Saturday, 30 November 2013

Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now

I Am a Bird Now was released in 2005, seven years following Antony Hegarty's self-titled debut album which was met with mixed reviews. Hegarty's sophomore album takes every soulful aspect of baroque pop, and combines it with Indie Pop - to create something spectacular on the ear. An album packed full of guests with songs about gender, family, love, loss, and depression had to be well received by the media. Following release, Antony and the Johnsons progressed by appearing on shows such as Jools Holland and attending some of the bigger festivals. This album eventually won the prestigious Mercury Prize, given by the leading figures of the British music industry, which is seen as an honour and a way of commercial success - though Hegarty and his team behind I Am a Bird Now never needed the success.

Hegarty takes delicate piano playing and throws in very light percussion with beautiful string work attached at the hip. The strings stand out, they really add to the melancholic, sad mood which this music portrays throughout the 35 minute duration. "Hope There's Someone" starts the album with a melodic piano, met with Hegarty's strong vocals - his typical high pitched singing, using his voice as an instrument. The song reaches climax with a heart thumping change in progression and tempo, where the piano riff furiously increases speed and volume - a rapid change from the opening segments. The piano playing is an arpeggio, creating this misty dark ambient atmosphere for Hegarty's vocals to sit on top, raising the bar above and beyond. This is a perfect album opener, a true stunning piece of instrumentality and minimalism to create a pin dropping sound once it's all over. "Hope There's someone" gives off a sad, lonely feel, and it's just simply a beautiful track on I Am a Bird Now.

"My Lady Story" is a deeply personal track connected solely to Hegarty as a human being. If you didn't know, Hegarty is a transgender. It has a jazz influenced vocal, with very tight instrumentation. One thing that's always stood out to me is the flute, it runs with the strings, but has a bigger impact on the latter half of the track - where the sound has been elevated. This track is full of tiny percussion pieces and melodic strings with a small emphasis on the upright bass. Then there's the short third track "For Today I Am a Boy". Its alike the opening track but with a bigger emphasis on the vocal and structure. Hegarty's layered vocal sings rings around the piano, splitting off from the accompanying percussion. The percussion picks up in the latter stages, and everything becomes louder with a repeated refrain: "For today I am a child, for today I am a boy." 

"Man Is the Baby" follows with sweet string accompaniment and a sound bass riff. The percussion is again pieced together rather well; it's not overly heard - but sticks out as a lounge / lobby type of arrangement. Soft strings and a high noted piano riff accompany Hegarty's desperate vocal to create a hollow track with a soul sitting down on a cold, dusty piano. I Am a Bird Now starts to become clear of its emotive response towards the back end of "Man Is the Baby". Its light strings sooth the listener, with a thumping bass riff creating a sorrow mood, one which Hegarty basks in as his sophomore album continues down a one way path to utter devastation and sadness.

I Am a Bird Now's splitting track is immensely beautiful - titled "You Are My Sister". It begins the flow of guests, this one being famed Brit of colours Boy George, who sings the chorus. Its chorus is the key to the track, as cliché as that sounds. There’s a great vocal by Boy George with pure coherence between George and Hegarty. The chorus is strong, which leads to a splendid ending following an elevated string pattern: "You are my sister, and I love you, may all of your dreams come true." Although it reads basic, Boy George adds great effect with pure emotion and care in his short refrain - and nobody could deliver it better.

Rufus Wainwright sings lead vocals on "What Can I Do?", who is accompanied by pianist Jason Hart with backing vocals by Hegarty - which doesn't have too much of an effect on the song, but they're heard well and work with the strings and percussion. This is under two minutes long, with an eerie atmosphere and depressive state of mind through the tongue of Wainwright. This is certainly one of the high points on the album, with mellow instrumentation, and a cello that stands out along with Hart's piano playing on the left side of the track. It makes for an easy listening warm-up to the album's magnum opus. "Fistful of Love" starts with a Lou Reed spoken word, which begins Hegarty's best lyricism on the album: "We live together in a photograph of time." This track features percussion by ex-Jeff Buckley musicians Parker Kindred - and guitar work by Lou Reed himself. The guitar makes an unusual appearance here, and "Fistful of Love" is one of only two appearances of guitar on I Am a Bird Now. It flows with the high, hard hitting string work and brass. Hegarty's vocal strengthens as the track progresses, reminiscent of a Nina Simone structured jazz ballad. He manages to blend his strong vocal with the energetic percussion and heart-warming trumpets. This track is by my favourite on the album, it's painfully beautiful, with everything working in unison. It doesn't sound messy or over produced, it's a perfect track in my opinion - and the guitar wizard Lou Reed only helps Hegarty and co create a sound worthy of Mercury Prize win.

The final three tracks are just as sad and heartfelt as the previous seven, they just don't have as much energy or density as the 'bigger' tracks on the album. "Spiralling" features a vocal by Devendra Banhart, and slow bass playing. It's very melodic and cold, this is a winter album after all. The final piece of string work on this track reminds me of many dramatic soundtracks. "Free At Last" features the Morse code, and a repeated piano riff by Hegarty - something his audience have grown to love. The strings enter and pass, as a post-rock feel enters. The vocal is very quirky by someone called Julia Yasuda - it's not very interesting, it just leads to "Bird Gehrl" very well.

Finales need to be something memorable and worthy, so the album isn't forgotten. "Bird Gehrl" is very sinister track, with is glorified in impressive strings - sounding far more raw and enthusiastic than any other track on the album. "Bird Gerhrl" rises as it progresses, with increased percussion and bass with Hegarty giving an emotive vocal, worthy of a final track. The piano ends the album just as it began the album, very delicate and masked in delay. It's one of the stronger tracks on the album with a better structure than some - but still, it’s as emotionally powerful as it was in 2005.

So we have 10 peaceful, piano accompanied pop songs, with strong emotive vocals and beautiful string instrumentation. It's not a perfect album, but it's surely one of the best winter albums ever recorded, and one of 2005's best. Winning the Mercury Prize is meaningless unless you have something of worth to show within the industry. This album has everything worthy of commercial success; it has superb individual songs, and radio friendly lyricism. I Am a Bird Now is a truly remarkable album, which deserves the credit it received, and will get with accolades in the future. It's a dominating album in chamber pop, and one of the most sophisticated within the baroque pop genre. Hegarty sings his emotions away on I Am a Bird Now, and he does it so professionally and calm, that fans can instantly connect with what he has to say. The guests make the listening experience an even greater one, and having these big names never puts Hegarty out of the centre picture - as you would expect on say hip-hop albums. It's an Antony and the Johnsons album by heart, and by sound, one for the history books and future classics - as it is today.
~Eddie Gibson


Friday, 29 November 2013

Discovery: Human Colonies - Hey You

We're always on the lookout for artists to follow, artists to champion, and artists to critique - however fit. Sometimes artists come to us, and we find these to be on two levels of a pyramid: the foundation artist, just starting out searching for feedback / coverage (such as this review of Human Colonies,) and the established artist, looking to spread their wings and take their music to a wider audience through the words and legitimate opinions of those here at MRD. We cherish our Discovery's, taking every request, every email very seriously as if it was a 14 year old Bob Dylan, or even a nine year old Justin Bieber. The possibilities of the music industry are endless, and it's our job to open the doors - close some doors, and push whoever it may be out of the starting gate.

Human Colonies came to us with a request, and after listening through their debut demo EP - simply titled Demo EP, it was worth giving them a write-up. These four gazers are Italian born, and focus on the heavier guitar drones of 80s / 90s alternative past. You can definitely hear the Sonic Youth influence gushing out of the rhythm guitar, with a Slowdive / Galaxie 500 ethereal feel on vocalists Giuseppe Mazzoni reverberated expressions.

Does it help that I was listening to Slowdive before discovering Human Colonies email? Yes, Yes, Yes, of course it does. There's something so untranslatable about the email hive mind - planning a day of dream pop shoegaze can only go well when an Italian unknown four-piece steps up with a sound influenced by the likes of: "My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive." It's rare, but it does happen from time to time. Human Colonies are late to a genre that was never popular even in its hay day. It was taken over by a broader popular alternative rock in the States, and a certain post-mod type of popular alternative rock in the UK with the genre 'britpop'. Though artists like The Verve were born out of shoegaze / dream pop, and many modern artists are taking influence from these catastrophically emotional artists from the age of acclaim. Most tend to blend it with krautrock, psychedelic rock, or even pop - but a straight up shoegaze / dream pop hybrid can still be accessible, interesting, and innovative in 2013. 

"Hey You" isn't the spotless, clean track Human Colonies intend it to be, but without all the skin and make-up, "Hey You" rocks. Forget the clear cut studio recordings - this is the intended sound of Human Colonies, and it's the sound that they will utilise as they progress their way in to the future. It's styled on the soothing shoegaze associated with Ride and Slowdive, rather than the heavier and abnormally distorted artists. The drums have been produced well, something strange for a demo recording. The soaring layers of guitar also stand out as the lo-fi aspect of Human Colonies wares off completely, and the full picture is printed right in front of your eyes. It's not a portrait of a happy face, it's something blue. "Hey You" is just like discovering that old Ride album (Nowhere) in a 2010 /mu/ share thread - it's image telling a story with colours, and it's music filling in the gaps for which the audience can share emotions with.
~Eddie Gibson

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Crywank - Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid

Self-loathing has never been more important in acoustic singer-songwriter music. Without The Beatles (and more so Daniel Johnston if anything...) we probably wouldn’t be reviewing Crywank today. That's such a cliché, but it bares some ground. Where The Beatles sang about love, when everything was 100%, the world was beautiful and no matter what we'll always be remembered; Daniel Johnston did the opposite. Instead of saying, yeah, we're okay, this is alright - he said no, the world is shit, I’m feeling shit, and this is my shitty way of expressing my shitness. Crywank, or as his family and friends know him James Clayton, summed up his whole persona and musical output on 2012's Narcissist On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. It was the second track "Now I'm Sad (BooHoo)" which outlined this self-loathing, pitiful lyricism, with a tie to sadcore and all the lowly emotions - but at the same time, acknowledging his listeners expectations, and what they want. It sounds mean to say, but the Crywank audience from 2010, 2012, and the present want him to be sad. They need Crywank to be on the verge of tears while he writes songs so they can feel the emotions in his pen. The audience doesn't ask for a phony singing uplifting songs, because that's not Crywank - they want simple, basic, sad music - and that’s exactly what Crywank delivers on his third album Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid.

He cuts straight to the core with his third album. Granted Clayton, isn't going through a break-up, but he's going through a period of questioning. The opening lyrics set the tone for the album: "Everyone I love is going to die, and I, will die as well." They're delivered after the first sounds of Crywank in a studio setting. It has to be said, the production quality of Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid alters the perception of Crywank and their music as a duo. There's something about the first two albums that just clicked together for being recorded raw in a bedroom. This change of sound really puts pressure on the ear. Where Narcissist On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown was smooth and deep, Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid is sharp and shallow. The guitar resonates, but it's not as complete as the past recordings. There's nothing wrong with Dan Watson's percussion, as it brings together some of Clayton's newer recordings. "Song For a Guilty Sadist" is fulfilled by the percussion, but the overall production doesn't click together as a finished entity. It's almost like the raw demos of the past have become the real deal, and these tracks of today have become studio sessions waiting for a finishing touch - "If I Were You I'd Be Throwing Up" is an example of this. Then there's "Notches", which Crywank debuted earlier in the year. To be quite honest, the initial release should be the version on Crywank's third album. This newer, minimalistic, and slower sound doesn't have the same effect as the pulsating percussion and resonating acoustic guitar of the "Notches" released in January. That being said, it's still one heck of a song, and one of Clayton's best lyrically as well as instrumentally: "I want to feel more than just sorry for myself." 

My quarrels with production quality aside, Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid actually possesses Clayton's strongest song-writing yet. There's far more imagery on this album, where in the past Clayton would speak more literal. "Crywank Are Posers" is a nod to Clayton's audience and critics: "I can try harder, I can better, I can do more but I know I won't. And I know apathy, and I know acceptance and a lack of motivation is what they want." It's surpassed by an absolutely stunning line almost unheard through the momentous delivery - "This life spent basking in the blue light," referring to the stay inside lifestyle, such as my own. The following track "Obsessive Muso With No Friends" shares this theme, and Clayton speaks the words on the tip of everyone's tongue with it. 

The up to date version of "GB Eating GB Whilst Listening To GB" is much better. There's far better instrumentation and it's been arranged well for this altered style of lyricism. The reverberation effect on Clayton's vocal really goes a long way with the percussion, especially when it kicks in. Crywank's jab at Team GB can't go unnoticed as well, and serves as a symbolic title for obsessiveness. However, the same development cannot be said about "Only Everyone Can Judge Me". Although the demo was far too distorted on the ear, this re-working has slowed down the recording, making it somewhat unhinged, with its production being considerably different to the debuted track from the January tour demos. Other re-recorded tracks include the double header "Waste" and "I am A Familiar Creak In Your Floorboards". Both have a much more accessible sound, with the former being the shortest, but the most significant track on Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid. The latter has a defining ring to it with the use of the words: "Substitute," "Self-gratification," and, "Moronic," - the words and sounds of an artist finally coming together on his third effort: "I climax with a sigh."

"Do You Have PPE For Self-Esteem" has the most bizarre opening: "Hand and Knees, scrubbing dirt off the men’s room floor. The automatic urinal flush comes on and I get sprayed in the face. New thoughtful ways to degrade." - tell me you're not imagining Clayton wearing a maid’s apron in a communal bathroom, that’s the striking imagery Clayton provides throughout this album. The instrumental side of this track isn't the strongest, but it doesn’t need to be. One of the better instrumental tracks is "This Song Title Was Too Long (So Now It's Shorter)". It features the same sparkling and high string vibrations of "Notches", but with more of an arpeggio presence. Clayton speaks slowly here, focussing on the rhyming last word in his writing: "better," "beggar," "think," and, "limp." The same fingerpicking style and high notes can be heard on "Deep Down I'm American Werewolf", referencing a track on his second album - "Deep Down I'm Really Kirk Van Houten". Lyrically, it's not Clayton's best, but it's still deserving of a place on Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid. 

There's a level of professionalism here. Knowing bedroom recordings aren't the way to develop as a recording artist, Clayton and Watson entered the studio fully aware of what they wanted to achieve. Watson's percussion has added a layer to the Crywank sound, which has allowed Clayton space and time to separate his lyrics from the music. There's less of a focus on delivering the anger built up inside, compared to James is Going to Die Soon. "Leech Boy" is a relaxed penultimate track, with all the apathetical emotions which fans of Crywank's past have come to accept and love. These longer tracks have a certain second structure, as heard with the change up chorus: "As I get older, I also worsen. I used to be, a better person." It splits up the variety of fast paced anti-folk tracks, without appearing dull - such as the closer "I Am Shit". With this, Clayton suggests a literal self-loathing hypothesis to his own life and music. He's potentially calling out us as listeners: "Language is scary, and over analysed." Overall, it's a much needed furious track that closes Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid with both intelligent and childish themes. Crywank's third album lowers the listener’s level of happiness. It takes the depressing aspects of the previous two albums, and completely goes for that third strike. Clayton's self-loathing attitude is still there, with his lyricism taking a huge leap forward in terms of flow, ambiguity, and intellect. Instrumentally, Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid sits on the fence. On one side, there’s this fresh perspective of sound, with Watson's percussion accompaniment and Clayton's naturally developing guitar skills. But then there’s the production quality, which isn't anything to write home about; and the re-recordings of "Only Everyone Can Judge Me" and "Notches", which are a step in the wrong direction. Crywank is still a developing project, and the team of Clayton / Watson can continue to record, and improve as the months pass. Perhaps they can develop the demo of "Privately Owned Spiral Galaxy" in to UK top 40 single, or cover a few songs. The future has opened up for Crywank, especially with their arrival to a studio setting. They can achieve something far greater and unitary than all three albums with time.
~Eddie Gibson