Sofar sounds hits Dublin.

There more than 400 Sofar Sounds gigs every month now.

There are more than 400 Sofar Sounds gigs every month now.

Ah the joys of heading out to a gig. You’re shuffled ever further from the stage as inebriated hipsters jostle noisily in their frenzied attempts to capture hours of video no-one’s ever going to see again, drowning out the music with their drunken, witty banter. This after hours of studiously ignoring any of the acts misfortunate enough to have been supporting whoever the main attraction was.

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The mellifluous Molly Sterling.

And then five minutes after the gig, the band you all went to see have suddenly become so big that they can now only ever play to vast hordes, as venues become arenas and arenas stadia. And as the band disappear into the distant horizon, the gulf between them and their fans seems painfully emblematic of a bunch of guys who’ve plainly forgotten why it was that they first met up to play music together in the first place.

Such at least were the thoughts of Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and Dave Alexander. So they decided to do something about it, and thus was launched Sofar Sounds way back in 2009.

Basically, a secret gig is organized where 30 or 40 people sit cross-legged around somebody’s sofa listening to up and coming bands performing their songs. No drinking, no shouting, and no money to muddy the senses. Just music and ears.

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Fiona Harte.

These days, there are more than 400 gigs organized a month in some 300 cities across the globe. And although you’re more likely to find yourself on the floor of a vintage clothes store than you are in someone’s living room, there are still rarely any more than about a hundred people at any of the gigs. And despite the fact that they sold a chunk of the company to Richard Branson, the very personification of the man, last summer, there’s no evidence yet of any selling of their soul.

Having languished on the virtual waiting list for a few months, I finally got along to my first Sofar Sounds gig at the end of April. 70 or 80 of us gathered at the Nine Crows vintage store in one of the few corners of Dublin’s Temple Bar as yet unsullied by any of the soontobeweds from across the way whose charming shenanigans have turned the area into a cultural wasteland.

Sofar Sounds at Nine Crows in Temple Bar.

Sofar Sounds at Nine Crows in Temple Bar.

And, having collected our bottle of Kopparberg, who kindly sponsored the event, and whose cider is so magnificently sweet, that there’s absolutely no possibility of anyone ever drinking more than the one bottle of the stuff, rendering any drunkenness a physical impossibility, we sat down to listen.

As usual, three acts were there to nervously strut their stuff, each performing a 20-25 minute set. First up was Chase Nova and the Everchanging Bandname, which, to quote the Simpsons, is one of those names that’s funny the first time you hear it, but gets increasingly less so the more you think about it. The songs they performed were actually a lot better than that name suggests, and all they need now is to become a little less polite and a little more, you know, rock and roll. That natural charm that they exude needs a pinch of salt to offset it.

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Chase Nova and the Everchanging Bandname.

Next up was Fiona Harte, a 23 year old from the North who’s a recent graduate of the Dublin branch of the BIMM music institute. And she was followed by Molly Sterling who apparently represented us at the 2015 Eurovision which, happily, was one of those years that none of us paid any attention to. So she should have no difficulty in putting any of that behind her to concentrate on actual music.

Both produced sets of intense introspection that brooded on matters clearly personal. I’m not sure exactly what it was that the men in their lives had done, but I found myself studiously avoiding eye contact, as I fidgeted quietly away from the stage to hide behind one of the pillars. I’m pretty sure I overheard one of the people next to me quote Camille Paglia, or maybe it was Shere Hite.

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Molly Sterling holds court in Dublin.

All three performers and their bands were generous, serious, welcoming and will definitely produce interesting work when they get back into the recording studio to lay something down on disc. And Sofar Sounds is a brilliant idea, superbly realised, and yet to be darkened by the shadow of filthy lucre. And best of all, barely a phone in sight.

As we left, we were gently encouraged to donate 5 Euro for all the work that the organisers had put in, voluntarily, for our enjoyment. Which is almost embarrassingly little. But it’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the venture. Long may it continue thus.

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“Salt”, the latest album from Katie Kim.

Katie Kin's Salt.

Katie Kin’s Salt.

In a parallel universe somewhere it was Cristina who was catapulted to stardom in the 1980s, while Madonna continues to wait tables somewhere in Williamsburg. There, Katie Kim’s records sell by the truckload.

Few things delineate us more distinctively than those secret discoveries we make in the worlds of music, books, film and television. But if any of those discoveries suddenly enjoy unexpected commercial success, we become deeply suspicious of them. Nothing contaminates art quite as irredeemably as popular acclaim.

All of which makes Katie Kim the most alluring artist working anywhere on these isles. Her latest album Salt came out last autumn, and so unheralded was its release that it completely passed me by.

Doll in a box, Cristina.

Doll in a box, Cristina.

I had first come across her in 2011 when I saw her perform at the event curated by Donal Dineen at Dublin Contemporary. And when her second album, Cover and Flood, came out later that year, I had no hesitation in declaring it the album of the year, not withstanding what a stellar year 2011 was music-wise, which I reviewed earlier here,

So I had been eagerly awaiting her new album ever since, but somehow I still managed to miss it when it came out last autumn. I only heard of its arrival when it was nominated for the Choice Music Album of the year award. And although of course I’m delighted that the prize eventually went to Rusangano Family, few artists would have merited that boost to their career that winning an award like that would have given her than Kim.

 

Limerick's Rusangano Family.

Limerick’s Rusangano Family.

Salt is a more compact and cohesive affair than her previous couple of records, but the atmosphere it evokes and the feel of the album are familiar. We’re in 4AD territory here. And if it never gets quite as primal, guitar wise, as it does on a Cocteau Twins record, there’s no mistaking the terrain.

Think Stina Nordenstam recording an album for 4AD with some of the Dead Can Dance crew providing production duties. There’s an ethereal vulnerability to the vocals that’s bolstered by the heft and propulsion produced by the layers of sound that surround and give weight to the melodies.

Katie Kim's Cover and Flood.

Katie Kim’s Cover and Flood.

The result is a wonderfully dark album that you want to hear at four o’clock in the morning, but with the volume turned up loud.

Secrets are wonderful, but it’s pointless if you’ve literally no one to share them with. So for goodness sake go and buy this album. I need somebody else to talk to about it.

You can see the video for the track Ghosts here.

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3 new albums from The Avalanches, DJ Shadow and Blood Orange.

The Avalanches' Wildflower.

The Avalanches’ Wildflower.

The Avalanches released their debut album Since I Left You in 2000, and its kaleidoscopic mix of sunny samples moulded to infectious groves saw it rightly heralded as one of the albums of the decade. Wildflower is their belated sequel. So why has it taken 16 years to arrive?

Well for one thing, the even larger number of samples they needed for their second record took over 5 years for clearance. Then the five Australian DJs became two, and are now two plus one. Then their record label went belly up, and one of them developed a life threatening, debilitating illness.

avalanches-since-i-left-you1The good news is, and not withstanding the wait, Wildflower feels like the completely natural next step after Since I Left You. As you’d expect, a slew of guest vocalists have joined the party now, with Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, David Berman of Silver Jews, Warren Ellis and Father John Misty bobbing up and down in the sea of meticulously layered sounds.

A few people have grumbled that it’s too recognizably a new Avalanches album, and that they haven’t evolved enough. But that’s always the fate of the avant garde. What begins as weird and aggressively off-putting quickly becomes acceptable and then the norm. This is even more obviously the case with DJ Shadow.

DJ Shadow's The Mountain Will Fall.

DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall.

The new album, his fifth, is called The Mountain Will Fall, and like the previous couple it’s gone largely un-noticed. That’s because the hype that his debut album Endtroducing generated in 1996 was bound to be followed by something of an inevitable backlash. And once again, as I wrote earlier on his previous albums here, this is most unfair.

Unsurprisingly, this is a much darker and more brooding affair than the Avalanches’ album, but it suffers from the same, unjust criticism. How can this sound so recognizably like a n other DJ Shadow album? Shouldn’t he have moved on?

The point is, what he and then the Avalanches were doing was not some sort of passing fad. Effectively, they’d mined a new art form.

Beyonce's Lemonade.

Beyonce’s Lemonade.

The instrumental hiphop that he pioneered was manufactured by piecing together samples from other records and from all sorts of disparate eras and genres, and piecing them together to form a gloriously coherent and formidable soundscape.

The trouble is, nowadays that’s how all albums are put together, from the obscure fringes to the mainstream centre. By mining as many diverse sources as possible, in every area of an albums creation. There are over 72 writers on Beyoncé’s new album, the excellent Lemonade, and over 2,000 individuals are credited with having contributed to it.

Blood Orange's Freetown Sound.

Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound.

A perfect example of which is Freetown Sound, the new album from Blood Orange. In many ways, it’s a relatively conventional album on the funkier, RnB side of soul, from a British artist who’s taken four or five albums to finally find his voice, which he has done here in spades.

But each of the tracks are bookended by samples and film clips that give the album and each of the tracks a decidedly political edge. So that on the one hand, it has a much more contemporary feel to it than either of the above, but on the other, it never could have been made the way that it was, or have ended up sounding the way that it does, without the pioneering work done by the likes of Shadow in days of yore.

Digging for gold, Josh Davies aka Shadow is rumoured to own over 60,000 LPs.

Digging for gold, Josh Davies aka Shadow is rumoured to own over 60,000 LPs.

Though not quite as good as some critics would have you believe, Freetown Sound is nonetheless a serious album, and gets an 8.8 from Pitchfork here, while The Mountain Will Fall gets an unjustly skimpy 6.6 here, which isn’t really fair on either count. They more properly merit about 8.0 each – Wildflower gets an 8.5 here.

What all three albums represent is the fruits of a lifetime of hard work from serious musicians for whom music is not so much a choice as it is a compulsion. And for whom, and thanks to whom, making an album the old way simply isn’t an option any more.

You can see the video for DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall here, the lead single Augustine from Blood Orange here, and you can hear The Avalanches’ Colours here– the video for the single Frankie Sinatra is pants, which is a shame, as the song itself is impossibly catchy.

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New albums from Sturgill Simpson and Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop.

A Sailor's Guide to Earth.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

There’s been a lot of noise about Sturgill Simpson in the world of country and it’s not hard to see why. His third album, A Sailors Guide to Earth is, if anything, even more ambitious than his breakthrough album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music from 2014.

It should have been a complete disaster. A concept album, which is bad enough, in the form of a letter to his newly-born son, which, obviously, is even worse, whose touch points are Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles-inspired, late Otis Redding. Amazingly, he lives up to those lofty ambitions whilst somehow still managing to deliver up what is undeniably an alt country album.

Otis Redding.

Otis Redding.

He might balk, albeit a tad effortfully, at that distinction, between country and alt country. But usually there’s a world of difference between the powerfully plain and straight as a die world of country and the more nuanced, quietly sophisticated realm of alt country.

But impressively, Simpson manages to straddle both worlds, and then some. The horn and string arrangements on a number of the tracks here are very specifically designed to recall the rustic, guttural rhythms that came out of Stax with their string and horns (and if you haven’t already seen the doc on Stax, reviewed earlier here, treat yourself). The results call to mind early Van Morrison. But then there’s also a very sombre cut of Nirvana’s In Bloom re-imagined as teenage angst.

This is an impressively ambitious album that is every bit as substantial as everyone has been suggesting – it gets an 8 from the boys at Pitchfork here. A serious album from a major artist. You can see the video for In Bloom here.

 

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Love Letter for Fire.

Pop is so ubiquitous and the results so invariably saccharine and offensively MOR that it’s easy to miss the few grown-ups who work in the genre. Sam Beam has been recording as Iron and Wine for the last decade or so, and after beginning in roots Americana mode he has slowly but surely settled in the world of pop – his last album was reviewed earlier here.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

He produces the same kind of thoughtful, articulate yet unabashedly emotional pop that you get from Jenny Lewis and Christopher Owens, and earlier from Squeeze and Everything But the Girl (in their earlier incarnation), and, from before again, with Carole King and Harry Nilsson (see the doc on him, reviewed earlier here).

On this latest album Love Letter for Fire he teams up with Jesca Hoop, who was mentored by Tom Waits after she landed a job working for him as a nanny.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

Like all he best pop, these songs manage to be introspective yet upbeat with just a hint of melancholy. Their smooth, boygirl harmonies washing over you before disappearing again into the ether. Together with country, it’s the only other genre to resist black influences and not be rendered hopelessly redundant ever after.

They get a 7.5 fromt the boys from Pitchfork here, and you can see the official video for the single Every Songbird Says here.

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3 albums you might have missed.

St Germain, St Germain

St. Germain

St. Germain.

If you went to a house party, anywhere, any time during the first decade of this century, you will at some point in the evening have heard the lead single, Rose Rouge, from St Germain’s second album Tourist (you can see the video here) wafting from one of the rooms.

It was when you think about it a surprising recipe for success. A cerebral album constructed of layered tracks made up of acid jazz and obscure blues and RnB samples, all put together with painstaking precision.

Unsurprisingly Ludovic Navarre who is St Germain was somewhat taken aback by the 3 million units his album shifted, and he slipped back into the shadows as he tried to work out what to do next.

What he did was to dive into the heart of Africa where he’s lived for the last decade or so, soaking up their rhythms and the result is this, his eponymously titled third album. It’s as meticulously pieced together as the previous pair, but the result is far more organic sounding.

The emphasis here is on the beguiling melodies and musicianship of Mali, so that whatever’s sampled slips seamlessly in under the radar. If you haven’t been introduced to the majestic Éthiopique albums and haven’t been following what Damon Albarn, Brian Eno et al have been doing in sub-Saharan Africa then this is a great place to start. Either way, this is a pleasing addition to what is, happily, an increasingly crowded terrain. You can hear the single Real Blues here.

BOOTS, Aquaria

BOOTS, Aquaria

BOOTS, Aquaria

Boots produced and wrote the four best songs on Beyonce’s self-titled fifth album, as well as producing the third ep from this generation’s Spice Girl FKA Twigs – she’d have been dubbed Pretty Spice had she been there first time around. But he’s significantly more interesting than that would suggest. And Aquaria is his debut album.

Rather than either of the above, the person whose presence is most keenly felt here is, happily, that of his co-producer El-P. There is a nervous energy and agitated, sonic inquisitiveness that is matched by the enigmatic nature of the lyrics he produces.

David Bowie, any excuse for one final salute.

David Bowie, any excuse for one final salute.

Like Bowie, Burroughs, Thom Yorke and many more besides, he uses the cut-up technique of deliberately fragmenting phrases as an avenue into the subconscious.

Unfairly overlooked on its release – though not by The Independent’s ever reliable Andy Gill hereAquaria is a constantly questing, substantial debut album.

 

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Beauty Will Save the World

Between 1987 and 1993 the impeccably named RAIJ produced two albums and a couple of eps. And that was that. But then at the end of last year, Lars Gotrich heralded the arrival of this their third studio album on the mandatory All Songs Considered podcast (reviewed earlier here).

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Beauty WiIl Save The World.

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Beauty WiIl Save The World.

Middle Eastern vocal arabesques sit on north African rhythms, medieval plainsong and Baroque dirges mingle with post-Romantic, Satie-esque piano motifs, found sound recordings from the American Bible belt slip in and out of focus recalling the pioneering work that Byrne and Eno did on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which in turn had been borrowed from Steve Reich. But instead of being viewed with the studied, detached disinterest of the New York avant garde, speaking in tongues is presented as something to be secretly hoped for.

If the phrase hadn’t been so hopelessly overused, you’d describe this as the ultimate chill-out album. Imagine if The Penguin Café Orchestra had gone into a recording studio with a bag of magic mushrooms, and the results had been released on 4AD. Beauty Will Save the World is as richly eclectic, musically sophisticated and sonically satisfying an album as you could hope to get your hands on.

You can read Lars Gotrich’s interview with them here. And you can see the video, all 9 minutes of it, for the track they discuss here.

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