cecil Sharp House for inspiration and gleaned two songs which appear on Fair Warning, ‘William Taylor’ and ‘Bonnie Portmore‘. The latter was released as a lead single, for which their label, Island Records, saw it appropriate to resurrect the iconic ‘pink’ label which adorned releases from such folk luminaries as John Martyn, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson’s own Fairport Convention. While this stamp of quality might ostensibly serve to draw further comparisons to the work of Thompson’s parents, Richard and Linda (a married couple with harmonising vocals releasing folk-rock on the Island pink label), ultimately they carve out their own distinctive brand of contemporary folk with one eye cast back to traditional English lyricism, as they do on ‘Breakneck Speed’.

An upbeat modern ballad of extricating yourself from a relationship turned sour, ‘Breakneck Speed’ rolls along with the energy of Thompson’s driving acoustic rhythm and Carthy’s fiery fiddling. Thompson takes lead vocal duties while Walbourne’s electric noodling buoys the song up before joining in for those effortless harmonies in the chorus. With effusive and gloriously catchy tunes as this, The Rails are sure to be a highlight of the folk club and festival circuits they tour this summer and prove that Thompson and Walbourne make a handsome pair.

Fair Warning is available now through Island Records. If you enjoyed this article, why not check out my review of Richard Thompson’s Electric?



[Artist Spotlight]: Eels

eels_large“The road that I’ve been taking heading for a dead end, but it’s not too late to turn around”

Yesterday, Eels issued their eleventh album of close-to-the-bone pop, The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett. In recent years Eels have had a prolific outpouring averaging an album a year, and this may have something to do with Eels main man Mark Oliver Everett having lain old bones to rest with 2005’s life-encompassing album Blinking Lights & Revelations, the autobiography Things The Grandchildren Should Know and a BBC documentary on his physicist father who died when Everett was nineteen. But, with the direct and counselling title of their latest record it seems that Everett still has some things on his mind.

Songwriting sessions for Cautionary Tales actually started before the recording of last year’s Wonderful, Glorious, with Eels members gathered to make a highly personal record. The sessions were shelved though, with Everett citing the reason as the songs “made me uncomfortable… but not uncomfortable enough”. He reveals “If I’m not uncomfortable, It’s not real enough. I needed to dig a little deeper.” And deep he did go, with intimate lyrics looking back on a life misspent and addressing a pining heart, echoing the bruised airs of Tom Waits. “I grew up very fast in some ways, and very slow in others,” Everett says. “These are some of the trials and errors.”

While Wonderful, Glorious revelled in effusive, scuzzy rock, Cautionary Tales focuses on wistful, meditative tunes centred on Everett’s gruff vocals and sparse guitar, augmented by Eels’s sprinklings of orchestration. And although much of the album can be preoccupied with “Who-said-what” and “What-did-I-do?” moments, ‘Mistakes Of My Youth’ is a self-effacing and open-hearted moment of understanding that floats on lazy rhythms and uplifting string arrangements. Standing at the crossroads between the past and the future, where self-acceptance is key to moving in the right direction, the song is a cathartic and comforting moment on a collection of songs dedicated to the ones that got away. Things The Grandchildren Should Know Pt. 2? Possibly…

The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett is available now through E Works/Vagrant and can be streamed in full on Soundcloud.

[Artist Spotlight]: Antun Opic

antun opic1“I won’t bow, I won’t beg to your lack of respect / The big desert you spread in my head”

Peddling intelligent bluesy-folk with a gypsy jazz swing to it, Antun Opic has been creating rumblings over in Europe for a while now. After cutting his teeth in Munich street band Wildwuxx and getting his onstage education touring with punk-cabaret group Strom & Wasser, Opic decided to set off on his own, enlisting the help of acoustic bassist Horst Richard Fritscher and guitarist Tobias Kavelar (who actually used to teach Opic guitar). 

While Opic’s driving guitar and idiosyncratic vocals take centre stage, Kavelar’s fluid lead embellishments complement Opic’s gypsy rhythms in the same way Stéphane Grapelli’s slinky violin lines kept Django Reinhardt on his toes. Meanwhile, Fritscher’s mellifluous bass playing anchors their ramshackle grooves and together the trio evoke the musical raggedness of Tom Waits, fused with the wild-eyed conviction of The Birthday Party era Nick Cave.

Although he was born in Croatia, Opic was mostly raised in Germany with his family making regular trips to see his grandparents in Croatia, even during times of war. “Much of the sunny country I used to call home had suddenly turned into a political hot spot,” he says. “Today it is mostly a desolate place and people are traumatised”. As a result of his mixed upbringing Opic feels rootless, saying “I come from Croatia and Germany: A half breed. So, I don’t feel home anywhere.”

Perhaps that is why his songs are populated by wanderers and outsiders, the kind of Film Noir strays that Opic freely admits are “the ones you don’t want to know, actually”. Some, like the embittered snitch of ‘The Informer’ or the twisted enforcer of ‘Juanita Guerolita’ are vicious misfits. Meanwhile, others are just looking for a way out as on ‘Moses – Let My People Go’ which approaches traditional tales of exodus from a new perspective. This assortment of Brechtian characters comes partly from Opic’s love of theatre, but also from the distance that writing in another language affords him, as he reveals “I think and I speak in German, but when writing in English I step back and I can create a character which has nothing to do with myself”. 

After putting out an album of demos entitled You Can Spare A Dime on his own digital label Antuned, Opic released his first album proper, No Offense, in September of last year. Rather than hiring a producer the trio decided to record and produce the album themselves, allowing them to push each other further in what Fritscher describes as “a constant creative process”. The band have had considerable success in Europe, touring across Germany, France, Croatia, Slovenia and recently made their UK debut with a show in London last month. Although there are no further UK shows planned as of yet, it is a significant step toward Opic’s desire to bring his songs to an international audience and more are sure to follow soon (we hope!).

No Offense is available now through Antuned/Traaxx Music.

[Artist Spotlight]: Bombino

bombino_by_ronwyman_06__photoset-photo“Awa tarhed, arhekh” (What you desire, I desire it as well)

An extraordinary amount of great music came out last year and I’m still playing catch up to a certain extent, and one of the gems I missed first time around that I can’t get enough of lately is Tuareg guitarist Bombino’s album Nomad. Gaining the nickname “Bombino” (a corruption of the Italian word for “little child”) from his time in Haja Bebe’s band, Omara Moctor has lived through interesting times including two separate Tuareg Rebellions in Niger. Like his desert blues contemporaries Tinariwen, Bombino sings almost exclusively in the Tuareg language of Tamashek and his lyrics frequently address the plight of Tuareg existence in the regions of Northwest Africa which deny their nomadic way of life. During the Tuareg Rebellion of 2007-09 the guitar was banned as a symbol of rebellion and Bombino went into exile after two of his bandmates were executed, though he maintains “I do not see my guitar as a gun but rather as a hammer with which to help build the house of the Tuareg people”. On return to his home in Agadez after the conflict Bombino and his band staged a concert at the base of the city’s Grand Mosque which saw over a thousand people congregate to dance and celebrate. This event and the music of Bombino is featured in Ron Wyman’s 2011 documentary Agadez: The Music And The Rebellion, which brought Bombino to global attention and lead to the recording of his debut Agadez and then the followup Nomad, produced by Black Key Dan Auerbach.

The belter that kicks off Nomad‘s mind-melting journey through psych-tinged desert blues is ‘Amidinine’, a song that translates simply as ‘My Friend’ and Bombino explains “as humans most of us have shared experiences with friends and these are true friendships, but they don’t last. It’s a shame as it is so important”. While that statement may convey some regret, ‘Amidinine’ is nothing if not joyous. Bolstered by the steady boiler room of rootsy keyboard and percussion, Bombino’s drenched vocals and idiosyncratically bluesy guitar takes centre stage. It could reasonably be argued that nothing new has been done with the blues for forty years, but when you hear it coming from another angle like this you can’t help but be floored by it’s raw immediacy. The music is visceral and effusive, hitting the body first and the mind second. It’s a perfect opener to a revelrous, jam-oriented album and I urge you to snap it up when you get the chance. It’s heady stuff.

Bombino is currently touring North America and Nomad is available now through Nonesuch Records.

[Artist Spotlight]: Mutual Benefit

Mutual-Benefit“On a train through the Midwest, I was trying to get reborn”

While Mutual Benefit, the chosen stage moniker of Jordan Lee, may not be a particularly rock n’ roll name, his recent full-length debut Love’s Crushing Diamond is far more appropriately named. Glimmering and beguiling with an apparent simplicity that belies its complexity, Lee’s music is a reverie inducing blend of Americana with percussive and melodic influences from world music. Think Abigail Washburn with a proclivity for prolonged daydreaming. After self-releasing a number of EP’s and mini-albums with varying lineups on his Kasette Klub label (all available digitally over at his Bandcamp), Lee signed with fledgling record co. Other Music to release the Love’s Crushing Diamond LP and has resulted in a steadily growing universal wave of following and recognition since it landed.

Lee’s musical pursuits have lead him from his Columbus, Ohio hometown through to Austin, Boston and New York, and this wanderlust comes through in the meandering character of his music, especially on ‘”Let’s Play” / Statue Of A Man’.  It does not come at you head on so much as it sprawls out in all directions, gradually unfolding into an indelibly complete soundscape of disparate elements weaved together. While Mutual Benefit is ostensibly a musical unit with Lee as the only constant and a revolving door personnel policy that allows for limitless collaboration (and LCD’s long personnel list suggests a lot of collaboration), the balanced and singular sound that is carved from these sounds, melodies and cacophonies shows that Lee has a steady auteuring hand. But really, at its core this is grand, dreamy pop indebted to the joyful potential of making music. Mutual Benefit may not immediately grab your attention, but if you give the music your attention you will slip into it and never wish to resurface.

Love’s Crushing Diamond is available now through Other Music/Fat Possum.

[Artist Spotlight]: Nathaniel Rateliff


Nathaniel-Rateliff-main“This wound is gonna cancel me out”

Here is an artist I’ve been meaning to feature for a long time, ever since hearing him perform ‘Early Spring Till‘ on a compilation. Bearing the stature of a gentle giant and a hollerin’ voice that belies great hurt, Nathaniel Rateliff grew up in a devout small town in rural Missouri where he played music from an early age and explored the countryside, sleeping outside during hot seasons. “I loved growing up there,” he says. “It’s beautiful. There’s something really nice about there not being much to do; it really helped me be a creative person”. The quiet, contemplative ambience of his hometown clearly stuck in his bones when it came to recording the soul-searching minimalism of In Memory Of Loss, which touched on the death of his father in his teens and severe illness in his 20’s. Having received critical acclaim and travelled the world performing since its release in 2010, his recent followup Falling Faster Than You Can Run comes from a different space. While the pain of loss always seems to linger not far behind the joy of the present in Rateliff’s songs, he seems to have a wider perspective now as can be heard on album opener ‘Still Trying’.

‘Still Trying’ sees Rateliff studying the loneliness experienced in indifferent hotel rooms that comes part and parcel of touring around the world. And while Rateliff seems momentarily stuck in that brooding moment of homesickness, it is the resilient timbre of his voice and insistent acoustic rhythms which propel him and the song forward with juggernaut momentum. The songs seem to carry him headlong through whatever comes his way and the instrumentation lifts him out of the particular circumstances. Rateliff’s backing band The Wheel have always complemented him well, but their deft accompaniment on In Memory Of Loss did occasionally seemed an intrusion on the hushed, intimate atmosphere. By comparison, on ‘Still Trying’ and Falling Faster Than You Can Run in general the man and band sound like a unified force. Swirls of organ and susurrating guitar seem like a breeze that buoy up Rateliff’s splenetic guitar and vocals, as if they spring from a single source. It is eerie, but exhilarating and the cohesive sound of Falling Faster Than You Can Run shows Rateliff maturing as an arranger and a songwriter. The band are currently in the middle of a European tour so if you get the chance, check them out. You will not be disappointed.

Falling Faster Than We Can Run is available now through Mod y Vi Records.

[Artist Spotlight]: Joe McKee

joemckee“I dream of your burning skin from a foreign place, / You are wide awake while I am sleeping

Best known for his possessed vocals and thrashing guitarwork in acclaimed Australian experimental rockers Snowman, Joe McKee significantly changed pace with his solo debut Burning Boy last year. Where in Snowman the focus was on twisted vocals and a pounding rhythm section, McKee’s solo effort is a far slower and more wistful affair, which is probably down to two factors in particular: time and place. After Snowman split in 2011, McKee took a break from writing music which allowed the slow, crepuscular world of Burning Boy to bloom. Secondly, with no band McKee found himself alone in Walthamstow, London, where the band had relocated three years previously. McKee was born in Berkshire, where he lived until the age of five when his family relocated to Perth, Australia, and so in a land which he had not called home for twenty-two years he began longing for Western Australia’s open sun-scorched plains. When listening to his music McKee’s mixed roots make sense as Burning Boy sounds like it is caught between two worlds.

‘Darling Hills’ is possibly the best snapshot of his sound, an elegiac torch burner for the hills of Darling Ranges, Western Australia where he lived much of his life. Remarkably free of a rhythm section, the song meanders dreamily instead and centres on a hazy guitar and McKee’s hollow croon as he petitions cicadas to “sing me back to the glory land”. Amidst the pensive string melodies and McKee’s vocals, breezy field recordings and faint Australian news transmissions can be heard, dreamed willingly perhaps or an unwanted imposition. The spectacular vision of Burning Boy is full of such moments where memory seems both a blessing and a curse, and McKee seems to explicitly draw attention to this when he ends ‘Darling Hills’ with the line, “Hear the ghosts come scream in”. Delicately arranged and channeling Scott Walker, McKee creates the haunting atmosphere of an abandoned ballroom, where the memories and ghosts of past waltzes linger on.

Burning Boy is available now through Big Ship Records.

[Artist Spotlight]: Toy

Toy band photo“Set the time, join the dots, / Watch the hands move round the clock”

After Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong failed to live up to the hype of indie statement-of-intent ‘Lucio Starts Fires’, or even release an album, who’d have thought that the gutted and reassembled core of that band could make a group as sonically intriguing as Toy? A clear case of “rip it up and start again” logic, guitarists Tom Dougall and Dominic O’Dair and bassist Maxim “Panda” Barron jettisoned from Joe Lean and recruited  ex-Mudfite drummer Chris Salvidge and Spanish keys player Alejandra Diez to explore ambitious soundscapes. After forming in Brighton the group relocated to their current base in London, signed to Heavenly Recordings and put out their eponymous debut in 2012. Perhaps it was the thrill of actually seeing an album through to fruition or finding a band formula that worked, but Toy quickly set about recording and releasing their even more ambitious sounding followup Join The Dots late last year. 

While I cottoned on to Join The Dots a bit late for it to be a contender for my end of year list and Toy had been under my radar until then, any band which chooses to start an album with a seven-minute long instrumental is alright by me. ‘Conductor’ opens with lush arpeggiated keys that bring to mind the opening of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (a high falutin’ comparison maybe, but listen and you’ll see what I mean) before issuing a primal howl that settles into the motorik beat and chugging bass that leads the rest of the song on a dark, spaced out odyssey. Amid waves of paranoid synths that encroach, successive layers of distorted guitars wail along with the rhythm section which gathers velocity. Toy strike a fine balance between keeping a taut sense of momentum and keeping things engaging with flourishes of drama added by atmospheric breaks and Diez’s pedalboard trickery. Towards the end ‘Conductor’ boils over and then bubbles down into silence before ‘You Won’t Be The Same’s jangling Byrdsy guitar melody. As the opening track, ‘Conductor’ certainly acts as a statement of intent on a compelling album which bridges the gap between psychedelic prog and krautrock.

Join The Dots is available now through Heavenly Recordings

[Artist Spotlight]: FKA Twigs

twigs_papi“How’s that feel? You feel right”

Tahlia Barnett, the artist Formerly Known As Twigs, hails from a middle-of-nowhere area of Gloucestershire, but her sound is informed by her experiences of London’s urban sprawls as much as the quiet stillness of country life. Her mesmerising EP2, released through Young Turks during September last year, narrowly missed out on being my EP of 2013, with Sampha’s Dual overtaking it at the last post. If she looks vaguely familiar, chances are you will have seen her as a backup dancer in Jessie J’s videos or in the BBC skit ‘Beyoncé Wants Groceries’. Far from these roles on the sidelines though, Barnett’s solo work unmistakably positions her centre stage, with her siren call puncturing the fog of slouching beats on EP2 opening track ‘How’s That’. It is clear she has a keen ear for melody and composition as jerking click tracks keep things unpredictable while ebbing and flowing synths and nymph-like backing chorals imbue ‘How’s That’, and much of EP2, with the sense of spiralling depth which permeated Tricky’s Maxinquaye. Indeed in terms of musical DNA, FKA Twigs’s closest progenitor would probably be the musical shapeshifter Martina Topley Bird, whose vocals featured prominently on that album. Also, her attitude as a dancer seems to seep its way into the visual aspect of her music, as she has a penchant for mind boggling videos. See for yourself below…

EP2 is available through Young Turks now.

[Artist Spotlight]: Roy Harper

Roy Harper“You’re a girl with horizons, so easy to see, / Atop your high mountain, time is temporary”

Long absent, but never truly gone. Roy Harper has long been one of those stalwart figures in the background of British music, working tirelessly often behind the scenes but imperceptibly influencing anyone who has ever come into contact with him or has heard his work. Having gained praise and tips of the hat from both contemporaries (Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Who) and subsequent generations of musicians (Jonathan Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Counting Crows), he has naturally gained a mythological status as something of a folk sage. His reclusion from recording after poor experiences with record companies has only fuelled this reputation, but recently he broke the thirteen year silence with Man-Myth, co-produced by present-day folk mythologist Jonathan Wilson. Tonight Harper will play the first of three intimate nights showcasing the new album, accompanied by Wilson and a small string and brass ensemble. If you are going to the Festival Hall in London tonight, I am very envious of you.

For those of us not going though, we must content ourselves with the music. With that in mind I thought I’d draw attention to a gem off Man-Myth which has been coming into my mind during the morning drives past lines of trees shedding their golden leaves, ‘Time is Temporary’. Naturally for someone of his age and reputation Harper’s attention has turned to intense self-reflection, meditating on mortality and the discrepancies between self and perception, reality and expectation. Secluded here amongst delicate cello and banjo lines and buoyed up by a compelling guitar melody, Harper muses on love’s fleeting nature and the passing of time. However, with age comes perspective and rather than vocalising maudlin self-pity, Harper resigns himself, and possibly comes to terms with, the way things truly are. What makes the song truly poignant though is the tension Harper weaves in his poetic lyrics between trying to preserve the ‘perfect moment’ (“I have seen you for days here dipping your toes into the stream, / A vision of purity in an old pre-raphaelite dream”) and accepting that the passing of time is a fact of life (“I’d love you to stay here, but soon you’ll be gone / That’s just the way here in the sun”).

However, as one of Harper’s earliest influences, John Keats, wrote in Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us”. All moments are fleeting and temporary, but against the ravages of time we can commit it to memory and commemorate it in art, as Harper does here. The sparse core of guitar and voice, tastefully embellished on occasion by additional instrumentation, is a perfect vehicle for Harper’s reflections and his legendary tenor is like honey, still able to take you away to a place where the breeze gently moves the grass on verdant meadows and where streams babble freely amongst themselves for eternity.

Man-Myth is available now through Bella Union. Harper is on tour this week only, but still posts infrequently on his blog. Check it out, it’s good stuff.