You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Friday, 13 December 2013


2013 has been a ridiculously great year for music, from established artists scaling new heights with modern classics to stunning debuts and the odd surprisingly-brilliant comeback. In fact, compiling my own annual top 10 proved so difficult this year that I've expanded it to 20, and could have kept going.

On a personal note, 2013 has been a great year for me musically, with my first Glastonbury added to my five previous Reading Festival experiences, with the highlights of a truly awesome weekend being Portishead, Savages, The Staves, Haim, Johnny Marr, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave, The xx, and obviously The Rolling Stones. Add to these brilliant gigs by Laura Marling, Poliça, Sigur Ros, Wild Nothing, Tegan and Sara, Summer Camp, and the three times I've seen Daughter (obsessed) and this has been another great year for live music.

I have also seen my music writing reach a wider audience this year through my reviews for Australia's Blunt Magazine, and locally for Counteract Magazine.

So, without further ado, here are my top 20 albums from 2013.

  1. Daughter - If You Leave
  2. Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle
  3. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
  4. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
  5. Savages - Silence Yourself
  6. Local Natives - Hummingbird
  7. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe
  8. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
  9. London Grammar - If You Wait
  10. Summer Camp - Summer Camp
  11. Haim - Days Are Gone
  12. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
  13. James Blake - Overgrown
  14. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away
  15. David Bowie - The Next Day
  16. Anna Calvi - One Breath
  17. Poliça - Shulamith
  18. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
  19. My Bloody Valentine - mbv
  20. Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something To Happen

And here is a playlist of some tunes I've listened to a lot this year, in no particular order.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Tegan and Sara + Waxahatchee

Bigger is better, so they say. Identical twins and alt-icons Tegan and Sara Quin came to this conclusion last year, six albums into their career, while playing support slots in huge arenas for The Killers and The Black Keys.

The result of this ambition for a new, bigger sound was Heartthrob, the synth-led, glossy pop album that landed to near-universal acclaim in January. And, while they don’t have arenas of their own to fill just yet, they do have a devoted audience, with the venue full long before their arrival.

First up though are Waxahatchee, the solo project of Katie Crutchfield named for a lake in Alabama, whose sound is a throwback to some of the earlier output of tonight’s headliners. Her lo-fi but loud numbers from recent release Cerulean Salt and debut American Weekend are well-received, offering a distortion-filled calm before the storm.

And a storm it is. Backed by a band of four, Tegan and Sara’s pacey 21-song set is dominated by Heartthrob, with all but one song included, and the crowd echoes the adulation their new direction has met with.

There is still room for songs from four other albums too, and they slot in perfectly, the new synths even find their way onto a number of the early songs. Back In Your Head from The Con and Where Does The Good Go from So Jealous receive particularly loud singalongs.

Their unique chemistry shines during several bursts of conversation; Tegan discussing the fear of burping on stage and Sara asking for better aim from the audience after being hit by a flying bra. Of course they’re siblings, so there are also a few playful barbs between them, but the lasting impression is of humility; the Canadian sisters truly appreciate their audience, and can’t say it enough.

Ending their set, Closer is irresistibly infectious, the perfect encapsulation of their big and bold pop star credentials. And, if it's even possible that that isn’t quite your thing, they return for a stripped down encore, which features a medley of all the songs fans have asked for recently. They really are a nice bunch. Next stop, arenas.


Thursday, 9 May 2013

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Six albums in The National are at a crossroads. Alligator and Boxer firmly cemented the path of indie darlings and cult favourites years ago, while their last release High Violet opened up the unlikely possibility of headline slots, stadiums and mainstream glory.

After several listens however, just which path Trouble Will Find Me will lead them down remains unclear. It was hard to imagine them ever ‘selling out’, after all just last weekend (5 May) they soundtracked an art exhibition in New York by playing one song over and over for six hours. But whether this set of songs will inspire a mainstream frenzy is equally hard to predict.

For the initiated though, the key question is does this record live up to its shadow-casting predecessors. And the answer is a resounding yes.

On mood-building opener I Should Live In Salt, Matt Berninger is almost immediately reassuring us that it’s business as usual with the refrain ‘You should know me better than that’.

And, after moody first single Demons, that familiar tempo change and the driving drums that made Lit Up, Brainy and Bloodbuzz Ohio so exciting soon come in again on track three Don’t Swallow The Cap, and again later on the mesmerising Graceless. The contrast of the fervent beat and the droning vocals makes for their most affecting sound, and these two songs are utterly compelling. Similarly, Sea of Love, whose lyrics provide the album title, sees them at their most soaring and mourning in its brief three minutes.

Lyrically there are too many dark and wonderful lines to pick out. On Fireproof, the line ‘Needle in the hay’ and Berninger’s delivery brings to mind Elliott Smith, while on Humiliation he croons ‘She wore blue velvet’. By closer Hard To Find, he wearily quotes the Violent Femmes, not an obvious National influence.

With music always becoming more fractured and disposable, this is an album in every sense of the word. While its dark, melancholy nature may limit its mainstream appeal, this album simply provides further evidence that there are few better bands than The National in the world right now. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Alessi's Ark + Ralfe Band + Cannon Street

A bona fide folk feast took place at the Hare and Hounds last night, with the audience taken aboard Alessi’s Ark for an evening of tall tales and soothing sounds.

Kicking off with Birmingham’s own Cannon Street; the teenage sisters Nadi and Rukaiyah Qazi immediately arrest the room with their beguiling vocal harmony, evoking another pair of sisters, Sweden’s First Aid Kit. Their sibling chemistry and sweeping vocals make them compelling to watch, stand out track St Mary’s View capturing their craft nicely.

Up next is Ralfe Band who also perform as a duo, yet between them they still get guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, percussion, trumpet and even some washboard in their set. Providing a gruffer, more earthy counterpoint to the sweetness of the other bands on the bill, their bounce is caught perfectly in opening song and latest single Come On Go Wild.

By the time Alessi’s Ark (the chosen moniker of London singer-songwriter Alessi Laurent-Marke and her band) take to the stage, the audience - casually scattered around tables and chairs - are soothed and silent.

Alessi’s set, drawing heavily from her just-released third album The Still Life, features her breathy vocals backed with a rich, full-band sound, as well as some solo acoustic numbers. The short length of her songs means she has time for well over a dozen.

Slipping between French and English vocals, opening song Sans Balance is a treat, as are Big Dipper, The Rain, The Robot and her cover of The National’s Afraid of Everyone.

At only 22, her onstage presence could still be described as shy, yet the wit and charm shown in her lyrics shine through as she relaxes.

“I’m doing exactly as I please,” she sings on Veins Are Blue, and a joy it is to see and hear. Alessi’s Ark will return to Birmingham in August for Moseley Folk Festival.

Monday, 22 April 2013


Daughter’s first headline show in the second city, much like their debut album, was a long time coming, but similarly worth the wait.

Main support comes from Bear’s Den, who tick all the folk boxes with a sound that flits between the delicate folk of Daughter’s early EPs and the rousing harmonies of Fleet Foxes. Their short set is well-received and nicely scene-setting.

Bathed in red, Daugher the trio of Elena Tonra, Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella soon enter in the unassuming manner that typifies their performance. They begin Shallows without a word, and the crowd follows suit. Not many sell-out crowds are this pin-drop quiet; attentively soaking up every fragile sound. And the sporadic singalongs particularly for Landfill and Youth are almost hushed and respectful, so as not to disturb what’s going on onstage.

Every sound to come from the stage is equally intricate and considered; every string is plucked with care, every cymbol hit with the right pressure, every intonation of Elena’s voice is affecting. Even when things get loud when Igor uses a bow to draw some haunting sounds from his guitar on Love and Still the utmost care is still taken.

Like the titles in their 13-song set suggest (Smother, Human), they don’t shy away from big, melancholy subjects. And a close listen to their lyrics may leave you concerned for singer-songwriter Elena, but tonight she beams with joy, admitting they are overwhelmed to be back playing their own sell-out gig having supported twice in the Institute before.

She even cracks up during Amsterdam after changing the words to Birmingham, and again during Winter, apologising profusely for each, as well as apologising for not ironing her top. It’s a joy to see them come alive onstage throughout, matching their mesmerising craft with genuine chemistry.

With a clearly dedicated fan base and a top 20 album now under their belt, the future is bright for this young band and they’re clearly as excited about it as anyone. Just don’t expect their music to reflect that any time soon.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013


Last night, on the final night of a short UK tour, in a sold out, sweaty and rowdy Hare and Hounds, Jaws gave more evidence that this B-Town lark isn’t just a flash in the pan.

As a Birmingham native, the whole B-Town thing inspires two rather contrasting feelings. It’s great to have some bands to be excited about and some attention at a national level, I just wish they didn’t have to give us a shitty nickname. But I digress.

With a young and restless crowd whipped into a frenzy across four (at least two more than any gig needs) support bands, by the time Jaws took to the stage and burst into Breeze, the whole room was a swirling mass of leaping, shoving and jumping. And the faster Donut only poured more fuel on the fire for the wildly juvenile audience.

A gig shouldn’t be judged on the floor though, and what was happening onstage was quite the opposite. Dressed ready for a trip to Hawaii in the early 90s, Jaws produce their sweet and jangly distortion-tinged pop so effortlessly it borders on lethargic, like they’re chilling on a real beach and not just surrounded by inflatable palm trees.

Looking barely older than the kids throwing themselves around in front of them, the band don’t quite have the showmanship yet (“Birmingham is the best place in the world,” was frontman Connor Schofield’s repeated mantra), but they display the raw materials that should see them match or even surpass their friends and current Birmingham starlets Peace. They certainly have the songs.

And with only a handful released so far, their set was short but sweet; a great-sounding new song and an early song supplementing the six that will make up the Milkshake EP, released on 22 April.

Jaws were hailed as “the undiscovered gems of the Birmingham scene” by the Guardian in December, in a lengthy piece profiling them alongside Peace and Swim Deep. With gems like Friend Like You and Surround You already inspiring reactions as frenzied as those witnessed tonight, they won’t stay undiscovered for long.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

To fully digest a record takes multiple listens. An ambitious and complex 100-minute album complicates this to no end.

And, with 13 tracks – ranging from the 37 second Onyx to the 19 minute ambient centrepiece Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized – the fourth album from Swedish electronic duo The Knife is a bold statement, and one that deserves more than snap judgements. Unfortunately, with its complicity and its intimidating length, it will live or die by such first impressions. So here we go.

First single Full of Fire is a good place to start, as it is the album at its best. A nine minute storm of beats, bangs and bleeps; not a second of it feels overbearing or unnecessary.

Almost inevitably though, that can’t be said of the whole record. Songs such as A Cherry on Top and the aforementioned Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized disturb and linger with their chilling mood and brooding tones, but they also test the patience, the latter becoming something of an anchor threatening to drown the whole listening experience.

However, the relentless jungle percussion of Without You My Life Would Be Boring and the slow stomp of Wrap Your Arms Around Me, as well as the glitchy twitch of Networking and the punchy buzz of Stay Out Here in the record’s second half, are more than enough to drag the listener through and leave them at the other end smiling.

Lyrically the album comes and goes, with some lines intentionally obscured and others brought to the fore, but when they land, they are provocative and indicative of the intellectual background of the band.

Despite its length, this isn’t a record that outstays its welcome, even if a few tracks may have you reaching for the next button. However, as confounding as it all sounds at first, the multiple listens which at once seemed daunting will soon become compulsory, as this compelling beast infects and controls. Give its near 100 minutes a chance, and Shaking The Habitual just might take you too.