Review: Frank Turner – Love Ire & Song

There’s always been a link between punk and folk. It all started from a common ideal: punk originated principally as an anti-establishment movement, concerned with youthful rebellion and idealistic attempts to change the world for the better; folk had Bob Dylan (and others like him). This sums it all up pretty well, and while this thematic link may have been diluted over the years by the explosion of pop-punk bands and the commercialisation of folk music, it has still been a common stylistic shift for punk singers looking to broaden their horizons. Mike Ness, Chuck Ragan and Dustin Kensrue have all proved it is possible, but undoubtedly one of the finest examples that can be found is Love Ire & Song, the second solo album by ex Million Dead vocalist Frank Turner.

Lyrically the album is practically flawless. Turner seems to have the ability to make almost any sentence both poetic and accessible. “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot” is an excellent example: “He’s not as clever as he likes to think. He’s just ambitious with his arguing. He’s crap at dancing and he can’t hold his drink. Deep down he’s just like everybody.” Many people can write a beautiful poetic line, although sometimes they are seen as guilty pleasures, too pretentious and soft to be talked about over a pint when you’re chatting about music. What makes Turner’s lyrics so incredible is that you can imagine absolutely anyone having no problem reciting them: they are fundamentally relatable. This is something you would say, if only you had the ability to express it in such an artistic way. Examples of this flow fast and thick throughout the album: the closing to “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” is exactly the way I want to live my life, “Substitute” is the most sincere yet least sappy love song I’ve ever heard, “Long Live The Queen” is a poignant tribute to life lost and the final few stanzas of “Love Ire & Song” are simply sublime.

What helps is Turner’s impeccable vocal delivery. It’s a fundamentally British voice; the accent makes that clear as well as the geography of “To Take You Home,” but the passion and delivery behind it transcends any idea of it being a localised taste. While it may not be as obviously captivating as Dallas Green or as rough-n-ready as Mike Ness, it instead sits somewhere in the middle. Backed up by an impressive array of instrumentation that all seems to fit together exceptionally well, it creates a sound that practically anyone can enjoy on a variety of levels, as can be seen by the huge variety you can see in the audience at any Frank Turner gig.

If I had to be critical, and I suppose for the sake of balance I probably should, I could point out that there’s not a great deal of originality here. While the musicianship, vocals and lyrics are all exceptional, the style they represent is as old as the guitar itself, and the content is little more than a modern twist on the personal and political revolutions folk singers have been espousing for decades. But then there’s a reason why Turner is still leaning on a style older than he himself is: it’s timeless, and those folk singers who manage to capture the true spirit and feel of it become timeless themselves.

And anyway, to focus on such criticisms would be to fundamentally miss the point of Love Ire & Song. It is a celebration of life, and all the positive and negative things which constitute it; best friends, drunken nights in the local pub, lost loves, the passage of time and burning ideologies which all motivate the paths we take and the choices we make. Rarely has there been a celebration as joyous, poetic and meaningful as Turner has managed to create here. It’s a classic folk album performed by one of the finest singer-songwriters recording right now; the perfect marriage of the passion of punk and the poignancy of folk into a perfectly distilled union. Plus if you buy the most recent release you get the 23 song B-Side album The First Three Years for free, and who can say no to that?

Final verdict: 9.5/10

Review: Kids in Glass Houses – Dirt

Welsh band Kids in Glass Houses have always veered more towards the pop end of the pop-punk spectrum, and on Dirt, the quintet’s second full-length album, this is more the case than ever. Tracks like “The Best is Yet to Come” and “For Better or Hearse” are sugary sweet and catchy as hell, with lyrics that aren’t especially deep but brilliantly appropriate for the subject matter and music that’s almost impossible to resist. There are some twists of creativity, such as the brass section on “For Better or Hearse”, however generally the style is one that’s been done before, but which remains good fun nonetheless. This accessibility clearly has one eye on attracting mainstream audiences, and Frankie Sandford of pop group The Saturdays brings her voice to “Undercover Lover” to further help their assimilation but in truth this track is fairly mediocre. It’s catchy, but it’s also shallow and eventually is little more than an inoffensive but uninteresting mainstream pop song. Kids in Glass Houses also take several opportunities to slow it down on this album, something they’ve never really attempted to do before, and again the results vary. From the resonatingly powerful “Sunshine” through the pretty good “The Morning Afterlife” to the dull and dreary “Giving Up”, Dirt offers up both the very best and very worst of the pitfalls and pinnacles of writing a ‘pop’ record.

Thankfully though, Kids in Glass Houses are determined to make an attempt to cling on to their punk side by the skin of their teeth despite the mainstream inclinations. New Found Glory bring their seal of approval to the album with a guest spot on “Maybe Tomorrow” and, although truthfully it’s almost impossible to spot if you’re not listening for it, the track certainly has a stronger edge to it than many of the others, and is all the better for it. This also the case on numbers like “Artbreaker I”, “Artbreaker II” and “Hunt the Haunted” which show that, although they might be able to write a catchy tune, Kids in Glass Houses are far superior when they add a bit more depth to the disposable pop songs. Peculiarly however, the finest track on offer on Dirt is the curveball thrown up on “Matters At All” which is neither especially poppy or particularly punky. It feels more like a stadium rock number, with a huge chorus and snappy verses; it’s truly a belter of a song which suggests that the quintet are capable of moving past the ‘pop-punk’ tag to become an established rock band in their own right.

Right now however, Dirt is hit and miss. To be fair it features far more hits than misses, and the misses are generally only off target by the smallest amount. Even the worst songs are still perfectly listenable and at least on a par with the bevvy of pop punk bands littering the scene right now, and the better songs are right up there with the best the genre has to offer. The variety of the tracks is also commendable, as even the assault on the mainstream hasn’t forced the album into being a collection of cookie cutter pop numbers. Dirt is an interesting album with numerous excellent songs which only suffers a little from a lack of creativity in areas and some fairly basic lyrics. It may be the sound of a band trying to perfect their ideal sound, but as far as experimentation goes this is right up their with the best of them.

Final verdict: 8/10

Review: Twin Atlantic – Vivarium

It may be a lazy and obvious comparison to make, but Twin Atlantic are probably going to be compared to Biffy Clyro more than any other band on the planet. You can kind of see the logic behind it; not only are they both Scottish but they’re also the only two prominent bands from the Caledonian north who fall more into the alternative bracket than the indie bracket. The first listen of Vivarium will probably do little to shake early preconceptions, as lead singer Sam McTrusty’s accent is so strong, any attempted imitation is best foregone unless you’re a full-blooded Glaswegian yourself. Truth to be told, McTrusty’s voice is a little jarring on first listen. It’s not that he can’t sing, far from it in fact. It’s just that it seems a bit out of place in Twin Atlantic’s post-hardcore style; a genre that is more often dominated by bands from America or Wales. After a little while, however, you get used to it and start to realize that Twin Atlantic aren’t trying to fit into an existing niche, but rather find their own distinct voice. When you embrace this fact, McTrusty’s vocals become something to champion and enjoy as being different rather than shun for the exact same reason.

The rest of the band support McTrusty well; bassist Ross McNae is also adept on the piano and guitarist Barry McKenna brings out a cello when you least expect it. Not only does this mean that the basics of the band’s musicianship are well-performed but Twin Atlantic are also capable of throwing the odd curveball into the mix. This means there’s a decent variety on offer over the 8 tracks, from slower numbers like “Caribbean War Syndrome” and “Better Weather”, to more uptempo offerings like “Lightspeed” and “What Is Light? Where Is Laughter?”. They never quite truly let go however, and Vivarium lacks a track to completely lose yourself in like Biffy Clyro’s “That Golden Rule” (see I told you it was an easy comparison). There’s still a good variety on offer here though, it’s just a shame there’s so few songs. Released as a full album, it needs a few more tracks to make it truly feel like a weighty offering, instead it only just clocks in at over 30 minutes.

Lyrically there’s also a lot of variety although it sometimes veers a little into stereotype, such as in the complex poetry of “What Is Light? Where Is Laughter?”. Perhaps as is to be expected from such a distinct voice, nationalism (even if it’s not especially Scottish) also has an appearance on Vivarium in “You’re Turning Into John Wayne”. “Lightspeed” and “Human After All” tackle more standard subjects but do so with a breadth and quality that is to be commended. I also feel the need to make a brief comment about the digipak style of the album art as well, because I’ve never seen anything quite like it. In keeping with the vivarium motif it pulls out from a normal CD book into a complex collection of photos and liner notes across interlocking plant leaves. While it may be an absolute nightmare if you’re trying to change CDs while driving, it’s an excellent little twist on an established standard which sums up Twin Atlantic’s approach very well.

A few of the tracks such “Old Grey Face” are a bit weaker on this mini-album, but there are 5 or 6 real gems on it which deserve recommendation. Vivarium has an original sound in a market which has been flooded by identikit bands, and this extends much further than McTrusty’s distinct accent. It’s easy to enjoy but offers further revelations on repeat listens, which for me is always an indicator of strong output. While not without its faults, Twin Atlantic have created a very strong recording here which bodes well for the future.

Final verdict: 8.5/10

Review: Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions

One of the hardest tasks a band can face in their career is the dangerous transition from quirky underground treasure to mainstream commercial success: the numerous metaphorical wreckages of bands who fell at that hurdle is testament to this. The skill to write songs that remain true to the band’s cultural heritage, yet appeal to mainstream musical ideals and trends, while trying not to alienate grass-root support from your fan-base is a Herculean effort and this was the challenge facing Biffy Clyro with the release of Only Revolutions, their follow-up album to the gold-selling success that was Puzzle. Thankfully for everyone involved, they’ve been successful and while it isn’t perfect, Only Revolutions is a remarkably polished and interesting album that really stands out amongst numerous Kasabian-a-likes and Fall Out Boy-wannabes in the modern rock charts.

One of the most immediate features to hit you upon listening to this album is lead vocalist/guitarist Simon Neill. He has firmly become a lead singer in every sense of the word, having the presence to really lead the band and a voice that instantly sets them apart form contemporaries. Importantly it feels like these songs could never be sung by anyone else, or performed by anyone else. The Scottish accent really adds to the individuality but not in a forced way and while Biffy Clyro are evidently keen to stick to their roots, this does not mean descending into cliche, with stock tricks like the bagpipes being left to bands like Dropkick Murphys and The Real McKenzies.

Neill’s distinctive vocal stylings definitely add to their individuality but thankfully he’s amply supported by strong musicianship throughout the album. While it’s definitely true to say they’ve moved away from their more experimental roots, the guitar work is still complex and often unpredictable. On Only Revolutions however, they seem to have hit upon the trick of fitting an interesting musical soundscape into a melodic, dare I say even a poppy, framework, which was always going to be important to keep the interest of the terminally fickle mainstream public. “Bubbles” is an excellent example of this, with a jagged guitar intro, building into a smooth rhythm, descending back into trickier guitar work, crescendoing into a strong soaring chorus, later finishing in a chaotic but brilliant instrumental closing.

The style of the album is varied as well; the band haven’t just got one trick they rely on. “That Golden Rule” kicks a bit harder than the average and harkens back more to their earlier releases. Slower songs like “Many of Horror” and “Know Your Quarry” are sweet without being too sentimental. “The Captain” is incredibly difficult to pidgeonhole into a genre, and “Mountains” is just sublime. Some of the tracks fall a bit flat, such as “Shock Shock” and “Cloud of Stink” but it’s not that they’re bad, just not especially memorable.

Lyrically, it all gets a bit, well, mental in places. “I’ve never had a lover who’s my sister or my brother” and “You are creating all the bubbles at night, I’m chasing round trying to pop them all the time” being two excellent examples. Throughout the entirety of Only Revolutions, Biffy Clyro rarely really on cliches or stock themes. The love songs like “Many of Horror” and “Mountains” are not straightforward odes or betrayal anthems, instead reflecting the compexities of modern relationships more honestly than the majority of bands can manage. Other songs swing wildly throughout various emotions and themes like anger, joy, self-doubt and a whole host of others that one person will probably interpret completely differently to the next.

Biffy Clyro sound like they belong in the mainstream media, while at the same time sounding like nothing else that would be played alongside them. The fact that they’ve managed to do this without creating any animosity or alienating their fan base is a remarkable feat. Some newcomers might be put off by their quirky past releases, and some of their old fans may hate the fact that they’ve become mainstream but that doesn’t detract form the quality of the material they’ve produced. In a way Biffy Clyro remind me of The Gaslight Anthem, not remotely in style or sound, but more the fact that their sound is completely unique but still potentially accessible to a broad spectrum of people. In the end, the important thing about Only Revolutions is that it’s simply a good rock album. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it could appeal to anyone.

Final verdict: 8.5/10

Review: AFI – Crash Love

It seems to me that there have been two AFIs (well three if you want to be picky, but the less said about the dodgy punk band that released their first few albums the better). The first was the creditable pseudo-goth/punk band that released Black Sails in the Sunset and The Art of Drowning on Nitro Records, and the second was the much more commercial major label beast that produced Sing the Sorrow and Decemebrunderground. If anyone is unsure, Crash Love sits firmly in the latter camp and is in fact even further down the pop-rock road than AFI have ever trodden before. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this choice: if a band wants to go in a more commercial direction they shouldn’t be crucified because of it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve sold out and the transition from “Clove Smoke Catharsis” to “Medicate” may be a perfectly natural one. However, what is essential is that the quality is there, regardless of what style the band are playing. Sadly, for the large part of Crash Love, this is just not the case.

Anyone who is familiar with Decemberunderground will know what to expect, and while some of the strengths of that album remain, many of its inherent weaknesses are even more glaring. Starting on a positive, Davey Havok’s voice is just as delicious as it ever was, potentially justifying alone the huge heart-throb status he seems to have obtained in the past few years. Although certainly far lighter than at the turn of the millennium, it still retains elements of darkness which work well to contrast the poppy style of the album. Additionally, the musicianship of the band is still very solid, and if you’re fairly attentive when listening to the album there are chords and hooks embedded in the songs that are much more complex than the majority of pop-rock bands out there. The problem is that these interesting musical elements are deeply hidden under a layer of production so thick and smooth that Dorothy Hamill could have won a gold medal on it. It’s a huge shame because throughout their career one thing that AFI have always been is distinct. Up until very recently there was something about them that set them apart. On Crash Love, this just isn’t the case. The production drowns out practically all of their individuality, and if it wasn’t for Havok’s distinctive voice you’d be hard pressed to identify this band as AFI on first listen, even compared to Decemberunderground or Sing the Sorrow.

And then there’s the lyrics. Oh dear lord, the lyrics. Davey Havok is now in his 30s, so how exactly are we supposed to take him seriously when he sings lyrics that are so bad a high school student would disown them from his English class efforts at poetry. Lines like “I’d tear out my eyes for you my dear” and “I’d die if you only met my eyes before you passed by” are so horribly trite and cliched that it becomes cringe-worthy. This is the band who wrote “God Called In Sick Today” and these lyrics are the best they can some up with? Not impressive in the slightest. They’re not all this bad. Songs like “It Was Mine” and “Darling, I Want to Destroy You” are much more complex and meaningful lyrically but examples like this are too few and far between on this twelve track album.

Thankfully, the album isn’t a complete washout. The aforementioned “Darling, I Want to Destroy You” and “Beautiful Thieves” are musically and lyrically far more interesting than the rest of the album, and rank up near “The Days of the Phoenix” in the all time AFI top tracks list. It’s just a shame that the excellent ideas on these songs aren’t translated to the others. “Medicate” is “Miss Murder” but far less catchy and memorable and “It Was Mine” is a failed attempt to rehash the brilliance that was “Endlessly, She Said” from Decemberunderground. “Sacrilege” is also very interesting as it tackles organized religion as a topic which is potentially far more potent than the love-stricken by-the-numbers efforts that populate most of the album. Again, however, the song is let down by appalling lyrics. Reducing the entirety of something so complex as someone’s faith to the line “Is this one big joke? I can only hope” just lacks any recognition of the significance of dealing with such a difficult issue.

But throughout all the failings on this album, there is still hope. Certainly it seems that AFI will never again record an album the likes of The Art of Drowning again. However, the few highlights of this album show that they’ve not entirely forgotten who they once were, and they retain the ability to imbue songs with an individuality that most bands producing a comparable kind of music lack. “Darling, I Want to Destroy You” and “Beautiful Thieves” show that, when on form, AFI can still produce the goods, and the idea behind “Sacrilege” shows that they still have the scope and vision to aim big, even if their execution has let them down here. However, the simple fact is that Crash Love is not a very good album in the midst of a glut of similar artists producing similar sounds. For AFI to remain relevant in their second incarnation they need to maintain the individuality that once served them so well. Otherwise future albums like Crash Love will get washed away in the tides of an increasingly stagnant pop-rock scene, and AFI will go right along with them.

Final verdict: 6.5/10

Review: Paramore – Brand New Eyes

Paramore have always been the quintessential band for illustrating one of the oldest dilemmas in music: style or substance. Some regard Paramore as nothing more than Hayley Williams plus four and attribute the entirety of their success to the fact that Hayley is a very attractive young woman; others rally strongly against this claim, pointing out that the band has some strong songwriting talent behind her pretty face. The truth is probably a collaboration of both of these two things, boring as that may be. As much as some may want to downplay it, sex sells; it’s a fact of life. Anything can be improved in the mass consumer mindset by making it more attractive, but the fact remains that lasting popularity is certainly not the end result from an over-reliance on looks. Brand New Eyes constitutes Paramore’s third album, officially sealing their status as more than just a one-hit-wonder, especially considering the huge number of similar bands that have come out of the woodwork since Paramore made it big, and so now is the time for them to really come out swinging and hit the high notes.

Unfortunately, while Brand New Eyes is not a bad record, far from it in fact, it is not the behemoth that fans may have hoped for, not the career defining magnum opus that affirms Paramore as one of the biggest bands in the world. Things start off well: “Careful” gets things rolling nicely, and “Ignorance” practically explodes out of the starting blocks. When Paramore put their collective foot down and really get going, it’s incredibly hard not to get swept up in the momentum. “Misery Business” and “Crushcrushcrush” did it on Riot! and tracks like these two prove they can still throw out a really good pop rock song like few others are capable of, very much showing that they do have the substance some critics would deprive them of. However, in counterbalance to this stands the video for “Ignorance.” Although I’ll admit it’s not really included in the album as such, it still serves as a representation of where the band are right now. Its fashion and style looks to me like being the beginning of the Gwen Stefani pop-star route and the worst thing that could happen to Paramore is that they forget where they came from. Paramore at their best are the Paramore in the video for “That’s What You Get,” and I hope they don’t go too far down the “pop-star” road on their journey to greatness.

There are some other excellent tracks on the album: “Brick by Boring Brick”, “Turn it Off”, “Feeling Sorry” and “Looking Up” all sound excellent, and the whoa-ohs and bah-bahs, while seemingly placed in primarily for live fan interaction rather than musical reasons, work incredibly well, and you can see why they included them. Additionlly kudos should be given for the inclusion of “Decode” for those of us Paramore fans who want the track on CD but would rather not have anything associated with Twilight in our lives. There is nothing more irritating than a band releasing a good song to a movie and then not including in their own material (Taking Back Sunday and Atreyu have both been guilty of this in the past), so definite props given there, even if we don’t get “I Caught Myself”.

However, the majority of the remaining songs fail to live up to these standards. The two most guilty examples are “The Only Exception” and “Misguided Ghosts”. These are the first truly acoustic songs that Paramore have written, and while they should be admired for attempting musical growth, simply put, it just doesn’t work. The lyrics are brought to the fore due to the sparse instrumentation, and unfortunately, lyrics are where Paramore are most lacking. Lines like “I saw my Daddy cry and curse at the wind” are horribly trite, and lack depth and sincerity. Additionally, it’s a shame to hear Hayley’s voice so restrained, considering the huge range she’s capable of. The criticism of these two songs are not a criticism of execution: Paramore can do acoustic tracks, as can be seen on various youtube videos and most especially on their excellent cover of “My Hero” by the Foo Fighters. It’s more that they don’t quite seem capable of crafting a song that contains the rawness of tracks like the aforementioned cover themselves. Another aspect of this album that saddens me, is that the only really big song that doesn’t reach high tempo is “All I Wanted,” and up against older comparable songs like “Hallelujah” and “That’s What You Get,” it’s incredibly weak and forgetful, and lacks the power the songs of “Riot!” had in spades.

In fairness, much of the disappointment felt from this album probably comes from inflated expectations. Paramore have been so successful and written so many good songs that by album number three, there is an expectation that they should have nailed it by now. Sadly this is not a Smash or a The Colour and the Shape. In order to be considered a truly great and influential rock band, Paramore will need to release a better album than this, but just because The Offspring and Foo Fighters managed to do it relatively early on doesn’t mean we should expect the same from Paramore. Dave Grohl had years of experience prior to that release, many of them spent with Kurt Cobain, and Dexter Holland was pushing thirty when Smash came out. We forget that Paramore are still very young, not just as a band but as people. The life experiences that they haven’t yet had will shape their future releases and hopefully give them the depth and sincerity that this album lacks in places. The fact that the band have achieved so much while more than half of them still haven’t reached the landmark of twenty-one is impressive. It took seven full length albums for Green Day (arguably the biggest pop-punk band the world has ever known) to finally make it, so we can afford to give them a little while yet. But if nothing else, we can rest assured that while Hayley may have the looks to propel them skyward, the bulk of the fuel behind the ascent is amply supplied by the music they produce.

Final verdict: 8/10

Review: The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound

Genre-defying is tricky term, and one that gets banded around far too frequently for my liking. Adding a ukelele to an emo band does not make them genre-defying (although it probably does make them terrible). I’ve even heard someone describe Aerosmith as genre-defying. Seriously people, this is getting out of hand. So here comes the biggest piece of hypocrisy you’ve heard since you watched the news this morning, because The ’59 Sound is genre-defying. Admittedly not totally so, I’d still feel comfortable placing it firmly in the rock category, but certainly nothing more specific than that. There’s elements of indie, punk, old-school rock ‘n’ roll, and even folk and rockabilly laced throughout these twelve tracks, but never so much so that any one outweighs the others. Thankfully however this doesn’t make The ’59 Sound come across as confused, as the different influences all fit together so well it’s hard to imagine taking them apart again.

This is not a happy-go-lucky album. The theme is predominantly reflective and mournful, and not just on a personal level. “Here’s Looking at You Kid” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” may paint a vivid personal picture, but the style and themes touched upon within the songs harken back decades into America’s cultural history, funneling small-town blues together with imagery evoking schoolyard crushes and diner dates. The traditional element is very strong on The ’59 Sound, illustrated most aptly by the title of the album. It really feels like you’re touching an aspect of the past while keeping one foot very firmly in a contemporary setting, and that in itself is a remarkable feat for The Gaslight Anthem to pull off.

Brian Fallon’s vocals are outstanding. Clear but grubby, accessible but distant, his voice is that of the everyman watching life pass by and relating the remarkable experiences that it can grant you. The lyrics are incredibly vulnerable in many instances; on “Here’s Looking At You Kid” Fallon sings, “I used to wait at the diner, a million nights without her,” but equally, there is a confidence in moving forward. In the end you can still “tell her it’s alright.” The musical accompaniment that goes along with him is equally impressive. The rhythm of each individual song feels exactly right. “Casanova, Baby!” jaunts along merrily, and “High Lonesome” has a feel that perfectly balances the optimism and pessimism inherent within the track. The nostalgia is practically bursting through this music, with Alex Levine’s bass work being an excellent example on tracks like “Old White Lincoln.” Set against the lyrics firmly looking back towards loss and regret the album might as well be sepia-tinged, such is the power of the music.

There’s not a weak track on here. Some don’t kick quite as hard, and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” does meander along rather more than the rest. The album as a whole however, almost reads like a how-to of writing good rock songs. They’re catchy, memorable, deep, evocative, personal, identifiable and most of all a joy to listen to and appreciate. “Great Expectations” and the title track are probably the two strongest but it’s like trying to choose between a Jaguar and an Aston Martin; you know the quality’s there and you’d be pretty happy flying down the highway in either one. The ’59 Sound is a truly remarkable album. It delivers songs that are accessible on first listen, and continue to reveal greater depths the more attention you give it. The mix of different genres into one cohesive body is remarkable, as is the mix of modern style onto traditional substance. In the end it brings together many different strands across both music and time, and creates a body of work stronger than much of what came before it, while sounding like practically none of it, and that is, to my mind at least, the definition of genre-defying.

Final verdict: 9.5/10