What’s happened to RTE’s Other Voices?

St. James church in Dingle, co. Kerry.

What’s going on with the once great Other Voices? The first episode in this the 16th season began exactly as you would have expected, with BBC Radio 1 dj Annie Mac delivering an intro promising music from the likes of Perfume Genius (reviewed earlier here) and Django Django, with reports and footage from festivals in Berlin, Belfast and at the Electric Picnic.

The usual heady mix then of left of field, broadly indie fare mixed with the best in Irish music, and all set against the picture postcard-perfect backdrop of a church in Dingle. But that intro, it transpired, was for the series, not for the episode at hand which was considerably less auspicious.

Ibeyi, from Paris via Cuba.

First up were Picture This, who hail from Athy. If you’ve ever passed through Athy, you’ll know that at its centre sits Shaws, the drapers where every local mother brings her son and daughter to get fitted out for their first holy communion, conformation and debs. And which famously ran an ad declaring, gloriously, “Shaws, almost nationwide!” Which is all the more delightful in its refusal of the obviously correct “nearly nationwide”.

Had it been penned by a beard in Williamsburg it would quite rightly have been hailed as a brilliantly biting deconstruction of what advertising copy is supposed to do. Let’s just assume that’s exactly what was intended by whoever came up with it here. Well, Picture This sound exactly what you’d expect a band from Athy to sound like.

Wyvern Lingo.

Next up were a couple of numbers from Sigrid, an oh so earnest Swedish would-be teen queen whose dreary synth pop is obviously going down a storm with the pre-tweens, and who was clearly as surprised to find herself on stage singing as we were to see here performing on it. No doubt she’ll have a host of hilarious stories to tell her class mates once she goes back to college to finish her degree in architecture or interior design, before settling down to bring up her kids.

After the break we had a couple of songs from Wyvern Lingo, a genuinely compelling trio from Bray who set their mellifluous melodies to glitchy indietronica, very much in the mode of Sylvan Esso – who themselves are made up of one part of Mountain Man, who Wyvern Lingo were compared to when they started out.

Katie Kim performs at the RTE Choice Music Prize 2016, by Kieran Frost

After that, we were given a haunting performance from singer songwriter Maria Kelly, and it looked as if the programme was back on track. But immediately after that it was up to Belfast, and who did they find to record there? Only Picture This. And, sure enough, after Belfast it was back to Dingle we were treated to no fewer than four further tracks from Athy’s finest, and another three from Sigrid, the very much not Stina Nordenstam.

So three quarters of the programme was devoted to a pair of young-fogey, pub-rockers from the midlands, and the least threatening Swedish chanteuse you’ll ever hear.

There’s nothing wrong with devoting three quarters of your programme to just two acts, so long as the acts in question merit that attention. If the focus had been on, say, Katie Kim (reviewed here), Lisa Hannigan, Brigid Mae Power or Rejji Snow from these shores, or, from further afield, on the likes of Cigarettes After Sex, Ibeyi (reviewed here) or Car Seat Headrest (reviewed here). Or, most obviously of all, if they’d turned the show on its head, and given three quarters of it to Wyvern Lingo and Maria Kelly, and just the 20 minutes to Picture This and Sigrid.

Car Seat Headrest’s brilliant Teens of Denial.

There’s nothing wrong with Picture This, but their debut album went to number 1 here (and there’s a prize of a Curly Wurly and a sherbet dip for anyone who can correctly guess what they called it), and there are any number of outlets where they play that sort MOR music wall to wall, night and day. The whole point about Other Voices is that the music it gives voice to is supposed to be precisely that, other.

Here’s the video for Wyvern Lingo’s Out of My Hands and the video for I Love You, Sadie also from Wyvern Lingo.

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New albums from Father John Misty and Car Seat Headrest.

 

Pure Comedy, Father John Misty.

Pure Comedy, Father John Misty.

Pure Comedy is the latest album from Father John Misty and it’s as profoundly disappointing as his previous release was impressive. And it’s not hard to see what’s happened.

The penultimate track on that last album, I Love You, Honeybear, reviewed here, is the melodious “Holy Shit”. There, he briefly name-checks many of the Big Issues baring down upon us in these our oh so uncertain times, before breezily dismissing them to ask disingenuously what any of them have to do with all the really important stuff that he has to deal with.

It’s impossible to decide whether he’s being entirely serious, deadpan or a bit of both. Which is what gives the song its charm. And it’s all too easy to imagine what’s happened in the interim.

On the one hand, the commercial success and critical acclaim that that previous album enjoyed mean that the last couple of years must have been a relatively happy time to be Mr. Josh Tillman. And, as fans of Dylan, Shakespeare and pretty much any artist who has ever lived will know, nothing is as creatively stultifying as personal happiness, however briefly endured.

The said culprit.

The said culprit.

And on the other, he’s clearly begun to believe some of the hype surrounding his prowess as an apparently thought-provoking lyricist.

So that the new album sees him musing almost exclusively on those big, heavy themes which were briefly touched upon in “Holy Shit”. Only now, far from wryly acknowledging his own ignorance on any of them, he seems to imagine that he’s suddenly become something of a sage, and any sense of irony has been summarily dismissed. What’s worse, his mellifluous voice, impeccable diction and regal sense of melody mean that it’s quite impossible to escape all of those dreadful lyrics.

Imagine Martin from the Simpsons being set as his homework the task of producing a set of lyrics designed to impress the grown ups. This is what his first draft would have looked like. Not that he’d have ever actually shown them to anyone, obviously.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial.

I studiously avoided the latest Car Seat Headrest album, Teens of Denial. The boys from All Songs Considered, reviewed here, have been so effusive about it these last few months that I’d been thoroughly put off and was quietly hoping to be able to casually dismiss it. There’s a thin line that separates infectious enthusiasm from irritating insistence. So I’m delighted to be able to report that they were right and I was wrong. It really is that good.

There’s a palpable air of early Beck wafting from the tracks collected here. He inhabits a very similar persona to the one that Beck adopted way back when, as a guileless slacker drifting directionless like Pound’s hedonist bereft of purpose, to the tune of a post-punk, new-grunge musical backdrop.

The main man ,Beck.

The main man, Beck.

But as with Beck, the sonic landscape is infinitely more complex than it first appears, and you quickly find yourself disappearing from the song’s casual surfaces into the murky depths below. All of which results in a serious album, from one of the most exciting new artists to emerge for many a moon.

You can see the video for “Vincent”, track 2 from Teens of Denial here

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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.

Katiiii

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.

Emio

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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