Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man

After the necessarily dark, grand and stunning strains of 2009’s Two Suns, the next question for Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) of where to go next appears to have been difficult to answer.  Two Suns was a magical record, effortlessly creative with expansive pop, piano balladry and experimentation. Three years later, The Haunted Man is the rather stark reaction. As the cover suggests, it’s stripped down and honest with little to hide. Trouble is that after repeated listens, that’s not necessarily a great thing.

In picking apart her approach to songwriting and keeping the instrumentation light, Khan has made sure her work is even more penetrable than before, with only light rhythms and her soulful, honest vocals offering to hold the attention. The good news is that this approach works very well for her singing; this is her strongest vocal performance to date. Marilyn’s soaring chorus features a command of the high register that Khan had only been able to casually hint at previously and the piano-led Laura demonstrates the other end of the scale, mostly offering proof of her ability to quietly seduce and overpower emotionally. There are also enough angular yet enjoyable beats sprinkled throughout to save things from getting too stale, with the welcome bounce of A Wall standing out.

Musically is where this approach stumbles, however. Extracting the grandiose edge has forced Khan into a position where choirs, loud rhythms and melodrama aren’t instantly welcome, so The Haunted Man often relies more on its subliminal melodic edge as a means of attraction. Simply put, it doesn’t always work. All Your Gold is wonderfully playful and catchy, featuring a sparse electro-accompaniment along with some gorgeous string work. The aforementioned Laura is slow, moody and beautiful, with barely any touches to distract from the vocals and piano. But Horses of the Sun asks far too much of Khan’s voice, with a middling, slightly angular drum-machine beat offering driving proceedings without giving much back. This can be lumped in with at least four others that offer little reason to return, which means the gems of the record are in short supply. For a songwriter of Khan’s invention and experimentation, this is a shame as opposed to a disaster, but it’s still impossible to ignore.

After the grand statement Khan made with Two Suns, offering her music more space must have felt logical. The Haunted Man is by no means a weak record because it doesn’t exist in the same dramatic space as its predecessors. Despite its lack of power, it’s a ballsy record in that it even exists, and it was a risk worth taking for Khan’s career.  But it is a weaker record, and doesn’t hold the attention or display quite the same level of allure as well as Khan’s previous efforts.

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Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band Of Light

In some ways, the way Jenny Owen Youngs went about getting the ball rolling for her third album is so modern, charming and honest, it’s almost perfect. In July of 2010, wanting to keep control of her own work and make a record on her own terms, she contacted her fans about the Kickstarter campaign she has just begun, aimed at raising the funds for making An Unwavering Band Of Light. Within 28 hours, the $20, 000 target was achieved, and she went on to raise 38 grand within just a few weeks. It’s all the more impressive if you consider that Jenny’s nowhere near rolling in cash, self-released her first album Batten The Hatches and doesn’t have a label behind her to speak of at all. Even better is what started as a simple request from fans has helped to create the best work of her career.

Sure, JOY’s always been able to marry up thoughtful, smart, poppy tunes based around her acoustic, and as recently as last album Transmitter Failure, that’s taken on more of a rockin’ full-band approach. Still, every aspect of her work is more streamlined and focussed here. The uplifting, jaunty numbers like Love For Long and soaring closer Wake Up over up an almost illegal level of catchiness, the reflective fragility of the acoustic O God and piano-led So Long find new heartstrings to tug on and there’s even room for the angular, volume and Russian-tinged horns of Sleep Machine.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about this record is that it doesn’t sound like a penny of the money raised has been wasted; fair play to the lady in question as she’s surrounded herself with great musicians who play everything with effortless ease. It makes the energetic rhythms on the sugar-rush of Pirates or the insanely catchy whistled melody of Why You Fall stand out even more (seriously, that melody will burrow it’s way into your brain with the guile of an angry shark). Lyrically, it deals very openly with sticky situations of the heart, specifically their pitfalls and occasional futility, but it’s done in such a way that it doesn’t feel forced, and thankfully, massively contrived. “We make the most of the love we got, cos it won’t be love for long;” as an introductory chorus, it’s hardly swimming in aimless positivity but it’s honest, and it’s backed up by a ridiculously catchy and jaunty melody.

If this is the first you’re hearing of Jenny Owen Youngs then you’ll find instant evidence on An Unwavering Band Of Light as to why her fans responded so quickly and impressively to her call for assistance. It’s well written, varied and genuinely great to listen to. And what a note to an industry that we’re constantly told is in trouble that a singer/songwriter is able to ask the fans that buy her albums and go to her shows to fund the making of a record they were always going to get anyway.

9/10

Fever Ray – Fever Ray

This brave world of electro scares me a tad. Uncompromising instrumentation, odd vocals, jilted fashion…. it feels like I’ve been invited to a party that kicked off ages ago by someone who doesn’t even like me that much just so they can mess around with my head. It’s not an instantly welcoming world, but hey, I’ll try anything multiple times. Fever Ray is the solo album from Karin Dreijer Andersson, the female half of Swedish duo The Knife, and whilst it’s recognisably made by one half of that Scandinavian electropop machine, it’s a far more measured, intense and less welcoming proposition.

If there’s a tendency with side-projects to sound too much like your day job, someone clearly forgot to tell Karin, because Fever Ray is not a particularly easy listen. The artwork, videos and promo visuals point to a darker tone, and that’s evident throughout the album. There is light, but it’s jostling for position with some dark, electronic paranoia, which makes for an interesting mix. For instance, droning loops, slow beats and some downright spooky vocal effects dominate opener If I Had A Heart, and bright synth tones with wailing, brash Bjork-style vocals are all over on When I Grow Up. It’s an interesting combination that could’ve gone horribly wrong in the hands of anyone else, but Anderson holds it all together with some constantly morphing vocals and clear ability in her craft.

Perhaps the reason that Fever Ray is such an interesting album is that it’s a difficult listen. There’s nothing really dancefloor worthy to speak of, there’s many a paranoid moment to go with some desolate songs and even the more positive numbers aren’t instantly accessible. It’s not a record that’ll welcome you with open arms, and it’ll make you work before you really get a grasp of it and enjoy what’s on offer. Inkeeping with the music, the videos Fever Ray’s singles are equally evocative, mysterious and downright odd at times, but they add something to the unique mystique Anderson has created with her debut solo effort. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s one worth taking.

8/10

Video for When I Grow Up:

Small World Spotlight – Jenny Owen Youngs

There are many reasons why Jenny Owen Youngs is worth your attention. She writes fantastically joyous but honest indie acoustic pop songs. She not only covered Hot In Here by Nelly but also made a video for the song featuring a lot of people dressed up in fuzzy costumes. She also sells t-shirts with such fantastic slogans like ‘I Got Knocked Up By Jenny Owen Youngs’ emblazoned all over them. If that makes you think she’s one in a million, you’d be right.

Hailing from Mont Clair, New Jersey, Jenny began to get noticed as she steadily built a strong reputation online, thanks to diligently building her profile on Myspace. This helped her self release her debut album, Batten The Hatches back in 2005; a jaunty, heartfelt, sometimes scathing and always enjoyable collection of acoustic tunes. You’ll find upbeat and energetic tracks sitting alongside quiet reflective numbers, all laced together with Jenny’s impressive ear for a melodic hook. In Drinking Song, she takes unrequited love and finding solace in drinking and wraps them up in a song so fantastically catchy, upbeat and joyful that it should probably be illegal. It helps that Jenny’s a great guitarist, and the evidence is all over Batten The Hatches from the quiet, restrained plucking on Voice On Tape to the raucous positivity on From Here.

Her second album took some time to see the light of day, and arrived in May of this year, almost four years after its predecessor. Transmitter Failure is a fairly major development and sees her opting for bigger songs with more band instrumentation as opposed to sitting down with her acoustic. It’s nothing to be put off by, as she still delivers plenty of hooks and catchy choruses to outstrip any hack with a guitar and a broken heart. The streamlined folk pop of Led To The Sea is as good a tune as she’s ever written, and the jauntiness of Secrets, where she asks her lover not to question her on her night time antics over a brilliantly uplifting chorus is just as impressive. There’s certainly less of the quiet material that made up a substantial part of Batten The Hatches, which is a small shame, but there’s plenty here to enjoy. Jenny developed a pretty unique sound on Transmitter Failure, and by maintaining those introspective, inquisitive, scathing and playful aspects to her lyrics, she’s kept a large part of her identity as a songwriter whilst becoming somewhat more accessible.

Jenny feels like that smart, sassy, pretty girl next door, or that older sister you liked that let you raid her CD/vinyl collection. She naturally exudes the kind of cool and honesty that no amount of album sales can bring, so if you fancy a songwriter with enough individuality, affection and hostility to fill a hundred albums then you’ll do well to check her out. In her own words, spread the JOY!

Recommended Album: Batten The Hatches

Recommended Songs: Bricks, From Here, Led To The Sea, Last Person

More info at www.myspace.com/jennyowenyoungs

Video for F**k Was I:

Florence And The Machine – Lungs

Getting through this review without mentioning the hype and attention surrounding Florence Welch and her Machines is pretty much impossible (that’s what happens when you review albums that’ve been out for a while, but nevermind, eh?),  and not letting that hype overshadow the actual music is even more of a challenge. Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with Lungs; because it’s proven so popular and Welch herself has become another postergirl for this new-wave of female singers, the music seems to have been glossed over somewhat. Bit of a shame, that, because Lungs isnt quite as good as you’d hope.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see an artist/band receiving such attention and praise when they’re a million miles away from dance routines and electro-pop. A quick look at the album cover, with Welch looking like a hippie folkster is all you really need to see that this is not your average artist/band. They certainly don’t sound like one either. Welch’s soaring soulful voice is combined with music that could best be described as folk influenced indie. If that sounds a little vague, it’s probably because Lungs itself is a little vague. The band don’t really nail down a distinct sound throughout the 13 tracks on offer here, just a few different ones. There’s some slow soul numbers (Girl With One Eye, Comsic Love), some up tempo guitar-driven songs that verge on rock (Blinding, Kiss With A Fist) and then the singles (Rabbit Heart, Dog Days Are Over) with their ramshackle instrumentation and soaring choruses. A quick look at the songtitles puts across a sense of fun and dark humour which keep the album from being too pleasant and safe, but Lungs is simply too inconsistent.

Welch herself has a great voice, let’s not deny that. But the songs seem to rely on her too much and there are too many points where she has to wail loudly just to make a song move away from obscurity. Regardless of the band’s inability to nail down a specific sound, too many songs get stuck in sparse territory with light, dull instrumentation, which is particularly evident in the second half of the album. Lungs does rely on the singles as the real vocal points, and it shows, because save for the pounding rhythm of Drumming along with Howl, there isnt a whole lot left of it to recommend.

Hype is a strange thing in music. When it surrounds a somewhat innocuous-looking group, it tends to spin things out of proportion. Strip away the hype from Lungs and you’ve got a promising album from a developing artist, but it’s a long way from being anything beyond that. Florence and the Machine have garnered enough interest to last a career that’s certainly going to be interesting if this debut is anything to go by, so let’s hope their next offering builds on the promise shown here.

6/10