Stuart Turner & the Flat Earth Society – Scowl album review

Scowl by Stuart Turner & the Flat Earth Society (STFES).Scowl is a book for small children by Steve Smallman about an owl called Scowl. Scowl was only happy when he was grumpy, perched upon his grumpy branch, screaming ‘Flap off!’ at the other woodland creatures, who tried in vain to cheer him up.

Scowl is also the fifth album by Medway‘s very own Stuart Turner & the Flat Earth Society (STFES).

The album cover adorns stern Victorian wetplate images of each band member, courtesy of the talented and esteemed photographer Rikard Osterlund, that make Peaky Blinders look like The Nolans.

Scowl introduces a much harder, more alt rock than folk edge to the effervescent, ever-changing sound of STFES.  The harder gritted sound may have been sparked by Stuart Turner dropping the acoustic guitar for a Gretsch or the departure of multi folk instrumentalist Rob Shepherd, who left the band part-way through recording the album.

But STFES has always been a vehicle for other members to bring songs to the table, and this policy gives the band the ability to change direction or sound as a matter of course, rather than a progression or out of any fad or passing style.  A good example of this is the uptempo indie pop overtones of Stoic.  A wonderful pop song driven by the unmistakable guitar sound of Bob Collins.

The other stand out track for me is Nothing.  The song grew out of an original idea by Shepherd, and is a slow burner that builds into something very special.  A song about lost control, lost innocence and lost life. This should remain in the STFES live set for many years to come.

Turner’s distinctive growling blues vocal style is perfectly matched with Rachel Lowrie on tracks When, Crash and Solitary.  While David Read of The Claim provides guest vocals on Helen – a song that is surprisingly not a cover version as it couldn’t sound more like The Claim if it tried!

The evolution of the STFES “sound” is completely natural.  Water, with its banjo-picking, alt folk acoustic-driven sound reminds me more of previous albums, but sits perfectly well among the 9 great songs that together, make Scowl a great album.  For me, the best STFES album so far.

Scowl by Stuart Turner & the Flat Earth Society (STFES) will be released on 10th November on Vacilando 68 records.

Ratboys – GN is post-country, indie pop-tastic

Ratboys - GNRatboys is the vehicle for singer/guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan. The band hail from Chicago and began life in 2009. In 2011 they released the Ratboy EP, and in June 2015, they released their debut studio album, AOID.  Their new album, GN (an abbreviation of ‘goodnight’) is released on 30th June on Topshelf Records.

Ratboys’ music is charming, instantly familiar, indie folk, alt pop, post-country songs that err towards a down-to-earth, uncomplicated simplicity.  Just what is needed in these times of austerity, gloom and chaos.

Julia Steiner - Ratboys

On GN, I’m hearing echoes of Kim Deal, The Breeders, and the country-edged Sheryl Crow. Ratboys manage to effortless capture a little piece of a hazy summer daze in their understated, feel good guitar-led pop songs.

The songs on GN  “largely detail experiences of saying goodbye, finding your way home, and then figuring out what the hell to do once you’re back,” says Steiner.

The album’s lead single, “Control” sounds instantly familiar, like I loved this band for years.  I find myself humming along, foot-tapping, head-bobbing to an infectious tune.

GN offers a box of tales, laments and triumphs, which recount near-tragedies by the train tracks, crippling episodes of loneliness, remembrances of a deceased family pet with freezer burn, and on and on. The songs shift and breathe as worlds all their own, tied together by the group’s self-proclaimed ‘post-country’ sound, which combines moments of distortion and a DIY aesthetic with a devotion to simple songwriting and ties to the Americana sounds of years past.

The songs chosen to close both sides of the record – the slow-burning “Crying About the Planets’” and quizzical “Peter the Wild Boy” – unpack the respective journeys of two real people who were quite literally lost and found. “”Crying” tells the survival story of Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson from a first-person perspective, and “Peter” reflects on the life of a feral child in Germany who was eventually adopted by the King of England,” according to Steiner.

Ratboys guitarist Dave Sagan

Certain personal stories – the tour adventures recapped in “GM,” the struggle to learn to show affection as divulged in “Molly” – find Ratboys just as eagerly exploring subject matter that comes from within, and then illustrating the highs and lows with soaring hooks and plaintive ones. Even in the moments that lie somewhere between bliss and misery, a tension persists between Steiner’s sweet vocal delivery and Sagan’s physical, almost-off-the-hinges guitar playing that lends each song a deeper sense of colour and movement.

Come December, I will confidently predict that GN will appear on every well respected ‘best albums of 2017’ list.

Ratboys –  GN  Track List:

Molly
Elvis is in the Freezer
Westside
Control
Crying About the Planets
Dangerous Visions
Wandered
GM
The Record
Peter the Wild Boy

 Ratboys new album, GN is released on 30th June via Topshelf Records on vinyl, CD, cassette and digital download.

Tokyo+ by Marconi Union

Tokyo + by Marconi Union
Marconi Union – Tokyo +

Marconi Union are Richard Talbot, Jamie Crossley and Duncan Meadows. The group originally formed circa 2002 when founding members Talbot & Crossley met whilst working in a Manchester record shop.

This month Just Music reissue Tokyo in an extended format and aptly named Tokyo+.  The original album was released by German label Bine in 2009, but was only available in Germany as a very limited edition CD. Renamed Tokyo+, this release contains the original seven tracks together with a four track Live Studio Remixes EP.

Unlike other bands associated with Manchester, for over 10 years Marconi Union have quietly gone about their business produce a succession of excellent albums full of beautifully chilled, timeless and ambient instrumental music .  Music that captures the essence of drifting clouds, gently lapping waves, relaxation and calm. Because of the unwavering and meticulous quality of the music Marconi Union produce, I am continually surprised to come across fans of ambient music that are not familiar with their work.  This must been down to their attitude to the work and in no way a result of the quality of their output.  Like their music, gently does it, not wishing to cause a stir or raise their heads too high in fear of exposure.  So until that changes, I would like to announce Marconi Union as being the best kept secret of the past 10 years.

‘Tokyo+’ by Marconi Union, the original ‘Tokyo’ album together with a new accompanying EP ‘+’ of Live Studio Remixes is released this month by Just Music for the first time to a worldwide audience as a double album on 20th January 2017.

Marconi Union’s music develops an individual style all of its own with each release, and Tokyo was no exception: “The original idea (and title) for Tokyo stemmed from a chance comment. We had just finished recording a track and after playing it back one of us (we can’t remember who) said that it reminded them of Tokyo. Neither of of us had ever been to Tokyo and we realised that our entire conception of the city originated from films, TV and books. We liked this idea of creating music for a place that only existed in our minds. We weren’t interested in faithfully representing the reality of Tokyo and had no wish to make “authentic” Japanese music, we really just liked the images of Tokyo we’re regularly exposed to. We thought of this music as a form of Hi-Tech Ambience.”

The idea behind the accompanying Live Studio Remixes EP was Marconi Union grabbing  the opportunity to return to the original material and explore it further.  But rather than simply remixing the tracks they decided to completely deconstruct and rework them. Taking the original stems they created new loops and parts and combined the samples with live playing, with the addition of their live drummer, Phil Hurst. Each version was largely improvised and has that certain groove which can only really be achieved by the artists all playing live together at the same time. “We don’t perform live very often, so Tokyo + is a chance for our fans to hear not only updated versions of the Tokyo tracks, our present day take on its Hi-Tech Ambience, but also to hear us playing as a band.”

With Tokyo+,  Marconi Union have released no fewer than 10 studio albums; and one as a collaboration with Jah Wobble.  Since releasing the 2011 album Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Volume 1), it appears the Just Music Label has fallen head over heels and made it their mantra to bring the wonderful music of Marconi Union to a wider audience by re-releasing all the albums (except Anomic Jah Wobble & Marconi Union – originally released on the 30 Hertz label).

Marconi Union Studio Albums

Under Wires and Searchlights (2003)
Distance (2005)
A Lost Connection (2008)
Tokyo (2009)
Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Volume 1) (2011)
Different Colours (Just Music, 2012)
Weightless (Ambient Transmissions Volume 2) (Self-released limited 2012)
Anomic Jah Wobble & Marconi Union (30 Hertz 2013)
Weightless (Ambient Transmissions Volume 2) (Just Music, 2014)
Ghost Stations (Just Music, 2016)
Tokyo+ (Just Music, 2017)

Tokyo+ by Marconi Union is available via Just Music.

Amen 2 by Mikko Joensuu – One of the Best Albums of 2016

Amen 2 by Mikko Joensuu
Amen 2 by Mikko Joensuu

Amen 2 is the second instalment of Mikko Joensuu’s proposed soul-searching trilogy.

Mikko Joensuu was brought up with strong religious overtones. But in the seven years prior to the release Amen 1, he suffered with depression and loneliness. Whereas the first album is Mikko Joensuu coming to terms with the idea that God was no longer a part of his life, Amen 2 recounts a complicated person losing their religion and looking for understanding in a new way of thinking.

On Amen 1 Mikko Joensuu uses the sadness of alt country and a voice full of pain and fragility, at times reminiscent of Gram Parsons, on songs like ‘Warning Signs‘ explaining the doubt of his religious convictions.


Warning Sign from Amen 1

Amen 2 starts with the powerful, driving ‘Drop Me Down‘. From the initial hum, the fragile voice is all that remains from the first album. ‘Drop Me Down’ begins “Starts out with a silent word, with a voice that can now be heard”. This is a beautiful song that builds as it drives, forward on a journey from A to B. Piano, strings and fragile voice embrace a sadness. Drums and guitar build, lifting the song into anthemic realms of celebration. Over the course of seven minutes’Drop Me Down’ continues rolling forward, gathering momentum and power.


Drop Me Down from Amen 2

Whereas on Amen 1 the singer-songwriter from North Finland was sitting alone on the porch of his small cabin by the lake, staring into the water and strumming his acoustic guitar, on Amen 2 he gets up and walks into the forest to celebrate a new found freedom, rising out of depression and confusion with a forward-looking hope.

But as Mikko Joensuu explains,

“There’s a certain balance to be found between an overwhelming joy towards the beauty of life and living, and not really knowing if the mind will collapse into the abyss again. On Amen 2 the light is definitely present, although it is more interested in observing emotions and thoughts than setting them in stone.”

On Amen 2 Joensuu explores euphoric long tracks inhabiting a similar musical territory as My Bloody Valentine’s shoegazer melodies and the space gospel of Spiritualized, infused with a sprinkle of The Jesus & Mary Chain on tracks like ‘There Used To Be A Darkness‘. It is a step into the light, in every respect, and a record that is built on the feeling of relief and acceptance.


There Used To Be A Darkness from Amen 2

Amen 2 by Mikko Joensuu is a truly brilliant album that deserves all the praise it receives. One of my the best albums of 2016. Now I am intrigued where Amen 3 will take us.

Mikko JoensuuAmen 2 is released on Svart Records.

Anja & The Memory People – Horror Pop Sounds

Anja & The Memory People by The Asistent
Anja & The Memory People by The Asistent

This week, Horror Pop Sounds release a limited edition cassette of the original soundtrack to a cult 1970’s Czechoslovakian psychological TV drama, Anja & The Memory People by The Asistent.

The cassette only very limited run of 105 is the first release on the Horror Pop Sounds label, based in north-west England, who state they are “an apocryphal archive of film and TV soundtracks”. The music is interesting, mesmerising, weird, at times dark and disturbing; and years ahead of its time. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to know this was actually recorded in 2016 by a pale-faced geek with a bushy beard and an intense love for all things analogue!

Listen to Anja & The Memory People

Cassettes are still available from Horror Pop Sounds priced £8 each.

Anja & The Memory People cassette only releaseThe Anja & The Memory People cassette comes with an original A3 Czech TV poster unlimited streaming via the free Bandcamp app, plus a high-quality digital download in MP3, FLAC and more.