Best Albums 2016 ::: ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore

Yes we realize this is long overdue but frankly you’re lucky to be reading it in March. All these things we mean to get done. Life’s just too busy. With the Chinese New Year period having now drawn to a close though, actually, it’s as good a time as any to look back and think about the amazing music the admittedly troubled year of 2016 fired our way. We decided to pick one album for each month.

January: David Bowie in true David Bowie type fashion gave us Blackstar at the beginning of the year, blew our minds, then shocked us with his sudden departure. What a hard act to follow and we’re not convinced anyone equaled this album, let alone bettered it. What made Bowie’s passing all the more difficult to cope with was how this record initially alluded to a really fascinating musical future. A future Bowie himself was apparently intent on pursuing before he finally succumbed to his illness. Blackstar is somehow distinctly Bowie yet utterly different. Yes you can hear familiar strands such as the use of saxophone and the flirtations with multiple genres, but the overall listening experience is positively otherworldly. How appropriate.

February: A toss-up between DIIV, Field Music, and Animal Collective for us. I’m going to go for DIIV just for the way the opening track ‘Out of Mind’ kicks off their, arguably slightly bloated album, ‘Is the Is Are‘. Dreamy, hypnotic, jangly, bouncy loveliness. Of course one good track does not an album make (take note Kanye) and other standout moments include ‘Bent (Roi’s Song)‘, which conjures up Sonic Youth, immediately followed by the catchy ‘Dopamine‘. At the start of the morning this album can, perhaps, start to drag a little bit, but late in the evening to close out the day with your intoxicant of choice, it’s a winner for all us losers.

March: We’re going to stay loyal to Hangzhou’s own music scene here and go for William Gray’s ‘Flounce’.  Local bias? Definitely maybe. But we weren’t the only ones to like this album you see. No. In fact, Gray made his way onto a national playlist courtesy of Tom Robinson on BBC Radio 6. Not bad going for someone marooned all the way out here in the Middle Kingdom. Opening track ‘Child’s Play‘ is delightfully experimental but still retains the essence of a classic pop song, whilst title track ‘Flounce‘ sees the album really blasting off into some faraway reverb-laden, synth-heavy galaxy. Or something. Just give it a go.

April: We might be the only people on the planet not to really like ‘Lemonade’ by Beyonce all that much but it just didn’t do it for us. So we’re going for Yeasayer’s ‘Amen & Goodbye’. ‘Silly Me’ following ‘I am Chemistry’ gives the listener as catchy a couple of tunes as they could want and, generally speaking, the craft and production on show during this record is stupendously gratifying. The catchiness takes on new heights with the intro and repeated hook of ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’. There’s just an awful lot going on during this record. It’s wonderfully playful and it’s catchy. Did we mention it’s catchy?

May: If there’s another record which was released in 2016 to carry the same artistic weight as ‘Blackstar’ then for us it’s Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’. Benefiting from the co-production of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni is granted the minimalist and stark presentation such weighty topics songs such as ‘Drone Bomb Me’, ‘4 Degrees’, ‘Watch Me’, and ‘Obama’ encompass. If you ever hear anyone say gone are the artists who tackle the big issues of the day then shove this album in their ears. The song ‘Crisis’ is still as moving as the first time I heard it. Apologies to Car Seat Head Rest, if you’d released your album in June it would be in the next paragraph.       

 

June:  Can’t say we remember being that bowled over by much this month so the return of DJ Shadow is the obvious choice with ‘The Mountain Will Fall’. Perhaps not the best record to be released by DJ Shadow but you can’t argue with the Run the Jewels and Nils Frahm collaborations.

July: A simple way to decide which your favorite albums are over a set period of time is obviously to consider which ones you keep coming back to. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you just get the urge to listen to a record.  Well ‘Freetown Sound’ by Blood Orange is one such record. A beautiful patchwork of recorded audio nestled betwixt cracking songwriting makes for one of those stream of consciousness type of LP experiences. A joy to partake in, and a defining record of its time released by a man seemingly enjoying something of a creative peak. And does anyone think ‘But You’ sounds just a tiny bit like Michael Jackson returning from beyond the grave – or is it just me?

August: This time we’re going to give in to the hype. In addition to Beyonce, Frank Ocean is the other artist critics were positively salivating over during 2016. Well we can just about see what the fuss is about with his record ‘Blonde’. For anyone unfamiliar with Ocean that is into more traditional types of genres this may prove a longwinded and difficult listen. But for me it’s one of those albums that, even if it leaves you a bit cold the first time you hear it, you want to come back for more and then you’re hooked. It’s appealing the way in which Ocean defies expectations by omitting beats from large portions of the record, and there’s a druggy kind of feel to proceedings which makes it a good headphone album for the escapists among us. And for those wanting big pop moments look no further than ‘Nights’ with its irresistible chopped up beats and spliced guitar sounds.

September: A difficult month to decide on this one, a cracking new Nick Cave album for one thing, not to mention Bon Iver. Well after repeated listens I just couldn’t get on with the Bon Iver one so that’s pushed to one side. Nick Cave has a rich back catalogue to draw from and I didn’t like this latest one quite as much as the one that preceded it. So, as flawed a decision-making process as this undoubtedly is, I’m going for the Solange Knowles‘ album. Let’s agree that 2016 is the year of the trailblazing R&B artist. And I never thought I’d find myself writing that due to the fact the only type of R&B I used to go for was the type made by Ray Charles and ripped off by The Rolling Stones. But that’s the thing about good music – it defies preconceptions. It doesn’t matter what genre it is if it connects. And ‘A Seat at the Table’ certainly does just that. Give it a spin. Once the lush opener ‘Rise’ has given way to the enticing groove of ‘Weary’ I challenge you not to be addicted.

October: October saw the return of the group American Football. Was it the worth the wait? We thought so. If you like your guitar music to be challenging rather than dirgey sometimes then this could be the record for you. Expertly knitted together with overarching melancholic refrains drifting in and out of focus, the sound of this group is all-enveloping. There’s a cleanness and crispness to the production which is really appealing on the headphones. Beautiful.

November: Another welcome return came in the form of A Tribe Called Quest. And if there was ever a time we needed this group then it’s now. The deft sampling. The grooves. The lyrical content. The whole package. Q-Tip‘s production is unassailable and this is one we’ll go back to again and again. And whilst the record will undoubtedly give Tribe fanatics what they want from a Tribe record, it doesn’t rest on its laurels. There’s a restlessness to the flow, that determination still there to create something genuinely forward-thinking and relevant to the now. Better each time you listen to it.

December: December? Fuck December. See you next time.  

 

 

Interview ::: David Kay (Junks) @ Xihu Music Festival, Hangzhou

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TSOFD: Was this your first Xihu Festival appearance? How did you find performing and what are your thoughts regarding the festival as a whole?

DK: This was the first Junks appearance at the festival, but Ursula and I played here a few years ago as Party Horse. I thought the festival was great, and it’s a cool place for a music festival, positioned as it is behind West Lake and just in front of some leafy hills. The weather was shit leading up to our appearance on the Saturday (Oct 29th) and it was pissing it down most of the day too, which impacted the festival’s overall attendance. We played on the DJ stage, which is unusual for a band, but seeing as though our sound is pretty electronic, mixing elements of synthwave and nu-disco with more traditional rock and punk structures, I guess we fit in okay. We got a good crowd during our show, and as we began to play people flooded in from out of nowhere, which was cool. I love playing festivals mainly because they are so fucking loud!

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TSOFD: Have you played other festivals in China? If so what have you made of the experiences overall and how does this compare with festivals in the UK either as a punter, performer or both?

DK: I’ve played a number of festivals in China and the UK, both big and small, whether it be with Junks, Party Horse or as DJ Ectoplazm in China or with Tiny Dancers back in the UK. I’ve enjoyed all of these appearances, and the ones in China have been particularly enjoyable due both to the novelty factor and the fact that the scene feels really fresh and embryonic here. It’s still early days in China in terms of festivals and festival culture, so it’s great to play a small part in this emerging scene. Some festivals in China have no alcohol for sale, however – none at all – which is a real bummer as it’s hard to enjoy a festival without a dozen pints of over-priced lager, right?

DK: There are lots of differences between UK and Chinese festivals. For example, the whole camping thing has largely been lost on the Chinese, as has the concept of partying until the sun rises. But, seeing as though I’m no spring chicken anymore, that’s probably a good thing.

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TSOFD: Do you feel there was a healthy representation of different forms of music at the festival – any local or national acts you’d have liked to have seen play that weren’t billed?

DK: To be honest I didn’t get to see much of the wider festival as I had to get home pretty quick after our show to relieve the babysitter, but I was gutted to have missed Queen Sea Big Shark on the Sunday as they are probably my favorite Chinese band. Helen from Nova Heart also DJed on the Sunday and I heard she was great, so it was a shame to miss out on that too. That’s often the case when you play festivals though, you often miss other bands you’d like to see due to scheduling issues, although I did catch Chengdu rapper Kafe Hu, who was pretty cool.

Overall the line-up seemed pretty eclectic, with acts from the mainstream and the underground well-represented and genres like hip-hop, trap, pop, rock, electronica and house all getting a look in. I think it would have been nice to have a third stage, maybe one exclusively reserved for acoustic acts, as that would have given punters a place to kick-back and relax and, moreover, a chance for local singer/songwriters like William Gray and John Carroll a chance to flex their acoustic muscles.

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TSOFD: It has been said that China’s live music scene is more geared towards festival season but this is steadily changing with more and more live venues opening up nationwide. How well do you think Hangzhou is currently competing with the likes of Beijing and Shanghai, or even Wuhan and Chengdu?

DK: I think Hangzhou is a little behind the cities you mentioned in terms of its live music scene, but with Mao Livehouse and Loopy opening up recently, at least we have a couple more great venues to call our own. I think Hangzhou has plenty going on – and has lots of good musicians and DJs walking its recently spruced-up streets – but the city as a whole lacks edge and any kind of deep-rooted music scene. There’s too many cigar-bar style venues and not enough CBGBs.

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TSOFD: What’s next on the horizon for Junks – any new releases or gig or festival dates our readers should be making a note of? How about DJ events?

DK: We should have one or two more shows before Christmas and the work on our debut album continues behind the scenes. The best way to keep up to date with the band, and to find out what makes us tick, is to head to either our Facebook page for gigs and vibes, our Soundcloud page for music or follow us on wechat (ID: Junks_hz) for more detailed show info etc. You can also search for us on YouTube to see a few of our VHS-style music videos. We also making a short documentary about our musical adventures in China – so watch this space!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JUNKSOFFICIAL

 

Introducing ::: More In Common ‘HOPE not hate’ Compilation Album

Anyone with even just a casual interest in history and politics may well note that when there is a rise in economic hardship, absorbed by the general population, then this can result in heightened tensions, often manifested in xenophobia and recorded instances of racism. The rise of Trump in the US has, of late, provided one catalyst for darker impulses within a society moving out of the shadows and basking unashamedly in the limelight. The Brexit campaign in the UK has provided another. When politics of this nature sinisterly sidles into the mainstream then it gives repugnant viewpoints more space to fester and more confidence on the part of those expressing such opinions that these views will be accepted, grudgingly or otherwise, on the part of the wider populace. In such a climate it is unsurprising then when we read statistics pertaining to racist hate crimes going up by more than 40%. Anecdotal evidence supports this also when we are told people that have lived in the UK for a long period of time, and have never experienced anything in the way of hostility, are suddenly being confronted by strangers on the street, simply for being “foreigners”.

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It is easy to feel powerless at times like these, so what better moment for people to come together and express joint opposition to such concerning developments? Simon Tucker, a representative of the Carmarthen branch of HOPE not hate, hit upon the idea of using his knowledge and contacts from his role as a promoter of new music to an inspired positive end, in short, melding this with his laudable charitable aspirations. The response from artists to his project has proven incredible, with 95 tracks contributed overall. And the Brexit referendum making the pound worth significantly less notwithstanding, a fiver is a bargain not to be sniffed at. It’s beyond me to review all of the tracks right now, and I’m sure not even the most avid reader of music blogs wants to read that much of my waffle but let’s dip into it and give you a snapshot. Why not listen whilst you read?

Before getting started you might be wondering A) how you possibly have time to listen to this many tracks and B) do you really want to download an album this size onto your already close to full hard drive? To answer A) my advice would be to treat it like you’re listening to the radio. Do you refuse to listen to the radio because there’s far too many bands potentially you’ve never heard before? Of course not. You switch it on, have it on in the background, maybe whilst you’re getting on with other stuff and, intermittently, a track might well leap out which makes you want to hear more from that particular artist, so you then investigate further. That’s the best way to approach this compilation in my view. To answer B) if you download in MP3 format it’s actually not that much space BUT if you’re not even willing to make that commitment the great thing about Bandcamp is you can install the Bandcamp app on your smartphone, which gives you access to all the music you’ve ever bought on the site and you can stream it like you do with services like Spotify.Or just stream it on the device of your choosing and if you want to download at a later date, it’s there if you want it because you own it. The lovely thing also about buying music on Bandcamp is that it appears on a dedicated page, showcasing your online record stash.

People often complain that the days of the physical music purchase are disappearing and that means people will be gradually less inclined towards connecting with others through the perusing of record collections. Bandcamp addresses this by showing what you’ve purchased on your own personal page. No need to wait until there’s a party round your house to show off your records, it’s online already for others to have a nosey if you want them to. Just imagine how impressed fellow music lovers will be when they see you’ve lent your support to such an awesome and eclectic compilation. Ah yes. The compilation. Just how awesome actually is it?

To start things off we have some ambient electronica from Chris and Cosey, and then Ian Watson. This swings from welcomingly mellow in a Röyksopp meets John Wizards kind of a way to slightly unsettling on the part of Watson, but not in a bad sense. Then with Vukovar our first atmospheric indie earworm takes hold, dropping back down to a nice piano and string led ballad from Climbing Trees before the pulsing electro of Lippy Kid sets in. So far pretty bloody enjoyable. There’s plenty more electronic ambient material to keep things slowly simmering before this is broken up with some lovely silky vocals courtesy of HMS Morris. Fold give us something to tap our feet to, along with some welcome jazzy overtones. Musical proceedings keep on ticking along nicely before Kevin Pearce’s ‘Dynamite’ jumps out of the speakers, which might strike some listeners as a little bit Peter Gabriel. Nice. Next to really reel me in? ARGPH, evoking a more laid back British Sea Power on this particular track. Chick Quest are also one of my favourite discoveries thus far with a sound that makes me want to witness them live – frenetic instrumentation and welcome use of the horn on show here. An even shorter and straight to the point song comes from MELLT which reminds this reviewer of 60 Ft. Dolls, but also the Swedish group Bob Hund. We actually heard about this compilation via our very own Hangzhou-based songsmith William Gray and he gets an honorable mention now for his ballad ‘Music To Her Ears’, which gradually blossoms into something very special, complete with string arrangement and female backing vocals. Similarly pleasant is The Gentle Good with ‘Briwsion’, a swirling little ditty of acoustic loveliness. Perplexing in its psychedelic meanderings is Hotel De Salto’s ‘Bigger Than Elvis’, firing enough sonic treasure into my caffeine soaked brain to make me want to hear more, whilst the highly rated FFUG show just why they’re so highly rated with the hazy ‘Speedboat Dreaming’. Whilst the joyous thing about this compilation is it has introduced me to a massive amount of artists I’ve never heard of, one act I have already heard of is Bloodflower. They ably demonstrate why they’re a duo that has been receiving national airplay, with their proficiently produced track ‘Horizon’. Aled Rheon’s ‘Wrap Up Warm’ is nearly a nice, err, warm way to wrap things up if not for the fact this duty is left to Cpt Smith with ‘Llenyddiaeth’.

It will take me a long time to delve deeper into this compilation and I’m very much looking forward to doing so. To those acts I haven’t mentioned I’d say some artists may take longer to grab you than others but when they do they might very well take a firmer hold. To those reading, get this compilation bought pronto. Good music for a good cause. Can’t say fairer than that. I’m going to listen to it some more right now.

Hwyl fawr!

Check out the official website for more info.

Here’s the relevant YouTube Channel.

Live Review ::: William Gray – Matz Andersson – John Carroll @ Cosy Bar, Ningbo, China

Medic Records Presents William Gray/Matz Andersson/John Carroll @ Cosy Bar, Ningbo (Saturday 22nd October)

Without wishing to pour cold water on the considerable improvements taking place regarding China’s live music scene in recent years nationally, and even more recently, finally, in Hangzhou, a remaining bugbear is solo acoustic acts are still perhaps not getting the spotlight they deserve. Take for example the recent Xihu Music Festival in Hangzhou – why was there no stage dedicated to acoustic acts? Would it be all that hard to set up a small tent for a more intimate experience than that offered by the main stages? It would provide welcome shelter from the rain if nothing else.

Festival circuit aside one might be forgiven for thinking there’s not enough appropriate venues? Well think about the amount of coffee shops that exist in a city such as Hangzhou and I am sure many other metropolises in China. One would do well to remember it was the cafe scene of areas such as Greenwich Village in New York that spawned the likes of Bob Dylan, a long time before he went electric. An acoustic or folk scene is one that could potentially thrive here and perhaps save the odd coffee shop from going under, such is the highly competitive nature of the business environment, simply by getting more bums on seats. And acoustic music is, logistically, so much simpler to host. A small PA system is pretty much all that’s needed. Less expense. Less hassle. Arguably, for a smaller venue, even a PA system is not necessary.

The feeling is that many in China believe full band = better. Solo acoustic performers may well find, if wishing, be it reluctantly, to take on a corporate gig to earn much needed revenue (not much to be made from selling music these days) those booking will specify they want more than one performer or a band. It seems what can be seen with the eyes rather than heard with the ears is more important to many of those doing the booking. When those hiring acts openly state their preference is for a band rather than a solo act one can only assume this is down to ignorance on their part, unless they are specifically stating what type of band they want and why that is, for example if it’s for a funk night where wanting a funk band rather than a singer-songwriter is of course entirely justified. Our assertion is that wanting to book a band and not a solo act is fine as long as the reasoning is not based on a lack of understanding or the belief that a solo performer is unable to provide a performance that is as competent or as arresting as a full band. Indeed, a solo performer can in fact often provide a performance that sounds better than a full band. There is no hiding when performing alone, a mistake is there for all to see and this often means solo acts are a lot more rehearsed and have their material more finely honed.

Anyone that argues an acoustic performance is somehow less than what you might get with a band, that the time of Bob Dylan the acoustic act was long ago or that an acoustic performer can’t cut it in certain live environments or please the punters, should perhaps tell that to people that saw the likes of Elliott Smith or Jeff Buckley perform solo, or, if more inclined towards mainstream pop, they’d do well to note, as we’ve mentioned before on this blog, that Ed Sheeran sold out Wembley Stadium three nights in a row. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the two words that are ‘Jon‘ and ‘Gomm‘. Think that these are all Western acts, and there’s not the same quality in Hangzhou? Wrong. Feast your eyes and ears on this, an act Singapore-based Soi Music TV recently filmed near West Lake in Hangzhou.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, how grateful we are then to Medic Independent Records for providing us acoustic lovers with the much needed means to get our six string fix. Tonight we witness three quality acts in their acoustic guises. First up is John Carroll. Much missed on the live circuit over the past year or so, only periodically gigging, Carroll has been hard at work on new material he is aiming, we are told, to release next year. Tonight is his first bash at performing many of these new songs live and, going by what we’re hearing, we’re going to be in for a treat when the new release arrives. Immediately striking is the fact this material sounds very different to previous album ‘Cenotaph Tapes‘ which was quite an inward looking work, largely melancholy and downbeat, the sound of a man who perhaps had a lot to vent and channel. This album is a rewarding listen for anyone who enjoys acoustic music, but particularly those who empathise with feelings of alienation, particularly the sensitive laowai marooned in China types.

However, Carroll’s new creations are rewarding in a different way. To put it bluntly, there are earworms aplenty. Some of the songs are rough around the edges, as might be expected from a first outing, but what is noticeable is that this doesn’t detract from the catchiness. So catchy in fact that this reviewer overheard the barman attempting to sing along even though he didn’t know the words due to English not being his mother tongue. A casual glance around the bar sees many transfixed and plenty of foot-tapping going on. Positive signs indeed and some who are only familiar with ‘Cenotaph Tapes’ might just find themselves surprised by Carroll demonstrating such unabashed traditional pop sensibilities. Take ‘Ambushed From All Sides‘ for example. A hook Teenage Fanclub would be proud of and you could even imagine Lennon and McCartney choosing to pen a ditty of the same name after spying it as a potentially promising headline come song title in whatever newspaper they happened to pick up that day.

Disappear Into Thin Air‘ is another example of this. Less jaunty than the aforementioned song and more reflective but similarly enticing in terms of a great pop melody. Whilst there is something very Ireland and the UK about these two songs, the song ‘Gravedigger‘ perhaps conjures up influences from the other side of the pond, sounding like Neil Young spliced with Thurston Moore, be it with an Irish twist. Old favourite ‘Don’t Shield Your Eyes‘ also comes out of the bag for those who know Carroll’s older material. All in all a great performance. Check out John Carroll’s Bandcamp page here.

Next up is Matz Andersson. Andersson is becoming something of a veteran of the Chinese music scene these days. And not only as a solo artist, for he has also toured extensively fronting rock outfit Exit 4, and this includes televised festival appearances no less. A Swedish-Chilean songwriter and a well traveled one at that, Andersson has much to draw upon in terms of his cultural heritage and life experiences to channel into his songs. His laid back guitar style which combines finger-picking and strumming is easy on the ear and he possesses a singing voice which is husky and reassuring. If you have heard his album ‘Lake Khovsgol’, recorded in Ningbo with musicians he struck up a rapport with locally at open mic nights (another example of why space for acoustic performance is so important) you will know Andersson is certainly an accomplished songwriter. If not, if present tonight in Ningbo, you would certainly know by the end of this performance. Relaxed on the microphone, Andersson treats an eager audience with an assured delivery of tracks from the aforementioned album such as ‘Chasing Ghosts‘ as well as newer songs, ‘In The Rain‘ and ‘Hold On To Yourself‘.

Joining Andersson onstage for ‘Chasing Ghosts‘ and also ‘The Eternal Return‘ and ‘That Old House‘, are Tom Rutherford (percussion) and Joe Patterson (bass). These two know exactly what the songs need. With this type of material less is often more and they provide the necessary delicate touches quite wonderfully. Musicians like this should be cherished because, more often than is preferable, otherwise able players lack the musical maturity to resist the urge to play all over a songwriter’s carefully crafted material. On November 25th Andersson plays at Time Beacon in Ningbo where he will be supporting Pinball City. The following day, as befits a man who relishes the act of bringing his music far and wide, Andersson will be playing in Nanjing, again supporting Pinball City. Those looking for quality acts to book – look no further.

Listen to Matz Andersson on Bandcamp here. If you’re more of a SoundCloud person, follow him here.

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Final performance of the evening comes from William Gray. With a new EP ‘Seine’ to promote and a busy year all round for Gray given he also released his album ‘Flounce’ in March, the headline slot was more than appropriate. Would the performance live up to the billing? The answer is definitely yes. With gigs such as these, running order can be a bit of a conundrum. Basic logic states that as you work up to the final act you get a bigger and bigger audience and the evening peaks at the end. However, on a Saturday night people often hit smaller venues such as Cosy Bar as a precursor to other events such as club nights. This can be a blessing or a curse. For bands, it can be a bit ego-deflating to wait all night to go onstage only to find numbers have thinned out for your set. However, for an acoustic act it might actually provide something of a relief, as less people also means less noise.

There is a deftness of touch about Gray’s guitar style and a softness to his approach to some of his material that warrants an attentive ear. This then is one of those occasions where an event benefits from less drunken chatter and a core, still sizable, audience of people remaining primarily for the music as well as to socialise. Once a quieter foundation is established this then gives the act the capacity to play the room rather than battle it. It is actually the case tonight that Gray plays a more upbeat set than some who have seen him perform might be used to. For example, he opens with arguably one of the standout tracks from ‘Flounce‘, the lyrically zany ‘Heather‘ which, with its palm-muting, is positively new wave in its rockiness, be it a more lo-fi, laid-back sounding incarnation. Just as happy to fingerpick as he is to apply a solid rhythm guitar approach when needed, Gray will also more than happily combine the two and this adaptable philosophy is also mirrored in both his singing and his lyrics.

At some moments in the set he is positively belting out the songs, at some points his voice is quite soulful. At other times it can rise to falsetto. In terms of the words sometimes they are minimalist, see ‘There’ off the new EP, at other times quite wordy, for example ‘Black Dog Underfoot‘, a song which is all the better heard live. Once settled into his set, Gray is reveling in the occasion, not going too loud too soon, always holding something back and toying with the audience, so he can crank up the volume where necessary simply through touch or how loudly he sings, rather than needing to turn things up on the dial. One standout moment is ‘Open Season‘ which I just had to dig out by later listening through all of his material here on Bandcamp. I found it on his 2010 release ‘Vertical Wealth‘ which contains some lovely, woozy sax that Destroyer would be proud of. The live solo version this evening lulls the audience into a false sense of security with a repetitive one note refrain which then turns into a somewhat Elliott Smith style chord progression before Gray really lets rip for the outro. All the material comes across well and Gray performs a remarkably long set, picking a wide range of material from his now sizable back catalogue, including all of the songs from his latest EP ‘Seine’. For a 30 RMB entrance fee the performers tonight have really given people their money’s worth. Ruddy well done.

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Quarterly Roundup #3 ::: Golden Crowns Of Autumn

It’s that time of the year again. I know. Already. Time flies when you’re having fun. And it’s really going to fly when you wrap your lugholes around this lot. Starting us off is ‘The Bride’ (Parlophone) by Bat For Lashes (AKA Natasha Khan). Now this album was much anticipated, and perhaps hasn’t quite lived up to the hype (what does?), especially going by how it was received by the critics. BUT top marks for trying to do something interesting Natasha Khan when so many artists, you know, don’t. And by the way Natasha, I know you claim it isn’t a concept album, but when a record centers around a ‘concept’ (a woman’s husband-to-be is killed on the day of their wedding) then that makes it a concept album. Hope that helps. Personally we prefer Khan’s side project, the Sexwitch album, which is all kinds of awesome but we also think this one is well worth a try.

‘Freetown Sound’ (Domino) by Blood Orange, it could be argued, is something of a fashionable choice. Heck Julian Casablancas from The Strokes is even in the video for ‘Augustine’. But will the music stand up to scrutiny in years to come? We think it will. In recent times, there’s been a bit of a fetish for all things 80s, not always a good thing especially when it includes being a selfish a**hole, but this LP represents some of the better aspects, i.e. a pioneering spirit when it came to absorbing electronic elements into pop music. There’s some irresistibly soulful moments, encapsulated by ‘But You’, which for us is a standout track, that is almost, ALMOST, a bit Michael Jacksony. See what you think. Some have criticised this album for sounding ‘unfinished’ but we think this adds to the charm.

‘Summer 08’ (Because Music) by Metronomy sees Joe Mount relishing the chance to go all out when it comes to the production. This record is all about Mount, rather than trying to fashion something that can immediately be toured in a traditional band format. It’s hard to see how he will ever better The English Riviera but if you are into Metronomy then this will prove a welcome addition to the catalogue. If you like your music synthy and a bit funky then you could do a lot worse than listen to this.

The Avalanches finally returned this quarter with ‘Wildflower’ (XL). Was it worth the wait? Well how could anything be worth waiting that long for? As someone who resigns himself to at least a half an hour wait for the wife when I’m trying to leave the apartment, I like to think I’m pretty patient (I’m not), but frankly The Avalanches are taking the piss by making me wait this long. I can forgive them though, such intricate and heady perfectionism takes a long time to craft. Some people actually seem to be under the impression that sampling is lazy or cheating or something. To those folk I say, try making a decent song, let alone an album, using sampling and see how far you get. This album is a great listen and more than deserves to stand next to ‘Since I Left You’ in The Avalanches’ album list.

We already covered Dinosaur Jr‘s ‘Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not’ (Jagjaguwar) so not much need to go into it here other than to say DO CHUFFING LISTEN TO IT.

Wild Beasts‘ have returned this quarter with ‘Boy King’ (Domino) and it’s a belter. So distinctive is the vocal style of Hayden Thorpe, it’s easy to forget how much this band’s approach has varied over the course of their releases. Compare, for example, early favourite ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ with the opening track on their latest album ‘Big Cat’. The more synth-orientated sound and mangled guitar noodlings, and even the album artwork in this case, perhaps signifies again how many groups are in thrall to the 80s currently. Personally the reverb-laden, janglier guitar work of their earlier stuff works better for me BUT I still dig this latest material too.

In this world where slick presentation and gimmicky PR is often more important than artistic substance, the likes of Ed Harcourt will perhaps always struggle to get attention. This is a sad state of affairs. Harcourt is one of the best singer-songwriters around and has proven it consistently. ‘Back Into The Woods’ is perhaps my favourite release of his but ‘Furnaces’ is a welcome addition to his list of LPs which stretches back to 2001. The video for the title track is well worth checking out if you wish to dip your toes into the water and are looking for a writer who has something to say.

Where Harcourt will never be the most fashionable of figures to plonk on a music blog, Frank Ocean, it could be asserted, is something of a favourite of the music press, and another example of someone apparently happy to tease, this time regarding a follow-up to his highly regarded ‘Channel Orange’. Not only did Ocean tease however, he also served to confound, first dropping ‘Endless’ (Def Jam) and then ‘Blonde’ (Def Jam). It seems waiting for an album, where Ocean is concerned (Frank not Billy) can be like waiting for a bus – nothing and then two come at once. Whilst the video element of the former is of questionable worth (it hardly makes for riveting viewing), the music is interesting and worth revisiting. Together with ‘Blonde’ I can’t help but wonder if Ocean is, for our time, what Marvin Gaye was for the 70s, bending and fashioning R&B and Soul into fascinating new shapes with an extremely beautiful voice tying it all together. If you’re going to investigate either of these releases prepare yourself for something experimental. If you’re going to choose to give just one your time then I’d recommend ‘Blonde’.

Why should news of a new De La Soul release provoke anything other than unbridled joy? It’s been 30 years since the release of their classic debut ‘3 Feet High and Rising’, an example if ever there was one of how rap or hip-hop can be as valid a form of art as anything else as well as a textbook reference for expert sampling. As sonically pleasing as their debut is, what instantly hits you about ‘And the Anonymous Nobody’ (A.O.I Records) is how much the new stuff benefits from all that modern production techniques have to offer. This record just sounds absolutely lush.

They often say if it’s a good song then it works on an acoustic guitar. So what of Jack White’s ‘Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016’ (Third Man)? White comes across well it must be stated. One could be forgiven for thinking a project such as this is just an excuse to repackage some old material and make a quick buck. However, with White no stranger to placing barriers or untruths between himself and the listener in the manner in which he has marketed himself in the past (pretending the drummer is your sister for example), this release is a refreshing means of examining his music up close and personal. This is something any music fan might get something out of but is obviously a must for die-hard Jack White fans.

Local Natives are a group that sum up how hard it can be to make a go of things in today’s industry. Their catchy debut seemed to hold the promise of a band that could be seriously big but there’s so much competition these days, so much talent out there, and the music consumer, fickle at best, is able to peruse a never ending production line of NEW. Hats off to Local Natives for keeping going. With ‘Sunlit Youth’ (Lorna Vista) they’ve now released three great albums. Keep at it lads.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. They’ve brought such amazing art into our lives. Their previous release ‘Push the Sky Away’ was one of my favourite albums of 2013, if not this century, whilst the film ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ I’d recommend to any music doc addict. ‘Skeleton Tree’ (Bad Seed Ltd) is billed as a more raw follow-up to the last album, which I thought was reasonably raw anyway. Anyway, this is an extremely affecting listen, and perhaps not one for the casual listener – background music this ain’t. I’m not going to go into the tragedy surrounding the making the album, it’s been raked over more than enough. But if you’re serious about your music then this is perhaps one release you should not be ignoring. I can’t wait to see ‘One More Time with Feeling’.

Cymbals Eat Guitars are one of my more recent discoveries. I have been listening to their 2014 album ‘Lose’ again and again. Despite there being obvious differences regarding the overall sound, for some reason, it brought back memories of listening to Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ for the first time. I guess I was in the mood to be shown rock music still has the power to beguile, to be experimental yet not disappear up its own proggy arse. I was keen then to hear ‘Pretty Years’ (Sinderlyn). It’s a different beast to ‘Lose’, which I’d recommend to anyone still who wants to find a way in. But that’s not to say it’s a disappointment. The raucous nature of it all makes me think of The Clash but the production is quite modern and interesting. Give it a go.

Warpaint’s ‘Heads Up’ (Rough Trade) could possibly be, the song ‘Undertow’ notwithstanding, their most catchy material to date. But don’t be expecting something overly poppy. This is still gloom-laden, dissonant, dreamy, challenging indie rock, it’s just some of the edges have arguably been smoothed out. Whether that’s how you want Warpaint to be we’ll leave up to you.

Bon Iver, if recent interviews are to be believed, isn’t too keen on fame. We can’t see his newest album ’22, A Million’ (Jagjaguwar) helping matters if that’s the case, as it already has the critics salivating. With good reason if early listens are anything to go by. This does indeed seem like it has the makings of a classic. If his second album ‘Bon Iver’ left his original fans a bit dumbfounded perhaps this latest release has the potential to placate whilst still indulging his progressive side. And kudos for releasing it via Bandcamp.

Pixies are a band of my youth and I find it hard to say anything bad about them. So out of respect I’ll tell you they have a new album out called ‘Headcarrier’ (Pixiesmusic) and not delve too much further than that. After giving it the once over I suspect it’s not really going to quite do it for me, as was the case with the record that preceded it, ‘Indie Cindy’. The basic ingredients are present but the magic of the era that ended in 1991 with Trompe Le Monde just isn’t there anymore as far as I’m concerned. Best of luck to them though – they more than deserve the opportunity to earn their keep playing and releasing music.

Followers of our quarterly roundups might remember we covered the latest Beyonce album and didn’t exactly succumb to the hype. Well, as much as we think it’s catering to the lowest common denominator to set two siblings against each other, it’s not always easy to do the right thing. So we’re going to say if you’re planning on listening to an album made this year by someone with the surname ‘Knowles’, make it ‘A Seat at the Table’ (Saint) by Solange. This is an understated and beautifully pieced together LP. A really rewarding listen.

Whilst you’ll note a lot of these artists in our quarterly reviews are quite or very well known, we like to include a lesser known artist or two if we can. Part of what we want to do with this blog is cover the music you like or are interested in but also hopefully direct you towards something you haven’t heard before. An artist or a band that has put in the hard yards but, for whatever the reason, this hasn’t resulted in more mainstream success. Hopefully it’ll be local to where we are in China but that’s not always necessarily possible if releases we know about are thin on the ground. One such prolific songwriter who is making waves in Far-East Asia, William Gray whose album ‘Flounce’ we covered earlier this year, has also just released his follow up Ep, ‘Seine'(Medic Independent Records).

 

Our pick this quarter is a band called Windings and we’ll hopefully find time to review their new release ‘Be Honest and Fear Not’ (Out on a Limb) in more detail in the near future. But suffice to say it should be on your radar. There’s a live feel to this record that would imply this is a band worth checking out if they ever play a venue you can get to, and the music strikes just the right balance between raw and melodic.

Hope this gives you more than enough to get your musical teeth into. Let us know if we missed anything.

Premature Evaluation ::: William Gray ‘Seine’ Ep

After the release of his recent album ‘Flounce’ with local Hangzhou collective Medic Independent; William Gray is at it again and set to release his new Ep ‘Seine’, this coming October 1st. We’ve been trying to keep our ears close to the ground of late and so we are delighted to have received this Ep pre-release for consumption and evaluation.

William Gray’s musical output since his arrival in Hangzhou, China has been nothing short of staggering. In just a few short years (since 2013) he has already put out two homemade solo albums, as well as a 5-song Ep ‘Tish‘ just last year. His brand new Ep ‘Seine‘ is about to drop. So what of it, and how does it hold up?

A FRONT COVER

‘Seine’ (unlike the Qiantang) is a five-song indie-folk Ep that swings more on the acoustic side of the river bank than its audio ancestry. It is immediately striking how much mellower the current of this recording is as Gray takes an approach not too far removed from the likes of Beck‘s balladeering heydays. The acoustic guitar is at the helm and lays foundations for the main spine of the music, while Gray’s lyrics take account of witty and winding stories of life as an independent artist, as well as adding his unique humourous analogies and turn of phrase.

‘Drops in the Ocean’ opens with a spacey tremolo that warbles warmly behind Gray’s layered vocals just before the bass, drums and acoustic guitar groove begins to set the wheels in motion. Offbeat rhythms drive the main melody throughout with additional synthy brass sections that lead the melodic bass on an instrumental, finally contorting and twisting out of shape with backwards samples that suck and pull at the already hallucinogenic mind space.

‘There’ is a huge and roomy acoustic ballad. Opening with the elusive words, ‘You don’t know where I am’, and ‘I’m already there’, perhaps giving us an insight into Gray’s curiosity in psychedelia, existence and metaphysics. It is repetitive and trippy with a contagious backing beat with hand claps to boot! While still retaining some experimental sounds,‘If You Had A Diamond’ on the other hand has a blues swing shuffle feel to it. Distorted bass lines and lyrical refrains make this a catchy number with some lovely guitar fills and dynamics throughout.

‘Sonic Middle Age Spread’ jumps straight into storyline. The dialogue depicts an aging pop-star wrapped up in themselves and the motions of the lifestyle they’ve come accustomed to, with a humourous description of the onslaught of age in ‘a wrinkling derriere’. For me though, one of the less endearing moments of ‘Seine’ is the weak synth violin/string timbre on this song that barely lifts the slow-paced shuffle.

‘The Present’, feels much like an extension of the former song. The production here is really nice though and offers a textured layer that compliments the organ languidly hanging from the vocal melody. The song comes to a close with a crumbling and distorted sample of two people speaking on the phone just to say goodbye. A perfectly placed sample capturing Gray’s end of Ep humour risk. Overall an experimental new release from William Gray. ‘Seine’ definitely ventures into new sonic territory for his acoustic music with some lovely bass and drum grooves, organ melodies, and a reliable sense of wit, sturdy songwriting and craftsmanship.

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Playlist #1 ::: This is ‘Made in China’

This piece is based around a playlist we created called ‘Made In China’ (https://goo.gl/5mU7gx) and was originally featured in That’s China Magazine (Hangzhou).

The playlist was created to promote a diverse range of artists, both Chinese and Western. The Sound Of Fighting Dogs aims to cover both well known and not so well known artists from all over the world. As many of the writers that contribute to the blog are based in China, there is often an emphasis on China-based artists.

Here’s hoping this article will provide a jumping off point for you to investigate more China-based music.

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Track 1: ‘Road Prayer’ – John Carroll

The first track on this playlist is by Hangzhou-based singer/songwriter John Carroll. It is in fact the opening track of his 2014 masterpiece ‘Cenotaph Tapes‘ (https://carrolljohn.bandcamp.com/album/cenotaph-tapes). Originally from Limerick, Ireland, Carroll landed in Hangzhou via South Korea and his lengthy period based in Zhejiang’s capital has seen his musical time put to extremely good use, not only in creating the wonderful album mentioned beforehand, surely a benchmark for anyone in the city wishing to record acoustic music, but also as a founder of a small independent label called Medic Independent Records. John has toured extensively around China in bands and as a solo artist, and helped other emerging artists do the same. If you want a route into China’s burgeoning music scene, particularly as a solo acoustic performer, then this is the man to seek out advice from.

Track 2: ‘山羊哥哥‘ – The Herdsman

Hailing from Yunnan, this group includes a number of different Chinese minorities within its make-up, and this results in an enticing combination of traditional instrumentation and dancing, grounded in Pumi music but encompassing a range of influences. This group has played all over China, including big festivals such as Midi and Made In Chengdu, and have even been abroad as far as Russia and the UK. To this writer, somehow, they evoke 60s UK group The Incredible String Band, a musical recommendation interviewee Wang Niejing was more than open-minded enough to investigate further. Good lad. They describe themselves as having a natural folk sound but with an electronic edge. Does this make them folktronica? I don’t know but whatever it is it’s bloody great. Find out more via the blog.

Track 3: ‘Anyway’ – William Gray

Regular readers of that’s will no doubt have come across Gray in his capacity as a contributor to the magazine as a writer, or indeed, in relation to his output as an artist. Born in South Wales, Gray did a lengthy music apprenticeship in Leeds, home to one of the UK’s leading music scenes. After relocating to Hangzhou his album ‘Wensan Rd‘ caught the attention of Medic Independent Records who seized the opportunity to add him to the roster and get him gigging in different provinces of China. His first release on Medic was the ‘Tish’ EP in 2015 but this track ‘Anyway’ is taken from his newest release ‘Flounce’ which came out in March 2016 and has already received plays on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio 6 Music. The video in question features some great footage of Hangzhou and its people, the woozy 90s home video feel perfectly suiting the lo-fi aesthetic of the song.

Track 4: ‘Heart On Fire’ – Hedgehog   

Could our first list of modern Chinese music be complete without a song from Hedgehog? We didn’t think so. Aficionados of the Chinese indie scene will no doubt be aware of this band. But not everyone’s an aficionado right? But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to hear great music right? Exactly. Of course you do. From Beijing, which that’s China Hangzhou will have to grudgingly accept is currently the cultural centre as well as the capital of this great land, Hedgehog slotted nicely into a homegrown Chinese music industry quickly gaining attention globally, with their trippy, fuzzy, poptastic offerings. If you like US college rock then you might well like Hedgehog. A special mention must be given to their tiny and aptly named drummer Atom, who kicks all kinds of ass.

Track 5: ‘Slipstream’ – Junks

Anyone who has been to a Junks live show will know this group is the real deal. We just don’t think there’s a more interesting live act than this right now in Hangzhou. If not Zhejiang. If not the whole of China. We make bold statements like this because we’re trying to rile readers. Disagree with our cocky assertions? Well then point us towards something you like and tell us why it’s amazing. We crave new music. Junks certainly hit the spot where new music is concerned, with ‘new’ being the operative word. Taking inspiration from the city landscape they have sprung from and an exciting, steadily developing Chinese electronic scene, this outfit have a look and sound that is both futuristic and retro at the same time, very fitting for the times considering the context of higgledy-piggledy Chinese megalopolises, that somehow manage to combine the past, present, and future in one fell swoop. Currently on hiatus as they work on weaving more elements into their live sound and prepare their debut release, expect this group to me making (synth) waves whenever they see fit to once again honor us with their presence. 

Track 6: ‘Macherie’ – Skip Skip Ben Ben

Like Hedgehog, this group are considered Chinese Indie royalty. Important to be diplomatic and point out though that the group’s history is rooted in Taipei, Taiwan. But in terms of the overall history it’s all China right? Anyway, clumsily sidestepping that thorny issue, they’ve been compared with the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, and The Cocteau Twins which of course conjures up shoegaze but they’ve also got that grungey three-piece thing going on as well so if we’re talking lazy comparisons you could also throw Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh in there as well for good measure. Whichever Western bands we’re annoying them by comparing them to, if you’re into melancholic scuzzed up indie pop then this could be the group for you. What are you waiting for?

Track 7: ‘Chasing Ghosts’ – Matz Andersson

We’re proud to champion Matz on our blog. He’s a prime example of an artist who flies completely and undeservedly under the radar. This track is taken from his 2015 albumLake Khovsgol‘. The first gig proper we saw Matz perform at was when he was supporting Bill Callahan no less. We get the impression he’s done a fair bit of traveling in his time and experienced a fair few things along the way. That’s what his music implies anyway, tenderly conveying the pent up feelings of a man who sounds older than his years. What’s incredible about the album this track is taken from is it was recorded in a tiny little studio in Ningbo with limited equipment. And it sounds completely organic because Matz has a great rapport with local musicians in his area who he plays with regularly at open mic nights and the like. The album is a fantastic example of what can be achieved on a limited budget if you have the right people alongside you.

Track 8: ‘Let’s Play’ – Queen Sea Big Shark

Another big Beijing band, their emergence around 2006 saw them labeled as China’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Was this fair? Kind of, it appears, BUT a kinder appraisal might be they experiment rather than copy as their willing flirtation with nu-rave and disco perhaps attests to. Despite appearing like they could gain global prominence things suddenly ground to a halt in 2010 but this year has seen them come back with a bang, including a set at Strawberry Music Festival. We’ll be keeping an eye and an ear on them to see how things evolve from here on in.

Track 9: ‘All That’s Gained’ – Kelly Dance

Another Medic Independent Records associated act in the sense Dance was indebted to Medic regarding her first proper tour of the Chinese mainland, in terms of finding suitable venues/promoters and booking dates. An Australian based in Hong Kong, this is an artist with one of those voices that sends shivers down your spine and makes even the noisiest of drunkards sit up and take notice. More than just a brilliant performer though, Dance is an able songwriter and is equally as accomplished in the studio as she is on a stage where she astutely surrounds herself with some very able collaborators. Our first encounter with her thoroughly beguiling music was the album ‘Goodnight Berlin‘ which was recorded in an East Berlin studio over ten days and nights. This track is taken from her recent release of the same name. It’s a very strong follow up and we’re keenly awaiting her next release which will be an album we believe.

Track 10: ‘Listen To My Back (That’s What I Know)’ – Brain Failure

I’ll be honest, when I heard about Brain Failure I just assumed they wouldn’t be my bag. I don’t really listen to punk music these days. But when I heard this track I was transported back to my rowdy adolescence which involved, too much of the time if I’m being honest, underage drinking with my friends, loud music, jumping up and down, around, into things and one another. Perhaps one of us would even manage to get off with a girl if we were really, really lucky and one was in a charitable mood. That of course would involve achieving the delicate balance of being drunk enough to lose all inhibitions but not being so drunk that vomiting would inevitably occur. Seeing as I can’t drink too much anymore or aspire to getting intimate with young women and still expect to be allowed back into the apartment and marital bed, listening to Brain Failure will have to do. And it’ll do rather nicely. Over and out.