26 Jul 2016

The Junipers - Red Bouquet Fair

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I'm now absolutely certain that Sugarbush Records' Markus Holler has managed to somehow implant a chip in me that relays to him exactly which albums I want him to release. His latest batch of releases are absolute perfection. There are four of them in total, but I'm just going to focus on my favourite of them today (more on the others soon).

The Junipers, for those who haven't been paying attention, are one of this decade's most important, unheralded guitar pop bands. Their previous album "Paint the Ground" is one of my favourites of the last few years. I'd previously thought of it as one of those rare, perfect pop records, but it can't quite have been as this new album is even better. While "Paint the Ground" had a lovely pastoral tinge, "Red Bouquet Fair" is much more of a classic pop album, with songs that reach back to the sixties for inspiration without sounding tied to that decade or overly reverential. It's obvious that these guys have fantastic record collections, but in no way do these songs sound like an attempt to replicate the music from those collections.

There are strong hooks on every single one of these songs, and these lads sure do know their way around a harmony; check out the lush vocal layering on "Summer Queen". Absolutely stunning. Elsewhere, they use period embellishments sparingly for maximum effect. Particularly effective is the 12 string guitar solo on "Like a Merry Go Round", while the sitar led "Her Come The Winds" is a marvelous psych-pop gem. And don't get me started on the amazing kaleidoscopic psychedelia of "Burning Pages".

And while classic harmony and psych-pop are the most obvious touchstones here, other influences rear their heads; "When the Bird Has Flown" is a lovely, moody choral harmony piece ala Midlake or the Fleet Foxes, while "Dig Me Up" brings to mind some of the brit-pop sounds of the mid nineties which have aged more gracefully than others.

Apart from the extremely solid songcraft, and those luscious harmonies, the main secret to "Red Bouquet Fair"s success is in the arrangements and production. It's all beautifully layered, with imaginative touches that create a distinctive sound for the band, while preventing any of the songs sounding samey. Or to put it in a simpler fashion, it's obvious that these songs are all the work of the same band, but each is a fresh creation which distinguishes itself from its predecessors.

It's the sort of album which should make you a little bit angry at the injustices of the world. Paradoxically, I'd also imagine that it's pretty much impossible to remain angry while listening to "Red Bouquet Fair".  This should by all rights be a major label release with constant airplay and household name status for the band, and had the Junipers been around to release this 50, 40 or even 20 years ago, that may well have been the case, but we don't currently live in a world where what the Junipers have to offer is in vogue with the masses. For us lucky few though, it's a comforting, magical experience. Absolutely wonderful.

Full stream, download and CD are all available through the Bandcamp streaming link below, with the lovely, limited vinyl pressing available directly from the label here (vinyl prices from Sugarbush include free international shipping!).

25 Jul 2016

Mayflower Madame - Observed in a Dream

Reviewed by Joseph Murphy

Oslo, Norway’s Mayflower Madame recently put out their debut full-length, "Observed in a Dream", on their own label Night Cult Records and on Custom Made Music in the U.S. Equal parts post-punk, shoegaze, and dark psychedelia, Mayflower Madame has made a name for themselves through their frenetic live shows, which include the festivals Norwegian Wood and Oya Festival as well as support for Crystal Stilts, Night Beats, the Cosmonauts, Crocodiles, Disappears and Moon Duo. At first listen, the band recalls most obviously new wave/post-punk legends Echo & the Bunnymen or the Chameleons, both of whom – as does Mayflower Madame – borrowed a heap of menace and swagger from the Doors. As follow-up to their 2013 EP "Into the Haze", "Observed in a Dream" makes leaps forward for the band.

Turn to “Lovesick,” which assembles itself around a catchy, new wave-inspired progression; however, it’s everything that’s happening around that progression that sets Mayflower Madame apart. Beneath the clunky, propulsive chords, there’s a whole other thing altogether. I can’t help but wonder what the track would sound like without the rhythm guitar, which, don’t mistake, is perfect tonally, for there are layers of ambient leads, walking bass lines, and a snappy rhythm. Then there is guitarist & vocalist Trond Fagernes’ voice atop it all to masterfully lure one in.

Toward the close of the album," Observed in a Dream" plots similar terrain but shifts the focus to a more ambient instrumentation, letting notes trail and spiral while the bass holds down the riff. As a whole, this is a strong debut from a band with obvious mastery and inventive songwriting. This one has enough for those needy listeners after depth and invention while remaining more than friendly for all.

"Observed in a Dream" is available now through Mayflower Madame’s Bandcamp page digitally or on vinyl and CD as well as through Custom Made Music if you’re looking for a cassette.

24 Jul 2016

The Hanging Stars - Over The Silvery Lake

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I've been following the progress of London's Hanging Stars with great interest via their first two 7"s (reviewed here and here), and am pleased to report that their first full length (also released by wonderful Indie label The Great Pop Supplement) more than lives up to the promise of those singles. And for those who missed those long out of print singles, their three best tracks are reprised here. This review is rather late in the game as "Over The Silvery Lake" has been out for a few months now, so apologies to both the band, and you dear reader, but if I may rely on a somewhat tired cliche, some things are worth waiting for, and "Over The Silvery Lake" is certainly getting better with age.

Partially recorded and mixed in Los Angeles by Byrds obssessive Rob Campanella (of The Quarter After), it sounds like the band soaked up a lot of sunshine while they were there. How else to explain such lush, sunny compostions from a London based band? Updating the Byrds / Burritos sound with a more contemporary flavour, "Over The Silvery Lake" nestles in nicely at a snug midway point between Active Listener favourites Kontiki Suite and the Laurel Canyon revivalism of Jonathan Wilson. Given those comparisons, it's clear that this is going to be an absolutely lovely sounding album, and it is, with a well layered sound that allows all of the instruments their own space to shine, with some lovely weeping steel guitar, and Richard Olson's vocals pushed to the forefront. The term cosmic American music fits perfectly here, with some lovely psych-folk tinges nicely glossing over the minor technicality that the year's best Americana LP isn't even by American artists.

There are trace elements of all sorts to be found here - the Byrds, Grateful Dead etc. - but "Over The Silvery Lake" is a very fresh sounding album too, timeless without implying any sort of retro approach. The songs are simply arranged in a way that best exemplifies their best qualities. And lovely songs they are too, with strong harmonies, big choruses and robust arrangements, perfectly sequenced  and paced to make the whole stronger than its constituent parts. That being the case, I'm not going to single out any particular tracks for praise, as the album works best when devoured as a whole. You can do so digitally through the band's Bandcamp page below, while the vinyl release from the Great Pop Supplement appears to already be sold out (as is normal for that label's releases). And there's a CD version avaialble here.

21 Jul 2016

Helen Tookey and Sharron Kraus - If You Put Out Your Hand

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

A collaboration between Liverpool based poet Helen Tookey and psych folk queen Sharron Kraus, 'If You Put Out Your Hand' is a truly beautiful and unique chapbook/ CD released on the wonderful Wounded Wolf Press label. All three elements suggests that this coming together of the written word and song will be something to be treasured; Tookey's inaugural poetry collection 'Missel-Child' was shortlisted last year for the Seamus Heaney Centre for 'Poetry Prize for First Full Collection', Kraus has a multitude of essential wyrd folk albums and EPs that come very highly recommended indeed and publisher Wounded Wolf Press is known for its high quality and esoteric pressings, ranging from CD and book editions of work by Xenis Emputae Travelling Band's Phil Legard to The Hogweed And The Aderyn's recorded output (if you don't know them do seek them out).

Influenced by 'the natural world and our ways of responding to it' the spoken word contributions on this album take their backdrop from rivers, hillsides and valleys as well as the landscape of nostalgia, memories and dreams. 'Unadopted' begins the album with quiet intent, Tookey's voice perfectly framed by Kraus's reverberated acoustic guitar. This swiftly moves into 'Missel Child' and its 'Wicker Man' style recorder and woodwind soundtracking the evocative and emotive opening lines 'The lady of the moon is in travail, her white face waxen as the missel-fruit…' Each individual piece is short but hugely effective and varied, additionally there is a sense of these verses being a series of connected vignettes. Kraus's accompaniment is spare and quite perfect, each note resonates all the more powerfully and gracefully for its simplicity and it never overpowers the text but works with it to conjure further images of old gods and moonlit trees. Occasional vocal harmonies emerge over picked strings to create a real sense of something ancient, pagan and of the earth. Tookey's verse is also pitched just right; it is descriptive but also immediate and particular highlights include the gentle gothic romanticism and blood letting of 'In The Rose Garden' (lovingly framed by Kraus's bucolic and bewitching guitar), 'Katherine' ('Katherine has been dead a week…') with its spectral, wailing fluid strings and the magical and sacred 'Rheidol Valley (Within A Semicircle)', expertly set to ever increasing layers of bouzouki, finger cymbals and haunted harmonies. Aficionados of Paul Giovanni's 'The Wicker Man' soundtrack, Faun Fables, Stone Breath and the rustic witchery of acid folk acts such as Forest, Comus and Stone Angel will find much to adore here.

Often spoken word recordings can be successful dependant on the mood of the listener and the familiarity of the text. Not so with this release, which serves and works in form as both poetry and music; the pieces simply flow like a stream, engaging but also with an ease to listen to and absorb. It may be the atmosphere that the interplay and weave and weft of both music and word helps to create, but this is a captivating and entrancing album which can be listened to as just that; an album. You can almost feel the breeze on your skin, the glow of the summer sun descending and the distant wail of sea birds as you close your eyes and let what you hear blanket you in something that is of the natural world, not of the bluster and noise of city life. This is hypnotic, essential, occasionally (and pleasingly) disquieting and ultimately affirming work; these pieces are filled with breath and with life.

The accompanying book is also a thing of beauty, featuring Tookey's texts side by side with some lovely woodcuts and illustrations. As an overall package 'If You Put Out Your Hand' is one of those special and unusual finds that do not come along particularly often. Already selling out quickly, this is a must have. Seek it out now here.

Grapefruit - Yesterday's Sunshine The Complete 1967-1968 London Sessions

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

London band Grapefruit are mostly remembered these days as the first band to be signed to the Beatles Apple label, but they're deserving of much more than that footnote status as this new collection from RPM Records ably demonstrates.

Their debut album "Around" was originally released in late 1968/early 1969. "Yesterday's Sunshine" collects all of their studio recordings from 1967 and 1968, including tracks which were later remixed for the album, as well as a plethora of hard to find and unreleased extras.

"Around" has a great reputation among collectors, but to me, the original mixes contained here are even better. Hell, there's even a version of "Lullaby" produced by John Lennon AND Paul McCartney - the only co-production credit the two ever shared. Why this wasn't released originally is baffling, especially given the quality of this sped up version. With twenty tracks here, you'd expect a quality dip at some point, but apart from "Breaking Up a Dream", which is a backing track that never had the intended vocal recorded, there's nothing here that isn't, to my ears at least, absolutely essential.

The production on these tracks is fantastic, but it's George Alexander's wonderful songs that are truly the focus point here. There can be few songwriters of the era who can claim to have written so many memorable songs in such a short space of time. The singles have become well known over time, but album tracks like "Ain't it Good" are just as memorable, while rarities like "Somebody's Turning on the People" and particularly the moody, mellotron soaked King Crimson meets giallo-score style instrumental "Theme For a Lonely Queen (aka Twiggy)" are at least the match of anything that found its way onto the album. Admittedly, the shadow of the Beatles looms ever present here (check out the ooh-la-la-la's on "Round and Round"!), but when the songs are this good it really doesn't matter that influences are worn very much on sleeve.

Given the Beatles connection, as well as the quality of the singles, it's absolutely astonishing that this doesn't contain at least three number ones (although New Zealand band the Hi-Revving Tongues did have a local hit with their version of "Elevator"). Instead, "Around" became an underselling future collectable, leading to the band re-emerging with a substantially different lineup and sound for a second album shortly thereafter. Do yourself a favour: avoid that second album and get this right now. If you're a British psych-pop fan (even one who owns a copy of "Around"), this deserves a place in your collection right away.

Available here (UK), or here (US).

20 Jul 2016

Pale Lights - Seance for Something

Reviewed by Elizabeth Klisiewicz

I am always glad to hear a new Pale Lights release. These Brooklyn folks have dipped their toes in the best Australian and New Zealand indie rock for influences, but add a special sparkle and shine all their own.

The songs were recorded and mixed by Gary Olson (Ladybug Transistor head honcho) at his Marlborough Farms studio, in Brooklyn. Kyle Forester (Crystal Silts/Ladybug Transistor) is featured on keys and saxophone, and Suzanne Nienaber (Great Lakes) on harmonies.

Witness the lovely opening track, “Mother Cries”, which features Hamish Kilgour (The Clean) on tambourine. It reminds me of vintage Velvet Underground and Go Betweens. I love the lilting vocals and the soft washes of organ that wrap themselves gently around your ears, all while chugging along merrily in the best Kiwi pop tradition.

“Girl in the Park” is more of the same, only this time it’s like Pat Fish has joined in. The lyrics are memorable and the lovely melody floats about like a many-hued lotus blossom.

“Alone In This Room” has that slow, dreamy cadence so prevalent on recordings by The Bats. Phil Sutton plays rhythm guitar and sings all the lead vocals, and he has a pleasant voice that perfectly suits the material. I also really appreciate the fine lead guitar work here, it provides a nice counterpoint to the main melody.

“Sweetheart” is the closing track, and with its swirling organ and twining male/female vocals, it reminds me the most of classic Go Betweens (and makes me miss them all the more). Thankfully, we have groups like Pale Lights who are as much in love with these classic bands as we all are, and who have the skills to both wear their influences on their sleeves and come up with fresh takes with their own tunes.

Fans of all the bands mentioned here will love this EP, and we can look forward to a new album later in the year.

Brad Gallagher, Bill Lowman, Alasdair Roberts - Missed Flights and Fist Fights

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

I'm sure that the majority of you are familiar with Bonnie Prince Billy endorsed Scottish / German folkie Alasdair Roberts, but what many may not realise is that his high profile Drag City released albums don't constitute his entire output. Roberts also self-releases a number of limited edition albums and EPs for sale via his website and live shows. And unlike the majority of artists who use these types of releases as a testing ground for stylistic detours, remixes, instrumentals, jams and other for-the-fans-only fare, Roberts' more low-key releases are very much interchangeable with his more widely distributed releases, in terms of both style and quality.

"Missed Flights and Fist Fights" is the most recent of these that I've been lucky enough to hear and it's a delight from start to finish - easily a match for any of his more celebrated releases. It's a collaborative release with Chicago-based multi-instrumentalists Brad Gallagher and Bill Lowman, who flesh out these arrangements with a diverse range of accompanying instruments that still leave the songs sounding spare and uncluttered, with the emphasis placed firmly on Roberts' compelling vocals.

As those who have ventured into Roberts' catalogue will no doubt have realised, he's not content to plough the same ground over and over, instead pushing folk forms in new and exciting directions, continuing the work of trailblazers from the previous generation (Nic Jones in particular comes to mind). While the impetus for this comes from Roberts himself, he accomplishes it by surrounding himself with an ever changing cast of sympathetic collaborators (check out "Hirta Songs" from a few years ago), and Gallagher and Lowman are certainly like-minded. Check out the arrangement on opener "Rocking The Cradle", with its skeletal electric guitar and bass nimbly courting atop an ever present jew's harp drone. Another old chestnut, "Lord Donegal" is given a fabulous overhaul too with a martial drumbeat and doomy fuzz guitars accentuating the pin-drop intimacy of the vocals. It's a spellbinding performance from all involved and goes straight into my top ten Roberts' recordings. "Sir Patrick Spens" and "When First I Came Unto This Country" are given similarly riveting readings.

And scattered amongst this often sombre fare are several songs that communicate to the listener a better sense of  the comradery and good spirits of the sessions. "The Riddle Song" (based on the Doc Watson version) is presented in a country-tinged arrangement which is charming, good humoured and relaxed, with a sprightly electric guitar accompaniment, while the closing duo of "Goin' Back" and "The Parting Glass" wrap things up in a bittersweet fashion.

If you're an Alasdair Roberts fan you need this, and if not already, this is a very fine place to start.

Vinyl available directly from Alasdair here.

19 Jul 2016

Causa Sui – Return to Sky

Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Causa Sui continue their quest to become the complete instrumental prog-psych-rock band with this latest impressive instalment of jam sourced goodness, “Return to Sky”. The bands trajectory has largely arced upwards in a relatively linear fashion, and, being terrifically good at what they do, their objectives seem to gradually shift in focus rather than take any major diversions. Fans of their recent blockbusting double sets “Euporie Tide” and “Live at Freak Valley” will find much to love here. The overarching question raised in my mind by 'Return to Sky' is whether my perceptions of its (unspoken) finality are the correct ones...

In comparison to its immediate predecessors. ‘Return to Sky’ is perhaps a more cosmically pastoral piece of work when compared to its rockier predecessors. Opener ‘Dust Meridian’ hits the start button with familiarly muscular drumming and bass note bending before spacing out into a keyboard led piece of kosmiche that is so 1973 that it should come with its own bottle of patchouli and flared jeans. Those familiar with ‘Homage’ from their recent sets will not a strong continuation of the theme here as the track unfolds over its duration. As with all Causa Sui releases, the deftness of touch is present and correct. They may be jammers but they do it with style and panache. Vanilla Fudge having a discourse about Krautrock with Pink Floyd anyone?

“The Source” is a sludgefest jam with its roots firmly in the Lynryd Skynryd territory of Sweet Home Alabama which then branches out into an edgy arabesque before depositing itself in your memory with a final dense drone of washing cymbals and gently undulating guitar in a very zen-prog way. Tasty. “Mondo Buzzo” is another bass and drum led workout which takes a while to work up a head of steam gradually incorporating Fender Rhodes stabs before exploding into an acid folk rock bonanza that is reminiscent of a wordless Wolf People (or maybe Wolf People are a wordful Causa Sui?). Either ways an avalanche of supremely distorted and duelling guitars duke it out to the max before once more an extended fade out that incorporates more of that gently sunbeamed guitar and atmospheric synth washes that are the chosen method of exiting on most of the gathered tunes herein. “Dawn Passage” repeats this trick but in reverse order before we reach journey's end with the rather beautiful sun dappled title track.

“Return to Sky” may be construed as a farewell with its reflective tone and stately sonic architecture. It’s also my favourite on the record as it builds and swells in a really engaging way allowing the tune to unfurl fully over the 11 minutes of its duration ending with a gentle decay into nothing – or Nirvana, take your pick. It certainly left me wondering if ‘Return to Sky’ was a valedictory statement for the band as it ascends into the upper atmosphere on thermals of crashing cymbals and Hendrix inspired guitar phrases. Given that all members of the band pursue highly interesting solo projects one may think this is the last transmission from the collective. Could it be that the band who’s name tells you a lot about where their heads are at have finally reached their point of singularity? Has the circle now been closed and will it remain unbroken? If so, remember them kindly – when they shone they shone brightly.

Available here (US) or here (UK/EU).

18 Jul 2016

The Dandelion Set - A Thousand Strands

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Alan Gubby's Buried Treasure label have released a couple of pretty stellar releases of late in "The Delaware Road" and John Baker's previously unreleased Radiophonic Workshop recordings "The Vendetta Tapes", so it was with great interest that I approached this new debut release from the Dandelion Set (who have previously featured on one of our Active Listener Samplers with this non album track for completists).

A collaboration between Glyn 'Bigga' Bush (Lightning Head, Rockers Hi Fi) and PK Chown (James Beige, Mr Liquorice), the Dandelion Set list Broadcast, Madlib, and Wendy & Bonnie among the artists they like on their Facebook profile, so it's no surprise that this is a ridiculously schizophrenic (schizophonic?) offering. What is surprising is how well it all fits together, despite it's uncategorisable nature.

It's a strangely out of time recording which, despite its lavish, often beaty production, recalls the anything-goes experimentation of the late sixties and early seventies, with Joe Byrd's recording projects in particular coming to mind.

There really is a bit of everything here. Opener "Pristina Strawberry Girl" is creepy psychedelic pop, coming on like a Syd Barrett take on "Willow's Song", but just as you feel like you've developed an idea of what will likely follow, cult writer Alan Moore pops up to helm the nightmarish dystopian vision of "Judy Switched off the TV". And so It continues, switching from library sounds, to Canterbury jazz-prog, to futuristic urban film noir, to whispered chanson, to woozy, flutey psychedelia, and that's only taking in the contents of the first half, harpsichords, Moogs, dulcimers and all.

It's an exhaustive listen, almost as if Bush and Chown wanted to capture all of their ideas on tape in one flurry of activity in case it was the only chance they got to ever do so. This approach should by all rights result in a disorientating mess of a record, but somehow each surprising feint is delivered with such assuredness, that one can't help but be convinced that turning off the GPS and handing Bush and Chown the keys is absolutely the thing to do. It's quite a ride they'll take you on, folks.

There's a lot to take in here, and I've only just begun to peel the layers back, despite numerous listens. For those of an adventurous mindset, you've potentially found your most listened to album of 2016 right here. Investigate immediately or you're off my Christmas card list.

Digital, CD & Vinyl all available here:

13 Jul 2016

The Active Listener Sampler #42

This sampler has been a little longer coming than most as I've had all sorts of other things going on outside of the Active Listener keeping me busy, but the wait has been well worth it.

This time we have a really fascinating assortment of tracks from recently reviewed material, upcoming releases and a few wildcards by complete unknowns which have completely blown me away (check out that Todd Sinclair track!).

Joseph Sampson has provided us with the lovely sleeve art for this release - his first for us, but hopefully not his last! You can see more of his work here:

As always, donations are appreciated and help us cover our costs and keep us doing what we do for you. Free downloads are of course welcome as well.

Here's the full tracklist, with download and streaming link below. Enjoy!

1. Moonsicles - The Frozen Pond 03:25 2. Todd Sinclair - African Time 04:01 3. Junkboy - Fulfill 02:53 4. Drakkar Nowhere - Higher Now 05:29 5. Prana Crafter - Luminous Clouds 05:19 6. Will Z. - A New Mirrored You 04:13 7. The Love Explosion - Wonderful Wonderful Wonderful 04:07 8. Sir Robin & The Longbowmen - I Would Like 05:08 9. The Myrrors - Liberty Is In the Street 04:44 10. Michael Warren & Grey Malkin - Jugband Blues 04:02 11. The Tara Experiment - Twilight 02:07 12. Elkhorn - Seed 05:55 13. Frantic Chant - Spellbound 03:32 14. Gilligan Smiles - Hopeffully 03:39 15. Heaters - Centennial 04:11 16. James McKeown - Drawn Inward II 09:38