July Music Review (part 2) – Antlers, Clean Bandit, Strands of Oak, Comet Gain

I’ve been spoilt with some real favourites of mine putting out albums recently, and Familiars by the Antlers follows Burst Apart, their 2011 release that was my top album of that year.

This is another album of generally slow tempo, often beautiful and reflective songs, with a dream-like emotional resonance driven by mainly falsetto vocals and backing which is strongly keyboard based and very textured – it’s hard to work out exactly what is being played, but the effect is usually lovely. This time they’ve introduced regular use of a brass chorus to give an even more melancholic, wistful air to proceedings. (To be honest, I could do with a little less of the trumpets – perhaps a little over-enthusiastic tugging of the heartstrings there?)

On the less positive side, it’s not exactly a bunch of laughs, songs generally over 5 minutes long, and as Pitchfork described it, a “somnambulant moodiness” prevails. But I remember the last album took me some time to realise how much I loved it, so I am hesitant to be too definite here. The nearest parallels if you don’t know the band are probably Elbow in their quieter moments, or maybe The National, and they are two fine bands to be compared to. I’m not sure it is quite up to the Burst Apart level, so let’s say 8.5/10 for now with a possible end of year re-evaluation.

 

OK, this came out a little while ago, but I only just bought it the other week. Clean Bandit's debut New Eyes pulls together several singles including the incredibly successful Rather Be - the biggest selling UK single track of 2014. The 'gimmick' behind the band, which includes two ex-Cambridge University music students (a violist and a cellist) is the combination of classical strings with modern pop-dance. Nothing terribly new there for those of us who remember Rock me Amadeus...

And this album got a few fairly sniffy reviews - not serious enough for the dance aficionados and not enough classical content to be in the avant-garde camp. Lyrics wouldn't get them through a Cambridge English exam, that's for sure, whilst their use of different guest vocalists on almost every track doesn't add to the sense of identity or coherence. Having said that, I find it a highly enjoyable listen in a somewhat lightweight, background-appropriate manner. Extraordinary is a great tune, with 17 year old Londoner Sharna Bass sounding great on vocals, and Dust Clears uses the strings in a rather lovely manner. This isn't going to change the world, but as a soundtrack to the summer holidays, or to the Gap summer sale, you could do a lot worse. 7/10.

 

From joyous dance pop to angst-ridden adult rock. Heal by Strands of Oak came out of nowhere recently to deservedly get some great reviews. Timothy Showalter is the singer songwriter behind the album, and his previous work, which I hadn’t come across to be honest, has been largely folky acoustic songs. But this is very much rock, ranging from full-on Neil Young style (in Crazy Horse mode) guitar heroics, to touches of 80’s synth driven pop-rock. And Goshen ‘97, the opening track is one of the best pure “rock” songs I’ve heard in a while.

It's hard to pin down and give you precise parallels – it’s a slightly ragged and very individual piece of work. But if Young, Springsteen, Ryan Adams maybe, are on your list of favourites, this is worth checking out. The lyrics relate to his growing up as a grungy, angry, self-hating teenager and are vivid and a little disturbing at times, but they don't get in the way of an interesting, strong album . 8/10

 

And a final word for Comet Gain, a British band formed way back in 1992. Twenty-two years of making quirky punky-indie-pop without ever hitting the big time - great stamina! Paperback Ghosts is their seventh album and is very enjoyable.

Sounding like pre-punk bands such as Brinsley Schwarz in their more acoustic songs, and the Go-Betweens in regular jangly-guitar moments, they can step it up with the help of what sounds like a Farfisa organ into a harder Stranglers-like sound at times, and there is even a weird psychedelic final track. That all makes it a nicely varied album with some good tunes, and it is being played regularly on the Smith car CD player – good driving music too! 7.5/10

 

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