THE BIGGER PICTURE: Frightened Rabbit & Bear Driver

It’s a lot of people’s dream as a kid growing up to be in a famous band, right? Nothing but the open road and playing shows every other night around the world. While at first that might all seem like a very luxurious lifestyle, there’s a lot more to it. I caught up with Scott Hutchison, frontman of Scottish national treasures Frightened Rabbit, and Oli Deakin, frontman of burgeoning fuzz-pop band Bear Driver, to discuss touring, the ups and downs of being on the road, songwriting, and more.

Talking to these two people gave me unique insight into being in a band at two different points in their career. On one side we have Frightened Rabbit, a well established, critically-acclaimed indie folk group who are on the eve of their fourth album, and on the other, there’s Bear Driver, relative newcomers to touring and gigging, who have just released their debut album this past summer.

Being in successful bands has afforded both of the front-men the luxury of exploring territory away from their usual surroundings. This is no doubt one of the most obvious highpoints of being in a band. Scott said “I love exploring new places, trying the food and visiting cultural spots.” While Oli said “I think the further afield you go the more fun you have because of that sense of adventure”. With similar sentiments to Scott, he stated “the best thing about playing abroad is that you get to wander into strange motorway services and buy strange foods that you can’t pronounce or recognise. It’s a fun game”.

As with almost every job, there is always going to be some downsides, when asked what the most obvious example was, two different points were made. Scott said “There is a lot of time spent waiting and hanging around. It can be quite mundane and dull”, while Oli said “everything costs so much. We have no great aspirations to be rich rock stars but it’d be nice to always be able to afford the slightly nicer bus with a TV in it. Sometimes you have to settle for the dodgy banger”. This differs from Frightened Rabbits experiences now, as Scott said “there is more time now that we have a tour bus and it’s made a huge difference to my enjoyment of touring”. It just shows how far a band can come when they’re given time to grow and progress.

The bottom line is about enjoying what you do. I asked Scott what his favourite thing about touring was overall: “Meeting new people, seeing new places. Of course, the whole reason for going on tour is to play shows, which is fantastic, but it’s the good times that go with the shows that make it worthwhile.” While Oli added “you can’t beat it”.

It’s been well documented that there is a vast difference between experiences playing shows in America and playing shows in the UK. Scott said “They are quite different experiences. It’s always a wee bit more exciting to be travelling through the States, but as far as the audiences go, both have their merits.” While Oli said “playing in the US is always such an adventure that it feels more special regardless of how the shows go”.

For most bands, the most monotonous part of touring is all the parts in between actually playing the shows. With so much ground to cover while traversing different countries, there is a lot of downtime. Many bands have different ways of conquering this boredom, and Scott Hutchison’s method of choice is to “watch DVDs. Look out the window, think about stuff. It can be quite a contemplative time. We tend not to talk much in the van.”

Every career has a high point; that one moment in time that will stay with you forever. It’s no exception for Scott or Oli. Scott said ” I think the last time we played T in the Park in 2010 was incredibly special. I’ll never forget that” while Oli said ” There’s been a few really special gigs for us. We played with …And You Wil Know Us By The Trail Of Dead at SXSW and they let us use all their amps which was very cool.”

Over a band’s career, it only makes sense that it would get harder and harder to pick the songs that make it onto a set-list. While that’s not exactly an issue for Bear Driver yet, I asked Scott how he balances between the old and new: “The old stuff gets the crowd going, whilst new tunes feel exciting and fresh for us. It’s a good combination”.

Songwriting is a vital element to being in a band. Musicians find ways of being creative in a huge variety of different ways; I asked Scott his preferred method: “I generally like to go and write lyrics somewhere out of the house so it feels like I have my ‘writing head’ on, and there fewer potential distractions”. When I asked Oli how he came to write the band’s debut album, he said ” We had quite a lot of it written already but we did and extra burst just before recording to see what else we had in the  tank. From that came quite a few key songs for the album, and a couple that we’re working into the second one”.

A clear downside to being on the road is the sheer amount of hours spent travelling between shows. I asked each musician their preferred method of keeping monotony to a minimum. Oli said “We started watching quite a lot of Arrested Development on one tour. But most times its listening to and arguing about music.” While Scott said “I watch DVDs, look out the window, think about stuff. It can be quite a contemplative time. We tend not to talk much in the van”.

As the year is drawing to a close, I decided to quiz the two singers on what they’ve been enjoying the most from the last twelve months. Oli said “Sharon Van Etten – album of the year.” while Scott said “My favourite album this year was by Django Django, but I’ve been listening to Angel Olsen, This Is The Kit, Right Away Great Captain! and Richard Hawley, to name a few.”

Frightened Rabbit’s new album, The Pedestrian Verse, is out in February 2013, and they embark on an 18-date UK tour that month in support of it too. Bear Driver are in the process of recording their second album which is aiming for a 2013 release, you can listen to a song from it on their website.

Frightened Rabbit 2013 Tour Dates:

8/2/2013 – The Waterfront, Norwich
9/2/2013 – HMV Institute, Birmingham
11/2/2013 – Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth
12/2/2013 – Concorde 2, Brighton
13/2/2013 – The Forum, London
14/2/2013 – The Junction, Cambridge
16/2/2013 – The Fleece, Bristol
17/2/2013 – Exeter Phoenix, Exeter
18/2/2013 – The Sugarmill, Stoke
20/2/2013 – Leeds Metropolitan University SU, Leeds
21/2/2013 – The Rescue Rooms, Nottingham
22/2/2013 – Gorilla, Manchester
23/2/2013 – O2 Academy Liverpool, Liverpool
25/2/2013 – The Sage Gateshead, Gateshead
26/2/2013 – HMV Picture House, Edinburgh
27/2/2013 – Aberdeen Music Hall, Aberdeen
28/2/2013 – Barrowland (1 & 2), Glasgow


REVIEW: Titus Andronicus – Local Business

High ambitions are always a tell-tale way of separating the good artists from the great, and when Titus Andronicus released their sophomore effort, The Monitor, in 2010, it was clear that the band fell into the latter. The New Jersey punk band had crafted an epic, sprawling concept album based on the American civil war that, while slightly ridiculous, was lauded by many as one of the best albums of that year. Now back with Local Business, the band have streamlined their sound with mixed results.

Titus Andronicus, much like the Shakespeare tragedy their name is derived from, are a wonderfully pessimistic band. From the get-go, they make it obvious; “Okay I think by now we’ve established / everything is inherently worthless / and there’s nothing in the universe with any objective purpose” snarls frontman Patrick Stickles on album opener “Ecce Homo“. Never one to mince words, Stickles discusses topics such as eating disorders, apathy and mental health with the kind of honesty that is refreshing to hear put down on record.

Musically, the band haven’t wandered too far from where they were before. The record still holds that raw, hot-blooded passion that has now become synonymous with Titus Andronicus, and while they’ve always worn their influences on their sleeves, there’s enough here to make them stand out. The vast majority of songs carry a frantic merriment among them, which creates a juxtaposition with the lyrics.

Lead single ‘In a Big City‘ was the first indication of a new direction for the band. The song has a straightforward structure that would have seemed alien to the band in years past, but Stickle’s tenacity still shines through. ‘In a Small Body‘ shows a slower, more mellow side that is rare to see from the band, complete with soothing strings at the midpoint. There are glimmers of The Monitor here, especially on ‘My Eating Disorder‘, an 8-minute epic, complete with a chant of “spit it out” from Stickles ad infinitum and frequent guitar solos that add to the victorious feel of the album.

For those hoping for ‘The Monitor Part 2‘, this follow-up will no doubt come as a disappointment, but the smaller scope has given the band time to tighten their sound. The production is sleeker and they operate as a band rather than an ensemble this time around. Stickle‘s hilariously bleak outlooks will forever be worth listening to.


REVIEW: Patrick Wolf – Sun☽ark and Riverlight

It has been ten years since Patrick Wolf first forayed into being a recording artist. His debut LP, Lycanthropy, garnered him an abundance of well-deserved acclaim and intrigue, and in the time since then he has only grown as an artist and become more accomplished. His five full-lengths have all treaded different territory thematically, for better or for worse. From the lost, moody atmosphere of Wind in the Wires to the loved up, joy-filled sounds of Lupercalia, Patrick Wolf has always created within a broad spectrum. With such a diverse discography, it seems like the perfect time to take a breather and catch up on his accomplishments thus far.

The result of this milestone is Sundark and Riverlight, a greatest hits, of sorts – but not in the traditional sense. All of the songs on the double-album have been re-recorded and altered, composed primarily with violins, piano and guitars, as opposed to Wolf’s usual penchant for the more unusual instrumentation. Instead of just making this a “greatest hits”, he has instead chosen tracks carefully that are either fan favourites, personal favourites or tracks that he felt could benefit from being changed in this way.

Usually when artists release double albums, they end up being a little too much to get to grips with, but Wolf has made sure it doesn’t happen with this collection. Each of the discs are a mere eight tracks long, culminating in a running time of just over an hour. The way the tracks were chosen has helped avoid the age-old dilemma of double LPs having too much filler, instead we’re left with example after example of why Patrick Wolf is as well respected as he is as a songwriter.

With Sundark and Riverlight there’s a hard decision to make when reviewing it of whether to treat the tracks as unique songs in their own right, or to make constant references back to the originals. As a fan of Wolf for a very long time now, I have grown attached to a lot of the tracks throughout his recording career, so a natural “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude hazed me slightly, apologies. But even a complete novice to the work of Patrick Wolf would be able to see the merit of his work, if this is any indication.

Seeing Wolf’s usual grandeur and melodrama substituted for more subtle arrangements is a rare thing to see on record, and reveals a welcome vulnerability to the music that is less apparent on his usual releases. Detrimentally, it does make give all of the tracks on here a similar vibe, instrumentally speaking. Because of the timeframe that the tracks were initially composed, they came at very different times in Patrick Wolf’s life, but he manages to tie them all together and make them all feel like they belong together. They all have a well-orchestrated studio sheen, which earlier tracks in Wolf’s discography lacked, and it helps put the focus much more on the tales and imagery springing forth from his lyrics. Patrick Wolf’s voice is on full, unfiltered display here, and it flourishes nicely, displaying genuine passion throughout, along with great range. Aside from some peculiar vocal samples on Bermondsey Street, Wolf’s voice is the only one you’ll hear on this album. Tilda Swinton doesn’t even reprise her role as the narrator on Oblivion, but it gives off a very isolated feeling throughout. The main downside to this is of course that if you were a fan of the more glitchy, experimental side of Patrick Wolf, you’ll be sadden by the complete lack of a presence on this record.

The Big Ben piano chimes of ‘London’ find Patrick Wolf at his absolute best. A solemn tale of feeling lost in the big city, the words flow so perfectly. This re-recording lacks some of the emotional punch of the original version from his debut, and the added lyrics at the end soften the otherwise very climatic part of the original. That might just be a side-effect of becoming too attached to the original, if listened to with a fresh pair of ears.
The track that is improved the most through these re-workings is unanimously ‘Vulture’, a song that originally sounded to me at times like a scrapped idea for a Mighty Boosh number. The version recorded here is a more brooding, piano-saturated ballad. Gone are the goofy electric guitars, or the off-kilter vocal strains, replaced with melancholic longing and sparse instrumentation.

‘Bluebells’ is another song that benefits greatly from the more traditional recording. The passion in Wolf’s voice is apparent, and it’s beautifully recorded on this compilation. The firework sound effects and electronic beat from the original are instead replaced with lavish piano and violin arrangements. Vivid imagery looms around every second of the song; “Lucy, remember, the smell of that fall; the fires, the fungus and the rotting leaves”, the subtle details included make it an even more heartbreaking song than it was originally.

If you’re a complete novice when it comes to Patrick Wolf’s music, Sundark and Riverlight provides a pretty good jumping off point for getting to grips with his music. It lacks some of the more immediate pop hits, such as Get Lost, Tristan or Accident and Emergency, but for already-converted listeners, there’s a treasure trove of unique re-workings of the work that made you such a fan of Patrick Wolf in the first place. The inclusion of often overshadowed tracks like Wolf Song, Teignmouth and Bitten are a welcome addition amongst the more obvious choices.
If Wolf has never managed to grab your attention in the past, this collection will do little to sway your decision, but if you’ve been oblivious to his work prior to this, Sundark and Riverlight serves as a great way to celebrate ten years in the industry – here’s to the next ten.


REVIEW: Beach House – Bloom

There’s nothing wrong with bands working inside of their comfort zone. Some artists’ best work comes from refining an already  well-established musical style, while not shifting far from what has already been proven to work. Other artists can move in radically different directions in order to create their “masterpieces”, but both methods have been established to work in one way or another.

It just so happens that Beach House fall firmly into the former party. The Baltimore dream-pop duo are back with their much sought-after fourth album, Bloom. Even the title alone gives you an indication of what you’re about to be exposed to – this is the sound of a band in their stride. Their 2010 album, Teen Dream, cemented them as ‘kind of a big deal’ throughout the indiesphere, and this record builds onto that momentum to create their most accomplished work to date.

Comprising of vocalist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Chris Scally, the band use complex guitar and synth arrangements, combined with Legrand’s deep, distinctive vocals to create some of the most hypnotic, alluring melodies that I can recall of recent memory.

Lead single, ‘Myth’, is the ideal introduction to the band’s sound, with swooping synths and free-falling arpeggios tumbling from guitars, creating the perfect backdrop for Legrand’s distinctive, poignant vocals. Graceful violins help underline the latter half of the song, with careful plucking of guitars strings tying together a warming solo. Everything about the song feels delicate yet deliberate, and they spice it all up with an unexpected up-tempo flow mid-way through.

Throughout the album, Legrand sings about themes that are not unfamiliar to the band; shattered romances, lost nostalgia, insecurities and fears are all themes that were apparent on the last record, but it feels like they’ve shed a new light on the matter. It’s all told with quite a linear tone that suits the band’s music well. Nothing is too cryptic or overblown on the album, and it fits in superbly with the flow of the album. The way Legrand projects these thoughts and ideas is what really sets Beach House apart.

The album continues forth with the same kind of style laid down by ‘Myth‘. ‘Wild‘ has a guitar riff reminiscent of countless classic alt-rock bands of the 80’s, in which this genre draws so much inspiration from. High pitched guitars reinforce Legrand’s tones, while lulling the listener into a deep sense of calm. The songs tend to alternate between more guitar-driven pieces and synth-filled tracks, with scattered drum samples which set forth a mesmerising rhythm to it all.

The album doesn’t veer too far away from this formula, but most of the tracks have a defining quality that set them apart; ‘New Year‘ has an oriental-influenced twinge to the central hook, while ‘Wishes‘ has a nostalgic, longing atmosphere to it. The interplay between the two individuals is really something to behold, and together, they creates such a surreal and mystical world; you can’t help but drift into it and want to live there for years. Beach House are a band that could soundtrack a dream if it were possible, and it would feel completely natural.

Chances are, if you found yourself ensnared by the noises the band made on Teen Dream two years ago, you’re going to adore Bloom. It’s the sound of a band who have grasped fully what it is they want to accomplish, and is absolutely one of the most gorgeously soothing records of the year.


REVIEW: Best Coast – The Only Place

Surf pop is a genre that had a very potent revival a couple of years back, with bands like Surfer BloodTennis and, coincidentally, Best Coast all putting out albums that embodied the spirit of the music first brought about primarily by The Beach Boys, bringing it into the 21st century. There seemed to be a very specific moment when this happened, and an outburst of similar styles polluted the airwaves and built up a very memorable playlist for the summer of twenty-ten.

Best Coast are now back, with sun-soaked second full-length LP ‘The Only Place‘. Comprising of cat-loving vocalist and guitarist, Beth Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno, the band’s follow-up to ‘Crazy For You‘ has been a highlight of this summer’s release calendar for quite a few people.

The thing that hits you instantly about their second LP is the change in sound quality and production. The hazy mist that cloaked the vocals and guitar has been lifted from this album to reveal a clearer, more confident sound. For fans of the older style, it might come as a surprise, but on the whole, it benefits the music and makes it feel more direct and personal than the previous effort. It’s obvious that Cosentino wants to distance herself somewhat from the debut, with her recently saying “We wanted to make this record a bit more serious, so we put a bear instead of a cat on the cover.” Fair reasoning, I guess, but it’s clear the duo’s transition into high fidelity has benefited the music greatly.

A major improvement of having the fuzzy production banished from the album is the fact that Cosentino has been given the opportunity to show off exactly how strong her vocal performances can be. She tackles all of the songs with very self-confident tone that was less apparent on the debut, and it pays off considerably overall.

The Only Place‘, much like the debut, is a short and sweet collection of simple songs with subtle charms and naivety. Best Coast‘s laidback approach is a somewhat love-it-or-hate-it scenario – one argument being that the songs lack any kind of depth or sophistication needed to stand out on their own, and the other being that it’s exactly that which draws people towards Cosentino‘s musings. The band’s more grown-up sound on this album has me siding with the latter viewpoint, for the most part.

Lyrically, the second LP treads similar ground to the first – relationships, homesickness, trials and tribulations – but this time there’s more moments of self-reflection. Title track ‘The Only Place‘ is a bona fide summer jam – an up-beat ode to the fair state they hail from. It’s tracks like these where Best Coast are in their element, but it’s when things stride towards the more sullen end of the spectrum that the chinks in the band’s armour appear. Moments on the album like ‘Who They Want Me To Be‘ take a slower approach, but these moments lack the punch or flippancy of the more immediately gratifying tracks.

One of the most disappointing things about ‘The Only Place’ is the distinct sense of repetition throughout that’s hard to avoid.  Select songs start with almost exactly the same chord progressions and it just comes across as lazy (eg. ‘The Only Place’ and ‘Let’s Go Home’). Not only in the music, but repetition prevails throughout the lyrics, as well. “We have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please” announces Cosentino on the title track, while  ‘Up All Night‘ has her proclaiming “I wanna see you, I wanna see you, I wanna see you, forever and ever, forever and ever…zzzzzzzz”. This reliance on repeating lines, phrases and words over and over works for some musicians, but here it just adds to the sense of monotony.

The transition that the pair have gone through to shed the image created by the debut has bought with it a bag full of pros along with some downfalls. There’s still an undeniable charm to the band – the sun-drenched pop, the jangly guitar hooks and the simplistic yearnings of Cosentino all add up to something ultimately enjoyable and engaging. The upbeat moments on the album are a treat and will no doubt be a part of any summer playlist again this year, but things tend to drag when the tempo lowers. Considering that the album is only 37 minutes long, that’s kinda concerning. Fans of the first album might feel alienated by the lack of fuzz (it’s really not that big of a deal), but it’s still a pleasure to listen to.