‘Newspaper Spoons’ is a cold start to the album. The abrasive armageddon drumming, chanting vocals, and raucous guitar that’s straight from ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ album, accumulates into a calm and blissful arpeggiated synth. A forewarning of what is ahead on this already-stressful, dark and intense album.
Droning synths with kraut like drumming, and bass intertwined with brash electric guitars. There is a 80s glam post punk feel to Matt Flegel’s vocals. With lyrics like "If we're lucky, we'll get old and die", it’s difficult not to associate this with the early death of Christopher Reimer, a theme that features throughout the album.
‘March of Progress’ keeps with Viet Cong’s sound, erupting into long chords of layered synths and driving kick drums that keep the music’s intensity ever higher. It then turns sharply into a celestial vocal harmony atop of an apegiated guitar, which is then halted by an industrial horn before again going into a new angelic yet intense guitar wash. Definitely one of my favourite songs off their album.
‘Bunker Buster’ is full of abrupt guitar notes and unconventional chords, but it still sucks you into their melodramatic beat. Midway through the song, everything suddenly comes together into a beautiful phase of harmony, making you love their odd idea of music, then going back to their slightly arrhythmic sound. Then it stops like it never started.
Up to this point, each song has seemed to roll into each other. This gives a brief pause for thought before going into undoubtedly the stand out track and their first single off the album, ‘Continental Shelf’. Perhaps it’s because it keeps to generic musical principles. A repetitive guitar hook, panning left to right, and a more refined chorus rolls along effortlessly with singer Matt Flegel’s vocals floating atop and fitting so well. It makes for a remarkably memorable song.
‘Silhouettes’ is the most pop orientated song on the album, although that’s not necessary a bad thing. It’s racing indie guitars and catchy chorus make it the best or safest song to use if I was introducing their music to someone. It does lack the brash and provoking nature of previous songs though.
As the album goes on, its sound has been getting more refined and clear, with less distortion and disjointed features. It is as if Viet Cong have started to win the battle they have been fighting. The seventh and final track is ‘Death’ – an 11 minute epic. The driving beat, and optimistic guitar riff, go through many ending coda but finally ending with Matt Flegal yelling in a brutal final phase.
Viet Cong’s ‘Viet Cong’ will unwillingly suck you in and then chuck you out when they want to, without you even realising. The debut champions itself on pushing their dark and idiosyncratic musical ideas, which in turn makes this album into a truly fascinating and compelling listen. There is no doubt what these Canadians are trying to achieve, and they do it in a brilliant fashion. Their show on 8th February at Green Door Store should be a true spectacle where hopefully they will perform the album in its entirety, which would be amazing!
2011's Shapes & Shadows album clearly demonstrated his skill as a songwriter, delving deep into folk, blues and country. And along with his highly distinctive soul-blues gravelly voice and his mastery of the six-string, it's a winning combination in anyone's book, the mature tones of that album representing a mini-triumph for this very amiable and modest man.
Once again united with old friend Sam Genders – founder of folktronica outfit, Tunng – Rattlebag is an extension of that debut, a consistently high quality record that dips its toes into the melancholy overtones of American country music more than its predecessor, whilst still pursuing the folk and bluesy pastures he has become renowned for, with and without Gomez.
The beautiful acoustic opener and title track is typical of the album; rhythmic guitar opening the song before the band come in as one, soon building into a mini-anthem of sorts as Ottewell gently roars: 'When they raised me up I fell…. Somewhere, somewhere salvation comes, in strange disguise'. Meanwhile Red Dress is the first of several forays into rootsy country and it suits him very well, the finger picking guitar slowly building into a gentle stomper, that works its way through the gears, slide guitar back in the mix. Again, its uplifting qualities are unpinned by a gentle streak of melancholy; some of the best music marries these seemingly conflicting emotions; human nature is often always a mix of the two, as we constantly work our way towards a goal that we may not know of, but strive we must.
Most of the songs here are built from an acoustic guitar base, courtesy of Ottewell, before he and Genders get to work on carefully embellishing and arranging each song to its conclusion. Starlings, for instance, shows their innate understanding in welding fragility (also a hallmark of Tunng) with sturdy rock dynamics, while the walking bass and moody blues backdrop of Patience and Rosaries ebbs and flows, before Ottewell steps forward to deliver the most coruscating solo on the album Elsewhere 'Starlings' rhythmic country vibe recalls old school country rock flavours of the early 70s, while the drone-like qualities of No Place, although a little bit different from the sound of the rest of the album, fits in snugly, between the aforementioned Starlings and the rootsy glam-stomp of Edge, before some beautiful organ drone and simple guitar line leads So Slow, again morphing into a semi-country sound. Meanwhile, the vaguely salsaesque groove of Papa Cuckoo represents the closest thing to dance music here. It's another string to his eclectic bow.
A believer in the power of the riff, whether of the bombastic variety or the gently subtle embellisher, Ottewell runs the gauntlet of guitar styles and sounds on Rattlebag; from ringing slide bends to bluesy riffing, and from heavy strumming to arpeggiated finger picking, it all has its place; never indulging, nor underplayed either. And while there aren't a huge amount of laughs here, Ottewell manages to steer clear of the overly maudlin and downbeat, mixing thoughts of hope and promise, with redemption and salvation throughout. 'There's a time and place for us/I will take you there' he sings on Shoreline. Indeed, he's right. And rather willingly I do go.
Transformer's two tracks provide a bit of up-tempo electronic music with Dragonfly and Heartbreak. Their repetitive beats will get the feet tapping while still maintaining a nice dreamy disco undertones. Dragonfly especially being one of those songs you could quite happily leave on repeat for a few listens.
And so, with a desire to bring the disparate strands of her family and musical friends together, she alighted on the idea of recording an album of folk songs and tales that are predominately, if sometimes loosely, themed around the sea, retelling many of the songs that was a big part of her upbringing, even if at the time she could barely remember them. With hindsight, it seems to be the obvious thing to do but there was probably a good deal of heart-searching on the part of Martha, questioning whether she could do the songs justice, to live up to the high standards that had already born fruit, on songs such as Lowlands of Holland, Lovely on the Water (both performed by Steeleye Span), Black Waterside (Bert Jansch), and The House Carpenter (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pentangle et al). She needn't have unduly fretted, for with the help of some fine musicians and singers in their own right, she has steered a respectful course through the perilous waters of folk history. Although not adding significantly to what are, for the most part, well worn songs, and occasionally falling prey to feyness (which is, perversely, part of her charm to many) and a limited vocal range, they're still interpreted with enough spirit of independence to make them distinct, and not just purist re-tellings… for folk's sake. With her gently finger-picked style, her own highly distinctive vibrato, the use of differing guest vocalists throughout, and supplemented by the generally tasteful playing of long time musical partner Nick Marshall, and her 'Scientists' Matt Tweed and Tim Cotterell – the Brighton based fiddler – The Sea is an important stepping stone in the gently sloping upwards trajectory of Martha Tilston.
With her stepmother, and formative singing influence, Maggie Boyle, on vocals and flute for the album opener, Lovely on The Water is given a slight Crosby, Stills & Nash harmony treatment and the tone is set for this respectful, engaging and thoughtful collection of songs, enlivened in the most unexpected of ways with the follow up track Lowlands of Holland, which features one Kevin Whately, aka Inspector Lewis, the actor best known for his roles in Morse and Lewis! Kevin and his brother, Frank, are part-time folkies it seems, both capable of delivering, albeit in that low-key pub singing type of way, as evidenced by both their contributions, apparently done long distance thanks to the beauty of the modern telecommunication age. Lamb double bassist Jon Thorne also contributes on Lowlands, with Maggie Boyle once again on flute.
The only true original here, Martha and Matt Kelly's Shipwreckers – although it does incorporate Rudyard Kipling's Smuggler's Song – epitomises the influence that Cornwall has on the album; it's long tradition of seafaring ways and war, the predominant histories of this ancient place. Not only does she live there now, but the album was largely recorded in a converted old fish warehouse, overlooking Falmouth estuary. The slave trade is also touched upon here, with the mournful Shallow Brown given a relatively rare outing. A West Indian sea shanty, it features the deep tones of Joe Tilston, her younger brother, and bassist with ska punk band Random Hand. A song suggested to them by fellow Cornwallian and also former Brighton resident Johnny Lamb (who in turn learned it from Mary Hampton, another Brighton resident) who goes under the moniker 30 Pounds of Bone, it's obviously a pleasure for them to sing together, Joe's rich and gruff tones belying his young years, while his heavier guitar playing is again an effective counterpart to overall lightness on the rest of the album.
The late Bert Jansch's Black Waterside gets yet another makeover (famously interpreted by Jimmy Page of course, via Black Mountain Way, although Tilston has good reason in that Jansch was a family friend and regular visitor to the family household. Ultimately a brave decision to have a go at such a modern standard, just guitar and Martha's vocal adorn the song, along with a smattering of piano later on; it's performed with understated skill and warmth, a job well done.
Martha's dad, Steve, provides vocals on The Fisherlad of Whitby, a song he had previously recorded for his Ziggurat album, while relative newcomer Nathan Ball – who Martha used to play a lot with in her festival days – takes on the well-known Scottish ballad The House Carpenter, a deeply meaningful and dark song about heaven and hell, love and duty, greed and selflessness.
Mermaid of Zennor opens with Steve James taking the opening verse, based on an old hymn, before Martha takes over, the song developed via a Cornish folk tale, and which displays her Joni Mitchell influence. It's a little more strident than almost everything else here, upping the tempo towards almost hoedown territory, before it changes gear, the ghostly voice of Steve James in and out of the mix, while Martha slowly brings the song to a vocal-only denouement. It's a beautiful song, and a fitting closer, before the 'hidden' track, a reprise of Whitby Bay, eventually appears with older sister Sophie joining Martha for a gorgeously performed duet.
Although at times giving the impression of being fey and dreamy, Martha Tilston benefits from the juxtaposition of other vocals here, male and female, in producing an album respectful of its roots, but not in thrall to them. I'm sure her family would be proud.
Local lass Naomi Bedford has been singing her heart out in Brighton and beyond for over a decade now, slowly but surely winning new fans as she continues to branch out from her folk roots background, delving deeperinto the folk of America, while forming new musical alliances, on this second album. You may have seen her perform with Orbital on their Funny Break hit of 2001 but folk and roots is where is her heart truly lies…
Thieves By The Code have been around on the local scene for a while, releasing several EP’s and working their way through several line-up changes before settling into the current group of singing guitarist Alex Sinesi, bass player and backing vocalist Stefan Sidoli and Nick Van Vlaenderen who plays drums. Having seen some of the earlier incarnations of the band I was blown away this spring when I saw this current lineup opening up for Clowns and Flash Bang Band at one of The Warren’s late night music shows in the Fringe Festival. It’s amazing how finding the right personnel can hit the fast forward button on a bands development and that night really clarified what Thieves By The Code were about to me. ‘Tales From The Green Muse’ is the first full length release from the band and shows off what they can achieve in the studio, following on from the popular ‘Corner Of Your Eye’ single they put out last year.