Saturday, March 14, 2015

Album Review: Monuments and Statues - Fractals (2015)

Back in late 2013 I wrote about a single called 'Red Dress', which had been released earlier that year by Ontario-based folkers Monuments and Statues. The single was a belated follow-up to the band's Welcome to the Undertow EP, which was released as far back as 2010, and it came with the promise of a full-length album sometime in the future. Well, the future’s here, because a few weeks back the band’s debut album Fractals made its way into my ever-expanding inbox.

One of the reservations I had about Welcome to the Undertow at the time related to the music's lack of structure and form. 'Red Dress' itself came across as being rather ramshackle and almost random in parts. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it felt as though there was a little too much going on.

That most certainly isn't the case with Fractals, and clearly the good folk of Monuments and Statues have spent a lot of time getting things just right for the album. The nine tracks that make up the album appeal as beautifully crafted slices of folk-pop, and the whole thing just seems to gel.

The band's basic approach hasn't changed markedly; the music remains essentially acoustic in form - banjo, cello, piano, and a variety of string instrumentation underpinning some lovely girl/boy vocal harmonies. The song-writing is solid, production is crisp and full, and there is no obvious weak moment across the album.

Looking for highlights, no single track stands out over any of the others. ‘Red Dress’ features again, the 2014 single ‘Oh Great Rose’ is a worthy album opener, and I really love the sultry vocal and fullness of sound offered on ‘Galafax’, which gets a reprise near the end.

There’s a real sense of cohesion throughout Fractals. As debut albums go, it’s pretty impressive, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see this release take the band to a whole new level - in terms of wider exposure and popularity. Fractals feels like a genuine step forward for Monuments and Statues.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fresh Cuts for NZ Musician February/March 2015

One of the best things about doing (unpaid) work for NZ Musician is the sense that you’re helping expose the work of artists who might not ordinarily get a lot of coverage. It’s all about the local stuff and a broad spectrum of music is covered without preference for genre or commercial consideration. Once again I had a couple of reviews published in the Fresh Cuts section of the latest edition of the magazine.

Otis Mace has been around for something close to three and a half decades so he probably doesn’t really need my words, he’s already something of a legend in local “indie” circles. But for Dunedin pub-rockers Scurvy Dogs, there’s a real possibility that NZM is the only publication giving the band’s latest work any reach whatsoever ... and I kind of like being part of that.

Otis Mace – Balaclava (EP)

"Someone's trying to write a song to change the whole world" ... so sings Otis Mace on 'A-Marie', the third song of four on the Auckland-based troubadour's latest EP, Balaclava. It's a simple enough line, and it's one we can all relate to. It’s also something that might very well work as a mission statement for Mace. It certainly had me thinking about what might motivate him, as a much travelled singer-songwriter hovering around periphery of the local music scene for at least three full decades. During that time he's travelled the world; living in London for a spell, performing as a busker, as a solo act, and as part of various bands. Trends, scenes, and venues have come and gone, yet Mace has remained faithful to the modus operandi that has served him so well. The Balaclava EP offers up a prime example of that. Four quirky songs that traverse precisely the sort of unusual frameworks we’ve come to expect – from the power-pop bent of the title track and opener, across the humour and eccentricity of 'The Revenge of the Five Hundred Thousand Tonne Baby', right on through to the environmentally conscious closer 'Miner Key', which reminds us all that once we’ve screwed with nature, we’ll never get it back … “once it’s gone, it’s gone, you see.” Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Tony McAdam at the Ice Station Zebra studios in London, Balaclava is a more than worthy addition to Mace’s already rather extensive catalogue of work.

Scurvy Dogs – Set Sail For Hell

When they're not unfurling the Jolly Roger on cutlass-waving rum-ravaged voyages around the southerly seas of Port Chalmers, pirate rock stalwarts Scurvy Dogs are regularly playing live rock’n’roll around the ale houses, inns, and dens of decadence that make up Dunedin’s live music scene. There was a national tour a few years back, a support slot for Stiff Little Fingers last year, and a number of releases over the course of the band’s decade long existence. It sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. So much so, the current three-piece incarnation decided to record more of that swashbuckling merriment for posterity. The result is Set Sail For Hell, a rocking and rollicking five-track release, produced by long-standing first mate Paul Sammes. While there are keen Celtic-rock reference points throughout, and the entire album is pirate-themed, punk rock sits right at the very core of this release. This is rebel music played with attitude. Good old fashioned hard and fast fun. 'Sinking of John Barleycorn' is one such example; less about a maritime disaster, it’s more about raising an overflowing tankard to the gods of fire water, and it rivals the Johnny Horton cover 'Sink The Bismarck' as the best thing here.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Gig Review: The Red Bull Sound Select presents: Madcap at Meow, Wellington, Sunday 1 March 2015

It takes a special type of party creature to attend Sunday night gigs. Especially parties that start at 3pm and finish long after dark, or well into the wee small hours. Luckily for Meow Bar and Red Bull, many such creatures exist on Wellington's live circuit, and last Sunday's Red Bull Sound Select showcase curated by Madcap was, by any measure, a success.

But for yours truly, on account of being a bit soft, the night was a little more abbreviated than it perhaps was for many others in attendance. I caught the full sets of Black City Lights and Race Banyon only, missing half of Eastern Bloc, all of Kamandi, and most notably, the entire set featuring overseas headliner Azizi Gibson. But it was Black City Lights and Race Banyon that drew me there in the first place, I timed it to perfection, and those two mid-evening sets were well worth the price of admission alone. I just want to write a little bit about that portion of the night (with apologies to anyone seeking a full review) ...

Black City Lights have long been firm favourites and this was the first occasion I'd managed to catch the act since Calum Robb and Julia Catherine Parr added drummer Caleb Clayton to transform from duo to trio. I was also conscious that this was just as likely to be my last chance to catch them live after last month's revelation that they'll soon be going their separate ways. With just two more live performances scheduled - one at Wellington's Homegrown this weekend and a farewell gig at San Fran later in the month - there was a sense of poignancy throughout the half dozen or so songs performed. It was something Parr noted herself on a couple of occasions. “Don't leave us" was the response of one keen fan.

Not that Black City Lights need a reason or any encouragement to go all dark and dramatic on us - that's long been the way Robb and Parr have rolled; it's a key element to their sound, and it's one of the reasons their loyal fanbase love them so much. Dark, heavy, and slightly foreboding is more or less BCL 101.

I’d like to have enjoyed a longer set and this one felt far too short but we got perennial favourite 'Give It Up', and the pretty special new(ish) Stone Roses cover 'I Wanna Be Adored' near the end. By which time Parr was preaching to the already fully converted.

If Black City Lights are sadly about to be consigned to the past, then the ever-improving wunderkind Race Banyon (aka Eddie Johnston) is very much one for the future. The now 18-year-old Johnston keeps getting better with every outing and on Sunday night we were treated to a solid 40-minute-plus set that immediately enthralled all in attendance with its room-filling layers of lush warm housey vibes.

Race Banyon continues to draw live inspiration from material off of the ‘Whatever Dreams Are Made Of’ EP but the nonchalant way he mixes things up as he goes about his work at least hints at a level of spontaneity not normally associated with live performance. My gig-going companion perhaps summed it up best when she suggested it was a little bit like intruding into his private world; that we were like guests in his room, and he was just digging the vibe regardless of what anybody else thought. But everybody loved it, and a sublime take on Drake’s ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’ was a fitting way to conclude a captivating set.

There is a very real sense that the sky’s the limit for this prodigious talent; whether he reaches for it while wearing his Race Banyon hat, or whether it comes under the guise of his other alter ego Lontalius. Whether it’s as a bedroom production whizz, or as a frontline performer in his own right, Eddie Johnston has it all in front of him.

And so I consumed ludicrous quantities of the sponsor’s product throughout the evening yet never quite felt energised enough to stay on  for the Sunday session climax … but that’s not to say I didn’t leave the venue with my glass more than half full, happy that I’d seen exactly who I went there to see. Another time then, Azizi Gibson, Kamandi, and co …