Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mull Historical Society - City Awakenings (Xtra Mile Recordings)

What’s in a name? For Colin Macintyre, seemingly something more than merely what appears on your passport. The transition from initial guise Mull Historical Society to Colin Macintyre evidently came from a need to forge something more personal, something that hiding behind a quirky moniker and a dog in a wig might’ve made slightly more difficult, in all fairness.

So after one triumphant, pop-heavy masterpiece (The Water) and a dour, sub-par non-starter (Island) under his birth name, the Mull Historical Society tag has been reappointed. But to what effect, if any, for sixth album overall City Awakenings?

First and foremost, it appears to reinstate the bright, indie-pop audacity of debut Loss, all explosive choruses and killer hooks and full-on abandon. But there’s simultaneously an extended distance from there to here, with Macintyre’s voice in particular sounding exceptionally strong, every note walloped with fervour.

There’s also the appearance of the occasional kooky vocal tic, best embodied on the rattling drumbeats of Can You Let Her Know, before its titanic chorus floors everything in its path. Elsewhere, the one-man Polyphonic Spree of Must You Get Low further showcases the quietly eccentric grandeur he does so well.

But it doesn’t mean City Awakenings is all sunshine and big arrangements beginning to end – there are some modest, reflective moments dotted throughout, while the haunting, instrumental skank of Thameslink (London’s Burning) makes for a bold and moving climax to proceedings.

So, with that covered, what exactly is the difference between Mull Historical Society and Colin Macintyre? Very little. City Awakenings is no less personal or emotive or charming than anything else he’s done, and whatever prompted Island’s misfire has been fully patched up. Regardless of who he’s signed to or how he’s marketed or what he’s calling himself, there’s little to deny the pull or the talent of an artist whose self-carved niche is producing something very special indeed.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Honking Box Review: Masterchef

Masterchef is a show we’ve shied away from previously. Well, not so much ‘shied away’ as ‘run screaming from all televisions, covering your ears’. But last year’s rejigged format proved impossible to resist, and so the proverbial party poppers are back out again for a new series, especially now they’ve run out of ways to spread the Great British Bake-Off brand as thinly as possible.

Yes, Gregg and John are back, once again on the hunt for a person wot can cook, and can translate that skill into a moderately successful recipe book. Seemingly, their hunt for a Mini Heston wasn't satiated by the questionable, stomach-turning-on-paper – but ultimately champion – flavour combinations of last year's winner Tim. The unofficial brief is once again someone who takes risks, but more often than not results in what sounds like the culinary offerings of Letitia Cropley from The Vicar of Dibley.

As for Gregg and John themselves, it’s almost impossible to fathom that the pair have miraculously gotten less loathsome. And if John’s pathetic “I WANT THAT CURRY SAUCE, WAH WAH WAH” tantrum was any indication, they haven’t.

(Top tip! Watch with subtitles on, and the volume muted. It makes the Wallace/Torode element infinitely less painful.)

More likely, their overt cuntishness has been merely offset by the significantly more unpleasant head chef of Gilgamesh, whose appearance must have been an ingenious plan to ward off customers as part of some kind of elaborate taxloss scheme. He may as well stand outside the premises, foaming at every orifice and screaming “FRESH HOT PLAGUE! Get your plague here!”

(...Which, bearing in mind it’s in Camden Market, isn’t entirely implausible.)

The contestants are the usual bunch of competent, wacky, weepy, clumsy and trainwreck, so even if there’s not a worthy winner in the mix, there’ll at least be some entertaining television. Somewhat unfairly, the selection process was a bit of a first come, first served affair, with five hopefuls put through in the first episode, leaving just three places for the last eight competitors. Mind you, if the same rules had been applied to the first series of Pop Idol, we’d have been spared a decade of Will Young sounding like the mating call of a walrus with a headcold.

The current favourite round these parts is Aki. Partly because she’s a quantum physicist (which is up there with ‘marine biologist’ and ‘chocolatier’ as one of the coolest-sounding job titles ever), partly because her food looks amazing, and partly because she’s responsible for facial expressions such as these:

With the track record of Masterchef champs being very heavily male, even though the sole female winner gave us the immense Wahaca, we don’t fancy Aki’s chances much. At this stage, however, she’s head and shoulders above the competition.

No doubt that’ll all fluctuate across the course of the series, when the contestants are made to cook a nine-course feast from the comfort of a genuine WW1 trench in the middle of a re-enactment, or have a head chef with stinking breath screaming orders in their face until they cry, or fillet an entire deer underwater, with just two minutes of oxygen, using just a clothespeg. Frankly, we can’t wait.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Howler - America Give Up (Rough Trade)

Our end-of-2011 rant about how the charts have turned into some sort of awful, overproduced pop marshland still stands. But with a new year comes new hope, and amongst the small-but-assured list of promising new releases is the debut album from Minnesota five-piece Howler: it’s cocky, surf-heavy, semi-countrified, and all kinds of noisy. But is it any good.

A mere couple of bars into Beach Sluts, the opening track of America Give Up, and it’s already pretty clear Howler mean business. A frenetic yet rhythmic carnival of amp-shaking alt-rock, you’d be forgiven for wondering how they’ll maintain that energy throughout. And yet, they manage it.

The pace slows down from time to time, such as the brooding Too Much Blood, but the scratchy, intense stamp is still very much present. In contrast, the few occasions they employ a major key – yet still maintaining the Howler passion – makes for an interesting blend. In fact, the surf guitar jollity of Told You Once or lead single Back of Your Neck arguably provide the album’s standout moments.

Another artist tackling such busy productions would have difficulty selling it as anything other than white noise. But Howler have a gift for instantaneous, infectious choruses, that every crunching riff, every wallop of the cymbal, every superfluous bit of noodling create the perfect backing for.

The intense, unforgiving arrangements and the snarling vocals are unlikely to please everyone, occasionally sitting just this side of uncomfortable. But crucially, it’s not fully there – it’s sometimes a hard listen, perhaps, but it’s a worthwhile one.

The wet-behind-the-ears enthusiasm of America Give Up has a touch of early Kings of Leon about it – not sonically, but in that it conjures up the very real possibility of greatness. Who knew that the distinguished mix of ‘a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll’ could result in something so bold, so vibrant, and so brilliantly cacophonous?
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