Archive for the 'Music' Category

The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You

April 4, 2010

Scott and Seth are two North Carolinian brothers, who, five albums and two EPs in, have hit the big time with this Rick Rubin-produced major label debut. The pair take turns on vocals and songwriting duties, crafting tight piano ballads, coloured with bluegrass, 60s beat pop and indie rock (“Kick Drum Heart”). Following the Rubin formula, the songs are stripped down, perfectly formed packages. It’s hard not to succumb to the relentless stream of rousing choruses and simple chord patterns, but this is a series of brash mainstream hits rather than an album to cherish.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review.

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Seasick Steve: Man From Another Time

October 18, 2009

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“Why do you wanna listen what I got to say?” asks Seasick Steve on this album’s title track. The former hobo pensioner, embraced for his colourful backstory as much as his music, asks a good question. Songs about riding the freights, roaming the States, doing time and casual labour veer dangerously close to hollow self-parody, but when he sings of the present – driving about on his vintage John Deere tractor, and his wife and anchor, Elisabeth, we get the raw emotion he is famed for. Best of all is “The Banjo Song”, a mournful soliloquy on his wandering spirit as death moves ever closer.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain: Live

December 7, 2008

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This remarkable time capsule reveals Neil Young testing reaction to his post-Buffalo Springfield solo career over two nights in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Forty years later, the two-track recordings of those shows are finally released. Stripped of the ornate arrangements of his self-titled 1968 debut album and with no harmonica in the toolbox yet, this is just Young, a guitar and his thoughts. Ten tracks of nerdy asides and witty revelations break up the music, giving a thrilling ‘Neil Young in your living room effect’. An astonishing insight into the mind of a 22-year-old at the dawn of an impressive solo career.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Brothers and sisters are doing it for themselves

June 22, 2008

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Never mix business with family, goes the saying, but scratch the surface of many bands and you turn up siblings. From Radiohead and the Stooges to AC/DC and Arcade Fire, musical relatives are everywhere.

The Beach Boys (centring on brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson) and the Bee Gees (Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb) showed that sibling synchronicity often produces prolific and brilliant songwriting, the latter scoring 19 number one hits worldwide. With only two siblings, that symbiotic relationship and shared imagination can create a new world with its own eccentric musical code or language. The Shaggs had it, the White Stripes pretended they had it (before they were rumbled as ex-husband and wife), and art new-wavers Devo (two sets of brothers) have it in spades.

Of course, two musical siblings, especially two brothers, can also mean savage fighting. The Everly Brothers, one of the earliest and best loved brother combos, didn’t speak for 10 years after Phil smashed his guitar and walked off stage mid-gig. This public brawling is something British brothers excel at. Famously volatile Jim and William Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain also split up mid-gig. Jim said: ‘It’s like being locked in a cupboard with somebody for 15 years. If it wasn’t your brother, you could kick them out.’ And there was the swearing and walkouts that became more noteworthy than the musical output of the Gallagher brothers of Oasis.

Now a new generation is showing that making music with your siblings can be sustainable and credible. Bands such as the Magic Numbers (two pairs of siblings) and Kings of Leon (three brothers and a cousin) have moved away from the Sixties and Seventies family template of the Osmonds, the Jackson Five and the Carpenters and the naffness of Eighties manufactured acts such as Mel and Kim and Bros.

But what happens when you get two siblings working exclusively as a musical duo? We asked four emerging acts how the familial bond affects their music.

The Fiery Furnaces

Illinois-born Eleanor Friedberger, 31, and brother Matthew, 35, have been working together for eight years and have released five albums as the Fiery Furnaces, including Rehearsing My Choir, a collaboration with their 83-year-old grandmother. Matthew creates disjointed blues rock on guitar, keys and other instruments while Eleanor sing-speaks complex stories. They have no other siblings. They are due to release a double live album, Remember, in September.

Eleanor

The reason we are in a band is that Matt was four years older and listened to a lot of records. I was in the next room and so I heard everything he heard. Whether he was aware of it or not, he was brainwashing me. Instead of reacting negatively I embraced everything. When he went to his next stage I would get into what he had just left behind. Like he was into the Clash and by the time he moved on to reggae I would start listening to the Clash. There were a few things that I liked that he wasn’t into, like Led Zeppelin and INXS, which he obviously wouldn’t go near with a 10ft pole.

At first our parents thought our being in a band together was surprising because we didn’t do creative things together as kids, but now they love it. When we formed the band Matt wanted us to use pseudonyms. I thought that was really pretentious and since we were brother and sister it would be better to use our names. Now I think it would have been better to have fake names and made more of a story. It’s hard to pretend we are a cool band when we’re doing photos; it’s like posing with your sibling for a family portrait.

We’re used to bickering and fighting constantly, so we let it slide right off our backs when we do get into an argument. Everybody has little things that they do that wind you up and with Matt it’s chewing ice. He will drive me mad doing it for hours on end when we are in the car.

My advice to siblings starting out in a band would be don’t live together if you can help it. At the moment we live a few miles apart from each other in New York. We briefly lived together in the same apartment thinking it would be great and we would practise and write music all the time, but it just made us not want to see each other at all.

Matthew

When we were little kids I tried to make her into a little brother and have her play baseball with me and stuff, but when we got older we tried to ignore each other as much as possible. After I left home when I was 16 we tried to become friends. What we had in common was our similar taste in rock music, so we became friends on the basis of saying how bad other bands were. I always played music as a kid and then played in bands as a teenager. Eleanor didn’t, but when she was 18 I wrote her a guitar manual charting chords and I bought her a guitar and a drum kit.

I always wrote songs, but I wasn’t comfortable singing, or no good at singing, so I thought: ‘I’ll write songs for you, Eleanor.’ Our jump to playing in front of people was more because of her efforts. Because I write songs very fast, and that’s sort of my thing, most of the songs are just by me. It works pretty well: I get to be the musical director and she is the actress who has to play the part and sing. We were always expected to be opposites and that’s how we think of each other.

The best thing about being siblings is that you don’t have to make up after you do have a fight. However substantial or trivial it is, you can fight and call each other names, but you’ve heard it all before. It’s hard to say something that would hurt the other person. With siblings you don’t have any inhibitions about complaining.

Smoosh

Seattle sisters Chloe, 14, who drums, and Asya, 16, who sings and plays the piano (they have never disclosed their surnames), formed energetic pop band Smoosh eight years ago. Younger sister Maia, 12, recently joined as bass player. They also have a four-year-old sister, Scout. Their father Mike, a medical researcher, is the band’s tour manager; their mother Maria is a paediatrician. Their third album is due out next spring.

Chloe

No one else in our family does music. We always had a piano but no one played it. Asya taught herself to stand using the piano to pull herself up and she’s played it ever since. She started writing songs and I got a drum kit when I was six. Jason McGerr, the drummer for Death Cab for Cutie, worked in the music store where we bought our drum kit and he said he’d give us lessons. Then he suggested we record something, so we did a demo CD and I made up little drum parts.

Because we live in an apartment, we can’t practise at home, so we go to a studio. We don’t really need a schedule, because we’re sisters and we live together. We just go whenever we have time or feel like it. We make up songs as we go along. I don’t know if I could do that with someone else, but since she’s my sister, we just jam as we go along.

When Shrek came out, we were obsessed with it. We loved the ‘All Star’ song, by Smash Mouth. We were trying to find a band name like Smash, so we thought of Smush. Then people pronounced it Smoosh.

When I hear that song, it reminds me of back then. We didn’t know anything about music, but that’s how we got started. I’m not into fake Disney acts. People want to make us into that, but we’re trying to do the opposite. A lot of kid bands are controlled by their parents. That’s why it’s working better for us, because it’s all our choices and we love the music.

We’re not incredibly young anymore. There are lots of bands that are our age. I don’t like it when people get us to do that cute sister thing and try to take your picture as if it’s a family photo. It’s cool that we’re sisters, and I like my sister, but it’s hard to deal with sometimes. We get in fights, but it’s always about stupid stuff, it’s never about anything serious and it’s never physical.

Asya

Chloe annoys me by becoming obsessed with one line or a specific detail of a song. Every time it gets to that part of the song, she rewinds it again and again. I’ll be like: ‘Chloe, I think we’ve heard that bit enough; can we just listen to the whole song?’

I usually write the piano or keyboard parts, then the vocal parts, then her background vocals. Then I show it to her and she’ll write drum parts.

There’s no jealousy between us, but she sometimes gets mad at how the songwriter is the person who writes the melody. She wishes that drummers who write their own parts could have part of the songwriting credit.

There are a lot of things you wouldn’t do with your friends that you can do with your sisters. You can laugh and go crazy and have a lot of fun. I would be so sad if we broke up the band because it’s totally part of us.

Angus & Julia Stone

Australian siblings Angus, 21, and Julia, 24, write their own songs and collaborate as Angus & Julia Stone. Their debut album of whimsical folk, A Book Like This, was released in March. They lived briefly in Notting Hill, west London, but have now returned to Australia. They have one older sister.

Julia

Ours was such a full-on family unit. At birthdays and Christmas, granny would be singing opera and grandpa would be on the piano and everyone would be talking loudly. I was always dancing and jumping around but Angus was so quiet. At mealtimes he would sit there not saying a thing, just eating. He was real small when he was young, so my sister Catherine and I would put him on the back of the bike and ride him around. I think we were pretty tough on him.

In primary school we all played in the band two mornings a week with dad [a music teacher] conducting. We would scream at him, begging him to let us quit the band. He would say, ‘One day you’re going to thank me.’

Mum’s an amazing singer. She’d be in the supermarket singing at the top of her lungs. Everyone would be looking at her and we would be real embarrassed with our heads down. She was always saying to us, ‘Just sing. Don’t worry what people think.’

I was always writing songs as a kid; about what I had for breakfast and how hard it was being a six-year-old. When I first heard Angus sing his own song in school assembly I couldn’t believe it. He had this beautiful voice and he was singing about love and the world. I was just blown away. I didn’t expect it because he was such a quiet kid.

I did one year at university but I hated it, so I went travelling. Angus met up with me in Chile and we spent two months in South America. I bought a guitar in Bolivia. Angus was already playing guitar so he showed me how to play a few songs. When I got back to Australia we started playing gigs.

As adults we probably would have seen each other only at Christmas and birthdays and said G’Day and still loved each other but we’ve been given this opportunity to really know each other, and I think that’s now for ever. It’s such a wonderful gift to have been given.

Angus

Julia and I never played music together or even talked as kids. We had this arrangement that Julia was my sister and I was her brother and we just walked past each other, and that was it. She listened to lots of embarrassing stuff. She poisoned my brain with the Spice Girls and Mariah Carey. It was only later that we found a reason to be friends and start playing music together because we had the same likes.

When I hear Julia’s songs it’s a big inspiration. I like her music more than a lot of the music I listen to. The way she writes is so real, and something I haven’t heard before. We’re not rivals. We’re not in a battle for anything.

The worst aspect of being in a band with your sibling is that you are so alike. Because you understand each other so well you can always hear that undercurrent of sarcasm and pick up on stuff that others can’t. It can get pretty tedious and frustrating.

I’m sure there’ll be a day when one of us wants to quit, and it’ll be fine. If I wanted to quit I’d be straight up, I’d just say it. You’ve got to be real and honest with everything, otherwise things won’t flow.

Tegan and Sara

Identical twins Tegan and Sara Quin, 27, were born and raised in Alberta, Canada. They have no other siblings. They began making music together at 14 and won a battle of the bands competition in their hometown at 17. They signed to Neil Young’s Vapor Records a year later. They share vocals, writing and instrumental responsibilities and have released five albums of intelligent indie pop. They play the Shepherds Bush Empire, London, on Tuesday and Glasgow ABC on Wednesday.

Tegan

I can remember as early as six or seven years old lying in bed lip-synching along with tapes imagining I was Phil Collins. We were raised with such a love and passion for music and that, combined with seeing people playing music live in the scene, really excited us and made us think that we could do it ourselves.

Our relationship when we were kids was pretty good. It was just the two of us and, as we came from a single parent family and moved a lot, we really had to rely on one another. When we were around 14, we started to battle, which was funny because it was right around then that we started playing music. We chose the most tumultuous, troubled time to start collaborating.

The worst issues we’ve had are because people see twins as one entity, even though we don’t look that much alike. We’ve struggled to have our own personalities, to be seen as separate beings. When we were 13 or 14 and starting to strike out on our own, Sara had her first girlfriend and it was this big secret. I was the annoying younger sister who wanted to be around all the time. Sara pushed me away, saying: ‘I don’t want to be around you.’ She just wanted her own life. It’s been the same fight our whole lives.

In my eyes, Sara writes some of the most interesting, elaborate and confusing pop songs and when I get to stand on stage with her it’s worth it. Sara and I have a very similar sense of humour.

One of my favourite things in the world is to do radio and press together; we like to take the piss and laugh. That’s when we get along the best, when we unite in sarcasm.

Sara

Beginning to play music together felt really natural. To turn it into a business is something different. Tegan was way more confident about doing it. That was a point of contention for a long time. I think Tegan thought I was saying I didn’t want to be in a band with her, but actually I just didn’t know if I wanted to be in a band.

We write songs separately. It’s understood that I write my song and when Tegan wants to contribute she does. If I don’t like a song of Tegan’s, I’ll tell her and, for the most part, we really listen to each other. I want her support, I believe in her.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review

Lykke Li

June 1, 2008

Kris Drever

September 2, 2007