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Brigid O’Neill - Touchstone

Touchstone is the debut album from Downpatrick singer-songwriter Brigid O’Neill. Five years ago she attended a songwriting workshop on Rathlin Island and discovered a heretofore hidden talent. She has since played with Duke Special, Frances Black, Luka Bloom, Eddi Reader, Mary Coughlan, and Sharon Shannon.

On her recent EP Arrivals And Departures, she delivered a set of tunes that accentuated her ability to carry a traditional air. Her rich lilt on those songs was similar in style to Mary Black and had a real A Woman’s Heart vibe. She mixes touches of blues, jazz, and country with her traditional folk tones. The proceeds of an Artist Development Grant took her to Nashville where her writing and recording has flourished, with the end result being Touchstone. Written between Belfast and America’s heartland, Touchstone was produced by local songwriter Gareth Dunlop.

‘Little Bird’ is as delicate as a birds wing and eases the listener in. The influence of Nashville is understated, expressing itself in the fuller sound and the unerring confidence of O’Neill’s delivery. The country vibes bubble to the surface of the Neil Young-esque ‘Iron In Your Fire’, and continues through the country rock of ‘Rumour’. ‘Running Back To You’ has the feel of an instant classic. It’s the type of song that has been performed the length and breadth of Ireland for centuries and is the cornerstone of O’Neill’s place in the traditional music firmament. ‘Misunderstanding’ is the type of tune Leonard Cohen would have sung if too many Strepsils had turned his gravelly voice into a smooth lilt.

The title track that closes the album arrives too soon but the assurance and otherworldly voice of Brigid O’Neill on Touchstone is remarkable. You get the feeling that this striking debut has only scratched the surface of a songwriting talent that will echo for years to come. 

Touchstone is available via iTunes.

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LA Witch - LA Witch

When you think of Californian shoegaze, Mazzy Star might come to mind. Like their predecessors, L.A. Witch put a particularly West Coast spin on things. There are overtones of rock, surf, rockabilly, and country music in the Angelina trio’s downbeat drawl. Throughout the record, layers of echo and reverb bring to mind Duane Eddy, The Tornadoes and The Shadows, along with more contemporary acts like Black Lips and Audacity. The street-fighting undertones are only exacerbated by the snarling lyrics that seem to deride and condemn in equal measure.In Sade Sanchezvoice there is a noticeable debt to L7’s Donita Sparks; she delivers a sultry vocal redolent of ‘90s PJ Harvey.

From the noir opening of ‘Kill My Baby Tonight’, L.A. Witch build an ominous atmosphere that persists to the closing notes of their recent single, ‘Get Lost’, which closes the album. A few of the songs on this eponymous debut album have seen the light of day as singles and EP tracks over the last five years, including the deceptively breezy ‘Brian’.

L.A. Witch are proponents of Massive Attack’s mantra that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly.This band put the down in downbeat. To wit, the casual threat of ‘You Love Nothing’ oozes menace as it sidles up to you with razor sharp riffs. ‘Drive Your Car’ is a tale of empowerment written about an occasion when Sanchez drove Vincent Gallo’s car around Los Angeles. ‘Baby In Blue Jeans’ has a Bossanova-era Pixies feel and would fit neatly on a Tarantino soundtrack. ‘Feel Alright’ has a Pixies vibe too, while ‘Good Guys’ nods to The Kills. There’s a shared musical lineage with Primal Scream too and L.A. Witch often echo the Glaswegians' Sonic Flower Groove on this record.  

L.A. Witch is an understated but fully realised debut but, ultimately, it lacks the dynamic variation to hold your interest all the way through. It becomes dull on repeat listening. The combination of languid tempos and the violent undercurrent to the music make it a compelling listen but you have to wonder how often you will come back to experience it again.

L.A. Witch is available from amazon & iTunes.

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CHUCK - Frankenstein Songs For The Grocery Store

A parting gift from Charles Griffin Gibson, Frankenstein Songs for the Grocery Store is his final release as CHUCK, and a charming farewell it is.

Opting not to flip the table or reinvent the wheel on this record, all 15 tracks possess a touch of lo-fi and twee as Gibson's candid lyrics narrate DIY soundscapes. Like extended and produced vocal recordings, the tracks give snapshots into the life and / or imagination of the writer as they're spoken softly in your ear. The minimal and almost discordant nature of the music won't be to everyone's tastes, but the sincerity is endearing even is the guitar playing isn't virtuoso. 

'Bodies (Studio)' is an acoustic ballad, 'Hudson' is a wavering instrumental, 'Bulldog [Interlude]' is just that, and 'Meow' is a jangling indie rock number. Then 'Oceans (Electric)' drones and 'Caroline' yearns, each track possesses a unique identity and the record jumps from gear to gear as you traverses each of these in turn. Described as a "bedroom musician" this mish-mash of tracks makes sense, although there's no doubting CHUCK could be something clean and coherent if that's the intention. 

Fun to listen to in full or in parts, Frankenstein Songs for the Grocery Store is a fitting closing fanfare for CHUCK as it showcases a variety of influences and styles, wrapping up the story in a comprehensive way. Whilst this is the last of this moniker, hopefully the mind of Gibson will dabble in music again soon. 

Frankenstein Songs for the Grocery Store is available now from iTunes and Amazon

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Jack Cooper - Sandgrown

It’s probably pretty safe to say that Blackpool has had few albums written about it, despite being the birthplace of Robert Smith, Dave Ball, Chris Lowe and Roy Harper as well as ¼ of Franz Ferdinand & its Winter Gardens now regularly playing host to the Rebellion punk festival.

Jack Cooper (late of Veronica Falls, currently part of Ultimate Painting) grew up in the Fylde coastal area & lived & worked in Blackpool until he was twenty, by which time the economics of cheap overseas holidays were impacting on the beach resort. Sandgrown is the musical distillation of those formative years and the part that his location played in them.

Cooper is on record as saying of the album that “The songs that I wrote for Sandgrown suit my voice more than anything I've done before” and fans of the meatier sound of Veronica Falls should be advised that there’s a much lighter tone in play herein, more like his work with Ultimate Painting after they took their foot off the gas for album number two.

It’s therefore a work which requires some perseverance before it can make its mark upon you. With only nine, understated songs the lyrical content is no doubt where much of the album’s attractions are to be found but nothing has so far stood out particularly for me amidst Cooper’s words. Rather the mellow tone of the arrangement of second track ‘Gynn Square’ and the record’s overall position, pitched largely towards wistfulness with a dash of melancholy, have made it a pleasant one to play a number of times for the purpose of writing about it.

Cooper cites Terry Allen as an influence on his writing here along with sound of Springsteen’s Nebraska whilst Bill Fay, Robert Wyatt and John Cale are all mentioned in the record label blurb about the release. Bigger fans than I of all of those singers will likely find much to enjoy here.  

Sandgrown is available from amazon & iTunes.

Live Dates:-

Sunday 10th September - The Hope and Ruin, Brighton
Monday 11th September - BBC 6 Music Session
Tuesday 12th September - The Waiting Room, London
Wednesday 13th September - Cafe Kino, Bristol
Thursday 14th September - Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Friday 15th September - The Eagle Inn, Salford
Saturday 16th September - venue TBC, Blackpool
Sunday 17th September - The Old Hairdresser's, Glasgow

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Crumbs - Mind Yr Manners

Leeds quartet Crumbs hold the city's new music banner firmly aloft with their debut full-length release. Is there no end to the place's creative output?

Clocking in at a mere 24 minutes the ten songs don't mess about (without being raced through) and feature a few wittily named ones amongst them, such as 'Ciggy Stardust' & 'Hankie Herbcock' (which has a very wrong feeling about it the more you repeat the name).

The band's funky post-punk sound certainly sets them apart from a lot of their contemporaries and the ease with which they combine urgency with danceability belies the fact of their only being a unit for a couple of years. Fair enough they've had a blueprint to work from, in a sense, which their influences didn't but there's still a level of quality here that you'd not ordinarily find on a debut album.

With afrobeat, of varying levels of quality, having been a touchstone for a number of acts in the past half decade or so Mind Yr Manners and its grammatical nod to Sonic Youth is a very welcome shift of the musical focus from a young band. Not that we're advocating a rush to jump on their coattails but it's pleasing to hear a more challenging musical style being adopted, particularly in such accomplished fashion.

'Chaka Can't', at the album's midway point is a fine example of the album in a nutshell. The verses follow a pattern reminiscent of an older track I'm still wracking my brains to come up with (clearly to maddening effect) whilst the jangly guitar gives way at the end to a teasingly short passage of distorted bass you could do with at least another minute of. From beginning to end though it's two minutes of energetic fun.

Surely one of the best debut albums of the year - make the effort to pick these Crumbs up.  

Mind Yr Manners is available from iTunes & bandcamp.

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A Thousand Hours - Sleep

Sleep is the second album from Alaska’s A Thousand Hours in under six months. Endless Grey came out in the spring and was a miserabilist conglomeration of The Cure, Jesus And Mary Chain and a psychedelic Leonard Cohen. Coming so quickly behind that debut album, it is surprising how much their sound has changed in the interim. Guest vocalists dominate Sleep. The instrumentation is more elaborate and the whole thing is swimming in a Damien Hirst tank of reverb.

The songs start and end suddenly and deliberately. There is no fancy ornamentation or extended intro/outro work. ‘Shipwreck’ and ‘Bleach’ are reminiscent of This Mortal Coil with the ethereal atmosphere and dreamy lyrics. 'Christina' has an Echo And The Bunnymen feel. 'Crushed' is like ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' echoing up from a fissure in an Antarctic glacier. The arty, gothic vibe of Endless Grey has given way to a purely shoegaze/dreampop sound. While not objectionable in itself, A Thousand Hours' self-inflicted nailing to a specific genre limits them. As a result, Sleep is less interesting than its predecessor; there is little variation in tone or tempo.

It’s a remarkable transformation for the band, but it is marred by the return of a foe once thought vanquished. The resurrection of the horrific ‘80s atrocity, the gated snare, renders the album almost unlistenable. There are two types of ‘80s songs that are still heard: those without the gated snare drum that are still played openly, and those songs with the wretched abomination that are only ever heard on midnight radio request shows, asked for by someone whose spouse has recently passed away. There is good reason that the gated snare is no longer used. It is the single worst drum sound in the history of recorded music. Even Metallica’s St. Anger has a more acceptable snare sound. 

Sleep is a disappointing record, particularly as it follows such a promising debut. The gated snare doesn’t help but this collection of songs sounds unfinished and samey. We’re hoping for more from one of North America’s most depressing bands. 

Sleep is available via bandcamp.

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