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

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.