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JANUARY RECORD RVWS

FRIGHTENED RABBIT – Pedestrian Verse

“There is light but there’s a tunnel to crawl through”

Emotionally and musically Frightened Rabbit have more often than not been steeped in the working-through of the detritus of life and relationships: exhibited as both a contemplative journey through the motions of melancholy, and bursts of raw, reactionary rage. Yet, with their fourth LP Pedestrian Verse, the emphasis on this working-through has been lifted from that of the seemingly Sisyphean to more of aKübler-Ross process – developing towards an infinitely more resoundingly cathartic working-out.

Appropriately the album kicks off with an answer to the crucial central conundrum of The Winter of Mixed Drinks: “Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?”, and it’s immediately clear that singer and lyricist Scott Hutchison is far more assertive and analytical of his status as the former. The flaws and mistakes that dog those whom he writes of as well as he himself, though certainly not something to be proud of, are approached with forthrightness as the ‘Acts of Man’.

Though in expressing this increasingly mature awareness perhaps some of his characteristically blistering sadness has dissipated, little that made Hutchinson so essential has been lost, and the tone is typically confessional. The specific approach appears to be that the scars of the chips on his shoulders are still there, even if the wounds themselves are healing.

Nowhere however, is the band’s development more evident than at the level of sound. These songs’ production, both creatively and technically, is undeniably far tighter and more cohesive than previously, and every rhythm, chord shift and tempo switch-up has seemingly been thought through back and forth. There’s a meticulousness here which far from appearing in anyway cold or calculated, instead asserts itself as the fruition of craft.

In doing so they’ve quite brilliantly taken the cliché of the consequence of exposure to a major label aesthetic: well-loved indie group horrendously victimised by torturer-cum-producer’s buckets of stifling gloss in some fantastical musical version of Hostel – and instead used it as a mechanism for both refinement and expansion.

Opening tracks ‘Acts of Man’ and ‘Backyard Skull’ in particular embody this, immediately identifiable and engaging, but with touches of experimentation which represent a renewed confidence in their sonic capacities which their song-writing has always promised.

Appropriately, a lot of the record’s reception has commented on this in through the lens of the record’s “focus”, received in both a positive and negative sense – and though I’d fall happily into the camp of the former, there are nonetheless moments where perhaps a looser treatment of the material, with even more space and time would only benefit it. ‘Housing ‘ in both its ‘(In)’ and ‘(Out)’ forms for instance, have all the promise of germinating into glorious anthems, each satisfyingly breaking up the flow of the record with its urgency, but unfortunately they last all to briefly, left as tantalising and consequently all-the-more disappointing saplings.

But these few instances, on a record that fulfils the band’s knack for togetherness epitomised in their live performance better than any previous attempt, stand as the exception that proves the rule. The introspection, the working-through, “the tunnel” is still this particular rabbit’s habitat (an artist whose first album was entitled …Sings the Greys wouldn’t ever switch paths that drastically!), but accompanying the band’s development comes the increasing potential for an ever-realistic, yet all the more attainable for that, hope. The last sound we hear is birdsong. 7.6/10

YO LA TENGO – Fade

It’s impossible not to be slightly daunted by confronting your first album from a band with thirteen full-length LPs from a near thirty-year long career behind them. The accompanying sensation of crushing failure as a wannabe-critic/listener put aside, a plethora of other questions emerge: What am I to expect? Is Fade a good place to begin? If not where is there to go?

Their name is ubiquitous in the indie music sphere, of a similar touchstone standing to The Flaming Lips perhaps, not in sound necessarily but in their status as a cult group with their origins in the 80s maintaining their presence in popular conscious and parlance throughout. The sense is that I should know them, and know them well: Stereogum recently released a fairly comprehensive ‘Worst to Best’, threatening to the uninitiated in its totality.But then again, perhaps it’s the ideal mental-state with which to confront any new music – blissful ignorance perhaps being the closest to objectivity any individual can get.

So it is what with this blank slate I confronted Fade,a title which at this late-stage perhaps threatened to become the dead horse with which lazy/over-exposed reviewers would flagellate the record, the sound of an artist fading to black.

Instead, whilst by the close of the record fading certainly comes to mind, it is of a different kind: into the ether. Grand portions effectively float – calming, delicate, expansively and sumptuously composed. It’s the sound of musicians immensely assured by their craft and equally comfortable at their most outwards-reaching and intricately detailed moments of quiet.

It is perhaps with this sense of comfortable prowess that the record does take a while to settle into an affirmed sense of direction. Whilst the opening salvo all evidently derives from the same source – the dreamy interchange of vocals the characteristic thread which runs throughout – the songs themselves initially knock against each other somewhat, perhaps out of a conscious desire to exhibit an eclectic edge, to try on slightly different aesthetics and determine which will lead the record onwards. The songs themselves are well-weighted and produced, individually ranging from listen-able to borderline great, but as part of the record as a whole the chirpy synths that characterise the straight-forward indie pop of ‘Well You Better’ can’t help but jar with the opening feedback and distortion of ‘Paddle Forward’. Once this slight pacing issue is resolved, however, with the arrival of a later cohesion in tone, the record really begins to shine.

There’s a particular run from ‘I’ll Be Around’ onwards to the close of the album ‘Before We Run’ which hits a glorious groove, the contemplative mood struck upon from the record’s very first chorus (“Cause this is it for all we know / So say good night to me / And lose no more time, no time / Resisting the flow”)fully asserting itself musically. Here the strings and horns in particular are gorgeous – never dominating or particularly distinctive even but honed to perfection – a centrally considered aspect of the songs themselves rather than a veneer.

So it is here with the close that I can answer my earlier questions. What am I to expect? A record of rich structure and composition that expresses the band’s range and mature song-writing with elegance, the mood one of contemplation and a growing sense of calm. Is Fade a good place to begin?Almost undoubtedly, a record that becomes increasingly warm and enveloping, evidently created with care and love and which allows the listener to fully engage in such sentiments themselves. If not where is there to go? I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One perhaps.And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out after. Maybe anywhere… but right now I’d be quite happy to stay right here. Fade is a treat. 7.8/10

PARQUET COURTS – Light Up Gold

Parquet Courts’ full debut is a thorny beast, wired and twitching with urgency and yet languorous and apathetic, either carved from, or scraped off of, the American backstreets and boulevards they call home.

When at their most tightly wound and rhythmically driving the songs threaten brilliance: the way the riveting garage-rock riffs of ‘Master of My Craft’ run into those of Borrowed Time with a “One, Two, Three, Four” is addictive, bringing a potency and urgency to the album’s movement that befits the rodeo imagery that adorns the cover. It’s a quality which sadly lacks by the record’s second side however, where individual moments of interest begin to clash with an increasing lethargy and monotony, embodying the loss of motivation and listless roaming which serve as recurring motifs. In the wake of the music’s flaws though, and to a fair extent overriding these issues, is the thematic and linguistic prowess of the lyrics.

Post-Punk was born to be this poetic. Throughout, whether delivered by Andrew Savage or Austin Brown, Light Up Gold’slyrics are droll and resonant – equally comfortable in realist romance (“My girl’s a borealis-lit fjord […] My girl is a beer, freshly poured”) or reflections on the dystopic contemporary employment landscape: (“There are no more roles on TV shows, there are no road-cone dispensing jobs […] but there are still careers in combat, my son”). They’re rich at their most prosaic (“I was debating Swedish Fish, roasted peanuts or licorice”) and abstract (“I saw, while squinting, the hidden layer in those lost-era grain elevators”), and they’re the main reason to bookmark this band and return to this record. Tracks like ‘N Dakota’ and ‘Yonder is Closer to the Heart’ are almost better read as prose poems in fact, managing to register an authentic experience of Americana in a style reminiscent of both Jonathon Richman and the Beat poets, but all the same strikingly current and refreshingly individualist.

Ultimately, you find that you can only praise Parquet Courts so far. The melodies and moments of musical captivation they conjure are thrilling, but they feel worn down over the course of the record by a searching, languorous quality that leaves a sense of frustration… and yet you come out feeling completely spoilt and utterly bowled over by their sublime lyrical-work. But a contradictory response seems to be the only valid option: it’s a surprisingly complex record produced by a surprisingly complex band, a quartet of Pioneers/Stoners looking at the stars whilst lying in the gutter. 6.5/10 

THE JOY FORMIDABLE – Wolf’s Law

The Joy Formidable’s ambitions towards the gorging, gorgeous maximum, the evident end-goal of 2011’s The Big Roar, are matched in force by panoramic production this time around, evidenced by the epic multitude of strings on final track ‘Turnaround’ undoubtedly going some way to fulfilling their mostUse Your Illusion of musical dreams.

Unfortunately, with this outward reach the heart of the band, and particularly Ritzy Bryan’s vocals, get somewhat lost in the mix, struggling to be heard amongst the tides of orchestration and polish.

This is particularly striking when it becomes quite clear the songs themselves strike out on a similar prog-pop territory and structure to their debut The Big Roar, and for all the appeal of the hugeness on display, it is the moments of directness, the very distilled essence of the band, that are still their main strength. The brute force of ‘Cholla’ and ‘The Leopard and the Lung’ (which captures some of ‘Whirring’s chiming brilliance) are the kind of hefty chunks of guitar-music, delivered with power and panache and coming to a festival near you, that could reignite that particular flame in the popular sphere. Here’s hoping. 6.2/10

LOCAL NATIVES – Hummingbird 

Matching the production habitat switch from SoCal to Brooklyn, on Hummingbird the sunshine of Local Natives early singles has dimmed a little, overtly evidenced by their distinctive harmonies being withdrawn to a flavour rather than a trope. Yet, wonderfully, the songs are still tight and sonically rich, the vocals are warm, confident in their delivery and enveloping, and a particular highlight is the unsung drumwork of Matt Frazier, possessing the crucial snap and drive these songs need.

Producer Aaron Dessner’s style seems to be to step back and give these songs the space they need, but his influence does come to rear its head, perhaps most pointedly in the textures: occasional bouts of sombre piano, and the horns in particular have a large degree of that High Violet melancholy hanging in the air around them. The ultimate effect is that frequently, the songs are even stronger on tracks like ‘Black Spot’ and ‘Columbia’ for their subdued nature: tense with piano and rising reverb until the clouds part and glorious light pours in. It’s the story of a record that possesses more consistency, gravitas and raw edge than its predecessor, whilst maintaining that which made Gorilla Manor so compelling. A sterling record.  8.2/10

 

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