August Music Review – Dry the River, Royal Blood, Merchandise and the New Pornographers

Often a dead time for new releases, this August has proved an exception. Whether it is to coincide with Festivals, or because in these days of downloads, even if “going to the shops” decreases in the summer, downloading music does not necessarily follow that pattern. Indeed, perhaps people on holiday have more time to listen to new music? Anyway, it has been a very good month.

Dry the River return with Alarms in the Heart. Their 2012 debut Shallow Bed was a favourite of mine, with four part harmonies leading us through songs that often built from pleasant folk-rock tunes into climaxes with full-on Mogwai-type hardcore guitar blitzes. They’ve kept the formula to some extent on the new album, but there are some changes. Their violinist has left, although apparently he laid down his parts before going, but there is less folkiness here (and less violin) and more general rock / indieness.

The first album was very emotionally engaging, and some of that seems to have been lost, and I’m not sure the big choruses and tunes here are quite as ... big. Tracks such as Everlasting Light are pleasant indie with not a trace of folk (less Mumfords, more White Lies), others like Gethsemane below follow the previous formula. But there’s nothing as inspiring as the manner in which Weights and Measures for instance on the first album built slowly to its brilliant climax on the first album. It is all good stuff, I like it and will buy it, we’re seeing them live shortly, but unfortunately I don’t think this is going to move them significantly forwards. I hope I’m wrong. 7/10

So a slight disappointment there, but now the first of two cracking albums. If you read our Reading review you will know that Royal Blood absolutely starred there, and their first album Royal Blood is destined to propel them straight into the Premiership of Rock. They’re a duo, with Mike Kerr getting amazing bass / lead effects from just one guitar, underpinned by Ben Thatcher’s brutally effective yet varied drumming.

This is Zeppelin / White Stripes / Queens of the Stone Age influenced power-rock, but with insanely catchy riffs and hooks. Songs such as Little Monsters and Ten Tonne Skeleton sound like you’ve known them all your life after just a couple of listens. Amazing, especially as they only formed in 2013. Inevitably, the power does not quite come through as it does live, although the album mix is very simple and replicates the live sound accurately. But you wonder whether they will need to branch out somewhat on future albums and broaden the musical palette, but for now this is a confident and highly enjoyable debut, recommended for all rock fans.

I’m going to take half a point off as the album is only 33 minutes – a little mean perhaps. (No doubt it will be re-issued in six months with three bonus tracks, annoying folk like me who bought it on first release). So “only” 8.5 / 10.

In a sense, no shocks there with a much-anticipated debut. But now a real surprise. I’ve been vaguely aware of Merchandise - think I saw them at Reading last year in fact. They started out as a hardcore punk band, but have matured into a more straight ahead rock / indie band these days. But I didn’t really have an opinion about them, and only came to After the End via an NME review the other day. And the venerable magazine was right to rave about this. It is excellent.

I suspect many friends of similar musical upbringing will go for this too – some songs bring back memories of UK 1980s bands like the Smiths, the Cure, even Simple Minds. But there are also touches of US indie classics like REM and more recently, The National (the lead singer’s somewhat lugubrious delivery certainly recalls the National’s Matt Berninger).

But the songs are everything of course, and they’re in the main gripping . There’s a mix of guitar and keyboard driven songs, with varied tempos, yet the most unusual aspect is the coherence of the album. It’s hard to describe, but the songs, whilst not particularly samey, flow one to another, rare in these days where albums are constructed with the assumption that few people will listen all the way through in the order pre-ordained by the band! Anyway, it’s a triumph, and a real contender for a place in the coveted Spend Matters top ten albums of the year I suspect. 9/10

Finally, a very quick view of the New Pornographers with Brill Bruisers. The Canadian indie supergroup, including the wonderful Neko Case, come together occasionally to make layered, tuneful, sophisticated yet joyful ‘power indie-pop” we might call it. This is their sixth album over 15 years – I’ve got the previous three before this and they still get played and enjoyed regularly, with songs that sound good at first listen but repay multiple hearings. Hence I’m cautious about marking this as I have only listened to it once properly so far. But first impression is that it’s another really good album, livelier and faster paced at times (but still tuneful, as per the track below) compared to their softer moments on the last couple of albums. Thirteen tracks over 42 minutes means nothing outstays its welcome either. Let’s say a conservative 8/10 for now.

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