Tamara Parsons-Baker – Lover (singer-songwriter)
Big Red Sky BRSCD016 £5 CD £3.95 DD
If you describe Tamara Parsons-Baker’s practice as a formula, it doesn’t inspire much excitement: simple, mainly diatonic guitar strums; emotive vocals; songs about unsuccessful love affairs; we have heard these elements before. However, the five songs on Lover proceed from a somewhat more warped perspective than this formula might suggest, lurking with mischief aforethought behind the placid surface of a nice friendly singer-songwriter. The opening songs on the EP require close attention to the lyrics to reveal their disturbing character, but when we get to ‘I Stuck It Out’ Parsons-Baker’s full weirdness emerges, in a frighteningly witchy evocation of a relationship haunted by madness and murder. Thereafter it’s impossible to ignore the taste for the bizarre that animates these songs; however, the approach is never exploitative or fetishistic, but elaborates fully developed scenarios, populated by convincingly particular characters. The arrangements and recordings are extremely simple, rarely dressing the voice and guitar in anything more elaborate than a hint of reverb, which makes the sonic creativity of ‘I Stuck It Out’ all the more arresting. Parsons-Baker is blessed with what’s commonly referred to as ‘a good singing voice’, an attribute that many singers hide behind; she chooses instead to employ it with creativity and a certain amount of daring in realising the dramatic tensions of her scenarios. That these are her own songs doubtless makes the work of interpretation easier, but how well they convey and manipulate the meanings of their material is still a far more important measure of a singer than how good they make themselves sound. Parsons-Baker certainly sounds good (she sounds fantastic), but this is clearly all about her compositions rather than her musical gifts; both are well worth hearing.
Steve Katz – Barricades (singer-songwriter)
$10 CD $4.95 DD
Steve Katz writes songs that are crafted and constructed. He doesn’t just spread out some harmony and lash a load of emotion across it like Jackson Pollock. His chord sequences are deliberate, chromatically sophisticated tissues of narrative contour, his melodies shapely and discursive, his lyrics concerned with their own quality as language. He is nevertheless a writer and performer of considerable commitment, the grain and body of his voice controlled with great technique, but deployed with undeniable passion. These recordings are notable for the total integration of all aspects of their composition and performance, the singleness of their meanings. Opener ‘Thrive’ uses its harmonic rhythm expertly, manipulating the periodicity of the sequence to develop phrases whose conclusions and transitions are steered precisely by increases in the regularity of the chord changes. This is a common enough trick in the songwriter’s arsenal, but it is employed tastefully and intelligently here, and there is far more than that to the song. ‘Today I Saw Hope’ is a more didactic piece, in the tradition of the folk revival, that exploits the considerable rhetorical force of an antecedent-consequent phrase structure, and an alternate rhyme scheme, to make its creative argument almost irresistible. Basically, Steve Katz writes with great professionalism: he has songcraft, as a skill-set in the abstract, and could turn it to whatever purpose he chose. Fortunately, he turns it to sincere, humane and well observed songs, because attempts to do anything else with that approach tend to lead to cheese. The music is stylistically straightforward, uncontroversial, and could easily sound middle-of-the-road in less creatively rigorous hands; he earns the right to lines like ‘I saw hope/ in the eyes of a child’ through the diligent attention to detail with which he reaches them. The production and the playing are of the first order (gorgeous lyrical fretless bass on ‘Fair’), and his singing is more than accomplished. Top quality stuff.
Joey Prolapse – Unexpected Item In Bagging Area (hip-hop)
Observant social criticism combines here with a jaundiced gonzo subjectivity to produce an experience one step beyond the usual earnest, obvious chestbeating of ‘conscious’ hip-hop. Autobiography, wordplay or politics are usually given centrality in underground rap releases: Joey Prolapse subordinates these and other considerations to the articulation of a perspective. It may be that of the ‘real’ Joey Prolapse, or it may be fictional to a greater or lesser degree (and honestly, who doesn’t fictionalise themselves, even to themself?); that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this short release, in six brief pieces, gives us a view from the inside, from behind the eyes of this character with the surname ‘Prolapse’, who wants to defecate on the desk of the boss who just sacked him, who sees straight through the self-justification of the powerful and the self-delusion of the people he sees in the supermarket, and even the self-aggrandisement of the politically oppositional (‘because I can only ever really liberate me/ see?’). The fact that this character comes across as slightly unhinged by his clarity of vision just makes him more charismatic; this seems to be a man who has dropped some of his shackles, which is both inspiring and dangerous. The beats are laden with momentum, heavy and compulsive, but they are also disturbing, speaking of hidden, malevolent currents just below the surface of things. Joey Prolapse’s flows and lyrics are sometimes menacing, sometimes puzzled, sometimes cynically distant, and always rhythmically precise in their articulation. Meanings are a fabric woven from every element in tandem, which is a rarity in a style of music where beats and rhymes are often considered completely interchangeable. I’d like to quote loads of lyrics at you (a weakness of mine), as there are many excellent turns of phrase on here, but they all sound better in context, so you’d better have a listen. Unexpected Item In Bagging Area comes from one of the most compelling new voices I’ve heard recently.
The Light That Kills – The Ascetic (ambient)
The Ascetic continues in the vein of earlier releases from The Light That Kills; it’s ambient music, building a laminar soundscape from combinations of long tones and noise. Sometimes the texture is intense, saturated and hectic, like sleeping on a plane, and at other times it is more spatial, or even oceanic, with sonorities emerging and submerging like the loops of a sea-serpent. Despite the ever-present tonal elements, they are not organised harmonically, but collide in aleatory dissonances that are as unsettling as they are ambiguous; the effect is, again, spatial, and suggests a public social space, as different elements overlap seemingly without interacting. And then ‘In The Blood’ opens with an emphatic drumbeat, followed by a rhythmically active bassline, and a spacey guitar part. What follows is an extended jam on space and texture, which is certainly unconventional, and modally distributed between uncertainty and outright atonality, but is also relatively accessible, and resembles a tense sort of post-rock. Very listenable, improvisationally awake, and quite unlike anything I expected to encounter; it’s a successful piece in its own right, but I have to admit to being somewhat stumped as to its grounds for inclusion here. For me it makes the whole release sound less coherent, and less artistically lucid, than other The Light That Kills EPs, invoking, as it does, a radically different kind of listening. There are certainly some very steep contrasts on the other releases, but here there are too few tracks for it to signal as either exceptional, or as part of an eclectic selection. If the listener is being invited to consider the relation between active and passive listening, then there is little sign of the music exploring that idea, but if I know Crocker as an artist, he was just doing whatever he felt like doing. That’s paid off in spades (creatively, not financially!) in the past; The Ascetic contains three strong pieces, but in the round, it doesn’t quite hang together for me.
Three Kings High – Carry The Fire (rap-soul)
Combining funk with groove based indie-rock, and using it as a setting for vocals that sit midway between rapping and singing, strikes you as an obvious manoeuvre when you hear it: it turns out to be such a successful formula that it seems bizarre it hasn’t been done to death already. ‘Carry The Fire’ is a song of the creative pitfalls of being a musician hungry for attention (and in a world where attention translates directly into making a living, what musician isn’t?); it’s a slow burner, with an infectious groove and a melancholy feel, and makes a strong argument for artistic integrity, in extremely accessible, enjoyable terms. There are two remixes included, from Faux Flux and Digiflex, both excellent electronic artists associated with singer Joe ‘Chattabox’ Eden’s Killamari Records, and both provide a worthwhile new take on the song. Also included is the very funky ‘Out In The Rain’, an upbeat song of romantic betrayal that’s easily strong enough to have been the A side. Three Kings High have really got something, combining creative interest, excitement, novelty, great songs and accessibility. I think that probably adds up to real commercial potential. May they go far, because they’re clearly the dog’s bollocks.
Sayer – Demo (ambient metal)
‘Screaming For Enlightenment’, Sayer’s first track on their demo, is essentially an ambient piece (although I would guess from their Bandcamp tags that they would describe it as atmospheric black metal). Rather like The Light That Kills, reviewed above, it’s a very full sound-space full of activity and noise, but with few, if any, large scale structural elements to lend it any narrative development. It’s white noise, made with rock instruments. ‘Effort’s Curse’ is a short interlude of distorted electric organ type sounds, before ‘Never Settle/ Never Comply’ brings back the racket. The interesting thing about such a concentration of intensity is that it simply forms a background, and becomes a lot less intense in quantity than it might be in short bursts; of course much depends on the volume at which you listen to it, and at true metal levels this is a bit like being in a factory, or a building site, or next to a very large road across an airport, or a combination of the three. Unlike many acts that exploit the outer reaches of grinding heaviness, Sayer show no interest in the riff as a convenient carrier of musical meaning. This release is entirely to do with texture, and predominantly to do with full texture; the couple of brief breaks notwithstanding, this is essentially rhythmic noise, and a pretty convincing example thereof. Do not expect to be told a story, to be moved or warmed or chilled, and do not expect to be lulled. Expect to be finely ground.
Hanetration – Torn Heat EP (ambient)
There are undeniable rhythms to these pieces, an insistence on the measured progression of time, which invites certain narrative expectations. Those expectations are not necessarily satisfied in the compass of these pieces, and I doubt that there is any intention to do so. Instead, the music’s grammar parses into as static an entity as a long form drone, and all sense of journey resolves into cyclicity. Even in ‘Sixth’, which lacks the hard edged rhythm of the two pieces it follows, the development of melodic materials through the length of the composition, swinging between subtle emphases on consonance and tension, finally leaves the listener with no impression that they have heard a story. Each recording on Torn Heat describes a state or a condition, and if there is a narrative in the progression of these compositions, it is one that questions the idea of closure. We begin with a piece that evokes ongoing, admittedly mysterious, but certainly purposeful movement; we end with one that evokes an impersonal, mechanical stasis, in which there is a pulsing repetition, but it is the incidental cyclicity of the interfering audio byproducts of industry, not the comforting regularity of the days or the seasons. As with Hanetration’s earlier Tenth Oar, these pieces are crafted in painstaking detail, with multiple layers of texture, and provide an absorbing listen, whether you want to analyse the sound or simply immerse yourself in it. This is very accomplished work, and a resounding creative success.
Peacemaker – album sampler (metal)
Peacemaker establish their general level of cheerfulness with the cover art for this release, which is a photograph of three corpses hanging from ropes. For my money, using an image like that is something that should be done with the utmost seriousness and respect, although I’m sure the people that died to make it would have been long gone by now in any case. I’m not going to moralise, but it definitely made me feel uncomfortable; for all I know though, they may be singing about the specific incident the photo depicts. This music is clearly not meant to make anyone feel comfortable however: this is slow, heavy doom-metal, where the vocals are threatening, the riffs slow, ominous and milked at length, the lead guitar bluesy and plaintive, and the themes dark enough to ruin a sunny Sunday by the sea. Sonically, it’s a rich and mushy soup of distortion, but its levels of heaviness are nothing like as extreme as the outer limits of modern doom and drone practice; on the whole, Peacemaker look back to the days when ‘doom’ first became easily distinguishable as a sub-genre in its own right, rather than simply applying to the slower bands of the metal mainstream. The gravelly spoken-word vocals are an effective touch, coming across as somehow more doom-laden than singing ever can, and far more so than the histrionics of extreme metal vocal techniques. We get some hoarse shouting too, which works well, but not as well as the spoken-word. I like to listen to doom while writing battle scenes, and I’ll definitely be adding this to my fantasy writing playlist. It does everything you’d want it to, and the feel is genuinely threatening and ominous. Very nice sounds, roll on the full length release.
Humble Pious – The Legend of Ulu Dag (hip-hop)
This is a single, and a very short one: well under two minutes long, although the release contains four versions of it. There’s the original track, a remix, an instrumental and an acappella. The ideas in the track could have supported a much longer piece. That’s not to say that it contains a frenzied succession of ideas: it’s actually pretty sedate, but it has an atmosphere and a sensibility that could have been milked for a long time. I don’t normally listen to the acappellas in hip-hop singles very much, unless there’s a particular part of the lyrics I’m trying to puzzle out, but there’s something about Humble Pious’ voice and flow that makes this one compelling; he pitches his voice very low, works up a hypnotic rhythm, and emits a ritual chant on the most prosaic of subjects. The effect is almost meditational. Production, on the original and the J. Billa remix, is warm and earthy, and given the brevity of the piece, the whole thing is koan-like, a pebble dropped in the pond, leaving the listener to contemplate its ripples.
Cocktails For One – The Lonely Mojitos Club (hip-hop)
There’s nothing overtly ground-breaking about The Lonely Mojitos Club, but Cocktails For One lay down the law like they invented the language. Chizzel Chin’s beats are literate and funky, with some great samples and subterranean bass, while Snaggle Tooth spits with real authority, rhythmic precision and a very individual voice. There’s technical depth in all parts of the recording, from the cross rhythms of its internal rhymes to the carefully balanced dynamics, maximising the bass while leaving plenty of air in the rest of the mix. Although it’s barely more than a quarter of an hour in length, it feels like an album: there are six tunes, five of them below three minutes, and a great deal of variety, none of which undermines the coherence of the release. The Lonely Mojitos Club comes across as a single creative statement, framed between two tunes sampling, and named for, classics of modern jazz. Cocktails For One take their work seriously, but not themselves, and some of the lyrics are laugh-out-loud. It hits hard, gets you moving, makes you laugh, and it’s gone. I’m very impressed with this for a debut release, and I’m looking forward to hearing more.
Thank you for reviewing these interesting musicians. So many times I read your reviews and go ahead and make a purchase, to support unknown music and add to my diverse collection. Your in depth reviews make these strangers seem like old friends. Thanks again Oli
Always a pleasure, Diane, and it’s always gratifying to know my efforts are appreciated!
Read because I was involved in one of the reviews but ended up downloading a couple of the others due to your explanations of them. Well written and well educated views as always. Thanks
Excellent news Rowan, that’s mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned 🙂